We catch the early JR Shinkansen (that means very fast train) to Kyoto. TIP #1: Buy a JR pass online before you come. Activate them at the airport station on the way into the city, this will save you lots of money. TIP #2: Commit to a Japanese breakfast and buy it at the station. I look for seaweed wrapped triangles of rice with various filling, traditional bento boxes and rice crackers. All local, all lovely, all easy to eat on the train. A cart does go around for hot & cold drinks and any additional snacks.

I have had book, Old Kyoto by Diane Durston in my possession for what could be 20 years and flipped through its pages waiting for the moment that I could visit all these old traditional craftspeople. The shops are mostly where the wares are made & sold in traditional lodgings that call from another time. Even if you don’t get to Kyoto, this book is a good read. I plan on visiting the indigo dyer, broom maker, tatami mat weaver & incense, stationary, lantern, umbrella & everything in between shops.

Before heading to the traditional merchant’s mansion that I’ve rented for a few days, we head for the hills via Nishiki market for some street food. It is early-ish so we try light omelettes with onions, fish on skewers and fresh pineapple chucks. To the train we go, a short ride (as long as you don’t get lost) takes you to Narashiyama, a quiet pocket of Kyoto at the foot of the giant bamboo grove that climbs up the mountains to the west. At the entrance a small temple with a scattering of shrines sits housing many offerings: hundreds of tiny paper cranes that hang in chains, paper knotted over rope fences, jangles of orange paper discs with prayers written and cedar plaques with messages amongst other things. I need the WC so I wander into Tenryu-ji temple. The gardens spill down the hill to a picturesque lake which is surrounded by low wooden buildings weaving around the gardens with undercover walkways.

Within the grove, the path is lined on either side with dried bamboo branches creating a layered bamboo effect. I’ll attempt to explain: two horizontal bamboo trunks created a sandwich for the top, very fine branches that have fallen to the forest floor and been gathered to make the brush fence. I’ve always been fascinated with the many uses of bamboo & recently read that 1400 (!!) have been listed. I included my own in Nomad. At the top of the grove, we found a dead movie star’s garden. All moss, stone paths, hidden places to discover, tea houses, an open bamboo pagoda that looked over all of Kyoto, dogwood, (Japanese for us) maple for them, fir, on a backdrop of mountains.

The streets of Western Kyoto are lined with noodle houses, sweet shops & traditional inns. Take your pick when choosing what to eat. We settled for udon noodle, cold with tempura seasonal vegetables and asahi. Time to discover the merchants mansion!

Hannah discovered this one. Back on Tominokoji-dori, Nobuko from IORI Co. shows us our temporary abode, a traditional wooden merchants mansion once owned by a red bean mogul. It’s deceptively huge with shoji screens, tatami mats, sudare blinds, floor seating, lots of corridors, a central garden with shrine, wooden soled slippers, a deep bath, smooth wood floors & stairs from years of socked feet, paper lanterns & plenty of beds over three floors. It is hard to describe the wonder when you slide open a small door and instead of the inside of a wardrobe you discover an entire other quarter of the house complete with a maze of sitting rooms, bedrooms, toilet, bath, attic and space in general. The area can be manipulated to suit your need according to the small boxes you section off. It’s like Chronicles of Narnia Japanese-style. If you closed all the light, sliding wooden doors, latticed with soft white paper, there would be a total of 25 rooms in the mansion.

If you are not aware, the size of rooms in Japan are measured by the amount of tatami mats that fit within them. Right now, I am writing this in a very generous eight-tatami mat tea room on a flat cushion with Leta, Hannah & Leah drinking G&T’s.

Written by Amber TSI Byron — October 28, 2019

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