Whether the Cherry Blossoms Are in Bloom

by Zach Mann on March 9, 2012 · 0 comments

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I leaned my head against the Shinkansen window, snacking on train station fast food. Japan passed by at 300 kilometers per hour, while I counted golf ranges and Ferris wheels at an astonishing clip. Then the track doglegged, and there was Mount Fuji, emerging from sparse countryside and hogging the view. Even the regulars paused, looked up from their Sudoku, and watched as the volcano passed by in slow motion.

Moments later Japan returned to full speed.

One of too many temples - Kyoto, Japan
Life slowed down again in Kochi. Josh got lost en route to everywhere, occasionally stopping at his nth favorite soft serve place for another impromptu dessert. Even the tourism took its time; we’d be the only ones there, pondering the spirits in front of a 3,000-year-old robot tree, or holding lanterns up to macabre paintings in the dark.

After Shikoku, Japan sped back up. No longer did we march to the sputter of Josh’s Daihatsu. Instead we kicked up dust with the rest of the tourists, racing up and down escalators, catching trains or bounding up and down temple stairs, chasing postcard culture.

Alas, in Japan, all postcards lead to Kyoto.

Nishiki Market - Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto is beautiful city – even its seedier districts glow with orange lanterns and old Meiji Era charm – but Kyoto is also tourism hotspot ichi-ban, with a way of life governed by whether or not the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Our impression of the town was amplified by our newfound dependence. Without Josh holding our hands, the buck passed to a Lonely Planet guide to play sensei, and the thankless bible herded us through a gauntlet of high-traffic vistas.

…and destination dinners. Mele and I browsed expat blogs and braved random walk-ins, but we also deferred to the guide’s must-eats. Oft times we were thankful for its wisdom, as in the case of Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto, and most of all when we stepped into Misoka-an Kawamichi-Ya.

Misoka-an Kawamichi-Ya - Kyoto, Japan Oyako-namba (chicken, egg, welsh onions) - Misoka-an Kawamichi-Ya - Kyoto, Japan
Misoka-an is a local landmark, a 300-year-old soba restaurant in a converted merchant’s house. The hostess led us through a honeycomb of small rooms, each flanked by gardens and interconnected by outdoor stepping stones, to our table. Mele and I took off our shoes, tiptoed over shiny wood floors and shrugged at each other.

It was like a private tour of one of Kyoto’s temples. Why not? Misoka-an was old enough and, like any supercentenarian eating establishment, just as crucial a pillar of local culture.

An old man took our order. The process was eased by a menu with English translations and a self-awareness weathered by Kyoto’s large just-visiting population. Likewise, our hosts were not impressed by the discolor of our skin or fazed by our linguistic ignorance. We were just another pair of customers.

Nishin-soba - Misoka-an Kawamichi-Ya - Kyoto, Japan
Yet, despite impersonal service, despite the German family we bumped into on our way out, and despite the meal’s presence in the canon of Kyoto tourism, Misoka-an remains unspoiled. Noodles handmade for over three centuries trump the old adage that places where tourists eat probably suck balls.

Those handmade buckwheat noodles shined brightest in the Nishin Soba. As a dish its simplicity was overwhelming: just broth, soba and a chunk of dried herring that had been marinated in soy sauce for so long that its flavor seemed to reflect all 300 years.

The meal wasn’t just delicious. Time slowed, tempered by an experience that rivaled the sight of Mt. Fuji, and I forgot about the masses of tourists outside. In my mind they were replaced by sakura trees making it rain colors in the dead of winter.

Sweet Potatoes - Nara-koen - Nara, Japan
Tony Bourdain-esque hyperbole aside, our two weeks in Japan alternated between the norm – frantic, crowded exploration – and those brief moments of glorious perspective, when the clock stopped long enough for history to take front and center, and we remembered just how other-side-of-the-worldly our experience rated.

Standing inside the Daibutsuden qualified as one of those moments. The world’s largest bronze Buddha stared back at us inside the world’s largest wooden building, and our interaction remained unaffected by the fact that we shuffled feet in a crowd of the similarly curious.

Sika Deer - Nara-koen - Nara, Japan
But outside the hustle and bustle of Japan returned in full force. Kyoto’s marching masses had followed us on a day trip to Nara, sucking the air out of Japan’s more memorable temples. Even the adorable Nara-koen Sika deer, like the local economy, had become accustomed to the generosities of out-of-towners.

After saluting Buddha we visited another Nara specialty – and another Lonely Planet recommendation, an easy stop for tourists between Nara-koen and the train station. Like the deer, Shizuka has kept its belly full because of people like us, tourists looking for something meaningfully local and ignoring the fact that locals would probably never bother.

In this case, the Nara artifact was one particular dish: kamameshi.

Kamameshi - Shizuka - Nara, Japan Kamameshi - Shizuka - Nara, Japan
Japan’s answer to Chinese clay pot rice is an iron pot dish in which Nara boasts specialization. As with Misoka-an’s nishin soba, Shizuka’s kamameshi‘s intrinsic value is simplicity, and our meal felt down-to-earth despite its less-than-local patronage. Crisp-edged rice and in-season Hokkaido crab made up for any otherwise tepid flavor. (Why does everything good seem to come from Hokkaido? (Crab, dogs, ramen…)

We hopped back on a train, back to Kyoto, for more temples and more food at uncomfortable speeds. We dove back downstream with the rest of the tourists, embracing and rejecting our roles, practicing the pilgrimage diet. At times it was exhausting, but every once in awhile we’d look out over a forest of bamboo, or a bowl of udon, and time would pause just enough.

Monks marching through the shopping district - Kyoto, Japan

Misoka-an Kawamichi-Ya
Nakagyo-ku Fuyacho, Sanjo agaru
Kyoto, Japan
Shizuka
59-11 Noborioji-cho Nara-koen
Nara, Japan
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