Kyoto: A Murasakino Monday

Today has been replete with everything I love about this neighborhood.

Morning / gozen (午前)

Before breakfast, I was downstairs and Erik was upstairs. It was the usual quiet morning. Then I heard, from somewhere not far away, a man’s voice resonating: oooooooiiiiiiiiiiiiii. I sat straight up. There it was again: ooooooiiiiiii, and overlapping it, a different man’s voice singing the same thing on a different note: ooooooiiiiiii. When they kept going I dropped everything and ran upstairs, where I found Erik listening too. I slid open the window and stuck my head out, in time to see a man in a round hat, a blue robe, and sandals, walking up our street toward the temple and chanting ooooooiiiiii. Around the time he got to the end of the street, another man followed, dressed exactly the same, chanting the same thing but on another note. When his voice faded and a third man appeared, I ran back downstairs, got my camera, and came back up.

{click any image to enlarge; no mouseover descriptions today}

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After they’d all passed under the window (I think there were about four of them), I said, “Let’s follow them!” So we scrambled into our clothes, locked up, and headed uphill to the shrine. When we got there, there was neither sign nor sound of the chanters. “Ah, well,” I thought, “at least I can show Erik the paths.” So I took him to a lookout spot I’d discovered a couple of weeks ago, and we admired the mountains and the little bell-shaped flowers hanging from trees like ornaments.

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As we made our way back down toward home, a couple of tai chi practitioners caught my attention, but Erik heard something I didn’t. “Come on!” he said, pulling me toward the downward trail. Then I heard it too, faint and quiet: oooooiiiiiii. I squeaked excitedly and ran down the steps. As we neared the street we could hear the chanters coming closer. I set up my camera on a convenient bit of stone wall, and we watched and waited.

After we got home we did a little Googling and found this probable explanation: local monks traverse Kyoto neighborhoods once a month, around eight a.m., to ask for alms. I feel very lucky we got to see them come around. The whole rest of the morning I kept imagining their chants, even though they’d long stopped coming.

Noon / hiru (昼時)

I spent the rest of my morning Skyping with my family, updating the budget (and similar chores), and looking up Japanese vocabulary in preparation for a phone call to a hair salon. (My recommender says she thinks the stylist speaks English, but I wanted to be prepared.) Around noon Erik came into the room and asked what I wanted for lunch. “Are there any restaurants around here that you wanted to try?” I was about to say no, but then remembered, “Oh! Let’s go to that place down the street. Sarasa.” It’s the one on the left, below:

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I had read that this restaurant is in a converted 1920s/30s bathhouse. Apparently you could still bathe here even just 14 years ago! When we stepped inside I couldn’t believe how spacious and lovely it is. It’d be an attractive restaurant anywhere, but here — where little restaurants (<30 seats) are the norm — it feels like a palace.

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Besides the gorgeous surroundings, the food was excellent as well. The menu was simple, with only three choices. As usual Erik and I tag-teamed it, with me identifying pivotal kanji (“pork,” “beef”), and Erik deciphering the kana (“sanduichi,” “potato,” “udon”).* Each meal was delicious, filling, and beautifully presented, and only ¥900 (about $9.50). 

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We also learned that they offer an extensive drink and dessert menu. Some afternoon I will bring my journal and sit and write and have a cake set.

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Afternoon / gogo (午後)

After lunch Erik went home and I popped in next door to a group of shops I’ve been wanting to check out. I found out later that the building used to be a student dormitory. I guess it must have been very convenient for those students, to have the public bath next door!

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I’ve had my eye on this place since our first day here. At first I thought it was just one store, but actually it’s a collection of small establishments selling handmade goods — which of course is right up my alley. Each shop has different open hours so it’s almost like going to the farmers’ market — you never know what will be available, any given day!

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Like so many of these restored old buildings (e.g., the house we’re staying in), the interior is very restful, exuding an air of peace and creativity. I’m realizing that I feel better able to focus here, and I think it’s because the aesthetic is so intentional. It feels much easier to do one thing at a time, and to pay attention.

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As it turned out, only two shops were open today, but I made purchases at both. The first sold colorful, small-scale glassware: pendants, rings, miniscule bottles and pots. I was the only customer and I browsed in silence for awhile, suppressing squeals when I found a teardrop-shaped, strawberry-sized clear bottle with a blue bottom and a cork stopper. Inside were about a dozen seashells the size of sesame seeds; at first I thought they were spots painted onto the glass. I tilted the bottle and the shells washed around inside like stars floating in the ocean. A memory rose to the surface, hazed over with time: I thought — yes — I knew that I used to have a little bottle filled with blue sand and tiny seashells just like these, back when I was very young. Possibly it had even come from Japan; I seem to remember a label on the side that I couldn’t read. This was a memory so old I didn’t even know I had it. The knowledge filled me with wonder, even as the memory itself evoked the magical feeling I used to get when I looked into this treasured bottle and marveled at the unbelievably small seashells.

I didn’t buy the bottle. I’m not at all confident I could get it home without it shattering, and that would break my heart. But now that I write this, I’m thinking about it. Maybe I should go back. Where there’s a will…

At one point the lady who ran the shop said something to me in Japanese, and when I said I didn’t speak it, she apologized and then offered one word: “handomēdo” (handmade). I finally decided on some jewelry and with great care she polished each piece before packing it up. As a finishing touch, she selected a little branch and stapled it to the bag. When I got home I realized it was a bit of real evergreen. It fills my nose with a smell of winter.

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I brought my new finds home, then rested a bit. In a little while I headed back out, walking two blocks in light rain to get to Funaoka Onsen, the oldest public bath in Kyoto.

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I could write a whole post about the bath, but this is already getting so long. In short, it was like a cross between the Icelandic swimming pools and the Turkish hamam. As in the hamam, the baths are separated by gender, and everyone goes nude. Bathers wash first at wall taps, and rinse by using bowls to throw water on the body. Everything is full of steam (I soon found it was pointless to wear my glasses). As in Iceland, there is a delicious array of hot tubs from which to choose — even one with a mild electrical current running through it; it was tingly — and a couple of them were outdoors, so I could let the rain wash my face as I soaked. The outdoor ones were made of stone and were simply beautiful. At first I felt rather awkward, since I didn’t know how everything worked, but the local old ladies served as a self-appointed lookout squad, and made it very clear whenever any foreigner did anything they weren’t supposed to! (I was reassured when I saw they did this to everyone, not just me!)

By the way, I didn’t take any photos inside for obvious reasons, but you can find some by image-searching “funaoka onsen.”

I sat a little too long in the tubs and got light-headed, so when I finished and changed back into my clothes, I sat in the waiting area and wrote about the experience, while downing two cold drinks from the vending machine (grapefruit, and aloe and white grape).

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Evening / yoru (夜)

When I left the sento it was pouring rain. I went to my favorite bakery to get a croissant, but it was unaccountably closed. So I got a cream-filled strawberry roll cake from the convenience store instead, and went home. Erik and I shared the cake while I told him about my bath experience. We waited a couple of hours after that before going out for dinner. By that time the rain had stopped.

About a week ago we were walking home when we noticed a flashing red light and a lighted red sign along Kuramaguchi street, just a few blocks from our house. Erik read the katakana: “ramen.” At the time we had just had dinner (from a funny fast-food place where you order at a machine), but we promised we’d come back another time. With all the rain today, it seemed like a good evening for noodle soup.

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To our huge surprise, when we got inside the tiny shop, we discovered it was attached to the proprietor’s home. Her son was in the living room watching TV. It felt like we were disturbing their evening!

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Again the menu was very simple, and this time we could read most of it. We ordered two bowls of ramen and one plate of chicken karaage. Then we sat down at the bar and waited and watched the lady behind the counter. She began by lugging out a big pot from the back room. It was full of something pale and gelatinous — the soup stock, as it turned out. She ladled some of it into a pot on the stove, and then carried the rest back to the other room. She pulled floured chicken pieces from a plastic bag and put them in the fryer. From another bag she pulled out handfuls of noodles. She went to the meat slicer and ran it briefly, and thin slices of chashu emerged into her waiting palm.

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Before long everything was almost ready. After dropping the noodles into a wooden-lidded silver pot, she ladled the hot soup into two large bowls. (Looking at the bowls, I whispered to Erik, “Do you think she thinks we ordered the ‘large’ size?”) Then she fished the noodles out of their pot with a mesh dipper, flicking the dipper forcefully to shake out excess water.

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Noodles went into the bowls, then chashumenma, bean sprouts, and huge helpings of sliced green onions from a plastic storage container. She put two plates on the counter, then placed the bowls on the plates, and gestured to us to take them. Before I put mine down in front of me, I held it by my nose and sniffed. It had a very rich fragrance of chicken.

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While we were eating our ramen, an older lady came in from the living area and took over from the younger woman, who then began to attend to her kid. The older lady took the karaage out from the fryer and presented it to us, and then began washing dishes.

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It wasn’t the best karaage we’d ever had, nor the best ramen, but it was all filling and tasty. It turns out Kyoto ramen is made from chicken bone stock, so the soup was probably a good example of a local specialty. And it was a fun experience, eating in this little shop next to the owners’ house. When we left the restaurant the older lady said something and then gestured at the umbrella stand, and I realized I’d been about to leave my umbrella. I thanked her, and as we walked away, Erik murmured, “Did you catch the word for ‘umbrella’?” Nope.

We did so many interesting things today, but everything was close to home — we were never more than about a quarter-kilometer from the house, or 0.2 mile. I have been walking past all these places for weeks; they’ve come to feel familiar, almost as if they, too, were home. Perhaps that’s true. More than any other place we’ve lived, this neighborhood feels as much “home” as the actual house. It’s not only the close quarters of the small streets, or the thin wood-and-glass walls that let all sound in and out, but the feel of things: this house belongs to the neighborhood.


*Up until Sunday night we’d avoided English menus almost entirely. But that evening we went to a “New York style” restaurant in a mall, and the katakana menu nearly did us in. It wasn’t that we couldn’t sound things out — Erik could, though verrrry slowly — but that things are written as Japanese English, not standard English; to us, “sāroin” doesn’t immediately translate as “sirloin.” We had decided to just go with whatever, but when the waiter heard me say “B Set” instead of “B setto,” he switched to smooth, unaccented English and asked, “Would you like an English menu?” Our relief was comical. After that we decided we might as well ask for English menus when there are many dishes we can’t make out. So that’s what we did at Sarasa, and while there was no English menu, a waitress came by and explained the menu in English. But she simplified it quite a bit, so ultimately what she told us was exactly what we’d figured out on our own: a pork dish, a potato sandwich, beef udon. She did explain that the dishes came with our choice of drinks, so that was helpful. It’s good to know we can get by without English menus in many places, and equally reassuring to know that some restaurants do have them!