I’ve discovered there is life in the north, starting from the street at the edge of the Imperial Palace. One has to remember the name of the street: Imadegawa. To get there by train, you will have to get off at the Demachiyanagi station. It took me a while to recall them by heart.
But this is where my adventures began when I rented a bicycle beside the station. For an entire month, for 5,000 yen (about 50 US dollars), I saw a bigger part of the city only to realize that it was small. I had my fill of the temples – temple fatigue – choosing the Silver Pavilion, the Ginkakuji, as my favorite so far, if only because of the neighborhood and the Philosophers’ Path snaking beside it. A friend said it’s a place for introverts.
To the west of Imadegawa is the Kitano shrine where, on the 25th of every month, there is a public market where old kimonos can be found. The district was the site of textile shops when Kyoto was known as the kimono capital of Japan. The best part of it was something else: a couple of blocks before reaching it, I squeezed the brakes when I saw a French bakery. Kyoto is surreal in a sense that there are boulangeries – yes they use the French word for bakery – at many random places in the city. I’d stop to buy a croissant or pain au chocolat but none seemed to have the actual French taste.
On my way to the Kitano shrine there it was: Le Petit Mec, the quintessential French boulangerie with a café, and I inhaled the smell of bread the minute I walked in. It was real to me, as real as being transported to France, hearing French news on the radio and sitting at a table having a slice of apple pie and talking in French to a Japanese woman who struck up a conversation with me. She lived in Paris too, as I did, and she gave me other secrets of what to find around Kyoto.
The next street to remember is Kitaoji, a bit further up just past the Shimogamo shrine that falls in the middle of two rivers – Takano on the right and Kamo on the left – which to my mind is like the Ile de la Cite of Paris. Straight to the west is the Golden Pavilion, the Kinkakuji. Be careful pronouncing the difference between gold and silver in Japanese. The golden temple is the place for selfies; you may like it or hate it. I’ve done it once, during my first trip to Kyoto and that was it.
This time around I parked my bike at the Daitokiji Temple, which is a compound of temples, each one commanding an entrance fee of somewhere between 600 yen (about six dollars) and 1,000 yen (about ten dollars). I decided to just have a look at the gardens, saving my time and money for a late lunch at a café in the side streets. The barista of Konaya Coffee is a woman from Osaka who uses a siphon coffee maker with beans from different parts of the world. Her café is a typical old house that can fit customers at a long bar. I didn’t drink coffee; I was there to soak up the atmosphere. Thank goodness she spoke English and gladly served as the interpreter in a conversation with her customers. We talked about food.
The café where I felt at home was the one along the Takano riverbank at the corner of Kitaoji. It was a place of solace throughout the rainy month of September, with the country twice hit by typhoons. The young server makes muffins of different flavors and her best, of course, was the matcha.
When the clouds parted I would find myself going back to the delta of the river that transforms into a park on the weekends. I’d cross over to the Dimachi Market to buy a bento box for 600 yen and have my picnic by the river.
It was there, one Sunday afternoon, where I saw a man putting rocks together. He called himself a rock-building artist and told me he was going to be featured on television that evening. He was actually a chiropractor, telling me that our body could be as balanced as the rocks he raised to a mini tower. It was his therapy, a form of Zen practice, before going to work each morning. It turned out that he would go to the river across the café, and sure enough, I saw to my surprise his work of art on my last day in Kyoto, when I decided that the only thing I wanted to do was to take a stroll along the river.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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