Yes, I have in fact been back in the U.S. for over a week – what of it? I couldn’t manage to motivate myself to write on the flight back, despite the 10 hours spent in the air… I actually got some sleep, though not enough to stave off pretty severe jet lag that I haven’t quite fully shaken (though when I woke up at 3:00 this morning, I was able to fall back to sleep by 4:00 – so that’s an improvement).
At any rate, we departed our hotel in Tokyo via taxi, laden with four suitcases and three backpacks – including Chris’ seven (yes – seven) pairs of shoes he’d packed. Our trip to Tokyo station went smoothly, we managed to schlep all of our bags to the appropriate platform and boarded our nozomi train to Kyoto. I slept for a good part of the two-and-a-half our voyage, though I did wake up long enough for a nice glimpse of snow-capped Mt. Fuji on the horizon.
At Kyoto station, we quickly found the ANA Hotel shuttle which took us and our myriad bags to our home for the next few days, right across from Nijo Castle. The hotel was serviceable, if not quite as roomy or fancy as our place in Tokyo – though the staff were certainly as kind and helpful as ever. I think our biggest complaint was that the butt-cleansing toilet seat was noticeably inferior to the one we’d had in Tokyo – even at it’s highest pressure, it just didn’t do the job completely, if you know what I mean. I should point out that the inferior toilet seat was not Toto brand – which I think was the primary reason for its sub-par performance.
Since it was only mid-afternoon, we got started on our sightseeing at Nijo Castle, an impressive collection of buildings and some lovely gardens dating from the mid-1800′s. As we toured the castle’s interior, we got to experience “nightingale floors” – wooden floor boards designed to emit squeaks and squeals to alert the occupants of any ninjas trying to sneak in and kill them. I’m thinking of having them installed in our bedroom so I have some forewarning of when our 17-pound cat is about to leap onto my chest (or balls) as I drift off to sleep…
We didn’t spend too much time here, as they start clearing people out of the place at around 4:00. So, off we went for the #12 bus as we’d been advised to do by the front desk, bound for Gion, the center of old Kyoto. We didn’t see any geisha, but we had a nice stroll down the main drag, popping in and out of shops selling fans, ceramics and sweets. At the end of the street was the Yasaka shrine, a bright-orange-and-gold affair, adorned with lanterns. Our arrival was at twilight, a really lovely time to see the temple and the surrounding park, where the trees had started putting on their fall colors. A peaceful counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of our nine days in Tokyo.
We spent the next hour or so trying to find a tempura restaurant we’d read about and had a rather difficult time of it – though the streets we meandered through were charming… We did finally find the place – closed for the evening. We hadn’t bothered to note the entry in the guidebook that indicated it was closed on Thursdays. Thursdays? Really? Anyway, added it to our itinerary for Friday night (at least we’d be able to find it easily…) and set off in search of Santoka, a ramen place that was supposed to be quite good.
And it was. Took us a bit of time to find – despite it being exactly where we thought it was, in a complex of restaurants right along the river. But of course it was the only one that indicated its name only in Japanese, so we were rather slow in identifying it… But the ramen was excellent – great noodles in a rich miso broth, served with braised pork cheeks – tender and scrumptious. The evening was a bit on the chilly side, so it was a perfect choice.
Next stop: a gay bar. Or so we thought… Still not really sure. I guess it was too early to go out – we were the only customers in the place… And our drinks were ¥1000 – about $10, which isn’t too bad… Though there was also a cover charge… So our two rounds of drinks wound up costing ¥6000. I think we could have drunk everything in our hotel rooms mini-bar and still have spent less. But we’re on vacation, so what’re you gonna do?
Up early-ish the next morning, bound for Kyoto Station where we met up with Johnny Hillwalker, a well-known local guide for a walking tour. There were about 20 people on the tour, so a manageable size. And what a tour it was… We were on the go for over five hours, exploring temples, shrines and the warren of narrow streets housing family workshops.
Our first stop was the Higashi Hongan-ji temple. A rather amazing looking place – though the information Johnny shared with us was probably the highlight, including an overview of religion in Japan. “The Japanese are 99% Buddhist, 99% Shinto and 1% Christian” – his point being that most people follow tenets and observe rituals of both Buddhism and Shintoism – even the Christians… And that everyone pretty much just gets along when it comes to such matters… Unlike other many other countries and cultures.
From there, we ambled along through the surrounding streets, visiting a few other smaller temples and shrines; passed by a geisha school; visited a couple of family-run businesses, including a fan-maker and a potter; saw the original Nintendo, which long before it manufactured video games was in the business of making playing cards; were treated to some tofu-skin-wrapped rice balls; visited a sweet shop; and ended our tour near Kiyomizu temple, where Johnny encouraged us to continue exploring on our own… Chris and I both really enjoyed the tour – we learned a lot and explored parts of Kyoto we’d probably not’ve found on our own.
We took Johnny’s advice and headed for Kiyomizu. We climbed up a long street on a hill, lined with shops catering to tourists (though not hideously touristy) and stopped for an ice cream on the way up – where, for reasons I have yet to grasp, one of the four flavors offered was “collagen.” Something lost in translation maybe? I kept urging Chris to get the collagen, but he stuck with green tea…
We arrived at the temple and it was grand – high atop a hill on the eastern side of Kyoto, surrounded by autumn trees bursting with red, gold and yellow. The temple itself is large, with a large walkway jutting out over the hill and affording wonderful views of the city below us.
There are also several shrines on the temple grounds, one of which is dedicated to a god of love. In addition to the tons of charms and other accoutrements being hawked, there was a pair of “love stones” – two rocks set 10 meters apart that one must navigate end-to-end with eyes closed. Doing so successfully means you’ll find love. Chris was able to do it – though he indicated he’d cheated by peaking… Hmmm – not sure I want to analyze that in too much detail. As for me, I made it too, thanks in large part to shouted instructions from my beloved… “Stay left… No! LEFT! Not that much!! Too far right now… Oh my god what is wrong with you? JUST GO STRAIGHT! Are you retarded?” But I made it, to much applause from some onlookers – I guess they were surprised to see a retard make it…
Another shrine was mobbed with school kids lined up to partake of one of the three streams of water, said to impart success in studies. This was also the setting for one of my favorite photos from this trip. A trio of boys saw me taking pictures and started mugging for the camera (I especially loved that they all tore off their H1N1 masks as soon as I aimed the lens in their direction). As we were walking off, their teacher stopped us, asking if we’d pose with the kids. Of course we said yes and were instantly swarmed with kids. I managed to hand my camera off to her for a shot with my camera… It was great fun.
Dinner that night at Ozawa, the tempura place we’d tried to get to the night before. No room at the counter, so we ate in a tatami room – which was fine, other than the fact that Chris and I both had difficulty getting back on our feet after dinner. But they brought us about 12 small courses, two or three at a time: shrimp, gingko nuts, white fish, corn (which was sublime – Chris compared it to Michigan summer corn from his childhood). After dinner, we walked around a bit, then headed back to the hotel. We wanted to get an early start on our day trip to Nara. More to come on that leg of our journey…