Springtime in Kyoto, Japan

April 2007 found us in Tokyo and Kyoto for 10 days… I tagged along on a business trip of Jay’s. Here are some notes and impressions I jotted down at the time… this blog covers Kyoto.

Sketch with watercolor of a shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Watercolor of a shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Springtime in Kyoto… showers of cherry blossoms. There is a happiness, a festive feeling associated with the blossoms as they fly through the air, some attaching to our jackets… a sense of the seasons… time passing.

Our overnight visit to Kyoto begins with the Shinkansen – the bullet train. Japan is where regular, high-speed railways began, and in 140 minutes we are transported from Tokyo, the bustling capitol of Japan, to the relatively quiet, historic city of Kyoto. At the recommendation of a friend, we stay at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto –  a beautiful 15 story hotel above Kyoto station – centrally located and convenient for our one night stay.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto is an integral part of the architecturally striking masterpiece, the JR Kyoto Station Building, which also includes a department store, museum, musical theater, and a vast underground shopping mall. For art lovers, the elegant Hotel Granvia is home to over 1000 pieces of stunning art based on the theme of “The Contrast of Modern and Traditional Art”. The artwork of Kyoto-based artists, some of the most famous in Japan, is prominently featured among the paintings, sculptures, and industrial art on display and accentuated by photographs adorning the guest rooms.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto, JR Kyoto Station
The Hotel Granvia is an integral part of the architecturally striking JR Kyoto Station Building

Our treasured guide for this first whirlwind experience of Kyoto is Old Kyoto – A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants and Inns by Diane Durston. The author lived in Kyoto for 18 years and has compiled a very personal guide to Kyoto’s elegant past that can still be found if you are interested and willing to explore the city’s narrow, quiet side streets.

One of the pages I have turned down in Durston’s book is for the restaurant Takasebune whose lunch special is tempura. Located near the Takasegawa Canal and named after the flat boats that used to carry merchandise up the canal, Takasebune is a small family restaurant. Our “tempura teishoku” includes a generous bowl of miso soup, rice, pickles, and a basket of crisply batter-fried tempura shrimp, fish and vegetables. As recommended by Durston we dine at the tiny counter in front where we can watch all the culinary activity. Feeling like giants in this small historical space we are served a delicious, inexpensive lunch.

Takasebune known for crispy tempura and fine fish dishes
Traditional Takasebune is known for it's crispy tempura and fresh fish dishes
Cherry blossoms along a canal in Kyoto, Japan
Cherry blossoms along a canal in Kyoto, Japan

After lunch we continue our walk to Ippodo Tea which Durston says” has been perfuming the neighborhood for 140 years with the finest green tea from Uji, the most famous tea producing region in Japan, just south of Kyoto”. The smell draws us in as do the old timbers and old tea jars lining the wall. Helpful clerks will steep a sample cup of tea and guide you in your purchase.

Asahi-do Ceramics is easy to find, housed in a modern building on a main street. They offer the widest selection of Kiyomizu ceramics in Kyoto (ceramics made in the area below Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Temple). There are two types of Kiyomizu ceramics: porcelain and earthenware. Both types are thrown by hand on the potter’s wheel and decorated by hand. Lovely selection of ceramics displayed in a gallery setting.

Our final destination requires a cab to find and is well worth it. Aizen Kobo Indigo Textiles is on a narrow backstreet in the textile district of Kyoto. Master dyer Kenichi Utsuki still works in this 120-year-old building, where he was born and raised and where his father and grandfather worked as textile artisans as well. Today his shop is one of the only places in Kyoto where handwoven, hand-dyed, and hand-embroidered garments of hon-ai or real indigo are attainable.

The key to the rich blue that Japanese indigo and Aizen Kobo are famous for is in the microorganisms produced when the indigo plant is fermented. To keep these bacteria healthy and the dye potent, Kenichi must maintain it at an optimal temperature, and feed it a carefully calculated mixture of wheat-bran powder, limestone powder, ash lye and sake.

Getting the fermentation right takes about two weeks, after which the vat of indigo can be used to dye for a few months. Depending on the kind of material being dyed and the depth of color desired, an item must be dipped and then sun-dried between 20 and 50 times, a process that often takes months. This makes the appeal of chemical indigo dye pretty obvious: with chemical-based indigo, preparation takes less than an hour and one dipping usually does the trick.

Indigo textile dyeing at Aizen Kobo in Kyoto, Japan
Indigo textile dyeing at Aizen Kobo in Kyoto, Japan

Stimulated by the days experiences we arrive back at the hotel exhausted. I can’t walk another step. The hotel offers an array of dining possibilities and we choose a restaurant on the top floor with sweeping views of the city. After dinner, a great bath and lights out.

Modern technology meets traditional beauty in front of a Kyoto guesthouse
Modern technology meets traditional beauty in front of a Kyoto guesthouse

Our second and last day in Kyoto. We head out early, walking a route that takes us down the narrow and quiet side streets for a glimpse of Kyoto neighborhoods and daily life. For us walking is key… bringing all the senses to bear. We delight in seeing the vacuum sitting on the perfectly clean carpet in front of the idyllic garden area of a guesthouse, as we take in the pleasant aromas of tea brewing and cakes baking.

Cake making machine at a bakery in Kyoto, Japan
Cake making machine at a bakery in Kyoto, Japan

Nestled in the mountains of Western Honshu, Kyoto is known as Japan’s most beautiful city and is often called “the city of a thousand temples”. Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of the emperor from 794 to 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. Kyoto thus spent a millennium as the center of Japanese power, culture, tradition, and religion. During this time Kyoto accumulated an unparalleled collection of palaces, temples and shrines – built for emperors, shoguns, geishas and monks. And Kyoto was one of the very few Japanese cities to escape Allied bombings during World War II.

Springtime colors in the countryside of Kyoto, Japan
Springtime colors in the countryside of Kyoto, Japan
Temples in Kyoto, Japan
Temples in Kyoto, Japan
Buddhist monk begging in Kyoto, Japan
Buddhist monk begging in Kyoto, Japan

After a morning of walking around the famous temples and beautiful gardens surrounding them, we find ourselves back on the Shinkansen, headed back to Tokyo and our flight back home.

Recommended Reading

Old Kyoto: The Updated Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns by Diana Durston

Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy

36 Hours in Kyoto, Japan a travel article by Jaime Gross at The New York TImes

Notes from our travels to Tokyo

April 2007 found us in Tokyo and Kyoto for 10 days… I tagged along on a business trip of Jay’s. Here are some notes and impressions I jotted down at the time… this blog covers Tokyo… Kyoto will follow.

Arriving in a foreign land is surreal. We board a plane that climbs to 35,000 feet, cruises for hours and then the door opens and we are half way across the globe. Amazing. Tokyo is amazing. Spreading for miles – seemingly never-ending, populated in numbers beyond conception, yet mostly experienced as orderly and clean.

The train station is where the vast sums of people are apparent. We experience Shinagawa Station during morning rush hour when thousands of Japanese head to the office clad in dark suits and white shirts. A low buzz of sound like an active beehive filled the air as orderly masses approached the precision run trains. Shinagawa, one of the oldest stations in Tokyo, opened on June 12, 1872. It is very near the hotel we are in. Mastery of the train system is useful as taxis are very expensive.

This is my first visit to Japan and the toilet in our hotel room is a main source of interest: heated toilet seat, button on toilet for bidet, we think, one button with male symbol and another for female – pushed female lots of action in bowl but nothing interacted with me. We are impressed with their energy efficiency, as you enter the room you insert your key/card into a slot that activates electricity – everything turns off when you leave and remove your key.

The hotel includes breakfast – extensive buffet options – very international with familiar western options of eggs, bacon and an extensive Japanese buffet with miso soup, fish, rice…

Easter Sunday we take the JR train to the Imperial Palace and Gardens, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the center of Tokyo, a short walk from Tokyo Station. It is the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. Cherry blossoms, blooming azaleas and rhododendrons fill the gardens.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden with cityscape in the background
Tokyo Imperial Palace Gardens with cityscape in the background
Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden
Idyllic pond in the Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden
View of Tokyo Imperial Palace
View of the moated Tokyo Imperial Palace

Lunch is fun. We find a noodle soup place in the lower level of an office building with customers coming and going. We select and pay for our soup at a machine, then give the token/receipt we receive to someone at the counter. We can see the cooks in action behind her. A few minutes later a big bowl of steaming broth with rice noodles and chicken arrives. Tasty and cheap.

Full and satisfied we walk to the Ginza area. We are drawn to the elegant and historic Mitsukoshi department store. I read up on the history and learn it was founded in 1673 as a kimono shop, ten years later in 1683, the owners took a new approach to marketing, and instead of selling by going door-to-door, they set up a store where buyers could purchase goods on the spot with cash. My favorite floor is the  food department on the lower level – a wow! A bazaar of food with Harrod’s and many other Japanese food specialists.

Tokyo Street Scene
Tokyo street scene a la Beatles Abbey Road Album

Monday – Jay is working and I take a cab to Shinjuku – this is the area Lost in Translation was filmed. High energy, Times Square like. I walk through Tokyo Hands – our friend David’s favorite store – with everything from stationery to nails. I buy some lovely rice paper and a bag of tiny shells. Shinjuku is divided – the east side is constant chaos – shopping, eating, lots of young people. While the west side is high rises, luxury hotels and government buildings. With an estimated population of over 300,000 Shinjuku is a city in it’s own right.

Tuesday on my own, I take a cab back to the Ginza area. Mostly walk around, people watch and window shop. I check out Matsuya department store where I find an area devoted to Japanese artisans – many are present to talk about their work – paintings, prints, textiles, pottery.

Later I head to the Okura Museum of Art on the grounds of the lovely, historic Okura Hotel. The museum has an austere atmosphere, only a few people are present – offering a calm respite from the downtown energy.

Tokyo Okura Museum Sculpture
Ancient stone sculpture at the Okura Museum in Tokyo

From the hotel website I read the museum’s history: Back in 1917, an avid collector of Buddhist artwork by the name of Kihachiro Okura established, on his own land, a museum in which to hold and display his treasures. Over the years, this collection was added to by his son, the founder of Hotel Okura, Baron Kishichiro Okura, whose interests included modern Japanese painting, or Nihonga. Today, the Okura Shukokan Museum of Fine Arts houses some 2,000 items and 35,000 volumes — a collection that contains a number of officially registered National Treasures, Important Cultural Objects, and Important Art Objects.

Evening energy levels rise in Tokyo. Apartments are small and utilitarian, so many seek camaraderie with friends and co-workers in the bars after a long day at the office. Nightly we witness the packed tables, shrouded in cigarette smoke, everyone animatedly talking and drinking. It’s worth enduring the smoke to experience the high energy.

As often happens after a trip my antennae are tuned to that country. So when I come across a positive review for The Haiku Apprentice – a memoir by an American diplomat who joins a haiku group in Japan – I am on it. The book is not written to teach haiku yet I find myself dabbling in the medium as I read along during my commute and learning more about the country and people I have just visited.