The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Monday, April 09, 2012

Kyoto Trip - Part 1

I was fortunate to have the whole month of March off. The problem is that, when you have a lot of time off, there's not really any urgency to get anything done. Before you know it, 2 weeks have slipped by and you haven't done anything or gone anywhere. So, at some point in mid-march, I woke up and just decided to go to Kyoto. I went online and booked a hotel, then hopped on the bullet train and went. It was a fantastic trip, for a lot of reasons.

One was the ease with which I went there. About 2 hours by bullet train, and I was there. I suppose I was also lucky to find a good hotel so easily. I booked online without investigating things much at all. My friends recommended a hotel, I booked it, and it turned out to be great - cheap, clean, comfortable, and central. (The 4 C's!) And, lucky me, I got upgraded to a double for free. So that worked out well.

I arrived in the evening and by that time, it was too dark to do sightseeing. I picked a restaurant from a guide they had in my room. It was supposed to be recommended, but on what basis, I have no idea; probably because the restaurant had paid to be included in the guide. The food was ... well, here's a shot I took of the menu.

I left there and went strolling into the bar area of town. I eventually found a very small bar with large glass windows in front, lined with shelves displaying dozens of different kinds of sake and shochu (Japanese vodka). That looked like what I was after so I went in, and was immediately greeted by the other patrons. This was to be a theme of my trip: the friendliness of Kyoto people! We got to talking and I quickly felt like I was befriended by this group of strangers. It doesn't sound like much, I know, but when you are in a strange city, it means everything to be welcomed and treated like an old friend.

I don't even know the name of that bar, nor do I remember the names of the people I met there. I would like to send them a postcard from Tokyo, thanking them for their kindness, but I'm not sure how.

I went back home feeling very good, and woke up early the next morning for a full day of sightseeing. Day 2 was going to feature temples on the east side of Kyoto station. I started with Tofuku-ji. According to the pamphlet I received, and Wikipedia:

Founded in 1236, Tofuku-ji is (one of?) the main Rinzai-sect Zen temple(s) in Japan. It has maintained its Zen architecture since the middle ages, and boasts a wealth of medieval Zen artifacts, including a rarely-seen image of Buddha on his death bed.

Tofuku-ji isn't one of the most famous temples in Kyoto, and as it was only 10 a.m. on a weekday, the place was almost deserted. Perfect for pictures!

I don't know why Tofuku-ji isn't more famous; its rock gardens are better (in my opinion) than the much more famous one at Ryoan-ji, for example. (More on Ryoan-ji later.)

Many temples in Japan have a dragon painted on the ceiling. I took a sneaky shot of the Tofuku-ji dragon ... not sure if I was allowed to do that but ...

The rock garden is one of 4 very interesting and unique gardens surrounding the Abbot's residence. Rock gardens are often meant to evoke islands in water, mountaintops poking up out of cloud banks, or other natural imagery. Sometimes, they are more abstract. In any case, they are designed to lead the viewer into quiet contemplation, which this garden certainly does.

Another garden on the opposite side of the Abbot's residence is this more modern moss garden. I don't know exactly what the gardener had in mind, but one thing that struck me is the strength of nature, held in check by careful and constant pruning and weeding, but suggested in the readiness of the moss to overwhelm and engulf the stone squares.

The main gate is the oldest 3-doored gate in Japan.

I notice that the Japanese are very fond of stating, very specifically, that something is the oldest example of this exact kind of object. It's kind of amusing. They also like making lists (for example "This garden is considered to be one of the top 3 most beautiful gardens in Japan") but it is not always agreed what the other entries are (which means there are sometimes 7 or 8 temples vying for "top 3"). Very Japanese - nobody has to feel bad about being left out.

That brings us to lunchtime on Day 2. My afternoon was a busy one, so I'll make that a separate post.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Failed Blogger Returns

So one of my friends called me a "failed Blogger" in jest, but I suppose it's a pretty accurate label insofar as a Blog is supposed to be updated on a daily (or perhaps weekly, but at the very least regular) basis. Whoops!

It's not like I've been busy. Perhaps the opposite. I've just been trundling along in my rut, so I haven't really felt like there's been much to post. But I've accumulated a few things in the last 3 months, so here we go.

We had New Year's. Here's a picture from the shrine I went to at midnight on New Year's eve.

Winter came and went. Thankfully, winter in Tokyo is no big deal at all. It's pretty pleasant, actually. The air is cool and dry, but rarely frigid by Canadian standards. Sure, it gets cold at night, and Japanese apartments aren't well insulated, so you really feel the cold in your bones when you get out of bed in the morning. But the days are often sunny and bright. It is unusual that it actually snows (perhaps this is due to global warming? Edo-era woodblock prints show no shortage of snow in old Tokyo, it seems) so I took a picture from one of the classrooms at school.

I had a couple months off work in February and March. Well, I had to work a couple weeks in there, but that was actually a welcome distraction from the boredom of having all that free time! I had planned to try and get to the pool every day. That happened for the first little while. I had also planned to try and eat healthy. This was also good at the start, but petered off gradually. One thing that helped me though, was the fact that, just around the corner from my place (literally a 1-minute walk or so) there is a vegetarian, organic cafe that serves really nice lunches. The people who run it are really nice, too.

So anyway, spring is coming and the first sign of spring is the plum blossom. People usually associate spring in Japan with the cherry blossom, but the plum blooms first and is, in my opinion, quite underrated. The cherry is more delicate, so it gets all the praise, but the plum is pretty great too. And, it smells nice.

I went to a park that is famous for its plum trees. They light up the trees at night, too. This shot reminds me of a VanGogh painting, which is funny because of course Van Gogh got his inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints of plum blossoms, among other things.

The park was freezing cold at night and my fingers were so numb I could barely take this picture.

I took a day trip to Kawagoe, which is not that far from where I live, but I haven't been there for a long time. Kawagoe still preserves some old kura or warehouses from the late Edo-period. You can still see the thick shutters and the bars over the windows on the second floor of many of these warehouses, which were to deter burglars. Most of these warehouses are shops selling traditional sweets or handicrafts.

Kawagoe's most famous building is its old bell-tower. They rung out the hours on a large bell which you can see at the top. Presumably, most Japanese towns and neighbourhoods in large cities would have had towers like this. Unfortunately, most are no longer standing.

Japanese buildings were usually made of wood and paper (stone and brick did not fare well against earthquakes) so they easily succumbed to fire. I heard that Japanese buildings were (and by weight of tradition, often continue to be) flimsily built to (a) be flexible in the event of an earthquake (as mentioned above) and (b) so they could be torn apart easily by firemen in the event of a fire. Since there was no way in the Edo-period to transport large volumes of water, firemen did not battle fires directly but tried to stop the spread of fire by tearing down buildings to create a fire stop.

So that's what I got up to in January and February. I was busy in March, so I should have updates soon!