Adventures in Kyoto and Beyond
Our bike tour had given us a glimpse of Tofuku-ji Temple but no chance to explore. With osmosed interest in its gardens and a recommendation from Ray to return, we went and did exactly that. The temple was a verdant respite from a hot day, a sprawl of walkways and buildings seemingly tucked high up in the mountains despite being right in the city. The gardens lived up to their iconic repute – a lovely rock formation and finely raked sand, various forms of cultivated moss and an exhibit of the same including terrarium bowls and and what I suppose might be termed a 3D painting.
On the way back, Spousal Unit found a vegan restaurant where I enjoyed a Kyoto craft brewski and the regional tradition of obanzai – a judiciously portioned variety of homestyle food featuring local ingredients, though of course plant-based in this incarnation. The Namco Arcade atop of the Aeon Mall near Kyoto Station sounded suitably bonkers and very much was, from size and variety of claw machine snacks and toys and Dragon Quest themed phone chargers to full lanes of rhythm games and virtual reality experiences that rather felt a bit much for an afternoon’s lark.
After a nap and some green tea and cranberry Kit Kats – picked up for novelty’s sake and legitimately delicious – it was time for dinner. We had repeatedly walked by a place in Kyoto Station offering a skillet dish called Japanese pizza. The pizza – an egg and flour pancake cooked on a griddle and loaded with green onions, diced purple gelatinous root vegetables, and some other flavors but nothing meaty I could reckon – was delightfully indulgent, as were the banana cheesecake crepe and banana milk tea we decided to split afterward.
Fushimi Inari Fire Festival
The Fushimi Inari Fire Festival was a brainstorm of Nicola’s and a more the merrier activity – with the much missed exception of Anna, who was taking a well needed day to recover from her late nights of wedding preparation. For the sake of expediency, we took the train across Kyoto to meet Nicola, Tom, and Claire, a good friend of theirs enjoying her own travel agenda.
Fushimi Inari was incredibly hot and unsurprisingly packed, though the festival crowds diminished with altitude as we climbed the mountain to see countless arrangements of torii from the towering to the palm sized, all sponsored by various businesses and organizations to offset the expense of their upkeep. Back at base level, we only caught glimpses of the white-clad priests and the ceremonial burning of offerings, but still felt the gravity and grandeur of witnessing such a meaningful shared experience.
Sufficiently sun-roasted and mosquito-bitten, we chose the Namco Arcade over staying around for the evening events. Spousal Unit won me a claw machine Dragon Quest slime, which I had made a token effort toward earlier, while I squeezed into House of the Dead with Nicola and Claire. After they beat the game with a spot on the leaderboard, we then squished into a photo booth with surprisingly effective algorithms to smooth skin, tint lips, widen eyes, and locate heads for addition of devil horns and other such doodads in the crucial step of customization – which Nicola and Claire had infinitely more imagination for than I did, and as a plus one in a booth for two, I was happy to leave them to.
Spousal Unit and I agreed to form a foursome with the horror fans for a virtual reality game involving a wheelchair-powered hospital escape, which I insisted I would be awful at but no one else seemed to mind. It turned out to be jump scares on rails featuring flashlight-averse zombies, more blurry and awkward than unnerving. I somehow passed through a pile of buzz saws that had swung out when I tripped a laser, then traversed a bland maze of corridors that Spousal Unit and Nicola guided me and Claire through over headsets. I popped out in the room they were trapped in – as had Claire’s headset, leaving her without direction to come in and help me with some switches, and we were all decapitated shortly thereafter. It was about the disappointing price point to entertainment ratio I expected, though Nicola’s genuine screams over mic very much made up for the cost of admission.
Next up was my first taste of okonomiyaki, a savory cabbage pancake whose particulars vary per region. Nicola and Tom found a small place nearby with a rice and cheese version for Claire and shrimp without the generally ubiquitous pork for me, all served sizzling on our heated table in the cozy upstairs. Thus fueled – and wined, as Nicola and I split a bottle of red – we were off to a karaoke place with equally massive selections of English language songs and unlimited booze. Likewise unlimited Pepsi Max and the mountain of 7-Eleven snacks I demolished back at the guest house went a ways toward preventing the challenges of recovery that had Nicola enjoying an all you can eat feast at Sweets Paradise the morning after.
Prevention wasn’t quite a cure, and forecasted thunderstorms had us doubly set for a lazy morning and freeform day. We ended up having a wander through our now habitual shopping streets and more arcades nearby, fascinated by the variety of elaborate rhythm games and teenagers top ranking them with warp speed precision of movement. Arcades have been long since gone from our town and many other places back home in general. I was both nostalgic over the atmosphere and baffled like a time traveler at this latest and greatest, though multiplayer tabletop Bomberman and what looked to be physical Pong pinged some of that old school cool for real. I was also very much up for a dinnertime hike back across town for a massive bowl of vegan ramen at Kyoto Engine – eagerly exclaimed over due to the rarity of pork-free broth and well worth the effort of hauling ourselves so far out of the way to enjoy it.
This morning was Spousal Unit’s turn to recover from ramen spice that somehow failed to do a number on me when I’m the one who typically has lesser tolerance for the hot stuff. He was unaffected by the big can of Strong Zero picked up after dinner although I call him Captain Halfabeer for good reason. I had insisted I would be telling him so about fifteen minutes after he chugged a pint and change of 9% alcohol fizzy lifting drink, but apparently this is the one form of booze that bounces off his liver instead of suplexing it.
We found lunch en route to the shrine where we would glimpse Anna and Toshi in their formal wear – long straight hair and blackened teeth for her, tailed kanmuri hat and upcurved shoes for him, both in multitudes of long trailing layers requiring helpers to arrange and handle and eventually bundle up. To our utter surprise and delight and honor, we were on the small guest list for their Shinto ceremony, a rite of purification and exchange of sake – which, like the fire festival traditions, struck that universal note of reverence transcending unfamiliarity with both culture and language.
After photos, we passed the time to the nearby reception with coffee, phone games, and a shared pudding. Dinner featured maiko dancing to live shamisen, a brief video of the happy couple’s history and a live musical duet, a video call with Anna’s parents and a likewise performance from them, and of course a long lineup for well wishes. Eight years of separation and the sheer beauty of the event resulted in a whole load of bawling in Anna’s arms and excitement for her eventual trip back to see us and other friends and family. We also enjoyed a case of Penn State Small World Syndrome as we chatted with Amy and Drew, two more of Anna’s friends from our same general circle.
After the wedding was another day of Chill Morning Do What Now. We decided to trundle over to another temple on the common list of must sees that was under construction but reportedly still worthwhile. Which it was for the view of the city, the enormity of its complex, the dense and winding shopping streets nearby, and the workout of all those slopes and stairs. The scaffolding was traditional bamboo, the construction being done with historic techniques. Omen Udon, enjoyed on the walk back across town, very much lived up to its delicious repute.
We had thought to visit Hiroshima the day after. Between forecasted rain and Anna’s last day of vacation, we were instead off to Nara for epic chill time fueled by cherry liqueur-spiked Coke Zero and leftover wedding cake, a layered confection of colorful sweet bean paste. Anna had acquired a copy of the original Dynasty Warriors fighting game – one heck of a relic and very much relevant to certain of our shared interests – which we spent a while trying to get into some functional state and succeeded well enough at for amusement.