Sunday, May 24, 2015

Kyoto on my Mind

I always get emotional at graduation, but this year is going to be hell.  The graduating class is one of my two favorite classes, and includes many favorite students.  One of these - whom we'll call the Kawaii Kid, due to more than a few otaku tendencies - has gone from being an annoying pain in the ass to being an even MORE annoying pain in the ass, thanks in part to the fact that between work study, a free period, and art he spends 1/2 to 3/4 of each day in my room, and I don't even know what I'm going to do with myself when he's gone.  To top that, I'm ridiculously jealous of the fact that he's going to university in one of the cities I'd move to in a heartbeat if I could - Kyoto.
I haven't had much to write about since Istanbul, and thinking a lot about Kyoto thanks to the Kawaii Kid has made me realize I've never written about visiting there, almost ten years ago.  When I moved to Korea, Kyoto was at the top of my list of places I wanted to visit - I'd loved Memoirs of a Geisha and couldn't wait to walk down a street and see maiko in their makeup and kimono, so I went in October of 2005.  I think we had a 3-day weekend, for Foundation Day or something, and since there were direct flights from Incheon to Osaka I decided 3 days would be enough.

I got in during the afternoon.  If you've never been to Japan, I've got to tell you that they are the most helpful country in the world for foreigners.  This was my first time flying solo, and I was continually impressed with the facilities - easy to read maps, easy to use public transportation.  Ten years of travel later and I'm even more impressed.  Within 5 minutes of entering the arrivals hall I was booked to take a shuttle that would deliver me to my hotel.  Once I'd checked in and left my luggage, I set off, Lonely Planet in hand, wandering toward Gion and stopping at just about every shrine I passed til I made it to Yasaka Jinja.  The paper lanterns glowed in the dusk, and I rang the bell and clapped my hands.  I don't know if I've ever felt wanderlust as strongly as I did that day.

As you know, I love to see music and dance performances when I travel, and that hasn't changed.  This was another thing I did on my first night, something I probably found through LP, though I can't remember for sure.  I'd already seen geisha as I was walking down the street, and it was breathtaking.  Here I got to see one dance, as well as other performances, including a puppet show, some drama, a lady playing the koto, and a tea ceremony.  I hadn't even been in Kyoto 12 hours and I wanted to call up my Dark Lord and Master and tell him I wasn't coming back.
The next morning I was up bright and early to climb up to Kiyomizu-Dera.  From this temple you could see out over the whole city.  The building itself is incredible, but it also had a number of attractions.  There is the "love rock," which predicts finding your future love if you can stumble your way blindly to it.  Friends are allowed to help guide you (these friends being the same people who will help you find your love), but you can't use your eyes.  I figured with my grace I'd trip over it, no problem, but alas, no such luck.  The same area had little paper figures that you wrote wishes on, which dissolved when you put them in water.  But the coolest part, I thought, was the - I don't know even know how to describe it.  There's a building where you descend into the dark and feel your way through passages to a stone, lit from above, which you turn.  It was means to symbolize entering the womb of one of the female Buddhist deities, who had the power to grant your wishes.  There was a certain kind of calm and stillness in that place, that I've never felt anywhere else.

From there, I took a train down to visit Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, which is one of my top five all-time favorite travel experiences.  This shrine is built on the hillsides, a little southward from Kyoto, and consists of endless passageways of red torii gates.  It's a shrine to Inari Okami, a spirit of sake, rice, and foxes, and as you ascend the mountain, you pass numerous altars, covered with offerings, to which the crows are helping themselves.  When I got off the train and began walking past stalls selling knick-knacks, the sun was shining, but at some point beneath the tunnels of red gates the skies clouded over, and an otherworldly feeling overtook me.  It felt almost as if the pairs of foxes stationed throughout the shrine were watching me.

Eventually I came down the hillside, and somewhere along the way found a shop selling shaved ice.  I bought a cup of cherry - my favorite - and I don't think I've ever tasted anything quite that delightful.
I'd seen music and dance and plenty of shrines by the last morning, but I wouldn't have been a very good art student if I didn't visit the most famous Zen rock garden in the world, which I'd learned about when I took Asian art history in college.  It was on - I think - the west side of Kyoto, and between my trusty LP and the awesome handouts of the Japanese National Tourism Organization I found it with no problem.  October in Kyoto was serene, and I had the place mostly to myself, as I sat on the porch looking over the raked grounds, soaking in the stillness.
The last place I visited before taking the train back to Kansai International Airport was Nijo Castle, which was just down the street from my hotel.  I'd been walking past it for two days, and had just enough time to walk across the nightingale floors, listening to them chirp and imagining samurai hidden behind paper walls.  It was a great way to end my trip.

It's hard to believe it's been almost ten years since then.  I still remember things very clearly, like the light in the arrivals hall or the taste of the cherry shaved ice.  I think I just about walked my feet off during those three days - I did that a lot, I guess up until I wrecked them running in Ras Al Khaimah - but there were so many things to see, and I barely even scratched the surface.  In less than a month, I'll be revisiting my first great international adventure, that Queen of the Adriatic, Venezia.  The anticipation has literally killed most of the enthusiasm I had for St. Petersburg and Moscow, which I'm doing just prior to Venice.  I should care, but I really, really don't - I'll enjoy those cities, just not as much as Venice.  Part of me wonders if this is the stage of travel I've come to - revisiting old places instead of new ones.  Let's face it: Myanmar and Cambodia, with all their glorious temples and wonderful people, didn't cause me nearly as much excitement as seeing Bronte again and eating dolmades at a taverna in Monastiraki, or taking my young hellions to Istanbul.  So who knows...maybe Kyoto will be on the list again one of these days.  But not this year - I'll hit Greece again in October with Engrish, be home for Christmas, plan to spend Tsagaan Sar in Chennai with Fire Marshall and Domestic Goddess, take the hellions somewhere for spring break (possibly Moscow or Paris), and finally travel the old Silk Road with Blondie, if everything goes well up until then.  So many places, so little time.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Cooking Ruins Restaurants

One of the things I try to do when I travel is learn to cook something.  Bronte helped to nurture this in me - about halfway through my first year in Korea I asked her if she knew somewhere I might learn some Korean cooking, and she volunteered to do it herself.  I'm pretty sure the time we spent together in her kitchen, cooking sundubu, cucumber kimchi, mandu, and many other things cemented our friendship.

Since then, I've taken cooking courses in Jordan, China, Nepal, and here in Mongolia, as well as picking up Greek dishes from Bronte after she moved to Piraeus.  In fact, not learning to cook any Thai cuisine when Curly Sue and I went in 2006 was one of my great travel regrets, and I decided that I really needed to rectify it when I went to Chiang Mai last winter.  Baan Thai was recommended by Lonely Planet and had brochures at my guesthouse, and when Dougie Poo spoke glowingly of the cooking lesson he once did, I decided I had to go for it.

 It was heaven.  I learned to make pad thai, spring rolls, tom ka gai, panaeng gai, and fried bananas.  They also gave us a cookbook with all our recipes, all the other ones that were offered, and ones that weren't offered but that I'm incredibly grateful for.  Once upon a time I went to the Thai place in Yuldong and ate bananas in steamed coconut milk, and thought it was a dream, because I'd never seen them anyplace else.  I now know how to cook them.
However, there's a caveat to this story.  When I was younger my cousin used to talk about how she could make alfredo better than any restaurant she knew.  I found this obnoxious because - hello! - it's a restaurant.  If it wasn't good at what it serves, it wouldn't remain open.  I didn't get it until after I came back from Thailand, and considered going to Bangkok for dinner, until I realized I could make a better pad thai than they could.

It stopped me in my tracks - I had become that food snob who didn't want to go to a restaurant because my food is better.  The ironic thing is, I don't really "like" to cook.  About once a month I invite my friends over so that I have an excuse to thoroughly clean my apartment, but if I don't have someone to tell me how delicious everything was, all the effort of getting ingredients and putting them together only to have to clean it all up seems like too big a hassle.

And that thought helped me to get over my food snobbery.  In the end, my laziness is my redemption.  I may be able to cook a better pad thai, but on any given day, it's less work to order on Songo.

WHICH REMINDS ME!  Sorry, I haven't been much of a blogger lately, but ohmygosh, one of the bestest things to happen in UB in a long time is the arrival of our own Sherpa's!  In Shanghai, Sherpa's was a company that delivered food from a variety of restaurants, and it kept my lazy ass from starving on more than one occasion when it was too cold (haha) to be bothered going outside.  Well, here in UB it's Songo, but the fact that I can get lunch delivered to the school from somewhere other than Round Table0 is a lifesaver.  Apparently Pizza Hut and KFC are both coming to Zaisan, but why would that matter when someone will bring me sushi from Miko?!?