Monday, October 22, 2012



Daitokuji is a Rinzai Zen temple in northern Kyōto that is surround by a passel of semi-autonomous sub-temples under its administration in a sprawling compound. It was founded in 1315 and rebuilt in the mid-1400s  after being destroyed by fire. The printmaker's studio where I'm staying is a block away from the norther perimeter of Daitokuji, so I often walk  through it's paths going here to there.

Gate of the main temple
  Kyōto is is a Rinzai Zen town, meaning this sect of Zen Buddhism is dominant compared to the rival Sōto Zen sect. The two are pretty much the same in terms of their teaching, but they have separate lineages from ancient Zen masters in China. Rinzai monks claim their meditation practice is more rigorous.   

He bowed as he Hustled to the Main Temple
One common interpretation is that Rinzai priests like to attain enlightenment in a flash while Sōto priests take their time.  Who knows? Sōto Zen has by far the most temples and congregations throughout Japan and it's more common in America and in particular California. 

A Pathway
A Sub-temple

Kyōto's Kisssaten


Coffee houses are ubiquitous in the Kyōto cultural scene. The classic kissaten, the name given to neighborhood coffee and tea shops in Japan, is under siege by foreign and local coffee chains across the nation. Kyōto's kissaten have suffered notable casualties in the coffee wars, but this is a college town, with 37 institutions of higher learning, and the corner coffee shops are still thriving despite the Starbucks invasion.  One thing to bear in mind: Decaf coffee is nowhere to be found in Japan. The whole point is stimulation.

Coffee Smart

Coffee Smart

Coffee Smart is one of the originals. It's been roasting and serving coffee on the Teramachi shopping street since 1932.


Honyarado is of a more recent vintage, serving
the counter-culture folk scene since 1972 outside
the gates of Doshisha University

Honyarado got it's name from a classic manga

Kamogawa Café

This is a nice place but the name is misleading. It does not front the Kamogawa River and it's large second-story windows offer a view of the street below

False Advertising
A few blocks south is a café with a patio that lives
 up to expectations overlooking the river.

The Real Thing

Café du Mon

At first I thought the sign said Café du Monde, in homage to the iconic café in New Orleans, but on closer examination I saw it isn't French at all. Mon means gate in Japanese and this place faces Daitokuji's east gate. They don't serve chicory coffee here, but the owner has a sense of humor

Toru, the café's master

Lush Life

Before hip-hop pop and Mp3 files, Kyōto used to be teeming with small jazz cafes and bars where the bartender doubled as authoritative disc-jockey spinning. Hidden across the street from the Demachi Yanagi rail depot, Lush Life is one of the survivors, quietly keeping the tradition alive.

Classic jazz LPs line the wall at Lush Life

Inoda Coffee

Since it opened in 1972 as a coffee roasting café, Inoda Coffee has grown into a chain of kissaten around the city that maintain a wood-paneled retro ambience

Look familiar?

The Juggernaut

Mount Hiei


Mount Hiei rises in the northeast of the Kyōto. It isn't majestic, but it's very impressive and by far the highest peak in the low mountains surrounding the city.  Its lofty peak stands out like a surveyors landmark.

The problem is that Hie's summit has been defiled by the crass tourist industry. It's been developed as a small Disny-style  theme park with a faux French theme.  The lower heights of the mountain have maintained integrity thanks to  Enryakuji, one of Japan's most ancient Buddhist temples. a Tendai sect complex of temples that sprawls over the back of the mountain. Dating back to the 9th century Heian Era, Enryakuji is famous for its warrior monks, who battled agains rival sects. More recently it's become famous for its association with organized crime, performing rites for bosses in the  the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's most powerful Yakuza family.

Mount Hei dominates the eastern horizon

The traditional way of getting to mid-mountain and Enryakuji is to take a charming little train along the Takanogawa River from Demachi Yanagi to Yase (a formerly rustic village where I once lived). From Yase you take a vintage funicular that lurches up the northern slope, then change to a vintage gondola (ominously called the "ropeway""), which sways up the hill. At the terminus you can take a bus to the Francophiled summit or find the trailhead that leads down to a network of trails connecting to Enryakuji.

The trail to Enryakuji

Arbitrary Scenes


The Red Mail Box

Unbelievably it's still there after 35 years, the little red mailbox I hand-made outside my apartment entryway when I was a student at Kyoto University

Still used by the current tenants

But it's only a matter of time before the 21st Century catches up 
and my legacy in Kyōto vanishes. A new building is going up next door.

School Kids!

The subway is safe enough for school teachers to herd this large group of kindergarteners aboard for a field trip. Kids about this age also commute alone.

They took up almost the entire car

Tiny people

Tōji Flee Marlet

The Tōji  flee market is once-a-month event similar to the Kitano Tenjin market mentioned below in the May 2010 segment of this blog. . Here you see Buddhist monks chanting the Heart Sutra (Hanya Shingyō) for shoppers and strollers passing through the gate to the inner temple

Manga! Manga!



Kyōto is the home of the new International Manga Museum, which is a fantastic collection of manga, or Japanese graphic literature (comic books). It's an interactive archive where visitors can pull manga off the shelves and read all day, more like a library than a museum.

Comic Relief

Anime display


Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Whiskey Scholar



Imagine a small bar that stocks 500 bottles of liquor, including the best single malt scotch and  Kentucky bourbon that money can. It  serves its patrons in a stark white room with bare walls, one table and seven or eight stools. The sound- track is classic acoustic jazz wafting through the air

This is the creation of Akio Ishibashi who has run this bar in eastern Kyōto for twenty-seven  years. It has a very provocative name, a sexual term spelled out discreetly in swirly roman letter on the neon sign above his door. Sadly, the name of the bar is not fit to publish in a family blog like this, but take my word -- it is a metaphor that precisely fits  the  mood of the place.

Ishibashi has never gone to Scotland but he has intricate knowledge of the little-known distilleries in in the highlands and the lowlands. He stocks twenty nine  brands of bourbon and can explain in detail the difference between Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. He's master in the art of mixed drinks as well, using a cocktail shaker brisk and firm without a wasted movement.

This bartender had one kind of glass for my shot of Dalmore 12 years, high and curved designed to sniff before sipping, and a solid tumbler for my Elijah Craig 47% bourbon.When my blood sugar ran a little low I asked him for a glass of orange juice. He didn't pull a carton of OJ from the fridge in the back room, as I expected. He squeezed oranges behind the bar, cooled the juice in his cocktail shaker and poured into a tall glass with a frozen stick of orange juice inside to keep the concoction ice cold. It was my first glass of $9 orange juice bur worth every yen.

Sample from the four-page menu of drinks
Slim and  moon-faced, the man is self-taught in the canon of booze. He gets his information by reading books, journals  and magazines and has only recently taken advantage of the Internet.

He keeps a low profile. He doesn't advertise and he tries his best to keep his bar out magazines, restaurant guides and, yes, blogs. Word of mouth is his marketing strategy, he says, and it's worked just fine for nearly three decades.

He balked when I addressed him by the honorific sensei. "Just call me Ishibashi." Whatever term of respect you attach to his name, Ishibashi-san certainly can be called the mild-mannered Whiskey Scholar of Kyoto.

And the name of the bar is . . .

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Murasakino Neighborhood



Murasakino is the district where the Daitokuji temple complex is located. My interest lies in the immediate neighborhood surrounding the temple walls where I'm staying. The streets are lively and colorful in contrast to the quiet and sedate network of paths that criss-cross the the temple grounds.

Imamiya Shrine

The Imamiya Shrine marks the northwest corner of the neighborhood. It's a shinto shrine as opposed to the buddhist temples of Daitokuji. The native-born shinto religion is animistic and worships an informal pantheon of gods or kami.

The Imamiya Shrine
If you're in a taxi and want to visit Imamamiya Shrine tell the driver to go to Aburi Mochi -- a Kyōto delicacy that's sold exclusively by vendors outside the  side gate. Is it really more famous than the shrine? Only a Kyōto native can tell. 

Aburi Mochi
Best I can do to describe Aburi mochi is: sticky globs
of very sugary roasted mochi rice on a stick basted in soy sauce 

Endangered Species

The Perfect Cup of Coffee
The Hashimoto Coffee Roaster Café, right down the street from the shrine, makes the some of best coffee I can ever remember tasting. The Hashimotos roast their own coffee beans  on the spot and serve it with a little thimble of fresh cream. 

Passers-by can watch the roaster

To find the café, look for this giant torii (shinto gateway) facing Kitaōi Street, the main drag in Murasakino.
The big torii


The Lucky Pachinko Parlor in Murosakino
Pachinko is Japan's third most important pastime after baseball and sumo. You see gaudy pachinko parlors everywhere from the cities to the remote countryside, drawing players of every age and all walks of life like the one on the southeast corner of the Daitokuji neighborhood. 

Pachinko Players: The game is mesmerisng 
The pachinko machine is a cross between pinball and the one-armed bandit, where the player manipulates steel balls dropping from the top of the vertical board into the pay-dirt pockets, making the steel balls collect in a tray at the bottom. The balls are traded for gifts and the gifts are trade for cash.


It's Halloween on the Shin-Omiya shopping street
Shin-Ōmiya is the shopping street that runs to the east of Daitokuji, The merchant's association decided the American holiday is good for business so it planned a costume parade on October  27.  There's no trick-or-treating in Japan  but everyone loves a parade. 

Meanwhile,  the nation's humongous chocolate industry, which rakes in the dough on Christmas and St. Valentines Day, is waking up to opportunity to cash in on another American holiday. Check out the display for Meiji Chocolate Almonds at the local convenience store. 

Pickle Industry

Pickle shop at the end of the day
There are some high-end designer pickle establishments in the area, but this one on Shin-Ōmiya is a people's pickle shop providing pickles to the public. Japanese pickles (tsukemono) are a condiment at almost every meal and range in varity far beyond the unsophisticated Western cucumber pickle. The yellow radish root pickle, takuwan, is the standard bearer.

Takuwan: The Everyman's Pickle

Below is the gourmet pickle guydown on Kitaoji

Fancy Pickle Guy

Slow-cooked Ramen

For those of us who think instant ramen is balanced meal (I won't name names),  they don't deserve to eat at Kinchan Rāmen. It's on Kitaōji east of the big torii  and I eat dinner there pretty often. I got more superlatives for this place, but all I really need to say is it's the real thing, the culinary gem of the neighborhood. I strayed onto it when I looking for the all-night ramen yatai (cart) that used to be on the southeast corner of Daitokuji. Of course, it has vanished. Ramen tastes best when you eat it outside on a cold night, warming your hands on the bowl.

Kinchan's Chashu Rāmen

The Public Bath

Japan's public baths, or sento, have been slowly disappearing from the urban landscape for years. But there are two of then to choose from in this immediate area, demonstrating the vitality of the neighborhood.  I go to the Daitokuji Sento, which is up a back alley north of the temple complex. (I mentiioned it below in the typhoon post.)

Entrance to the Daitokuji Sento

The water is always too hot, but that's the point. You can't bring a camera in the bath area because there are naked people in there. I know what you're thinking. There's a women's bath separated from the men's bath. It's a no-nonsense bath. 

The Daitokuji Cats

Every day in the late afternoon a small band of feral cats gathers on one particular stone wall on one particular pathway in the center  of Daitokuji like clockwork. They're usually nowhere in sight at other times of the day. Strollers stop to watch them and have their picture taken with cats in the background. Little old ladies feed them when no one is looking. The path leads from the printmaker's studio to the nearest bus stop so I walk up and down it two or three times a day. I thought at first they were all black cats, which brought to mind miniature buddhist monks in their black robes, but  I've seen a few calicos since. The Yorkshire Terrier below (Melody is the name) drags her owner to the site every day to gape. 

Cat fancier Dog 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Kamogawa



The soul of Kyoto isn’t in the superb handicraft, the Maiko geisha trainees, or the myriad of temples and gardens.  You’ll find it here on the Imadegawa Bride, overlooking the confluence of two rivers.

Here the Takano River spills down from the northeast to join the great Kamo River flowing from the north hills, which in antiquity created a fertile basin for the curing of a civilization.

View from Imadegawa Bridge
  Both rivers have been tamed over the centuries with   stone embankments, culverts and dams. In central Kyoto  the dams are shallow and thin and have been erected in neat straight lines across the rivers; they can roar with white water in the rainy season and train the waters to ripple delightfully down the Kamo as it flows through the center of the city, past the old tea houses and hoary restaurants that line western bank.  

The River at Twilight
The Kamo is an assumed aspect of the natural environment because it’s been captured within the confines of a built environment  There is an aesthetic in Japan that values the representation of nature more than nature itself and the Kamo is a perfect example. It’s a hill-and-water garden, like the stream, rock and bridge representations you see on a smaller scale within the walls of the city’s Buddhist temples. The Kamogawa and it’s tributary the Takanoga, perhaps, have served as a models for the art of turning nature into craft and craft into beauty.

In recent decades Kyoto has restored parts the riverr into their original riparian environment in the northern part of the city, creating open wetlands in areas that had once been boxed in and artificial. More recently, city planners have made the river more open to the public with parks and improve trail along its banks that are teeming with joggers, mothers pushing strollers and small children running wild. The Kamogawa is alive in a way that I couldn't have imagined thirty years ago. It's always beautiful in a dignified way, but now it's exciting.

Joggers and Strollers

The headwaters of the river are in the mountains to the north near the isolated village of Kumogahata.  The hamlet is practically a ghost town in the off-season with its half-dozen loges shuttered. Kumogahata's population has declined to the point where it's had to shut down its schools and send its remaining children the city for their education, a phenomenon that is typical in aging communities in rural Japan these days.  Kumogahata gets only two micro-buses a day to link it to the city, which are mostly used by hikers. Personal cars have to negotiate a winding one-lane road to the city.

The approach to Kumogahata

One of thy cascades on the way to the source
A long hike takes you to Shnmyoin, a temple of the ancient tantric Shingon sect of Buddhism, which guards the approach to the river's source. The surrounding forests were once the private hunting preserve for the earliest of emperors

Shimyoin Temple
Pilgrims and hikers are forbidden to take their camera's past the gate that opens to a steep and slippery path and rugged stairways leading to a partitioned cave said to be the very source of the water, which seepa and drips through the surrounding rock formations and feeds the little rippling waterfalls down stream.

Absolutely pure water flows from the tsukubai basin at Shimyoin 
Downriver, the Kamogawa widens as it's jointed sby treams and little tributaries and it froths with waterfalls until it flows into the city and gently merges with Takano River at the Imadegawa Bridge.

Sunday stone-hoppig at the river fork
School boys hanging out by the downtown Shijo Bridge,