Serene Sanctuary: Zen Buddhist Temple Lodgings


“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” ~ Buddha

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Zen Meditation Room

Zen Meditation Room

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation whipped green tea and sweetsIf you’re looking for an exceptionally relaxing and uniquely Japanese treat, it doesn’t get much more Zen than this delightfully tranquil shukubo (“temple lodging”) at Shunkō-in Temple, located within the Myōshin-ji temple complex in northwest Kyoto. The temple’s relatively new dormitory offers exaggeratedly (and purposely) simplistic rooms, but which also offer modern comforts, including free Wi-Fi and a shared, well-equipped kitchen and spacious dining area. The real draw here, however, is the calm and quiet of the grounds and surrounding areas, combined with the chance to take part in Buddhist temple-based Zen meditation along with a nearly private temple tour, both of the latter under the guidance of Shunkō-in’s English-speaking vice abbot, the Rev. Kawakami.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Buddhist temple wooden roofline

Shunkō-in not only offers visitors an opportunity to learn about Zen Buddhism, but also a chance to see treasured religious articles up close and personal, representative of important epochs in Japanese history. We also used our stay here to reset ourselves into the northwest of the city from the Gion area, and from here we were easily able to enjoy nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Temple, and Ninnaji Temple!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, sacred decorative stone

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, stone tiles and design 2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, sacred everygreen pine at night 2We stayed at Shunkō-in Temple during the low winter season in late January and early February of 2014. While the larger Myōshin-ji temple complex is only about 8 minutes from the local Hanazono train station (easily reached from Kyoto station), it is at least that much more time to get to Shunkō-in from Myōshin-ji’s southern entrance, and that’s only if you know where you are going! We elected to arrive via taxi as it was raining the morning of our arrival, although it appears taxis cannot enter the Myōshin-ji compound, so we still did manage to end up damp wandering our way along. I’m not admitting we didn’t know where we were going, but remember: not everyone who wanders is lost!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, closed wooden gate lighted at night

Shunkō-in (春光院, “Temple of the Ray of Spring Light”) is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto belonging to the “Temple of Excellent Mind,” the largest among the various Japanese Buddhist traditions. The temple was established in 1590 and houses important historical objects that reflect the multifaceted religious and artistic atmosphere in Japan from the sixteenth century onward.

 

The Bell of Nanban-ji

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century church bell IHS

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century church bell (holga)The Bell of Nanban-ji is a Jesuit bell made in Portugal in 1577 and used in Nanban-ji, the first Christian Church in Kyoto established in 1576. For the next eleven years, Nanban-ji was the center of Catholic missionary activities in Japan, and also served as an important gathering place for traders from Portugal and Spain.

The church was purposely destroyed by fire in 1587 after Christian persecution was sanctioned in Japan, and was never rebuilt. The Bell made its way to Shunkō-in around 1800, but during World War II, the grandfather of the present vice-abbot buried the bell in the temple gardens to prevent it from being melted down in support of the Japanese imperial war effort. The bell helps illuminate the deep history of Christianity in Japan during the 16th century and about the political and economic relationships between Japan and Europe. The bell is designated as a “National Important Cultural Property.”

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, 16th century Christian church bell (impact)The Jesuit seal containing a Christogram “IHS” can be found on the surface of the bell. “IHS” is derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, ΙΗΣ (Jesus is ΙΗΣΟΎΣ in Greek), and is also connected with the Latin phrase, “Iesus Hominum Salvator,” or “Jesus, Savior of Man.” Under this three nails on the Seal of the Society of Jesus can be found, symbolizing the Crucifixion of Christ.

The Myōshin-ji complex is made up of multiple towering temples scattered throughout its vicinities, and is the biggest temple complex in Kyoto. Thus, the entire area allows one to enjoy peace and silence even being surrounded by the city’s dense urban sprawl. Walking the grounds, you will see students, locals, and Buddhist monks roving about or passing through. What you won’t see, however (and thankfully so) are foreign tourists! The Shunkō-in Temple itself is picture perfect. Passing through its handsome wooden gates, one quickly feels anointed with the tranquility and peace the surroundings seem to almost impose.

 

Kirishitan Lantern (Hidden Christian Lantern)

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, hidden Christian symbols (temple lantern)kirishitanShunkō-in houses an Asian stone lantern called a kirishitan dōrō (“Christian lantern”), whose leg is in the vague shape of a cross, and carved into its surface one finds what could be interrupted as an effigy of the Virgin Mary. While the distinctive history of this particular lantern has been lost to antiquity, this lantern remains a very important object which speaks much about early Christianity in Japan

Christianity was introduced to Japan by St. Francis Xavier on August 15, 1549, and initially was accepted by many feudal lords and farmers in western Japan. However, Christianity came to be viewed as a serious threat to Japan, leading to its outright ban in 1614.

The Edo period (1603-1867) within Japan was the dark ages for Japanese Christians. Christianity was banned, and Christians and their icons and property were systematically eliminated and destroyed. However, as is always the case in at any time for all religions, some Christians decided to keep their faith and actively starting to hide their religious identity. Those hidden Christians made their crosses and graves to resemble the Buddhist statues, pagodas, and stone lanterns, like that found at Shunkō-in. In 1858, the ban against Christianity was finally lifted by the newly-born Meiji government of more modern times.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, idle Japanese straw brooms

Although check-in times at Shunkō-in are stressed, you can arrange to drop luggage off early. On our arrival to do just that, we were told our room was already ready and available. There are some basic forms to fill out, and you’ll need to provide your passport for a short time, and the room must be pre-paid. The English-speaking staff there provides a wide variety of information, and has the gouge on local places to eat, tourist sites and other area-related information.

Free loaner bikes are a WONDERFUL way to get around

Free loaner bikes are a WONDERFUL way to get around

 

Painted Sliding Door Panels (fusuma-e) by Eigaku Kanō

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Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, classic Japanese wall paintingsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, classic Japanese wall paintings 4Several sliding door panels at Shunkō-in were painted by Eigaku Kanō, and have Confucian teachings as their theme. Confucianism and its stress on honor, loyalty and honesty were very important to samurai (warriors) during Japan’s Edo period. The wonderful thing about viewing these panels here at the temple during a private tour is that not only are they original (most other painted sliding door panels are reproductions in other major temple attractions), but they can be viewed up close and personal, from a seated position on the tatami mats, with only natural light, all exactly the way the panels were designed and painted for viewing! Similarly, the gardens are viewed the same way – as originally intended from seated positions in the center of the main rooms adjoining the green spaces.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Jody in a Temple room

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Buddhist cemetery at the temple (holga)Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Buddhist cemetery at nightShunkō-in Temple’s guest house is named Tetsuryu-Kutsu, or, “Cave of Enlightened Dragon.” Fortunately, although we failed to encounter any Far Eastern dragons of ancient lore, we did however feel a bit more enlightened after our stay and meditation experience. There is only one type of room offered at the Temple (although there are 8 total), and that type is SIMPLE! The rooms are located on two floors, all on the same side of a long corridor, with windows that overlook an old Buddhist cemetery…which some people may find a bit creepy. I, however, took advantage of the surreal scenery of this garden of wood and stone in the darkness and rain for some very nice photos.

Simple Sleeping Arrangements

Simple Sleeping Arrangements

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, tranquil wooden raised passagesKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, Temple Priestly Priest accoutrementsThe air-conditioned/heated en suite room is a 14.6-square-meter bedroom, completely covered with traditional tatami, with sleeping futons on the floor already made (the room could easily sleep three adults). The shower was clean and well-appointed, with the toilet, like most places in Japan, being in a completely separate room.

new-accommodation-facility

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, twin beds Japanese styleKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, alter statue and offeringsAnother novelty unique to Shunkō-in is the room pillows. Small and dense, they were filled with what we found out to be small sections of hearty plastic straws or tubes. In effect, these small pillows molded almost perfectly to our necks and heads, and were oddly very comfortable. Although I’m sure the sparse room fittings and floor-centric basic bedding was in part to add to the unique humbling experience of Zen Buddhism, Jody and I both agree that sleep here was some of the deepest, restful sleep either of us have experienced in a long, long time! Hard to image that such bliss came from sleeping on the floor in the middle of winter.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation zen master station

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, bicycle riding with Jody to get Chinese food in Kyoto

Wonderful Wonder Cafe

Wonderful Wonder Cafe

Food is not served at the temple, but there are several cafes and eateries nearby that are easily found based on a map provided with your stay. A not to miss treat is the Wonder Café, just a 10 minute walk or so from Shunkō-in. Here you will be wonderfully entertained with the dense and eclectic surroundings, generous portions of pasta dishes, and a simply one-of-a-kind bathroom that’s not to be missed (along with the rest of the entire 2nd floor!). A fun late-trip for a truly unique Chinese-food snack-attack is via the loaner bicycles found at the temple, and the associated downhill race towards the train station and “OHSHO,” serving fabulous food 24/7 and always packed with satisfied customers.

Make sure to get the map!

Make sure to get the map!

Do yourself a favor and stay local and authentic. Between our Machiya stay earlier in the week (see that blog here) and this reinvigorating – if not enlightening experience, we were able to get a much more grounded experience of what Kyoto has to offer at its best: charm, nostalgia, history, all bonded by the more comfortable elements of modernity.

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Shunkō-in Temple is Trip-Advisor ranked #11 of 227 Specialty lodgings in Kyoto. Specifics about staying at Shunkō-in can be found here http://www.shunkoin.com/ and below:

• Room Rates: 1 person @ 6,000 yen/night; 2 people @ 5,500 yen/person/night; 3 people @ 4,500 yen/person/night. Prices include sales tax (which may have recently gone up – check for current prices!!)

• Check-in 15:30 – 18:30 FIRM, and Check-out 11:00

• No curfew: after check-in guests have 24/7 access to the temple and lodge

• Zen meditation class and tour for staying guests: 500 yen/person

• Free bicycle rental

Address: 42 Myoshinji-Cho, Hanazono, Ukyo-Ku, Kyoto 616-8035 JAPAN

Phone: +81.75.462.5488 (international), (075)462-5488 (domestic)

Email:   Rev.Taka.Kawakami@gmail.com

Timeless Townhouse: Our Machiya Stay in Kyoto


 井の中の蛙大海を知らず, I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu: A frog in a well does not know the great sea. Or, people are satisfied to judge things by their own narrow experience, never knowing of the wide world outside.

Kōshi lattice work on the ground floor; earthwork walls on the second story with mushikomado windows.

Kōshi lattice work on the ground floor; earthwork walls on the second story with mushikomado windows.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, entrway on the small alleywayWanting to avoid being narrow American frogs overseas , and equally desiring a more authentic stay in Kyoto, Jody and I elected to stay in a traditional Japanese machiya called Seuin-An, “Blue Cloud Hut.” Seuin-An is a historic Kyoto townhouse were the essence of the Japanese tradition of Geisha was taught: dance, music, tea ceremony, flower arrangement and more were handed down here for generations from teacher to the young ladies who chose this mysterious world as their way of life. While it has been renovated to provide more comfortable quarters to guests, it still retains a cozy machiya’s spirit, esthetic, and beauty of these wonderful traditional Japanese townhouses.

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Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, bamboo garden and entrywayMachiya (町屋/町家) are traditional wooden townhouses found throughout Japan, but typified in the historical capital of Kyoto. Kyoto, largely spared the devastating fire-bombing campaigns of World War II, retains many old and quite historic wooden buildings, including many machiya. These townhouses, along with Japanese nōka (farm dwellings) constitute Japanese minka architecture of “folk dwellings.” Machiya have a long history spanning many hundreds of years, and traditionally housed chōnin (townspeople), primarily consisting of urban merchants and craftsmen. The plot’s linear footage along the street was in the past a visible index of wealth, and typical machiya plots were only 15-20 feet wide but over 60 feet deep, leading to the nickname “eel bed.” Machiya is written using two kanji: machi (町, “town”), and ya (家 or 屋) meaning “house” (家) or “shop” (屋) depending on the kanji used.

Main Living Area

Main Living Area

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, asian Japanese living room accentsThe typical Kyoto machiya is a long, narrow wooden home, often containing a small courtyard garden. Machiya of the past incorporated earthen walls behind wood lattice works and baked tile roofs, and were usually two stories high. If used as a shop, the front of the structure served as the retail space. The remainder of the building is then divided into the kyoshitsubu (居室部, “living space)” composed of divided rooms with raised timber floors and tatami mats, and the doma (土間), an earthen-floored space that contained the kitchen and passage to storehouses.

Master Badroom

Master Badroom

Multiple layers of sliding doors are used to moderate the temperature inside; closing in the winter offers some protection from cold, while opening in the summer offers some respite from heat and humidity. Machiya homes traditionally also used different types of screens, using woven bamboo screens in summer to enhance airflow but block sun, while solid screens were used in winter to retain more heat.

Functional Kitchen

Functional Kitchen

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, functional kitchen 2On a sad note, between 1993 and 2003, over 13% of the machiya in Kyoto were demolished. Roughly 40% of these were replaced with new modern houses, and another 40% were replaced with high-rise apartment buildings, parking lots, or modern-style commercial shops. Of those machiya remaining, over 80% have suffered significant losses to the traditional appearance of their facades in a process called kanban kenchiku (看板建築, “signboard architecture”); they retain their basic machiya shape, but their facades have been completely covered over in cement, which replaces the wooden lattices of the first story and earthwork walls of the second, along with losing their tile roofs.

The Entrance to Our Seuin-An Machiya

The Entrance to Our Seuin-An Machiya

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, Asian bedroom lamps and skylightsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, Japanese wall hangingsJody and I were lucky enough to be able to experience this corner of a quickly disappearing tradition in Kyoto. Stay at Seuin-An was an experience neither of us will soon forget; imaging who may have passed through its doors and contemplating the full range of Far Eastern humanity that the structure encompasses allowed us to make a much stronger connection to not just Japan, but to our collective and shared pasts. In a phrase, we Western frogs managed to jump from the well of our narrow experience to see the wider world of Kyoto beyond.

Bathing Room

Bathing Room

I ended up writing a review for Trip Advisor, which is included here for your review. You may note my sensitivity to the owners, who seemed to be quite insulted with any type of less than good review online. It’s interesting to note that my review did not solicit any response, which I am pleased about, as anyone wanting to stay at Seiun-an. Read on…if you’d like.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, upstairs futon and tatami

“A Diamond…in the Rough” (3 of 5 Stars)

I’m going to try and write this review without having the owner get overly defensive while hopefully portraying our stay accurately. After all, that is the point of Trip Advisor.

This home COULD easily be 4 stars…with just a little bit of work. If I could on this site I would have rated the home as 3.5 or even 3.75 stars (instead of the 3 I did rate it). We enjoyed our stay, and the location of the home is excellent. And, it does give one a personal, authentic experience of living in Japan. Let me explain.

This is an old home, in mostly original style and layout, and that should be clear to anyone renting or staying. That was exactly our point in renting this type of accommodation – for a more authentic experience while traveling and staying in Japan. Expect the home to be cold and drafty in the wintertime, with the bathroom floor being VERY cold. The heat on the 2nd floor sleeping area works well (one wall unit and one floor electric radiator), and is very comfortable at night. Only one pair of slippers is provided in the home, but no robes, which would be a very nice touch since one has to go downstairs at night to use the only toilet in the home. The toilet is a modern Japanese one, with a welcomed heated seat!

The best iron deep-soak tub around!

The best iron deep-soak tub around!

The tub is fantastic, a deep-soak iron barrel sunk into the floor. However, the small plastic-framed bathroom mirror is much too small and is miss-hung for it to be of any use at all. My wife ended up using her iPad camera on herself, turning her iPad into a de facto mirror at the living room table. The sink installation is rather haphazard and lacks any sort of refinement; there is no medicine cabinet or other storage areas in the bathing room (sink & shower being separate from the toilet).

The lighting takes a few moments to figure out, and while adequate, we had numerous lights that were burnt out, including the outside light, two hallway lights (we replaced one with the over-the-stove hood light), one accent light in an art/panel area, and there was a broken and missing light fixture in the living area that resulted in quite an eye-sore. We only asked for the outside light to be fixed, since we are not fans of having people enter our living spaces while absent, but it is also not much to ask that lights be operable before we take residence. And there was no explanation for the broken fixture, which really detracted from the appeal, look and feel of the living room.

Tatami Sleeping Arrangements

Tatami Sleeping Arrangements

The living area furniture is not dark wood like in the website photos, nor is it located where it is as pictured there. It is however very functional, and there is plenty of room downstairs for eating and socializing.

While I understand the sliding doors are old and fragile in the home, the sliding door to the kitchen is very tough to use, and constantly was getting jammed. It is not really on a track, and is heavy to move, lacking any type of handle. We kept it closed most of the time though since heat downstairs was a constant issue in the middle of winter. The kitchen is functional.

There is really no weather-sealing or insulation at any of the doors, and this causes the draftiness of the downstairs area. The heater downstairs (one wall-mount and one electric floor radiator) both ran on high full-time; they simply couldn’t keep up with the cold. If the entryway bamboo vented screens were backed with Plexiglas (or glass), and if the door to the outside mechanical area were sealed properly, this would be a much warmer residence.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, entryway

Finally, there are some aesthetic flaws that interfere with the charm of the machiya. The patches in the rice paper doors are too numerous and visible, along with the damaged bamboo entry sliding doors. The bathroom sink area really needs some updating, which could be accomplished while keeping the experience “authentic.” The bamboo water “garden” in the entryway would, if functional, provide some terrific ambiance to the entire structure, as well as some soothing water sounds….

The owner-recommended café “Yamamoto” around the corner is an excellent choice, and was much easier for the taxis to find than the house’s address!

Like I said, this home is a GEM, but with some pretty rough edges. With some much needed attention, it would easily be a 4-star home, and with some further investment, much higher rents could be charged given the potential charm of the residence and its location. It’s a recommended place to stay, but be forewarned: if you are looking for western style kitchens and bathrooms, and if you want to be pampered with warmth, look elsewhere.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Machiya Seiun-an, photo collage of our accommodations in Gion

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Feet, Japanese Style: Arashiyama Station Foot Bath


“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Jody enjoys the Arashiyama Station Foot Bath

Jody enjoys the Arashiyama Station Foot Bath

Foot bath at Arashiyama Station

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Arashiyama, Jody relaxing her feet in the train station footbathKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Arashiyama, hot springs foot bath in the train station!The foot bath hot thermal springs at Keifuku Railway’s Arashiyama Station is certainly a popular tourist spot where locals and tourists alike use it to relieve their aching feet after a day spent hiking the temples and nearby beautifully extensive bamboo forest. Taking advantage of a local onsen (“hot spring”), the bath is at first rather difficult to find in the well-appointed transit station, appearing near the end of a track platform only as a board fence of a machiya house.  Easily warming everything from your ankles down in ~40C water (~104F), a ten minute dip in the bath is said to give the best results.  We spent much longer waiting for our next train!  Large wooden tables in the middle of the springs’ bench-style comfortable seating for up to 16 are provided, which became especially convenient for our tourist maps! A small personalized towel is provided for your feet once relieved, and in true Japanese charm and style, small plastic bags are provided so that you may take the towel home as a souvenir.  Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content; the Japanese claim this very spring is particularly effective at treating nerve pain, digestive problems, and general fatigue, the latter to which I certainly can attest!  The outdoor bath tubs are most often made from Japanese cypress, giving it a congruently earthy feel which enhances relaxation. In order to utilize these springs, a ticket must first be purchased at the station’s information center.

Location: Arashiyama Station Hannari-Hokkori Square (in Arashiyama Station on the Keihuku Line); phone 075-873-2121; address Saga Tenruji, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-8394 , Japan

Entrance Fees: ¥150/person (including an original towel)

Open year-round from 9:00-20:00 (9:00-18:00 in winter)

Ranked #84 of 417 attractions in Kyoto 118 reviews

Ah, Japanese video games.  Who's about to "score" here?

Ah, Japanese video games. Who’s about to “score” in this onsen?

 

Onsen in Japan

An onsen (温泉) is a term for “hot springs” in Japanese, though the term can also be used to describe bathing facilities and inns around various hot springs. By definition, they must use naturally hot water from geothremally heated springs. As a volcanically active country sitting on the very rim of the Ring of Fire (see my related blog about here), Japan has thousands of onsen scattered throughout its many islands. Onsen have long been traditionally used as public bathing places, but it’s important to differentiate them from sentō, indoor public bath houses which used heated tap water.

Yep.  One for the monkeys.  Look it up.

Yep. One for the monkeys. Look it up.

As major domestic tourist attractions, onsen and Japanese baths in general stray far away from their western counterparts in the Far East. The Japanese in this sense have a culture of “naked communion” (裸の付き合い hadaka no tsukiai) when bathing in a community setting, which for them helps to break down social and formal barriers so that people may become more relaxed and sociable. Lucky for us, only our feet were naked during our coed experience…although Jody does like to drive Naked all throughout Okinawa.

This onsen apparently lets you prepare lunch at the same time.

This onsen apparently lets you prepare lunch at the same time.

At an onsen guests are expected to wash and rinse thoroughly before entering the hot water. Bathing stations are well-equipped for such purposes, complete with stools, faucets, wooden buckets, and toiletries such as soap and shampoo. Entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is socially unacceptable.  Of course shoes in the entire establishment are a no-no as well.

I wouldn't want to take a bath with them, either....

I wouldn’t want to take a bath with them, either….

Except for that ink that keeps your feet out of the hot springs!

Except for that ink that keeps your feet out of the hot springs!

Probably doesn't qualify as "peaceful."

Probably doesn’t qualify as “peaceful.”

Although many onsen continue to ban bathers with tattoos, that didn’t seem to be the case at this particular foot bath. I guess unless you had ink’d feet! In a rather regressive rut of modern Japanese society, tats are still taken as a badge of criminality, particularly of the Yakuza criminal enterprise. However, there is a tremendous gulf between the socially acceptable tattoos of today, set against the backdrop of the traditionally massive and elaborate tattoos of yesteryear’s Japanese gangs. In many Japanese baths, although there remains little linkage between ink and the Yakuza, such rules are often strictly enforced, especially against foreigners, women, and even when tattoos are small, discreet, and “peaceful.” Sorry: no hot springs swim call for the “peaceful” dolphins you might have lamely tattooed on your ankle.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Arashiyama, Arashiyama Train Station photo-collage

Onsen are often indicated on signs and depicted on maps by the symbol ♨ or the kanji 湯 (yu, “hot water” – find it on the sign below!), although the simpler hiragana character ゆ (yu) is used for wider comprehension, especially for younger children.  However you find one, I can highly recommend this little break while touring the outer areas of Kyoto.  At the very least, your happy feet will thank you for it, and you’ll have a most interesting story to share with our friends and family!

Arashiyama Station Foot Bath Signage

Arashiyama Station Foot Bath Signage

Catppucino? Cat Cafés in Japan


“What greater gift than the love of a cat.”  ~ Charles Dickens

“Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose.”  ~ Garrison Keillor

“Of all God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the leash.  That one is the cat.  If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”  ~ Mark Twain

How ‘bout this idea for a business plan:  the public paying for the opportunity to just sit in a room full of cats, while hazarding cat hair in their “catpuccino”??

Nekokaigi in Kyoto

Nekokaigi in Kyoto

Probably seems like a non-starter to most of us in the West, but “Cat Cafés” are actually quite popular in Japan.  In short, most apartments and condos in Japan do not allow such mousers, and many young Japanese adults continue to live with their parents until late in the twenties, where there may not be a family feline.  The Japanese people love cats no less than anyone else in the world, and thus, cat lovers here need places to go to visit temporary tabbies, all the while enjoying a favorite drink or two.  Hence, the birth and popularity of Cat Cafés in Japan.

If the cats don't like you, you can buy treats and bribe them....

If the cats don’t like you, you can buy treats and bribe them….

“The cuteness of cats is common to the whole world!”  ~ from the Nekokaigi website

Nattsu

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Kevin making new cat friendsKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, high perched catNekokaigi (neko translates as cat 猫), located in Kyoto, is one of the more famous Japanese Cat Cafés, having been featured in many TV programs and newspapers since opening.  Although I swear that I had mentioned Cat Cafes to Jody sometime a few months ago, for some reason, I happened to mention it again during our recent winter holiday in Kyoto, Japan.  Probably as a joke.  However, when I merely touched on the concept, Jody quickly became utterly consumed with the idea.  Like in searching the internet, reading various articles, and finally, localizing Nekokaigi in Kyoto over the course of about three hours.  Of course we had to go!  Or at least one of us did.  I had to admit though, that after almost a week of walking the many tourist attractions throughout Kyoto and the surrounding areas, all the while missing our own personal feline friend back home in Okinawa, we were in need of just this kind of respite from our vacation.

Moka

Uh, she might look sad ’cause she has to wear clothes!

The concept behind a Cat Café is deceptively simple:  found only in Asia, it is a space designed primarily for the creature comfort and amusement of cats, but which also can serve to host humans, so that both can touch and play with each other at will…while only one side enjoys a beverage or two.  Is it you playing with the cat, or the cat playing with you?

Tampopo

Foxy Lady. Who wouldn’t like to rest on a cat??

Menu

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, cat staring contest go! 2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, cat mommaNekokaigi, located in the center of Kyoto, would be a great place to cool off during a hot and humid summer’s day, and we can attest that it’s a wonderfully warm abode to reinvigorate oneself on a cold winter’s day.  In either case, it’s ideally situated and serves as a pleasant spot to rest your feet during a breather from the day’s trek through the city’s many temples, shrines, and parks.  It has even become a popular spot for first dates and dating in the city, allowing the cats to help break the ice and facilitate displays of emotion and affection for the traditionally shy Japanese.  In our case, it afforded Jody her feline fix to help makeup for her time away from Cleo back home.

Futaba

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, sleepy cats and Japanese visitor

Where’s the furniture for the humans??

After literally an afternoon of researching and reading aloud about each non-human resident of Nekokaigi, we were ready to head out and make some new furry friends.

Sumomo

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Jody finds the sign!Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, sleepy clothed catHowever, be forewarned:  this cat café is fairly hard to find.  The café is not easy to spot so make sure to check the website if you do not read any Japanese. While there is a sign on the sidewalk, it is small and non-descript.  Oh, and it’s in Japanese.  According to the maps on the web and their Facebook site, we knew we were in the right area, within even a block (or two).  We initially couldn’t find the café, and searched for a good while, to the point where I began to question if there really was a cat café…while we were walking right by the place!  Only by looking at some of the photos posted from inside the café in the previous 30 minutes could we confirm that indeed they were open…and nearby.  And upon viewing the photos taken from within the café looking out of their storefront, we could then triangulate its position by finding the objects (in this case some uniquely Asian inspired rooflines) visible in their view shed by looking across the street.  We required multiple passes in front of the café before actually finding it.  Oh, and it’s on the 2nd floor as well.

Tortoiseshell Cat

As advertised, she was asleep the whole time.

Entrance

Not my scrawl mind you. A professional produced graphic from the shop’s own website. This photo WILL help you locate the café!

nk2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, peakaboo with new feline friendsAfter finally finding the cat cafe, we did notice a cat drawn on their small portable sign along the sidewalk, but it’s just too easy to miss.  Admission for one hour is 900 yen (it has increased this spring) and 30 minutes extensions are 450 yen; drink purchases are not required, but are extra.  The website calls attention to just how busy the café can be on the weekends and holidays, and the proprietors therefore endorse visiting on the weekdays.  There is a list of “rules,” but they are nothing awkward or unreasonable, except they don’t allow guests under 13 years of age.

Banira

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, sleepy crotch cat friend

There aren’t many pictures of Jody with the cats…(wink).

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Japanese bath bathing cat 5

Japanese Bath

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Japanese bath bathing cat 2Although the staff – called “submanagers” in Japanese – at Nekokaigi don’t speak much English, they certainly try their best to communicate.  There are English guides available, and they attempt to corral the cats in your direction if you remain embarrassing lonely for an extended period, and make sure that your refreshment needs are well attended.  When we were there on a Friday afternoon, there was a staff of two, two young Japanese girls, a Japanese woman (who seemed to be working and totally ignored the cats), and then only one other male-female (human) couple.  There was plenty of room for all of us – human and cats, and, in fact, the cats outnumbered the humans during our entire stay.

Himawari

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Kevin playing ball with his new feline friends

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, Kevin making new cat friends 2Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, sleepy clothed catWe arrived in the afternoon, which if you know anything about cats, is probably not the best time to expect any meaningful interaction.  Rather, it was lazy afternoon nap time.  Still, we had our share of friends for the afternoon, or at least one of us did.  For someone who was so taken by this idea, let’s just say Jody was lucky to have me there to be her friend.  Even though catnaps seemed to be the rule, we paid for two extensions of our stay anyway, enjoying our hot tea along with matching up the online cat characterizations (posted throughout this blog) with the actual citizenry.

Yuzu

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Cat Cafe Nekokaigi, my new cat friend is a crotch snuggler

Cleo didn’t meow at me for a WEEK after seeing this photo, the cat-equivalent of lipstick on the collar….

If you find yourself with some idle time in a major Japanese city, and want to experience something truly different and totally Asian, check if there is a local cat café at your particular destination.  It’s well worth the few dollars you’ll spend for a coffee or tea…but the new friends you will make remain priceless.

Saying "Sayonara" at Nekokaigi

Sadly Saying “Sayonara” at Nekokaigi

The details on the Nekokaigi are below:

MapOikekano bldg 2F, 590, Oikedaitocho, Nakagyo-ku Kyoto, Japan

(京都市中京区御池通麩屋町西入ル 御池大東町590御池加納ビル2F)

Phone:  075-212-0577 (Japanese only)

Email:  kyoto@nekokaigi.com

Hours:  11:00~20:00 (Last admission 19:00)

Closed on Tuesdays

https://www.facebook.com/catcafe.nekokaigi

*** No children under 13 years old ***

Zen Rock Gardens: You just don’t get it, do ya?


蓼食う虫も好き好き, Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki, literally, there are even bugs that eat knotweed, or, there’s no accounting for taste; to each his own.

“Zen…does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes.  Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”  ~ Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

Ryoanji Temple's World-Infamous Rock Garden

Ryoanji Temple’s World-Infamous Rock Garden

The most famous Zen garden in Japan is found in Kyoto at the 15th-century Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺, Ryōanji), the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, where for the first time the Zen garden became purely abstract.  For some reason, unbeknownst to the writer after recently visiting the temple, Ryoan-ji remains THE über example of Zen gardens— a powerful, yet wholly abstract Zen Buddhist landscape designed to invoke deep meditation.  Hey, did I mention yet just how abstract the rock “garden” actually is?  It encompasses a rectangle of 340 square meters (about the size of tennis court), and within it are (can I insert “randomly here) placed fifteen stones of different sizes, composed in five (quite possibly “random”) groups; one group of five, two groups of three, and two groups of two.  The only vegetation in the garden is some moss around the stones, and the stone groupings are surrounded by white gravel, which is carefully raked each day by the resident monks of the Temple.

Diagram-of-Ryoanji2rockgarden02Ryōan-ji’s rock garden resists easy interpretation, or quite possibly any interpretation.  And in a simple non-abstract phrase, no, I just don’t get it.  Theories differ and are many, and include simple islands in a stream (oaky, I can buy this one), to river-crossing mother and baby tigers (Uhm, sure, I see’em, right there!  Nope, that’s just a rock….), to the peaks of mountains rising above the clouds (plausible), to theories about secrets of geometry or of the rules of equilibrium of odd numbers (which speaks kindly to the math-lete residing within me).  Then there is some very odd and totally abstract (there’s that word again) analyses on-line, with about the only missing explanation being that of “Ancient Aliens” UFO-origin.  However, I prefer the explanation of the garden provided by the historian Gunter Nitschke: “The garden at Ryōan-ji does not symbolize anything, or more precisely, to avoid any misunderstanding, the garden of Ryōan-ji does not symbolize, nor does it have the value of reproducing a natural beauty that one can find in the real or mythical world.  I consider it to be an abstract composition of ‘natural’ objects in space, a composition whose function is to incite meditation.”  That seems just about right.  I certainly just can’t seem to find, no matter how hard I try, a mother tiger helping her babies to cross a stream….

I can assure you what my cat sees....

I can assure you what my cat sees….

Modern scientific analysis shows there's a tree in the garden after all.   Riiiiigggghhhhttttt....

Modern scientific analysis shows there’s a tree in the garden after all. Riiiiigggghhhhttttt….

zen-catsA young monk raking the famous Japanese rock garden of Ryoanji TempleThe Japanese rock garden (枯山水 karesansui, “dry-water landscape”), often called a Zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and raked gravel or sand.  They originated in medieval Japan and are renowned for their simplicity and serenity.  Zen gardens are usually small, surrounded by a wall, and, in contrast to gardens of the West which are designed to be viewed from within, Zen rock gardens are meant to be seen from outside, usually seated, and best from a single viewpoint, most commonly located on the veranda of the hojo, the abbot’s temple residence.  Zen gardens imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance, and serve as an aid to meditation.  White sand and gravel are prominent features of these gardens.  In Shinto, they symbolize purity, while in Zen (Buddhist) gardens they represent water or emptiness and distance.  The very act of raking the gravel into intricate patterns assists Zen priests in their concentration.  Achieving perfection of lines in the present is not easy and requires strict focus; and even if achieved, the garden does not remain static, but requires careful and constant attention, just as many of the more important aspects of our lives do.  Stone arrangements and other miniature elements (shaped shrubs) are used to represent mountains and natural water elements and scenes, islands, rivers and waterfalls.  In some gardens moss is used as a ground cover to create “land” covered by forest.

Not a Zen rock garden

Not a Zen rock garden

The gardens of Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famed “Silver Pavilion,” include a traditional Zen “pond” garden (made of raked gravel, mind you), but includes a perfectly shaped mountain of white gravel, resembling Mount Fuji.  The scene is referred to as ginshanada, literally, “sand of silver and open sea”.

Fuji and the sea of gravel at the Silver Pavilion

Fuji and the sea of gravel at the Silver Pavilion

ZenCrosswordzen-bdayLike the opening quote of this blog, I believe that we, who habitually struggle with the human condition with which we find ourselves confronted, much too often look for “more.”  More meaning, more connection, more complex relationships that maybe just maybe begin to answer the queries that burn within us all.  But, like a Zen Buddha Abbot told us, Zen focuses on “no mind” and not what we in the West assume as “empty mind;” minds cannot be emptied.  However, Zen strives for a mind-state where one accepts cerebral notions, thoughts and imagery, except without judgment, value, or emotion, and devoid of stress or reaction.  In this way, one can develop the eyes necessary to see and the ears necessary to hear truth, which helps us to understand and accept answers of life that could otherwise make us feel very uncomfortable.  In the end, I believe the rock gardens – including that at Ryōan-ji – are simply a physical reflection of the same:  an empty plot, devoid of those things normally associated with western gardens designed to excite our senses, an abstract meaningless void which assists its viewers, in a sense, to loose their minds…to better see and understand the miracles of life, shared by all.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, tranquil bamboo water supply

Ryōan-ji’s tsukubai (蹲踞), the basin provided for ritual washing of the hands and mouth

“Only if you’re ugly:” Japanese Low Cost Carriers (LCC)


“The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”  ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“I’m so ugly – I worked in a pet shop, and people kept asking how big I’d get!”  ~ Rodney Dangerfield

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  ~ Robert Frost

We all have baggage.

We all have baggage.

“I’m SAR-re, you must out one kilogram,” the Peach Airlines Japanese counter attendant said as we tried to check in for our flight home from Kyoto.

full_travelling-samurai

Do kids get to have heavier baggage, you know, since they weigh less?

Do kids get to have heavier baggage, you know, since they weigh less?

Jody and I were prepared for this eventuality.  We packed for our Far East foray together, sharing one small suitcase because we would be using so much public transportation.  And bringing extra stuff like we always do, we were slightly overweight.  It seems that the Japanese LCCs (Low-Cost Carriers) only allow for 20 kilograms (44 pounds) per checked bags, but will go to 21 kilos (and additional 2.2 pounds) by placing a “HEAVY” tag on the bag, but you can’t pay for any extra weight beyond that absolute cutoff.

Our bags weren't free, but still only $25.

Our bags weren’t free, but still only $25.

Adjusting the bag and taking it back through x-ray, we bring it confidently back up to the counter for re-weighing, and perfect!  We are at 20.6 kilograms.  “Oh-kay,” the attendant says with a beaming, courteous smile like really only the Japanese can provide in a customer service setting!

About all she did was make our carry-ons heavier....

About all she did was make our carry-ons heavier….

She gets out a “HEAVY” tag, and on the back she writes some things.  “You must sign,” she says, still with a smile.

Ugliest600

Not knowing what I’m signing for, I pause.  She must sense my confusion because she continues, “You sign only if you are ugly,” again with a smile.  “So we not responsi-ber because you are ugly.”

This is kind-da how I felt...(sigh).

This is kind-da how I felt…(sigh).

Now both Jody and I are confused.  I smile back, thinking to myself in my inner voice, “Okay, I get it:  all us gaijin look the same.  But did she really just tell us we were ugly?”  And worse, we have to sign and acknowledge that unpleasant characterization?!?

Wait a tick!!  Maybe she’s talking about our luggage!  However, the bag is not that bad as to be summarily and nonchalantly dismissed as ugly, regardless of how much she may be smiling.  The bag may be worn, it is certainly not handsome, and possibly it’s beyond its prime, but ugly?  That’s a little extreme.

funny-quotes-awesome-ends-with-me-and-ugly-begins-with-you1

Not satisfied and not understanding what was Lost in Translation in this transaction, I ask – just to be sure – and with my own pleasant but now slightly bruised ego, “What are we signing for?”

“Sign only if you’re ugly!” came another overly cheerful response.  Boy she is “real-ree” happy about me being so unattractive….

No, ThIS is ugly, and certainly no virgin.

No, ThIS is ugly, and certainly no virgin.

Best flight attendant uniform ever.  Or at least since the 40s....

Best flight attendant uniform ever. Or at least since the 40s….

I turn and face Jody, with a grimacing smile that silently says, “Is she really saying that to us?”  Jody, recognizing that all three of us were due for some much-needed clarification, turned to the attendant and asked, “Do you mean ‘HEAVY?’!”

“YES-YES!” came the hurriedly excited reply matched with exaggerated head-nodding.

Whew.  What a relief.  Jody and I aren’t ugly after all.  And neither is our luggage.  Now we’re just…“heavy.”  That’s a lot better than being ugly; nothing a diet can’t take care of….

image_LCCrules_english_01

I still don't get the whole "Peach" thing.  But sex always sells.

I still don’t get the whole “Peach” thing. But sex always sells.

A LCC (Low-Cost Carrier, aka no-frills, discount or budget carrier or airline, or better yet, plain’ole cheap bastards) is an airline that generally has lower fares but offers fewer amenities.  To make up for revenue lost in decreased ticket prices, the airline often will charge for extras.  They are not to be confused with smaller, regional airlines; LCCs in fact quite often offer wide domestic and limited international services.

screen-shot-2013-10-01-at-11-38-11-am

Really, they dress their dude stewardesses in THAT??

Really, they dress their dude stewardesses in THAT??

0020_peach2In 2012, three new budget airlines entered the Japanese market serving Okinawa (where we live), creating increased competition and thankfully much lower fares on several domestic and international routes.  Interesting enough, while competing directly with the established JAL and ANA Japanese full-service airlines, almost 40% of Peach is held by ANA, a direct competitor.

"Cute" in Japan has no price.

“Cute” in Japan has no price.

Yes, that's plastic lawn furniture in their terminal.

Yes, that’s plastic lawn furniture in their terminal.

Yes, that's basically an empty hangar/warehouse....

Yes, that’s basically an empty hangar/warehouse….

The fares offered by Peach were truly unbeatable.  In fact, since they were about 30% (or less) of what ANA or JAL would charge, we actually made inquiries as to their safety, performance, and validity at our on-base Japanese travel agency, who quickly vowed on all three points.  While Peach doesn’t use the standard passenger terminals, which for the Okinawan hub means a bare-bones operations involving plastic lawn furniture and a warehouse like environment, their services, aircraft, and performance were impeccable.  Actually, being in their own terminal building, while necessitating an extra shuttle ride, makes check-in and security quite easy and simplistic:  there were no lines anywhere and we never had to wait for service.  We boarded on-time with seat assignments situated together, and their departure and arrival times were as advertised.  And, they were flying new Airbus aircraft, an industry standard by any means.  The service is so good actually that there is really no need to ever fly with the “heavies” at three times the cost.

Our Peach-sweet ride to Kyoto

Our Peach-sweet ride to Kyoto

In a truly humorous note, the LCC sharing the hangar with Peach is called Vanilla, probably the perfect name for a budget airline!

Peaches and cream.  Sort'of.

Peaches and cream. sort ‘of.

But be careful when you are “ugly.”  These cheap bastards are not afraid of calling you out and making you answer for such transgressions!

Photo-Bombed by the Asian Dude!!

Photo-Bombed by the Asian Dude!!