Monday, December 01, 2008

Day 9, Sunday, November 30

(Written Sunday, posted Monday)

Our day started early but blissfully: we’d requested a “Japanese bath” in the morning in addition to a shower, and our guesthouse owner had filled the amazing bathtub for us--deep enough to allow submersion up to the neck while seated. Our aching muscles from yesterday felt fully revived. Of course, this prompted Andrew to threaten to eschew sight-seeing in favor of just going back to sleep, but he came around.

We exchanged a few words with the guesthouse owner before setting out for the day. He’s always so concerned for our well-being; each morning he asks if we have any questions, tells us what the weather forecast is for the day, and ensures we have umbrellas if needed. Today he wrote down directions for us to get to the train station, even writing the name of the stop in Japanese in case we had to ask for help.

After a can of coffee and a pastry from a 7-Eleven (they’re everywhere here, as well as AM/PM’s), we got on a train for Fushimi Inari, a shrine in the southern part of the city. This shrine was the inspiration for Christo’s “The Gates” in Central Park--once I post pictures it will be obvious why. The paths throughout this sprawling shrine are lined with over a thousand bright-orange torii, so close together that they’re nearly touching. Once inside the tunnel of torii, the orange is all you can see, save for glimpses of the trees between them. The torii stretch along paths that lead up to the top of Mount Inari; along the way are countless smaller subshrines, many dedicated to specific causes--lost children, fertility. Most of the main shrine buildings and subshrines feature two stone statues of foxes--spirits associated with the shrine.

We walked and walked through the torii, heading up the mountain, most of the time surrounded by crowds that grew denser as the morning progressed. There were many elderly people who were bypassing us easily. We didn’t go all the way to the top, but we easily could have spent all day here. It was one of the most breathtaking sights of Kyoto so far--and that’s saying a lot.

The shops surrounding the shrine are full of fox-related trinkets; and we’d read that some of the restaurants serve particular fox-related foods. We had a crispy rice cake snack, then stopped for lunch and had inarizushi, deep-fried been curd wrapped around rice with black sesame seeds, apparently a “favorite food of foxes” according to our Exploring Kyoto guidebook by Judith Clancy. Andrew has an extraordinarily difficult time sitting on the floor, and his legs simply do not fit underneath low Japanese tables; again, it was a good thing there weren’t too many people around so he could stretch out a bit, probably breaking countless social mores in the process.

Reluctantly, we headed back to the train station to leave Fushimi Inari. One small problem at this station--the rather old ticket machines had buttons, not a screen where you could select to have the instructions in English; and there were no English signs anywhere to be found. After puzzling over the buttons for a while, a woman approached and asked if she could help us, which, yes, she obviously could. Then we were on our way.

By noon we’d already put in a day’s worth of walking, but we had much more planned for the day. We rode the train to Northern Higashiyama, where we walked the Philosopher’s Path, a narrow path along a canal that travels past several shrines and temples and many shops. The maples were in full splendor along the path and the nearby shrines, and flocks of people were everywhere--“leaf mania” is the only way to describe it. We meandered in and out of a few shrines, procured a few entries for our temple book, and even found a temple where Junichiro Tanazaki (a Japanese author both of us are currently reading) is buried. By the time we reached the end of the Path, we were exhausted, ready for a rest and some warmth. It was a very, very long walk home.

Tonight we decided to have a little Japanese tapas crawl--everywhere we’ve turned the past few days we’ve seen amazing street food being sold, so we decided to just spend the evening trying whatever we wanted. (There’s food everywhere--and everyone is snacking on something; we’re not sure whether this is always the case or simply due to both the Light-Up and the fall foliage time.) Our samplings included: a fried potato-y disk wrapped in seaweed; a crisp rice cake; squid cupcakes (that’s what we’ve been calling these things, after seeing them around every corner--small balls of batter with pieces of squid inside; we expected to love them but actually found them revolting); three skewers of what resembled gnocchi slathered with a sweet sauce; small bowls of dumplings; more inarizushi; and yam fries dusted with sugar.

A funny thing about the last dumplings and inarizushi: we came across a row of stalls near a shrine, and when we went up to purchase the dumplings and asked how much they were, the woman plucked two ten-yen coins from Andrew’s hand and gave us each a bowl, though we’d only asked for one. For the inarizushi, same thing--I went up to buy some, was relieved of three ten-yen coins (they weren’t even taking anything--I just threw some coins in a small wooden box). We’re not sure what was going on here--they were handing out the inarizushi right and left to whoever would take it--but this meant a good portion of our street-food crawl cost around five cents. Strange.

Our final temple stop of the night was Kodai-ji, which was open late for the Light-Up. Maples were spotlit throughout the grounds, though it was difficult to really enjoy the view--the masses of people were similar to those crunched against department store windows on Fifth Avenue in NYC during Christmastime. Leaf mania everywhere. But we followed the crowds along a short loop that took us through a spookily lit up bamboo grove, then headed back to the street for more food.

For dessert: black sesame ice cream for me (nutty--almost peanut buttery) and eight small fried soymilk donuts for Andrew.

As we walked around early this evening, we saw several geisha, somehow walking along the cobbled streets in their oddly proportioned wooden sandals. People--including us--were unabashedly snapping pictures.

Now we’re back at the guesthouse, completely exhausted. Tomorrow we’re checking out of our room here and moving to temple quarters for two nights. The adventure continues…

1 comment:

Alissa said...

Hi Margo! My Aunt Phyllis has been sending me your blog and it has been so great reliving my experience in Japan through yours!! I'm glad you are having a great time!!! I wasn't able to go to Kyoto on my trip, so I am happy to read all about your experience! I can't wait to read more!!

PS... the squid balls are actually octopus balls called Takoyaki (fried octopus), and through my experience they put fish flakes on them called Benito flakes (which I find repulsive). Anyway, the snack is much better if you request no benito!

- Alissa Wyatt