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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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