Thursday, December 04, 2008

Day 10: Monday, December 1

(Written Monday, posted Thursday)

Another Japanese bath awaited us this morning, and it occurred to me as I soaked that it would likely take an entire day of soaking to undo the pain the last few days have wrought on my feet and legs. Alas, this was not to be.

Today we reluctantly checked out of Pension Kotomu, managing to pack up our suitcases in a reasonably compact manner despite the fact that we’re rapidly accumulating souvenirs. We left our bags at the guesthouse for a few hours and headed to Nishiki Market, a large food market full of things that we could not identify. We bought a few cute things at a store selling candy and snacks--I acquired another small hedgehog/mole creature, a purple one this time with a small flower on its head (cute!!!), a tiny Hello Kitty duffel bag (small enough for a cell phone), and a cute box of candy in the shape of a bear. After this frenzy of cuteness we wandered among the food stalls, admiring the sleek packages of pickled items, including tiny pickled radishes; mounds of spices for sprinkling over rice (we think); and lots of fish, meats, vegetables, and other packaged items I wish we could bring home with us. We saw a stall selling fugu--the poisonous blowfish. There was a man slicing up the fish, hopefully good at his job, standing behind the counter and separating the edible fish flesh from the deadly bits.

The market let us out in a large covered shopping area with temples cropping up every now and then--the area is called Temple Street. These temples are cheek to jowl with overwhelmingly noisy arcade rooms and busy stores, just one more stop you could make as you do your shopping. We went into one that had a carnivalesque fortune-teller-type machine, right next to the main worship area and the ubiquitous counter selling charms for various causes. It was here that the pervasive blurring of commerce and spirituality was taken to a new level: the selection of charms included those bearing the image of Hello Kitty. I overheard two Japanese people talking in English near me, and I asked the significance of Hello Kitty here--“We have no idea,” they said as they purchased a handful of the charms.

Among the shops on Temple Street were two 100-yen stores, chock full of amazingly cute items. I bought a big bagful of things and feel compelled to buy much, much more; these stores are fantastic, and though you have to search among cleaning supplies and toothbrushes to find the cute gems, they’re there. And oh, have I found them. And oh, will I continue to find them.

Next stop--Kennin-ji temple, a wonderfully peaceful temple with a few red and yellow maples. There were hardly any people there, which was a significant change from the leaf mania taking place elsewhere, and it was nice just to stand in the sun and listen to the quiet for a bit.

As we walked around today we saw uniformed schoolchildren everywhere--a glance at our guidebook revealed that December 1 is the Kencha Festival at a particular shrine honoring the god of study. We were interviewed by a small group of kids obviously practicing for an English-language class, the second time this has happened to us. They each asked us a question, then asked if we could take a picture with them, after which they proceeded to each whip out a camera. It was a fairly lengthy picture-taking process, with lots of giggling and whispering in Japanese.

We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant (tofu over rice for me, sweet and sour pork for Andrew, some dumplings) then picked up our bags at the guesthouse, said goodbye to our wonderful host, and headed to a bus. Our time in Kyoto isn’t over--but we’re spending the next two nights at the Shunko-in temple in the northwestern part of the city. After a fairly long haul with our bags (next time we’re forgoing the suitcases and bringing only backpacks), we reached the temple and were shown to our room.

The Shunko-in is a Zen Buddhist temple within the Myoshin-ji temple complex, a walled area full of temples and gardens. Our room here is quite large, with two large Japanese-style futon mattresses on the floor, a desk, and a private shower. There’s a heating unit on the wall but we are very chilly right now--it’s extremely cold in Kyoto and it’s hard to get very warm. But we’ll manage.

After dropping our bags off, we took a bus to downtown Kyoto to get some money from a Citibank, check email and update my blog, and have dinner. We ate at a place called Donguri and had delicious okonomyaki (the pancake/omelette things on the griddle at the table)--one was pork and kimchi, the other a seafood mix. We also had a dish of sliced lotus root with shrimp--amazing. For dessert we had a bowl of sweets consisting of three small sticky rice balls (the gnocchi-like things we had last night), some green tea cake, whipped cream, two globes of black sesame ice cream, and two cinnamon sticks.

Now we’re back at the temple--it’s only 9:30pm but it feels much later, both because we’re exhausted and because it’s so dark and quiet here. Tomorrow morning we’re getting a tour of the temple, then embarking on 45 minutes of Zen meditation. It remains to be seen whether Andrew will be able to remain sitting on the floor for the duration.

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