Monday, June 23, 2014

Discovering Otani University, Byodo-In Temple, Kyoto Rail Station and Gion

Monday, June 23, 2014
Kyoto, Japan

Jetlag did not bother us too badly last night and although we were up before sunrise hit the ancient city of Kyoto, we felt fully rested. As I busied myself getting organized for a full day, Llew watched the USA play Portugal in the FIFA 2014 World Cup and became conversant with sporting Japanese vocabulary pretty quickly!

Breakfasting in the Japanese Fashion:
By 7. 30 am, we were ready to meet and greet Workshop participants in the hotel's dining hall and to acquaint ourselves with the mysteries of a Japanese breakfast. There was salad and miso soup (yes for breakfast!) with strips of dried omlette and nori seaweed that became rehydrated in the steaming broth--so delicious! Rice cakes wrapped with more nori, croissants, butter, marmalade, strings of cocktail sausages with mustard and ketchup and coffee with more soup (tomato, chicken, lemon) were in evidence. We ate heartily.

Off to Otani University:
Then the lot of us, introductions mostly done, were trooping off in an untidy crocodile down the side street and on to the main road to get to the Subway station (Kurasama) to make the journey to Otani University in the north of the city where the first lectures of the day were to be held. Michiko Katsura-san distributed our local public transport passes (for unlimited bus and subway travel) and we were off in the spotless, ultra-modern system in which commuters traveled in an incredibly disciplined fashion although the trains were packed. It wasn't long before we were entering the gates of the university and finding our way into the conference room chosen for our program. Introductions were swiftly gotten out of the way and we prepared to listen to Prof. Michael Emmerich of UCLA espouse his views on 'The Tale of Genji as World Literature'. In an extremely absorbing session that kept us fascinated, he recounted the history of the work, its early reception in the modern Western world and the long and convoluted process through which it has entered the world literary canon. Wonderfully interesting stuff. A short break was followed by a second session by Michael that included some videos of the Japanese royal family and their place in the world and then it was time for a quick lunch. Llew attended the first session but slipped away during the break to wander down the campus area with the intention of returning for lunch.

Lunch in the Japanese Style: 
Bento boxes--that delightful Japanese invention--made a magical appearance. Lunch in gorgeous lacquered boxes that contained compartmentalized steamed rice, fried fish flavored with soy sauce, edamame pods, steamed vegetable, asparagus and eggplant tempura and a sweet soy bean cake materialized. Everything was delicious and very satisfying indeed. Oh and there was miso soup to wash everything down. Llew and I believe that if there is one thing this trip will accomplish for the two of us it will be the ability to eat with chopsticks like pros--a skill that has so far alluded us!

Off to the Byodo-In Temple:
Kyoto is all about temples (which is the name for Buddhist houses of worship) and shrines (the name for Shinto ones). I am certain that in the next few days we will see so many that they will all start merging seamlessly into one another as to be completely indistinguishable. The Byodo-In Temple is the grand-daddy of them all, in a sense, as it is one of the oldest (built almost a thousand years ago) and featuring heavily in the medieval Tale of Genji and The Tale of Heike (which are the focus of our study during this week).

To get to the Byodo-In Temple, we made a long journey to the town of Uji which sits in a valley surrounded by hills whose waters are so delicious as to produce wonderful tea and sake (Japanese rice wine). As we walked from the railway station at Uji to the Byodo-In, we passed through narrow village lanes that were laced with tea shops selling green tea, matcha (powdered green tea)
and green tea ice-cream. It was rather a charming entry to a beautiful temple that is being restored in stages to its original glory. Built in the Heian Period, this building is the finest example of Japanese architecture of the time. It is a fairy tale concoction of red pagoda buildings surrounding the quiet dignified beauty of a Japanese garden created around a heart-shaped reflecting pool. The main building is topped with twin phoenixes (the originals are in the adjoining museum) while gilded replicas now grace the roof line.

We were met by the curator of the Temple named Tanaka who gave us a running commentary in Japanese that was translated by our accompanying guide Monica Berthe, an American professor at Otani University who has spent forty years in Japan. We spent the next hour in the garden, strolling around the temple precincts, visiting the museum where we saw medieval wooden bodhisatavas and walls and panels painted as they were when the temple was first constructed and decorated. For a very long period of time, the venue was deserted and fell into complete destruction. Fortunately, the piece de resistance of the site, the Phoenix Hall, was retained together with the towering gilded figure of the Amida Buddha seated on a multi-petalled lotus. To enter this sanctum sanctorum, we took off our shoes and were treated to more commentary to enable us to understand the religious and artistic nuances of the venue and to drink in its solemn atmosphere.

Llew and I had visited the Byodo-in Temple in Hawai'i, a few years ago, but we were still quite taken by the beauty of this place. Although it was hot and humid, the venue held out interest and we were quite pleased to have extended time in its environs.

After taking in this final vista, our group split: some chose to return to the gift shop, others continued with Monica towards more sacred Shinto shrines in the vicinity. Llew and I were in the latter group. Badly needing a break, we stopped for green tea ice-cream cones and a sit down and then we were on our feet again. For the next couple of hours, we crossed vermillion bowed bridges, a gushing Uji River, saw two Shinto shrines (the Uji shrine) and several beautiful gardens as we traversed narrow lanes with quaint Japanese homes lining them on both sides. It was a wonderful introduction to the beauty that exists just beyond Kyoto's urban sprawl and we enjoyed every second of it.

Examining Kyoto Railway Station:
We re-joined the group at the railway station for our return journey to Kyoto; but because I was persuaded to spend a while examining the architecture of Kyoto Railway Station, we requested Monica to direct us towards it. Happily, she accompanied us all the way to the venue where we spent almost an hour.

Now you might well wonder what could possibly be appealing enough about a railway station to warrant a whole hour's scrutiny. Well, think Grand Central Station, New York, in the hands of I.M. Pei--on steroids! And there you have it. A glass and concrete confection that towers above your head like the fan vaulting of a Gothic cathedral--but modern, no futuristic! It was amazing. Its architect, Hiroshi Hara won the commission to design and create the station on the basis of an international competition. Highly controversial from the start, the building was disliked for the fact that it does nothing to mirror Kyoto's rich architectural heritage; but Hara was adamant in wishing to create a new aesthetic for the city--one that would reflect the 21st century vision of the county and its people. And indeed he has more than vindicated himself.

Llew and I rode the endless escalators to get to the magic glass walkway that went all the way to the 11th floor and offered stunning views of the city of Kyoto right opposite the Kyoto Tower, a rocket-like structure that reaches out into the heavens. It presented a wonderful idea of the manner in which the city of Kyoto developed as the imperial capital in the verdant valley surrounded by misty hills. It was a grand sight indeed and we could have stayed there forever except that we had other plans.

Exploring Gion District and Pontocho:      
Gion is the 'entertainment district' of Kyoto. Wink wink. Nudge, nudge. Call it quaint, call it charming, call it imperial. Just don't call it Kyoto's red light district--although that is exactly what it was and, from what I could see, what it still is. The area is best explored at dusk when night falls gently upon a culture that has been romanticized through the figures of the geisha and the maiko (apprentice geisha). As always, a district of this kind is best approached on a walking tour and Llew and I followed one provided by Lonely Planet called a Nighfall's Walk in Gion.

Our stroll began on the steps of yet another Shrine: the Yasaka Shrine which is a vast complex of stairs, houses of worship, gardens, bells, countless white paper lanterns, thick ropes, white prayer flags knotted to a roped screen. We toured the complex from its striking red and gold exterior to the far, ancient reaches within and then, on the main road called Shimbashi, began our exploration of Gion.

We were informed that we'd be lucky if we saw a real geisha as handsome sums are paid today to be entertained by these talented and well-trained ladies of the evening. Well, luck was on our side for we walked alongside not one but two of them in full regalia as they hurried off to their next appointment. Meanwhile, we were treated to strolls in some of the most evocative parts of old Kyoto that reeked of history and mystery at the same time. Quite unutterably wonderful. Old traditional homes called ryokans now function as modest hotels, innumerable little restaurants and hostess bars were filled with beautiful women dressed to kill, a lilting narrow canal trailed willow branches into its waters while houses hugged the banks in little hidden nooks green with vegetation. The fact that lanterns were up throughout the area giving it a pretty uniformity added to the atmosphere and made us realize why, during the day such a place might leave us unaffected, while after dark, it would stir up every last nook of one's imagination. Llew and I loved it.

Dinner of Okonomiyaki at Issen Yoshushu:
Okonomiyaki is the traditional Japanese pancake and Kyoto is famed for it. So it was not a far stretch to stretch out at a traditional little Japanese restaurant called Issen Yoshushu and treat ourselves to this delight--an omlette basically stuffed with all things Japanese: dried shrimp, Bonita (fish) flakes, scallions, ginger, beaten egg and a whole egg, loads of seaweed--all douzed in soya sauce. The end result is surprisingly delectable--a complex combination of flavors that is slightly different with each bite you take. At just 680 Yen (about $7), it was also a steal as it served as our dinner for the day at a time when we were both starving.

Satisfied by our break, it was time to try to head homeward but not before we saw Kyoto's most famous Kabuki theater and entered the area across the Kamogawa River (which is flanked by twin promenades in the manner of Paris' Seine) to arrive at Pontocho--twin alleys alive with restaurants, bars and shops galore. Women were dressed to the nines for a night on the town (yes, even on a Monday night) and the air was alive with possibility.

But Llew and I had walked for miles and we were finally ready to call it a day. We found our way to the Kawaramachi subway station, got off one stop later at Kurasama (but not before we made an error by taking a wrong train from the wrong station at Gion) and eventually getting home to our hotel. A good hot shower gave me my second wind and allowed me to scribble down this blog post before my doings tomorrow will quite cause all of today's happening to vanish from my memory.

So there you have it: temples, gardens, geisha...we saw it all in one glorious if totally tiring day in Kyoto.

Until tomorrow, Sayonara.

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