Japan Trip: Kyoto Part 1

It feels like forever ago we got back from Japan, and I still have 3 more cities to blog about!  Holy cow, I need to get this show on the road.  Okay, this is a long blog post, warning you now.

John dropped us off at the Iwakuni Shinkansen station on the morning of our 2nd full day in Japan.  It was an exceedingly un-busy station, tucked away in the wooded hills of Iwakuni.  Christina and I were high off our first day in Japan and excited to experience it on our own -- and eat some real Japanese food!

The train ride to Kyoto -- for about 90% of it -- was basically the same trip we took from Osaka to Iwakuni just 2 days before, but in reverse.  It was a very pleasant train ride, as all of our shinksen experiences were, really.

We were staying at the Nishiyama Ryokan in downtown Kyoto.  It was literally blocks from the Kyoto City hall, and -- we hoped -- convenient to everything we wanted to do in Kyoto.

Thank goodness John had an english map of Kyoto, it actually ended up being a lifesaver!  It listed the subway routes and the major sites.  Arriving at the Kyoto Station, we dragged our luggage out into the sea of people and bought a day pass for the subway system.

Our stop was just two stations away, andwhen we went out onto the street level it was already starting to drizzle.  We set out to find Nishiyama Ryokan.

Something particularly true about Kyoto, and probably generally true in any old city: the major streets are clearly labeled and easy to find, but as soon as you go into the side streets or alleyways, you are on your own, and if you can't read the signs, you are out of luck.  Our Ryokan was clearly marked on our paper map, and we found it on our iPhone, but we could not find it in meatspace.  We walked up and down every side street and alley thinking "this has to be it," but didn't see it.

It was hot, and muggy, and we were dragging luggage through damp alleys.  It was frustrating.  Finally someone approached us and offered to help, since we obviously looked lost.  They helped us get ever closer, and it seemed like a miracle when we finally looked up and saw the giant "Nishiyama Ryokan" sign, in plain English.

The air conditioning and friendly staff -- the manager and his trainee -- were a relief, literally.  I awkwardly started taking off my shoes when they said "no, no need to take off your shoes here."  Basically, the take-off-your-shoes-everywhere thing just isn't as prevelant as we thought.

We paid cash up front for our two nights including breakfast, and were shown to our tiny tatami-mat room.  our room had a tiny entryway where you're supposed to take off your shoes (aha!  I knew it!), and then a small raised area with hard wood with a bathroom sink, and to the side, a modular plastic bathroom just like the hotel in Iwakuni.  A traditional sliding door lead into the main room, a traditional room of 6 (or 8, I forget) tatami mats, a low table, a closet to the side and two mats on the floor instead of beds.

It was mid-afternoon and there was hot water, teabags and some small cookies waiting for us.  Christina and I toasted our first night in Kyoto with some green tea, and started dreaming of the sushi and ramen in our futures.

We gave the front desk our room key (it was their policy) as we left the Ryokan in search of some fun and food.  I figured we were in the heart of downtown, there had to be food EVERYWHERE. We punched in "sushi" in the iPhone map application, and exactly two red pins fell down onto the map.  Okay, I thought, that's weird, but let's go!

On our way to the first red pin, we went through some indoor/outdoor shopping malls.  It was block after block of tiny shops, interesting grocery and produce vendors (but no sushi!) and basic tourist shops.  The pin getting every closer, we got hungrier.

However, as the kids say, "The Pin is a Lie."  There was no sushi under that red pin.  Just like there was no Ryokan under the red pin earlier.  Oh no!  We looked while I tried to find the hiragana characters for "su shi" (I wish I had known the Kanji for Sushi), and nothing around us looked like a restaurant.  In fact, we didn't pass a single restaurant on our whole way down (probably a 30 minute walk).

Somone came to our aid (again), and we showed them the pin, said "Sushi," and they seemed very surprised.  After a few minutes, they pulled over an older Japanese woman, and they said something at about a thousand words a minute, and they finally came to the conclusion that *that* (they motioned at a small sign above a narrow staircase that was covered by a curtain that acted as a makeshift door) was where the Sushi awaited us.

Okay, cool!  I thought, some real hole-in-the-wall place, I can't wait!  We walked up the stairs, peeling back the curtain.  It was dark, and quiet.  Christina was brave enough to actually open a door and peak in, only to see a woman doing dishes.  No mystical chefs making magic out of seafood, just emptiness.

No problem, I thought.  There's *another* pin!  We go to the 2nd red pin, and we find nothing.  At this time we were both frustrated, hungry, tired and sweaty.  The humidity really accelerated the crankiness.  Okay, let's head back, I thought, and we'll go up this way, which is sure to have restaurants.

Even the golden arches that showed up on the iPhone was a hoax.  That was the last straw.  After about 2 hours of wandering "downtown", we didn't find anything to eat and it was getting dark.  Dejected, we took a $10 taxi back to our hotel, and I went down to the AM/PM on the corner and bought some snacks like bread and prosciutto.  We snacked in our robes, wondering what went wrong, and I seriously wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.

Kyoto did not give us a good first impression.

BUT!  The next day in Kyoto ended on a much happier note, even though day two in Kyoto is still bookended by some frustration.  However, I have gone on too long already, and I will have to make day two in Kyoto a separate blog post.  It will be full of monkeys, origami, and bacon sushi!  And, we learn where all the damn restaurants were hiding.  Stay tuned.