Comments Off on Katsura

One of the main reasons Bill wanted to return to Japan after our visit in 2018 was to have a tour around the Katsura Imperial Villa.  It requires advance reservations for all tours but especially for the tours in English. Bill, Rich, Geri and were able to procure spots about 3 months ago through the “lottery” system. Paula and Marilyn decided to make other plans for the day and went to Nijo Castle in the center of Kyoto.

It is grey and overcast but is not raining, which we were worried about.  Rich is a great navigator and got us on the correct bus from Kyoto Station to a stop near the Katsura Villa.   The buses are impeccably clean and well maintained as are the trains and subways. Everything is well marked in Japanese and English – although one of the subway lines we were on did not have electronic signs about the next stop so we had to rely on looking out the window and noticing the names at each station.  Our electronic card covers all subways and trains and the fares are very inexpensive.  Our 35 minute bus ride out to Katsura cost about $1.60.

Katsura was developed as a place of summer villas for the wealthy and the original imperial villa took about 60 years to build in the early 17th century.   Katsura is still a very green suburb with small shops and trees, an occasional temple tucked into a neighborhood, and a sense of quiet peace outside the intensity of urban life today — as it was probably 400 years ago as well.   

At the appointed time we were led into an introductory anteroom and then outside by our young Japanese female guide informing us that we could only visit the outdoor area.  So it was especially helpful that the day was cool and grey but not wet.  We were led up and down and around series of uneven rock paths and the guide told us not to take photos while walking as many tourists had fallen along the way.  I ended up looking down at the ground most of the time I was walking to make sure I stayed upright.  But when looking up, the gardens and vistas were magnificent.

We were told how the walkways around the villa are important architectural statements themselves, the specific mixture of flat stones and rough stones changing and designed to induce certain states of mind in the emperor’s visitors.  There are four main tea houses on the grounds we were were able to visit created with their views over the garden in mind.    Everything very carefully crafted with the aesthetics of the times in mind.  And very beautiful indeed many centuries later. 

Several guides have spoken to us of the importance of wabi-sabi in the Japanese culture:  the sensibility of the past mixed with the present.  This state of mind is also correlated somehow with Waka Poetry of which the founder of Katsura Villa was a famous exponent.  Each person who has talked to us about the  meaning of wabi-sabi has given us a different explanation and perhaps that is part of its definition:  a feeling that can not be put into words.

While we were at Katsura, Priti went to the Saihoji Temple, or Kokodera, the home of a famous moss garden.  Sadly, we have also several times been told about how the moss is disappearing due to climate change and some of us were severely scolded for touching some moss.  Scientists here are deeply involved in trying to understand how to best preserve what is here and grow it in once fertile places.  

As arranged, we meet for lunch and find down a quiet street the soba noodle restaurant I had found on-line, Ryuuhei Soba, which looks like a home entrance from the outside and has no English to help guide us.  Given that our Google Maps tells us this is the place, we open the sliding screen and are greeted warmly and shown to our own room.  The only thing on the menu is soba with different toppings.  Geri and I choose Yam, Bill and Rich choose Nori and Priti chooses peppers.  All are delicious — the noodles and broth mixed with our specific choices are outstanding and working with the non-English speaking staff a good experience.

At the end as we were leaving and only Rich stood looking back in the entryway, the chef came out and bowed to the ground in front of Rich to thank us for our patronage.  We didn’t know that was still a custom these days in Japan but here in this corner of a small village, it is indeed still being practiced.

We have moved now to our new hotel for the rest of our stay in Kyoto — in the Sanjo Higashiyama area, more residential and quieter area.  It is a very Japanese Hotel.  The bathrooms have a separate toilet room, sink room and a bathing room with a deep tub for soaking next to a small stool, bucket and spigot for soaping yourself before entering the tub for a soak.  There is a hand held shower head as well and our group is inconclusive whether we are to just use the whole room as the shower or step into the tub and direct the spray onto you. Such is Japan — just enough difference from the U.S. culture to make us take a look at what we are automatically assuming and doing on a daily basis.

With the brief time left in the afternoon, Geri, Rich, Bill and I walk in the cloudy weather to the Shore-in Temple, only to find it, as we suspected, closed by the time we arrive. But in the distance we see a large red tori gate and walk that way to enter the Heien Jingu Shrine, an important landmark in Kyoto.  Nearby are striking modern buildings which are part of the Kyocera Museum – once again an example of the great contrasts that are normal part of life here, the old flowing easily into the new.  

Although extremely tired, we join Priti and walk to a ramen restaurant recommended to us, Kyoto Engine, and the walk there was visually memorable:  a large covered market area filled with a plethora of everything Japanese, from clothing to cute children’s outfits to the ubiquitous unique and beautiful boxes of Japanese sweets, to everything else in between.  A riot of color and sounds around us.  

Our dinner was wonderful home made ramen with high end ingredients — and two vegan options, spicy and non-spicy!   Thoroughly enjoyable both the food and the company.