squid on a stick: kyoto day two

Another really long one. I bitch about the heat, we have an amazing experience at a zen temple, I bitch about the heat even more, I rave about ramen, we geek out at a manga museum, we discover Superman’s strange Japanese ancestor and strange foods are consumed. All that and more, just click here…

Monday morning started pretty much the same way that Sunday night had ended for me: stretched out on a futon, trying desperately to find some sort of optimum position of skin exposure that would both allow enough perspiration to cool me down to a range where I could sleep, and yet keep enough of me under a cover so that the moving air from the fan over my body didn’t jolt me awake with the sensation of insects crawling over me. Really, I am just not a hot-weather animal. Then the sun crested the horizon, and as the house’s owner had warned us, slammed directly in through the front window and into our faces, raising the temperature in the room by about 5 degrees instantly. I struggled to my feet to close the blinds, but the damage was already done.

So to answer the question on nobody’s lips: “Has two years of living in San Francisco turned Nathan into one of those horrible SF pansies who can’t tolerate so much as a minute of actual weather, hot or cold?” The answer is… well, I could probably make a good argument that the answer is “bite me, I always hated humid summer weather,” but I think it’s best to just succumb to the inevitable and admit it: I’ve become one of them.

But oh well, adequate amounts of sleep or not, it was time to get up and face the day. What followed was a replay of the hilarious sequence of events that used to happen every morning in the summer when I lived in Philadelphia, Boston or New York before I finally just bought a damn air conditioner: jump into the shower, rinse the night-slime off me, towel off furiously, then twist around like a circus contortionist in front of a fan on its highest setting, trying to get the water to dry off before I started sweating anew, so I could have one moment of blessed dryness in which to pull on a t-shirt and underwear. As always, this never quite worked. I managed to struggle into clothing regardless (much to Miranda’s amusement: she loves this kind of weather), and after a quick slice of toast and cup of tea downstairs, we headed out into the bright, bright sunlight to our first stop: the Ginkaku-ji, better known in English as the “Silver Pavilion.”

The Silver Pavilion was within walking distance of our lodgings, so we’d planned to wake up early and get there just as it opened in order to beat the heat and the crowds. Well, we certainly beat the crowds. The heat, however, beat me. By the time we’d gotten there, I’d already sweated through my t-shirt. We walked into the entry path (an 8-foot wide lane surrounded on both sides by tended shrubbery a good 12 feet tall, so you wouldn’t see the pavilion until you turned the last corner), only to find a sign letting us know that, regrettably, the Silver Pavilion was currently undergoing renovations to give it a new roof and shore up its foundations, but that all of the other portions of the facility including the zen garden were still open. It was only ¥300, so we paid up anyway and walked in.

Yup, under construction. Oh well, there was still a huge zen garden in front of us.

The zen garden at the Ginkaku-ji is, obviously, a masterwork. The following picture is of a conical structure that was the first thing you saw coming around the corner, but the zen garden itself stretched for several dozen yards in each direction behind it. It was all immaculately white, and there was a uniformed attendant doing maintenance around the edges with a small hand-come, apparently sorting out any non-matching pebbles that had somehow gotten mixed in from the pedestrian path.

What my picture here does not show you is, um, the swarm of bees. The entire zen garden was buzzing with bees, each easily twice as large as the standard american honeybee, all of them excitedly flying into and out of tiny holes in the collected sand mass. There was no signage that explained this, so I have no idea if the garden normally plays host to a beehive or if this was some sort of unexpected infestation. It certainly made us a little nervous to hang around too closely, so we moved on to the moss gardens further back, which in addition to being largely bee-free were also much more shaded.

The moss gardens were gorgeous and much, much cooler. There was even a tiny three-sectioned exhibit of the various mosses used in the garden, labelled “Very Important Moss (like VIP!)”, “residents of Ginkaju-ji” and (inexplicably) “Moss the interrupter.”

Since the main attraction of the site was under wraps, we only spent about half an hour wandering around the gardens, and after grabbing what would be the first of many waters from a vending machine on the way out, we headed down the philosopher’s path to our next destinations.

But first, a word about vending machines. I’m pretty sure that Japan has as many vending machines as they have people, or possibly even a few more. I don’t think we have yet once, except in the middle of the Japanese Alps, managed to walk more than 10 minutes without encountering at least a soft drink machine, and on most days the soft drink machine will be flanked by one selling cigarettes and one selling beer. On train platforms, there will usually be on selling hot and cold coffee drinks as well. The smoke and booze machines have little signs on them indicating that nobody under the age of majority is to use them. I’m told that people actually pay attention to these signs. I can’t personally vouch for that, but I can at least confirm that I never saw a teenager using one of the beer machines, whereas back in the states there would have been a line. And the best part of all is that the prices never vary. If a 500ml bottle of iced green tea is ¥150 in a desolate suburb of Tokyo, it’s also going to be ¥150 in front of the busiest shrine in Kyoto. It’s really pretty awesome.

Back to the path: the “Philosopher’s Path” is a famous ancient pedestrian path adjacent to a canal that connects some of eastern Kyoto’s most famous and important temples and shrines. From the description in the books I’d read, I’d been expecting a path between willow trees or maybe towering pines, winding its way through some sort of austere park dotted with temples. In fact, while certainly beautiful, the Philosopher’s Path is these days a completely urban artifact: a paved trail that follows a canal with steep stone and concrete sides, through several residential and commercial neighborhoods. Dozens of little cafes and stores, and not a few private residences abut the path, and it’s used daily by commuters, joggers and dog-walkers as well as tourists and monks.

It turned out to be a pretty good visual metaphor for Kyoto itself. From reading tourist books about Kyoto, it’s pretty easy to get an impression of it as a semi-mystical city, built entirely out of 1000-year-old shrines and populated by zen masters. In reality, Kyoto after a few days started to remind me rather strongly of Philadelphia: a city with a great deal of history, and which is filled to brimming with sites of amazing historical interest, but which outside those areas is a little on the gritty, industrial and working-class side. I like Philadelphia a lot, and I think I like Kyoto a lot too— it’s just that the contrast between the imagined and the actual is pretty vivid.

…of course in Philly, the sites of historical importance are colonial-era brick and wood buildings. In Kyoto, once you get to the doors of the right shrine, the magic bit really does exist:

That’s the temple gardens from the Eikan-do (aka Zenrin-Ji) temple. It’s one of at least a dozen shrines or temples along the Philosopher’s Path, but far from the most famous and it wasn’t actually our next planned stop, we just entered on a whim.

You mostly can’t take pictures inside the Eikan-do, which is a pity, since the temple’s two main halls are both stunningly beautiful, and the second hall houses something called the “Mikaeri Amida” — a statue of the Amida Buddha who appears to be looking backward over his shoulder. Most Buddhist altars tend to look pretty similar to (my) untrained western eyes, but this one was visibly different in a very obvious way, and the story that goes along with the statue (in which the Buddha looked over his shoulder at the former head monk of the shrine and said “Yokan, you are slow” was fascinating.

And that was just another random stop in Kyoto. Our actual destination was a bit further down the path, and it was pretty easy to figure out when we’d gotten there:

That’s the main gatehouse (san-mon) at the Nanzen-Ji temple, and if you think it looks imposing in that photo, you need to come see it in person. It’s built entirely of wood, was raised in 1628, and it’s enormous.

For a bit of scale, the wooden risers on the floor between those pillars come up almost to my knee. The second floor is accessible by stairs for a fee, and provides some amazing views of the scenery below:

The Nanzen-ji was probably my favorite of all of the historical sites I visited in Kyoto, and it managed to be so in spite of the fact that it was really the only one that completely nickel-and-dimed you on entry fees: climbing to the top of the san-mon was ¥500. Entry into the gardens was another ¥400. Entry into the main temple was (I think I recall this correctly) ¥1000. It was all worth it, but ouch.

On the grounds of the temple complex but outside any of the ticketed buildings, there was a large roman-style aqueduct: we searched in vain for any explanation of what it was doing there.

The first stop we made after the gate were the Nanzen-in cultivated gardens. They were predictably jawdroppingly beautiful, and again — importantly — shaded. I don’t really have a lot useful to say about pretty gardens at this point, so here’s a pretty picture:

After the gardens, we went into the main temple itself, and once we stepped in pretty much every qualm I had about the ticket prices fell away. After walking through a small series of rooms facing out onto cultivated gardens every bit as impressive as the nanzen-in if not moreso, you entered a wide hallway with a blast of white light coming in through the open screens on the left-hand side. As you approached them, what you see is this:

That’s the “tigers” section of the “tigers and cubs” zen garden: the three large rocks are the tigers. It was still early enough when we arrived that there were only two or three other visitors looking at the garden when we arrived, but more importantly and luckiest of all, we walked out onto the porch as a prayer ceremony had started in one of the rooms behind us: two monks were chanting sutras and beating drums while several older people read along in books on a smaller prayer mat beside them. We sat and stared at the rock garden while the chanting went on behind us.

You go to Rome to see men in funny red suits walking across the floor of St. Peters holding censers filled with incense. You go to Paris to see Notre Dame. You go to Salt Lake City to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. You go to Jerusalem to see the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. And if you go to Japan, you cross your fingers and hope that you get to sit on the floor of a temple older than your entire country, listening to chanting monks while looking at one of the most famous Zen gardens in the world. So we sat, and we listened.

Eventually, sadly, the service stopped and the monks left. We then got to realize just how lucky we’d gotten: with the monks gone, a narration in Japanese over a short repeated loop of Japanese Classical music came on. We moved on around the corner, where we could see the other half of the garden.

The rooms facing out onto the porches and gardens could be looked into but not walked into or photographed, which was understandable since their internal screen walls were covered with stunning examples of classic japanese paintings, including the famous “Tiger Drinking Water” by Kano Tanyu.

We spent a little more time wandering the halls and open verandas of Nanzen-ji, but the majority of the temple is still a working religious institution and is thus off-limits to visitors. And by this time, it was around 12:30 and we were starting to get a bit hungry, and even in the shade it was starting to get just brutally hot, so our thoughts turned to lunch, preferably somewhere air-conditioned. LP didn’t offer much in the vicinity of Nanzen-ji…except what they claimed was their favorite ramen joint in all of Kyoto. Hot soup sounded a little dicey at the time, but we set off in search of it anyways, and this turned out to be an excellent idea.

Amazingly, by cross-checking several maps, we were able to make it to the restaurant in just about 20 minutes. Karako turned out to be awesome. While Lonely Planet claimed that it was “not much on atmosphere,” I can only assume they’d gotten scared off by the semi-industrial neighborhood it’s in. Karako has exactly the kind of atmosphere you’d want from a great lunch joint: it’s small (one table plus the bar, which seats about 8), and is run by The Guy. The Guy is a middle-aged man with a short but solid build, and a completely no-nonsense expression. The place is a little cluttered, and there are posted menus with caricatures of The Guy on them, but you don’t need them because you’re going to order ramen. The kitchen is busy, and the A/C is powerful enough to keep the place cool despite the vats of soup. The Guy obviously knows most of his customers very well, and knows what they’re going to order before they ask. You walk in, he asks you if you want ramen, you get ramen. That’s atmosphere aplenty.

And oh my GOD the ramen you get. Obviously homemade noodles. A broth that’s thick enough that you would consider ordering it as soup all on its own. Fresh scallions and bean sprouts. No nasty white-and-pink congealed fishcake thing. And the pork…

…now at most ramen places I’ve been to in the states, the sliced pork in the ramen is really just there as a flavoring agent, and obviously got bought in bulk from somewhere else. It’s rarely bad per se, but you’d never think about it: it’s just another thing floating in the soup, and you’re concentrating on the noodles and broth. The pork slice at Karako was a 5” wide generous cut from what was obviously a rolled pork loin roast. An excellent rolled pork loin roast. One that I would have paid money for on my own. (In fact, if I interpreted some of the signs posted inside the place correctly, you could do just that.) It tasted of smoke and pork and bacon and it fell apart on your tongue.

Sorry, no pictures of the soup. I would have had to have stopped eating it. Wasn’t going to happen. You’ll just have to go to Kyoto yourself.

Sated and happy, we plotted our next move. We’d been to three temples in one morning, and that was feeling like enough temple for the day: like in Rome, it’s easy to get churched-out in Kyoto. It was also, now…

…well look, I have no idea how hot it was, and I’m running out of adjectives and cute similes. Many hours later, when we got back to the house long after dark, we checked weather.com and at about 9pm the temperature in Kyoto was still about 86f. Japan isn’t big on the whole “thermometer outside a bank” thing, so I don’t know what the high temperature on the 14th was, but if it didn’t crest 100f it made a good solid crack at it, and the humidity certainly never dropped below 95%. It was not comfortable, and it wasn’t looking like it was going to get any more comfortable until much later in the afternoon. So whatever we were going to do next had to involve no Buddhas and be climate controlled.

Luckily, Kyoto has a newly built International Manga Museum. It was time to hoist the otaku flag and go commune with Astro Boy. We jumped on the metro, took it a few stops down, got off, wandered around for only a few minutes looking for a museum that we knew was only half a block from the metro stop before finally noticing the huge “M” logo.

The IMM is housed in a converted primary school in downtown Kyoto, and is surprisingly accessible for English-speaking visitors. Of course one of the main draws of the museum is somewhat lost on us: the enormous “WALL OF MANGA” with several tens of thousands of volumes available for any visitor to pull down and read, but the exhibits in the main galleries had subtitling in several languages, and did a great job of showing how manga evolved out of older forms of Japanese popular graphic art, and how manga reacted to major events in Japanese history.

One of the most fascinating parts of the whole museum was a live demonstration of something called kamishibai. Kamishibai (“paper drama” or “paper storytelling”) was a form of street theatre that was hugely popular in Japan in the pre-war and immediately post-war years, and involved a storyteller standing in front of a box with a window cut into it. Inside the box were a series of illustrations, each one to be revealed by pulling out the one in front of it and placing it in the back of the stack. The illustrations were essentially a dialogue-free comic book, and the kamishibai performer would add the dialogue himself, working from (and likely embellishing) a script given to him by the same company that he rented the box and illustrations from. A performance would be announced by walking through a neighborhood clapping two sticks together, and once a crowd of enough children had gathered, preceded by the candy sales that actually funded the whole operation. Each story would go through 15-20 illustrations, and would always end with “…TO BE CONTINUED!” At its peak, there were apparently around 50,000 kamishibai performers in Japan, working from material created by dozens of companies and hundreds of artists. In manga’s weird parallel evolution with American comics, this was the newspaper serial years.

Even more interesting — to me anyway, some non-nerds have probably tuned out at this point but screw ‘em — was that the Kamishibai we saw that day was one taken from a real 1920s series: the continuing adventures of The Golden Bat and his nemesis Doctor Zero. The Golden Bat apparently debuted in 1930, and was an invincible, flying hero (with the head of a skull for some reason), wearing a skin-tight outfit with a cape, who would regularly laugh off rains of bullets from Doctor Zero’s hapless masked minions before swooping down to save the day. Sounds familiar, right?

Very familiar, except here’s the funny thing: Action Comics #1, the first Superman story, debuted in 1938. The Golden Bat’s first appearance is hard to pin down (the Kamishibai companies didn’t really keep good records), but appears to have at least been as early as 1930. It’s a funny old world.

As we made it to the end of our circuit of the manga museum, it had clouded up and was starting to rain a little bit, so we headed over to the museum cafe to grab a tea and wait out the weather. The slight rain quickly turned into a tropical gale, and we ended up staying in the cafe until around 4pm, watching as the horizontal raindrops occasionally convinced the automatic door sensor that they were customers trying to get in.

After the weather had mostly passed by, we walked out into a Kyoto that was if possibly even more humid, but which was thankfully a hell of a lot cooler. Our next stop: Kyoto Station, this time not laden down with a ton of baggage. This probably also falls as much into the category of high nerdery as the manga museum, but big, pretty train stations are a small obsession of mine, and in Japan train stations don’t get much bigger or prettier than Kyoto Station. Built in 1997, it’s a 15-story semi-open building that houses stations on the local metro and bus lines, as well as the Kyoto JR and Shinkansen tracks, a 2-level basement shopping mall, a hotel, dozens of restaurants restaurants, a live theatre (currently playing “West Side Story”) and an observation deck and skywalk that you reach by going up 15 stories of continuous escalators:

Now that’s a train station. It’s also, in a very hypermodern way, completely beautiful. After a morning spent looking through 400+ year old temples, this was a good change:

After spending about an hour going up all the escalators, finding the helipad on the roof, walking over the skyway to the other side, going down more escalators and then amusing ourselves sampling pickles and confections in the food courts of the shopping malls (and nearly getting sucked into buying more sake), we decided that it had officially cooled off enough to risk some actual outdoor activity: checking out the floats for Thursday’s Gion Festival. This was a return to the scene of the previous night’s aggravation, where we’d had to wade through the float-happy crowd to get to our dinner, but this time we were actually ready for it.

The Gion Festiva dates back to the year 869, and started out as a purification ritual to appease plague-happy gods. These days, there appears to be little overt religious context to the festival, but it’s a great excuse to get dressed up in traditional summer kimonos, open up your house or shrine to show off your heirlooms, and ideally help push a three-storey float down the street. In the three days leading up to the festival, large chunks of downtown Kyoto are made off-limits to cars, and the floats are displayed on the streets while a huge street fair rages around them.

Some of the floats will even, for a small fee, let you climb up and inside: we found a 2-storey float topped with a cypress tree that welcomed visitors for ¥300, and we clambered on up, waved at the crowds, and took a few pictures.

The funny thing about the street fair is how similar in a lot of ways it was to any summer street fair in New York City, and especially the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. Huge crowds of gawping tourists? Check. Endless rows of booths on the sidewalk selling street foods? Yup. Cotton candy? Check. Meat-on-a-stick? Check. Ice cream? Check. Funnel cakes? Ayup. Candied apples? Check. Beer? Of course. Chocolate-dipped frozen bananas? Of course, there’s always money in a banana stand. Bags of nuts? Yup. Doner kebabs served by bemused Turkish guys? You bet. French fries? Sure! Enormous armoured beetles? Wait, what?

Enormous armored beetles. 4 to 6 inches long, evil-looking as all hell, with huge pinching mandibles Apparently being sold as pets, although given their location between the fried-checken stand and the funnel cakes I can’t completely vouch for that. How devoted am I to peace, harmony, international relations and not getting my ass tossed into a Japanese jail? So devoted that I didn’t immediately burn this booth down to the ground and stop up and down on the ashes. I should get a medal or something. As it was, I merely backed away very quickly once I realized what was in the little plastic cages. I could have easily gone my entire lifetime without knowing that those little fuckers existed, much less that I was currently sharing an all-too-small island with them.

And while we’re on the subject of the awful and gross, we passed this:

No, we did not eat there.

Back to happier topics, one of the things that’s apparently done in the lead-up to the Gion Festival is to open up your house’s front room to the street to show off the family heirlooms, and we got to stick out head in and gawp at a few, most impressively this painted screen:

And of course, there were the floats. Dozens of the things, two to three on the large blocks, but single ones hidden in the little alleys. They ranged form the somewhat bare-boned (so much so that I think they might have still been under construction), to elaborate ornate things with built-in puppets. Of the latter, our favorite one by far was the mantis float:

Yes, that’s an enormous praying mantis marionette on top of the float. Even better, beneath the float and in a temporarily attached tent, there was a motherload of kawaii: a smaller mantis figure that little kids could operate by turning a crank. The mantis would rotate away from the child to a hopper, where it would make a bowing motion and in return a little white ball would fall out of the hopper to be caught by the mantis. The child would keep turning the crank and the mantis would rotated back around to present the ball to the child. There was a good long line of 4-year-olds waiting to try this, and some of them were singing what I can only assume was the mantis song. Zorak would have been proud.

Behind the float, in the window of the facing house, was another mantis marionette, this one an automated one that flickered its wings and moved its mandibles about.

This all went on for block and blocks, and it seemed like all of Kyoto was there with us, checking out the sites. A lot of people were dressed in traditional Japanese summer kimonos. The older people tended to go for the more formal look, but some of the kids not so much:

It’s probably worth noting that in addition to all of the bog-standard street fair food noted above, there were also tons of vendors selling very non-standard but very good street food. Huge poofy pork bao. The aforementioned octopus balls. Peking duck. Broiled eel. And of course, squid on a stick! Squid on a stick? Yes, squid on a stick.

I prefer my squid deep-fried, but I had a nibble of Miranda’s squidcicle, and it was pretty good.

And that was one day in Kyoto.

Add post to:   Delicious Reddit Slashdot Digg Technorati Google
Make comment


Those beetles were mighty impressive! Some variety of staghorn? Guess I have to go watch National Geographic some more.
They are, in fact, Japanese stag beetles. A friend who lived in Kyoto happily informed me that kids like to keep them as pets. I am horrified beyond words.