I love the Kamo River in Kyoto. It’s a great place to enjoy the changing of the seasons (Japan has four seasons, yannow), a fun place to hang out and chat with friends, and to watch the water birds goof off. There’s just one thing that you need to look out for:
As of today, NaNoWrimo is over for the year. (Didn’t win it for the first time in a few years and I’m kinda down about that, but hey, that’s another post!) Which means I can get back to the things that I’ve been putting off for the past month. Cooking my own food. Sleeping more regular hours.
When I think of “coffee shops”, the first thing that often comes to mind is a certain chain store that is everywhere in the world and serves frappucinos. The next thing that comes to mind is the sheer number of those and other cafes right here in Kyoto.
Did you know that as of right now, Kyoto has the largest number of Starbucks in Japan, and that’s including Tokyo? How unbelievable is that? To add to that, Kyoto is well-known for its’ incredible amount of little cafes littered throughout the city. You can’t go more than a block without finding at least one little hole-in-the-wall brick building with a sign for coffee outside it.
Kyoto is well-known for its cultural offerings–temples, shrines, the opportunity to dress up like a geisha or maiko for a day, international centers where you can take classes, all of that. What is slowly becoming more popular with tourists here is a little place called Toei Kyoto Studio Park, or Eiga Mura.
The other day a friend suggested we go up to the rural town of Ohara, a place in Kyoto that is technically still within the city limits but feels like it’s worlds away. Up in the mountains it’s several degrees cooler than in the city, and while tourists do hit up the place, it’s much quieter than some of the better-known spots in the city proper (Kiyomizu Temple comes to mind). Because of these reasons, I agreed, and away we went.
Little did I know that it was flower blooming season in the gardens of Ohara’s main attraction, Sanzenin Temple!
Hydrangea (or “ajisai” in Japanese) are flowers you can spot in several places in Kyoto, but Sanzenin is a lovely place to get as much viewing in as you like. As we went on a weekday there were only one or two other people in the garden, so we were able to bask in the flowers as long as we liked.
Funnily enough, I’ve been to Sanzenin a few times in the past, but always in the autumn. While the fall leaves and spider lilies are also nice up in this part of Kyoto, I’d never even realized the hydrangea were all over the place until this trip.
Mind you this is coming from someone who knows very little about flowers; the only reason I know these are hydrangea is because my friend kept calling them that all day. Still, I’m hopeful this means the knowledge will stick.
Now, why hydrangea and not another flower?
After checking out a few different sources (i.e. bothering my Japanese and fellow expat friends) I learned that hydrangea are a harbinger of summer. The reason for this is they bloom around the rainy season, or 梅雨, which comes right before the oppressive heat of August settles over the country.
Learn something new every day, eh?
We went during the first week of July and, as mentioned, during a weekday, which seemed the ideal time to take it all in without interruptions. For those of you who come during other times of the year, I recommend coming for Sanzenin Temple anyway! It’s a beautiful place with moss-covered gardens, a place to drink tea, and it’s a great chance to get away from the bustle of the city.
Ohara (and Sanzenin) can be reached by bus (No. 17) from Kyoto Station. You can also take the Karasuma Line to Kokusaikaikan Station and hop on bus No. 19 if you’re not a fan of buses (or want to check out multiple means of transportation, I guess). I’ll be digging more into Ohara in general in future posts, so keep an eye out!
The weather is currently bouncing back and forth between rainy and sunny, but regardless is relentlessly humid. People entering shops do so with the seasonal greeting of, “It’s hot, isn’t it?” Summer has come to Japan, just as sticky as it is every year.
About a thousand years ago, people figured that maybe having some festivals would help take everyone’s minds off of the heat. One such festival, the Gion Matsuri, is still around to this day. (Disclaimer: Gion Matsuri can be linked as far back as the late 800s, but became an actual annual thing starting around 970 CE.)
You can expect to see plenty of neat structures lining the main streets of Kyoto, some of which you might even be able to enter to get a better look at things. These are called Yamaboko floats. The standard word for floats in Japanese is mikoshi （神輿）, but each of the structures you’ll see during the festival in Kyoto have their own names and histories.
Being the biggest festival in Kyoto, lasting the entire month of July, this naturally draws crazy amounts of crowds. So, if you want to make the most of it, what’s a person to do?
First, get your hands on a calendar. The floats are up and running as of now for you to take pictures and read all about, but the actual events are happening on very specific days. The float parade, or the Yamaboko Junko, will happen on two days: the 17th and the 24th. Leading up to the former are a series of days called yoiyama, yoiyoiyama, etc. These are great chances to wander the streets of Kyoto and take in the atmosphere of the festival at large.
Get dressed for the occasion! (Optional.) Some people like to get in the spirit of things, and that includes dressing up in yukata, wooden sandals, the whole bit. Me, I’m not a fan of it, but if that’s your thing go out and find yourself something awesome to wear. Department stores all over Kyoto City are selling entire yukata sets (the yukata itself, obi, geta, yada yada) for your convenience.
Figured out where you’re going and what you want to see? Find some food and drink! It is hot in Kyoto City, and the crowds are only going to make it worse. Even if the heat ruins your appetite, get some food in you and make sure you have water on you at all times while wandering around. I recommend going for cool treats like the chilled cucumbers or shaved ice (kakigori).
Be prepared to wait. When I say it’s crowded, I mean you might move a few meters in ten minutes. People are going to mill and take pictures and hover around the food stands. There will be signs and police officers showing you which way to go, where you can and cannot cross the street, and how to get onto a quieter road if you’re done with the festival.
Listen to instructions. Don’t be that person who ignores all directions and tries to fight against the crowds. You will lose, and you will make yourself out to be a jerk to all and sundry in the meanwhile. Keep an eye and ear out, and if you’re not sure what’s going on ask around for someone who speaks your native language.
Breathe. If the crowds get to be too much for you, step into a nearby department store, convenience store, or cafe depending on what time you’re wandering around. Take a breather in the A/C, get yourself a cold drink, and mentally recharge before you plunge back out into the craziness that is Gion Festival.
Go out, have fun, and stay safe, Gion-goers!
A few days ago I had a moment reminiscent of a previous blog post. It was a beautiful day outside; birds were singing, flowers were blooming, and I thought to myself, “On days like these, you should really get your butt outside and enjoy it. Before Kyoto becomes a horrible humid nightmare.”
Not having any better ideas, I chose to revisit a place I’ve been only once before: the Kyoto Prefectural Botanial Gardens.
The Gardens are actually very close to the Kamo River, up by Kitayama Station on the Kyoto Karasuma Line. When you exit the station, head for Exit 3. When you reach the top of the stairs you’ll see signs pointing you directly to the entrance. The fee for a one-time entry is all of 200 yen, so it’s a great place to spend a couple hours for those on a budget. It’s also huge. Square meters don’t mean a lot to me but for those of you who find those measurements important, it’s around 4700 square meters in size. You can easily find a quiet corner during the daytime to chill.
There are lots of different themes in the garden, depending on what you’re looking for. When I went there the tulips were in bloom, almost obnoxiously so, to the point where I felt obligated to take a picture or two of them.
The tulips are by the European style garden, which is lovely for people who like mathematical order in their flora. For me, I tend to aim more for trees and general greenery than specific flowers, so I found the quieter corners with the local species of plants much more appealing, see below.
One thing the gardens have going for them, beyond being cheap for the everyday visitor, is that they are free for senior citizens to enter. So when you’re walking around you’ll inevitably run into some retired folks who are happy to spend their days taking photos, painting, or just spending their time around all the greenery.
Now, you might have noticed that conservatory in the first picture; unfortunately that does cost extra to enter, but it’s only another 200 yen. 400 yen for an afternoon somewhere quiet and pretty is not that bad, considering this is Kyoto we’re talking about.
One thing I’ll mention to be careful of: if you sunburn easily, bring a hat and sunscreen! While there are shady spots in the gardens most of it is out in full sunlight, including the benches you can rest on.
That’s all I really have to say on the gardens; the pictures I think speak for themselves. If you’re in Kyoto, go check the place out yourself and enjoy! If you finish up there and you still want to enjoy nature, you can easily pop out to the Kamo river or consider heading toward Mt. Hiei, which is not as far away as you might think.
Catch you all next time!
When you move to a foreign country it can be exciting to peruse the multitudes of new things you can try out. Restaurants with foods you’ve never tried! Dressing in the local culture’s clothing! Visiting temples, shrines, trying adventure sports, the list goes on.
But give it two or three years, and you’ll start struggling to find something New and Exciting to do. Looking at nearby hiking courses make you go “meh”, the thought of arranging a train ticket makes you wave your hand dismissively, and anything more ambitious can make you want to crawl right back into bed and forget you even have a holiday coming up.
This is the difficulty I face, despite living in a culturally rich area with loads to do, so imagine my delight when I found an article about a cafe in Kyoto where you could learn how to make rings!
Art Smith Kyoto is a little cafe about a five minute walk away from Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan Line. You go down some steps into what feels more like a jewelry shop at first, as there are plenty of wares on display from pins to earrings and whatever else jewelry-wearing folk like to buy. There’s a single counter with no more than five or six swivel seats–that’s the “cafe” section of the place. And behind that counter is where the magic happens.
I made a reservation for myself and a few friends through Facebook. The owner was very accommodating in arranging our lesson. The first time you visit the cafe, you take a “trial lesson” that costs 1,000 yen per person and takes roughly an hour- the owner teaches you how to make very simple rings. After that, you can attempt your own projects, which will cost more along the lines of 3,000 yen per session.
Upon arrival, we dropped our bags and immediately got started.
Step 1: Measure the size of your ring using some basic math and cut the appropriate length from a long, thin piece of metal. Then
set it on fire I mean, heat it up to make the silver more malleable.
Step 2: Start forming the metal into a ring shape. Start by folding it into a square to ensure the ends will meet up cleanly, then once you pass it under fire and bind the two ends together, start to shape it into something rounder.
I really struggled with this point; my friends had to help me match up the ends and the owner made noncommittal, “It’s difficult isn’t it?” comments, which means I was doing a horrible job.
Okay, that’s a lot in one step, I agree. Once you have a somewhat round shape going on, you’re provided with a long, tapered metal pole to put the ring on. You are also provided a hammer, and instructed to gently tap the ring until it gets to the roundness and size you want. (Measurements are clearly marked on the poles.)
Once you have it at the right size, you can then choose a particular type of hammer to use in order to give the ring a simple pattern. There was a large, blunt hammer good for a smooth finish, and two smaller hammers that could offer “mirrorball”-like designs.
You then have the option of adding an initial inside the ring; it’s so tiny it’s debatable whether it’s worth getting, and choosing multiple letters can result in the final product looking chipped and not as clean. I chose to go with one letter, and while it’s visible I’m not sure if anyone would notice it unless I pointed it out.
At this point it’s out of your hands; the owner has a large machine on the counter that he feeds the rings into so they’re polished and ready to be worn. The process takes about ten minutes, during which point you can take advantage of the “cafe” part of this lesson. While drinks are not included in the price of the lesson, the prices are reasonable enough. While you’re waiting, there are also photo albums of previous projects done by both the owner and by other customers you can peruse.
At last, you are given your brand new ring to take home!
Pros of this lesson: the owner was very communicative over Facebook, friendly, and took the time to explain every step thoroughly to us. When someone was struggling he was more than willing to help.
Potential cons: The lesson was done only in Japanese, so speakers of other languages might want to bring a friend familiar with the lingo to make things go smoothly. Also, it’s near the covered arcade of Demachiyanagi, and it can sometimes be easy to get turned around if you’re not familiar with the area.
I’m very pleased with the results of this little adventure and recommend it to others who want to make something in Kyoto!