The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Tranquility on less than $200 a day

A friend of mine sent me this article from the NY Times. I am printing an excerpt below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

Seeking Tranquillity, on Less Than $200 a Day

THE Saturday sun beamed down on central Kyoto, taking the edge off the November chill as I climbed onto my rented bicycle. I swerved through quiet alleys, past centuries-old wooden houses and Shinto shrines tended by generations of monks, and pedaled west to Arashiyama, a suburb of gardens, temples and bamboo forests at the foot of the mountains that ring this former imperial capital of Japan.

Light glinted off the wide Hozu River. Figures crossed a distant bridge. Jasmine, bean cakes, tea and roasting yams scented the autumn air. But there was a problem, a big one: tourists. Lots of tourists. In fact, there were so many high-season visitors that traffic — foot, bike, car — came to a halt. Furious at the crowds and exhausted, I turned around and rode back to Kyoto proper.

Frankly, I should have known better. With its grand Buddhist temples and tucked-away shrines, its oh-so-close mountains and trickling canals, its spring-blossoming cherry trees and autumn-flaming maples, Kyoto may be Japan’s prettiest city — and that’s a curse as much as a blessing. Like a Japanese version of Colonial Williamsburg, it is jam-packed with tourists, who come to see the religio-historical sites by day, and feast and party with geishas by night.

Indeed, more than 48 million tourists visited this city of 1.5 million in 2006, according to the Japanese National Tourism Office. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Kyoto’s citizens may be among the country’s most standoffish, a closed society that keeps strangers at a distance. Some candy stores, for example, won’t let you in without an introduction from a trusted customer. Not even wealth will buy you entree into this closed society.

A fortune does, however, come in handy in Kyoto, which can seem ridiculously expensive. A night in a ryokan, or traditional inn, can easily run 30,000 yen per person (about $291 at 103 yen to the dollar). And a multicourse kaiseki meal, a Kyoto specialty, can cost the same — again per person.

Of course, I didn’t have a fortune, just $500 for the weekend, and I was apprehensive. Could I make Kyoto my own, unearth its secrets and escape with at least a few yen to my name?

The Hotel Nishiyama, which I’d found on the comprehensive directory at, offered a tentative yes. On a quiet street not far from the Kamo River, the Nishiyama had an immaculate courtyard garden, friendly English-speaking staff and tatami-mat rooms at a reasonable 10,500 yen a night, including breakfast. It was also the only hotel in my price range that actually had a room available — though only for one night. The next day, I’d have to move on.

I arrived too early to check in, so I wandered around, taking note of cute cafes, a Galician restaurant and a Comme des Garçons boutique — all of which suggested I’d wound up in a chic neighborhood.

When I got back to the hotel, an old friend from grad school, Tucker, was waiting outside. But before we had a chance to catch up, he was leading me down the road to the Nijo Castle, whose painted silk screens he needed to examine; he was, he claimed, writing a book on Japanese art.

Not that I minded — Nijo Castle is one of Kyoto’s prime attractions (admission 600 yen). Completed in 1623, it was home to the Tokugawas, the shoguns who ruled Japan for almost 300 years, establishing rigid caste hierarchies and essentially cutting the country off from the outside world.

It’s easy to see the castle as emblematic of its self-imposed isolation: You have to cross two sets of fortifications to reach the main residence, where arrows direct you through a precise route from room to room, allowing barely enough time to appreciate the painted screens (no photography or sketching allowed!) before the crowds jostle you onward.

After saying goodbye to Tucker — he vanished almost as mysteriously as he’d appeared — I set off for Pontocho, a long, skinny alley that is the center of Kyoto’s restaurant and bar scene. Pontocho feels like a Japanese movie-set come to life: red lanterns and looming billboards light the way past dozens of restaurants, bars and teahouses, some forbidding by design (unmarked Shoji screen doors), others by price (8,000 yen a person for sukiyaki!).

A welcome exception was Bistro Zuzu. Dim, crowded, energetic and dominated by a long bar and open kitchen, Zuzu is an izakaya, or Japanese pub, that serves homey snacks, most under 1,000 yen and many with a French twist. A mizuna salad came with a poached egg and crunchy bits of bacon, like a frisée aux lardons. And the aptly misspelled “verry tender” beef ribs were finished with butter and a sprinkle of pink peppercorns.

But not everything bore Gallic influence: horse meat “sashimi” was as Japanese as it gets, the purplish slices surprisingly clean tasting. With a couple of frosty draft beers, sea-bream sashimi and a rice ball with tart pickles, I spent 4,630 yen — a lot for one person, I suppose, but I’d eaten enough for two and, for Pontocho, it was definitely cheap.

Afterward, I wandered to Temas, a boutique that applies ancient traditions of pigment dying to modern fashions. The clothes were pricey, but I’d gone for the bar upstairs.

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