Saturday, 28 March 2009

Kyoto part V

3rd March


Loren made it to Day Two. After a leisurely morning I took the train to the tournament site to see the artists and such. The best was this table of craftsmen who made sort of 3-dimensional versions of magic cards by taking like 10 of the same cards, and doing intricate cut-outs of the features on them. I then walked to a nearby temple. I got seriously lost getting there, the sort of lost you can only get if you can't read any of the street signs. Finally found my way back to a point I could distinguish on the map using (I swear!) the position of the sun and the time of day.

3d Magic cards
3-D Magic cards

It was all worth it because the temple (or shrine?) was really lovely. It featured inari (meaning fox, not sushi) statues, and an uncountable quantity of reddish-orange gates. These simple wooden gates were set one behind the other continuously for long stretches of pathways. It was an amazing experience to walk into the brilliant orange tunnels that the gates created. These temples are not relics; they are ancient and yet they are full of life and activity. The religion is very much alive, and interactive in a way I am not accustomed to. The many shrines on the property are visited by Japanese followers, which ring a bell, toss a coin into collection boxes, and make a wish or prayer. This is just one of the activities I observed. (there were no English signs, so I did a lot of observing). Another set of activities involved paying a small fee to write your wish/prayer on a piece of paper, a strip of wood, or other objects, which are then hung up together in the appropriate location. There were also various methods for receiving a pre-written fortune. And these are just the bits that were somewhat comprehensible to me!

fox with key
Inari fox statue

shrine gates at fushimi-inari 4
Shrine Gates

I followed one path that lead through a well tended bamboo forest. I have not seen bamboo this large aside from one memorable garden on the Big Island. Eventually there was a side-path with a lot of what looked like little shrines all crowded together. Some looked well tended, others old somewhat fallen to neglect. It wasn't til I'd gotten to the second wandering path featuring similar 'shrines' that it dawned on me that I was really looking at graves. I have never seen so strange a grave-yard!

handprints on bamboo
Hand print on giant bamboo

graves at Fushimi-Inari 4
Grave at Fushimi-Inari

graves at Fushimi-Inari 2
Another strange grave at Fushimi-Inari

grave and cobweb
Spider web on grave stones

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Earth Hour

Sign up. Pass it on.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Kyoto part IV

27th February

3:15 pm

The weather is crap so I've only made one major trip out today, and I keep checking to see how Loren's doing. Info on the tournament is being added to Magic The Gathering's site as it happens. Loren's at 34th place if anyone cares to know. Only one lost match so far, and he's still in the top 50. Three more matches to go.


I walked Loren to the station, but didn't feel like making the treck out there with him. It was early, I was sleepy, and aside from the featured artist table there wouldn't be much for me to do. Magic doesn't make a very good spectator sport. I did a lot of nothing much in the morning, waiting for the day to warp up a bit. Then I made the trip into downtown Kyoto on the subway. I wasn't feeling very good. When I resized that I'd hardly had a vegetable since we got here - mostly just noodles, meat and fish - I figured that probably wasn't helping. The only thing along my route that sounded veggie-friendly was a French restaurant and the guide book promised the staff could speak English. I had a nicoise salad, which made me feel a lot better.

I could smell the tea shop before I saw it. Suddenly the smell of green tea was in the air - the place itself looked ancient, everything well-worn wood. Everything was in Japanese; I was relieved when one of the staff offered me a brochure in English, set out a tray of tea samples to smell, and gestured to a chair. I decided on a mid-range matcha and a roasted bancha.


Japanese Teas

I didn't take any photos that day. So I'm using this photo of the teas I bought. Bancha is a category of least-refined everyday teas. The type I bought is called hojicha which is a roasted green tea, light brown in colour. It was common to get complimentary tea instead of water at restaurants in Japan, usually a bancha. Matcha on the other hand is a very special type of Japanese tea. It is usually described as "powdered green tea." This means it's actually green tea leaves ground to a fine powder. Traditionally, you add a small scoop of the powder to a bowl with hot water in it, then use a special matcha whisk to suspend the powder in the water, making the tea a bit frothy. You then drink the whole thing down, consuming the powdered tea leaf with the tea. It has a rich, distinctive taste that is unlike other types of green tea. This is what is used in the famous "Japanese tea ceremony." In the photo, the matcha is the little tin that I haven't yet taken the fancy washi paper wrapping off of.

And I'll toss one more random photo in here, since today's entry is light on photos (don't worry, the next one will more than make up for it).

toilet with sink
Toilet with sink built in - sink water runs when toilet is flushed, and drains into the toilet bowl. Only one of the strange toilet designs we saw in Japan.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Kyoto part III

27th February

7:05 am - sleepy morning update.

Woke up early this morning, my neck bothering me. As it does when I'm in a hotel bed; though I bring my travel mattress pad with me it is not the same as my memory foam haven of a bed back home. Loren is sleeping but soon the alarm will wake him so he can get up and take the subway to day one of the tournament. Day one is for everyone; the top 50 make it to day two,* and the top 8 make it to day three. Day one starts with hundreds - and it feels like half of them are staying at our hostel, even at 7am there are six magic players in the lounge talking strategy and sorting cards. This is Loren's first tournament on this level, still I hope he makes top 50 which would mean he walked away with some amount of prize money.** Ok, on to the travel log:

* editor's note: it was actually top 1/2 makes it to day two.
** It was actually top 64 players get cash prizes. You'd think I wasn't paying attention and maybe that's true.


We had breakfast at a bakery serving both French-style pastries and Japanese-style steam buns. I had a plum blossom steam bun with sweet bean paste. We did a tour around the massive Kyoto station complex. It's a weird sort of modern architectural style; when I get home and the the photos up, you'll see what I mean. Loren spent the middle part of the day playing and watching Magic games; preparation for the event. Apparently there is a somewhat famous Brazilian player staying at our hostel. I took the subway to down town to do some shopping which I knew Loren wouldn't be much into. I started by walking down one of the covered open-air markets, taking my time looking at exotic sweets and incense shops, pottery shops, chopstick shops, etc. In one sweet shop, there was a glass-walled kitchen where you could see them making something. It smelled like cinnamon buns in there; it turned out the were making a sort of crunchy, thin cinnamon cookie. I bought a small box of them, they were really good. Later I read in my guidebook that they are some sort of Kyoto speciality and are actually made of mochi.

Kyoto station complex
Looking down from the 11th story at a series of escalators and granite stairs.

My destination was a Japanese paper merchant, I spent some time looking at elaborately-designed paper, and all manor of things made of paper. I bought some small colourful origami paper there. I then walked to Southern Higashiyama just across the river. I was headed to a tea and sweets shop. This was in the Gion area - traditional theatres. This area was just full of every type of sweet shop! By the time I found my destination, It was getting close to time to head back, and was unsure how log it would take if I ordered matcha. So I bought a box of tea sweets and then walked back along the river - the Kamo-gawa. I saw cranes in the shallow, broad river, and a hawk or falcon hunting for fish above the water.

Late afternoon, and I was back at the hostel. Needed a break from all the walking, so I read my book some in the lounge and then we headed to an area just South of the city to the place where the Magic tournament will be; Loren needed to register. We didn't have a good map of this area, and got a bit lost, wandering through a residential neighbourhood with some ancient-looking houses and some houses that were new but done in the traditional style (austere wooded construction, elaborate tiled roofing, manicured lawn with a stone lantern in it). It surprised us that here, in a still somewhat urban area, there were sizable plots full of rows of vegetables, interspersed with the houses.

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant because Loren insisted Italian pasta was the best thing to eat before a big tournament. It was actually very good, and we were amused to see the Japanese diners around us eating their pasta dishes family style, and slurping the noodles just as they would with a bowl of ramen.

plastic food
The ubiquitous plastic food in restaurant windows. Even Italian restaurants. Note the fried egg on the pizza on the right.

Today the weather is bad, rainy and only meant to get to about 8 degrees Celsius. I am determined to head out there at some point and find some Japanese tea. My destination is a place down town which both serves tea and sells packages of it.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Kyoto part II

25th February


The rain cleared up by mid-morning and we braved a trip out in much nicer weather than yesterday's. We went to a supermarket for some basics like cereal and milk, and had to walk down every aisle fascinated by the weird and mysterious items for sale.

bean paste kit kat
Adzuki bean paste kit-kats. They were pretty good.

Then we went to another temple that is in Kyoto Station area (the neighbourhood we are staying in). It was very nice, the number massive wood beams used to construct these huge buildings is truly amazing. Unfortunately this one was also partially closed due to renovation. It had a temple gate that is designated a national treasure or some such - it is a very large wooden gate with intricately carved and painted details depicting kirin and fu dogs. Then went to a sento (bath house).

This was a real treat, and figuring out what to do when there was not a scrap of English to be found was an interesting if disorienting experience. There were all manor of hot and warm spa pools, and a sauna with a television in it! My favourite was a spa pool with some kind of mineralised water in it. It was pleasantly just warmer than body temperature, and the minerals made lots of very tiny bubbles, the water felt very soft and lovely. Loren encountered an electric pool (the men and women were in separate areas). Apparently it was a pool with a very mild electrical current in it, causing a sort of tingly feeling. There were no places to hang towels, everyone was just carrying around a tiny towel that they rent to you that is no bigger than a tea towel. This towel is used to wash yourself when you come in, and at least attempt to cover yourself if you're feeling modest.

Then we walked to downtown and had dinner at a nice sushi restaurant. After that, we walked down this street that our guidebook said was very pleasant at night. It is the narrowest street I have seen yet in Kyoto and suitable only for foot traffic. But it is truly very lovely at night due to the colourful lanterns hung outside beautiful old wooden store fronts, most of them restaurants. This area apparently has some of the fanciest and most exclusive eating establishments in Kyoto; it it easy to see why as they are built right to the edge of a large river that runs through town.

pontocho 5
Pontocho: a beautiful street at night

pontocho 2

Second shot of Pontocho

After we finished our walk through this area, we crossed the river and found a nice pathway that was set above the river but below the level of the street, and had a nice invigorating walk all the way back down to Kyoto Station area and then back to the hostel.

I am typing this in the lounge once again, and the place is truly packed. Most of the Magic players have hit town at this point, both dinning tables and one coffee table are full of Magic players and Loren is right in the middle of it of course. I came up here for a tea and a relaxing read of my book, but the noise level at the moment is not very conducive to this.

magic players in the lounge at K's House
Magic players in the lounge of our hostel

narrow room 2

Our very cozy sleeping quarters.

Well I'd better get going. Probably I'll be back on here again tomorrow.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Kyoto part I

I kept a private (online) journal in Kyoto, using the coin-op computers in our hostel. I'm now going to start porting the entries over here, and adding some photos (I took so many photos!) from the trip.


24th February

Right now Loren is playing Magic with a couple of Americans he just met in the lounge of the Kiwi-style Backpackers we are staying at. I am therefore entertaining myself by feeding my internet addiction on one of the coin-op computers in said lounge.

So. I will give you the quick run-down because it is hard to type on this keyboard.

Plane ride.
Uneventful. Spotted the first Japanese people wearing surgical masks. I would say on the street I see about one person in twenty wearing one of these. Most of the airport staff at Immigration in Osaka Kansai airport were wearing them. Service on Air New Zealand flights, as usual, was great. They had a Japanese or Western option for meals, and offered a hot moist towel for the cleaning of hands and face before meals, which is common practice in Japanese restaurants.

It was cold but no longer raining as it had been the night we got in. We visited a lovely garden near our hostel, which our guide book described as not particularly impressive (therefore, can not wait to see the impressive ones). And visited a Buddhist temple also not far away. It is allegedly the largest all-wooden building ever made. I would believe it too, though it would have been better if the main building had not been closed for renovation, and also so covered with scaffolding that you could not see the outside of it. We had ramen at a hole-in-the-wall ramen house for lunch. We had ramen for dinner as well (along with some gyoza), at one of these strange little ramen houses where you order and pay via a coin-op machine outside, then hand them your tickets inside to get served.

Heather on bridge
Me on one of the bridges of Shosei-en Garden

dead tree & cherry branches
Cherry tree supported bamboo lattice. We were there just before cherry blossom season.

dragon fountain
Dragon fountain at Higashi Hongan-ji temple

The rain is back, and it is colder. We went into dowtown Kyoto and visited two strange museums. One was a manga museum that also was a sort of manga archive; there were walls full of shelved manga and people sitting at tables reading them. The second was a kaleidoscope museum, which was more fun than it sounds. I have never seen so many kinds of kaleidoscope, nor such fancy ones. The most elaborate was a stained-glass statue of a geisha; you look into a peep hole in the top of her hair and turn one of her elaborate hair ornaments. We also checked out an open-air market in the same area. It is huge, full mostly of food vendors of all kinds. I have never seen so many strange foods, some we could only guess at what they might be. Nearly all of the signs were in Japanese. We sampled a variety of things by way of having lunch. My favorites were fresh mochi with adzuki bean paste inside and a strawberry on top, and just absolutely delicious unagi nigiri.

Nishiki Market
Nishiki market