Monday, December 01, 2008

Day 8, Saturday, November 29

(Written Saturday, posted Monday)

Our first full day in Kyoto began at 6:30am, the time we’d chosen for our showers. (The guesthouse owner knocked on our door to wake us up and give us towels; I answered in my pj’s, which seemed to surprise him.) There’s only one bathroom in the guesthouse, outside and three flights down, and we have to pre-arrange a time to use it; getting up early was our choice, since there’s an insane amount to see here and we wanted to get an early start. Andrew was even the one to suggest the early time--evidence of how single-minded we both were about getting out there and starting our day. We had breakfast at the guesthouse--coffee, toast, slices of apple, and an omelette with a little dollop of ketchup. The omelette was hardly cooked in the middle--we both had a difficult time getting through it. If only we knew what awaited us later in the day…

Kyoto would be beautiful at any time of year, but right now it’s spectacular--there are Japanese maples everywhere, and they’re still in vibrant color. The temples and narrow streets and curtained doorways are all framed in bright reds and oranges and yellows; and perfect, tiny leaves blanket stone stairways and cobbled streets because of the past few days’ rainfall. Everything we saw today looked like a postcard. Japanese tourists have flocked to the city this weekend because of the “Light-Up” festival (temples staying open late with their building and trees spotlit dramatically), many in kimono.

We started off at a wonderful temple called Yasaka Koshindo, a small temple with strings of “hanging monkeys” adorning every surface to ward off the evil that accompanies desire. The temple appeared to be closed, but two Japanese women pounded on the door of what looked like someone’s living quarters to summon someone so they could buy charms; we slipped in line behind them. While waiting for our temple book to be signed, we saw a young geisha posing for what looked like professional photographs.

From there we temple-hopped our way through southern Higashiyama, one of Kyoto’s most beautiful areas, and strolled through Murayama Koen, the Central Park of Kyoto. Right before lunch we stopped at Yasaka ji-jinja. This temple was packed with people buying good-luck charms and snapping photographs; and in the main area in the center, a Shinto wedding was taking place. Guards had to clear a path for the wedding procession. Across the way, a baptism was taking place.

For lunch, in the Gion neighborhood, I had unagi (grilled eel) over rice; Andrew had tempura. Then it was back to temple-hopping--our temple book is filling up fast. Just before reaching the last temple of the day, we stopped in a sweets shop and bought mochi sweets--pounded rice with a bean-filled center. The consistency of these sweets is part rubbery, part soft--they’re delicious.

It was around 4pm by this point, and we’d literally been walking all day; and many of the temples involved walks up flights of steep stairs. It rained intermittently, but not until late in the afternoon. We took a little rest at the Heian shrine, in view of its massive orange tori (arched gateway), then did some browsing at the Kyoto Handicraft Center. We bought a woodblock print of two birds on a branch of fall leaves for ourselves, then availed ourselves of the center’s internet café so I could update my blog.

Our plan for the evening was to go to another Light-Up temple event, but the line to get in was so long, and the streets so crowded, that we decided against it. Instead we stopped for dinner at a noodle shop that had a nice view of the busy street. I ordered udon noodles with fried tofu; Andrew ordered udon noodles with grated yam. Both vegetable-based dishes--we assumed we’d have an uneventful meal. My meal arrived and looked delicious. Then Andrew’s arrived. In the middle of the bowl floated a raw egg. We both recoiled. The waitress mimed “Something wrong?” Andrew mimed, “The egg.” She got our waiter, who spoke some English. “The fresh egg?” he said. “Right back.” He took the bowl away and brought it back a few moments later. The egg was gone, but whether it had been removed or simply mixed into the soup was unclear. Andrew began eating the noodles, but it soon became clear that the noodles had been swimming in a “broth” the consistency of scambled eggs--before they’re cooked. Stringy egg stretched between his chopsticks. “I’m glad I’m not in your shoes right now,” I said quietly, supportively. “You’re doing great, though.” It was a relief for both of us when he’d eaten enough for us to leave, saving what face we could (and it wasn’t much). What amused us both is that there was an English menu--but the menu made no mention whatsoever of a raw egg being included in the dish. It was clearly a big deal only to us.

We ended our day with a long walk through the teeming streets of Gion; though the side streets were quiet, lined with peaceful-looking buildings shrouded with curtains and bamboo doors and warm lights. Some places had Japanese menus outside; some places were unmarked. What went on behind the doors we can only guess. Exhausted, we elbowed (politely) through the crowds and headed towards home, stopping for a meat bun and small fried soymilk donuts (Andrew) and some green-tea ice cream (me).

Over fourteen hours of sight-seeing and we made it through only one small part of the city--we just have to resign ourselves to the fact that we’re not going to be able to see everything, and just enjoy the things we do get to see. This is an amazing place.

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