Monday, 25 April 2011


Since the weather forecast gave us a "0% chance of rain" today, we were fully prepared when the first big rains/thunderstorm came at 8.30am. We were even treated to a hail storm! Didn`t see that one coming, did you, weather forecasters?

During a break in the rain, we walked to Kitano Tenmangu shrine (about 30 mins) for the huge monthly market there. It was great fun to browse around the stalls - loads of second hand kimono and fabric, yum! I even worked up the courage to negotiate a couple of discounts, and it worked. Result! I remember this old lady from 3 years ago when I came to this market. She is so sweet, we had a good natter while I bought stuff from her.
We were accosted by a group of very sweet school girls whose task for the day was to grab foreigners and `interview` them with a few set questions, in English. We obliged, and of course photos were taken on both sides. The whole market was buzzing with people and we had a great time.

Lunch was typical street market food; okonomiyaki for Boyf - a pancake with egg, cabbage, noodles and lashings of mayonnaise. I went for the safe veggie option of dango - rice on a stick, grilled with a sticky soy sauce until the rice is crispy. You can`t beat getting served by an old guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, can you? By the way, the tea came free from a boiler in the corner of his stall, but bleugh!!! Tasted like he`d been dropping his cigarette ends in it! We chucked it behind the bench.
For dessert we picked up some warabe mochi from one of the stalls - jelly-like pounded rice, covered in a special flour (it`s nicer than I just made it sound!)
With a full suitcase and lots of heavy bags, we just had time to catch a bus home to drop off the shopping, then were straight back out to meet a friend in town. As we left the house, we heard the biggest, longest rumble of thunder ever...and grabbed our umbrellas in readiness. Sure enough, the rain (and this time it was RAIN!!!), thunder and wind tried their best to prevent us getting to the bus stop. Undeterred, we made it into town and met our friend, who`d made reservations for us to try making `otabe` sweets. If you`ve been to Kyoto, you`ll have seen otabe everywhere. Every other shop sells the stuff, because it`s delicious and makes a great present to take home. We were so excited to make our own otabe!

At the workshop, a table had been prepared for us.
First we made a dough from rice flour, sugar and water. We kneaded the dough slighly until it was smooth, then put it in a special cooker. While the mixture was cooking, we watched a film about the otabe factory.
We each made 3 pieces of otabe, and could choose flavours; matcha (green tea powder) or cinnamon. The large jar held `kinako` flour to coat the dough in so it didn`t stick (same as warabe mochi, above).

We could choose our fillings too - sakura, adzuki bean or black sesame. Mmm.
The lady who taught us even took a photo and turned it into postcards for us before we left. Oh, and she made us delicious houjicha tea to enjoy with our sweets. What a wonderful experience! Of course, we tried lots of samples before buying some otabe in the shop too, which came in a gorgeous box and swanky gift bag.
We went back to the veggie restaurant with cats from the other week, for our evening meal. Can you imagine a Japanese restaurant that looks like this? Stuff everywhere! But relaxed and cool. We got 6 dishes each in our dinner sets, with variations between each person`s food so we could share. This was mine, for example.
I couldn`t tell you what each dish is...but it`s soooo reassuring as a veggie, to know there`s nothing`dodgy` in it! Despite the Thunder God`s best efforts to spoil the day, we had a really great time today.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

3 Weddings and a Thunderstorm!

We walked the two miles or so to Kamigamo Shrine as there was a market there of handmade goods sold by the artisans who`d made them. Just as we arrived, we saw a bride getting out of a car dressed in full Japanese bridal kimono. See the white covering on her head? That`s to hide her `cuckold`s horns` (it used to be customary for Japanese men to have many mistresses).
Here`s the happy couple after the main ceremony.
We saw another bride in similar costume, and also a bride in a Western wedding dress. Although the shrine was busy, nobody else seemed to take much notice of the weddings going on all around.

Kamigamo is a shrine to the God of Thunder. As the trusty weather forecast had said there was only a 10% chance of rain, we thought we`d be safe but by now had learnt to do as the Japanese do and take umbrellas everywhere regardless. We`d only just learnt to love our umbrellas yesterday, as it poured all day so we had to take brollies wherever we went. After 30-odd years in the UK, it was the first time I`d really appreciated their functionality.

So we were glad we`d brought them when it started to rain...then came the thunder and lightning! It seemed the God of Thunder was smiling on us in the only way he knew how!
The entrance to the shrine has a lovely big torii gate, with an enormous cherry tree which was still in bloom even though most in Kyoto have fallen by now. We felt lucky to see it in its prime.
There were also lots of horses and riders, practicing for their annual race/horse archery festival on 5th May. This festival has been held for over 300 years and we saw how the men had worn the same costumes then as they do now. A wooden horse showed original tack, which doesn`t fit modern horses as they are much larger than the old ones. Look at the traditional stirrups - we saw some of these at the antique market the other day too.
Some buildings in the shrine had lovely, thatched roofs.
In the afternoon we met our good friend Wakako, who introduced us to her fiance. We were moved to see how much in love they are, as well as being very touchy-feely which is rare in public in Japan. It was also nice that she came up and gave us all a big hug too!
Unfortunately, Tetsuo san couldn`t stay long, but we went round the market with Waka, then walked back to our house for a drink (beer for her, as usual!) and some rice balls I`d knocked up earlier. On a side note, this is the first trip where I`ve done cooking in Japan, and I`ve really enjoyed it as well as saving us some cash!

We gave her some mini eggs as it`s Easter Day today, and it`s a tradition for me to send her some every year. Here we are having a relax in the house. She could only spare a few hours to be with us, but it was a precious time as we weren`t sure we`d be able to see her at all this trip.
Oh and by the way, the rain did EVENTUALLY clear up!!!

Friday, 22 April 2011

Climb Every Mountain

Before we set out each morning, we check the weather forecast and plan our day accordingly. So today`s "20% chance of rain" seemed a safe enough bet for a day of hiking. Back in England, I`d scoured the internet and found a lovely, scenic but quite strenuous hike up the mountains, starting from Fushimi Inari shrine which is a great place to visit in itself.

We arrived at the shrine in time for an early lunch. I had a speciality of the area - oinari-zushi - pockets of fried tofu stuffed with rice. Another local speciality on the menu was grilled sparrow on a stick; apparently in the olden days there were too many sparrows around the shrine, so people started eating them to keep the numbers down. Although Boyf was tempted, nobody from our group tried this particular delicacy.
The others had cucumber sushi...
...tempura donburi (rice bowl)...
...and nishin soba (smoked herring and noodle soup).
Just as we finished our meal, we found ourselves on the wrong end of the "20% chance of rain". It was pouring! We decided to take a leisurely walk around the shrine and see what happened.
There are thousands and thousands of red `torii` gates all over the shrine. This tunnel of gates was featured in the `Memoirs of a Geisha` film. It was great to get a shot withot tourists in!

It was apparent that the rain wasn`t going away, so in true British style we decided to hike up the mountain anyway! After all, we had my printed route to follow...until SOMEBODY thought it would be a great idea to follow a random little path instead and see where it led...

...well, it led up. And up. And up. Up concrete paths, forest floor, neverending steps, up and up and up until our legs could take it no more. And all the time it rained good, old-fashioned, proper wet rain. As we`d taken a random path, there were none of the views or resting places from the proper route, just neverending upness. There were shrines dotted around near the foot of the mountain.
And pretty flowers to see. We were also accompanied by the sound of nightingales, which was lovely.
EVENTUALLY we reached the top and there was absolutely nothing to be done but to come back down. By this time we had the added hazard of slippery wet scree to negotiate - it really was a wonder we got down with our ankles intact! But what an adventure!!!

When we finally reached the bottom, we realised we`d climbed right round the other side of the mountain, so instead of being in Kyoto we were now somewhere in the outback of Fushimi, in the rain, lost. I looked back to take a quick shot of the mountain we`d conquered.
After much broken Japanese and gesticulating with several kindly-looking old ladies, we found a bus which took us back to the safe environs of Kyoto.

Not quite the day we`d planned, but it`s given us another tale to tell nonetheless. But by heck, our legs will be feeling it in the morning!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Rendezvous under the Pagoda

Toji is one of the most important temples in Kyoto, and once a month it holds a massive outdoor flea market in the grounds of the temple. You can literally find just about anything here from old samurai armour to big granny knickers, and everything in between. We`d arranged to meet my kimono teacher, Emiko, and her sister Naomi, who`d come on the Shinkansen from northwest Tokyo to see us.
Isn`t it a gorgeous place? The sun shone all day and we had a wonderful time wandering round the market, which was quite busy but still nowhere near as thronged with tourists as usual. This was handy, as we had suitcases and six people to maneuvre.

The market was full of interesting stalls, including many handmade items such as these amazing balancing dragonfly ornaments. Even when the man put the dragonfly on Daughter`s finger upside down, it sprung back the right way again and balanced, somehow.
There were plenty of stalls selling second-hand kimono, which were tempting, but in the quantity I sell them, it`s easier having them sent from a dealer in Japan than buying them in Japan myself. I did treat myself to some bags of kimono fabric scraps though, for making kanzashi brooches which I sell through galleries. I also couldn`t resist an antique temari ball, which will act as inspiration for students when I teach my classes.

There was plenty of food to choose from too, and Daughter had a delicious, chocolate-filled cake.
After all that hard shopping, we spent a few moments relaxing on the bridge and enjoying the wildlife. We saw turtles basking in the sun and koi carp of all colours and sizes.
A heron stood poised over the water (as I was poised over the camera!), but didn`t catch anything.
On the way back to the house, we saw a wonderful contrast of the traditional and the modern - a Shinto shrine in front of a concrete apartment block.
Back at the house, I made some edamame (soybeans) as a snack, we exchanged gifts (as is customary) and Emiko made some of her fabulous creations from obi belts. The obi is a 4 metre long strip of thick, woven silk which is tied round the kimono. Emiko is a professional kimono dresser and she specialises in creating decorative ways of tying the obi. These examples are for decoration around the home. All she used were a few elastic bands and a lot of skill!!! Aren`t they incredible?!
Not to be outdone, Daughter taught Emiko and Naomi how to do kumihimo braiding (which is how the blue and red cords on the obi ties were made). We`d seen a marudai (braiding stand) at the market and Emiko said she`d never tried it. I`ve got a marudai at home and I happened to have brought 2 portable braiding discs to Japan (for some work I have to do while I`m here...), so it seemed fortuitous that they should have a go.
As you can see, Emiko is wearing kimono. She wears it every day, just like we wear a top with jeans. Usually, we stay at her house for a few days and she lets me rummage her collection...she has about 1,000 kimono with all the accessories, shoes and everything else, all in a dedicated room which she uses for teaching. In fact, that room is one of my favourite places!

By now we were all hungry so we walked to the nearby Kaiten Zushi (sushi-go-round) and filled our faces. While we waited for a table, Naomi and Emiko (who`d hidden the disc down her kimono sleeve) got their braiding out and carried on until they`d each made a beautiful braid.

The food was wonderful, and cheap at only 100 yen per plate. There was even a slot in the table where you could drop used plates down, and every 5 plates gave you a game on a computer screen. If you won the game (out of 40 plates we won 1 game), a plastic ball with a gift inside came down a chute. Daughter got a manga character magnet, and was very happy.

Great food, great company and great plans made with Emiko (of which more later...). A fantastic day.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Yes we know, you`ve been enjoying a heat wave in England, but over here it rained buckets through the night. So this morning we ummed and ahhed a bit about what we were going to do. Mountain climbing was definitely out, but as for covered shopping areas...well, we could cope with that. Thankfully, by the time we`d got our acts together, the rain had all but stopped.

A while ago I bought a lovely little book about traditional shops in Kyoto - their histories and the stories behind the people who run them. Many shops have been in the same family for generations, with skills and crafts passed down from parents to children. The book was written about 20 years ago, and I was keen to see if some of these old shops (and the people in them) had survived.

We found a shop which has been hand-making wooden combs for over 160 years. Each tooth of each comb is carved by hand and polished by hand 3 times; with shark skin, then a special reed, and finally deer skin. The combs have a beautiful natural sheen and feel so soft and tactile, you can`t help but run your fingers over them. This same shop supplies a set of 91 combs to the goddess of Ise shrine every 20 years (the shrine is completely rebuilt every 20 years, and all its treasures replaced). It takes the head craftsman of the family this long to make the set, as they are so exquisitely made. They also supply the geisha and maiko with combs to keep their waxed hair styles in place. All the combs are still handmade in Kyoto (I checked with the lady in the shop!). I didn`t take much persuading to buy one.

Talking of geisha, this is a picture of the Ichirikitei - the most famous tea house in Japan where geisha and maiko entertain guests while they eat delicate Kyoto cuisine and generally get quite drunk (the guests, not the geisha). Usually I`d never be able to take a shot like this as I`d be getting pushed and shoved and there would be people and traffic everywhere. The big gate is advertising the spring dances which are open to the public each day during April.
We saw several maiko (apprentice geisha) wandering about too. They don`t usually work til later in the day, so most were enjoying some free time. Also, some have to perform public dances several times a day in April, so the lack of tourists sticking cameras in their faces must have been a relief for them. One was walking alongside a middle-aged businessman and although she was dressed in a normal kimono rather than her trailing dance kimono, she was still working. He had hired her for a couple of hours, maybe to help clients feel at their ease, or maybe just to have lunch with her (it`s a status thing to be seen out with a maiko/geisha).

Another maiko followed us into a department store and headed down to the manga section of the book shop with us. It was an adorable sight, to see her browsing manga books, and I would love to know which she eventually chose. As she was having time off, I felt it would be too rude to take a photo just then. Grrr.
We sort of stumbled upon this place, then joy of joy, I realised it was one of the shops from my book! The man in the picture makes the most fantastic creations out of bamboo. Again, very tactile, I couldn`t resist buying a bamboo rice paddle so I can do away with the nasty plastic one I use at the moment. Morita san kindly let me take a photo (I affectionally called him `grandad` when I asked permission). Reading up on the shop, HIS grandad was priviledged to be presented to the Emperor in 1920 and was credited with introducing bamboo ware to the West. He also made the chair that the Emperor sat on for his coronation. Get in! You can also see Morita san`s daughter, who is carrying on the family business.

Further down the road, we admired lots of beautifully crafted but extremely expensive tableware - in Japan people tend to have lots of different plates, bowls, saucers etc rather than a matching set. After deciding we wanted some but couldn`t justify the expense, we sated our desires in the 100 yen shop. It`s amazing what beautiful tableware you can buy for 100 yen! Job done.

By the way, this seemed like a good sentiment. Maybe that`s where I`m going wrong, I should try to enjoy my socks style more.
Bonus du jour was an art exhibition we stumbled upon after finding a poster advertising it nearby. It was by graduates of the Kyoto University of Fine Art and was pretty conceptual but surprisingly everyone enjoyed it and we spent ages in there. Someone took our coats and bags, and insisted on giving us a token for their retrieval, as if she might forget they were ours despite there being almost nobody else there and certainly no other foreigners. Anyway, thumbs up for the exhibition, and a lady even made us a cup of green tea at the end. Smashing.

And finally, here`s a tip for Wills and Kate as they are allegedly doing `The Wedding` on a bit of a budget. This place might save them a bob or two.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Where Have All The Crowds Gone?

As the weather was looking a bit iffy, we decided we`d better not climb any mountains today so instead we explored the Higashiyama area. We`d been to the world-famous Kiyomizudera temple before (see night-time light-up post previously, from last year`s trip), but hadn`t seen much of the surrounding streets, which are filled with nick-nack shops old and new.

The morning`s weather turned out to be quite glorious and we had a lovely stroll round. But look at the picture above...this is one of the touristyest of touristy places in Kyoto (which is one of Japan`s touristyest cities to start with), but look, it`s empty. While many of the shopkeepers were working even harder to hawk their wares, others looked very dejected indeed. They`ve already had 6 weeks of high-season emptiness and who knows when people are going to start visiting Japan again? Even the Japanese seem to be staying home. We felt the best attitude was to be thankful that we could enjoy such a beautiful day without the crowds.
We did a bit of temple-hopping (the free ones) and put in a good few miles` worth of hiking; the hills of Higashiyama are very steep in places!
An orange tree in fruit beside the beautiful Yasaka Pagoda...
And around the other side, cherry blossoms!
Since we weren`t getting herded along in a tide of tourists, we had the chance to notice some off-the-beaten-track places, like this bridge leading up to a temple. Again though, see how deserted everywhere is...
For those brave and guileless enough to walk down a narrow passageway, a secret garden awaited. This lantern in particular caught my attention.
And what could be better for Daughter than a shop dedicated to Totoro!!!
Oh, that`s what could be better - another Totoro shop!!!
This man spoke very good English. He explained how he was carving a wood block which he would then print. He was selling postcards and notelets that he`d designed, carved and printed by hand. Even these tiny notelets were made from 4 separate wood blocks, one for each colour.
There were some more obscure shops, such as this one selling weird sculptures.
And this, which we reckon was some kind of Chinese medicine place...maybe.
At the top of a VERY steep hill was a museum of the Meiji Restoration period. This spans roughly our Victorian period and was a time of great social and political upheaval in Japan. There are 32,000 graves on that mountain alone for those who lost their lives. Although it was just about all in Japanese, it sparked my interest and is something I`ll definitely be reading up on when we get home. Especially the leader of the Shinsengumi Secret Police, of whom there was an extremely realistic lifesize model. I noticed quite a few ladies lingering over this model, and when I got up close I could see why. Tasty!

Daughter dressed in Shinsengumi costume, and a lady came running out with a samurai sword and lantern for her to hold. Fierce, no?
Lastly, random shot of the day has to be this one. Flyed Lise, anyone?