A Travellerspoint blog

Animals (NOT the zoo)

From the sublime to the almost ridiculous

semi-overcast 70 °F

In the last few days, we've been seeing a lot of animals not in the zoo, so we thought we'd share them with you. It's the best month for birding all over the northern hemisphere, at least in temperate climates, and Japan is no exception. Right in the city, swallows are breeding. Without even trying, we saw two nests, a few blocks apart, on the underside corners of awnings at the entrances to buildings. Here are a few photos of a swallow parent delivering food to its babies in the nest. large_P1060786.jpglarge_P1060787.jpglarge_P1060789.jpglarge_P1060794.jpg

It's also baby duckling time. About a week ago, we saw a mama spot-billed duck in the Shirakawa River near our house. She had 5 ducklings and Dick managed to get a photo of this little guy:

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The same day we saw a lady in the hills on the outskirts of town feeding feral cats. She told me she doesn't come every day. But when we saw her, she had brought kibble and several cans of cat food. Cats seemingly came from out of the woodwork to eat. They didn't look starving, but they were definitely hungry. A few could be petted, but most--after finishing their postprandial toilette, would slowly amble down the hill into the bushes. large_P1060892.jpgP1060884.jpgP1060883.jpglarge_P1060894.jpgP1060889.jpg

I'm of two minds about feeding feral cats. It's a very kind thing to do for the individual cats. But if they're not sterilized, then maybe feeding may be making the problem worse....

Anyway, we saw another kind of cat cafe a few days ago. In downtown Kyoto. You've probably heard of them. They sell light snacks and beverages, but the real attraction is that, for a fee, you can pet and play with cats. large_P1060693.jpglarge_P1060691.jpglarge_P1060695.jpg The yen is about 100 to the dollar right now. Why, do you ask, do we not have photos of the inside with all the cute cats? Because when I had my allergy test done many years ago, I scored a 4+ out on a scale of 1-4 for allergy to cats. I figured I might be dead if I even stepped foot into the place.

For we Americans, it may seem way too cute and bordering on the ridiculous to have a cat cafe. But space is a precious commodity in Japan, and many live in tiny apartments where pets are not allowed. So being able to pet a warm, furry being from time to time may be good for one's well being (as long as they don't have allergies like me!)

So it's fitting that with all the animals we've been seeing, that we discovered a shrine dedicated to animals. It wasn't in our guide book and there was no English explanation at the site. But someone with money must be managing this shrine, because it has a brand new copper roof. Enjoy!
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Posted by pokano 02:32 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Nanzen-Ji

Sometimes a place lives up to its billing

sunny 69 °F

We don't always go to all the big tourist spots. But since Nanzen-ji is so close to where we live, we decided to walk there today. It was worth it.
Nanzen-ji was originally the retirement villa for an emperor. When he died in 1291, it became a Zen temple. Hugging up against the forested hills to the east of Kyoto, its grounds are spacious and filled with gardens and subtemples.

The huge gate at the entrance is stunning. large_P1060563.jpg Check out the massive timber that went into building it! large_P1060564.jpg

You can climb to the top on extremely steep stairs. We saw several little old ladies do it, so even though I could imagine my physical therapist wincing about my bad knees, I decided to go for it. It was worth it. The view was fabulous! large_P1060565.jpg We could even see the birds in the tree canopy! large_P1060566.jpg And here's one of the gargoyles on a roof below us. P1060573.jpg

As per usual, a lot of school groups were there. P1060577.jpgP1060578.jpg These kids are a lot more well-behaved than we were when our classes went on field trips!

A complete surprise to us was the operating aquaduct, built during the Meiji Period (1868-1912).large_P1060584.jpglarge_P1060586.jpg

Gorgeous gardens are part of the complex along with numerous wall paintings and other artwork that are National Treasures (capitalization is intentional) that cannot be photographed (presumably because flash photography would cause damage, although the numerous signs prohibiting photography did not see to faze several of the numerous French tourists there one whit). Our photos cannot do the gardens justice:
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Our photos can also not begin to convey the amazing view when we first walked into the main temple: immediately to the right is a large tea room that looks out onto a perfectly stunning waterfall.P1060608.jpg There was also what looked like a conference room--it had a big table and chairs--that also had an impressive view. P1060611.jpg

And here's a piece of artwork that it was OK to photograph: P1060615.jpg

The buildings are so graceful and elegant, you can imagine why the emperor made this his vacation home! P1060625.jpgP1060630.jpg

Posted by pokano 03:51 Archived in Japan Tagged temple Comments (1)

Aoi Matsuri

Kyoto's Hollyhock Festival

overcast 67 °F

Yesterday we watched the parade for the Aoi Matsuri. It starts near the Imperial Palace and winds its way up to another temple. People who want reserved seats can pay for the privilege, but like most other parade watchers, we hopped a subway and chose a spot along the parade route.

Last year, we used Kyoto's Good Samaritan service, which pairs up English speaking college students with tourists who want a guide. One of our good Samaritans, Yuki Hata, was in the parade, although we were too far away to figure out which one he was. He tells us he was one of the men tending one of the oxen!

So here are some photos!large_P1060493.jpg
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We caught the parade as it went over a bridge crossing the river. Here's part of the crowd.P1060521.jpg

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Afterwards the bridge was so crowded that some of the crowd crossed the river over the rocks.large_P1060548.jpg

Posted by pokano 17:00 Archived in Japan Tagged parade Comments (0)

More on Food

From Dick: We've regaled readers with tales and photos of the wonders of Japanese food on this and our previous trip. While many have appeared to appreciate our enthusiasms, others may have tired of them, suffering in silence.

Still jet-lagged, addled and fatigued, we started our day a few days ago with an insipid breakfast of a second-rate omuraisu, scrambled eggs with very white toast, and very Viennese sausages -- the kind that used to be served out of a tin can on 1950s family camping trips. No photo could have done this breakfast justice, so we neither photographed or blogged about it. We made up for the breakfast with an enchanting walk to the Gion district, where we bought tickets for a Kabuki matinee, followed by an also unphotographed and unreported, but spectacular udon lunch. And then we walked home.

By the time we returned home we were tired. It was late on a hot afternoon, and Pam's frequently cranky legs were barking at her. After some discussion we decided that I should scout the neighborhood for the stuff of a bento box picnic for dinner. Though our neighborhood is full of good to excellent restaurants at every price-point, it lacks a supermarket. Also, it was late on a Sunday afternoon, so even the local three-block long covered arcade, once a major food market -- but now a bit of a geriatric vestige, visibly gentrifying into galleries, guesthouses, and architects' studios -- had less to offer than on a weekday. This left only three places to explore: A Lawsons, a second Lawsons, and a 7-11.

Lawsons and 7-11, two similar entities, bear little resemblance to the 7-11s of North America. While I claim no expertise on the subject, I've already observed that they can be used for shipping via takkyubin, nearly full-service banking, and pretty amazing, attractive selections of refrigerated, freshly made bento box meals, restocked three times a day. Late on a hot Sunday afternoon, however, the pickings become slim. Slim to none, actually. So, after visiting Lawsons number 1, Lawsons number 2, and the nearest 7-11, and returning to Lawsons number 1, here's what this hunter gatherer was able to bring home: Potato salad. (Japanese potato salad is quite yummy.) Cole slaw. A bento box, the contents of which were obscured by an opaque cardboard wrapper with busy, unhelpful (to me) graphics. A triangular package featuring a picture of a chunk of fish. A skewer of cold cooked chicken (a Lawson's employee had offered to heat it up, but I had declined). And an apple.

I didn't return to our tent particularly confident in the success of my hunt. As I unceremoniously began to unpack and distribute the afternoon's bounty onto our plates, my heart sank. The potato salad oozed a pool of liquid. The slaw was limp. The bento box contained, among other things, a sad-looking chunk of fish that seemed to have once had some kind of sauce on it that was now separating. The remaining contents appeared tired and to have shrunk from the sides of the box. P1090386.jpg

To my immense relief, Pam was not exactly critical. Instead, after a few bites of the salads, the onigiri, and then the chicken, she stopped. It took many seconds before I was able to determine for certain that she wasn't crying, or raging -- merely laughing hysterically. P1090383.jpg

What I had thought was chicken meat wasn't. P1090385.jpg It was chicken skin -- cooked, but stone cold since I'd declined the store's offer to heat it up. Since it wasn't crispy (and looked like it probably never had been), it tasted like nothing more than cold, gristly chicken fat. The remainder of the meal (other than the apple) was not exactly up the standards we had come to expect either. So again we went to bed a bit hungry.

So, dear reader, the moral of this story is, even with the wonderful foods we've come to expect during our Japan travels, you win some, you lose some.

Posted by pokano 05:26 Comments (1)

Lazy Days

sunny 72 °F

Today was a lazy day as we continue to recover from jet lag and our own preexisting physical and mental exhaustion. Spent the morning strolling around one of the larger temples in our neighborhood, the Shorenin temple, built in the Heian period (which evidently could mean anything from the 8th to the 12th Century). The first thing that is striking about the grounds are the HUMONGOUS trees! large_P1090358.jpglarge_P1090359.jpg These photos do not do them justice!

Shorenin's major claim to fame is its garden. large_P1060319.jpglarge_P1060301.jpg There is a covered tatami-matted terrace overlooking the main part. EVERYONE who entered the terrace while we were there did the same thing--sat down and silently admired it. You could feel your blood pressure and heart rate go down almost instantly. Shorenin, according to our guidebook, rarely has the big crowds that most of the other major temples do, so it is a very tranquil place.

The temple also has some lovely artwork.P1060303.jpglarge_P1060306.jpglarge_P1060322.jpglarge_P1060323.jpg

Yesterday we went to a much smaller temple, also in our neighborhood. The friendly priest there encouraged us to go to the basement of the temple, where he directed us to find our way along a wall in a room that was pitch black. If we found the lock in the wall (strategically placed under the main Buddha on the first floor, or so we were told), we'd be on our way to eternal bliss! We each found the lock, so eternal bliss, here we come! For obvious reasons, we have no photos to prove it! We, and you, will just have to wait, watch, and see.

Also at this temple was a maiko (geisha in training) on a photo shoot. Dick had to maneuver around her photographer to get these shots! large_P1090346.jpglarge_P1090348.jpg

For those of you who are interested in food (and that's one of the big reasons to come to Japan!), one of the bonuses of our new location is that it's closer to a lot of good but reasonably priced restaurants. For lunch yesterday, we went to a new restaurant (at least it wasn't there the last time we were here in 2012) next to our favorite izakaya. It's two young men behind a counter that seats around 13 or 14: they're the chefs, servers, cashiers, and dishwashers. For lunch they serve upgraded standard modern Japanese lunch fare: hambaagaa staku (you can figure this one out, can't you?) and ebi (shrimp) fry, among other things. There's a decent wine list (not to mention a humongous Monte Nevado serrano dried ham, including the leg and the hoof, sitting on the counter!). My ebi fry was superb: 2 6-inch long super fresh prawns, coated in what was probably panko and perfectly deep fried, served with a good tartar sauce and a wonderful tossed salad with a tangy dressing of what was probably sesame oil, rice vinegar and a bit of miso. Choice of rice or bread (we both opted for rice). Gratis was a cup of the best cold potato soup I'd ever had. Dick's hambaagaa staku with demi-glace sauce was good, but the ebi fry and silky smooth potato soup were the stars of the day. (Our friend, Jeff, is laughing and saying, "I told you so", since he accused us of wanting to eat only food that dead Japanese have eaten, or something to that effect.)

For dinner we went to an exquisitely appointed restaurant near the Heian Shrine torii gate, what must be the biggest torii gate in town. P1090364.jpgJapanese modern minimalist at its best: light colored wood, flower arrangements, etc. You'd expect an expensive place based on the furnishings, but it wasn't. It sold various kinds of noodles: your choice of soba, udon, or Chinese noodles with different accompaniments. The noodles tasted like plain old packaged noodles, but the fish stock (dashi) was very good as were the toppings (Japanese omelet, various kinds of veggies, what looked and tasted like a wheat gluten puff, kamaboko (fish cake). It was kind of a chilly day so the piping hot soup hit the spot. Served gratis here were a couple of slices of lightly cooked daikon radish, sitting in a small amount of dashi and topped with a tiny sliver of lemon peel, a teeny piece of crab and some kind of herb. Delicious! large_P1090379.jpg It's amazing how the small garnishes can add so much flavor!

One of my goals on this trip has been to eat a different Japanese sweet every day. On our first day in Kyoto, I had warabi mochi from the sweets shop at the start of our lane (I think it's the proprietor's house and the shop is in the front). Those of you who are familiar with mochi know that it hardens like a rock after a while. This mochi is ultra soft and stays that way. It's cut into strips or cubes and heavily dusted with sweetened roasted soybean flour (kinako). The bizarre thing is that instead of being made from rice, like regular mochi, this is made from a flour that comes from some kind of bracken fern! You can't get real warabi mochi in the States, so far as I know. My Seattle friend, Setsuko, has taught me how to make a "fake" warabi mochi with tapioca flour, but the real thing is even more delicate.

Day two, we ran into a sweets shop across the street from Shorenin. This time I got a a very thin and delicate pancake wrapped around fresh sweetened bean paste (an), much more delicate than the robust ones (dorayaki) that you usually see in Seattle.

For dinner, we were tired, so went back to the place where we'd had the tasty lunch of ebi fry and hambaagaa staku. We live just a couple blocks away. The two chefs really outdid themselves. The gratis dish was some kind of fish tartare served with a tomato mousse. The menu included fish carpaccio; trout meuniere , nicely sauteed and served over a couple of sticks of fried curried risotto with sauteed potatoes, sugar snap peas, and red pepper, the whole thing drizzled with soy sauce; and perhaps the most interesting, a saffron tomato risotto made with dashi instead of chicken broth, parmesan and Japanese short grain rice instead of arborio. It worked!

Dick here: Despite the quantity of verbiage dedicated to what we eat, the nature of our diet here, even the "fusion" cuisines, leaves us a bit hungry much of the time -- perhaps not enough fats or heavy carbs. Pam says this gives us the happy excuse to eat a lot more than we usually would.

Posted by pokano 00:54 Archived in Japan Comments (4)

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