The Last Yushoku

We met Rob, the owner of our Kyoto home, on our first day in Kyoto. It was a brief meeting because we were on our way our for the day and he had students from Princeton arriving to see the house. Rob is a larger than life character wearing a coat and tie on most days. but was dressed down with just a summer jacket in deference to the heat. He seemed distracted when we met him, probably because he was expecting to meet students not tourists. He asked how we liked the house and told us we should crank up the air conditioning. It is fair to say I liked him right away. I was glad a couple days later when he and Janet worked out having dinner together on our last night in Japan.

He met us at the house at 5:30, on time, which Janet claims is unusual and I find easy to believe. It is also easy to believe that Rob is a fixture in this Kyoto neighborhood. He told us that he originally was going to take us to someplace that had “very Japanese food,” but that with the kids he would take us somewhere with more normal food. We walked less than ten minutes and arrived at a place called Bamboo. They clearly knew Rob and led us all back to a private room. They tried to bring us menus, but Rob gave them back telling them to just bring us a variety of things, but nothing too unusual. I’ll see if I can remember the order of the dishes. First they brought out individual western salads with a few leaves of lettuce and a cherry tomato. Very refreshing. Next I think was a Japanese salad of some sort with an unusual neon green, bubbled seaweed in it that looked like it was from another planet. It sort of popped in your mouth, but it didn’t have a strong flavor.

There was some sashimi, tempura, some fried chicken dish, and some beef cubes that melted in your mouth. The dish that stole the show was a platter of little crabs that had been deep fried.

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Even Rob was surprised by this dish and he said that the chef was playing a joke on him because he asked for nothing too weird. I was game and popped one in my mouth right away. It was salty and crunchy sort of like a potato chip, although more like you might imagine a fried cricket would taste.

Everyone except Sarah tried one eventually and she probably would have worked up the nerve, but we had already eaten all of them. Melanie and Michael both broke off the legs first to make it seem less weird.

While the food was served Rob regaled us with stories of the movie he is working on, his travels, his phobias, and with some culinary and historical facts about Japan, Kyoto, and the Gion Matsuri. He also gave us a great way to get back to the airport which worked very well for us the next day. After about an hour and a half he apologized, but said that he had to go and meat someone for his second dinner. He told us that “everthing was taken care of” and that there would be some more dishes coming. We had one more shrimp dish after he left just to be polite, but most of us were quite full by this time.

The kids were not so full that we managed to skip our now nightly Lawson’s trip for ice cream and breakfast pastries.

More random stuff I don’t want to forget

The story about Fuji focuses a lot on the getting dark part, but until we realized the climb down was going to take a long time we were having fun climbing a mountain. It wasn’t easy, but it was something new for both of the girls and I was enjoying making for the top for the second time in my life. We got some great pictures that i’ll post eventually. Also it was on the Fuji climb that I remembered I liked Pocari Sweat. I am going to have to look for that in the States.

Our first evening in Kyoto, before we had done anything in that city, the girls confessed that they thought two weeks was too long for a vacation. They didn’t use the words, “We want to go home,” but that is what it sounded like to me. A few nights before this Melanie was lamenting the forced time we all had to spend together. Being a fellow introvert I could relate, but I was not minding it at all. I was enjoying most of the extra time with My family. The climb down Fuji is something Sarah and I will always share. Also for a couple nights in the hotels we had three rooms with three double beds. It worked out that Michael and I were roommates for those two nights and we didn’t do much other than read and sleep, but it was fun. I got to know each of the kids a little better on this trip. Even having the girls agree abut the trip being too long was a moment I appreciated.

Meals where tough at times. There was a lot of strange food for everyone culminating with the whole little crabs we ate on the last night. An army travels on it’s stomach and when there are this many people involved we had to try and remember to eat before we got hungry. If you are by yourself you can skip a meal or two, but with the whole family there was always going to be someone hitting a point of low blood sugar. Michael probably had the hardest time and he acted out more than once when the options available looked like noodles with squid. We could usually find something for everyone once we went in to a place and sat down, but in the end everyone was tired of noodles and we never really liked the squid. Sarah did not find too any things that she liked, but she was always willing to at least try a little nibble. It was easy to forget that Michael had spent a week in China eating weird things before we got to Japan. I enjoyed the food in Japan which is probably evident for the blog posts, but I’m planning next weeks menu to be the following: Pizza, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Spaghetti, Tacos, Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, hamburgers, Mac-n-cheese, and waffles.

It needs to be said that we couldn’t have done any of the things we did on this trip without all of Kira’s planning. She figured out all of the hotels, trains, planes, and automobiles. I tell myself that she is just better at those kinds of things, but that is a pretty weak excuse when compared to the amount of work she did. Thank you, dear!

There were several times that I wish my folks had been with us on this trip. For starters my dad is fairly fluent in Japanese. He may deny that if you ask him, but the few words I know all came back to me so I am guessing the same would have happened for him. A lot of my memories in Tokyo start with my family – even if they think I was never at home. Every first impression I had of Japan was with them. From thinking the tiny coke cans were weird when our taxi driver got us drinks on our first day there, to going out to ASIJ for the first time, to climbing Fuji. I like to believe that my mom and dad got some joy out of the assignment in Tokyo, but I know that it was a life altering event for me and I should probably thank them for it more often.

Ice coffee. Good Ice coffee is everywhere in Japan, why don’t we have this? Going along with this, why don’t we have the sugar syrup to put in old drinks. Everywhere we went had this as well.

Tofu on the Rocks

Kyoto, Day 3 cont.

After the parade we hopped on a train to go see a shrine. This was different because they had a famous rock garden. I the shrine, which was a rare combination of no to shoes,but yes to photos there is a rock garden with 11 rocks in it placed by an artist 600 years ago. It doesn’t sound very impressive, but it is quite an interesting sight and a very recognizable image. In addition to the rock garden there was a pond and a mossy forest. The moss covered ground looked like it was out of a fairy tale.

We had our penultimate lunch at the restaurant located at the shrine which serves only me dish. The dish was quit good and everyone tried a little bit. They brought out a large bowl of boiled tofu and we each had our own bowl of spices mixed with soy sauce. We took a piece of tofu and dipped it in the spices. It was delicious and I ate way too much of it. The tofu was just a vehicle for the spice. In fact when Kira and I ran out of tofu at our table we started dipping our rice I the spices. The food , while good, actually tales a back door to the scenery. The restaurant is located on the edge of a pond and we sat on the floor with ground level windows showing us the water garden. Best view during any of our many meals in Japan.

There was envy of a walk out of the shrine that we stopped to get ice cream and shaved ice near the exit. This is not true at all, but I wanted to get shaved ice me last time before we left. They also served ice cream here and everyone else chose that while Kira and I shared a strawberry shaved ice. It was not quite as good as the one I had in Kurashiki, but it was very refreshing. Melanie ordered the black sesame ice cream and I had a little bit as well. It is an odd flavor, but good.

We went back to our Kyoto house for a siesta and to pack. We had sort of exploded all over the small house and needed to get everything back in suitcases for the trip home.

Our last dinner in Tokyo is a story into itself. A good one, but deserving of its own post.

The Slow Parade

Kyoto, Day 3

After the mass of people the night before we were not too sure about the logistics for watching the parade. We decided to go with our original plan of walking over to a section of the parade route about an hour before the floats would arrive. This meant an earlier morning than the last couple days. We were up and put at around 8:30.

Even with a stop at Starbucks on the way we somehow managed to arrive at the route at the exact perfect time. We got places right along the street which all filled up within 10 minutes. We had to wait for another 10-15 minutes before we could see the first float and probably another half an hour before it reached us.

I am not entirely sure, but I think Gion Matsuri translates to mean “the slow parade.” The huge elaborate floats with a couple dozen people residing them and making music are pulled by hand. The floats are so tall they have trucks ahead of them moving the traffic lights out of the way. Sitting at the front of the first float was a yang boy wearing white makeup and a kimono with long sleeves that were draped over the front of the float.

We were positioned near a water stop so each of the floats would stop about 20 ft before it got to us and all of the rope pullers and parade walkers would get a drink of water. There were people riding on the roofs of the floats and we saw them pulling up a bag on a rope with what was probably drinks in it.

When the rope pullers stopped they would not put the ropes down right away, but rather hold them up for everyone to walk under. If the rope did get put down and someone had not made it across to the water yet he would lift the rope and walk under rather than step over. I am sure there is some significance for this, but we never learned it.

After the first big float pulled by probably 30-40 men there were a few smaller floats pulled by a handful of people. We stayed to see Three of the big floats before we called it a day. It was starting to get hot out and some of us had been standing for about 2 hours. Michael sat on the ground after the first float and ignored the parade while listening to my iPod.

We didn’t realize at first, but we had positioned ourselves in front of a curry shop and after a while a man came out selling bowls of chicken curry and had bucket of ice with beers in it. It was only 10:30 in the morning, but I was tempted to get one of the beers because they looked so cold. If he had been selling soda he probably would have sold out in minutes.

Torii, Torii, Torii

Kyoto, Day 2

Another slow morning with some toast and jam for breakfast on our Kyoto house. The previous guests left a jar of blueberry jam and orange marmalade. We bought bread at the convenience store around the corner. The kids all loved the bread. It was good quality and very thick. We bought three loaves while we stayed here. Each loaf had five slices of inch thick bread that could really only be destined for toast. A sandwich made from this bread would require a reticulating jaw.

Our destination today was another Shinto shrine. This one had over 10,000 Torii gates. The shrine is dedicated to the goddess of rice and in the shogun days rice was money. Merchants would come to the shrine and donate the Torii gates to bring them good fortune. They gates are lined up along a path that visitors can walk and the site is quite spectacular. We got some amazing photographs and will try and add some to this post later. We started on the path and finally turned off to go back to the start when we reached a sign that said it would take us 54 more minutes to reach the top. First off we knew they were lying and secondly we had already climbed a mountain this week. The path back was not nearly as pretty, but it did have the added bonus of a cat sleeping in one of the shrines.

For lunch we found yet another noodle shop and our second place where we had to sit on the floor. There was a very kind Nihonjin man sitting at a table across from us and after seeing us struggle for a bit he offered to share his table with Janet. Kira also moved over and I was left to let my legs fall asleep with the kids. I did have the corner with good back support so it wasn’t as bad as I make it sound. I had the Tempura Udon and while the noodles were typical it came with a tempura jalapeño which was delicious. Max got the same thing so I got to eat his first. I left mine until the end and it gave the broth a peppery taste that was very nice.

The afternoon’s activities were very subdued. We headed over to a three story international craft and souvenir store close to our Kyoto house. A large part of the first floor was books inEnglish about Japan, both fiction and nonfiction. The store was not very exceptional but it did sort of have everything none place. We were able to pick up quite a few items for folks back home and a couple small things for ourselves.

The walk back for the store to our Kyoto house took us by another shrine that we did not go in, but it is marked by a single Tori gate that is larger than any of the ones we had seen that morning. I managed to get a picture with Sarah standing next to it which shows how big the gate was. If I had to guess I would say it was over 50 feet high.

Another siesta before heading out to dinner. We had made it a light day of shopping because we planned on going out to view the parade floats after dinner. We are in Kyoto during Gion Matsuri, which is one of the longest running or possibly the oldest festival in Japan. We found a great place for dinner with a wide menu and lots of English that allowed us to order separate dishes for Max, Sarah and Janet, while Kira, Mel and I all shared a huge plate of sushi. Sarah tried the salmon sushi, but raw fish is pretty daunting. Everything they gave us was great except the cuttlefish, which was too chewy. Kira had to spit hers out and I think it took me over 5 minutes to chew mine enough to swallow.

After dinner we went out into the street and Kira armed with a map we received from our previous night’s waitress took us through the crowded streets over to view some of the two story floats that would be in the parade the next day. We passed stall after stall selling foods and drinks and desserts. It occurred to me that we could have skipped the restaurant and just snacked our way over to the floats.

After some readjusting once Kira realized that the map wasn’t quite to scale we made it over to the street where the floats were being kept. All of Kyoto was there to see the floats with us. The streets were closed to cars and thronged with people. Police were directing traffic to keep everyone moving along on the left side or we probably would have been stuck in the mass of people. We got a view of the head float and one other before we made our retreat. Kira and Janet figured out how to get back by trains and where the station was (right next to us it turned out) and we headed down. The pele in the subway were just as thick and the noise level was incredible. We got on a train and made our way home. The crowds got hinder as we went and eventually we could hear ourselves think again. We compared the crowds to Times Square on New Year’s Eve and none of us had mentally prepared for that so we were glad to make our escape.

The kids somehow talked us into stopping at the Lawson convenience store for ice cream and we got some more bread for toast the next morning.

Watch Out Your Head

Kyoto, Day 1

We are spending our last four nights in Japan as guests of Janet’s friend, Rob. He is allowing us to stay in a Japanese house that was built in 1860 and is registered as a historical site.

People in Japan 150 years ago were short. Or at least shorter than I am. I have hit my head moving about the house approximately 38 times. I’m hoping there is a point where I don’t even feel it any more, but I haven’t reached it yet.

For our first day in Kyoto we decided to visit a shrine that has 1001 images of the Bhuda or in this case Kannon. We started our day with a search for the local Starbucks and almost failed until we convinced ourselves it was further than we originally thought. About half way there I realized I forgot my wallet so I ran back to get it. I jogged most of the way back to the house and it felt pretty good to be running. It was a good sign that my muscles had recovered from the Fuji climb.

After a couple days of ikemasho-ing all over the place we set a very easy pace for the day and lingered in the air conditioning of Starbucks for a good while. Then to the subway to the train to a taxi to get to the shrine. The grounds around the shrine were very lovely and we got pictures of this, but in addition to not wearing shoes in the shrine we were not allowed to take pictures. What I am saying is, I guess you had to be there. The statues of Kannon were impressive just by the sheer number of them. They are all the same sized an lined up on risers so toucan see the rows behind. There were single statues of lot of other gods; too many to remember really. each one had a sign in English explaining the name and the probable origin from India. In addition to the statues there was quite a bit about archery contests with Japanese longbows, but I was fading by then. The incense and slow movement through the hot building started to get to me and I rushed past the bit about the archery.

We then traveled by taxi to the Nijo castle. Before we went In we had lunch at a noodle shop which distinguished itself from other places by having kittens put in front for the kids to ooh and ahh over.

I was excited about the Nijo castle because one of the attractions was the Nightingale Floor. There is a Japanese fantasy novel titled Across the Nightingale Floor and until Janet mentioned it I had no idea it was based on a actual place. The floor surrounds the sleeping chamber of the emperor or shogun and was built to make a sound no matter where you stepped. This was to prevent assassins from reaching him. We walked on the edges of the floor around the room and I now know why it is called the Nightingale floor. The floor didn’t creak so much as squeak or almost chirp. With everyone walking on it at once it sounded like a flock of birds. The rest of the castle showed the rooms where the Shogun met with his visitors and where he lived and worked. As with the shrine we were not allowed shoes or cameras inside the castle.

We were allowed to take pictures outside and the garden was beautiful. I think I took over 100 pictures here. One of them is sure to be great.

It was late afternoon by the time we got back to out Kyoto house. We all took a siesta and around 6pm Kira and Janet went out to scope out a place for dinner. They wandered pretty far and ended up choosing a place close the the house. By the time they were able to lead us all back there it was closed. We ended up at a very interesting place called Cafe Rose across the street from their original choice. They served a mix of Italian food and Japanese food. The kids all got pasta of some sort. I asked for the curry pilaf, but must have pointed at the wrong item because I got the shrimp pilaf. It was good, but not very exotic. For drinks Michael and Sarah both ordered cream soda. We all sat there wondering why we didn’t get our drinks until after the meal until they brought out the first cream soda. It was a glass of bright green melon soda with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it. Tasty, but not what we were expecting.

There is a Fire on the First Floor

It was a dark and stormy afternoon. Suddenly a bolt of lightening rang out.

The castle is under restoration and most of it is covered by a huge scaffolding/outer building, but as we approached the gates and moat were still very impressive. We wind our way through the outer walls and made it to the main castle where we could take an elevator up to see the roof of the castle and watch them work on the restoration. The line for going up was quite long, but we were here to see the castle and it is a site that won’t be available one the restoration is complete. We waited in line for about an hr and finally got in a regular sized elevator with 10 of our closest friends to ride up the 9 floors. We got out and could see the platform around the roof and we were eye level with the top of the castle.

We could also see out the windows that there was quite the storm happening. We went down the one flight of stairs to the 8th floor and we could see more of the castle from here and more of the storm. This was the landing where we could wait to go down in a much shorter line.

Then there was a bolt of lightening and a large clap of thunder. Everyone in the room sort of held there breath, but things seemed fine, until the fire alarm went off a couple seconds later. There was a Japanese announcement followed by an English announcement in a very calm British recorded voice, “There is a fire. There is a fire on the first floor.”

No one seemed to be panicking and several of the employees seemed to be saying reassuring things to everyone. In Japanese. We got in line for the elevator down and then slowly became aware that they had stopped running the elevators. Makes sense in the event of a fire please use the stairs. While we were waiting a bilingual Japanese tourist came over and told us that the alarm was probably triggered by the storm, but there was no fire. I was wearing my Flash t-shirt that day and the symbol on it looks like a lightening bolt. The same woman who explained that there was no fire pointed at my shirt and said something in Japanese. I’m not sure what she said, but she seemed to be joking that the lightening was my fault. Everyone in the room stared at me so it must have been funny.

I thought we would just have to wait until they decided to start running the elevator again. Then they started ushering everyone towards the stairwell. We climbed down the 7 flights of stairs, those of us still sore from our Fuji climb not really minding. When we got to the bottom we waited for the rain to stop or at least slow down. When it was a soft enough rain we decided to head out and got the surprise of getting a refund.

The rain had cooled things off a little, but we still grabbed some ice cream out of a vending machine on our way back to the station. We joked several times abut the “Fire on the first floor.” as we walked back in the slight rain.

We had some time before we needed to get on the train for Kyoto so we looked around the station for dinner. We ended up getting a hodge podge of things from a Japanese deli. It was probably our worst meal here. It was nourishment. We went and grabbed our bags out of the locker only to realize we had been looking at the wrong schedule. We were already running late to meet with the caretaker for our next lodging and this could potentially delay us another hour. Kira did some quick recalculating and figured if we caught an express we could catch up to a local and cut about a half an hr off the trip. It would require changing trains in only 8 minutes which ended up being plenty of time.

After our two Shinkansen legs we make it to Kyoto. We had to take the subway 5 stops to get out to the houses where we are staying. It was after 8 o’clock and we had hoped to her here by 6 or 7. Luckily the houses are a out 50 ft from the train stigmatizing, unluckily there was a lot of stairs to carry our suitcases up to get out of the subway.

In Kyoto we are staying in a 150 year old Japanese house that is managed/owned by a friend of Janet’s in the art community, Rob. He had someone meet us to get us into the house and show us how things worked. This man who already had to wait an extra hour or so got to witness us start arguing with each other on where we should sleep that night. He went over various things about each location but one again we had arrived not really caring about anything other than our heads hitting the pillow.

The sights of Kyoto would wait until the next day.

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