Adventures in Kyoto and Beyond
Jeff, a colleague of Spousal Unit’s and liaison to a collaborating Japanese company, had commented over social media that he and his partner Kristin were traveling for business and would be in Kyoto at the end of the week. With no plans for the day and mutual interest in particular sightseeing I had hoped to fit in sometime, we arranged to meet up for a brief train ride west to Arashiyama.
First up was the famous bamboo forest towering over the visiting hordes, followed by other highlights chosen by the combined powers of phone and guidebook. Gio-ji, a small temple of moss, was relatively near the tourism epicenter. Not so much Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a long uphill hike through picturesque streets ever sparser of pedestrians and just about deserted near the end of it. I hadn’t known the exact number of laughing Buddhas this temple was famous for, only some talk of an impressive variety, and our first glimpse of heads peppering a hill was fun enough. Then we got a load of all the rest, and they just kept coming – as I later learned, 1200 all told. The peace of the temple, which had just one other couple there along with us, made it all the more rewarding a destination and a quiet respite before the crowds of world heritage site Tenryu-ji.
We wandered off to the Kimono Forest, an exhibit of patterned tubes lit up at night and therefore too late for us to get the full effect, during the wait for our soba restaurant table. I was last to get my shoes off and wondering where the group was seated when Spousal Unit’s arm stuck out of a short unnoticed archway, a discreet rabbit hole to our private room and traditional soba experience, from seasoning our own dipping sauce to enjoying the starchy dregs of its cooking water as an after meal drink.
Thus refreshed, we were up for one last hike to the Iwatayama Monkey Park. A sign at the entrance gave an estimated time to the top of the mountain which proved to be very much accurate. Twenty minutes of stairs and steep trails saw us atop a sprawling view of Kyoto with macaques everywhere, scampering and observing and just plain chilling out. A mother grooming her baby. A little one taking an apple from a visitor in the mesh fenced viewing porch and clambering onto the roof to partake. A would-be water bottle thief shooed off by a caretaker, but not before leaving a dusty paw print on the backpack of the intended mark.
After taking the train back to Kyoto Station, I thought it would be simple enough to find the row of snack shops and restaurants strolled through on a prior day. Instead we ended up in some other mall area with no clue of how to get from here to there. Spousal Unit navigated us outside and around the building to a coffee shop, which was a welcome treat but not quite enough to vanquish the feeling of being all done.
I continued to be impressed with our guest house. Since room maintenance was self-service, with fresh towels and linens available, I expected to ask the front desk if I could arrange housekeeping for a fee. Instead we found a piece of paper in our check-in box offering cleanup on a specified schedule due to our extended stay. The bed was changed and neatly made, the garbage and recycling removed, the bathroom cleaned along with the entire kitchen area, from the provided tea cups to the mesh sink strainer I had been concerned about de-grossifying myself.
In addition to dressing like a maiko, I wanted to meet one over a traditional kaiseki dinner, which I booked at Yasakadori Enraku due to encouraging reviews about their accommodations for dietary restrictions. This left us with an unscheduled day of freedom to wander back through the market streets for taiyaki and a delicious vegan lunch at Ainsoph, discovered on our prior jaunt to Gion and bookmarked for a return visit as time and appetite allowed.
Among my map pins from an early fit of brainstorming was a kaleidoscope museum in this general vicinity. It offered much more than I expected, both in quantity and variety – kaleidoscopes simple and sculptural, with materials from beads to wires to stained glass to a preserved bee and strips of brocade pulled through the mirrored aperture. Then came the long game of Do What Now until dinner – assorted wandering, a stop for coffee and cake, a visit to the Kyoto Bengal Cat Forest in which Spousal Unit was naturally the first to achieve lapcat. I caught up eventually, as photographed by a girl across from us, and enjoyed a chat and photo share with multilingual Chinese patrons about our respective cats at home.
Dinner itself was generous with free booze and enthusiastic conversation from our hosts and Koen, the guest maiko. Since I eat fish both raw and cooked, I was able to have all but one course in the standard set – which, like other treat meals throughout the trip, was the best sort of well portioned and prepared indulgence.
This night was also a cultural exchange for Koen, assisted by an interpreter, as her favorite part of her career was meeting people and hearing foreign perspectives she would have otherwise not had a chance to. Koen and the host were both amused that I picked up some slight knowledge of Japanese from imported beat ’em up games also responsible for my recognition of Sengoku era figures related to castles and shrines around Kyoto. I won my end of a drinking game analog to rock paper scissors featuring a samurai, tiger, and an old woman who wins over the samurai by virtue of being his mother.