Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bring on the Cliches

"It looks good, it tastes like nothing on Earth..." - The Cure, Kyoto Song

Upon arrival to the ultra-modern Kyoto station, Makoto asked me, "Are you hungry at all?"

My real answer was, "HELL YEAH, HOLMES. BRING ON THE GRUB!" Of course, I politely answered in Japanese, "Yes, a little. I could eat."

Then came the eternally unanswerable question, "What do you want to eat?"

Damn. I always get stuck on this one. "Nandemo-ii desu," I replied. Which means that anything's good. "Kyoto-no specialty wa nan-desuka? Kyoto-riyori hoshi." (What's Kyoto's specialty? I want Kyoto cuisine.)

With a nod he took me to a little restaurant and put our names on a waiting list. In the meantime, we looked over the glass case with all the plastic models of the food, and I simply couldn't decide what to get - everything looked so fantastic. He then pointed at the ¥2000 set lunch that came with everything. Less than $20 for a bit of everything the restaurant makes? Sold to the man with the expanding waistline!

I didn't know where to start. Nor do I know where to start explaining it. It was like getting a kaiseki (traditional Japanese multi-course meal all about the presentation) in one go. A mini pot of soup - composed of bonito broth, chunks of fish, and various vegetables. A mini tempura bowl. Lotus root. Smelt roe infused with something. Baked apple topped with potato purée. Sashimi. Two forms of fried mochi filled with two different types of anko (bean paste). A piece of mochi steamed inside a leaf and filled with yuzu-flavored anko. It would have been sensory overload had the flavors not been so sublime and balanced. A total yin and yang type of equity that I found would come to represent this place well. I love Kyoto already.

Over lunch, Makoto explained to me that he hates coming home. All he does is eat or sleep. Not much else, other than put on weight. At least back in Italy he's cooking, working, walking everywhere. I told him I feel the same way. That I get stuck in the same pattern of doing nothing but eating and sleeping when I visit my parents. Of course, I do that once a week.

We took the bus over to Kinkaku temple, an ancient temple painted up in gold. ("Kin") is Japanese for "gold." I kept joking around and calling it kintama - which is Japanese slang for testicles. "Golden balls," that is. Yeah, I'm classy like that. Seriously, though, while it's not huge, it's absolutely beautiful. And even though the day's weather had started out on the gloomy side, it seemed as though the weather decided to turn sunny just when we got there.

To get the rare combo of summer-like weather with the gorgeous autumn foliage was a blessing. So I decided to give an offering of money to the gods by throwing coins at a statue. There's a little bowl at the base of the statue, practically challenging you to throw money at it - kind of like a midway game with no prize. Except maybe spiritual harmony. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who nailed the bowl on the first try, making a resounding "Rrrring!" that could be heard all around. It was at that point where I gained this lovely fan club.

Ok, so they didn't give a damn who I was, nor about my coin tossing skills. There are literally hundreds of girls who come to places like this in Kyoto all dressed in traditional garb - seemingly for the hell of it. And why not? If you're going to engage in your culture's traditions, why not put on the kimonos to go with it? Makoto and I decided to honor our roots by kicking off our shoes and sitting on a tatami all old-school styley and having some matcha tea. It's in the teahouse where you escape the camera-phone toting, iPod-wearing, gratingly English-speaking tourist madness and actually have a very quiet, peaceful moment. The tiny cake and teeny bowl of tea are miniscule, but somehow the flavors boldly engage your mouth, in some inexplicable way making you narrow your focus and start to notice little bits here and there. For some reason, the ceremonial tea actually works in bringing about a zen-like countenance in an otherwise hectic place. This isn't to say that drinking bitter green tea and eating a little cake will bring order to your life, but for that moment, in that teahouse, you can find inner happiness. I'm just sayin'...

We got on another local bus and headed over to Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle, like the 500 Japanese restaurants in America with the same name...) Makoto pointed out the huge hotel across the way and proudly mentioned that he used to cook in their restaurant. This kind of stuff is interesting to me - especially since my long-lost cousin and I have been bonding over food. And although there was no food to be found in Nijo-jo, it was plenty interesting as well.

Once again we kicked off our shoes to explore the Shogun's domain. Unfortunately, photos aren't allowed inside, so you'll simply have to book a trip to Japan, turn up in Kyoto, and see it for yourself. It's worth it. While not visually astounding, it's still fascinating. The walls are nicely (if a bit fadingly) muralized with paintings by Tanyu Kano, ancient Japan's finest artist. The rooms are huge, but not too extravagant - simplicity seems to be the rule here. And the floors squeak like hell. On purpose. The huge wooden floorboards were designed to squeak so that the Shogun or his guards would know if any undesirables had made it inside. Now that's Japanese innovation.

Further exploration of the castle grounds yielded more awesome light and color. I went apeshit taking photos, which was probably boring the hell out of Makoto. Imagine that - Japanese having to put up with a foreigner taking assloads of pictures! The funny thing is, I'm wielding my SLR and its huge lens and hood, and sometimes I hang it around my neck while I shoot video with my little camera. And other times I'm be setting up my tripod in seemingly the stupidest places. And no one bats an eyelash.

As the sun started to set, a looped announcement came on over the speakers. With "Auld Lang Syne" playing in the background, a cute little Japanese voice would say, "Radies and gentremen. We hope, that you hab enjoyed your visit to Nijo Castle. But, now, please go to the big wooden gates. The big wooden gates of the castle are crosing soon."

Yes, I'm making fun of Engrish, knowing full well that my Japanese is probably atrocious. But just as well. Makoto and I can keep getting along by talking about food. And although there were probably around fifty stops we could've made as we walked toward the south side of Kyoto, I held my tongue, knowing we had to have dinner when we got home.

In the meantime, it was an absolute delight to explore Kyoto. As much as I was hoping to avoid this cliché this whole trip, Kyoto is truly representative of the glaringly obvious Old-Versus-New concept prevalent in any writing about the country. Ancient castles and shrines dotted throughout the city are connected by sleek streets hosting shiny buildings, chic shops, and fashionable people. There are bike lanes everywhere (always a plus in my book), although I'm not sure if the multitudes of cyclists around here have gotten a hang of using them. Cars jam the streets, and while driving is fairly aggressive, I've yet to see one accident or one case of road rage. Just walking up and down Kyoto, you can see the stereotypical Japanese compulsion to drive forward, while at the same time seeing the traditional respectfulness and refusal to abandon the past. This is the Japan where kimono-clad ladies walk out of condos made of steel and glass and polished marble. It's the Japan where the simple, traditional, minimalist food impresses celebrity chefs from around the world. And this is the Japan where I think I've fallen in love with the country in just a short daytrip.

Of course, the day's not over. There's still the train and bus ride to Aunt Hiroko's. And while I love the public transit around here, perhaps it's too good. It's so good that people use it. Everyone uses it. A lot. So oftentimes, a train ride, even extended intercity trips, are a standing room only affair. This absolutely sucks when you've been on your feet all day. Then there's the whole crunching and cramming thing. I can't even begin to imagine what rush hour is like in Tokyo. But it's relatively cheap, it's shockingly clean, and the timetables are dead accurate. You can literally set your watch by it, and I say that with no caveats.

We got home and I was introduced to my new digs. It's small. The family room with its little table is tiny. The kitchen is tinier. The bathroom is so small I can barely lean forward to wipe my butt. The staircase going to the bedroom upstairs is about three feet wide, 5 feet deep, but 10 feet tall. When I get up there, it's a room lined with tatami mats, and I sleep on a futon on the floor. There's little sound insulation because of the sliding paper doors. It's nothing like Aunt Fusako's big, modern house in Osaka with western beds and luxury facilities. It's cute, it's quaint, and it's stereotypical Japanese. In short, I love it.

Gathering around the family room table, Aunt Hiroko fired up a hotpot of sukiyaki. Normally, I don't care for it back home. At restaurants it's massively overpriced, and at home - well, I just don't find cooking hotpot of fatty meat and various vegetables - then dipping them into raw egg - all that appealing. But then, you know how I feel about the meat here. And the eggs. And the freshness of the vegetables. Bring it on! All of it!

We watched Japan beat Kenya in the Women's Volleyball World Cup. We watched a comedic movie called Trick, which I almost fully understood. Either that or I was too entranced by the leading lady to care. We watched some Asia Cup baseball, proudly seeing Japan handing Korea a beating.

Later on, Aunt Fusako came over to drop off our baggage. She brought a little surprise with her in the form of Riho, who had apparently pleaded to come with so that she could see... me! Awwww. Sadly the trip from Osaka had put her right out and she was asleep the whole time. Which is that much more adorable. Of course, I'm just as sleepy, if not more so, and as this overlong chunk of logorrhea comes to a close, I bid you oyasumi-nasai. Or goodnight.

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