We spent two and a half weeks in Japan, Nov. 21st through Dec. 8th, and it was, just as I expected it to be, amazing. Japan, for me, feels effortless, exciting, interesting, convenient (safe food, walkable streets, and clean bathrooms matter a lot to me), endlessly explorable, and full of small delights.

I was afraid that it would change from when I came first, but although, almost all the constituent parts of the experience changed, the whole remained remarkably consistent. It’s strange that places don’t change much, even if one does completely different things or comes at different seasons. For instance, whenever I come to Venice the weather is lovely and there’s an interesting exhibition going on, whereas whenever I come to Russia, be it July or December, it’s cold, miserable, and Day of the Paratrooper.

Things that changed:

  • Instead of traveling alone this time I went with the whole family – all six of us for the first week, and four for the subsequent weeks. This means that our time was very structured and that we barely ever walked. The first week, in particular, was structured by Amazing Spouse in half-hour increments in an act of sheer heroism. None of my usual “roll out of the bed whenever, exit the hotel in a random direction, eat on the way” and no “spend an hour reading in this cute cafe” – we ate three sit-down meals a day and didn’t search for variety.
  • It was November and not May which greatly increased the frequency of persimmons, children in fancy outfits (November is the month for 3-5-7 celebrations), and, oddly, flowering cherry trees (I did not expect fuyuzakura aka winter cherry).
  • There were fewer school children out and about.
  • It was cold. “T-shirt and overshirt and puffy vest and jacket and hat” cold. And dark by 5 pm, so random wandering around time was cut short. This means that gardens and parks closed early and that there were fewer creatively-dressed teenagers around and way more elegantly-coated ladies.
  • It was crowded as heck. Everyone wanted to see momiji fully as much or more as we did. I never thought I’d queue up for an hour for anything other than staple food, let alone for maples, and yet – it was completely worthwhile.
  • Fall foliage and not temples or restaurants, was the theme of most days. Mind you, fall foliage happens in temples and around restaurants, and we visited both – but the foliage was more striking and noticeable than the buildings.
  • We went to museums! Tokyo National Museum, MIHO, Osaka Castle, Nara Crafts museum, Nara Toy museum, Iwasaki garden (and especially mansion), Drum museum, Samurai museum, Sword museum, Hokusai museum, Yayoi Kusama museum, and finally Team Labs (which is less a museum than a museum-sized installation, but I’m including it anyway) – these were unexpectedly more memorable than temples on this trip.
  • We stayed at hotels with onsens, which means there was no going-out-to-bathe.
  • We did more shopping (or, at least, more window shopping) and more animal petting visiting a dog cafe, Bengal cat cafe, and capybara cafe. I love capybaras, although on a nearer acquaintance, cats are definitely more awesome.
  • And, of course, because of traveling as a family and because of the cold I was out-socialized by the end of each day, and completely incapable of noting things down. I did sketch, however, and will try to recreate what I saw in each day based on that. At some point. The issue, of course, is that I don’t have a clear audience for this – future me is academic, adult kids even more so, outside blog readers a remote and unlikely possibility, and the guy I wrote to last time was right here with me. Crying in the wilderness is, if not sensible, understandable enough, but traveloguing? Not that I’ll let the lack of an audience stop me 🙂

Lucky day

Today was an incredibly lucky day. Below is a partial list of all the things that were lucky:

  • In the morning it turned out there’s even more really interesting stuff to learn about tea ceremony than I thought
  • Ginkakuji turned out almost completely uncrowded, and far more beautiful than I remembered
  • Right outside of it there were chestnut cream puffs, which aren’t sold except in the Fall
  • Our route to Nanzenji happened to go along Philosopher’s Path, which I wanted to see again but didn’t really have time
  • Along the path we met a gentleman named Marita, who taught us to make bamboo flower boats and drop them into the Lake Biwa canal (this trip has waaay more Lake Biwa canal than my first one) for luck. Mine floated 🙂
  • Sanmon gate at Nanzenji was open, unlike the last time, and we got to go to the top.
  • Nanzen-in was open, and I didn’t make it there last time either
  • While everyone else was eating I made it to Konchiin temple, and saw the crane and turtle garden and the shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu (with his statue and the famous dragon ceiling). The garden was beautiful and completely empty.
  • While there I was exactly on time to also see the tea room designed by Kobori Enshu (see the first bullet point – how timely that my morning reading told me who he was) that contained Hasegawa Tōhaku’s Monkey Reaching for the Moon’s Reflection with it’s heart-stoppingly elegant fingers. On normal days one can’t even see it – it was a special exhibition. On this day one more minute, and I would have missed it. There was also the Wet Crows screen, which I know I’ve seen before, but cannot remember where, and can’t find images of it. It’s hilarious and beautiful.
  • Just as I ran out of time it turned out the Einkando temple was hosting a night-time illumination
  • I had to wait for it, and accidentally walked into the cutest cafe, full of statuettes and old cameras. A very nice old lady with Brezhnev eyebrows waved a coffee cup at me. I didn’t have the energy to refuse, which was lucky, because as it turned out I needed coffee.
  • I took a spot in line and everyone made it to me just as I was about to go in. Given that it was a half-hour line that was miraculous timing. I also got into this line just in time, behind me it became far longer.
  • As we came out there was exactly one taxi waiting and it was waiting for us
  • Right as I was rested, bathed, and becoming human again B. told me that Naked Flowers at Nijo castle were on until 10 pm and there was no line. Naked Flowers turned out to be a combination ikebana exhibit, illumination, and flower-themed cartoon show on castle walls with great music and aromas. This also means I got the leisurely walk through the castle gardens I was missing.
  • Nita Prose’s latest dropped just as I was running out of books

Nanzenji turned out not to have been the temple I thought it was. That is to say, the ineffably peaceful temple I thought was Nanzenji is a completely different temple, and I don’t know which one. But, on the bright side, it gives me a reason to come back and search for it. Thoroughly. Kyoto has less than 2,000 temples – how hard can it be? 🙂