Thursday, December 25, 2008

Day 5: Ryoanji Temple, a Glimmering Temple, and last meal at Kyoto Station

We got a late start today because we were both feeling a little under the weather and it was raining all morning. Once the rain started to lighten up, however, we felt we should make the best use of our last full day in Kyoto! We had read about the Ryoanji temple and its Zen garden, which are World Cultural Heritage sites. And of course, because we love food, we learned that it was a place where we could order yu-dofu, Buddhist vegeterian tofu, and eat like the Buddhist monks! Approaching noon, our stomachs were hungry, so we took a 40-min bus ride to Ryoanji temple, situated in a peaceful area on the Northwest area of Kyoto.

After getting off the bus, we immediately tried to locate the little restaurant within the temple complex. We found a wooden menu board (in both Japanese and an English), with "yudofu" prominently displayed at the top. This must be it!
The noren curtain we passed under had an "O" sign, which we later discovered signified affability and an earnest hope for peace and harmony in the world. We walked through an elegantly manicured garden and could hear the sounds of the shishi-odoshi, a water contraption made of bamboo, which is meant to scare off animals. As we entered a doorway to remove our shoes, we rang a little bell near the closed screen doors and a voice said something in Japanese. Not knowing what she said exactly, we just said, "two for yudofu," or something to that effect. Then, the screen door was opened and we entered a beautiful Japanese-style room.

One entire side of the room was designed with glass screen doors, offering customers a view of the Kyoyochi pond and the lovely garden that we just walked through.

We seated ourselves at a table by the big glass viewing screens and ordered two yudofu vegeterian set meals. In retrospect we probably could have just ordered one, but since we didn't really know how large the portions would be, we leaned toward the safe side of having more food. :) We sat on these flat pillows that were arranged around a small round dining table. The dining table was very low, and there were these stone pots with rocks in the center of the dining table. We realized what they were for once the hostess presented us with a big, hot, bubbling, clay pot full of tofu. She placed the pot on the stone rocks and then demonstrated how to eat the tofu. The tofu was simmering in very simple vegeterian soup consisting of mushrooms, cabbage, and fishcake. We were to use these little slotted spoons to scoop out the tofu and vegetables, and then dip them in a special sauce. The hostess showed us how to mix the sauce together, which was made of minced daikon, shoyu or soy sauce, some sweeter sauce (maybe mirin?), sesame seeds, and wakame (dried seaweed). This was such fun! Kind of like a hot pot, but Japanese vegeterian style.

Along with the tofu pot, the hostess also brought out our vegeterian side dishes, all neatly arranged on an orange-colored square tray in a a tic-tac-toe-like grid. The side dishes reminded us of the kaiseki meal with the pickled daikon, miso vegetables, and even a sweet-bean type of tofu which had a peanutty taste. These dishes were also fun to eat and we were reminded again of how the Japanese love pickled vegetables! Oh, and we had ordered some warm sake, too, and it was very fragrant and tasty! Halfway through our meal, it started to rain lightly; the perfect accompaniment to our meal as we looked out the window and onto the little pond.

Fueled now for more sight-seeing, we headed to the Zen Rock garden, acknowledged as a masterpiece of Japanese culture. The rectangular Zen Rock garden at Ryoanji Temple consists only of white sand and fifteen rocks, laid out at the end of the 15th century, and is surrounded by low earthen colored walls. Its simple beauty is said to stimulate philosophical meditation. We wanted to see if we could be inspired to see more than just rocks. After staring at the rocks for a little while, Keith and I had some ideas, like "it's a mother lion leading her cubs!" or "it's a sea full of islands!" Perhaps you can try and tell us what you see?

Our next stop was Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, to see the gold-leafed temple. In the 1220s, the temple was first a comfortable villa before it was coverted to a Zen temple. Kinkakuji is also a World Cultural Heritage site (there are so many in Kyoto!). Unfortunately, it started raining when we arrived at the temple so we quickly walked through the grounds. Indeed, the glimmering temple was very beautiful and unique. There is even a golden Chinese phoenix at the top of the temple. A few snapshots later, we left to catch the bus back to our hotel.

Well, we had a busy week in Kyoto and our last night--what should we eat?? We decided to save money and try a different ramen shop on the ramen floor of the Isetan department store. This time, we tried Sapporo style ramen! I am not sure if I can tell the difference between all the types of ramen, but it was yummy nonetheless and we got a kick out of using the vending-style machines again. There was also a characteristic little Japanese host at the entrance who kept saying all these things in a high-pitched Japanese voice. After ramen, we wanted to try this Japanese ice cream dessert that we'd been eyeing all week. It came in a little dish and had a layer of white jello, a layer of green tea jello at the bottom, which was then topped with red azuki beans, some fresh fruit, chewy mochi balls, and a scoop of green tea ice cream. They also give you a little jar of sweet green tea syrup that you can drizzle on top of the dessert. Before we realized it, we were at the bottom of the cup, and the dessert had disappeared! A sweet ending to our wonderful vacation in Kyoto.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Day 4: Fushimi Shrine and the Gion District and its Geishas

While relaxing yesterday at the onsen, we came to realize (in the spirit of being relaxed) that our trip was already halfway over but there remains many places we have yet to see! For the two days we have left, one of the must-sees is the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Right after breakfast, we took the train about 10 minutes to get to to this shrine in the southeastern part of the city.

The Fushimi Inari shrine is one of the most well-known, most photographed sites in Kyoto (probably Japan as well)... in fact, it was used twice in Memoirs of a Geisha where Sayuri was running to reach the shrine to pray. This massive shrine complex dates back to the 8th century (711 A.D.), and spreads across the the Inari hilll. Shrines are connected by pathways lined with red torii gates of various sizes. Inari, the Shinto god of rice, is worshipped here, and inscribed on these gates are offerings by the worshippers in hopes for a successful harvest. Nowadays, many of these gates are sponsored by large corporations, and we were told the going price for 1 gate is about 1M-Yen (~$10k USD). There are more than 10,000 gates here.

Cleansing stations are located at the entrance to all Shinto shrines such that the worshipper can "cleanse their hearts and bodies" before praying. Holding the ladle with the right hand, first the left hand is rinsed, then vice versa. Then, water is poured from the ladle onto the left hand for drinking (I never saw anyone do this probably because of sanitary reasons), and finally, the ladle is held vertically so its water runs backwards and washes the handle (for the next person).

The Inari path follows a 4km loop up the hill. As we ascended, there are a few small tea houses where we can rest and have a cup of tea (and have a nice hot bowl of noodles as a reward for our efforts). Pretty neat how these rest stops are so relaxing in the middle of the woods, and there were surprisingly few people overall at the Fushimi shrine.

Apparently, more than one-third(!) of the Shinto shrines with full-time priests in Japan are dedicated to Inari (as well as many smaller road-side or unmanned shrines). Stone statues of foxes are also present throughout the grounds, and are seen as messengers of Inari. These fox statues come in pairs, and often have etchings of a key, jewels, or rice in its mouth -- all to symbolize the granting of the harvest. According to Wikipedia, inari-zushi, or fried tofu sushi, is often brought by worshippers to place in front of these foxes as it is believed they like tofu. It is also said that the rest stops on the path serve "inari ramen" with tofu, but we did not understand the menus well enough to know if this was true.

Personally, I found it quite invigorating walking through this shrine, especially given the importance of rice in my diet. That, and it was quite a nice place to take photographs :).

On our way to the Gion district in the western Higashiyama ward of Kyoto, we also stopped at the shrine for the god of fish (just kidding) -- Ganko Zushi was recommended by Frommer's and Lonely Planet as a lively, good-deal for sushi in Kyoto. After my complaining for not having real sushi (not that salted mackerel Sabazushi) since we got here, we went just to see how different it was compared to the US.

Luckily for us, the waitress not only spoke English, but she had something like 7 different menus (not all in English) with choices for various bargain deals. Since we already took a break at the shrine, we just decided to sample a few small items. On the left hand side are (clockwise): salmon, hisage (small type of tuna), unagi with cucumber, and buri (larger type of hamachi). Hisage and buri were both recommended as the seasonal local fish -- normally hamachi is my favorite, but buri was quite tough and less fragrant. Buri was really good... very soft and better than regular tuna. Also, the wasabi was very granular compared to the pasty stuff they serve in the US. We also got a plate of futomaki for some non-fish sushi.

Gion is known as the pleasure district of Kyoto (not the red light district) where, since the 18th century, travellers and locals have been entertained by storytellers and performing artists in tea houses. The very first of these entertainers, or geishas ("artists"), were men, but the tradition has since become exclusively managed, performed, and controlled by women. More on this later.

The Gion district has many old houses, or machiya, that remain of historic construction. These are very small, narrow homes (but very deep), and come from an era when the value of a house (and taxes paid) was determined by the width of its front door. All the machiyas have very narrow doors. Nowadays, some of these machiyas have been converted to restaurants that are open to the public -- these have red lanterns in the front, drapes over their doors (indicating service), and a menu outside with prices. Other machiyas, however, may have a lantern or a name on the door, but no menu or drapes. These are ochayas, or tea houses, and it is in these private buildings where the rich can have food, alcohol, and geishas performances. In fact, it is along this main strip in Gion that is named "place to see the 'flowers and willows'." Many tourists and Japanese men alike wait outside the teahouses to get a glimpse of the "flowers."

The Ichiriki Ochaya, at almost 300 years old, pretty much at the center of the Gion district, is the most famous of these teahouses. It apparently has historical symbolism as the location where samurai plotted against the Shogun during the Meiji Restoration. Many of the buildings in Gion have these convex bamboo slats on the outer walls (see left side of the Ichiriki photo) -- apparently, these prevented unwanted outsiders from leaning against the wall and eavesdropping.

In order to learn about the world of the Geisha, we took a walking tour with the Kyoto Tourism Council. Our guide, Yumi, studied at UC Santa Barbara and did a great job. Before meeting for that walk, however, we went for a brief snack at Kagizen Yoshifusa, a famous sweet store in the Gion district. Instead of ordering (almost!) warabimochi, we shared a kuzu kiri (their specialty) which consists of cold, clear arrowroot noodles dipped in a dark molasses-like syrup with hints of sesame. You can use chopsticks to eat many desserts, but this is the only dessert I've ever seen that can only be eaten with chopsticks (the noodles are very slippery). The tearoom nicely looks out onto a quaint little garden (in the middle of a busy city).

Our walking tour encircled various corners and nooks of Gion. Yumi explained that the geiko, the Kyoto word for geisha, actually infers female performer (compared to the era with male performers). Unfortunately, she says, many foreigners and even Japanese people have a false notion that geikos are prostitutes, when in fact they are not allowed to have a relationship in their profession (those who decide to marry must retire according to protocol). These girls start their rigorous training at the age of 15, and learn traditional Japanese dancing, musical instruments, mannerisms and poise, and etiquette among the elite socialites. Yumi took us along the alley ways where the current schools, boarding houses, and hair dressers for the maiko, or those who achieve the highest apprentice level, live for their trade. While there are many sad stories of young impoverished girls forced into the business (such as in Memoirs), Yumi explained that nowadays it would be a high honor for a young modern woman to become a successful geiko (similar to becoming a famous prima ballerina). In fact, there is a shortage of new apprentices because few women are willing to tolerate the tough training when other occupational choices are possible. However, successful geikos make quite a lot of money, and are culturally revered for their talents. After all, their clients are limited to those of high wealth or status: invitation to this private group is only possible through an existing member (once you're in, you're taken care of), and typical evenings cost as much as 1M-yen. Famous politicians, including Queen Elizabeth, have attended such performances. It is said that men use these invitations to conduct business deals, and it is not uncommon for them to bring their wife and children to the ochaya to see the geiko perform.

Gion has many famous names in the geiko world, such as Yachiyo Inoue, who have been nationally recognized as the preserver of ancient Kyoto dance styles (she used to head the local maiko school). Another man down the street makes elaborate hair pieces (that are incredibly expensive) that are worn by the maikos, or are given as gifts by the clients to the geikos. The rice paper balls (see left), are made by a man (supposedly the only one who can make them in Japan) and are filled with trinkets -- these are also bought as gifts to be given to maikos. The handwriting on these balls are signatures by Japanese movie stars. Many of these niche artisans have become famous in their crafts in beautifying the geiko and her artistry.

A geiko or maiko can be identified (as opposed to a local woman wearing a kimono) because they are often walking very fast (despite the limited movement by their clothing) as they have many appointments from one ochaya to the next. Some of the many details that are seen in maikos include elaborate hair pieces, specific hair styles (takes hours to do), elaborate silk clothing, more blush on the cheeks and eye area, and only partially painted lips. Yumi also explained the unpainted back of the neck is because that is one part of the body most treasured by men, and therefore it is "nude." In comparison to the maiko, a full geiko has sometimes more plain fashion, a more natural complexion, few to no hair pieces, and sometimes wear a wig -- her beauty is in her mature art form. Yumi said that she had wanted to be a geiko when she was young, but paid to try on the entire outfit -- she found out the headpiece and huge clothing is very very heavy, and that she could barely stand up, let alone move and dance.

We saw this woman coming out from one of the okiyas. Based on what you know, do you think she is a geiko or a maiko?

One of the biggest inaccuracies in Memoirs of a Geisha is the auctioning of Sayuri's virginity, which Yumi says never happens. Another inaccuracy that I found, however, is that in the movie, the geishas are beautiful. This maiko that we spotted, however, had scary teeth (click on photo to enlarge). No offense, but maybe her client should give the gift of a dentist appointment?

She came out from her boarding house to meet a friend, gave her something quickly, and then ran back into her okiya. Within the few seconds, though, everyone on the street stopped to gawk. They're okay with us taking photos of them as long as we do not touch or chase after them. Given we were there in the early evening (they normally entertain until the early morning), we were pretty lucky to have spotted her.

After our tour, we took Yumi's recommendation to check out an okonomiyaki restaurant in Gion. These are savory pancakes with various ingredients -- we ordered one that had yam and beef tendons, and another with seafood (recommendations by our waitress). This was served with two onigiris. The fun part was having it cook on our table-top griddle. We could get okonomiyakis back in California, but we had to just try everything locally. It tasted really home-made and fresh, and was well done... but we liked yesterday's kaiseki meal more.

On our way back to the hotel, we walked across the Sanjo bridge to the Pontocho street famous for its numerous restaurants (originally we had wanted to go there for dinner). Many of the restaurants had beautiful doorways, and ranged from affordable to >$100USD/person. Unfortunately, many also were only in Japanese, so we might have had a hard time ordering if we had gone there instead.

Luckily a local cake shop spoke English and were selling cakes for Christmas Eve, so we were able to buy some dessert and bring it back to the hotel to eat in front of the TV. Thus ends our 4th day in Kyoto!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Day 3: Kurama Onsen, Kyoto Handicrafts, and Oyako-Don

Today we decided to partake in a much anticipated Japanese tradition--Onsen. The word onsen means "hot spring" or "hot bath", and it is much ingrained in the Japanese culture and way of life. Because of the volcanic activity on the island of Japan, many natural onsens arose and gave way to the Japanese ritual of regular bathing. It is also believed that the onsens provide medical benefit, such as healing aches, pains and diseases. Although Keith had his hesitations about sitting in a tub of hot water with other naked men, I encouraged him to have an open mind and to look beyond that. In any case, we certainly were hoping that the onsen would cure our aching legs after our first 2 days of walking all around Kyoto!

Our destination was the northern town of Kurama, which is known for its onsens. It is nestled in the mountains outside of Kyoto, and the train ride there was absolutely beautiful!
There were mountains everywhere and we immediately felt a sense of peace and quiet, as we sat in the train admiring the surroundings and appreciating the traditional wood houses, cemeteries, and shrines that dotted the landscape.

Upon arrival at the town of Kurama, we boarded a little shuttle bus that provided free transit to the onsen (about 5 mins away). When we got to Kurama Onsen, we entered a small 2-story building situated atop a small hill and had to remove our shoes once inside. The reception desk did not speak much English, but they were very courteous as both Keith and I pointed to their menu of services and managed to communicate that we wanted to use the "inside and outside bath" and also eat a "mini kaiseki lunch" after our bathing. They proceeded to give each of us a yukata robe, a towel, a locker key, and a map of the onsen. Then they pointed us to where the men's and women's changing room were. Keith and I deliberated for a few minutes outside of the changing room to agree that we would change into our robes and then meet back in the common area so we could head to the outdoor bath.

As I changed in the locker room, the sweet old reception lady came in and said "no swimsuit," perhaps thinking that as a foreigner I might not know that bathing suits are not allowed in the onsens. Luckily, I was somewhat familiar with onsen culture since I had gone to a few onsens during my studies in Taiwan, and the shock of not being allowed to wear anything was a bit lessened. I hoped Keith would be okay with this--see what he writes below! Once we were both changed into our robes, we walked outside and climbed a flight of stone stairs to reach the outside bathing house.

Since men and women are separated, I proceeded through the women's side of the bath house and we parted our ways for the next hour.
As I entered the women's bathing house, there were some wooden cubbies outside to place your slippers, and then there was another set of lockers inside. I could see the bath outside, steaming, and looking quite inviting. Luckily, there were only 2 other women there so I was happy that it wouldn't be too crowded. The actual bath area was not that large, but it was well designed as half of the bath had a pagoda-like covering to shield the sun or rain. As you can imagine, I wasn't allowed to take any photos, although I thought about it!

Before getting into the onsen, I had to shower and rinse my body first. The Japanese are very clean and everyone is required to do this before entering a public bath. I was already freezing in just my robe but managed to rinse quickly in the shower, thinking I could just hop into the bath right afterwards. Unfortunately I couldn't "hop" too much since the water was very hot!! It was like entering a very hot jacuzzi for the first time--takes awhile to get acclimated. So, I sat on the ledge for a minute with just my legs in the water and then slowly got in, all the while making squirmish expressions with my face.

After getting used to the hot water, I began to enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery and the crisp mountain air. It was very peaceful and I was glad there weren't a lot of other women, although more and more started arriving after I got in. The water was very clear and clean; it had a slight chlorine smell but not as strong as a jacuzzi. I could see that the water was constantly being replaced with fresh water, through some sort of filtering system, so I felt reassured that I wasn't going to catch some bug (you never know at a public bath!). After 20 mins I got really warm and my body was kind of red like a lobster. I got out and walked inside to this sauna area where there was another tub with warm water, which was not as hot. I alternated between the two tubs until it was about time to meet up with Keith for our lunch!
I asked Keith about his experience afterwards and this is what he says about "what it is like to sit in a tub with other naked men": it was hard to relax for the first 2 hours.

Now, onto our much anticipated meal of the day-our kaiseki lunch! Kaiseki meals are considered "haute" Japanese cuisine, and consist of many small plates including sashimi, tempura, clear broth, a steamed dish, a cold pickled dish, a grilled dish, a dessert, and many others. We had heard about kaiseki in the US so we really wanted to try it in Japan. Only fresh seasonal ingredients are used and are prepared in ways that aim to enhance their flavor. They are generally very expensive meals, so we decided that a mini lunch version would be economical while still allowing us to experience kaiseki. Every dish that came out was beautifully arranged and garnished, often with real leaves and flowers, as well as edible garnishes designed to resemble natural plants and animals. The Japanese definitely know how to make food pleasing both to the eye and the palate! We enjoyed every dish, and even took a little video of all the dishes. I think the local Japanese people must have thought we were really weird, taking so many pictures of food! Here are some photos of the dishes we enjoyed. Some of my favorites included the steamed turnip, miso vegetables, and the grilled whole fish.

Another was the tempura--instead of dipping into a liquid tempura sauce, we dipped it into a salty matcha (green tea) powder which added some interesting flavors.

After lunch, we were pretty full and the hostesses told us we could go upstairs to the "relaxation room." Since this onsen is also a ryokan (inn), we noticed that the guestrooms were also upstairs. However, the doors were closed so I wasn't able to see what they looked like. We went into a large room covered with tatami mats that was completely devoid of furniture except for a TV.
It was kind of weird to pull some pillows and blankets and lie on the floor. Another older couple came in, lied down, and actually started taking a nap! I think we were too full from lunch to lie down, so we decided to go back downstairs and discussed using the inside bath. Keith preferred the outside bath, but I didn't want to go back outside since it was quite cold, so I chose to check out the inside bath. Although not as beautiful and nature-like, it was still nice. We felt refreshed, rested, and ready to move on with our sight-seeing. We left the onsen and walked downhill to the Kurama train station, passing the Kurama temple on the way down.

We decided to stop by the Kyoto
Handicrafts center in central Kyoto for some shopping. It was much larger than we expected! We found a 7-story building with many shops on each floor, each floor displaying their special craft.
For example, there was one floor dedicated to doll-making, one to lacquer products, and one to kimonos. Keith was drawn to some samurai swords and asked to hold one up close. He had to wear little gloves in order to hold the swords. It was fun taking in all the traditional art forms (which is what Kyoto is known for) and purchasing a few gifts.

The craft center called a cab for us and we headed back to our hotel. We wanted to eat an inexpensive meal and were interested in trying out Oyakodon,
in which chicken, egg, green onion, and other ingredients are all simmered together in a sauce and then served on top of a large bowl of rice. The name of the dish, parent and child donburi, is a poetic reflection of the fact that both chicken and egg are used in the dish. It's a dish you can get here in the US but we wanted to see what it would be like in Japan! Adjoining our hotel is the Isetan department store, and one floor has tons of food like a food court. The hotel concierge directed us toward a little stall that specializes in Oyakodon. It was slightly different from what I've had in the past, since it had less onion and the egg was still a little runny. It was good, though, very much like a comfort food. Now our day was complete and we were ready to hit the sack!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Day 2: Still eating (Part 3)

Not surprisingly, after everything today, we wanted something a bit more simple and plain for dinner. After a few hours in the hotel, we went to the 11th floor of Isetan and found a restaurant known for their soba and udon. The above picture was their set soba dinner meal, which is worth blogging about for the item in the bottom left corner: Sabazushi.

Sabazushi, or mackerel sushi, is the regional sushi of Kyoto. Historically, because Kyoto is farther away from the sea than, say, Osaka, fish had to be cured or salted in order to be brought to the city. According to the website:

Sabazushi is made with saba that has been lightly pickled in salt, then filleted. The fillets are then pickled in sushi vinegar (rice vinegar and sugar) for a short time. Next the outer skin of the saba is carefully peeled away (retaining a delicate inner skin), remaining small bones are extracted with a tweezer-like device. The fillet is placed into a kigata (a wooden form) for making oshizishi (pressed sushi) which is filled with sushi rice. A very thinly sliced piece of pickled kombu (kelp) is placed atop the saba. It is then pressed in the wooden form.

Was it good? I think a good plate of regular hamachi nigiri is better. The kelp was thick, and the fish was a bit overpowering. The rest of the dinner was decent... pretty plain udon with tofu skin, a pretty nice grilled eggplant, and tsukemono (again, note the lack of leafy green vegetables in the meal). Oh, and warabimochi! (yay!)

In contrast, Karen was not very hungry, and ordered an udon with fishcakes.

Day 2: Nishijin Textiles, Kyoto Imperial Palace, & Nishiki Market

After seeing the western Arashiyama district yesterday, today we visited central Kyoto -- most notable for the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It is only open for visit under a guided tour by the Imperial Family Agency, and they offer 2 tours a day in English (our turn is at 2pm). So first we're going to visit the Nishijin Textile Center on Imadegawa street, just half a kilometer away from the palace.

The Kyoto subway system, like the streets above, was extremely clean. Rarely did we see litter anywhere; in fact, trash cans were uncommon as well. Everyone lined up in an orderly, single-file line behind markers on the ground.

The train came promptly. We took the north-south subway line 5 stops; the train stations had signs in both Japanese and English, and made getting around possible.

The Nishijin textile center is a demonstration center for the making of kimono and ornamental obi clothing. We made it just in time for their kimono fashion show -- the clothes are so ornate and finely made. We noticed it is common for women to wear kimonos out on the streets as everyday wear (though more plain designs).

A lot of what seems to be a part of such an intricate outfit is how a woman carries herself -- she takes small, graceful steps, and wears these wooden platform shoes that looks to be 2-3 inches thick! The only thing that seemed to break the gracefulness of this show was this huge Chinese tour group that was making a loud ruckus, and taking photos of themselves in front of the models and making little peace-signs for the photos.

While they did not have a formal explanation or tour, we did get to see artisans work at different stations as they each made a part of the kimonos. I never knew it was so complex! Beyond the typical cutting and sewing together of the garment, an artist actually uses an ink and draws a very fine outline of the patterns onto the fabric. Then, the design is hand-painted within the outlined borders (see left), and while the garment is stretched on this small hem, the paint is heated over a stove and the colors slowly change. One of the artists was really nice and asked us our names, and then used his brush pen and wrote, in the finest handwriting ever (like size 1 font), our names on a piece of paper for us... oh, and his hand was not allowed to rest on the paper either. Watching them at work was really quite a treat.

Heading back towards the Imperial Palace, we stopped for lunch at this cute little restaurant along Imadegawa Street (could not understand the shop's name). We both got a set lunch: Karen's had a bowl of udon with fishcakes, tsukemono (pickled vegetables that seem to be sometimes the ONLY vegetable in the meal), and a bowl of rice with salmon and seaweed flakes. I got Tonkatsu (one of my fav's in the US), which is essentially deep-fried breaded pork chop in this really awesome sauce, and that came with a small bowl of udon. It seems that many set meals in Kyoto have both noodles and rice.

NOTE: To those who also love Tonkatsu, yes, this was better than what you can get in the US. Not really sure how just deep-fried pork can be any better or worse, but the breaded crust was flaky and airy, and the sauce just tasted really fresh.

Kyoto became the capitol in 794 A.D. when the emperor moved his administration from the nearby city of Nara where he grew a fear of loss of political control to the powerful monks. From 794 to 1868, the Kyoto Heian Palace, or daidairi, burned down numerous times from warfare, lightning, or household fires. Whenever a new palace is being rebuilt, the emperor’s family would reside in a temporary residence or sato-dairi. The Kyoto Imperial Palace is one such sato-dairi, and the original palace was never rebuilt after it burned down in 1177.

The palace area is huge (~1 square km) – the palace walls are surrounded by an inner courtyard, which is walled off and surrounded by an outer courtyard. Five gates allow access into the palace, of which one only opens for the Emperor, another is for the Empress and the children (which happens to be on the opposite end of the grounds), and another for visiting dignitaries. We entered through this last gate, but could only look through the windows as we were not allowed to go into any of the buildings. All the buildings were made of wood and paper – the roofs were carefully made of hundreds of layers of bark to insulate heat in the snowy winters (see photo on left), and the throne and resting places were open and airy for cooling in the summers. Supposedly, the design was based off of a palace in China, and so the throne faced the south. Despite its splendor, the furnishings seemed very sparse – the emperor laid on simple tatami mats, and appears to have slept on simple matting on the wood floor (the empress slept in a separate room). The cooks and kitchen were located in a totally separate, rock-lined area to reduce the risk of fires.

Interesting fact: Despite all these precautions, one year there was a big fireworks display in Kyoto, and one of the incendiaries flew 1.5km(!) and landed on the palace roof, and caused (again) another big fire. Since then, fireworks have been banned from the city. This current palace has stood since 1855.

The main “quad” inside the palace is constructed of sacred white gravel flanked by a cherry blossom tree on the left and a mandarin orange tree on the right. All the interior pillars are painted with an orange color -- I am unclear if the orange is the same Shinto orange seen in the Fushimi gates (see Day 4), but if so, it is meant to represent the sun and ward off the evil spirits associated with darkness and night. The white and yellow painted at the end of each wooden crossbeam was done to repel termites, but the rest of the surfaces are not treated… go figure.

After the palace, we took the subway to the Nishiki market, a street lined with 100+ shops selling sweets, teas, seafood, tofu, pickled things, and anything else edible for 4-5 city blocks.

Known as "Kyoto's Kitchen", this street has existed for "a few centuries", and many of the shops carried on from generation to generation. Imagine going down this street trying random free samples of each specialty... that was what it was like.

You might be wondering why Keith was smiling like he was in pure joy. It's because there was a shop that made donuts out of tofu. For about 350Yen (~$4 USD), we got a bag of 12 bite-size donuts.

They were quite plain with a little sweet, very slightly bean-y taste, and were very airy and not cake-like at all. Karen, who normally does not eat donuts, said they were "really good" (Karen) too! They were gone in about 47 seconds.

More photos... on the right showing what one of those pickled daikon looked like, and on the left a shop that had braised clams in some broth.

After a few blocks of aggressive food sampling, we got tired and took a break in a mochi shop :). This was an afternoon tea set with four different types of mochi -- warabi mochi on the right, and I can't remember the flavors on the larger plate. Not that it wasn't memorable... just that we ate so much it's hard to remember what was what.

There are a few other interesting streets nearby. There is a covered arcade filled with clothing stores (Teramachi Street), and one filled with restaurants (Pontocho). We went home to nap before heading out for dinner! Thus ended our 2nd day (post edit: much to our worry, our weight didn't change after that day)!