Boston, Nearly Spring

It’s been less than 24 hours since returning to Boston from being in Japan.  Jarring as the places differ so much and in ways so specific.  Unsettling, too, pleasantly, as the possibilities for observation are there.

Meanwhile though: I returned with fresh udon noodles, black Kyoto spices, rice crackers wrapped in dried seaweed, two bottles of sake from Kyoto and Niigata, cured mackerel, dried unagi, and lots of polished rice.

So the vinegary flavors and tastes evoke what are apparently now memories.

Kyoto until Next Time

Is there any city more beautiful or fascinating than Kyoto?  Such a mix of ancient and forward thinking principles, architecture, and urban rhythms.  Always sorry to leave here, always eager to come back.

Yesterday with my friend I, a Kyoto-ite with hundreds of years legacy in  family history here, we walked through the newer part of the city away from Gion.  She is such good company: Outspoken, genuine, able to improvise conversation.

To a center of Kyoto artisanal works that aims to introduce ateliers to foreign guests.  A lacquerware shop with museum-quality goods, Japanese owned stores that have clothing both affordable as well as textured and in earth tones  as to seem to be part of nature.

Through Nishiki market: Dried unagi that you then place atop rice with green tea and ground up spices.  Kyoto rice: 690 Yen for a kilo.  Beautiful tofu and cured saba.

In a department store, hidden away, a seven seater that is a satellite of a beef restaurant I read about.  Next to it, a long, chilled display case of Japanese beef.

Long walks through the city.

Faces showing a range of emotions, more narrow than what can be observed in the U.S., but more intense and deliberate.

In the evening, dinner with A. and A., two lovely people I’ve known some years.  At Hitomi, a yakitoi restaurant ordinarily impossible to get into.  Three hours of talking and laughter.

Kyoto: Weekend Begins, Time Soon To Return Home

Yamanaka is a small Mom & Pop tonkatsu shop near City Hall, and my friend and mentor K took me there yesterday for lunch.  Delicious fried pork in panko served in tiny rooms by two, sweet, hunched over old people.  Maybe it was their son cooking.  What will be the fate of such wonderful places in the future?

Then a long, much needed walk to the train station to purchase tickets for ride home via Tokyo.

In the evening, Kushikura with friends.  Also near City Hall.  Wonderful, old school yakitori place with private room.  Conversations about books, Kyoto, and politics.  One person is a translator of Murakami into French, and she has a very lively, deeply informed sensibility.  So good to be away from stifling academics.

Memorable, I think.

The Kyoto Known To Us

Kyoto is one of the world’s greatest walking cities, and its parallels to other urban centers that pay obeisance to the past while attracted to the present and future is part of its deep appeal.

I have been here almost countless times, stretching back about 12 years, and each time is new and familiar.

Having time yesterday, today, and tomorrow means a chance to return to places that fill me up and other spots with that potential.

I am in eastern Kyoto, just a few feet below, “The Philosopher’s Path,” and a deep, mountainous forest.

Yesterday I walked along the path briefly and then through shrouded neighborhoods of enormous trees, oaks and maples, alongside and within temple grounds.

Temples were shut down during the Meiji Restoration due to collaboration of Zen Buddhism with feudal lords.  Japan needed to modernize in order to avoid Western encroachment, and did so, unlike its Asian neighbors, but then look what happened.

From the temples, I walked into the heart of Gion, its main thoroughfare, and then into modern Kyoto and to Takashimaya and Nishiki market.  Kyoto is not in the league of Tokyo in terms of goods, like food and fabrics and lacquerware, so it takes time to find value.  Also, so many tourists means that so much of what is on offer is designed for volume sales.

But I found beautiful socks and cotton gloves.

Then wandering around, looking for soba or udon, or maybe pizza or pasta, at places I knew.  Then deciding, : No, better try a new spot.  So up to the top floor of Takashimaya where all the restaurants are located.

I had no idea that Owariya had a branch there!  This five centuries old soba shop, original location in rickety wooden building, is a favorite.  Soba kitsune, draft beer: $12.

Then back home.

That night: Dinner with friend at local hole-in-wall, that was lively and delicious, and home to bed.


In the Middle of the Week in Kyoto

Final interviews yesterday with two Zen monks.  Both men are situated in temples that are part of western Kyoto.  T and I arrived early so had coffee at tiny shop nearby.  The owner then brought over cups of kombu broth, which was delicious and perfect on a cold day.  Snow fell.

The first temple is not famous, but it does have ties to medieval nuns who are honored there with statues.

The second temple is very famous, beside a mountain and a bamboo forest.  I had been there two years ago with the chef and crew from NOMA when I brought them to Kyoto.

Both monks moved nimbly and spoke with a unique mix of authority, humor, and clarity.

Between interviews, we had agedashi tofu udon.  The restaurant was small and cozy.  The broth was made thick through powdered starch.

After the second interview, I arranged to be dropped off downtown.  T took a train to Kobe and then flew home to Niigata.

In the evening, after a long and delightful, unmapped walk, about 5K, from downtown to my home, I went out with K for yakiniku and then to a sake bar.

Today I will walk on the Philospher’s path behind the house towards the city.

Kyoto, 京都

Kyoto (京都) is one of my favorite cities.  A great walking city, a good scale of architecture, tension of modernity and allegiance to heritage.  Fortunate indeed to be here for eight days immersed in work of culture (文化) involving preservation, Zen Buddhism, and effort to introduce old and new Japan to foreigners.

Yesterday had a visit to Kousein, a late 19th century property, beside a canal, near Ritz Carlton and Okura hotels.  Extraordinarily beautiful gardens with old maples and oaks, a house of artifacts, and plans to create a place to stay for five or six guests.  So difficult to maintain.

Light snow just started falling.

After a quick club sandwich in Okura, where nearby table of a family was singing, “Happy birthday,” in English to a child, a long drive to a temple in southern Kyoto.  Different sect of Zen.

Father and son there instruct zazen, and also introduce Chinese-style vegetarian cuisine.  The grandfather established the program.

Later still: Torito, one of my favorite yakitori places in Japan, for tsukune, kawa, negima, soft tofu with scallions, raw cucumbers, and kaarage.  Draft beer, sake, mugi shochu.

Two temples today.

Zen This, Zen That

Yesterday the work began in earnest, and the months and years of reading about Zen helped to prepare for interviews.  These began at 830 AM with an older Zen master who had studied Kant, and turned then to Zen Buddhism.

After a vegetarian breakfast beside a garden and pond of koi, we spoke about zazen, principles, applications, satori, letting go, acceptance.

He had a lively sense of humor, big ears, a long face, shaved head, thin smile, and still posture except for blinking eyes.  A crane landed as we concluded, to eat koi, and then the monk gave me a book by a deceased friend of his who taught philosophy at Columbia University.

In the afternoon, I returned to a large temple compound in northern Kyoto, where I’d cycled to a few years ago with S, and met there a younger monk.  As we spoke, chants, bells, drums, and cawing crows served as backdrop.  We discussed the differences between mindfulness and zazen, how one is pathology driven and one is a way of life.  Many other topics.

Noodles at Omen across the bridge from Gion with K and T.  Seasonal udon with turnips and grated yam.

That night a sushi restaurant downtown.  Eight seats.  Unlike NYC and Tokyo, sushi in Kyoto is served grilled, fried, and steamed.  Maybe best dish was fugu collar.



Kyoto: Zen

I am now in a renovated, luxurious monks’ quarters of a private sub-temple with two gardens, three bedrooms, a large kitchen, a big wooden tub, and a tatami room.  Just me so kind of wonderful and strange at the same time.  This is the place:
To reach here, I came by way of the Shinkansen Shin-Osaka with T.  We had three sticks of yakitori and hot green tea on the train.  Sticks of bonjiri, kawa, and tsukune.
Then an afternoon of meetings with K.
The quarters I am in has a large kitchen so K took me food shopping for breakfast items.  Also to a remarkable German bakery nearby.
That night K met me back at these quarters, which are more like a villa, and introduced me to his wife and son.  We had sashimi, grilled beef, grilled pork, salads and delicious, cold sake.
Today interviews begin at 730 A.M. with Zen monk who is in charge of the temple, closed to public, to which these quarters are attached.

What, Tokyo, again?!

Arrived late yesterday afternoon aboard JAL, only direct flight from Boston, the # of plane: 007.  Of course.

Business Class: Meaning a flat bed, delicious and restaurant quality food, naps, the start of a new novel-memoir about Fukushima, and edits on my new book.  Also, “Somebody,” a fascinating movie about Japanese in their twenties looking for work in Tokyo.

T met me at Imperial Hotel, and then we had a meeting with K and R.  Good white wine, good sake, grilled chicken below Tokyo Station Hotel at fancy-pants place I’d been to before and like a lot.  Ever try unborn chicken and fallopian tube?

Late, T and I hit the Old Imperial Bar, a place I love, it is like a movie set, and even though it was more foreigners than locals, the atmosphere was enervating.  Yamazaki 12 for me, bourbon for T.

T wants me to understand the differences between Kyoto Zen and the Zen of Dogen.  I’ve been studying this, and his knowledge as always added depth to what I have been reading.  For T, it is a way of life.


Back To Japan

Home away from home, not exactly, but I am often in Japan these days, and increasingly the challenges and atmosphere there, the solutions and conundrums, the different ways of thinking, add to the past and present of my life.

Hey, it’s like Keynes said: The future isn’t the problem, it’s holding onto past ways of doing things, despite their being inefficacious, that stymies progress.

So I am lucky to have new ways of being in the future.

The work this time focuses on a Japan-based consultancy that offers private Zen temple stays for foreign guests, a piece on exploring Kyoto, and work on a guide to dining.

I flew JAL Business/First Class in December, thanks to Relais & Chateaux work, and that experience was by far the best I had in the air.  Quiet, a seat that became a bed, privacy, delicious food.  As JAL notes:

  • In JAL Business Class, the award-winning JAL SKY SUITE seat is designed to ensure privacy and comfort.    For sleep,  the airline also offers specially designed airweave mattress and pillows along with a comforter to ensure rest.   For entertainment, customers can view the latest movies and other programming on the large 23-inch LCD monitor using the liquid-crystal touch-panel controller.  A retractable privacy panel is also installed.    And each seat has direct access to the aisle.

I’m flying JAL again this time.  It is the only direct flight from Boston to Narita.   As JAL notes:

  • JAL will begin JFK-Haneda service starting April 1, 2017, using the JAL SKY SUITE 777 (Boeing 777-300ER).  

What I like a lot about JAL is how you are immediately in Japan before you actually get there.  Omotenashi or hospitality in the air.  And flying direct is there only way to go.