Summer in Japan can get very hot. The air is heavy. It seems to loll on your skin and clunk through your head. Air conditioning only lowers the temperature. In the period leading up to and through the monsoon, the weight of the weather always presses.
After a relentless round of work during a period of increasingly stifling weather, I was looking worn. My wife suggested a change of pace.
|"We could," she said, "dress in yukata and have dinner out over a river?"
"Dress in yukata!?" That didn't sound like my kind of thing.
|But she was persuasive. The Japanese have been wearing them for hundreds of years. People found them comfortable in the past, and today people still wear them at home and outside in summer festivals.
|In Kyoto, though? Along with everyone else, I've shuffled shyly through
the streets of hot spring towns in hotel yukata, but, it's not something you see much in Kyoto city streets.
|She told me to trust her. You just feel different in yukata. We would be professionally dressed and taken by taxi to a secluded valley
where no-one would bat an eyelid. Her enthusiasm carried the day.
A few days later, we found ourselves in a yukata sale and rental shop called
I Love Kyoto. Here, we were encouraged to choose what to wear from a wealth of fabrics ranging from colourful to conservative. My wife was dressed first. It was fascinating to see how the strong and practiced hands of the dresser pulled the initially rather shapeless cloth into shape, and held it there with tied sashes. The tying of the colourful outer obi was an amazing feat of pulling and poking thick cloth into formal elegance.
After that, the same skilled lady quickly arranged my wife's hair. In less
than half an hour, from start to finish, she was transformed into someone
who could pass for an elegant enka singer. It was worth the extra charge for the coiffure.
My own transformation was no less amazing and was even quicker. The clothes
encourage men to assume a more belly-out Japanese posture. For me, it was
not so much a case of looking like a stately sumo wrestler as Inokichi
in Yojimbo. He was the gunfighter's pot-bellied brother.
Once dressed, we stepped outside in traditional Japanese style flip-flop shoes. Our clothes were stowed in a waiting taxi and we were conveyed to Kibune Valley. The roads were clear, and the journey to the north eastern extremity of Kyoto took about forty minutes. Afterwards, I realized the key to the success of the day was this taxi ride. It was so simple to be delivered to this rather distant destination without the fatigue of public transport. Once we started heading up along the river, it felt like we were leaving the city behind. Before long, we could see stands of sugi trees reaching skywards. A pleasant while later, we arrived in a deep and leafy valley. Too early for lunch, we left our bags at the restaurant and took the advice to walk up to Kifune Shrine.
Another green world
The shrine is older even than Kyoto City itself. Something about this particular valley has attracted reverence for thousands of years. I wondered about this and some pieces of the jigsaw of Japanese history started falling into place. When people in Japan started farming rice, they needed steady up-valley sources of water. When they found reliable water, they would terrace the sides of the valley. Then they irrigated their new fields with a steady supply of water drawn from a stream fed by tree-covered upland slopes. It was actually harder to drain the valley bottoms and the lowlands. And if you did, any fields made there would most likely last only a few years. One day, the mountains would funnel a local downpour or sudden snow melt in a raging torrent that would wash away your hard work. Large areas of flatland could only be developed when the political system was able to organize people to defend against, and recover from, flooding. Then, when new fields were made, the land had to be defended against covetous neighbouring warlords. General development was delayed until peace came. This was imposed by the Tokugawa shoguns. It also from around this time, the early 17th century, that woodblock prints started to depict yukata just like the one I was wearing.
Then there are the trees. Japan's trees are essential to rice farming.
Their roots hold soil and moss in place on the steep slopes that cover
most of the country. The forest forms a sponge that soaks up seasonal rain
and stops it rushing to the sea. Farmers had reason to be concerned about
the state of the upland valleys. They needed a reliable supply of irrigation
water. It struck me that the animist ancestors must have given as much
thought and care to water, soil, and trees as we today give to money. Shrines
were a reverential expression of this care. According the informative English
leaflet provided at Kifune Shrine, the valley is associated with a female
water deity, and more than 2,500 other shrines in Japan consider themselves
branch shrines of the Kifune 'franchise.'
The scenic approach to the shrine is up an attractive, gentle flight of
rough-hewn stone steps that is provided with a sturdy hand rail. From glimpses
of the shrine building, it was obvious that it had recently been reconstructed.
Even so, it is still as elegant and impressive as it has been for centuries.
Many Japanese shrine buildings, including those of the Grand Shrine at
Ise, are periodically rebuilt according to the original plans. This reconstruction
always reminds me of the Argos, which returned from Jason's epic voyage
renewed in every timber, but still the Argos.
On the way up, I could already feel a pleasant coolness over all my skin.
The yukata was letting the valley air work its magic. At the top of the
stairway, in token purification before entering the central precincts,
we ladled cool spring water over our hands. I never really know what to
do when visiting a shrine or temple. If I were to visit a church or a mosque,
I wouldn't pray...
My wife convinced me that what you are doing is not so much praying as
paying respect to the spirit of the place. It's an act of appreciation
that puts you in the moment. Then you become aware of the wonderful surroundings
you are in. Having gone along with everything else so far, I tried the
handclaps, bows, and bell rattle - just watch what everybody else does.
I began to feel like I was swimming in the flow of history.
Now, it seemed as if we were in a completely different place: still us, but more securely rooted in time. All worries forgotten. No discomforts felt.
I watched some school students floating sheets of paper in a small trough of water. One explained that it was a 'future-saying sheet' and that she had 'big lucky.' She clearly wanted me to try, so I went and put couple of coins in a slotted box and extracted a sheet from the stack on the shrine office counter. After gently floating the sheet on the water, some writing appeared. It filled out what was actually a form. 'Big lucky' was my fate, too. My new friend explained the content of the detailed subsections. Although one rank lower, my wife's luck was also good. We folded the moist sheets into strips and tied them on some wires stretched across a wooden frame. Much more fun than theme park trash cans.
By now, I was feeling ready for lunch. Before we left the shrine, it was
decided that we should come away with spring water. Plastic bottles are
on sale for just this purpose. The water had a rich taste and was made
into excellent coffee the next day.
Lunch like no other
Back at the restaurant, someone guided us over the road through a doorway in a fence. It opened on to a large tatami-covered platform built across the full width of the stream. Just upstream was a low waterfall that provided the constant, natural sound of running water that the Japanese call seseragi. Overhead, reed
blinds broke the sunlight into dapples and any deficit in lighting was
compensated by lines of chochin lanterns, some red, some white. For the
unpractised, sitting cross-legged at a low table in a yukata is not the
best way to win points for social grace. Let's just say that I managed
the feat with no great embarrassment. Soon, a waitress who was dressed
quite similarly to my wife, was bringing the first course of our appropriately
named seseragi kaiseki lunch set.
This came with a refreshing glass of white wine and a little lacquerware
eggcup full of potato soup. In the box there were a number of dainty dishes
appropriate to the season. On the left, a tender, sliced abalone, still
in its small iridescent shell, covered by a white slice of lotus root:
opposite, a pickled, finger-sized, whole river fish called moroko. Beneath that, a slice of bundled burdock roots wrapped in smoked eel
provided a gorgeous pattern of rich textures. At the top, there was small
pot of tempting fern tips and other mountain vegetables dressed in worked
tofu and, to the right, a slice of 'sushi' concocted from egg yolks topped
with pressed prawn. At the bottom, my eye was drawn to the rich pink of
a wholeyamamomo, a small spiky fruit with modest flavour but stunning colour. The centre of the arrangement was diagonally graced with a green chimaki, glutinous rice wrapped in a bound bamboo leaf. Another side dish presented
what looked like green koyadofu. Demolished in three fleeting spoonfuls, this soft block released the fresh taste of green peas.
Other courses included tempura and tsukuri, pretty standard fare, but tasty and prepared well. Perhaps the pride of place should go to the tray with yubamanju, the potentially tasty fibrous mass of soya beans that is left after soya
milk is extracted for making tofu. The dumpling was wrapped in yuba, the delicious protein skin that forms on the top of soya milk. There was also another, larger river fish called iwana, broiled and coated with miso. The meal was crowned with hamo, a summer delicacy that is particularly associated with Kyoto. These puffy
flowers of fish flesh are made by skilled chefs. They use keen knives to
cut the many bones of the fish into fine pieces that give it a special
texture. It was served with a perfect dipping sauce made from pickled plums.
After the rice and pickles, dessert was a clean-tasting jelly made with
yuzu, a citrus fruit that tastes like a perfumed lemon. This excellent meal, in such special surroundings was very memorable. It engaged all the senses. The sound went way beyond canned music or even indifferent live music. Each course was composed like an abstract painting. The air was fresh with the scent of stream and forest. And when the food
came, each dish had its own appetizing aroma. The tastes were all interesting,
and often simply delicious. My ignorant teeth probably failed to properly
appreciate the variety of what the Japanese call shokkan, the feel and bite of food in the mouth. I did understand that there was lots of shokkan and that the differences were fun. I had no problem with the feel of the air cooled by the stream flowing beneath our seats. Through the yukata, its constant caress shooed away any worry that tried to intrude..
Time well spent
My wife's idea for a different day out proved to be a total success. It was the most memorable 'tourist experience' that I can recall - much more interesting than any theme park or dinner floorshow in a hotel. When she originally suggested the day out, my eyes widened at the price. Now I know that the money was well spent. It was true recreation. And we were taking our yukata home with us. I can imagine enjoying wearing mine to a costume party. People may not know who Inokichi is, but John Belushi in Samurai Hotel is a good plan B. We also had some treasured snapshots. That is saying a lot for people who do not usually like having their photos taken.
Before descending to the city, we walked up to see some secondary shrines.
The road winds up the valley, which is lined for a way with similar restaurants
and hotels. Some of the staff of these establishments were on the road
beckoning us in to dine. They were also in yukata, and looked us over appraisingly.
I could tell that we passed muster and, with something of a swagger, started
to feel more like the gunslinger than his fat brother.
When we returned to the restaurant, they lent us a room to change back
into our city clothes and then took us in a minivan to the train station
a little way down the valley. From there we returned, deeply reinvigorated
to the bustling city.
This special day out is one that I can sincerely recommend to any couple
or group of friends. Families might enjoy it, too, but I can imagine that
some teenage boys may, as I did in the beginning, baulk at the idea - Hey
kid, what are you scared of? There are few better ways to get a real feel
of the simple luxuriousness of Japanese culture.
|Reported by David Eunice
|I LOVE Kyoto
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