Thoughts on life after the PhD
(A post in honor of the Japan Blog Matsuri. For a collection of other Japan-related posts, head over to A Modern Girl and check out the comments section.)
For me, it always comes back to Ishibei-kôji.
It’s certainly not the most exciting destination in Japan. The various guests that I’ve dragged there were probably more eager to see Kinkaku-ji or Shibuya crossing. But for me, it sums up almost everything I love about Japan.
Ishibei-kôji is a quiet, unassuming cobblestone alley in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, near Kiyomizu-dera. It’s lined with bamboo fencing, traditional restaurants, and old ryôkan. Its entrance faces a somewhat busy thoroughfare that leads to Kôdai-ji temple and a collection of lovely little boutique shops selling fans, incense, pottery, and ice cream.
Almost ten years ago my father and I stayed in one of Ishibei-kôji’s ryôkan. At night and in the early morning we could look out our second-floor window onto the alley and enjoy almost complete silence.
Just last year, when I was supervising a group of undergrads doing a study abroad program, we found ourselves near Ishibei-kôji on a drizzly morning. The faint mist made the cobblestones and the bamboo gleam. I spent a good twenty minutes just walking back and forth through the alley. The students probably thought I was nuts.
Ishibei- kôji is just down the road from two of my other favorite places in Kyoto, the bustling shopping streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka. These are usually thronged with tourists, but it doesn’t matter, because that just adds to the very lively atmosphere. And the whole area is delightfully free of kitsch. You can walk around for hours and truly feel that you’ve stepped back in time.
The famous temples and shrines of Kyoto are certainly worth a visit, but every time I go there (and I could keep going back again and again and never get tired of it), I’m usually just content to stroll. The architecture and tiny details in Kyoto’s older neighborhoods are works of art in themselves. Certain parts of the city always seem to smell like incense and tea. Sometimes I’ll stop in front of a shop lined with dark wood and bamboo latticework and just stare. Sightseeing in Japan doesn’t overwhelm me with emotion much anymore, but Kyoto can still do it, every time.
My list of reasons to visit Japan would probably fill a book. Food, kabuki, hanami, autumn leaves, people watching in Shibuya, the view from the top of the Park Hyatt Tokyo at sunset. But Ishibei- kôji is the place I’ll come back to again and again.
(Note: sadly, I don’t have any pictures of the place. I’ve tried to capture it over the years and the result is always underwhelming. But these shots from Kyoto should give some idea of the atmosphere.)
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