Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Natural Sights

There were a few other points of interest during my trip to Japan, all involving the beauty of the natural landscape in Japan, despite it being the tail-end of winter bleakness. 

Nara, the ancient capital, is very famous for its free-roaming deer. Our hotel was just two blocks down the street from Nara Deer Park, so during our short stay I managed to wake up early one morning to check out the Deer Park. The deer are wild, but they act quite tame and are on the lookout for humans who can feed them. I came across an old lady who was selling "deer crackers." These were flat brown wafers, and the deer definitely know what they are! As soon as I bought a small pack, deer started surrounding me and nosing into the wafers. They can be quite aggressive, though it doesn't seem like they are dangerous.  

When it is obvious that you don't have food, they are very content to just continue on their own business and ignore you. I got a few close up shots without disturbing the deer at all.

On my last day in Kyoto, I went to the Arashiyama area. It's gorgeous, with temples, a famous bamboo forest, preserved streets with little shops and restaurants, and trails through parks. I visited Tenryu-ji, a big Rinzai temple. There were some blossoms coming out! Well worth the 500 yen admission.

This bamboo forest is where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed. The bamboo stalks are so dense and tall; it's such a peaceful short walk.

We wandered across a smaller temple. It looks so lush and green, even in the winter, because of all this moss that covers the ground. Apparently the moss is actually quite delicate and prized.

Though we went to so many temples over the nine days, probably spending around $100 in total for various entrance fees, each one of them had such distinct character - a combination of location, topography, architecture, and plants. I don't know how long one would have to spend in the city to get a good grasp on the layout of all the temple complexes. I didn't get to see some of the more famous ones such as Kiyomizu, but I did get to visit Kodai-ji, Daitouku-ji Complex, the Yasaka Shrine and Heian Shrine, and a few outside of Kyoto as well. 

I can't imagine how breath-taking these places must be during springtime and fall. I'm already planning my next trip back!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Temple Retreat

I was lucky enough to be able to spend a night in a temple during my short visit to Nara, Japan. We stayed at Konen-ji, a temple about 20 minutes from the downtown area. It is located in a fairly rural area, surrounded by farmland, bamboo forests, and winding mountain roads. 

We arrived around 5PM and immediately set about exploring our home for the night. Temples, with their light wooden frames, are not built to be well insulated, though thankfully our host was thoughtful enough to provide us with heaters and thick sleeping pads.  

At 5:30 sharp, dinner was served! We sat around low, long wooden tables, and enjoyed delicious but simple vegetarian fare. Each person had their own set of small dishes to enjoy. 

There aren't many technological diversions available, which thankfully meant that people weren't checking their phones every minute. It was a strange feeling though, to know that we had four or five hours after dinner to just relax, chat, or read - no set plans, no connection with the outside world. 

We all went to bed relatively early, and woke up with the sun for a session of morning meditation. Unfortunately the monk who hosted us only spoke Japanese, so I couldn't understand all of the religious aspects of the practice, but basically we sat on our knees in a peaceful silence, broken only by the reverberating sound of a gong. 

We were fairly chilled after sitting in outdoor temperatures for about half an hour, and glad to head back to our dining area for some breakfast! Again, we were served simple and light Japanese fare. Each person got a sunny side up egg, some mock chicken with seaweed, and there was a communal pot of rice and kettle of tea. 

Before our departure, we had about an hour to wander around the area surrounding the temple. It was absolutely stunning to walk around the Japanese countryside in the early light - so peaceful and idyllic, stunningly minimalist in the winter.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Intangible Cultural Heritage

Do you want to know a cool fact? Japanese cuisine is counted on the list of items considered by the United Nations as "Intangible Cultural Heritage." I thought I knew about Japanese food before this trip - the sushi and sashimi, ramen, and curries - but it really is something unique. The preparation, the ingredients, the composition and the presentation can be as important as the taste of the dish itself. 

I did not have one single bad meal during my time in Japan, even though many times we did not take the time to research good restaurants, instead ducking into random eateries that we stumbled across. The food is light, healthy, yet flavorful, full of fresh vegetables, seafood, and a savory taste. 

For our first lunch, we wandered into a little family restaurant along the path that leads up to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Temple. The owner was quite friendly and ushered our whole group out of the cold into the warm and cozy restaurant. I ordered the specialty of the place, a tofu hot pot. The savory and warming soup was filled with a variety of vegetables, some pieces of an egg omelette, and fish cakes. The tofu was incredibly fresh and soft. 

For another lunch, we went to an udon restaurant. Udon is a type of noodle made of buckwheat. I got a bowl of the udon with lots of fixings, including egg, seaweed, green onion, and mushrooms. A typical bowl of noodles like this in an ordinary restaurant costs about 800 yen, which is equivalent to $8 USD. 

Many of our meals out would be accompanied by an appetizer of pickled vegetables. Sometimes pickles would come out at the end of a meal as well. Kyoto is famous for all sorts of pickles - in markets I would come across vendors selling dozens of pickled vegetables, including daikon radish, eggplant, seaweed, cucumber, almost anything imaginable. They are crunchy and refreshing!

Now you can't go to Japan without having some ramen! We were really fortunate to come across a fantastic ramen shop without doing any prior research - we were walking along a street come lunch time, and we smelled a delicious aroma wafting out from this shop. I am very glad we decided to go in! The shop only had a few types of ramen, including pork and chicken. I got the vegetable ramen cooked in pork broth, which came with a soft-boiled egg on the side.

It was the best ramen I have ever had! The broth was thick and rich, and the noodles were springy, chewy, and fresh. I am never going to back instant ramen again!

One night, we stayed in a temple in the city of Nara. During our temple stay, we were treated to a traditional Buddhist vegetarian meal. We were served lots of small dishes and rice. Everything was cooked simply but was incredibly fresh and tasty. We were given steamed tofu and pumpkin, tempura vegetables, some sort of egg salad with greens, and lots of pickles! The rice was chewy and perfect with a splash of soy sauce. Several people commented to me, "If this is what vegetarian food can be like, perhaps I can become a vegetarian!"

I discovered a new favorite dish - oden. Oden is a savory broth filled with various items such as egg, tofu, fish paste, radish, and seaweed. It's the perfect comfort food on a cold drizzling day. Right before this lunch we had been trekking through the bamboo forest in this area called Arashiyama in eastern Kyoto.

On my last day in the city, my visiting friend and I went to a beautiful shop and cafe in the Gion District. I was craving something hot. This cafe served a matcha au lait, which is the fresh green tea powder mixed with hot milk. My drink was quite fancy! You can't see it in the photo, but there was a tiny gold leaf floating on top of the milk foam. The matcha was so good - slightly bitter, rich, with a deep green tea flavor. None of that fake green tea syrup that they probably use in Starbucks!

I miss Japanese food a lot! Singaporean cuisine can be delicious but it often is so heavy and blunt with its flavors. I hope I can find a good and affordable Japanese restaurant here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Temples Upon Temples

I've never been to somewhere that's so beautiful in the dead of winter. Despite the rain, the dreary skies, the dormant plants, Kyoto struck me as an immaculate and gorgeous place. As the historic capital of Japan for more than a millennia, and a center for Zen Buddhism, the city is incredibly well preserved. There are temples peeking around every corner, nondescript and nameless to foreigners, each one of them a masterpiece of balance, symmetry, and attention to detail.

There are so many UNESCO World Heritage sites that in my nine days in the city, I could only experience a handful. For example, Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple - such a stunning site when lit up by the slanting afternoon rays.

And Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Temple, surrounded by a lush zen garden, even in the middle of winter. I can't even begin to imagine how breathtaking the place must look in April, when all the famous cherry blossoms bloom. Part of the charm of these places is the immaculate attention to order and cleanliness. Each plant, each pathway, each flower is shaped and maintained to perfection. Workers sweep sand off walking lanes and shake dead leaves off of tree branches.  

I was also able to explore sites such as Nijo Castle and Kodai-ji Temple, all located within the city itself. It was amazing how I could walk down busy city streets, full of shops and small restaurants, up a few cobbled pathways, and find myself immersed in a completely different world of nature and silence. The temples are quite empty at this time of year, as it is in between peak seasons for tourism. I enjoyed the emptiness and the stillness. 

One of my favorite places that we visited was the Katsura Imperial Villa, a little bit outside of the city. We had to make a special appointment to book a tour, because the number of tours given per day and the size of the tour groups is limited. The officials there were quite strict about the visit, checking our passports and keeping all the tourists together. I think they were afraid of people disturbing any part of the natural and man-made beauty of the place. The scene felt like a blown-up version of a perfect little bonzai pot. 

Even coffee shops have their own zen garden courtyards! So much peace. Generally, I have found that everything is quieter in Japan, from the announcements in the subway trains to the conversations people have. Everything is a bit more muted, tranquil, and deliberate. Sounds are careful and intentional. 

The food and drink in Kyoto were also amazing, though they deserve a whole separate post!