Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happy New Year!

Now that the Spring Equinox has come and gone, I think it's well past time to post about our New Year experiences.

On the day before NYE, the four of us walked out of the Gion District, across the Kamogawa River, and to the nearby Nishiki Market. I was expecting something along the lines of Seattle's Pike Place Market, if maybe a bit bigger. Instead we found miles (yes, miles) of covered streets that were packed wall-to-wall with people, containing stores and stalls that sold all manner of often-unidentifiable food and related items. It's hard to describe how packed it was; we didn't have any basis for comparison, but we assumed that the crowd was due to pre-New Year preparations and the holiday break, rather than being representative of normal traffic.

We knew that we wanted to bring back one of the highly-acclaimed knives from the Aritsugu knife shop. The shop was easier to find than we had anticipated, though no less crowded than anywhere else. Wendy and I picked out a chef's knife that we liked and they polished it, then stamped a phonetic 'Miller' onto the blade in katakana. By far the nicest knife we've ever owned, it was also surprisingly inexpensive; now that we can see how high the online ordering prices are, I wish we'd bought several more at the time!

After the market, we walked back to the apartment, rested for a bit, then went out for a simple dinner at a neighborhood izakaya. We did hit one bar before retiring for the evening; good thing, because it almost broke the bank! We found a nearby bar, not gaijin-oriented but not unfriendly either, that was run by a woman who we surmise was a retired geisha. She was remarkably precise and unwaveringly polite, but our ~1oz/25mL shots of Japanese whiskey ended up being $25 each. Thankfully we realized that after one and quickly left to return to our "home" bar!

On New Year's Eve, we all took the train out to Nara, a nearby city and the location of a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Since Forest works for UNESCO, you'd think she could claim this was all work travel, but no.) We were particularly interested in seeing Tōdai-ji, a huge Buddhist temple and the largest wooden building in the world.

Tōdai-ji and the surrounding areas were in full preparation for the coming NYE festivities, so we saw food stalls and other merchants setting up everywhere. Nara is also apparently a home to a large population of urban deer, so much like on Miyajima, we had to watch where we walked and watch what the deer tried to get into.

The temple itself reminded me of a large aircraft hanger in its immensity, but was at least as ornate as anything else we'd seen. The biggest surpise was that the current structure is 30% smaller than the previous, which was destroyed by fire in the late 1600s.

By the time we returned to Kyoto, all the main streets in Gion were becoming crowded as people streamed towards the Yasaka and other local shrines. After some champagne at the apartment to celebrate in Western style, we joined the throngs and wound our way up the hills. In Japan, on New Year's Eve and for the following several days, it's traditional to visit the shrines with one's entire family, in part to pray for peace and prosperity in the coming year and in part as a huge social occasion. In Kyoto, home to the largest number of surviving pre-WWII shrines, the locals take that particularly seriously. In our quiant Gion district it had been easy to underestimate the population of Kyoto; that night, though, it was obvious what a huge city it was, and everyone was trying to go to the same small parks! We found it curious that there wasn't a big event at midnight, such as bell-ringing or fireworks (I have to believe that fireworks are discouraged around so many old wooden structures).

Eventually we toasted the New Year over beers in a tent that had been set up for the occasion, and then found our way back to our apartment for our first sleep of 2009!


  1. yeah, those crowds in the market were crowded!! I think I saw a tiny sliver of my head in the picture of the masses took forever just to go a tiny distance. wow...that seems like ages ago now!

  2. I think you missed the bell ringing at Chion-in near Yasaka Shrine--right in the Gion area! It's the most popular place in Kyoto for the New Year's bell ringing. The monks there ring a huge bell 108 times (there's special symbolism in that, but I can't remember what it is).

    Nishiki Market is really only about 1 km long, if that. I've coveted an Aritsugu knife for years (since 1993!) but have never gotten around to getting one. Lucky you!


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