Saturday, April 10, 2010


After a sad goodbye with Risa, I boarded the train to Kyoto. Actually, when I applied for the JET Programme, Kyoto was my first choice. Its gorgeous temples and alluring history drew me in from the beginning. Luckily Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka are all just a stone's throw from one another so you can visit them all pretty conveniently.

I got in that evening and checked into my youth hostel, Sandalwood. It turns out the owner is a super cool guy- he is in a band that tours the area and was more than happy to explain to me how to get all the places I wanted to go. As luck would have it, that evening my very favorite temple, 清水寺Kiyomizudera, was having a special event that night where it was all lit up for cherry blossom viewing. So I headed off to see for myself. At the bus stop I met two girls from my hostel who were visiting from Australia and we decided to venture together. They were very cool and VERY genki, which was fun for me, and I spoke Japanese, which was fun for them.

Why is Kiyomizudera my favorite temple? Well. First of all the grounds are expansive and beautiful. Second, it has a lot of different things to see and do. Many temples all you can really do is pray and buy a good luck charm. This temple has a wishing rock you have to travel through a dark tunnel to find, many beautiful waterfalls with magic water, and a shrine you can use to find your true love. The fact that I got to experience its special spring festival was pretty much awesome. (I recall it being my fearless Sensei's favorite temple as well, which could have influenced my opinion slightly). After the temple we toured Kyoto, wandering through historic Gion in our search for food. We ended up at a soba restaraunt and I got to boast that my area, Izumo, has the best soba. Although Kyoto's wasn't bad.

The next day I headed out to have my own adventure. It was a drizzly day, but I had to make hay with or without the sun. My first stop was Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺 or the Golden Pavilion. The last time I visited Kyoto (High School) I think for some reason we weren't able to see Kinkakuji, so it was a top priority for me. The temple itself was beautiful, and the reflecting pool was gorgeous as well. All around the temple vendors were selling trinkets and gifts relating to gold. I sampled some green tea that had little gold flakes in it, nibbled on some chocolate with gold leafing, and admired fabric woven with golden threads. Japan knows how to advertise.
It took a lot less time to see than I had planned, so I had to find something else to do that afternoon. In college I wrote a series of papers on the traditional crafts of Kyoto; naturally, kimono and the silk weaving industry was at the forefront of my studies. So I wanted to visit Nishijin, the traditional weaving area of Kyoto where a lot of the magic happened.

Unfortunately, I was clueless about how to get there. As I stood, squinting at my map that was quickly getting disintegrated in the rain, a girl tapped me on the shoulder. "Are you ok?" she asked me. She and her friend, both beautiful Japanese girls dressed to the nines (heels, makeup, the works) were peering concernedly at me. "I'm a little lost" I responded. "I want to go to the Nishijin center but I don't know what bus to take." They looked at my map, my wet hair and shoes, and took pity on me for sure. Before I knew it I was in the car of one girl's grandfather, who kindly picked us up an drove me straight to Nishijin. He must have been about a hundred years old and he talked to me very politely in old man speak, which I understood about 0% of, while the girls talked to me in normal Japanese about their lives. Before I knew it I was at my destination and the girls went on about their way. It was more than I could have hoped for. Life is full of unexpected surprises and extremely kind people.

Nishijin was, well . . . I have mixed emotions. I was so happy to get there and so thankful for the help I had received. But rather than a museum or a historical monument as I had expected, it turned out to be a little more like a tourist trap. They had "kimono runway shows" every couple of hours and sold many fabric things with traditional Japanese designs.

However, if you looked closely the affordable things were not actually Nishijin; that's right, they were made in China. I was dissappointed by the quality of a lot the goods there. HOWEVER there were people on looms making traditional woven textiles, complete with the hundreds and hundreds of tiny skeins of silk thread and vast, complicated designs. I got to to try out some weaving too. That was really enjoyable, although it as well was just a simple shuttle loom and wool thread.

Maybe there is a better Nishijin museum around Kyoto somewhere, and I just somehow got sucked in to this one. However we just have to make the best of things, and I had to enjoy my time there for what it was.
Plus, I mad a pretty sweet table runner. That has to count for something, right?

My next stop was Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺. Now, here's a quiz for all you guys. "KIN" means gold, and kaku-ji means temple/pavilion, and therefore Kinkaku-ji is a golden pavilion. So if "GIN" means silver then what color do you think Ginkaku-ji is?

If you guess silver then you are sadly mistaken, but if you guessed a dirty white then you would be correct. Apparently the guy who started building it died before he could front the cash to cover it in silver foil as he had wanted, and his successors didn't feel the need to pick up where he left off. This temple is supposed to be a good example of the wabi sabi aesthetic, "meaning art and beauty that pervades all things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete". In other words: a rough beauty that imitates nature.
I usually like wabi sabi but I think I would have liked a temple made of silver better. But the temple grounds definitely made the trip worth it for me Ginkakuji is famous for its beautiful sand gardens. Many Zen gardens are actually just made of little rocks that can be swept into interesting patterns. On the left you can see the temple's interpretation of Mt. Fuji. How did they make the pebbles stay like that????? Cool.
After Ginkakuji all I wanted to do was get warm and dry. So I went back to the train station, ordered a big bowl of nabe (Japanese stew) and a glass of plum wine, and waited for my bus home in style.

My stay in Kyoto was wet, cold, and grey.
But, rather than saying the rain detracted from my trip, I'd like to think it just made the whole atmosphere especially wabi-sabi.
Next time, bring an umbrella!

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