With the kind assistance of local folks we knew, we made our way for a morning in Kyoto.
We made our way first to the Osaka train station, where we checked our luggage for the day in the basement, at roughly three dollars a bag for the day.
I find myself in any place more attracted to the day to day things in any given place than to monuments or edifices. The Osaka train station proved a feast for the senses. Dozens of shops lined the hallways, offering bento boxes of sushi, news and comics, gifts, perfumes, sweets, chocolates, baked goods, and sundries of every description. I love the way that what is commonplace in one place is deeply exotic to eyes from afar, and I felt as though I had encountered new life and new civilization.
We purchased tickets on the express train to Kyoto. I wondered how I would have handled the ticketing process had I not had Japanese
folks helping me, as the schedules overhead and the tickets were devoid of English script. The vending machines, however, had English print on the bottled coffee, flavored waters and soft drinks on offer.
When we boarded the train, the train had video which included substantial English instructions. It was a bit, therefore, like joining a secret order--once aboard the train, one is shepherded through the process. The express train, which reaches speeds of one hundred twenty miles an hour, lived up to its billing. We reached Kyoto in but fifteen minutes, on a route that would have taken an hour with the slower train.
We rented taxis to take us to sights. They were large Toyota sedans called Crowns.
Kyoto served as the capitol of Japan for centuries, and features hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, as well as numerous gardens, museums, and places of interest. We had time for but a few, however, which we pursued with relish.
Our cab driver explained that Kyoto was a "small city" of but 1.5 million people. Like much of Japan, the bursting of the real estate boom "bubble" had made a dramatic difference in the cost of living. He advised us that a small home cost the equivalent of
175,000 dollars, whereas a decade ago, the cost would have been 850,000 dollars. With the self-effacing style one smetimes encounters with some folks, he reeled off good information about a number of sights and stories, laced with endless apologies for his English, his status as a "humble cab driver" and light wit. Listening to him was a bit like being around similar folks in Arkansas, and, as in Arkansas, I would have been willing to buy him dinner at any time, but perhaps not willing to match minds with him in negotiating prices at a flea market.
We stopped at the Golden Temple, the amazing Buddhist temple covered with coatings of thin gold. A number of local people had turned out for a religious ceremony in progress. The level of security was rather less, I thought, than might have been the case at home for a public event. In general, we saw a great deal of signage in airports and the like that things might move slower or be forbidden due to anti-terrorism efforts, and yet the "war on terror" seemed eons away. This puzzled me, because Japan has also faced terrorism quite independent of 9/11, but it may be that seamless webs were in place that I, a relative fly, did not perceive. In a different vein, it was a bit jarring to see pages of the local English-language newspaper taken up with columns of editorials and ads congratulating Iran on the 27th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
The Golden Temple is set in gardens surrounded by modest mountains, and it is breathtaking. I'd say it was smaller than I expected, if I had expectations at all, but no less fascinating. We saw the tea house where the emperor would sit with a best vantage of the temple and experience the tea ceremony. We by-passed the opportunity to burn incense to achieve our hopes and dreams. I liked that the incense on sale came in flavors such as "Find new love" and "achieve success", printed in English. I did not see any for "obtain more weblog friends", "have someone comment to my poetry" or even "fix my Falcon".
We drove next to Ryoan-ji, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon. We took off our shoes, put on slippers, and went to view the Zen garden there. I had seen zen gardens in the United States west coast, and yet always assumed that in Japan, zen gardens were bigger. I bring to the table a Texas outlook that bigger must be better, particularly if cooked medium well, and an Arkansas outlook that most people outside Arkansas are stuck up enough to put more rocks 'n' you've ever seen on for show, what with being stuck up and all. The world-famous Zen garden, though, featured fifteen stones set in a small field of raked gravel--it was stark and connecting, as it should be.
We viewed a six hundred year old bonsai called "The Yacht", because it resembles a yacht. We sampled this amazing Kyoto tea which tasted like chicken broth, if chicken broth somehow went swimming in a gentle seaweed. I bought a large package to take home from the charming women who gave me a cup of the tea.
We next went to the Heian shrine, a Shinto shrine built in Kyoto as a kind of consolation prize when the capitol moved to Tokyo. Its ornate architecture captivated me, and I wished we had time to tour its more modern botanical gardens. Everyone kept saying that we should be there in April for the cherry blossoms, but I, for one, find it better to enjoy a place in February when I am there rather than to long to be there in April when I am not.
On our way to lunch, we passed through a sector of "private clubs". At one, a crowd of Japanese tourists gathered outside a traditional structure in a crowded small street, cameras in hand. We soon learned that a geisha-in-training was to take walk ceremonially from one building to another. Soon a girl of 18 or so, in an elaborate geisha attire, was escorted by a similarly-clad young man on a walk around the corner, while digicams and DVDs whirred like flying dragons. I do not believe I got a good shot of her, but it is all right, because on this trip I did not have a geisha-in-waiting quota.
We repaired to a traditional noodle house, where we took off our shoes and sat on cushions at a traditonal table. I was advised that the most traditional lunch was cold soba (buckwheat) noodles with dipping sauce, so I ordered that. The noodles came out on a wooden tray,each noodle several inches in length, long and wavy. A teacup of soy sauces came, to which one added sauces and unique local onions. To eat the dish properly, one lifted a noodle with chopsticks, and then lowered the noodle into the dipping sauce. Then one put one's face near the cup, put the noodle in one's mouth, and slurped as if one were slurping the most delectable cherry Slurp-ee one has ever sampled. It is "appropriate", I was informed, for the slurping to result in a seriously audible noise. I managed to slurp with abandon, but to my ear, my slurp was not as comprehensive as that of local diners. I do not count myself among the noodles-and-soy brigade in life, but I must say that this dish was delicious, and I will seek it out locally here in Texas.
We headed to the Kyoto station, then boarded a train back to Osaka station. Because I had not had a proper sushi meal, I bought a bento box of sushi for the plane, which came in a plastic tray with a see-through top, with the individual pieces of sushi wrapped in giant leaves. We caught another train to the Osaka airport, checked in, hit the little airport shops, and then boarded a flight for a mere eleven hour trip back to Dallas. It proved quite a whirlwind--Tuesday at noon until Friday at 3:30, during which time we spent twenty four hours in the air. I re-read CP Snow's "Time of Hope", a novel which has a special significance in my life, and I listened to CDs by
Lisa DeBenedictis, the Pop Dolls and the ambient artist Jeff Pearce. I sat by a Peruvian man going home after a twenty-month work stint in Japan. We discussed music, and he set up his mp3 player for me to hear a medley of songs from the Peruvian coast from which he hailed, delicate songs of love and longing, played with vocals and acoustic guitar. He explained to me that in one song, the narrator advised that he looked to this guitar to express his feelings for the woman he loved, and that one should listen to the guitar,because the guitar says it so well.
I have reached the age in life in which I am without danger--customs officials wave me through without inquiry. I just look too boring for anything.
We dined on roast chicken and lite blackberry cobbler. I enjoyed the chance to take a business trip to Japan, and I'd like to visit again with more time to see it. But it is very good to be home again.