Here is a picture of something you rarely see in May in Kyoto. It is the very famous Nanzenji Zen Rock Garden and it is EMPTY. May is prime time for Japanese school children to visit their World Heritage Sites. And if it wasn’t for the swine flu outbreak in Japan last week, I would be squeezing into this photo, trying to find a spot to view the rocks. This unexpected emptiness was not anticipated when I boarded the 2.5 hour bullet train with six of my girlfriends last Monday morning on our way to Kyoto, but it was much appreciated. We had been planning this brief respite for the past few months, a Sayonara to our friend D’Anna who will be leaving Tokyo this June to move to Shanghai. We didn’t have much time but we wanted to see and do as much as possible in 36 hours. We based the trip around a stay in one of Alex Kerr’s restored Machiya. Alex Kerr is an American who spent most of his life in Japan and is now considered an expert in Japanese culture and art. He is a writer (Dogs and Demons, Lost Japan), art collector and restorer of old Machiya (traditional wooden townhouses that housed merchants and craftsmen). Staying in a restored Machiya is not for everyone. It felt like we were living in a Japanese museum. I wouldn’t necessarily have stayed there with my children (the paper shoji screens alone would have made me too nervous) and the cost would have been prohibitive, however split amongst 7 women it was quite reasonable. We hired a van with an English speaking driver and tried to fit in a nice assortment of temples, walks, shops, geisha sightings and even a show. We kicked off the trip with Mimosas on the Shinkansen (bullet train) and we had two rows of seats directly behind one another and the seats on the trains in Japan are swivel-able (if that is a word) and we were able to face each other and chat non-stop for 2.5 hours. Upon arrival in Kyoto, we were met by our driver and off we went to our first temple. The walkway leading up to Ginkakuji Temple is made of towering shrubs and is usually very crowded. It was then that we realized we were alone. We started to marvel at our luck and then we asked the driver and he explained that as of today, the schools were all closed in Kyoto due to the Swine Flu. We giggled. How very fortunate for us! After a nice visit, we walked the Philosopher’s Path which is a winding course along a small river that goes on for about a mile. There are small shops and artisans along the way and it was absolutely beautiful. I can’t say our conversations took on a deeper meaning but it was most enjoyable!At the end of the path, our driver was waiting for us, frantically waving his white gloved hands to signal our arrival at the van. He took us to the restaurant we had reserved for lunch, Okutan, a 300 year old restaurant serving tofu. Most of what we had to eat that day was good. Some of it was “different”. The restaurant was directly outside of the main gate of the next temple on our list, Nanzenji. We walked along at our leisure and pure enjoyment. With no crowds, we were free to discover. When we were completely satisfied that we had seen all there was to see, our driver took us to check in at the machiya. We were all excited to see where we would be staying, not to mention cocktail time was quickly approaching. We were met at the machiya office by Cam (not sure that was his exact name but it’s close) and after telling us the rules and regs (this took a long time) and showing us all the details of the house (this also took a long time) he finally left us to it. Within minutes, we had set up the small table in tatami room with appetizers and the cocktails had been poured. We toasted ourselves and our choice of “hotel” and walked all around the house getting to know the ins and outs. There were several bed rooms but we decided to move all the futon into the biggest room and sleep together. The house was truly amazing. It was made completely of wood and tatami although the kitchen had been modernized as well as the bathrooms. There was a nice sized garden at one end of the house with glass doors that opened into the living room. The staircases were steep and made creaky sounds. The rooms were dark and the light switches not easy to find. At one point I went to use the bathroom and freaked myself out a bit. But overall it was a very unique experience. We didn’t have that much time to relax before we dressed, hopped in a cab and went to Gion Corner to see a Japanese culture show. The show was touristy yet efficient. In 55 minutes, we were shown a tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging), Kyoto Style Dance, Japanese Harp, a comic play, court music and Bunraku (Japanese puppet play). It was just a taste but it was enough. After the show, we walked through Gion, over the Kamo River to Pontocho. Pontocho is a long cobbled alley that runs along the Kamo River. It is best known for geisha and the tea houses they visit but it also has restaurants and bars that back up to the river. In the warmer months, the restaurants build decks on stilts on the river and serve meals outside on tatami mats. It was a Monday night and the weather was not warm but we went and ate outside on the deck anyway. The waitress gave us each a blanket and the hot sake helped to warm us up. After dinner, we walked back to our “home” and got into the most comfortable fluffy futon and went to bed. In the morning, after breakfast at home, we checked out of the machiya and were picked up by the driver in the van. We started the day at Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) as it is best seen in the morning with the gold reflected in the water. It was beautiful and empty and we took our time in the temple grounds. From there we went to Ryoanji, another zen temple World Heritage Site and then on to Nijo Castle, the Kyoto residence of the Shogunate. At this point, we were hungry and tired and needed fortification and so we asked the driver to drop us in Sannenzaka, a hilly area in the eastern part of Kyoto with tons of quaint shops and restaurants. We chose a soba shop (buckwheat noodles) for lunch and it was delicious although several of us could have eaten a whole other bowl…the portions are never very large in Japan. It was in this area that we saw Geisha, several of them. They are like rock stars in this country. The few people that were out in the streets dropped what they were doing and ran to see them (us included). I felt kind of bad, but it didn’t stop me from taking their pictures and following them. After lunch and lots of shopping, we made our way to the main street leading up to Kiyomizudera, a Buddhist temple high up in the eastern hills of Kyoto with a waterfall within. For 200 yen (about $2) they give you a small cup to attach to a long metal stick that you place under the waterfall to catch the water and drink it. Of course we all did it. My cup is on my bar next to my other sake cups (I have created a very nice collection of sake cups these past few months). For another 100 yen, I was able to write my troubles on a special piece of rice paper shaped like a person and plop it into a bucket of water to watch my troubles melt away. It was fabulous, the water removed the ink from the paper and then the paper just peacefully dissolved. Very figurative but nice. With thirty minutes until the last temple on our list was to close, we made our way down the street and hopped in the van to arrive at Sanjusangendo, a Buddhist temple famous for the one thousand life-size statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon. It was at this very last temple that I finally bought a temple book. A temple book is supposed to be carried with you at all times in Japan because you never know when you are going to be at a temple. The tradition is to collect a stamp from each temple you visit. These stamps are called Shuin and in addition to the stamp, the priest will usually sign the page in their own calligraphy and date it. The pages in these books fold out like an accordion and have space on each side for a shuin. There is a space in between the pages for a piece of newspaper to keep the ink from bleeding through to the other side. When completed, these books become prized possessions. I should have bought one at the beginning of the trip but I was preoccupied and the process didn’t sink it. But I’m not worried, the one thing Japan has an abundance of is temples. I’m sure my book will fill up soon enough. Exhausted and spent after the last temple but still with an hour to kill, we had the driver bring us to Kyoto station where we found a bar and ordered 7 nama biru (beer from a stick). We bought dinner to take on the train and departed Kyoto on the 6:03 bullet train back home. We were a bit loud, got shushed and then got even louder. The train pulled into Tokyo at 8:30 pm and we all jumped in cabs and went our separate ways.