Of the cities visted so far, Kyoto has been the most pleasureable. The cultural capitol, the sprawling city is surrounded by hills and dotted all over by temples. We stayed at the best guest-house possible, Guest House Bon, in the northern part of Kyoto. Though an inconvenient half-hour by bus from the city center including Nishiki market and Gion, the famed geisha quarter, it’s a stone’s throw from several major temples and more importantly, away from the masses of tourists. However the most important factor is ever the human factor, and so it was here. Our host, Taniguchi-san, was an elderly but vivacious man with a weather-seasoned face and an easy grin who spoke enough English to get by easily and more than that truly embodied the Japanese spirit of hospitality. He was ever helping us out and giving us local tips (at the nearby okonomiyaki restaurant we got the best negiyaki -Kyoto style okonomiyaki with tons of spring onions-, for a measly 400 yen) and finding out where we should go for what for us. Whenever we did laundry, he would often hang it up for us and bring it to our rooms, and after our first night’s sleep we woke up to find a large platter of delicious yakitori he had grilled the previous evening at a small local street festival, accompanied by a large note going along the lines of “These are yakitori I left over from yesterday, please help yourselves, if you don’t mind. I apologize for the inconvenience.” Our reaction? Omnomnomnom.
Only in Japan will they apologize for giving you free food XP.
That evening was the 16th: in the evening was the Daimonji, and event when giant fires in the form of kanjis and symbols are lit on 5 hills surrounding Kyoto to see off the spirits of the dead . We spent it the local way, guided by Taniguchi-san to a neighborhood rooftop, along with the local families and their children, from where we could see 3 and a half of them (from most ‘recommended’ public spots only 2, sometimes 3 are visible)! Even from a distance, they loomed enormously in the evening dusk.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself! Daimonji was in the evening, but during the day we decided to head on out to Nara, as it was the last day our JR Pass was valid. Well, Nara is about two things: temples and deer. I’m not much of a religion buff, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Kodama visits Nara!
The next morning I took some time off to recoup, sort through things (yes, this is when I managed to catch up on the blog, all the way to and without Tokushima… >__< blogging takes waaay more time than I imagined, and it simply isn’t compatible with traveling in Japan! Hey, I only have 6 weeks here!), and plan the precious few days in Kyoto before joining everybody else at Nishiki market downtown. Nishiki is awesome! From spice shops
(gaaahhhh, I didn’t buy spices right away thinking I would make a second pass, but never managed T__T), to stalls with konbu, mocha confectionaries to specialist stores of candied fruit, it’s filed with every imaginable ingredient you might need for kyo-ryori, and many other cuisines for that matter.
Best of all, almost every shop had small samples out you could nibble at. From fish to pickles, you can easily tide over a meal in this place! But then, disaster struck >__<. I had scheduled a cooking class for the next day at three thirty. Around three thirty Jonas, a go-playing friend from Zurich who joined us, noticed “hey, but isn’t the class on the 17th? That’s what I saw in the e-mail…”.
“Ehm, sorry but the 17th is today…” S**t!!! I tried calling, but her sister answered, told us she already left for the meeting point and not to worry, just go now…
However the meeting point was at the Arts University of Kyoto, in the north-eastern side of Kyoto! A full hour and a half later we finally arrive, and found a merry white-haired gentle lady waiting for us patiently in the tortuous August heat. Profoundly ashamed, we all tried to apologize, but the more we tried the more she made excuses and then even started to apologize to us >__<. Pease, Japanese, it’s not a contest! We’re only sorry when we really should be, so please let us be! Emi then led us to her beautiful home in the Kyoto suburbs, and started us off, handing out recipes and a short introduction to the most important ingredients, all the while explaining and dishing out specific small tasks to Raph, Jonas, Patrizio and me. It was a truly pleasant evening with a magnificent dining experience a relaxed atmosphere, with Emi cheerfully chatting and joking with us while efficiently managing the cozy small kitchen.
Finally we left sated and educated! She even put us in her blog!
The next morning we rented bicycles from the guest-house and pedalled back to Emi’s home to present her a package of Cailler cooking cacao powder Patrizio had brought from Switzerland specifically, but which we did not have with us the previous day. Emi, we truly hope you enjoy the cocoa and can forgive us for making you wait so long for us. Thank you for the marvelous evening!
After that we proceeded to cycle down the philosophers path, a marvelous small path running through the wooded eastern limit of the city, following a small brook. At one of the first temples we came upon a camera crew filming a traditional series with samurais. If I understood correctly (of which I am by no means certain) the series is called Kunogiri nizaimon, but unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos and we were pressed for time, so we continued rather quickly.
Closer to the center, we visited yet another temple, before joining Jonas and his brother for a stroll through Gion. Unfortunately, we were too late for the geisha demonstrations and we saw none in the quarter itself, though the architecture was very scenic nonetheless and plenty of tourists were dressed up for the part, lending themselves to the backdrop.
Finally, that evening we headed to a special slightly hidden restaurant not far from Gion called Giro Giro, a special tip from Lena (a fellow taiko-drummer back in ZH, thanks!)! Tucked away in a small sidestreet building, several young chefs with somewhat punk haircuts crafted a series of amazingly intricate courses in restaurant kaiseki style but with a very unique modern twist! Unfortunately, I took photos with someone else’s camera, so I’ll do a post-travel post specifically for this restaurant later on. For less than 4’000 yen, the fixed-set dinner was a definite steal and I insist, for anyone passing through Kyoto, look this place up!
Finally on Monday we went to visit Takashi at Kyoto University. Takashi did an exchange at ETH last year and we did tandem together. When I told him I was passing through he organized for us to visit the robotics lab of Matsuno.
The professor gave us a lecture on his research, and then an in-depth presentation by various students of all the current projects, which was extremely cool! Hmmm, studying in Japan could really be an idea…. :D.
He also showed us his project, optimization of ZMP-based walking, which is apparently basically motivated by “my professor likes Gundams” XD. We then had a cool evening at an isakaya with some other friends, and after a much too short stay (we didn’t get to see the thousand tori, nor the bamboo grove T__T), we went on to our next destination: Kiso Valley!