In May 2023 I spent a couple of weeks in Japan, mostly in and around Kyoto. It had been six years since I had two weeks off.1 I’d never been to a non-Western country, and in many ways didn’t know what to expect; my girlfriend grew up in Kyoto, so I had a guide and translator with me. I had an amazing trip.
I’ve structured this post around themes rather than chronologically, as I like to think about a trip less as a story than a set of samples of different kinds of experiences.
Aside from food, history, and art, there were a few locations and experiences that stood out. Early in the trip, we were cycling around the Joyo area and noticed a number of tea fields shaded by protective netting.
We happened upon one of the workers and she invited us to have a look; the owner kindly let us take a few pictures under the netting.
In the same area, there is a unique “wash-away bridge” (Nagare Bashi) that is built to degrade gracefully when the water level rises, requiring less reconstruction. It’s built in an old style and is apparently used as a set for films and series.
It only rained one day during the two weeks we were in Japan, but there was a benefit: the Heian Shrine Gardens in Kyoto were gorgeous and colourful in the rain.
We did a walk up and over Mount Kurama north of the city. This is a beautiful area worth visiting; the hike is not difficult, and there is lots to see: a shrine and a temple; artifacts from various eras; and a beautiful forest. It’s also a nice trip up to the area on the Eizan Line train.
One of the absolute highlights of the trip was a visit to Kinosaki Onsen. 60th birthdays are a big deal in Japan, and though we were there a month before my big milestone, my girlfriend booked us into what must be one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, Nishimuraya Honkan Kinosaki Onsen. Our room was stunning and spacious, with a private outdoor area and bath; the building and grounds were a prime example of Japanese architecture, art, history, and style (my photos don’t do it justice — see their website); and the food was amazing.
Of course, the town is known for its onsen and Nishimuraya Honkan had beautiful facilities in that respect — the day we got there, we happened to be the only people in the men’s and women’s areas.
I had lined up a road bike rental for my last day of the trip; I planned to ride from Joyo, where we were staying with my girlfriend’s parents, north to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Unfortunately, the rental fell through at the last minute. I was determined to do a ride in Japan, partly because I wanted to go off exploring by myself. So I borrowed my girlfriend’s aunt’s (single-speed) mamachari. I had forgotten to bring my head unit on the trip, and recorded the ride using Strava on my Apple Watch. Strava shows I rode 65km.
It was a flat ride, not normally challenging, but going that distance on such a rig was a bit of a slog, particularly as the temperature moved into the high 20s (Celsius, of course) on the way back. I would have TT‘d it back on my racing bike, but this rig maxed out at about 15km/h; my cadence must have averaged about 100. A couple of times on the way home, checking to see whether I’d missed a turn — all the bridges looked pretty similar to me — losing the breeze from the ride seemed instantly to increase the temperature by 10º, and I admit to having become a little frazzled once or twice.
The bamboo grove was one of the most tourist-oriented and -packed places I visited during the trip, but it was a good destination and the grove was quite astonishing.
Many or even most of the meals I ate were prepared by Atsuko, my girlfriend’s mother. And they were delicious, varied, and I think a good introduction to Japanese cuisine. Her Okonomiyaki were excellent — and we happened to eat them the same day they were served to the G7 leaders in Tokyo — along with various kinds of amazing fish, vegetables from husband and father Osaji’s garden, and many other dishes. I even got a lesson in making agedashi tofu.
I was treated to some very fine tea on my first morning, by my girlfriend’s uncle.
Dining out in Japan is affordable. To a Vancouverite, this can be shocking. My girlfriend and I stopped going to restaurants in 2022, after spending $75 on a just-okay dumpling meal that did not even include non-alcoholic drinks. Even having opted out, it’s not always obvious just how insane it has become to eat out in our city, until you see that it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. (I have no clear idea why Vancouver is so expensive, in this or other senses; it seems to be a topic of endless debate in the city.)
One of my favourite food experiences was Teppanyaki Manryu in the Gion district. Having enjoyed the series Midnight Diner, I wanted to find something similar. This was close enough, and it was fun sitting at the bar watching the (excellent) teppanyaki food being prepared right in front of us.
The other dinner we had in Gion was at Wasabi, a very fine sushi restaurant with a very lengthy single-piece wood bar — I can’t recall the species of wood. (These restaurants don’t seem to have a web presence, and I am loth to link to the likes of TripAdvisor.)
My girlfriend’s parents took us out to Minokichi, which was founded in 1716. I think this was a fabulous meal; there was a fair amount of food unfamiliar to me, including at least one fish with head which somewhat disconcerted this former vegan; and it was delivered in fairly quick succession. The chef made an apparently rare appearance, in honour of his western guest.
After a hike on Mount Kurama (see below), we ate at Hiroya which must have one of the most beautiful settings of any restaurant anywhere, with the tables sitting over a stream: the cool water provides a natural air conditioning and freshness.
And the food was excellent. Here’s the menu:
The meals at Nishimuraya Honkan, mentioned above, were excellent. Dinner was served in our suite, and the rice was cooked right there. The presentation was stunning, and the food exquisite — though I found that Japanese meals often had so many components it was difficult to remember details of each.
Breakfast the next morning was similarly impressive, and we got to finish preparing our miso soup.
Nakamura Tokichi is an amazing tea shop and restaurant. We brought back a good supply of tea; and had an excellent lunch. The desserts in particular are insane: probably enough food in one of these to keep you going for a whole day.
The last meal of the trip was a crab dinner at Kani Doraku; my girlfriend takes her family here at the end of each trip. The food was excellent; a standout for me was “crab sake.”
The Nishiki Market in Kyoto is huge, and inspiring. One of my culinary discoveries here was sansho pepper — what an extraordinary flavour. It was difficult to obtain, though: the shop where I purchased some kept it in the back and customers had to ask for it; it was a bad year for the spice.
Finally, a serendipitous discovery, was Mountain Cellar de Chocolat — I happened to look at Apple Maps and noticed it nearby while driving to the Noh mask maker (below).
Temples, Shrines, Museums, &c.
As someone from North America, particularly the western portion of the continent, I find it fascinating to visit countries that have a long written history — not to mention a continuous population that has not, at least recently, been invaded and had their land stolen.
We visited a number of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. They blurred together for me a bit, probably because I didn’t do a lot of reading in advance. All were some combination of peaceful, ancient, and inspiring; and featured beautiful architecture and settings.
I already mentioned the Heian Shrine Garden above.
Yasaka Shrine, in the Gion district of Kyoto, was a lovely sight at night.
We cycled to Iwashimizu Hachimangū and took the cable car up the mountain. Interestingly, there’s a tribute to Thomas Edison — seems he searched the world for a good filament for his light bulbs, and settled on bamboo from Kyoto.
Sanjūsangen-dō temple was a highlight, particularly the thousand standing statues of the Senju Kannon: there is a palpable sense of the ancient in that room. Photography is not permitted; here is an image from the temple’s official site:
Kiyomizu-dera temple is one of the more “obvious” places to visit, and this is understandable: the astonishing architecture and views of Kyoto city were worth the cycle up the hill from the Kamo-gawa river. I didn’t get a great shot of it — see the site or do an image search for to see it better.
Byodin temple is another popular destination. I was particularly struck by the underground Hoshokan Museum, which contained among other things some of the 26 original states of the praying Bodhisattva.
Fukuchiyama Castle was impressive largely as it is the result of a reconstruction effort by local residents in the 1980s. Being fairly far from Kyoto city, this was interesting as it was less “touristy” — although that also meant that none of the exhibit text was provided in English. The interior is a somewhat dated museum; but the exterior is impressive.
I have ordered a book on Japanese history as I want to learn more for my next trip.
The trip was partly a mission to acquire a knife, a Noh mask, and some Japanese calligraphy.
Coincidentally, a tenth-generation knife maker has a factory very close to my girlfriend’s parents’s home in Joyo. We cycled over to Yoshisada and were able to walk around and see some of the tools and processes.
I looked at several other shops during the trip, but came back to Yoshisada for some knives for myself along with a couple of gifts: I appreciate the quality and design, and I felt a connection having visited the factory.
The unfinished knife will be more of a display piece: it is a traditional appearance that does not take as much work to finish, thought I was told at the factory that there is a lot of care applied to getting the carbon-black appearance just right.
Although I don’t consider myself a collector, I already had a couple of masks on display in my home. Preparing for the trip, I read up a bit on the classical Noh theatre and the masks used in its performances. My girlfriend did some research and found the Inoue Company, one of a very few mask makers in Japan, and coincidentally located in Kyoto Prefecture. Her niece drove us to Kamiaraga, Fukuchiyama, which took a couple of hours from Kyoto. The countryside was beautiful: there are lush forests everywhere with numerous types of trees; we were lucky with weather but this is obviously something of a rainforest climate, similar to home. And of course, there are rice fields everywhere.
The Inoue mask showroom is in an unassuming home — you’d never know it was there. Upstairs in a rebuilt farmhouse, there are hundreds of masks of many different types.
On the drive, I’d been a bit apprehensive: what if I didn’t see a mask I really loved? I glanced quickly at all the masks in the style I was after, and I knew immediately which was mine (it’s third from the left on the middle panel in the photo above). There was something about the mouth in particular that seemed somehow related to that on my Canadian First Nations mask. And I loved how the expression changes when viewed from different angles — a trait of this type of mask.
Finally, I had a more vague notion of wanting a large piece with Japanese calligraphy. I was initially thinking of a horizontal presentation, potentially to fit a particular wall space, but obviously Japanese is written and read vertically, so I had to rethink. Fortunately, a friend of my girlfriend’s mother is a practiced calligrapher and I was given this scroll as a gift!
Another gift looks beautiful framed:
What perhaps struck me most about Japan was how there seemed to be a general absence of surface-level individualism. Superficial signifiers of “identity” that we tend to put so much stock in, from clothing and hair styles to tattoos, appear to be largely absent. Having something of a meditation practice, I can’t help but wonder whether this is partly related to the idea — fact — that there is no “self,” a mostly foreign concept in North America. Whether this indicates conformity or permits for a more meaningful individualism, I will have to investigate on my next trip. I’m working through Duolingo, learning Japanese!
- In 2018 the Supreme Court of British Columbia told me that, as a spousal support payor, I am not allowed to spend any discretionary income. I badly needed a break and will just have to argue my case if they try to apply more punitive sanctions to me.