Thursday, 4 August 2011

Ohara to Kibune

During the hot summer months in Kyoto, cycling into the cooler northern climes is one of the best ways to escape the stifling heat of the city basin. There are any number of routes that loop climb and swoop around the northern mountains, through farms and rice fields, bamboo groves and cedar forests and past rustic shrines and thatched roofed houses - and crucially, a river is never far away for a cool dunk before you are on your way again. Of course, this means there are any number of ways to get up into the mountains from Kyoto city, but heading up past Kitayama to Ohara gives you the option also of continuing further, through the T Tunnel and down to Lake Biwa, where another hour's cycle up the lake you'll find some of the best swimming beaches in Kansai.

It was to the lake for a swim that I was headed the other morning, but after being distracted by a detour, ended up following another road further into the mountains and in the process discovering a great little loop from Ohara to Kurama via Momoi and back. It turned out to be a longer ride than I had intended, but it was very scenic, and there were a couple of great river spots along the way so that I didn't miss out on my swim!

The easiest way from Kyoto city to Ohara is to cycle up Kawabata (you can actually cycle along the Takano riverside for the most part, but it gets a little bumpy at times). Once you reach Kitayama, keep going, past the overbridge until you get to a bridge and a road sign signaling Ohara to your right. Follow the river up to Ohara (about 8km from the turnoff). The cycle up to Ohara has nice views of mountains on both sides of the road. Ohara is a good place to stop, there are a couple of convenience stores, which will be the last ones you'll see for some time. About ten minutes after Ohara, turn west off the main road into the mountains, following the signs to Momoi.

Now, until this point, the climb is steady but not too strenuous. Ohara sits at about 300 m elevation, but the climb up to Momoi is a gutbuster, I'm not going to lie to you. The sign read Momoi 5km, so my initial intention was to take a one hour detour, before rejoining the road to the lake, to still enjoy my swim well before lunchtime. What I didn't realise though, was that during that 5km I would also be climbing about 500m to an elevation of 800m. Luckily I had enough Pocari Sweat sports drink to replace my own sweat, which was at this point dripping from my pores like water through a sponge. The temperature was already in the 30s and it was only 10am. Yup, it's fair to say I was starting to regret my wee detour.

In saying that, there is always a sense of elation after a good climb that makes the slog worthwhile and when I reached the top, as wet as I would have been if I'd made it to the lake, I was pretty stoked. From the top, the road drops down into a valley and the sleepy little village of Momoi. When I say sleepy, I mean sleeepy. The only activity I saw was a solitary farmer toiling in his field and an old woman hand washing her clothes on the stoop of her house, which affirmed to me that this was about as remote as I could possibly be while, remarkably, still being in the Kyoto city limits. A really nice spot though and very picturesque.

So, if you make it to Momoi, you've done all the hard work. Pat yourself on your soggy back because it's all downhill from here. And what a downhill! Follow the road sign pointing to Kurama, you'll pass a shrine and wend your way through a sparse cedar forest before the verge of the road drops you into a thrilling, sometimes bumpy switchback descent.

After a brief few minutes of that, you'll end up back on the main road, that will zip you straight down into Kurama. A great place to stop off for a hot spring, or visit the stunning Kurama temple (founded in 770). I had only one thing on my mind, though: and it began with s
and ended with wim. I knew I would get my wish in Kibune, a five minute ride back uphill after leaving Kurama.

The road from Kibune train station to the township proper goes upstream and there are a couple of nice little spots where you can take a dip in the river. Blissful.

After a revitalising dunk , continue up through Kibune, famous for its riverside dining restaurants and the revered Kifune Shrine. There are loads of people here in the summer, all wanting to escape the heat of the city, but if you'd like to escape them, continue up the road (again this is when you'll really appreciate having your bike) for about a kilometer and keep your eyes peeled for a nice shady spot where you can have a break, and another swim.

On your bike again then, and back down the hill, through Kibune and through the intersection that leads back up to Kurama (follow the sign directing you to Kamigamo). Continue downhill for a while until you find yourself at a busy intersection, a Lawson convenience store and thus civilisation. The drop in altitude and rise in temperature is almost immediate, and this is probably a good spot to grab some more liquids before the 8km cycle back over to Ohara. You`ll see the sign at the intersection indicating Ohara to the east.The initial part of this stage of the ride isn't particularly pleasant, you'll pass a dusty sawmill above which the whole side of the mountain has been completely scoured of life and a refuse station, which stinks a little but definitely gets you pedaling again. Soon enough though, you're back into the idyllic surrounds of rice fields and gardens before one final downhill swoop brings you to the opposite side of Ohara from where you started.

The shiso fields in Ohara are stunning at this time of year and it's definitely worth stopping by the famous Tsuji pickle shop on the main road to try some of their shiso pickles (a good salty pick me up), or even grabbing a shiso beer to have in ten minutes at the final swimming spot at Yase Hieizanguchi.

The road down from Ohara is quite busy, but once you're through the tunnel keep yours eyes open for a 7 eleven store. The swimming spot is your next left across the bridge after the 7 eleven. It's a popular spot for families and there are lots of people barbecuing and enjoying the river. Enjoy one final swim before heading back to Kyoto the same way you came.

As I mentioned, it's a little more intrepid than a lot of people would endavour to do in this heat, but it's a goody if you're up for a bit of a bike ride. You can see the map of this route as I did it, here

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Lush Hour

July is here, and with it the rainy season; the big wet! Traditionally the rainy season in Kyoto lasts until the end of the famous month-long Gion festival, after which the searing heat of summer with its soundtrack of cicadas and mesmerising fireworks festivals is upon us.

Now though, it is the time of Kyoto's little known fifth season - the outcast, the black sheep of the 四季 (four seasons) family. It is not given the status of the other four 'true' seasons, although to be fair I think it probably deserves to be included. As of all the seasons Japan holds dear, the rainy season too has its striking imagery and its little charms, at least for me: (the fact that this rain isn't accompanied by a howling wind and doesn't require a hat and gloves to endure - as it usually does where I 'hail' from - makes it comparitively enjoyable, actually.)

I enjoy taking a bike ride, or a walk when it is teeming with rain. It hisses along the rivers and crackles through the trees. The sound of the rain and the rushing water can be meditative if you find the right spot - and in Kyoto there are spots aplenty, let me assure you.

Then, when the clouds break and the sun elbows through, the birds and insects begin their cacophony of chirps and whistles again and the steam starts to rise from the grass with a smell that is pure lush. You can practically hear the plants growing.

So, if you happen to be in Kyoto this July, and get caught in the rain - I suggest you leave your umbrella at home, embrace the downpour, take a leaf out of the Hagakure and resolve yourself to a good old fashioned soaking!

Thursday, 31 March 2011


We recently headed south of Kyoto to charming Nara for a couple of days. Nara was the capital of Japan for a (relatively) short time in the eighth century AD - yes that's right, the eighth century: 1300 years ago!

Some of the first things you will encounter (and I mean truly encounter) in Nara are the free ranging deer, which themselves are actually cultural properties and said to be messengers from the Gods. Apparently the message is: "Give me thy biscuits or I'll headbutt you in the groin."

They wander the streets with aplomb - jaywalking, relieving themselves wherever and whenever they feel the need to and occasionally fighting over food. Similar, actually, to a group of rugby supporters back home, minus the face paint and beer.

Generally though, the deer are very placid (when you don't have anything they consider edible in hand) and will pose quite happily for photos, or ignore you completely as they graze on the sparse lawns of the many temple grounds and parks.

We decided to take a leaf out of the deers' book and wander around the place without any real purpose or direction. As the sun began to sink behind the pagoda of Kofukuji temple to our west, we stumbled upon a garden with an inviting plum tree in full bloom teasing us from over the gabled wall. The entry fee of ¥650 wasn't quite so inviting though, and we decided against it. Adjacent to that garden, though was another garden, named Yoshikien, with a sign saying (in English) "Free Entry for Foreign Tourists". I attempted to cajole my wife into pretending she was of non-Japanese descent, for which I got a glare that would have melted cheese and a sharp retort that I actually wasn't even a foreign tourist, but a foreign resident. So, I bit my tongue and we paid a much more reasonable ¥250 for her, plus nothing for the kids, and in we went.

Being early evening and just before closing, we were the only souls in the place. It was a beautiful garden, apparently privately owned during the Meiji era for visiting aristocrats to have their tea ceremonies, and has only been open to the public since 1989. There are 3 styles of Japanese garden here: a moss garden, a pond garden and a tea ceremony garden.

The teahouse backed out onto a moss garden which was wonderfully enhanced by the sunlight cascading through the trees. Moss gardens of course are at their lushest best after the rainy season in June, but it is still hard not to be impressed by the tricks that these masters of perspective are able to play with your eyes.

As we wound or way through the small streets and alley back to our hotel, we remembered that we had wanted to visit the famous Todaiji temple, but that didn't really seem to matter. Nara had served us a serene garden and a beautiful early spring evening to lap up.

The next day we did get to Todaiji, and although we were a bit early for the sakura there, we did see some early bloomers along the way at a shrine, not to mention some plum trees that had eluded us the evening before.

Friday, 18 March 2011


I was sitting at my desk nine days ago, when my phone buzzed. That was all that happened; my phone buzzed and I broke away from writing reports, rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and picked up my phone to read a mail from a friend. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. The mail said there had been an earthquake and that a tsunami was hitting the coast of Japan. I went to the next room where my wife and kids were playing and I relayed the news to them. "There's a tsunami hitting somewhere up north." I said. "Oh dear", was the reply. Earthquakes and tsunami are part of life in Japan, this news wasn't a shock.

It was an early spring day in Kyoto. The plum blossoms were reaching full bloom, which is always a good sign that the weather is getting warmer and that winter is on its way out. I was looking forward to finishing my reports so I could go for a walk to the park with my kids if it wasn't too cold outside; there was a bag of stale bread that needed to be fed to the carp at the pond and I still had a few hours before my only class of the day. Or, I thought, I could just waste some time on Facebook inviting people to a picnic that a friend had organised for that Sunday. The weather was supposed to be good.

I walked downstairs made a coffee and turned on the TV. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw unfolding before my eyes. I couldn't make sense of the pictures at first, sort of like eyes getting used to the dark, then I realised I was watching a wharf and then dozens of cars being swept away like they were leaves in a gutter. I remember thinking: "Why are there so many cars there?" Such an inane thought, but the gravity of what I was watching was too big to grasp. It was a movie. It didn't seem real. It couldn't be real.

Of course, what unfolded over the next few hours was very real. Terrifyingly real. Words cannot describe it and I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to have been witness to it. The devastation in the north-east of Japan is beyond words. The people of Tohoku have been dealt an unimaginable blow that will require years to come back from. But they will come back from it. The phrase that you keep hearing from people in the area is 'Ganbaro'. You hear people say it on the news every night: 'Ganbaro'. I even saw it spray painted on the side of a concrete wall in the midst of absolute ruin. Ganbaro. It is a word that has many nuances but can, I think, best be translated in this case as 'Let's Stay Strong', 'Let's Stand Firm': Ganbaro. It is a word that is part of the Japanese psyche and a word that is often overused. But not in this case, not at this time. At this time they need to keep saying it and keep believing it, because the challenge they face is immense.

Here in Kyoto, there was no direct effect from the earthquake and Kyoto is too far inland to ever be threatened by tsunami. So the feelings here are feelings, of course, of deep sympathy, but also tinged with guilt. Guilt that we have everything we need, and in some cases a glut of things that the people up north are in dire need of. Commodities such as water, electricity and food. Blankets, warm clothes, futons, a television. Not to mention a roof over our heads, a hot shower and the privacy of our own home, which for so many tonight are all hopelessly out of reach. People here have been giving money, sending packages, organising fundraising events, basically trying to do anything and everything we possibly can to help the people in the stricken areas. There is so much that is required, and everyone that I know has been involved in some way to try and get them the help they so desperately need. The sense of community in Japan is very, very strong and everyone is doing their part to help.

The weather has been unseasonably cold since that day, conversations are close and terse, people stand and stare at television sets in restaurants and diners, a look of disbelief across their faces. There is a sorrow that has fallen over the whole of Japan, but there is also an undeniable and overriding sense of purpose and promise here, too. There is still no joy, but the smiles are slowly starting to find their way back onto people's faces in Kyoto. Life goes on.

With this, the promise of spring also grows day by day and the splendor of springtime in Japan truly is a glory to behold. New life is being unleashed and the fleeting cherry blossoms - sakura - have already started to sweep their way north. Japan has a deep bond with the sakura flowers and this year, 2011, they will be of special significance, both as a harbinger of new life and as a symbol of support, blessings and encouragement sweeping up the entire island nation from south to north. These times will be tough for the people of Tohoku, but life does go on and they will get through this. They will get through this because they have the support of the whole country and because the bonds of community in Japan are strong: infinitely stronger than any force of nature. Ganbaro.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Earthquakes and Empathy

Maori legend tells of Papatuanuku, mother earth, carrying an unborn baby named Ru, who at times kicks and stretches, as babies do.

Japanese legend tells of a giant catfish named Namazu, on whose back the islands of Japan sit. The catfish is subdued by a demigod named Kashima, who wields a rock which keeps Namazu in its place. Every so often, though, Kashima is distracted and Namazu flails about.

Although these two legends are distinctly different, the result is frighteningly the same: earthquake.

The islands of Japan and New Zealand have always struck me as being very similar, although whenever I say this people look at me as if I'm crazy. But the fact is, when you strip away all of the human interference, all of the cultural differences, all of the infrastructure, all of the farming, you can't help but see the two countries as geographical companions. To break it down: Japan is an island country in the Pacific, so is New Zealand. Japan is a country where mountains jut violently out of the landscape , so is New Zealand. Japan boasts a glut of beautiful lakes, rivers, hotsprings and waterfalls, so does New Zealand. And as an unfortunate consequence of this dramatic beauty, Japan lives daily with the terrifying prospect of earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami. And so does New Zealand. There is an undeniable affinity between the two island nations, and I have never felt it more than during the past couple of days.

In the wake of the terror and despair that hit Christchurch yesterday afternoon, I have been truly touched by what I can only describe as an outpouring of concern from family, friends, students and co-workers here in Japan. We have had emails and phone calls from every corner of the country, and thankfully we, and our friends who live here that are actually from Christchurch, have been able to reassure them that our loved ones are safe albeit displaced or out of contact for now. There is a feeling of empathy that runs very deep here, a genuine connection among people who have shared the same experiences and know how devastating an event like this can be to communities and families.
I have talked to people who experienced the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, when over 6000 people lost their lives in and around the city of Kobe in Japan. The look in their eyes and the emotion in their voices when they remember that time is as if it had happened yesterday, not 16 years ago. I can only suppose that kind of experience never leaves you.

Watching the footage of the Christchurch earthquake on Japanese TV and the internet has been utterly surreal for me, personally. The familiarity of the faces and the surroundings just does not match the carnage. New Zealand isn't a country that has wars, it doesn't demand revolutions or dispute borders. The violence that has caused this devastation has not come about because of government or religion, it has come about because of the land itself - te whenua. And that, I think, is why the compassion has resonated so much with everyone here in Japan. People here understand as much as New Zealanders do, the ferocious power of nature.

As we wait for news on the missing and trapped in Christchurch, Japan waits also. The 24 Japanese people who are still unaccounted for have the whole country praying for them. But the connection runs deeper than that; it runs right through an ocean, from yama to maunga, from kawa to awa from one island nation to another. Thousands of thoughts and prayers are crossing the Pacific to those in Christchurch tonight: Stay strong. Hold tight. Be safe.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Snow on, Kyoto

Of the four (or five, depending on who you talk to) distinct seasons that Kyoto morphs through each year, winter is surely the least memorable. The mountains that briefly turn a fire red during November descend into dour gray, the temperature plummets and for a lot of people the winter revelry involves cosying up to a kotatsu heater, sharing a nabe hot-pot with friends, finding a warm bar with warmer sake, or soaking in a hot spring - all fine ways to escape Kyoto's infamous wintry doldrums, by the way.

That said, whenever Kyoto gets a hit of the white stuff - snow that is - the city is transformed. The gosling gray streets are momentarily illuminated and the mountains frosted. The temples, shrines and gardens take on a surreal quality that can make you appreciate them on a whole other level: half concealed.

One of my favourite memories of Kyoto under snow is when I dragged myself from a toasty slumber and peered out the window to see my neighbourhood blanketed. I quickly made the decision to head for Ginkakuji temple with camera in hand, which turned into an experience that will never leave me. Fortunately enough it was Monday morning, so there were only a handful of people about; I swear that the only sound I could hear was that of the snowflakes patting the trees.

I had visited Ginkakuji on a couple of occasions, but to be honest this was like a different place entirely, and when the sun spilled out from behind a snow cloud it was like I was seeing it, and Kyoto below, with new eyes.

That is but one example. There are dozens more across Kyoto silently waiting to be visited. By all accounts, Ginkakuji's brother Kinkakuji - the Golden Pavillion - is breathtaking when cloaked in snow.

Another way to make the most of a snowday in Kyoto is to head to Kurama (take the Eizan line from Demachiyanagi terminal) or Ohara (Bus No. 17 will take you there from Kyoto Station, Shijo Kawaramachi Sanjo Keihan or Demachiyanagi). Both these rural towns sit just high enough in the northern mountains to be knee deep in snow when there is but a skerrick downtown. Well worth the trip.

The Eizan Line with Mt. Hiei in the background.

Rice field under snow in Ohara.

Jakkoin Temple: Ohara

So if you are in Kyoto in the next month or so, pray for snow and wake up early. Of course, being February winter is already grinding its way south, but if yesterday's dump of snow is any kind of talisman we could be in for a bit more before spring is ushered in and the snow recedes into distant memory.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The creature down the stairs

We are all creatures of habit to some degree. Whether at home, work or play, we tend to gravitate to what we feel comfortable with and there are certain places that appeal to us; nourish us; cajole us into coming back again and again. For me Cafe Independents on Sanjo Gokomachi is such a place, and I have recently been trying to work out why I am drawn down these stairs again and again.

For one thing, walking through the door always feels nostalgic to me, and although you could say it's because I've been eating lunch there for more than 5 years, I'm pretty sure I had the same feeling when I walked in for the first time. It certainly doesn't have the precise, refined atmosphere of many of Kyoto's cafes and restaurants, in fact the chipped brick walls and exposed wires hanging above you could easily make you forget you were even in Japan, let alone Kyoto.

It might be this rough and ready vibe, then, that coaxes me back. It reminds me of home. I took my students there for a drink after our final class once and one of them remarked how much is reminded her of Soho. Now, I've never been to Soho, but perhaps it's just that the cafe exudes a kind of strange familiarity - like second hand jeans from the St Vincent de Paul, but not quite as musty. On the contrary, although the surrounds down here are quite worn and dim, the staff are far from it and always on hand with a smile at the ready.

But what good is a cafe without the food? Well, this is definitely another spell that this place has over me: the plate lunch is always outstanding and the coffee some of the best around town. For less than a senner (that's ¥1000, or between ten and fifteen bucks depending on your passport), you can indulge in, depending on the day, anything from Thai green curry to Japanese style pork to Cajun chicken with the soup of the day (pictured here) as well as a freshly drawn cup of java. Blissful.

So, I guess it is a combination of these factors that has lured me back here countless times over the years, and no doubt think I'll think of another reason or two to justify my habit, the next time I'm walking by these stairs.