I’ve been thinking a lot about language and technology. Everything in Japan has been so accessible, with signage in english and Google Maps everywhere, even if hours are sometimes off. I do wonder whether that diminishes the authenticity a little.
We had the breakfast in the hotel again, which is really pretty great. I imagine the eggs and meat are local, and the food is good and quick. We couldn’t decide what the best way to do things today was but we decided to walk up towards some of the temples in the northern part of Eastern Kyoto. We walked up through a residential area past Chion-in temple towards the Philosopher’s Path (or Philosopher’s Walk), which is a wooded path along a canal that was the path Nishida Kitaro, a 20th century philosopher and professor at Kyoto University, walked every day to meditate. It took close to 30 minutes to walk from one end to the other, but it was quiet, with hardly any people until we were close to the top, and pretty, except for the crane removing tree branches at the beginning, which was still cool.
We stopped at Honen-in temple, which is just a couple of minutes east of the path, about halfway along. The grounds were almost empty and it was free to enter, and was definitely worth making the stop for. The residential areas we walked through on the way to the Path, and even along it, were so quiet. The vast contrast between the busy central areas or touristy temples and quiet residential neighborhoods is so stark and interesting.
From Honen-in, we walked up the remainder of the Philosopher’s Path to Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion (although it’s not actually silver, unlike the golden pavilion). The grounds were amazing, but the place was crowded and honestly kind of hard to enjoy and fully appreciate.
People are very hospitable here but I find that young people are kind of rude, or at least not as polite or friendly as I had expected and hoped. People cut in front of you and are often haughty when it would be so easy to be friendly. Not everyone, obviously, but it’s certainly more noticeable here.
All of these places (temples, shrines, etc) are remarkably beautiful, but there is something weirdly commercial about the spectacle. I think I like the quiet spots better. Somehow the crowded spots lose some of their meaning, with everyone trying to line up the perfect photo or talking loudly in English.
The gardens were still wonderful, and I enjoyed the views of the city and the greenery in the garden. After we had our fill of the Ginkakuji gardens, we walked a few minutes to an outpost of Drip & Drop Coffee Supply nearby, in what is just a residential neighborhood. I had a good double cappuccino and we sat at the quiet counter.
Kyoto reminds me of Rome, with all the temples and history intermingled with contemporary urban life. Everywhere you look there’s another temple, most of which you don’t recognize or can’t immediately place, especially without the assistance of a map. But next door to the temple that’s hundreds of years old is a convenience store, and on the other side is a house or coffee shop or barber. It really does feel like Rome in that way.
Then we got udon at Omen Ginkakuji (the main shop) for lunch. I had the specialty, omen udon, which I loved. I chose hot, but you can also get cold. It’s dipping udon, so you have dipping broth and noodles, and also a bunch of vegetables that you add periodically to the broth. Burdock and sesame seeds are the main implements, but there was also ginger, watercress, turnip, daikon, lettuce, scallion and mushrooms. I also ordered tempura on the side, which came with 6 pieces including a big shrimp and tasty sweet potato. Unfortunately, it also meant eggplant, but I just dipped it in the broth. Everything was delicious. I loved all the veggies in the broth, the noodles were chewy (also especially long and difficult to maneuver), the tempura was light, and the large portion was seriously filling.
We weren’t sure what made the most sense to do next, so we walked to the bus and rode it about half an hour to Kinkakuji, better known as the Golden Pavilion. Kinkakuji is the biggest tourist attraction in Kyoto and one of the biggest in Japan. It’s a Zen Buddhist temple dating from the 14th century, and is genuinely covered on the outside (the 2nd and 3rd stories at least) with gold leaf. A monk burned it down in 1950 and it was subsequently rebuilt.
What I always find remarkable is that amidst all the temples and tourists, there are just people living. I guess that’s true for me in New York, but it feels different somehow. Maybe because of the history over centuries and centuries that we just don’t have in the US.
On the walk from the bus to Kinkakuji, it started to rain. I had stupidly taken my umbrella out of my bag in my confidence in a sunny day (rephrase), and was quickly soaked. It’s weird because it was sunny just a short distance away and there had been a 0% chance of rain, but oh well. We sheltered in place and watched the school groups walk by. Schoolchildren seem to go on an inordinate number of field trips (say more)
Most of the umbrellas have been uniform, but when it rains, schoolkids whip out an assortment of umbrellas in all shapes and colors and patterns. How are they so prepared! It’s wild, the girls wear skirts, even in winter. Everyone wears the same uniform. Down to the backpack haha.
The golden pavilion is truly gorgeous, and words and pictures don’t really do it justice. At the same time, it’s pretty ostentatious and over the top, especially for a Zen temple. It’s a lot of gold (and also a lot of tourists taking pictures of said gold). But the way it shimmers and catches the sun off the water is priceless. All the school groups and tourists jockeying for position for a photo (myself included, sometimes) also detract a little. I still really enjoyed it and Kinkakuji is obviously incredible, but I think I liked the two temples I saw next even more.
We walked from Kinkakuji, after a stroll through it’s gardens with all the tour groups, to Ryoanji temple, about 15 minutes down the road. It was much quieter, and we took a lap around the large lake, stopping in the main building of the temple to see the famous rock garden. It’s really interesting, just a handful of rocks arranged very specifically atop a bed of pebbles. The rock garden was curious and I spent longer than I expected staring at it, hoping it would reveal its secrets. We walked around the beautiful gardens, and I also really enjoyed the leaves. The trees had more color than most of the gardens and temple grounds we’ve seen, and it was a really serene, contemplative place.
Lastly, we walked another 10-15 minutes to Ninna-ji Temple. All three (Ninnaji, Kinkakuji and Ryoanji) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites (among the 8 in Kyoto, all of which I think we will have seen by the end of the week). The temple was also quiet and we took off our shoes and walked around the main building, which was amazing, even though it was under construction. The decorations and drawings on the walls of a lot of the rooms were incredible, and something I normally don’t even notice. On our way out, we looked up and spotted a rainbow! It was amazing over the temple, and we jogged over to the awesome, 5-story pagoda to try to catch the rainbow over it. It had mostly faded, but the pagoda was still amazing, and it was really incredible to see the full rainbow (I hardly ever see the full semicircle of a rainbow).
We hopped on the bus back, which took almost 40 minutes to return to Gion. Luckily we got seats on the crowded bus, but we also listened to the life story of this American couple talking to a friend who I guess is a digital nomad and working here. I think a lot of people do that. It was interesting hearing about coworking spaces and differences among countries. The guy’s dad is apparently a famous chef who cooked for every president since Clinton. Also, the teenage girl sitting behind me was hunched over and I eventually realized she was crying. Her head was almost touching my shoulder so it was a little cramped.
We got back to the hotel and regrouped, and then we headed out to dinner. We walked a few minutes to Hohei, a gyoza spot in the Michelin Bib Gourmand guide and also recommended by a ton of people. We waited outside for a few minutes, with a friendly guy who lives in Kobe and works in Osaka but was here for the day and came to try the gyoza before heading home (his wife was disappointed she wasn’t able to be here).
We entered and sat at the counter, where we each had a full order of the two types of gyoza offered (both were pork gyoza): ginger, and garlic and leek. We ate the ginger gyoza with miso paste and the garlic and leek with typical gyoza sauce. Both were exquisite, and the gyoza were small, light and so flavorful. We also had two orders of cucumber with sesame and our daily fix of rice. It’s natural to drink beer with gyoza, so I tried bottles of Sapporo, Asahi and Kirin to compare. I always say I like Kirin the best, then Asahi, then Sapporo, and I think that holds up, but it was cool to actually try them in order. The Kirin has the most flavor and is the “best,” while the Asahi is drier and maltier. The Sapporo has the least flavor but is also the lightest and most refreshing.
We wanted another drink after dinner, so we walked to Pub Karr across the river, which I thought would be a fun, lively and local place to have a beer. It turned out to be about five older locals sitting at the bar and smoking, but I wanted to try some local craft beer so I had a dark IPA from Kyoto Brewing Company. It was fine but certainly not good, and Jake’s stout was subpar. The Japanese do many things well, including light beer, but I don’t think they’ve cracked craft beer. I actually think that Americans, for all our faults, have really figured out how to brew the best beer.
Jake couldn’t stop talking about the gin bar we went to last night, so we decided to stop again on the way back to try another drink. It was more crowded, with mostly foreign couples again, but I ordered a drink with lavender gin, sake, sambuca, shiso, lemon and egg white and Jake had one with burdock gin (so cool, right) and a bunch of different spices, including ginger, cardamon, and cinnamon, the three dominant flavors. The drinks were once again unbelievably good, and the pictures really don’t do them justice. Satisfied, we returned to the hotel and watched the end of Season 3 of The Good Place, which is so funny and so thorough and well done.
Will add pictures soon,