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What I know of stillness (Day 2, Part 1)

It hasn’t been lost on me that it’s been over a year since this very Japan trip I’m taking my leisurely time to jot down. You can let fly your figurative tomatoes–I probably deserve them (besides, I’ve been meaning to try my hand at shakshuka, so if you could lob some good ripe ones in my direction it’ll save me a trip to the grocery store).

I have been feeling very February lately, regardless of the fact that it’s gonna be May–the dregs of January still sit heavy at the bottom of these warming days. That is to say I am all static and haze–the kind of restless you can still feel long after you’ve tried shaking it off (think pond weeds, or the dance you did as a child when you were poking around in the garden and accidentally touched an earthworm). But I’m putting my hopes on the softness and warmth still to come (metaphorically and not so much temperature-wise)–I need to believe that.

(And I hope you believe it too, wherever you are in the world, if you need it. We’ll believe together, if you’re in need of a buddy for this kind of thing.)

Anywho, back to our erratically scheduled, will-I-ever-find-consistency-for-this-series Japan trip!


We woke up the morning after swallowed in gold. I had stretched my arm out sometime in the night (those beds were so warm, almost unbearably so, and part of me wanted to roll out from under the covers entirely if it weren’t the most comfortable thing I’d ever slept in) and my skin drank so fully of that light that I finally understood, intimately, the feline appeal of spending hours and hours sitting on a windowsill.

The spell was broken by my mother. I had managed to extract myself at some point and was washing up in the bathroom when what could only be described as a Crisis reached my sleep-muted ears: a frantic crescendo of uncharacteristic complaints in the bedroom. Mum had slid open the window screens and was gesturing animatedly, “It’s so dusty outside! Why is it so DUSTY??” Toothbrush still in hand, I moseyed over, and glanced outside.

It was snowing.

Though “snowing” might have been giving the outdoors goings-on too much credit–the most unremarkable flurry of flakes drifted by our window, a handful no larger than your typical dust mote. But my mother, in all her years, had never seen snow fall. We’ve taken day trips up to the mountains in the past–Big Bear and Palm springs–but the snow in those cases had long fallen and all we had to do was frolic.

I didn’t know a person could move that quickly. No sooner had I made that snow-not-dust revelation than Mum had pulled on her puffiest coat and was halfway out the door into the hallway.

I followed her outside the ryokan and, well… I’d forgotten that nearly everyone in our tour was from California. A dozen adults cavorting about the empty parking lot at first light, my mum beckoning me to take photos (“You can’t even see the snow, mom, there’s so little of it.” “It doesn’t matter!”)–it was a perfect, joyous moment in a trip defined by perfect, joyous moments.

The Biwako Hanakaido isn’t very large and the rooms are–to my knowledge–always quickly booked, but even so it felt like our group of 20-something were the only ones there aside from the staff. We headed down to the banquet hall at 7:30am for breakfast and it was so quiet. It was the kind of calm that most people fantasize about when they sink their heads into their hands and groan about needing to “get away”. I stopped once, maybe twice, for a bow and “ohayou gozaimasu” as one of the ryokan staff rounded a corner, but otherwise the only disturbance was the muffled scuff of my own feet. I’d never felt so light in my life.

Our kaiseki dinner the night before, while extensive, wasn’t something that left us nursing a morning after, residual food brick in our guts, so we were all eager for whatever the Hanakaido had planned. I briefly touched on washoku cooking earlier in this series, but since then, Elizabeth Andoh’s cookbook of the same name has made its way into my little collection. As far as an incredibly thorough English-language resource on traditional Japanese cuisine goes… I’m 40-ish pages in and still engrossed in a catalog of commonly used sea vegetables (hijiki, kombu, wakame)–I haven’t even seen a recipe yet!

The philosophy and practice of washoku can best be summarized by a set of five principles that describe how to achieve nutritional balance and aesthetic harmony at mealtime. The first three principles–one each concerning color, flavor palate, and choice of cooking method–deal with the practical considerations of food preparation. The fourth principle defines the sensual nature of food–that is, the need for food to appeal to all the five senses, not just taste and smell. The final principle, which is more spiritual and philosophic, compels us to appreciate both human endeavor and the natural forces that provide for us. 

– Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh (x)

Gone were the yukata we had donned for dinner; we were all in our street clothes and preparing for our drive back to Kyoto proper. Breakfast had already been laid out for us–each seat was arranged with a spread as meticulous as the night before–and what I thought was the most ornate bowl I’d ever seen in my life (crimped and flared with eyelets at the corners) turned out to be our kami-nabe tofu (yudofu), the [completely dry] paper pot miraculously impervious to the flame that waved underneath it. Kami-nabe pots are made from specially coated washi paper (the same material used in traditional arts the likes of origami) that prevent them from burning. There was a minute spent ogling the science of the thing, after which my priorities won over and I was gingerly fishing out the soft cubes and dipping them into a blue-rimmed dish of ponzu scattered with flecks of sesame.

Sidebar: I love tofu. The general populace’s (here in the U.S.) preoccupation with processing it beyond recognition baffles me. A skillet of stuffed tofu is a common sight on our dinner rotation at home: sliced rectangles first submerged in a pot of hot salted water off the boil to firm them up and give them just enough flavor (they brown up wonderfully as well), individual pockets hollowed out with a spoon and filled with a mixture of ground meat, ginger, and scallions–gently fried on both sides and then simmered through until cooked. Bowlfuls of sweet doufu hua generously covered with a ginger-spiked syrup. In college, when the pickings in my fridge got thin and the nights got long, I made rice with a side of miso soup, dropping in what tofu was leftover from the box I’d purchased earlier in the week, and savored the two over tomes of Puritan era poetry (religion and deceased relatives, with little exception, if you were curious) until the bowl was almost cold.

But it doesn’t take much investigative work to know that the tofu situation in the States is dire: if it’s not an oily block of rubber fried within an inch of its life, it’s regarded as the tasteless go-to protein lump, always playing second fiddle. In Kyoto, however, tofu in its many forms is allowed to be its boundless self–cooked in every possible way, with equal joy given to the unassuming chilled cube as the multi-course meals I can only dream of experiencing one day. What I thought I knew before was all a sham: I really, really love tofu.


Our second night in Kyoto would be spent at a hotel in the city center, so it was with wistful glances and a few slumped shoulders that we left the Biwako Hanakaido after breakfast. The head staff lined up on the drive to see us off, waving until our bus had rounded the corner and retreated downhill.

The drive back to the city and our first stop of the day–Kiyomizu-dera Temple, nestled in the forested hills of eastern Kyoto–took us just shy of an hour. As we wound through what little traffic there was that early, it seemed the city rustled and roused itself alongside us into that February morning: a pair of women waited for a crossing light, gold-threaded obi catching the late winter sun, while a handful of other pedestrians disappeared behind the swinging doors of open shops.

We parked at the bottom of the slope, adjacent to a cheerfully-coloured reception party (that dispensed hot and cold drinks!).

Before we even caught a glimpse of Kiyomizu-dera’s main hall through the winter-stripped branches of the surrounding woods, we were greeted by the approach. The Higashiyama District–one of the city’s most well-preserved historic areas–winds across the foot of these low mountains. Traditional machiya flank narrow lanes, burnished roofs of dark baked tile dotted across the hills as naturally as stone or tree. During sakura season (around early April) and the autumn months I imagine you’d be hard put to see a single street under the crushing sea of visitors–a good friend of mine visited last April and said she’d never been to a more crowded temple in her life!–but for us it was sun-dappled, and quiet enough to hear the flutter of fabric caught on a passing breeze.

It was a brief 15 minute walk along the fairly steep main road leading to the temple gate. Yuri (our guide; it’s been months since my last post, so I don’t blame you for forgetting!) pointed out shops as we walked: here was some of the best matcha ice cream in the area (we absolutely could not leave without having some), there one of the many specialty sweets halls.

(And over there a doughnut sat on the eaves above an ice cream cart and flexed its arms in triumph; I wish I had the je ne sais quoi of that pastry)

Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, which literally translates into “Clear/Pure Water Temple”) has maintained its celebrated place on Mt. Otowa and in Japanese history for 1200 years and counting under the stewardship of the Kita-Hosso sect of Nara Buddhism. Since its founding in 778, it has weathered no less than ten fires and a civil war, but has been rebuilt and refurbished and rebuilt again. There are some 30 Buddhist buildings spread out across the temple grounds, but a number of them are currently inaccessible/obstructed for renovation (it hardly felt like it made an overwhelming impact when we visited, but that might change over the years as some of the more prominent buildings are due their R&R).

The focal point of the temple grounds is–all puns intended–the main stage which juts out from the hondo, the Main Hall (featured photo at the top of this post), within which a statue of the Eleven-faced, Thousand-armed Kannon (the Buddhist god of mercy and benevolence) is enshrined. The Kiyomizu Stage stands nearly four stories high (~13 meters / 42.7 feet): 18 pillars carved from zelkova trees hundreds of years old lift the venerable space above the cliffs below and a number of supporting rails give the entire structure the strength to withstand all the foot traffic (tourists, pilgrims, et al.) and natural disasters it has. All this, done without a single nail!

A proverb, however alarming, whose specific origins are up for debate because the site quoted didn’t get into much detail:

The expression “to jump off the porch at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge.” This refers to an Edo period tradition that held that, if one were to survive plunging from the terrace, one’s wish would be granted. 234 jumps were recorded in the Edo period and of those, 85.4% survived. {x}

I could see for miles, miles, miles from the furthest corner of that stage–out until the Kyoto cityscape blurred into blue-grey mountains. I’m as prone to hyperbole as the next person–“awesome!” this and “awesome!” that–but standing there in between thatched roof and open air, it was certainly as close to the word as I’ve ever been.

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Nio-mon, the main entrance to Kiyomizu-dera. There’s no angle that can quite capture how this two-story gate towers.

My mother is not without her machinations. DO NOT, for a second, let her collection of soft sweaters and her addiction to WeChat deceive you. When we felt ready to continue on from the main hall, she nudged me towards a set of stairs and through an unassuming stone torii, as casual as can be. We were surrounded by a cluster of small buildings around an open square and there were only a handful of people there… several giggling school girls and a couple bowed in quiet conversation.

Then I saw a sign.

The literal sign:

LOVE STONE
This stone is called “Love-fortune-telling” stone. If you walk safely from this stone to the other with your eyes closed. for once, your wish’ll be granted soon. If you can’t, it will be long before your love is realized. And it is said taking advice requires you to have someone who’ll help you achieve your love.

 Jishu Shrine, behind Kiyomizu-dera’s main hall, is dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking, which explained the giggling school girls, and the couple, and my mum looking juuuust a hair disappointed when I refused to put my romantic life at the whim of some very powerful rocks. I did grudgingly tug on one of the bells in front of the main shrine, so I’m thinking that’s enough good fortune for a cozy date in my future, for lack of a full-blown wish granting?

We had two or so hours until lunch, so lured by the sight of seats and sweet smells, we ducked into a little wooden cottage along the path below the main hall. One of the families from our group (we had gotten pretty chummy–my mother translated what Mandarin I couldn’t catch of Yuri’s talks for me and I, in turn, translated that into English for their son and his fiancée) had already been seated and they waved us over to their table. We were quickly served what everyone else seemed to be having: Japanese red bean soup (zenzai) and a cup of hot tea.

What is it about tea, omnipresent tea? In Morocco it was mint, heavily sweetened and poured often. A little embrace in a cup, an exchange of trust between strangers; I’m always grateful–the stuff runs in my veins (right alongside soup noodles).

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Was it the brisk morning that made it even more splendid? It was less sweet than its Chinese counterpart (what I’m more familiar with) and each bowl came with two rice flour dumplings (shiratama dango). The perfect thing to tide us over until lunch, with the added bonus of getting to poke around my teeth afterwards for stray red bean nubs.

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We had an hour and a half to ourselves after walking the temple grounds to browse the surrounding area. The main drag of shops and cafes we’d approached Kiyomizu-dera on had livened since the morning hours. I went from store to store, wistfully contemplating a shelf of  delicate sakura and carp-shaped chopstick rests here, sampling seaweed candies (a touch sweet, but mostly ocean-y in a way that probably wouldn’t thrill everybody; I enjoyed them) from a corner stand there.

The breadth of edible souvenirs offered in Kyoto is staggering–pickles, dried fish, green tea cookies–but yatsuhashi (another member of the mochi family) are one of the most popular sweets. Boxed and wrapped in colourful printed paper, they’re emblematic of a visit to the city and available in two basic forms:

  1. Yaki yatsuhashi — a dense, hard cookie baked from a mixture of rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon; I didn’t try any of these myself.
  2. Nama yatsuhashi — “raw” yatsuhashi; the dough is steamed without baking and cut into soft mouthfuls, typically wrapped around a sweet red bean filling; it’s by far the more popular variation and the most common flavors you’ll find are cinnamon, green tea, and black sesame (though I did see several strawberry-flavored boxes at the Kansai Airport while we were waiting for our departing flight).
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Nama yatsuhashi samples at one of the many stores on the road leading down from Kiyomizu-dera, perfect with a mug of tea. We saved our stockpiling for our last few hours at the airport 🙂 

The Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka Preserved Districts branch off from the main road, two gently sloping, handsome lanes leading deeper into Higashiyama (and quite possibly its most beautiful). There wasn’t a telephone line in sight overhead and sandwiched between teahouses, pottery shops, and pickle barrels, passing locals dressed in their subdued temple best, it was like a breath of the old capital, if you held still.

I freely admit that my remembrances of this entire, all-too-brief trip might err on the side of exceedingly rose-coloured but you must understand: it was in the high 30s (my ideal temperature), the sunshine was soft, and I was booted and scarved; the taste of red bean soup still lingered on my tongue if I smacked my lips enough; my heart had leapt forward into blind love the moment I’d seen those Tokyo lights smear past my rain-streaked bus window.

A matcha made in heaven. Japanese cuisine is my favourite in the world, without question, and I could eat it for the rest of my life and never be happier. If I were to single out my favourite flavor profile from the sweeter side of things? Matcha. Matcha, matcha, matcha. A quality matcha anything is the way to my heart and this perfectly swirled and swooped cone was bliss.

Our itinerary had originally listed Japanese-style pasta as our lunch stop for that day, but due to some last-minute changes we found ourselves on a quiet side street off the base of the main road, in a place whose name escapes me. It wasn’t a restaurant so much as it was the kind of venue you might book for a wedding reception–high ceilings, table settings that had me sweating (is that the salad fork? the entrée fork? or the dessert fork??), a rock garden beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. It was the most Western-influenced meal we had that week, but no less care was taken with the distinctly Japanese touches (not to mention the exceptional wait staff and the coffee–I’m not even a coffee person!):

 

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About the Author

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Give me a curtain call, a flaky pastry, and put me on the next flight to Somewhere, Anywhere and I couldn't be happier. Heyo! I'm Julia, green tea-drinking extraordinaire and avid muser based in the United States, but always following my nose and my taste buds to the next destination.

3 Comments

  1. It has taken me entirely too long to comment – but on the plus side, there’s been a line of poetry in my browser’s tabs and a stunning photo when I switched to it for the past week.

    Speaking of the photos, first of all – light! You have the eye for it, the shadows across that vending machine are gorgeous. And the shadows in the street photos, too. The use of negative space against the buildings – gosh.

    As a side note, the way the architecture seems to fold in on itself throughout those streets gives it a very lovely air. Like, you as a viewer are standing on the edge of something full and welcoming – it’s just waiting for you to go forward.

    Furthermore, that matcha photo may as well be an advertisement. That color is incredible.

    Your language, as always, is like a well loved favorite novel. The kind you have to pause to take in the scent of before you settle into reading, sun soaked and contented. I mean, “my skin drank so fully of that light that I finally understood, intimately, the feline appeal of spending hours and hours sitting on a windowsill.” Come on, lady.

    It is absolutely wonderful that you can see the golden light in that photo. Your mother’s reaction sounds absolutely adorable (it makes me a little sad, though, that inability to take a photo of something so clearly before you because it won’t show up – or show up /well/ I suppose – on film).

    Another slight sidebar in reference to your own: I have never had tofu. There was a vegan option at the conference I was at last week, which was an assortment of vegetables and a pair of tofu squares. The girl who received said meal was very saddened by the lack of anything being done with the tofu – no sauce, no flavor beyond just, literally, a block. That’s pretty much the extent of what I can relate to insofar as tofu is concerned.

    Moving on. History, history, temples, and signs – that sounds like something wonderful. The appeal of non traditional tourist time frames for visiting hot spots is overwhelming – I’m glad you got to go at such a time. (Especially one as ideal as this clearly was!)

    Also – flowers on a plate! What! They look fantastic, though, I trust your taste buds.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ahh your words fill me with such warmth 😊. They’re so beautiful and musical! Your photos are also sooo lovely, it fills my heart with ache. Any chance you remember the name of the Western restaurant?

    Like

    • Pfhhhhhh, stop ♥ I don’t, which is the sad part. It wasn’t an everyday restaurant, I don’t think? More like a banquet/reception hall for special events.

      Like

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