12/24/2013 – Day 5 of Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:37 am No Comments

Christmas Eve in Japan doesn’t feel as “holiday-like” but we’re still having a blast. Grace and I woke up early to get to Arashi-yama, about 50 minutes away by bus. Similar to Tokyo, Kyoto is not a walkable city and the tourist maps irk me greatly since everything is not drawn to scale – it may look close, but on foot, two shrines seemingly half an inch apart on the map may take nearly 2 hours to walk to.

What a beautiful little town! Arashiyama, nestled at the seat of the mountain, is chock full of shrines, nature walks, old traditional housing (reminds of the Japanese equivalent of the Cotswolds in England), and traditional craft shops. We enjoyed ourselves just wandering around and exploring the area, starting off at the famous Tenryu-ji, a UNESCO world heritage site built in 1334 by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Evidently, the renowned Zen master Muso Soseki designed the garden and pond – as I enjoyed a leisurely stroll, I wrote the following haiku (meter of 5-7-5).

Grace walks without coat
Why does she feel not winter?
I am so freezing

Exiting the shrine to return to the Okochi Sanso village, we found ourselves ensconced in a beautiful bamboo forest, quite similar to the setting and feel of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In wandering the forest path, one can easily forget the modern day world – imagine thick, densely lush green bamboo stems stretching over 30 meters (98 feet) towards the sky.

We then shopped for some traditional souvenirs in the village, particularly chirimen zaiku crafts – hand-made trinkets constructed from old kimonos. Stopping for lunch, we had a vegetarian tofu set lunch meal at a famous local restaurant, known particularly for its yuba (tofu skin). I love the delicate presentation of the many small dishes; this meal particularly memorable for its inclusion of tofu is so many forms including boiled and served warm with pickled vegetables, tofu ensconced with egg, thin yuba slices in creamy soy milk, tofu salad, tofu ball with vegetables, tofu-based peanut mochi…absolutely delicious. For dessert, I stopped for red-tea frozen yogurt; alas, my waist line must be expanding from all the sweets that I’m eating – fresh cream green tea parfaits, exotic crepes of all types, green tea flavored ice cream, Japanese-style donuts, stuffed Belgian waffles, just to name a few!

With our stomachs satisfied, we went to Iwatayama Monkey Park across the river. After ascending a steep mountain path for twenty minutes, we arrived at the top, exceeding the height of the Kyoto tower! I’ve never seen so many Japanese macaques at once in my entire life!! There were over 170 monkeys clustered together, just taking it easy and relaxing amongst the tourists. I’ve never been so close to monkeys of any kind before – perhaps because of liability issues, we’re not allowed to approach monkeys in the USA, but here, the attendants purposely bring the monkeys close to you for a picture and we’re allowed to just walk up straight to them as close as we want to observe. The monkeys have become quite tame and will sidle straight up, just inches away (the big ones can be scary…they look quite aggressive). Evidently, the red faces and red butts are the result of translucent skin showing the underlying vessels.

We entered into a small shack, bought some prepared monkey snacks, and then fed the monkeys by hand. I really enjoyed the experience of having their small little hands scratch my palm as they picked up the apple pieces. We could see hierarchy at play in which monkeys got the preferred feeding locations; the extremely cute baby monkeys often got chased away by the peevish, belligerent adults. Extremely intelligent, the monkeys would groom each other, play games, and amuse themselves. We had so much fun just watching.

After a precipitous climb down the mountain, we took a bus back to the central Kyoto station to go to Gion, the historical geisha district. We sampled the traditional omiyage of Kyoto (I find the thin mochi-paper stuffed pockets delicious), shopped in a store selling traditional blotting paper (evidently the company dates back to the geisha era), and just enjoyed wandering through the district. Sometimes maiko (geishas in training) will appear on the streets – we didn’t see one today but Grace and I will keep on looking!

We then headed back to Kyoto station for dinner – a traditional soba set. It’s amazing how we just randomly choose places to eat and have never been disappointed. For $12, I got shrimp and vegetable tempura, cold soba, assorted sushi pieces, and pickled vegetables, all displayed very elegantly. We then stepped out into the main train hall to view all the Christmas decorations and to climb to the top of the tower to view the night skyline. It doesn’t feel much like Christmas Eve – even though the streets and stores are replete with Christmas decorations and lights (people even wander around dressed like Santa…), Christmas here is considered more of a “couples” holiday rather than a family event. Moreover, it’s tradition here to eat Christmas KFC…I do miss dad’s turkey and opening presents together under our Christmas tree.

In terms of logistics, we’re staying at a traditional-style Japanese house, conveniently located just one station away from the Kyoto main train station. Even though our room is small (4.5 tatamis in size), the futons are so comfortable and I really like the homestay experience. Our host is really friendly – she’s definitely progressive by Japanese standards, and she speaks really good English which makes communication very easy. One cultural thing of note is that no one locks their door here; the implicit trust between strangers is very high. When we ate at the cake buffet yesterday, people would just leave their purses, wallets, and expensive smartphones just lying on the table. As a New Yorker, I find this really tough to comprehend. Despite not tipping any waiters, we get excellent, 5+ star service. When we buy products, the store clerks bow, speak formally with many honorifics, and take great care in packaging the products carefully. Grace is absolutely right – after being here, it makes service in the US look terrible. Japanese culture has so many hair-splitting etiquette rules; not understanding the language and the culture much, I’m constantly violating “good behavior” to Grace’s consternation and embarrassment. Oh well, I’m trying my best.

We bought 3-day rail passes in anticipation of going to Osaka, Himeji, and Kobe. More to report soon!

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