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Deborah Howell’s Japan Journey: The Silk Road to Kyoto

Kyoto is one of the three major cities in Japan, along with Osaka and Tokyo. On the way there we have our final look at the Japanese countryside, with its phosphorescent yellow green rice fields and country homes with their glistening black tile roofs shining in the sun.

PHOTO:  The Silk Road to Kyoto

The rice is getting heavy; it’s time for harvesting, and we see some farmers in their small combines cutting the stalks as we pass.

The Kyoto prefecture

We stop at a silk factory and museum in Kaya. (Yosano town). Amazing to watch the weaving machines in action and to see the tango-chirimen (silk clothes and textiles) being made before our eyes. Silk ties, small purses, socks, scarves, elaborate wedding kimonos and so many more beautiful things are made here. There’s even ramen noodles with silk inside for sale here! Wonder if you can taste it? And to think that all of these things come from a worm-it boggles the mind.

This kind of technology came from Korea. For you go out in a boat and just drift on the current from south to north, you’ll land here. They escape from North Korea to come here and work in the silk industry.

The Koreans also brought their irrigation techniques here a very long time ago, and some of these techniques are still in use today.

Most houses in this area have or had a small silk weaving machine in their home. It’s tough these days to make a living in Japan if you’re in the silk business–China can make similar goods for far less and pretty much now owns the market. Its silk worm farms are legendary, so now there are only a few farms left in Japan, located nearer to Tokyo.

Now we come to one of the three most scenic spots in Japan, accessed by chairlift. We’ve already been to Miyajima, and now we’re at Ama no Hashidate–the “dragon climbing into the sky.” (The third most scenic spot is way up in northern Japan, so we’ll settle for 2 out of 3.) It’s a mysterious place formed by the sand spit extending about 3.6 km in the Miyazu Bay and the Aso Sea. The sand spit is covered with over

8000 Japanese black pines, and when viewed in the Mata-nokozi way (bent over, with your head between your knees) it looks like a dragon climbing into the sky. We try it–and sort of get it.🙂 There’s also an amusement park (for younger kids) and we enjoy walking up the curling walkway for the highest view of the blue-green scene below us.

Back down from the dragon mountain, we grab a quick lunch of soba and udon with tempura overlooking the channel. There’s a typical curving orange Japanese footbridge outside our window as we eat. Or at least we thought it was typical until it suddenly started swiveling and slowly turning 180 degrees to allow a large yacht to pass between its two sides. Impressive!

Hiroko starts laughing at the way Blake has poked his chop sticks into his bowl. Apparently, if you stick both your chopsticks vertically into your food, it means someone in your family has died. Whoops! He places them horizontally instead. Much better. I wonder what else we’ve done that means something different in Japanese culture.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that wherever we go (at least in the countryside) the piped in music is usually American or British.

But it’s been re-done with piano or vibes and mostly its from the 60s or 70s. “I’ll be there” by the Jackson 5, “Moon River”, “Evergreen”

and Billy Joel covers follow us everywhere. There’s a particular affinity for “Amazing Grace”, too, but the only r & b (outside our car) I’ve heard has been at the Rihga Royal while I was swimming in that glorious pool. I laughed out loud in delight and swallowed some water by mistake when I heard “Before I Let You Go” by Blackstreet while doing the backstroke.🙂 We’re now in the outskirts of Kyoto. If Friday afternoon traffic permits, we’ll try to see the Golden Temple. This is a city of cherry blossom gardens, stone gardens, and magnificent shrines. It was the capital of Japan from 1800 to 1868 and there’s still an Imperial Palace here taking up a LOT of prime real estate.

Traffic cooperates, and we get our (enormous) tickets to enter the park to see The Golden Pavilllion/Rokuon-ji Temple. As usual, there’s no waiting in line. (I don’t think we spent more than 10 minutes total time in lines in the past two weeks–everything is super efficient here.)

However, there ARE a lot of tourists–95 per cent from China, Yuki informs us. We walk along a maple-tree lane leading to a small lake, turn a corner, and there it is, shimmering in the late afternoon sun:

Kinkaku-ji Temple. And it is resplendent. We take photo after photo of this gold-leafed marvel and just stand in awe at its beauty.

This area was originally the site of a villa called Kitayama-dai and owned by a statesman until Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the 3rd shogun of the Muromachi period acquired it for the Sainoji family in 1397. He then built his own villa, which he named Kitayama-den. I can just imagine this shogun, all dressed in his ceremonial robes, taking a small boat around the lake, enjoying a bit of fishing perhaps, on his private estate.

The only thing we find odd is that the top two stories of the temple are completely covered in gold, but the main (ground) level is not.

It’s just painted white. Since everything so far we’ve asked about has a spiritual answer, we assume the white is for purity or some such virtue. “No. The shogun just probably ran out of money,” says Yuki, which gets a big laugh.

After his death, the villa was converted into a temple, and in 1994 Rokuon-hi Temple was registered as a World Cultural Heritage Site. It still holds Zen Buddhist relics inside, and a host of admirers from all Oliver the world on the outside.

Now we’re in a gorgeous neighborhood on the Katsuya River, populated with high end residents and tourists.

We hop aboard a Yakata bune (boat) and float on the Hozugawa river to our hotel. Peaceful! Every other boat that glides by waves or smiles.

The staff awaits us on the dock and guides us to the water garden where we hear welcoming music by a woman playing bells resembling the sounds of nature and are served sparkling wine and some sweets.

This is certainly the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed at in my life. Everything is perfect. The finishes are top end, the service is impeccable, the kimonos in our room are straight out of a Soho boutique. Wow, wow, and wow!

We relax for a bit in the water garden and then I take a walk into town, strolling along the river path under the towering trees. Heaven.

Small boats begin to light their lanterns and the laughter of their passengers floats upward. Cicadas begin their urgent chirping and the sun and clouds darken with the dying light. My favorite time of day to take photos. This twilight walk is one of the best highlights of the whole trip. Strolling through town I see dozens of beautiful boutique shops selling everything from silk purses to slippers to jewelry to the tiniest confections all wrapped up like tiny presents. Even the train station is a feast for the eyes with brightly lit decorated poles–each with a different artful pattern–so you feel happy while you wait for the train. It’s the most immaculate train station I’ve ever seen.

It’s almost time for dinner, so I head back to the hotel, which is a former villa. The lantern-lit stairs beckon, and the individual rooms glow from within like jack-o-lanterns. There are only 20 rooms here, and dinner is being prepared for everyone in private rooms in the main dining building. We bring our own sake and plum wine and it’s all iced and ready for us.

This 14 course dinner is simply astonishing to the eye and to the palate. The sweet black beans have real gold on top and I hate to ruin the perfection of the presentation but hunger calls, so I do what I must. There are tiny while trout, sweet yams, small bowls of sesame tofu, expertly grilled cubes of insanely delicious steak, eggplant purée, seaweeds of all types, a tiny quail egg, gorgeous small desserts and a fruit course.

Perfect ending to a perfect frost day in Kyoto.

See more of my adventures through Japan here.

More from Deborah Howell
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