Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 14: Kyoto

April 14: Kyoto

A dead indigo leaf
and yet - isn't there still something
remaining in it?


Straight ahead

Pictures: From the Indigo dyer stop, the Miho Museum (including one of Steve) and a couple of the ceramic pieces from the afternoon stop

Last night we saw two geisha and one chaperone entering the hotel. These girls (15 at the most) looked highly uncomfortable, the outfits cannot be that easy to assemble and then walk around in, maybe okay for sitting down and giggling a lot?

Another trip first: I actually use the fitness center this morning, from 6:30 to 7:15. I am the only one there among what must be 20 different equipment options. Watch sports center while listening to my i-touch (DB’s old i-phone now disassociated from AT&T, we can use it as a phone with Skype if there is wi-fi available …nifty!). And, I get to wear my own shoes, no triple switch that was on at the Fukuoka Hyatt. (Steve explains why we haven’t seen that many i-phones: they’ve just been released for sale here in Japan.)

Breakfast revelation: DB finds “chocolate thing” muffins, bringing back Proustian thoughts of home and walking to Arizmendi. I show much restraint and decide to limit myself to just one walk. We also learn a new word at breakfast: skoshee, which means “just a little bit.” Ahhhhhhhh, just a skosh more room, the famous Dockers ad, now makes sense.

And, we have finally cleared up one mystery: why no napkins. In the nice places, we always get a wet, warm towel at the start of the meal. In US, this is given when you sit at the sushi counter, then it is taken away and you get a napkin. In Japan they leave the towel and we are supposed to use it as a napkin from that point on. Sometimes we also get a napkin, the towel is always left throughout the meal.

A second mystery has been solved. On the way to the pork cutlet dinner last night we heard a huge bird racket coming from trees near the restaurant. Steve explains this is a “swallows returning to Capistrano” type situation, happens at this time of year.

A third mystery remains unsolved: Steve says that the mock charred wood siding we have been seeing is real, and is charred wood. Let us just say that I am not convinced.

And, last night we visited a Pachinko/Slot machines parlor. The reason I haven’t mentioned it, other than delaying the report on the rest of this day, is that we were there for around 3.75 seconds (let me see, 2 seconds in, 1.75 seconds leaving). It is so deafening that before we can even see what is going on we have turned around and are heading for the exit. If you can stand it, there has to be some serious deficiency in hearing. Unbelievable din. Impossible to describe. REALLY LOUD. Metrodome on deciding pitch of the World Series loud by factor of two.

Steve has arranged the day using a private car. First stop is an indigo dyer whose family has been making dyed cotton, silk, and paper for centuries. He and his son give us a demonstration all the way from showing where the indigo plants are grown, harvested, turned into compost (yes, we see the brown mud of the leaves), then kept in vats dug into the earth in a room attached to their house (the compost is in a separate building). Much of the process is reminiscent of both my Levi’s denim days and the making of wine (almost a fermentation process that creates the different strength dyes). The father is wearing a cotton jacket that is 150 years old and looks brand new (except for the holes at the elbows).

Here’s the connection: he makes yarns and sells them to high end stores. His US distributor is in NY. DB has bought yarn from a high-end store in NY to make sweaters. Much awe shown in Japanese as DB gives the name of the store, it is of course his US distributor’s store. Major points made! We buy a skein, I see a scarf in my future.

As we are leaving, Steve explains the “turn and wave” move that has eluded us so far. The people being visited will always come out and wave goodbye. As the visitors are walking (or driving) away, they must continue to turn and wave to the hosts for as long as there is the possibility of eye contact.

We decide to eat in the car to save time before our next stop, the Miho museum. We go to a local supermarket, buy 3 large portions of sushi, two drinks, two gourmet apples, a box of (excellent) strawberries and one baum (kurchen, cake that originated in Germany or Austria and is now made in Japan). All for less than $30. The sushi here is better than what we had out the other day, or at least it is what we are used to in US. Steve thinks it is high quality partly because the market has a serious fish market inside.

The Miho museum has been created by a religious organization called Shinji Shumeikai that believes in world peace, eating organic, and promoting art, and they do not proselytize. They have 300,000 members, mostly in Japan. Hmmmmm…so far, the main platform seems more like the Green Party with some art thrown in than a religion! Steve says they are not really a cult, there is a big exit door if you want to leave.

One member donated $500 million to build this museum, and in one wing are posted a lot of her favorite sayings (Don’t worry, pray and wait). I find it obnoxious, mock proselytizing, DB thinks the aphorisms make sense and represent the aspirations of the major donor. The museum was designed by I. M. Pei and is spectacular in its setting and entrance. We are here mid-week and it is very, very crowded. Ahhhhhhh, the cherry blossoms are in absolute peak and the locals know it and are here for one final viewing. It is spectacular, and we appreciate it even though we have seen a ton of blossoms already.

The art is all antiquities, some from Japan, some from Mesopotamia era (Roman) and lots of different representations of Buddha. Most are well displayed though I am as always concerned that the dim lighting makes for very poor viewing, and there are some pieces that are very hard for me to see. I sometimes wonder why I see so many old people in museums, I can’t be the only one having trouble with eyesight. The old stone pieces are well lit. All the attributions are in both Japanese and English, as are the major donors sayings (obviously) and the mini-overview of her philosophy that accompany the sayings.

Near the end of the museum tour, we meet up with the local leader of a tour that was in Naoshima when we were there, an international art group based in Houston that Donna looked at as part of the inspiration for our trip. The leader, Maree, chats us up It turns out she now lives in College Station (Joe is our God). When we introduce Steve, she starts gushing! He is the early innovator of the art tour here in Japan, and is much revered. Of course, they have colleagues in common now (most worked with Steve at one time or other before going out on our own). Maree tells us we are very fortunate. We tell her that us LA homies stick together.

As we travel to see a local well-known ceramicist and his wife (also a ceramicist) we pass through quite a bit of well tended tea farms. Not the unruly plantations of S. India, these are neat, mounded rows of tea bushes. Very Japanese.

The ceramicist gives us a brief overview with Steve interpreting. Some interesting shapes and much discussion of the process with DB. Though his wife speaks English somewhat, she stays in the background and does the serving of tea and sweets; we only really get to talk to her at the end of our visit, and of course realize that they know some of the people that we are familiar with, like Richard Shaw (who has spent time at the local school and teaches at Berkeley).

We head back into Kyoto to visit a contemporary jewelry store, pretty much the only one in Kyoto. Of course, here there is also much overlap between who the gallery owner and DB know. A few artists that are in DB’s collection are on display here, most are Japanese artists we are unfamiliar with.

We head to a local cafe, Tully’s (yes, the same one), for cappuccinos, $11 for three (same-same!) to do a final review of our upcoming days without Steve in Kyoto and making sure we have our logistics set for when we meet again in Tokyo. Steve is ultra-versed in the current and ancient arts of Japan and we have learned a lot today as well as seen much we could not get to on our own.

We take his dinner recommendation (after the pork cutlets, we are begging for more in that vein, spots that the locals know about and the concierge would never recommend) and eat at a small country-style restaurant, Iijaren. Not only is it small, we are the only two eating there (at least nobody else came in while we were there from 6:30 to 8:30), and at Steve’s request we have a set menu, so there is no need for discussion. Since we are the only two and our waitress / co-owner speaks good English, we take the opportunity to ask about each course.

Here’s what we had:
- Combo of small tastes: potato salad (intense flavor, one small spoonfui), octopus in vinegar, and chopped tofu with egg on top
- Hata sashimi (maybe something like red snapper)
- Chicken in brine with burdock and greens
- Large (not giant) clam with tofu in broth (so, sort of a soup course)
- Tuna salad made with wasabi and nori and no mayonnaise
- Braised shrimp with tofu and mushrooms, broth thickened with lotus root
- Vermicelli noodles with tofu and mushrooms, in broth
- Azuki beans and agar jello with sweet mugwort rice balls accompanied by tea (we turned down the first tea)
- Sake and one small beer

Total is $80, and one of the better meals we’ve had in recent memory. We feel like we’ve been to Riva Cucina in the early days, a great place with not near enough customers. Of note: NO RICE!!!! That’s a first for us with this type of meal. DB saw the chef and waitress (clearly a young couple) eating rice while we were eating, so they had it made (in case we asked for it? Who knows!).

And, as we are climbing into the cab for the hotel, the couple has come outside the restaurant to see us off. So, as we climb in, we do the turn and wave back; much bowing and waving and smiling on their part and waving and twisting on ours.


  1. acommon theme i've noticed in all your travels is that you're much less than 6 degrees away from many people in the world- one or two maybe!

  2. sooooooo true, especially in narrow genres...