Friday, June 4, 2010



To understand this blog you must get past my dirty prose: The typos, misspellings, dropped words, prolix and poor taste. I aim to fix all these errors when I get the time, if ever. Double-click the photos to enlarge them and they won't seem so out of focus. To keep reading the whole blog, click on Older Posts at bottom right at the end of the queue.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Kyoto People & Places


Nanzenji (above)  is the temple that anchors Kyoto's Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi), where people take a peaceful strolls along a string of Buddhist temples flanking the eastern hills. The path gets clogged with tourists too often, but on this morning it belonged to locals and their dogs. You can walk all the way to Ginkakuji and pretend you're in the 18th Century.

Ichihara Mamoru is a woodblock print maker in the Gion entertainment district who reproduces ukiyoe masterpieces. I regret walking away without buying a print of a red Bodhidharma.

Shinshindo, a European-style coffee house and bakery, was founded 80 years ago across the street from Kyoto University. I used to go there for breakfast to get their chewy little croissants, which I was disappointed to find are now flakey and buttery like croissant you could get anywhere.. Kyodai students still hang out at Shinshindo studying on the massive oak tables.
Young people have become bicycle crazy since I was living in Kyoto. They jam the sidewalks, where it can be dangerous to pedestrians. I had to dodge these guys zipping past Shinshindo's storefront. The problem isn't kamikaze cyclists like we have in San Francisco. The bike lanes here are on the sidewalk, not the roads. If authorities let them on the streets they'd have the chaos bicycle swarms holding up buses, like Chinese cities did until the 1990s when cars invaded the streets.

The Kamo River courses in grandeur through the heart of the city, where it is flanked by tea houses and restaurants in the Pontocho area famed for its maiko (geisha apprentices). The river was cascading with little white caps the day after heavy rains when I stopped by to squat and drink a grande sutahbakasu (yes, Starbucks has invaded the Ancient Capital).
There I met Hilda Inonara, a dancer, model and musician who came to the Kamogawa this day from the suburbs to sketch the scene by the Sanjo Bridge. Her father was a Japanese journalist who met her mother in Nigeria. She speaks four languages but she's n0t very proud of her drawings. "They'e lousy but I don't care," she said. "I just like to sketch."

Along with ramen carts and back-alley yaki tori tents, the tachi-kui (stand-up eat) soba shop is a mainstay of Japanese fast-food cuisine for the working class. They're still abundant on train platforms, but Fujiwara-san says his soba counter has survived, against the odds,  for 40 years on Shijo Street in the heart of Kyoto's commercial downtown, an area of ritzy department stores and tourist traps swarmed by a young generation looking for the next McDonald's.

Kyoto is a town of readers, students and scholars, hosting 22 universities, and it keeps its used booksellers busy. I visited the one in my old Asukai-cho neighborhood where I used to browse. I purchased from Mr. Kobayashi a reproduction of an old panoramic map of the city and a book of illustrations by a Taisho-era artist who lovingly depicted moga (modern gals) from the roaring 20s, in and out of kimono. 

My friend Charlie Fox, a professor at Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University, is a regular at an authentic British Pub in this Takagamine neighborhood, as authentic as Western things get in Japan. I ordered a basket of fusion fish and chips fried in tempura batter and drank Bushmills. The proprietor, Matsumiya-san,  told Charlie that the first English words he learned in middle school were Mr. Brown, a character in a textbook dialogue, so he named his pub Browns.

High Culture, Low Culture, Counter Culture


On my last night in town I dined on delicate Kyoto cuisine with my old girlfriend Naomi, visited a master shiatsu massage therapist for work my bruised (cracked?) ribs, and ended the evening drinking beer at Hachimonjiya, a retro-70's counter-culture bar in the Kiyamachi nightlife district.

The bruised (cracked?)  ribs I sustained in an incident at an enchanted garden, one that is so exalted it is rarely open to the public. I was minding my own business when I tripped on a stepping stone and rammed face forward into a tree then spun around and crashed sideways into a priceless stone basin called a tsukubai. Luckily, the polycarbonite lenses on my glasses saved my right eye and the bamboo implements atop the tsukubai were not damaged by my fall, otherwise I'd have to sell my house. 

Regrettably, the snapshots I took of the garden in question are strictly prohibited from being posted on the internet. At right is the tsukubai at the famous Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple, to give you an idea of what I almost wrecked.

Hachimonjiya is a smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall joint on the 3rd floor of an unassuming building off the splenid Kiyamachi canal. It's a fire trap jammed with stacks of old books and magazines and patronized by scraggly chain-smoling bohemians. I met a jazz saxophonist and an unemployed movie sound engineer. The owner is a Kyoto photographer named Kai Fusayoshi who was absent that night because he was in Paris for an exhibition of his work.

Kai is also one of the founders (in 1972) of Honyarado, the iconic coffee house and woodsy hotbed of folk music, poets and political activists.  Honyarado was empty when I dropped by for coffee. Activist posters and handbills were plastered on the walls  and a soundtrack of early Bob Dillon filled the air - reassuringly frozen in time.

For a feel of what folk-rock music was like in Japan during early 1970s, well before  J-Pop rock schlock,  click on the following link. Originally I had a link to a  great video featuring  middle aged Haruomi Hosono and his Happy End (はっぴえんど) band mates performing live the iconic Natsu Nandesu, but it disappeared from YouTube. This click sends you t an audio file dressed up with photos  of the album cover. Best I can do. The song is a nostalgic portrait of  a neighborhood in Tokyo, not Kyoto,  but it gives you the feeling of the lost era.

Natsu Nandesu 

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