|November 1, 2009
I had trouble sleeping last night and eventually dozed off at around 5am so when the alarm went off around 8am, I wasn’t keen to get up. We had a train booked for 10am so I dragged myself up and got our small bags repacked. We were up a bit earlier than we needed to be but we just headed off when we were ready, hoping to maybe catch an earlier train.
We walked to the station near the hostel and went the two stops to Tokyo station. We arrived there a little too late to get the 9am train but decided to get seats on the 9.30am one. They had sold out of non-smoking seats again but rather than wait an hour for our scheduled train, I got tickets for the earlier one. This is definitely one advantage of the rail passes – along with our cancelled trip to Nikko, we have now twice changed our train departures at no extra cost. Combined with the JR lines around Tokyo which we have tried to use instead of the metro, we have saved ourselves probably close to 1,000 Yen ($10) per day travelling around Tokyo.
The train pulled in early and we took our seats. The smoking carriage didn’t seem as bad as the previous one but almost immediately, two men lit cigarettes and started puffing away. Still, it’s better than waiting for an hour on the platform like we’d had to have done!
Leaving Kyoto station to walk to the hostel we got a little lost – I’d left the map we had on the train and the hand-written directions were a little lacking. We were in roughly the right place but we hadn’t gone enough blocks north when we came out of the station! Thankfully, as the rain started to fall, we found the hostel and escaped into the dry.
We got checked in but weren’t able to use our room until a little later as the previous guest had only just checked out. We put our bags into the room and headed down to the Zen Café, the hostels café, for some lunch. They had a small menu but they had some spicy noodles and a Mexican rice dish so I had the Mexican rice and Elizabeth had the noodles. The food was pretty good and reasonably priced, too. We also found out while we were here that there was a party tonight. It was the hostel’s 6th anniversary and they were offering free food and half price beer!
Given the weather was so bad, we spent the afternoon just lazing around and doing nothing until it was time for a free dinner! We had actually planned to go out for dinner then come back for some cheap beers but the rain persisted so we went with the free option. The food was OK and I mostly ate sushi as well as a few pork dumplings. We had a couple of beers but decided to try some other stuff too. We both got a glass of plum wine which was surprisingly enjoyable. Elizabeth also got some sake to try and the portion was huge. She worked her way through it and claimed to enjoy but I think differently. Neither of us really like sake but felt we should try it while we are here – I had a sip of hers and that was enough for me!
November 2, 2009
Today the weather was still really bad but we couldn’t afford to waste another day lazing around. After breakfast at the hostel café (not really cheap and not really good, either!), we headed towards Kyoto station to get a train to our first sight. It wasn’t raining as we walked and it looked quite bright so we stupidly left without picking up an umbrella. It was quite chilly though and we were glad to get inside the station for a bit. We caught a train quite easily and were at our stop nice and quickly.
We started at one of the many UNESCO sites in the city, Nijo-jo. We paid our entry and headed in, having followed the outer moat around to reach the main gate. Inside, the buildings were amazing and this castle was better than anything we’d seen previously in Japan. Like many temples and shrines here, the setting was also great.
Passing through the Ote-mon Gate and then the Kara-mon, we found ourselves in the Nimomaru Garden. This was a huge garden area with a large lake in the centre with one large island and two smaller ones in the centre.
To one side of the garden was the Nimomaru Palace which we walked through. You had to remove your shoes to walk through here and once again Elizabeth was not wearing any socks and was annoyed at having to take her shoes off. However, she didn’t want to skip the palace and wandered around bare-footed. The palace is where the shogun stayed when he visited Kyoto and the paintings on the wall were amazing. Though most of these have been repaired and reproduced, some of them date back to the 17th century. Also, the entire floor of the main palace rooms are covered in tatami mats – over 800 of them cover the floors.
One of the coolest things here was the nightingale floor. This is part of the wooden floor which has been deliberately rigged to make a noise as you walk across it – an old form of burglar alarm. As we walked across it, along with all the other tourists, you could clearly hear the sound and it did sound almost like a bird call rather than just a creaking floorboard (there were a few of those too!). This was of interest to me as I have recently finished reading Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice” where Bond is in Japan and encounters these very things.
We were also surprised by all the old Japanese people. While we stopped to look and admire each room, they all just walked straight passed, not looking even remotely interested. When they did finally show an interest in a room, it was the sparsely decorated living quarters of the shogun and his concubines. I’m not sure why this was of such interest!
Out of the palace, we crossed the inner moat and into the main area of the castle, the Honmaru Garden and Honmaru Palace. You could not enter the palace here but the gardens were equally pretty. At one corner, you could climb the stairs to the top of the inner wall, affording some great views of the outer areas and the inner palace.
The whole palace and gardens were wonderfully set out and it was easy to see why such a place was held in such high esteem. I hope all the shrines and temples we see here are as good.
After leaving the castle, we headed along to the Nishijin Textile Center. As we arrived we saw a fashion show on kimonos being paraded by a group of young Japanese women. This was the highlight of the place. I wasn’t really bothered about going but Elizabeth wanted to. Apart from a small gallery on the top floor, this was basically a shop selling various textile goods. Even the gallery was a bit rubbish and I pointed out to Elizabeth that in some museums we’d totally skipped the textiles sections yet now she wanted to come to a whole building about them!
After trying some yakitori (grilled, skewered meat, this one bought from a street vendor) and some other snacks for lunch, we walked onwards, stopping once or twice to avoid the rain. We headed to the Rokuon-ji Temple. Inside the temple, we were immediately ushered around the side of the lake and got a view of the enormous golden pavilion which stood proudly in the centre of the lake. There were lots of people here hustling and bustling for the best view and we pushed our way through for some pictures. We needn’t have bothered though as walking around the lake gave us many more views of the pavilion, many with much better vantage points. Once again, the gardens were stunning and this sight proved that you don’t need to go inside a building to appreciate it, with many we have seen so far being far better outside than in!
From there, we took the long walk to the closest train station, getting a bit wet in the process and then taking the train to Arashiyama. As we walked to the train station, we passed a Big Boy restaurant – the statue outside was bigger than a rhinoceros. There was another temple here but we were not bothered about the temple itself, rather the bamboo grove which led the path to the northern entrance. Arriving in the rain and not knowing the way to the grove, we ducked into the first entrance and walked along the main pathway, stopping in some side areas to admire the gardens and buildings. We reached a ticket office for the shrine and asked for directions to the bamboo grove, knowing we didn’t need a ticket for that. As is the way when you’re soaking wet and cold, the grove was back the way we’d came. The person giving the directions did tell us the grove was beautiful though.
We headed back out and around the corner and found the grove. The lady was right – the grove was beautiful, with both sides heavily lined with tall bamboo which almost shielded us from the dark skies overhead. We walked along, past the north gate to the shrine to the end of the bamboo grove, admiring the density of the trees along the way. Not knowing any other way, we then doubled back to get to the train station and got to enjoy the bamboo all over again!
Back on the train, we headed to Gion to try and get tickets for a geisha dancing performance. These are only performed every 3 months and we just happen to be here for one of them. Unfortunately, the ticket office was shut when we got there so we will have to chance our luck another day.
Whilst in the area, we took the chance to wander through Ponto-cho, a tiny alleyway lined with traditional houses and restaurants. The guidebook almost made it sound that it wasn’t foreigner friendly in some places but it seemed pretty setup for us to me, with many restaurants displaying good English signs!
We had our heart set on a nice hot Indian curry to warm us up though and we headed to Kerala, a small place just past the end of Ponto-cho. The atmosphere was good, the place was warm and the food was great with both our curries actually being spicy for once! By the time we were done, we were both full-up and tired, ready for the short walk and short train ride back to the hostel, stopping briefly at the convenience store to get breakfast and avoid the pricey hostel one!
November 3, 2009
We got up this morning and had our breakfasts down in the hostel common area; Elizabeth having her bread with gross peanut butter and me having yummy strawberry jam! We’d bought jars of each at previous places we’d stopped and thought we should make use of them now we were away from the clean confines of the ryokan!
We headed to Kyoto station and caught the train to Keage. Unlike Tokyo, many of the lines here are private and not JR lines meaning we can’t use our passes. This is no big deal as travel is pretty cheap. The main problem here is how many different private lines there are, all with different companies. Understanding which line you want and which ticket you need is a bit confusing. I’ve tried to arrange all our journeys to just use one line system and so far this hasn’t been too bad!
The district we headed to was Higashiyama and we headed to Nanzen-ji in the northern part. Nanzen-ji is a temple which is one of many which is not a UNESCO site here – despite the number that are, Kyoto has thousands of temples and from what we’ve seen, they all seem to be as impressive as each other, with each one just having a bit of a twist. The twist here was a little waterfall in the hillside behind the temple. We didn’t visit the temple itself as it was quite expensive to get in – there were three areas to the temple (gate, main hall and garden) and each had a separate ticket and these added up. No individual area was high on our list to visit so after a number of pictures from outside, we headed past a lovely old aqueduct and up the hill.
The scenery here was very pretty and quite lush and green. As we got higher along the narrow stone walkway the trees showed more autumn oranges and reds and we started seeing some small shrines along the side. This is an area where people have shrines to loved ones and often come and pray. It was a very peaceful area and seemed very remote. It was hard to believe we were only 15 minutes or so from downtown Kyoto. The waterfall itself was barely noticeable being a tiny little stream practically redirected to fall off a rock edge and fall to the floor about 15 feet below. Even though it wasn’t what we were expecting, the surroundings here made the trip and the walk up worthwhile.
We headed back out the way we came but this time headed towards Higashiyama station, accompanied most of the way by an elderly Japanese man trying to help us! We didn’t actually want the station itself, just the general direction but he gave us pretty good directions. We had planned to follow the Lonely Planet walking tour of the southern part of Higashiyama which would have taken us close to Gion (to hopefully get geisha show tickets) and down towards one of the UNESCO temples. However, we were unable to find the start of the route given that the Lonely Planet map of the area fails to mention any road names. Really helpful, LP. We changed tack and headed further down the road, deciding to take the road directly to Gion and get some geisha show tickets.
After a small detour (I missed the road we needed!), we found the theatre again and joined the queue to buy tickets. They only had tickets on sale for today so we chose the 1.30pm show over the later afternoon one. The tickets were 7,000 Yen for the pair, about $40 each so we hoped it would be good. It was about 11.30am now and despite breakfast, we were both a little hungry and decided to head back through the area we had seen previously and try a sushi restaurant we’d seen before.
While walking through Gion, we stopped at a few shops and obviously couldn’t resist some souvenirs. We got a little geisha magnet and some lovely pictures we saw outside a cool little art shop. It was really a craft shop selling paints and brushes but in the window they had a display of two sets of pictures which looked great. They were really cheap, too so we couldn’t resist buying both sets! The 10 pictures cost about $11 in total. Pretty good, I think.
We decided to head straight for the restaurant after that before we spent any more unnecessary money. At the restaurant, we were ushered upstairs and picked a booth to sit in. This was one of those conveyor belt sushi places and we picked a booth where we could both watch the dishes go by and grab what we wanted. I think Elizabeth liked the idea of this as she could actually see what she was going to get. Each plate was the same price (137 Yen, about $1.50) so we just grabbed plates and they counted the empties at the end and gave us the bill. Nice and easy.
We started off by helping ourselves to the free green tea, organizing our soy and chopsticks and then watching the dishes go by for a few minutes before tucking in. Between us we had 14 dishes including some things we’d not tried before. I tried some Pounded Bonito which was really great and Elizabeth tried some too and she liked it. Along with my regulars of tuna (dark and regular), salmon and some crab rolls, I also tried a pork cutlet roll. We had seen pork cutlets everywhere and when Elizabeth saw them here we thought we should try them. Along with tuna and the bonito and pork cutlet rolls, Elizabeth also tried fried bean curd stuffed with sushi rice. She said they were quite sweet and didn’t like them too much so I didn’t bother.
Finally, having watched it go around a few times, I picked out a plate with fugu on it. The sign said it was globefish fugu but I didn’t know the difference between that and the infamous fugu. For those that don’t know, fugu is the highly poisonous fish which needs to be cut a certain way to avoid the meat containing the poison. We weren’t sure this was the right thing as usually fugu is really expensive and served in only specialist places but having searched on Google, it seems globefish is just another name for pufferfish or fugu so I guess we had it in one guise or another. There are over 100 varieties of fugu/globefish and almost all of them are poisonous. I tried the first bit and, despite it being a little chewy, it tasted alright and I persuaded Elizabeth to try it as well. She wasn’t able to bite through the chunk of fish and ended up with the whole lot in her mouth and couldn’t swallow it. I honestly thought she was going to be sick but she managed to swallow it eventually but I don’t think she liked the experience very much.
In case you are wondering, we’re both still alive 9 hours later so please don’t worry!
We both enjoyed the experience and it was funny watching the plates go around. The quality of fish might not have been as good as the other place we’d eaten sushi at but the fish was very fresh and tasted great.
After that we headed back to the theatre for the geisha show. We took our seats and the place was very busy. There were not many other foreigners there either, this looking like it was something uniquely Japanese. As the performance started and the geishas entered the stage and most of the crowd gasped. I can’t say I was that taken aback but it was interesting seeing the crowd reactions almost as much as seeing the geishas. Seeing a geisha here is actually rare, with there only being around 100 in Kyoto, traditionally the home of the geishas. Elizabeth was desperate to see one so this seemed to be the easiest way to do it.
There were 6 scenes which told the story (we had an English translation sheet) and most of them were quite short. Each one had different geishas in different outfits. Quite honestly, I didn’t think too much of it – it was interesting to see the geishas at first but the music and singing were a little grating and the “show” itself was quite lame both in story and dancing. I suppose I should not mock the story as it is part of Japanese folklore but when a giant wooden spoon descended from the ceiling it was hard not to laugh. At the end, all the geishas were on stage together and this was probably the best bit. I did struggle to stay awake after my rice-based lunch but I just managed it. Elizabeth enjoyed it but I think she too was struggling by the end of it to keep her eyes open. We both decided that it was a cool thing to see, a truly once in a lifetime thing, and we were glad we did it and had an opportunity to do it. It was pure chance that we were here at the right time of year.
From the theatre, we headed further south, completely abandoning the suggested walking route of Lonely Planet for our own route direct to the next temple – Kiyomizu-dera.
There were a couple of things which really interested us here, one of which was a waterfall and one an area called Tainai-meguri, which symbolizes entering the womb of a female bodhistavva. The book didn’t describe the actual experience of entering the womb as it didn’t want to ruin the surprise!
Once we’d walked past the large pagoda and through the small lanes to get to the temple, past the little stores and cafes, we saw the entrance to the temple and the main hall. We came to a large crowd and we asked the attendant there where to find the “womb” and he said we were there. We took our shoes off, paid our 100 Yen and descended the staircase. Elizabeth had gone first and all of a sudden we were in pitch darkness and she had abruptly stopped. I told her to get a move on and she muttered something about being trapped! I stepped in front of her and it was a solid wall and I had to feel my way around until I eventually found a curtain. Elizabeth grabbed the strap on my camera bag and I led the way from there. The only way I could find the way was by feel and listening for noises ahead. The Japanese girls behind were nervously laughing and it was a little disconcerting. Eventually, we found a little light and there was a stone underneath it. At the stone, you are supposed to place your hand on it and make a wish. I forgot to make a wish but remembered to touch it. From there, I had no clue where the way out was but continued walking before finally seeing light through the final curtain. Into the brightness, we readjusted our eyes and wondered what the hell we had just seen as it was completely bizarre and funny. It was certainly an experience. Before we had entered, the Japanese guide had given the locals a homily to encourage them inside but we hadn’t understood that so were on our own!
Walking through the main hall and around the hillside gardens was, once again, beautiful. It seems I keep saying that but I can’t tell one from another and definitely would struggle to pick my favourite one as they are all just so pleasant to stroll around. We got some nice views over the city and were able to see Kyoto Tower, indicating that our hostel might not be too far away. We then headed down to the “waterfall”. This was three small streams of water which you are supposed to cleanse in. A queue of Japanese people were waiting their turns and we watched a few wash each hand, rinse their mouths out and some even wet their hair from the water. It was really quite funny and not what we thought the waterfall would be.
We exited back through the main hall and walked down the hill down Teapot Lane, as the street lined with shops and cafes was called. When we hit the main road, I checked the map for the nearest train/subway station and we were not far, maybe about 1km, from the hostel. We decided to walk as another kilometer was nothing compared to what we’d walked the past two days!
Back at the hostel, we chilled out and warmed up with a nice coffee. The weather had been dry today but very chilly and it was nice to be inside for a bit. We didn’t stay inside too long though as we headed to Kyoto Station for some dinner. The station here has a large shopping mall attached going up some 16 floors and having a small basement shopping area around the metro station to boot! We found a nice little Italian restaurant in the basement area and ordered from the set menu, getting a Caesar salad, chilli/garlic pasta and a four-cheese pizza to share between us. All the food was good and it was nice to have something warm inside us on such a cold night.
Back at the hostel, I’m now sat here with a bit of cake and a coffee writing this for your reading pleasure as Elizabeth writes her journal opposite. I’m beat; the walking around and fresh air here has been great but it certainly takes it out of you. Still, beats working for a living…