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KYOTO: The Ultimate Japanese Experience : A City For All Seasons : Celebrating the Times of the Year in Japan's Capital of Tradition

January 23, 1994|AMANDA MAYER STINCHECUM | Stinchecum is a New York-based free-lance writer who specializes in Asia. and

Shinshin'an, a branch of the restaurant Toriijaya farther upstream, is one of Kifune's more elegant places to have somen as part of a full kaiseki meal (multi-course formal meal). Lounging in the speckled shade, gazing at the mossy rocks and trees on the opposite bank, all memory of the heat and the city fades. A meal might include hamo arai, slices of hamo eel dipped briefly in ice water to firm the flesh and dull the characteristic eely odor; a chilled blue-stemmed goblet of gooey grated tororo yam mixed with broth to a vichyssoise consistency, sparkling with junsai, the buds of a freshwater plant enveloped with a natural colorless jelly; and cold somen in dashi broth, served in a frosted glass bowl with shiitake mushrooms, seeds of aromatic prickly ash and a cold poached egg to provide a richer sauce when the yolk breaks.

When the mid-August Bon Festival has passed, the autumnal voices of insects make the air vibrate, and a cool clarity, unfelt a few weeks earlier, presages the coming of fall. The first leaves to put on a glowing display of color are those of the same cherry trees whose blossoms will be admired in April. But it is not until the maples begin to change, in the second half of October, that the Japanese really celebrate autumn. The blazing foliage of the hills rising steeply from either side of the Kiyotaki River have, since the early 9th Century, drawn visitors and pilgrims to Takao, about an hour by bus northwest of downtown Kyoto.

Three temples spread along the western bank of the river, but it is to the oldest, Jingoji, founded in 824, that the first-time traveler should turn. One of the most powerful Buddhist sculptures in Japan, the 9th-Century wooden image of the Buddha of Healing, Yakushi Nyorai, is always on view above the altar of the Golden Hall, or Kondo. The calm of Jingoji's spacious grounds; an ancient pond dark with centuries of silt and decomposed leaves glimpsed between tall cypresses; conjure up the secluded mountain temples of the Heian period (794-1185), when the imperial court drove the powerful Buddhist clergy into areas remote from the center of the capital.

The hundreds of worn stone steps leading from the Takao bus stop down into the ravine of the Kiyotaki River and up to the gate of Jingoji provide the best stage for viewing the turning maple leaves. From Oct. 10 (a national holiday) until mid-November, a number of stands sell--believe it or not--maple-leaf tempura. Even for the Japanese, the pleasure must surely be conceptual rather than gustatory (try instead the fresh-roasted gingko nuts, pale yellow-green within their papery skins).

For more substantial refreshment, stop at one of the restaurants along the river, where you can warm yourself with sake heated to blood temperature and one-pot dishes (nabemono) cooked at your table by lantern light on long verandas or right on the stony riverbed. When winter comes to Kyoto, except in centrally-heated public and commercial buildings, few concessions are made to the drop in temperature. To sit and gaze at a frosty garden, now silenced by the cold, hovering over a brazier or an ineffective electric fire, is still considered an elegant pastime. The chilly pleasures of a winter landscape can be savored at any number of Kyoto's great temples, but not all offer the compensation of yudofu (literally, "hot water bean curd"). One of the head temples of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, Nanzenji was established in the 13th Century in the heart of Kyoto's Higashiyama ("eastern hills") area. Some of the surviving buildings date from the early 17th Century and reflect the original architectural style imported from China.

Aside from immersing yourself to the chin in scalding water at your inn, the best way to warm up after or during sightseeing is by eating a dish cooked at your table over a charcoal brazier or, more often these days, an alcohol flame (if your table is outdoors, so much the better to disperse the unpleasant fumes). The most classic of such dishes is yudofu, snowy cubes of bean curd in hot water or a clear, seaweed-based broth, dipped in diluted soy sauce on the way to your mouth. Because of its high protein content when combined with rice, tofu is an important part of the Buddhist diet, which is vegetarian and was brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks.

On the quiet street that runs along the northwest border of the compound, a number of small temples and other commercial establishments offer yudofu and more elaborate meals. The Choshoin, set in a lush garden, is one of the most appealing.

As the days lengthen, sliding doors are thrown open to the warming sun, and Kyoto's cycle of seasons and celebrations starts again.


Keys to Kyoto

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