Luxury Travel: Kyoto Winter Haiku

The city of Zen and Geisha co-exists tenuously with the modern: vending machines blink outside temples while funky-haired teens pass shiny-headed priests.
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Kinkakuji Temple.

DAY 1:  The Modern Ancient

It’s a crisp and clear winter afternoon outside the bustling Teramachi-dori covered shopping arcade. It’s a long way from the crowded streets near Tokyo Station where the sleek Nozomi Super Express Shinkansen train departs as the first leg of JR Central and the Japan Tourism Bureau (JTB)’s 3-Day Kyoto Shinkansen Tour. One would assume that as you speed south you would trade Tokyo’s cutting edge for something more traditional, yet every inch of this narrow alley shopping corridor is crammed with fashionably-dressed Japanese teens sporting the de rigueur looks of Harajuku and Shibuya. If Japan is experiencing a graying of society, you wouldn’t know it.

It’s not the fashion-forward urbanite scene that is my first impression of Kyoto – in between the slender boutiques pushing faux vintage t-shirts, retro Nikes, action figurines, and eclectic accessories – like metallic Star Wars lunch boxes transformed into handbags – I spot ancient temples and shrines dating back to as early as the 13th century. Like Ledo Pizza’s on Massachusetts Avenue, vestiges of the Kyoto’s past survive as ancient islands in a sea of modern commercialism.

The amount of history in Kyoto is staggering. This former imperial capital with a population of roughly 1.5 million boasts 103 temples and shrines, 17 of which have been deemed World Heritage Sites. Its 1,200-year history is a window into the forces that have forged Japanese society. In winter, without the crush of the cherry blossom season or hustle of summer, travelers get a purer glimpse into the soul of this ancient town built into the hills and valleys of the Eastern, Northern, and Southern mountain ranges.

Staying at a Ryokan (Japanese style hotel) is a great way to slip into Kyoto’s cultural mind set. I’ve chosen Ryokan Yoshi-ima in the Gion district, which is famous for its chaya nightclubs where Geisha perform. The residence is sanctioned by JTB and has been considered luxury since 1747. It’s not “Western” luxury by any stretch – the accommodation is a 200 square-foot minimalist wooden room. Inside, a low table has been placed dead center and a small porcelain pot of green tea awaits. There is a lone wooden floor chair with a thin cushion. The “closet” is a wood clothing rack adorned with five hangers. The floor is made up of five grass tatami mats. The walls are dried clay and the sliding door is Washi paper. How is it possible that these homes withstand both cold winters and hot summers? The bed, a futon, winter haiku the city of Zen and Geisha co-exists tenuously with the modern: vending machines blink outside temples while funky-haired teens pass shiny-headed priests.

A "maiko" apprentice Geisha.

Kinkaku Temple with its golden pavilions stands out against the monochromatic backdrop of winter. It’s all an example of wabi sabi – a Japanese design concept inspired by an affection for nature and a desire to preserve, discover, and replicate natural beauty within the built environment. The same principle inspires ceremonial tea houses with ceilings lower than tree limbs and Zen gardens that miniaturize the four seasons (somewhat how Disney’s EPCOT Center attempts to do with the world.) It takes patience for Westerners to absorb this Feng Shui – to borrow a Chinese term. Indeed, this is not the Magic Kingdom’s Grand Floridian resort. But living like this, even for three days, provides travelers with a deeper appreciation for Kyoto … in addition to a stiff neck – I recommend stretching.

It’s 7 p.m. and like clockwork a kimono-clad lady knocks politely at the door. She enters and begins to serve a multi-course Zen-inspired meal that includes gohan (rice), a small fish filet, goma dofu (sesame tofu), aemono (a chilled salad-like dish), tsubakizara (boiled bean curd, raw wheat gluten, mushrooms, and vegetables spiced with citron), and miso soup. The dishes are divinely simple and simply delicious.

As she precisely places the delicate tableware at pre-determined angles, she inquires why I’m not watching television. I reply that I’m not into TV. She says she is. I inquire what she enjoys watching, stereotypically assuming she’ll say, “gardening” or Good Morning Japan or something. With a glimmer in her eye she quips, “boxing” – not everything in Japan is as it seems.

After dinner, I stroll the Gion district hoping to spot Geisha and Maiko (Geisha in training). I see several as they scoot nimbly from their cars to inside a restaurant overlooking Shirakawa Creek, which has meandered peacefully through the middle of the Gion district for centuries. There is no doubt I’m in Kyoto.

While out, the staff at Yoshi-ima have cleared my dishes away, pushed the table aside, and rolled out the futon. After a long day of traveling from past to modern and back again, I’m ready to hit the floor.

DAY 2: Finding Zen … and Noodles, Whiskey and Machiyas

It’s early and the only other souls on the streets are stone-faced school kids braving the chilly morning air. The silence is magical. It draws me in, forcing me to notice lightly snow-dusted rooftops, to hear a carp’s swish in a garden pond, and to listen to the breeze as it whips through the leaf-less treetops … it’s all very wabi sabi.

Ten minutes later, I arrive at Shoren-in Temple. Its imposing size, intricate woodwork and, yet, understated beauty, are captivating. I make my way through the colossal entrance gate, past the main shrine, up a labyrinth of stairs, and head deep into the mountainside, eventually finding a small pagoda-shaped sub- temple to sit beside and ponder. I reach for a pen to record my thoughts as a Buddhist monk in a traditional black robe turns the corner. He is in a meditative state but nods cordially before bowing and entering the sub-temple. Moments later, three loud chimes break the morning silence and remind me that I have an appointment to study Zazen meditation across town.

For US$70 (cash only), Taizo-temple offers the “experience Zen” package, which includes meditation, calligraphy, a tea ceremony, a delicious vegetarian Zen-inspired lunch, and an English-guided tour.

After a 10-minute taxi ride, I’m pleasantly greeted by Taizo-in Temple deputy priest . The young-looking 32-year old, who spent time studying in Boston and professes to be a Red Sox fan, is doing his best to bring Zazen meditation to the general public. For US$70 (cash only), Taizo-in offers the “experience Zen” package, which includes meditation, calligraphy, a tea ceremony, a delicious vegetarian Zen-inspired lunch, and an English-guided tour.

Taizo-in Temple

During our tour, Matsuyama points out a replica of the Hyonenzu (“Catching a Catfish with a Gourd”) masterpiece scroll. The original painting, a National Treasure, shows a man on a riverbank holding a small gourd. Near the shore a large catfish swims by. Painted in the 14th century by Josetsu, the founder of Japanese ink painting, the scroll presents a conundrum that Zen Buddhists having been pondering for centuries: Just how just does one fit a large catfish fish into a small gourd? Inscribed above the befuddled fisherman, 31 different Zen masters have written their solutions.

I’m not so presumptuous as to assume that during our 20-minute meditation class I’ll crack this ancient riddle. Instead, Matsuyama asks me to simply count numbers to stop my mind from wandering. I get situated in the properly-seated position and he begins his lesson: “Zen accepts all aspects as they are,” he says, “We cannot find wisdom in duality.” Perhaps this is why nothing seems to be black and white in Kyoto.

My next stop is nearby Shunko-in Temple to meet another Zen instructor, Rev. Takafumi Kawakami. For $18 visitors can study Zen meditation with Kawakami, tour the temple, and enjoy a bowl of green tea. Like most priests in Japan, Kawakami’s father is the head priest of his temple. Yet, this son’s path to Zen was anything but typical. “I rebelled when I was young,” he admits with a grin, “I asked my father if I could go overseas to study, and he agreed. I enrolled at Arizona State University, but eventually wound up discovering Zen at a community center in Phoenix. I even worked at Starbucks. It’s not a typical path, but in Zen Buddhism, we learn to accept things as they are.”

One thing Kawakami doesn’t seem to accept is the rapid modernization of his city. He has been working in conjunction with an Oregon University professor on the Kyoto Architecture Project in order to create a plan to protect the city’s historical look and feel. “Kyoto has 17 world heritage sites. Those are protected,” he explains, “but in between we can have a pachinko (gambling) parlor or a bright yellow bike shop. We need to maintain a consistent historic feel otherwise we will lose what makes Kyoto special.”

Restaurant has been serving delicious buckwheat noodles from the same location for about 500 years.

I’ve left the Zen priests to ponder their philosophical conundrums and gaudy golden arches, and wandered back to central Kyoto to sample the city’s famous Soba noodles. Restaurant Honke-Owariya has been serving delicious buckwheat noodles from the same location for about 500 years. The specialty is Hourai Soba ($17) – cold Soba served in a tower of five circular pans. Patrons prepare each pan separately using soy sauce and eight side toppings, including mushrooms, sliced egg, sesame horse-radish, seaweed, leek, deep-fried shrimp, grated white radish, and grated red pepper. It’s a scrumptious end to a full day of traditional Japanese pursuits. Now, I’m refueled and ready to explore more non-traditional nocturnal pursuits.

In the Gion district, you can sign up for JTB’s Kyoto Maiko Night ($100) to enjoy a traditional dinner and dance show at Kacho in Chion-in Temple; but you don’t have to pay to see Maiko. Strolling the streets of the district one can still spy the traditional dancers scurrying about. But ninety-five percent of the entertaining now is done by young women and men in designer digs sporting cutting-edge hairstyles. In Kiyamachi or Ponto-cho near Kyoto station you will find a number of different pubs, bars, clubs, and host and hostess clubs. All tend to be rather small and piled on top of each other in narrow five to six-story apartment buildings. The host and hostess clubs are not as seedy as one might think – although, there can be exceptions. In the tradition of Geisha, customers pay upwards of $65 to spend an hour drinking with the companionship of a host or hostess, who pours your drink and laughs dutifully at your comments.

A more approachable and family-oriented experience is having dinner or staying at a machiya. These traditional townhouses of Kyoto’s merchant class represent an important architectural link to the city’s past. However, a Kyoto University study showed that from 1978 to 1988 approximately 50,000 wooden structures were torn down in the city, a high percentage of which were machiya. The future was looking dismal for the homes until restaurant owners and developers began converting them into upscale dining establishments, hotels, and condos. Again, old and new dance precariously – although restaurants have saved a number of machiya from being razed, some residents worry about over-renovation. For a sampling of machiya style, try dinner at Giro Giro Hitoshina, book a room at (it offers a concierge service), or rent out an Iori Weekly Machiya.

DAY 3: Feeling Crafty

I awake to the sounds of tapping at my door and the lingering affects of too much Suntory Whiskey. I’m scheduled to enjoy traditional food and handy crafts today; but first, I must make my pilgrimage to a few of the city’s famous sites. As well as being neighbors, Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and temples are World Heritage Sites. My favorite is Kinkakuji, with its magnificent strolling garden highlighted by a golden pavilion placed in the middle of a large pond. The top two stories are covered with pure gold leaf (talk about Zen bling) and it functions as a sharidien – a place that houses relics of the Buddha. The mysterious Zen garden at Ryoanji is also a must – it’s been “the” place to ponder for nearly four centuries.

At lunch I’m treated to the gourmet delicacies of Imobou Hiranoya Honke. The menu at this 300 year-old restaurant changes monthly in order to best utilize seasonal ingredients, yet one menu item has always remained constant – the Imobou dish. Consisting of a taro potato and a small cod filet placed in a soy sauce broth, it is served in the middle of the six-course Kyoto Cuisine Imobou Kaiseki lunch ($80). During the homemade desert, Mrs. Kitamura, the owner’s wife, comes out to greet us. She is wearing a kimono and is gracious in thanking us for our patronage. It’s a moment that has played out countless times over the hundreds of years during which the establishment has been in business.

Unfortunately there is no time to linger, as I am booked for a Tofu making classes at the Kyocera Museum of Fine Art and Ceramics. A tour of the museum plus a 45-minute class costs $90, but after such a filling lunch, I’m not too keen to look at tofu. Still, the museum and its fine art collection are well worth the price of admission.

Doll making is another traditional Japanese craft and the Ando Doll Shop is home to perhaps the most well-known doll maker in the country – master craftsman Tadao Ando, who presides over the family business, has been designated a living national treasure. His shop is open to visitors interested in buying or learning about the intricate and elaborately decorated Hina dolls used during the annual March 3rd Hina Festival, during which families pray for their young daughters’ growth and happiness. Although the clothes for the dolls are beautiful, what I find most interesting is that the doll heads and decorative pieces are sourced from other vendors around Kyoto. The Andos, like many small businesses these days, are grappling with rising costs, so, they have slowly started to reduce costs by sourcing from Chinese vendors. It’s a tough choice: adapt your business to stay profitable in the global economy at the risk of damaging long-standing relationships, or maintain relationships and decrease profitability. The realities of the modern world touch even the most traditional corners of Japan.

Historic photo of Heihachi Tea House Inn, established in 1576, located along the Takano River

At the Heihachi Tea House Inn, located along the bucolic Takano River overlooking Mt.Hiei in the East, the modern world seems like a distant memory. The Inn has been at the crossroads of Kyoto commerce since it opened its doors to hungry travelers in 1576. Indeed, many a famous writer has waxed poetically of the Inn’s serene charm and salty mackerel. From its 400 year-old Kigyumon gate, to the kimono-clad waitresses, and traditional private tatami mat dining rooms, Heihachi is a hidden gem.

Times haven’t always been peaceful here – during the turbulent Edo Period (1603 to 1867), the Tea House was regarded as a secret headquarters of Emperor’s side, and was often invaded by Shogun troops. Visible swords marks can still been seen on a few of the walls and pillars of the inn.

I order the Wakasa Kaiseki six-course dinner ($100 to $200). The meal, named for the highway the Inn has been situated on for centuries, is based around seafood. It can be pricey, but patrons can expect a unique experience where each impeccably prepared dish is an edible piece of art. During winter, Nabemono dishes, such as shabu-shabu and duck or wild boar stew are the norm.

The (Flower Lantern Lane Festival) held each winter.

After such a decadent meal, I burn off some calories by heading back into town to enjoy the Hanatouro Masturi (Flower Lantern Lane Festival). During this winter festival, Kyoto’s famous temples, shrines, historical and cultural facilities, and streets are adorned with ground lanterns and ikebana artwork.

As I stroll the centuries old cobble stoned streets, I am transported back in time … that is until the flashing illuminations and bouncy ring tone of a mobile phone in hands of the laughing Japanese teen brings me back to here and now. She passes by more interested in the lyrics of a J-pop groove than the ancient whispers of the nearby illuminated bamboo grove. This is Kyoto past and present, and I am happy to, in the name of Zen, accept it exactly as it is.

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