Days in Kyoto

IMG_4438We arrived in Kyoto the day after our return from Nikko, catching a view of Fuji-san from the shinkansen window.  We have been to Kyoto before but its power to amaze and delight has never been stronger.

IMG_4567Our hotel was brilliantly located in the heart of the Gion district, just close by the Yasaka Shrine. The room was tiny – the tub ideal for a very short, very fat guest.  We could fit the whole lot in the smallest corner of our Nikko hotel room.

Time zones being what they are, the days began with a 7:15 am Skype call to Michael’s office (3:15 pm the previous day in California), sustained by coffee fetched by Fiona from the local kissaten – this is the Japanese word for coffee shop which is now regarded as archaic – for modern Japanese, it’s コー​​​​ヒーショップ (koufeeshoppu) or just plain カフェ (kafe).  We don’t know if Japan has an equivalent to the Académie Française, but if it does, it’s losing the war against foreign imports.  IMG_4462 (1)

Starting with the Heian Jingu shrine, here are a few highlights of our two days in Kyoto.  You walk under the 80 feet tall 鳥居(torii or gate) to the shrine buildings.  Impressive as the buildings may be – and they are a beautiful blaze of orange and green – the gardens that surround the buildings on three sides are utterly lovely. The “trees” below are covered in folded paper prayers, or wishes.

As we stood in front of this shrine a taxi drew up and we were able to see three apprentice geisha, maiko, arriving dressed in formal kimonos. Beautiful!

Cherry trees were beginning to blossom along the small canal on  The Philosopher’s Walk from the Zen Nanzenji, to the Silver Pavilion, Ginkakuji. High mountains covered in forests are on the right, and Kyoto stretches far down on the left. We understood why the university professor took his daily meditational walk here! This temple is not actually silver – expenses for the 14th century Onin War prevented shogun Yoshimasa from finishing it. You can see the sand mound made to resemble Fuji-san, surrounded by a raked  garden which refers to the sea. Paths lead you through mossy hillsides, around ponds and waterfalls and through bamboo stands: a perfect “stroll” garden. All this planted with a careful regard for the effects from the changing seasons.

Best place to eat: Nishiki Food Market. We ate onigiri (rice triangles with fish, pickled plums inside, wrapped in seaweed), misu soup and tea before strolling through the long, narrow alleys lined with food stalls + an awesome knife shop. Popular snack: squid on a stick.IMG_4669

Kiyomizu-dera is a large temple complex up in the hills and very popular not only for the spectacular views,  but there is also a shrine dedicated to love and good marriages! You can see the steps up to it crowded with many young girls in their pretty spring kimono outfits and all taking photos. I will be making an album of “girls in kimono with selfie sticks” soon!

A couple of buses took us to a small museum which was quite off the usual tourist route. Last year LACMA had an extraordinary exhibition of tea bowls and other tea ceremony ceramics from the Raku Museum here in Kyoto. We met the current head of this family, Raku Kichiazemon XV (the family home and workshop has been here for 450 years), and though he was not in Kyoto now, we saw the museum and talked to the staff.IMG_4800

Two last views from Kyoto, Michael at the Nijojo Castle entrance, and Michael, Alison and David heading off under the sakura blossoms.

The shinkansen from Kyoto took 2 hours 10 mins, covering 290 miles! So comfortable and then – we arrived in Tokyo at rush hour:


Visit to Nikko

We left early on Sunday morning for a 2 hour train ride up into the mountains, to stay in Nikko. We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) followed by a local train. Our hotel was a traditional Japanese inn, a ryokan. The rooms had lovely deep onsen (baths) with constantly flowing hot water, overlooking the river. And there was a many, many course dinner and breakfast! Such a variety of fish, vegetables, pickled things, miso, rice….

We spent two and a half days exploring the temples, shrines, waterfalls and a forest of giant cedar trees.

First, we came upon Rinno-ji Temple.  But not quite what we expected.  The temple is undergoing a 15 year restoration and the restorers have built an entire 10-floor building to encase it, with an elaborate trompe l’oeil mural of the original temple on the front. Within, you can still see many of the temple treasures, including three golden Buddhas, at least 15 feet tall, and also the remarkably ambitious scope of the project.

Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616 after unifying Japan and closing the country to the outside world (simplified explanation! Just read Shogun…….) His grandson, the third Toshugawa shogum Iemitsu, built the great Tosho-gu complex to enshrine him as a god. Among the many buildings it includes a gigantic gate and 5 level pagoda, and surface is carved, lacquered, golden, painted, and magnificent. Then, next door, he built the equally gorgeous Taiyuin Shrine where his ashes are entombed.

Following a stone path up the mountain through the forest we found a little Shinto shrine guarded by stone foxes, messengers of Inari, the god overseeing rice harvests: quite a contrast.

We took a hair-raising, hairpin-bending bus ride up a steep mountain road leading to the stunning view of the Kegon Falls. An elevator down through the rock took us to a platform below the 97 meter falls. Michael’s lovely photo is from a short walk from the falls to Lake Chuzenji.

Settling In (now with photos)


We have been slowed down a bit because Michael has had a rather savage cold, but we’re settling in happily.

On Friday, we had the first of seven private lessons before we start group lessons in early April.  We can already see that both kinds of lessons will involve lots of talking and listening – the latter our weakest point.  Our teachers are very pleasant and understanding, correcting us as we go and slowing down (a little) when we ask. Fiona discovered how one vowel can make a big difference in how one is perceived. Apparently housewife (shufu) is so close to prostitute (shoufu) …………

Michael’s brother David and sister-in-law Alison arrived from London on Friday evening. They successfully navigated picking up their Japan Rail pass (unlimited use of the JR system, which can only be purchased outside Japan) and coordinating with our reservations to Nikko and Kyoto – next week’s adventures.

We all went out for dinner to a wonderful kaiseki restaurant called Maru in Omotesando (10 minutes walk south of where we live).  Kaiseki (会席 – the first Kanji means meeting and the second means a seat) is the Japanese style of cuisine where you eat lots of small courses, seasonal fish and vegetables chosen by the chef for their color, texture, and variety – all presented beautifully. We had a small private room, and sat on cushions on the floor with our feet in a recess below the table.

Breakfast: okonimiyaki! Fiona’s Hiroshima-style pancakes. And off to the Edo-Tokyo Museum for a few hours. It is built to look like a huge elevated warehouse, and the outdoor elevator takes you up to the top floor. There you cross an arched wooden bridge and feel as though you have gone back to 17th century Edo. The exhibits show all aspects of life in the city, and continue to post-1868 Tokyo, as the city was renamed, and on into the 20th century.  Michael was moved by a lit display map showing the burning of Tokyo through successive bombing raids in March through May 1945 using incendiary devices that took a fearsome toll on the city’s mostly wooden buildings.  On one night alone, 110,000 people were killed, not too many fewer than the numbers who perished a few months later at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  War truly is hell.

After that a visit to Electric Town, as Akihabara is often called.  It’s quite an experience, with store after store, each 6 or more floors, stuffed to the gills with electronics of all sorts.  Lock your wallets . . .

David and Fiona grilled tuna on the special fish grill area of the tiny stove, sautéed a bok choy kind of greens and we finished the enormous rice dish from last night’s kaiseki meal. Early morning’s start for Nikko tomorrow.

First Lessons


This afternoon, we had our first lessons at the Naganuma School.  These were two test lessons for each of us to see if we think the school will work for us.  A humbling experience, because it showcased our greatest weakness – comprehension of Japanese spoken at the quick pace of ordinary people.  Even Japanese language teachers don’t believe much in slowing down.  On the other hand, in a way we were comforted by knowing that this is exactly the reason we came to Japan – to be immersed in Japanese and to hear it spoken and to speak it every day.

And this experience was bookended by two much more uplifting ones.

In the morning, we went to visit the Nezu Museum.  Another treasure only 15 minutes walk from our apartment, past the amazing Prada building, which looks sort of like bubble wrap (see photo).  This small museum itself is an architectural gem and it is set inside a  lovely traditional garden, which includes waterfalls, teahouses, lanterns and Buddhist statues.

After our lesson, the school was having its monthly calligraphy class.  This was also a humbling experience, of a more enjoyable kind.  The instructor was charming and skilled and made us appreciate the delicacy of the calligraphic art.  We practiced first on the easier Katakana テand ン.  These characters sound respectively as “te” and “n” or, together, “ten”.  Then we moved onto their more curvy (and therefore more difficult) Hiragana counterparts て and ん.  And finally, the Kanji character 天, pronounced “ten” and means sky or heaven.  We reached no calligraphic heights, as you can see and notwithstanding the kindly praises of our instructor, but it was fun and informative.

Walking Around Our ‘Hood(s)

Harajuku_2016-03-13_img_2341Since this posting will involve some geography, here is a link to a map of the area we are describing.  (Sorry, Google maps now makes it virtually impossible to add pins for the places we are talking about.)

We knew from our last trip that the Aoyama area is quite funky, with dozens of little shops and restaurants and pocket shrines.  And so it proved when we set out yesterday for a stroll around our neighborhood.  We wandered down our street, Gaien-Nishi-Dori  (外苑西通り) – one of very few streets in Tokyo with an actual name, window shopped in several small stores and browsed the offerings at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (terrific collection of vintage postcards).  Then, we did some heavy duty shopping (batteries, some face cloths and tickets to Studio Ghibli in April) at a Lawson market, one of innumerable convenience stores in Tokyo コンビニ or kon-bi-ni, as they are known).  7-11 is big here too.

Then we turned the corner and found ourselves heading into Harujuku.  A turn or two later and it was a different world.  Numerous clothing stores, restaurants and gift shops, almost all Japanese businesses but with English or European names, patronized mostly by large numbers of young people, many funky, many fashionable and some both. There is more than one street answering to this description and innumerable side streets with much smaller businesses, including tiny beauty parlors, jewelry stores, and numerous hole in the wall restaurants, the kind that can be found everywhere in Tokyo (Trip Advisor lists nearly 83,000 restaurants in Tokyo, and it can’t be capturing most of these places).

On we went, and by the end of the street, we were in Omotesando and things had taken a turn for the fancy.  Famous Western fashion brands began to appear everywhere – YSL, Hugo Boss (fantastical building recently featured in the New York Times) Michael Kors, a huge Apple Store, and on and on.

We turned onto a huge street – no name as far as I could tell, but it runs over the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line, if you are following us on a map – with great numbers of people.  On this street, we ran across a huge shopping mall, Omotesando Hills.  We don’t care much about malls, but this one was pretty spectacular.  Its principal attraction, as far as we could tell, was the Max Brenner Chocolate Store, which had the most amazing line snaking its way around the entrance and then outside.  People must have been waiting (patiently, this is Japan) for half an hour or more to to get in.  We love chocolate – but not that much.  Sadly, we didn’t take a picture, but it was something to behold.

In short, multiple worlds in just a few blocks.  Our brains are on overload.


Buying groceries took hours with Michael’s kanji translate-as-you-go method of shopping. But we managed it and brought home bags of wonderful stuff.

Then we had a most successful afternoon in Shibuya where we saw the statue of Hachiko –  the dog who continued to go to this station to meet his master for 10 years after his death – and the famous Shibuya Scramble where thousands of people are all crossing the street, often called the Times Square of Tokyo. And we had the awesome experience of buying two basic cell phones + pre-paid cards which required producing passports, proof of our entry status, residence address and credit.

After that it was a blast to hit “Tokyu Hands”, 6 floors of everything you could ever want to buy in the world (power tools, coffee pots and shoe repair to Hello Kitty purses). See Michael burning off calories on the pre-marked stairway.

Korean yakiniku for dinner. We cooked huge prawns,  beef strips and veggies on a small charcoal brazier on our table. We admired this beautiful plum tree blossoming in front of a temple across the road from our apartment before giving in to jet-lag.

The Naganuma School

So here we are at the Japanese language school in Shibuya we will be going to everyday.  Here is the first student we encountered – we’ll have to do better!  And here is the ramen restaurant we found nearby. Slurping lesson #1. Thank you for the notes for our bento boxes to Laura, Isak, Toby and Kyle. We opened “Day 1” here in Ramen World.  We ended the day having a multi-course Chinese meal in Roppongi with our friend Natsuo Kawada and his daughter Sumiyo.

Love living in a city with a subway – getting around Tokyo is so easy and efficient.  We’ve already been to several places, swiping our Suica card as we go.



Tokyo 着きました!

We just arrived in Tokyo for our four month adventure.  (We passed over Alaska on the way – see photo.)  We’re experimenting with this blog to see if this is a good way to keep friends and family up to date.

First news:  There is a Starbucks 100 yards away from our apartment.  We managed to order in Japanese.  Of course our waitress wanted to talk  back to us in English.

The apartment, at the Oakwood Apartments in Aoyama, is great.  Well-equipped and surprisingly spacious.  We’ll post photos soon.

This afternoon, we will be visiting the Naganuma School, where we will be taking Japanese lessons during our stay.