"Konnichiwa!" Kyoto and Nara, Japan

November 2-14, 2009

Cloud Dragon sliding screen painting at Kyoto's Kennin-ji Zen temple.


Panoramic view of Kyoto from the National Museum of Modern Art.

Dinner in Kyoto, joined by friendly tourists from Tokyo.

Four flights in three days of travel takes us from Heho, in central Myanmar, to Kyoto, Japan, for a second overseas rendezvous with our long-time friends, Marianne and Peter. We have an apartment rented for seven days of R&R, temple hopping, and sushi eating. Hai! It's quite a culture shock to be back in the first world where all the transport runs like clockwork, everything is clean and tidy, and the power stays on 24-7. And so wonderful to see some familiar faces and have a holiday with friends!

Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868 (interestingly, modeled after the Chinese capitol at the time: Xi' an) and contains over 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, including 17 Unesco World Heritage sites. During our short stay, we only have time (and money!) to see a handful of these, but the ancient craftsmanship and architecture are truly wondrous.


Japanese technology is truly amazing! Note the control panel on the side of the toilet. This unit has a heated seat and a multi-function bidet option, though is missing the recorded ocean sounds and automatic lid-opener (wow!) found in many subway station toilets. We are amazed as we think back to the facilities outside our ger in Mongolia...

In the ultra-compact kitchen, note the twin refrigerator door handles, allowing easy opening from either side. The nifty little microwave doubles as a toaster, the super-compact washing machine miraculously becomes a dryer with the press of a button. Oh, and did I mention the heated floors in the kitchen, bathroom and shower room? Divine!

We are quickly sold on the no-shoes-in-the-house rule, which we will institute at our home in Berkeley when we return. So civilized here!



Our neighborhood temple turns out to be Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. It was founded in 1202 by the Buddhist monk Yousai, who brought Zen Buddhism and the tea ceremony to Japan from China.

Fantastic Twin Dragons painting on the ceiling of the Kennin-ji's Hatto (Dharma Hall).



Temple pond with good luck coins.

The sublime gardens of Konchi-in.



Ceramics studio with inset wheels and assorted clay tools.

Noborigama kiln.

Kawai Kanjiro, active from the 1920s to the 60s, was one of Japan's premier ceramists and is considered to be the leader of the "folk art movement." His home is now a museum and, as the brochure says, "Truly reflects the soul and personality of the genius."

We spend an afternoon wandering through the traditional Japanese house that he designed, with its beautiful woodwork and intimate spaces, admiring his pottery, woodcarvings, sculptures and calligraphy. His noborigama (traditional wood-fired stepped kiln) sits idle, though fresh firewood is stacked and ready for the next firing. Kanjiro's home and studio seem to vibrate with his creative spirit.



A short hop on one of Japan's super-efficient trains takes us south of Kyoto to Fushimi-Inari Taisha, an 8th century Shinto shrine dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. It is a vibrant place, filled with worshippers. In the glowing light of sunset, we walk beneath countless brilliant orange torii -- the traditional entrance gates to Shinto shrines -- that wind for several kilometers up a wooded hillside. Along the path are hundreds of stone foxes, the messenger of Inari, the very popular god of rice harvests and business. The fox is considered a sacred, mysterious figure capable of 'possessing' humans, so is treated with great respect.


Kimono detail.

Geishas roam the streets of Gion, our district in Kyoto.


Lost in thought on Tetsugaku-no-Michi, the Path of Philosophy.





Beautiful woodwork and gardens at Nanzen-ji.


Magnificent maple trees at the Imperial Palace.



Tourist packed bamboo grove at Arashiyama.

Another hop on the JR train and we land in Nara, where we join crowds of uniformed school children to visit Todai-Ji, the largest wooden building in the world. The building houses Daibutsu (the Great Buddha), a massive bronze sculpture standing just over 16m high and containing 437 tons of bronze and 130kg of gold.






Close to Nara is Horyu-ji, founded in 607, the first Buddhist temple in Japan. Some of the structures are considered to be the oldest wooden buildings in the world, and are made with impressive timbers that fit together with interlocking joints.
We were in Kyoto when we received the shocking, sad news about the death of our dear friend, Jim Kitson. You inspired us in ways you probably never realized, and we miss you terribly! A toast to a life well lived: Kompai!