Sunday, June 29, 2014

Kyoto Day 1 - The Bike Tour, Local Myths, and Japanese Pancakes

Stages of Dealing with a Scheduling Mistake,
as observed on a train from Tokyo to Kyoto

Stage 1:  Denial

Amanda:  What day is the food tour?

Jason:  checks the schedule  Monday.

Amanda:  That can't be right.  We didn't schedule a food tour for the same day as the bike tour, did we?  checks the schedule   Huh.  We must have.  The bike tour is on the 29th.

Jason:  That's weird.  That doesn't seem like something we would do.
Amanda:  Right?  But I guess we did.  Maybe the food tour is shorter?  We can probably do both.

Jason:  What day is it today?

Amanda:  The 29th is tomorrow, so it must be the 28th.

Jason:  checks the calendar  Nope.  Today's the 29th.

Amanda:  So, the bike tour is today.

Jason:  Yes.

Amanda:  And it starts at 1:00 PM.

Jason:  Yes.

Amanda:  And our train doesn't arrive until 1:45 PM.

Jason:  Yes.

Amanda:  That can't be right.  We don't make mistakes like that.

Jason:  No.

Amanda:  But we did this time.

Jason:  Yes.

Amanda:  Well, crap.

Stage 2:  Depression

Both subjects are consumed with guilt over making a mistake and fear of disapproval from invisible authority figures.  Memories of being chastised as chidren for running on the playground that one time or for making a mistake on that one homework assignment haunt them as they watch the countryside pass, unable to turn back time or undo this mistake.  Their names are on the board and the teacher might put a check mark by them next.  A check mark!  Woe!  Woe!

They sink into painful silence, burrow into themselves, and let a troubled sleep overcome them.

Stage 3:  Acceptance

Amanda writes an email to the bike tour agency explaining the situation.  Jason offers word choice and phrasing "suggestions" over her shoulder that remove any admittance of fault on their part for the scheduling issue (Lawyered!).

Stage 4: Action

30 minutes outside of Kyoto, an email arrives:  If they meet the tour guide by 2:30 PM, they can still do the tour.

The subjects spring into action.  Amanda goes to the back of the car to pull a pair of pants out of her suitcase and demonstrates great feats of balance and dexterity by changing out of her skirt in the tiny train bathroom.  Jason raids his bags for granola bars and almonds as a makeshift lunch.  They research possible places to store luggage at the train station and email the tour group for a map to their offices.

By the time the train pulls into Kyoto, they are dressed, fed, and standing at the door ready to spring out and dash across the station as soon as the train comes to a complete stop.  It does and they do so.  They accomplish feats of travel with such prowess that surely they would not only win the Amazing Race, they would have time to enjoy a nine course Michelin meal while the other teams are still figuring out the metro maps.

They arrive at the rendezvous point where the guide and bikes are waiting with two minutes to spare.

Conclusion:  They win at travel.

The Bike Tour

Eriko, our guide, led us on a four hour tour of the northwest parts of Kyoto.  After going over the rules of the road and a bit of practice runs on the bikes, we headed first for Ronkuon-ji, the Golden Pavillion:

As you might expect in a region where wood is the primary buiding material, this temple was reconstructed numerous times after burning.  The current building dates to 1955, and sits in a temple complex that also features classical gardens.  It was also the most crowded site we'd been to thus far:

After time for several pictures, Eriko led us around to some of the other sights in the complex, providing details with the help of her laminated flip book:

A really old bonsai tree that's supposed to be shaped like a ship.

Interior of the tea house:

After a tour of the grounds and much admiration of the moss on our part (to Eriko's amusement), we hopped back on the bikes and headed to Ryoan-ji, the site of a famed rock garden:

I have never felt much admiration or affection for Zen rock gardens, but I did appreciate some of the optical tricks at play here.  For example, the surrounding walls are built taller on the near side of the entrance to give the illusion of a much bigger garden.  There are 15 rocks alltogether set in five groups; however, there is no point in the garden from which you can see all 15 rocks.  At least one is hidden from every angle, thus symbolizing our inability to see and know the world in its entirety.

They do provide a model of the garden near the entrance, though:

I can totally see all 15 rocks there.

We also walked around the building surrounding the garden, admiring the doors and painted screens:

(Look at that moss!  How can you not be charmed by it?)

Eriko pointed out the line of red buckets off the back porch, the temple's current fire plan.

Lovely flowers, though.

Around back Eriko showed us a small island with a shrine built on it:

We noted the rocks along the top of the torii gate:

Eriko explained that people put a rock on top to make a wish.  We obligingly joined in, adding our rocks to the stacks.

Later, in Koyasan, I noticed similar piles of rocks on the stone torii gates in the cemetary.  When I pointed them out to my guide there, he told me the legend behind that tradition:

"When children die," he told me, "they go to hell as punihment for the sorrow and sufferng they have caused their parents by dying."  (My reaction to that statement was something along the lines of "!!!!!?!!?" but I tried my best to keep a non-judgey look on my face.)   "In hell, the children gather rocks and stack them up to try to climb out of hell and into heaven.  But the demons come every day and scatter the rocks.  Then, a Bodhiattva hears the cries of the children and takes pity on the children and picks them up in her hand and lifts them up into heaven."

At which point he nodded once, as if all was explained, and continued down the path.

Also in the vein of charming-turned-depressing local traditions, I asked Eriko why the rocks were wearing aprons:

Not aprons, but bibs, she explained.  Mothers who miscarry or whose children die young tie bibs around these old local shrines to pray for protection for their lost children.  We saw these bibbed stones everywhere - temples, shrines, in the cemetary, and on street corners in the neighborhoods we cycled through.  

This was my second favorite part of the tour - seeing the small streets and quiet homes in the parts of town we wouldn't have crossed otherwise.  We passed through a number of neighborhoods on our way to stop #3:  Hirosawa Pond:

To Eriko's surprise, the pond and the small island on it were hopping with people.  We inquired and discovered that the families were there to let the kids catch crawdads using dried pieces of squid tied to string on bamboo sticks:

There were stone Buddha statues on the island that protect the lake:

There were also, as you saw earlier this week, lots of insects that went after my juicy Western legs quicker than crawdads go after dried squid on a string.

We cycled next through the nearby rice paddies:

And back into neighborhoods:

before arriving here:

Takekaido: the famed bamboo forest of Arashiyama.  It was stunning, and Eriko could not believe how quiet it was.  She said it's usually packed with tourists, but we had it entirely to ourselves for a few wonderful, serene minutes.

After taking ten times as many photos as I'm posting here at the top of the forest path, we got back on the bikes to cruise downhill between the trees.  Those 30 seconds or so of gliding through that green path were not only my favorite part of the bike tour, but are easily some of the best moments of our entire trip.  It was simply lovely.

Our final stop was the Togetsu Bridge:

We admired the bridge and took the apparently obligatory photos in front of it just as the rain began again in earnest (although it had very nicely held off for most of our tour).  We dropped our bikes off for the company to pick up and Eriko walked us back to the train station to head back to the main station to retrieve our luggage.  She pointed out the decorated poles along the street - there's a big festival next week.

A couple of stores had their own handmade versions of the streamers.  The tradition is to write wishes on papers that you then tie to blow in the breeze:

Once we picked up our luggage, we heaved sighs of relief that we had managed to pull off the bike tour after the train ride fiasco.  We dragged the bags back to the main station and, with some issue, located the shuttle for our hotel.

We checked in to the Westin Miyako (good location, good prices for the quality, if a little run-down) and headed across the street to a restaurant Eriko had recommended:

There we found spots at the bar (grilll?) and ordered the house specialty:  okonomiyaki - Japanese pancakes.

The batter is traditionally made of flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs, and shredded cabbage.  We added pork and "Welsh onions" to our orders, and the cooks served the pancakes to us on a hot grill in front of our places:

Our utensils included a handy spatula:

and a variety of condiments:

We also indulged in some veggies - edamame:

and grilled corn with butter (which was delicious!):

We topped off the meal with a tempting dessert called "one bite mango":

It seemed to be mango ice cream with a chunk of mango dipped in white chocolate.  Yum!

We were also presided over by a friendly ghost:

Then back to the hotel to finish our blog posts about Tokyo before bed:


  1. I love your train scene. That's so me. You describe the dread and shame and triumph perfectly! Also, aprons with rocks make me super sad.

  2. As an amazing race fan, I always thought you guys would totally win that game.