Thursday, June 25, 2015

Japanned, Day Eight

My Wife and I went to Japan for ten days. We had a blast. I took notes.


Changing hotels, changing areas...

Right away we had a few things we wanted to accomplish before checking out of the Hotel Monterey. One, we wanted to stop at this little Postcard shop near the hotel. Two, we also wanted breakfast. I know, I know, it's a big demanding list, but that's my baby and me, folks, we are nothing, if not ambitious.

First, Breakfast.

We had been meaning to have breakfast at the hotel the last few days, because it was free, but we've either been in too much of a rush, were too lazy to get up, or a combination of both. Today was our last chance--possibly forever--so if we really wanted it, we had to capitalize.

The Viking Buffet was held in the ballroom, right off the large central antechamber containing the big faux-outdoor chapel, and it was obviously not the Hotel Monterey's priority. Weddings are their bread, butter, and sweet, sweet, sweet-ass gravy. In fact, they advertise several different on-site locations that can be used for your wedding ceremony. As a result, the breakfast service felt both ridiculously over-sized, and yet weirdly under-attended and thrown-together at the same time, almost like the regular breakfast room was under construction, so they were holding it here in the interim, and not everyone got the memo. The ballroom itself was big and grand, one of those types of places that looks like it's not really supposed to be seen in regular daylight, the mellow lighting and paint-color seemingly much more comfortable with formal occasions held at night, and instead, there were a bunch of white people in shorts and sandals--not me, of course, I don't wear fucking sandals--trolling long, trough-like tables laden with food... Oh, the shame! The fancy dining tables and chairs, meant for big banquets, felt too big for an intimate and casual breakfast; they were stiff and uncomfortable too, like the kind of deeply polished, carved-wood furniture an old person keeps in their front room, the stuff that no one ever sits on. The chandeliers and high ceiling seemed to press down on the sparse crowd, hushing the room, making everyone hunch and whisper like they were at a funeral. In a nutshell, the breakfast buffet was not the Hotel Monterey's best feature. It was delicious, but it mostly felt like an obligation to their Western clients.

Which totally makes sense for Japan.

I've mentioned these Viking Buffets before, and one thing the Hotel Monterey's version did do, was confirm that there's definitely a formula to it. Japanese breakfast buffets basically offer everything you could possibly want when it comes to a Western-style breakfast, while also providing a huge and seemingly random assortment of Japanese food items as well. Looking at the plethora of available options, you get a good understanding of how the Japanese view servicing their Western visitors: "We don't really understand what you want, or how... but we know you want a lot of it."

There was cornflakes and granola and oatmeal and rice. There was pork patties, hot dogs, spicy sausage, and some kind of fish... several kinds of fish, actually, with heads and without. They had bacon cooked limp and flat, like the Japanese like it, or stiff as a board and burnt to a crisp, as they apparently think Americans prefer it. There were bowls and bowls of fruit, even melons--despite the fact that most grocery stores we saw were selling Cantaloupe for the equivalent of $40 a melon--and there were bins of vegetables. Heaps. There were eggs of all kinds, their yokes all nuclear orange, as Japanese eggs are. There was pancakes and waffles and french toast and even naan (don't mind if I do...). There were all kinds of salads too, from lettuce, to cabbage, to fruit, to jell-o, to... I couldn't quite tell what that one was... mush? There were miles and miles of pastries and rolls, of course, from sweet to sour, and flaky to as hard as a rock. There was Pumpkin Tempura, which was seriously delicious, people. Seriously. And yogurt, lots of yogurt, all the colors of the rainbow. There was coffee, tea, milk, orange juice, grapefruit juice, mango juice, and... blueberry juice, I think? I know the Japanese don't know this word, but... it was a proper god damn Smorgasbord, man. A proper god damn smorgasbord.

We ate, shoulders hunched in the weird silence.

I had seconds on that Pumpkin Tempura.

Next, the post card shop.

This place was next door to the hotel. I never got the name, and the receipts and packaging are all in Japanese. I couldn't find it on the Internet either, not even a picture, but if you're ever there, you can't miss it. It's literally right next door. The lady there was very nice and she very obviously specialized in Western clients. She had her spiel all ready, she was right there among us as we browsed, darting in, hustling, making sales, explaining the work, pointing out the various postcards and bookmarks (all hand-painted), the paintings (also.. all hand-painted, I would assume), the woodblock prints (hand-stamped?), all the little knick-knacks. And when we were done, everything was packaged up neat-as-you-please in a ready and wide assortment of plastic sheathes sealed with stickers and then put inside another, slightly larger paper bag. Fancy, man. You have to buy that stuff custom, y'know.

Ela purchased a ton of souvenirs while in Japan.

Trinkets and knick-knacks, candies and snacks, postcards and charms. If it was little and cute, she snatched it up. The girl had a mission, and that mission was: Little gifts for a later date. Myself, I toyed with the idea of purchasing a sword or two, maybe a ninja headband, and several sets of nunchuks, y'know... adult stuff, but I held off. Customs, amirite? In the end, I only bought a small handful of things: my Yokohama Baystars hat, a couple of little pins--one of the A Bomb Dome and one of the Golden Temple--both of which I got out of an old red metal gumball machine at each respective site. From the little post card shop, I bought a pair of hand-painted bookmarks (Neither of which have been used yet. I'm still just using the Proof-of-Room-Cleaning paper I picked up at the hotel in Yokohama), and finally, I got an Omikuji Matchbox too.

I'm a big fan of this thing; it's pretty cool.

Omikuji, or "sacred lot", are the fortunes written on strips of paper at Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples in Japan. I got a good fortune at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Temple back on Day Two.

What happens is, you give a small offering and then the priest/attendant shakes a little stick out this wooden tube, and they use what's written on the stick to find the corresponding fortune. Basically, you give some money and then randomly choose your fortune. If you get a good one, you take it with you. If it's not a good one, then you tie it to a nearby fence or tree and leave it behind.

The Omikuji Matchbox is the same thing, but from a box of matches with a Maneki-neko on the front and a color key on the back. There's a hole at the top of box and you shake it, and then use the color of the match-head to find your fortune/blessing from the color key.

Red is Daikichi, a Great Blessing
Yellow is Chukichi, a Middle Blessing
Light Blue is Shokichi, a Small Blessing
Dark Blue is Suekichi, an Uncertain Blessing
White is Hankichi, a Half Blessing
Black is Shokyo, a Small Curse

First off, what's the difference between a Half Blessing and an Uncertain Blessing? I don't know. Also, honestly, I'm not entirely 100% positive that what I put down for the White match is correct. I looked all over the internet, but the script on the back is weird, so it's hard to match up to anything I found. I suppose that makes it a Half Blessing by default, right? Or at least an Uncertain one... Some places list Suekichi as "Future Blessing" instead of Uncertain, so is that the same thing? I don't know. I mean, it doesn't really matter, it's just a box of matches, but I'm curious. Anyway, the best part is that there's only one curse match, and it's not that common in the box.

I know this, because I opened it and looked.

So, we bought our little souvenirs and headed back in to the Hotel, got our stuff, checked out, and wheeled our bags out the front door of the Hotel Monterey and into a waiting cab. This particular edition of First Contact Charades with the cabbie was made even more exciting by the addition of the eager Hotel Bellboy, who was "helping" explain to the cabbie where we were going. So, while it took a little more effort this time, we won eventually, and the cab pulled away from the curb, headed for the Ryokan Yoshida Sanso.

A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn, and I'll be honest, I wasn't into the idea. I've seen the movies, I know what the "traditional" beds look like in samurai films, not to mention what their pillows were like. A bed on the floor with a wood stool for a pillow? That looks like Sour Back City, ladies and gentlemen. Plus, it sounds like it's basically a Bed and Breakfast, with the big house, the shared bathroom, and the meals served in the dining room only at specific times. None of that appeals to me. B and Bs also have a high possibility of my most hated thing ever happening: Small Talk with Strangers. That's a whole big ball of No Thank You for me, so I really wasn't that excited.

But Ela was, so... y'know...

We left central downtown Kyoto with its neat and tidy square grid of streets and closely packed office buildings, and entered the northwestern fringes, where the streets narrowed and curved like streams, the small houses almost piled atop one another, right on the edge of the road. We went from one part of a city that felt very much like Chicago to another part, 10 or 15 minutes away, that felt like you were deep in the Hollywood Hills, twisting and turning and carefully squeezing past any on-coming cars. In the middle of one of these tightly packed residential streets, there was a high yellow wall and a brown gate, a long driveway within, curling up a hill.

It was a beautiful place, quiet, cool, and dim. Lots of dark, creaking wood. It looked like 1920s Japan inside. We took our shoes of at the entry way, and we were led inside. While we waiting in the sun bright receiving room, we were given damp towels, some tea, and this candied syrup in a small bowl, that was supposed to be refreshing to the body and tasted like something I couldn't quite place, kind of like cough syrup, but not. We were also each gifted with some calligraphy done by the hand of the Mistress of the House.

The one on the left says:

The spring passed and the summer has come,
the silky white robes are spread to dry
on the Mount of Heaven’s perfume.
By Empress Jito

The one on the right says:

During the season of Samidare (early summer rain),
I hear the cry of a cuckoo
from the bottom of the night
when I can hardly sleep because I am lost in thought.
It’s still dark outside,
so where would the bird go even in the rain?
By Ki no Tomonori

Pretty cool. Eventually I'll get them framed.

You want to know an odd little fact about the Ryokan Yoshida Sanso? Not a single nail was used in its construction. The whole thing was put together using a special Japanese wood-slotting technique. It certainly seemed sturdy at least. I don't know if I really believe this story--not a single nail?--but whatever, they were friendly and spoke English fluently... although check-in isn't until 4 pm?

All right. That's... kinda late, but whatever...

So, with the whole day suddenly in front of us, we left our bags there and walked down this long twisting road, passing closely-set houses and the occasional tiny temple. The Hostess assured us that the Silver Pavilion and the Philosophers' Path were very close by.

And they kind of were...

A long walk later, we were in the right area. We wanted to see some sights, but according to this weirdly cartoon-like map we found at a random Visitor's Kiosk, the Golden Temple was all the way on the other side of the city. Ela really, really wanted to see the Golden Temple, she'd been talking about it for awhile. With no close trains, we decided to catch a cab there, see it, and then come back to this area, since we were going to be here anyway, and see the Silver Pavilion and walk the Philosopher's Walk. There was a line of taxis waiting patiently for fares, parked right in front of the entrance to the Market Street that led up the Silver Pavilion. We jumped in one, and this time we were prepared for our game of First Contact Charades. "Kinkakuji," we said.

He totally knew what we were talking about.

Kinkakuji is The Golden Temple, and there's only one, so there's no mistaking it, Built in 1398 by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, it was supposed to be his retirement place, and its top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It became a Zen Temple upon his death in 1408.

It's pretty amazing.

But that photo is also pretty much the highlight. That's basically all there is to see there. A little anti-climatic. Plus, it was super crowded too, even for Japan. Apparently this is the A Number One place for tourists and, of course, school field trips, because apparently that's all the schools do in Japan, take the kids on near-constant field trips...

We caught a cab back to the Silver Pavillion and the Philosopher's Walk. This time the cabbie spoke English, so... bonus. We were off, whizzing through traffic. Now is probably a good time for a quick little Jon's Hint for Traveling in Japan, folks... Avoid the cabs. These two cab rides? They were expensive, close to $50 a piece.

So, take the train, whenever you can.

Once back in the area, we headed for the Silver Pavilion, and just like basically every temple, there's a traditional street market along the road leading up to it. It's the usual Japanese flea-market general weirdness, some kitschy garbage and some gleaming trinkets, a few cheap t-shirts and some handy-dandy towels, plus a few snacks. I was almost suckered in by a samurai sword umbrella, but I resisted once again. Ha! In your face, Japan! It's not happening!

The Ginkaku-ji is the Silver Pavilion. Officially named Jisho-ji (Temple of Shining Mercy), Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa had it constructed in 1460 as his retirement villa, and upon his death, also willed it to become a Zen Temple. They're really big on no one else living in their house who might have a giant party or something, I guess. Compared to the Golden Temple, the Silver Pavilion isn't anywhere near as flashy, and it's certainly not covered in silver, it's more of a slapped-on, and quickly chipping, coat of white paint.

But the surrounding grounds are amazing. They're like something out of a Miyazaki film...

There was no sign of the Kodama though, I looked.

Close to the Silver Pavilion is the Philosopher's Walk. It's an old Green-way basically, a shady and pleasant stroll lined with cherry trees (but we were too late for the blossoms), winding between houses and shops and along a little canal. It was really nice. We walked. We sat on some benches and listened to the quiet. We made our dinner reservations for the next night. At one point we saw a giant carp just laying in the current, gulping food as the canal carried it into its mouth.

As the afternoon waned, we started heading back toward the Ryokan. We found a noodle house along the way, and stopped in for some nama beer, udon, and local appetizers. It was delicious.

We got to the picture a little late...

We got snacks from a cake shop and coffees from the vending machines and then headed back for the evening. Ela knows me well, so she didn't book us for the dinner, sparing me from having to endure small talk with a roomful of possible weirdos... or more likely, sparing a group of innocent strangers from me, the weirdo. Whichever. She also booked us a private room with a private bathroom, but that was for her. The idea of having to walk down the hall to shit, shower, and shave, possibly while sharing the room with strangers was too much to ask of her.

And that meant we got the Hanare House.

When we got back to the Ryokan, we were led around the side of the main building and over to a little cabin. We weren't expecting this. A tiny little house, and it was just for us. Hanare means "away from" or "seclusion". It was amazing. Tatami mats. Sliding rice paper screen doors. Beautiful, tranquil, and extremely comfortable. We were surrounding by bamboo and high bushes. The outside walls were all sliding glass doors, with a little walkway and some chairs set up in the space between the glass and the inner walls of paper screens. As night fell, we sat and enjoyed the breeze, eating some cupcakes and watching the distant flash of lightning climbing over the northern mountains.

Shower and tub

Later, we showered and bathed in the traditional Japanese bathroom, and fell asleep to rumble of thunder, rain hissing on the roof. It turned out to be a great day.

It was our last day in Kyoto.

Day Eight Done,