13.06.2015 - 18.06.2015
After six days in Tokyo we were ready for a rest, and decided to spend two nights in Nikko, a small edo-era town in the mountains north of Tokyo. The Japanese have a saying about Nikko: 'Never say "kekko" until you've seen Nikko', 'kekko' meaning 'beautiful'. We spent a day taking in the fresh air, walking around the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the lush wooded hillside. There was a light rain and a murkiness which added to the magic of the surroundings. We tried the local delicacy, yuba (beancurd), in all its guises, and felt refreshed and ready for our next trip: a brief stop back in Tokyo, and then on to Kyoto by shinkansen (bullet train).
We spent our first few of days in Kyoto wandering around the city. We explored Nishiki Food Market and ogled the marvellous goods on display. We slurped ramen, and we went to Kura-Sushi, a casual kaiten-zushi restaurant, where you order using an electronic screen and your dish comes zipping along a conveyor belt. All the dishes are ¥100, which is about 50p, so you can imagine how much we ate.
Our favourite place to go in the evenings was Pontochō, an alley lined with traditional restaurants, teahouses and bars, just across the Kamo River from Gion, the district famous for its geishas, and immortalised in Memoirs of a Geisha. Having been in Japan for over a week now we were feeling much braver and took a gamble, choosing a restaurant at random – one we couldn't see into and with no English signage outside. We ducked under the curtain and fortunately the staff were quite welcoming, though we did get laughed at for not being able to walk in the clogs they provided. We sat outside on tatami mats, overlooking the river as the sun set behind the Minami-za kabuki theatre. We ate what we were given: aubergine in miso; white fish and pickles; lobster with edamame, wasabi and sesame; tofu soup; tempura prawns; frozen yoghurt, and washed it all down with sake. After nightfall Pontochō really comes into its own. There are red lanterns outside the little establishments, and the curtains over the doorways sway in the breeze. We found a dark and smoky 1930s whisky and jazz bar where we enjoyed a nightcap more than once.
As hard as it is to believe, it wasn't all food. Kyoto is famous for its temples and shrines, which we explored in between fattening ourselves. One of our favourites was the Kinkaku-ji Temple (the Golden Pavilion), which shimmers in the sunlight and creates a beautiful reflection on the lake. We also loved the Fushimi Inari-taisha, the Shinto shrine known for its iconic orange torii (arches). We hiked the trail through the torii to the top of Inari Mountain.
Having seen the hectic, modern side of Tokyo, and reading In the Miso Soup, I wanted to see another side of Japan. The Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Nikko and Kyoto gave me a taste for tradition, and I started reading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, to learn more about Zen Buddhism.
I'm already open to the idea of meditation and mindfulness, and one thing I really wanted to do when we planned our trip was to stay overnight in a Buddhist temple, to see what I could learn from it. Matt was also willing to give it a try, so we turned up at Shunkōin Temple in the peaceful Myoshin-ji Temple complex, which was beautiful to cycle around at dusk. Our room was basic, with futons laid out on the tatami mat floor.
After a quiet night, we rose early in the morning to take part in a Zen meditation session with Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, the deputy head priest of Shunkōin. There were about 15 of us in the group and we sat in a small room looking out at the temple's zen garden. The priest talked about Buddhism and zen meditation, and explained some of the principles, reaffirming what I’d read so far in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. We then practised a 20 minute and a 10 minute meditation. After the session we sat looking out at the zen garden, learning that Japanese gardens are made to be viewed from inside, at eye level when sitting down. It was a great experience, and I definitely need to refresh my meditation practice: I find it very useful in everyday life.
The other experience we wanted to try in Kyoto was spending a night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house. We found a not-too-pricey one in Gion (most of them were well out of our budget, though I can imagine a stay in the £467 a night Hiiragiya, which counts Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin and the Japanese royal family among its former guests would be incredible). Our ryokan room had tatami mat flooring with a table in the middle, which was moved to one side and futons laid out after dinner. We were welcomed with green tea and Japanese sweets and we took turns using the pine-scented onsen. Fully relaxed, we put on the yukatas (like a kimono but made of cotton) we'd been provided with and awaited dinner.
Now, I thought I was an adventurous eater, but dinner in the ryokan really tested me. The dinner was kaiseki style (as I mentioned in my last post), and began with an array of confusing appetisers, including a small crab which we had to eat whole: shell, eyes, guts, brains, everything. This resulted in some gagging, which is always what you want at the dinner table. There was a variety of other fish, seafood, some jelly-like substances, pickles, sashimi... The courses kept coming and the sake kept flowing for several hours.
The next morning, we dressed in our yukatas again, our futons were put away and our table laid out, and we were served breakfast: salmon, egg roll, tofu, rice, pickles, miso soup and some other indescribable raw fishy things that were very strong and quite hard to stomach first thing in the morning. I'd definitely recommend the experience – it will test your limits. I draw the line at whole crabs, and raw squid for breakfast.
One more night back in Tokyo (we resisted the urge to find a karaoke booth, fearing we might never make it to the plane) and we were off again. Goodbye, Japan. We'll miss you and your weird ways.