Kyoto Part Two


As promised, here is part-two of the part-two of our trip to Japan: our second day in Kyoto.  While things may have ended poorly the night before, we woke up with a new resolve to not let things go badly.  It helped that we had a peaceful, quiet night in our Ryokan room, and did a load of laundry on the roof, where we beheld a nice view of the back alleys of downtown (which I regret not taking pictures of!).

We awoke early the next morning (and waking early was just a consequence of the jet lag, as was crashing at about 10pm -- and 10pm was about the latest we managed to stay up for the first half of the trip, at least), and got ready to get a "traditional" breakfast, courtesy of the Ryokan.

We arrived at about two minutes 'til 8:00am (we requested an 8am breakfast) and at our table was a goregous spread.  The host explained all the components, including boiled tofu (which was the best tofu I'd ever had), miso soup, a salad, a small omelette, some fish, some "pickles" (they love their pickled veggies in Japan), rice and a grapefruit.

Knowing we had a full morning ahead of us (we planned a trip to a Monkey Park for the morning) we were glad to have a big breakfast.  After breakfast we checked out the little garden/courtyard where they had a tiny little shrine.

Afterwards, we headed to the main Kyoto subway station, and hopped down to the JR station where we took the JR line bound for the Iwatayama monkey park (well, near the monkey park).  It was already shaping up to be a warm day, and the grey blanket of clouds made the whole place a bit of a sauna.

The 30 minute train ride was fine, and I knew we had about a mile walk to get to the entrance of the park.  But, in Japan, walking is part of the culture and experience, so I figured we would be okay.  We passed some rickshaw operators and many vendor stands and ice cream shops on our way (this was clearly a touristy spot).

Getting to the entrance wasn't a problem.  We paid our 500 Yen each and headed in.  Okay, "in" is not the right preposition.  I need a preposition more fitting to the geography of the park.  When I say "in", I really should say "up", because basically that's the direction of the park.  Up.  As in, up some steep stairs and inclines.

It would not have been that bad if we weren't already a little glisteny from the walk to the entrance.  We climbed up two sets of pretty steep stairs, a few hundred yards into the park and finally came upon a sign and a map describing the park.  Now, I know I am not a model of physical fitness, but we were both sweating and tired.  Seeing that sign, and realizing we were only halfway up the climb was frustrating, to say the least.

I did capture a monkey or two that was coming down the mountain, the few that were brave enough to come down from the sanctuary to see us.  Every sign we saw said "don't look the monkey's in the eye or they will hunt you down and kill you", more or less, so I was sure not to make direct eye contact, or move towards them or make any sudden movements.

I wanted to go up since we had gone this far (and what's a little more sweat between spouses?), but Chrisitina wasn't feeling it.  So, I told her what ended up being a fairly damning statement:  "If I'm not back in 15 minutes, come up and find me."

I went up a path on the left, and had to climb a couple hundred more feet to get to the sanctuary.  A sign told me when I was standing as high as Tokyo Tower, which did little to help.  Finally, at the top was a plateu, a partially fenced in sanctuary.  Monkeys everywhere doing monkey things.  I walked to the shed where I was greeted by a woman with a frozen wet nap (apparently sweat is a problem they have dealt with before).  Inside you could buy treats and feed the monkeys from behind a metal barrier.

To cut a long story short, I had to climb down a path I didn't even know existed on my way back, and I ended up burning through more than 15 minutes, and by the time I found the benches again, Christina was gone.  Did she decide to go down?  Did she climb up to find me?  I obviously should have never said "come and get me", but I knew I was trapped.  If I went back up, she might be coming back down the path I just took, and we'd miss each other again.  Without a 2nd phone, there was no way I could tell her I was waiting for her.

After finding a couple of english-speaking people making their way up to the park, I asked them to convey a message if they found Christina so she'd know I was waiting.  If I had known the climb up would have taken more than 15 minutes *and* that the climb down was on a completely different path, I would have come up with a better plan.

Needless to say we longed to be back at the hotel -- again -- and a nice cool shower.

We did manage to eat at a nice place at the subway station on the way back, where Christina got some Maguro (raw tuna) rice dish and I got some awesome Soba noodles.

That afternoon we were signed up for some classes at WAK Japan -- a volunteer cultural organization that gives classes in everything from Sake tasting to origami.  One of Christina's bucket-list Japan things was a Tea ceremony, so we signed up for 3 classes:  a Tea Ceremony, Calligraphy and Origami.  Luckily the WAK center was a few blocks from our hotel, so we were able to take a quick shower and walk over there in plenty of time for our classes.

They held our classes in a small traditional-style house (we had to take our shoes off!), and our instructor was incredibly sweet.  It was the polar opposite of Monkey Park, very relaxing.  Definitely the highlight of Kyoto. 

We learned about the history of Tea in Japan, and how the tea ceremony was created some 500 years ago and how, even today, its traditions are still practiced with a lot of seriousness and elegance.  We tried Matcha, which is pulverized tea leaf powder, and even got to prepare some Matcha for each other.  It was a very zen experience.

Afterwards, we headed upstairs to learn Caligraphy.  In Japanese there are three main "alphabets" or character-sets that they write in:  hiragana, katakana and Kanji.  Kanji literally means "Chinese Characters" and comprises the 2000+ characters that the Japanese imported from China.  When I took Japanese in College I could write a handful of the simplest Kanji characters, but some Kanji characters have 20 or more strokes!

We learned how to hold a caligraphy brush, how to make basic strokes, and we got to practice a few characters.  It was a lot of fun.  In the end we ended with a few "works of art" that we will eventually frame, and Christina will never forget the symbol for "Dog".

Our last session was origami.  We made flapping cranes, a samurai helmet, a frog, and lots of other things.  I'm blown away at what people were able to figure out to do with paper.

Our 3 hours at WAK were very relaxing and worth every penny.  But, our tummies were growling and we were ready -- nay, determined -- to get some Sushi!

We did some research back at our hotel (we got wireless to work!).  We found a Kaiten-Zushi place (conveyor belt sushi) that was within walking distance of our hotel.  This time we cross referenced the address with the map, and made sure.   We headed out for our walk, and it was sprinkling.

What we didn't know the night before -- what I would have loved to have known -- was that, just a couple blocks east of our hotel was a large street, Kawaramachi Dori.  This main drag had shops and restaurants in spades.  We were literally 3 blocks west the night before, starving and frustrated at the lack of food!

It just goes to show you, no matter how confident you are, know exactly where restaurants are going to be before heading out.

We found the Sushi place, and were greeted by the salutations from the staff and chefs.  This was the purist of a conveyor belt sushi restaurant:  Just a bunch of stools seated around a oval-shaped bar.  In the middle of the oval were a couple of sushi chefs, and along the inside of the oval was a choo-choo-train of sushi goodness.  4 or 5 of each sushi offering, one after another.  I could make out words like Maguro or Unagi -- even Bacon sushi!  It was a sight for sore eyes (or a taste for empty stomachs)!  The best part was, every plate was about 130 yen (about $1.50).  Christina and I put down about 10 plates between us, and walked out of that place for about $15.  No tipping, and taxes are included.  It was glorious.

The light was fading, and we still wanted to see some shrines and temples since this was our last night in Kyoto before taking off early for Nagoya.

We took off and walked east over a river.  We were just a few blocks from a large park containing about a half-dozen shrines and temples.

However, weather (and the quickly sinking sun) were not on our side.  We saw a parking lot full of all these white and blue bikes, all locked up and numbered, hooked up to this little kiosk.  It was an automated bike rental!  It cost us $2 for a bike for an hour, so we decided to go for it!

I had a blast zooming down Kyoto streets through the drizzle, making out street signs and finding our way to the park.  We did finally find it, and just about all the sun had faded from the sky, and what sun was left was blotted out by dark clouds.  It didn't matter.  We were there!

But, wait!  There was a sign that might as well have slapped me in the face.  No bikes allowed in the park.  FFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU

Well, that part sucked.  We couldn't leave our bikes on the sidewalk, and didn't have a way to secure them really.  Besides, it was too dark to see anything, and on top of it all off, it started raining, hard!  Christina and I straddled our bikes and took them under a big tree while I tried hard to keep my camera bag dry while we waited out the rain. 

It only took 5 minutes until the rain subsided, and we just took our bikes back up the way we came.  It was a side of Kyoto I didn't expect to see, from the seat of a rental bike.  In a way, doing something spontaneous like renting bikes and riding them in the rain, trying to race the sun was romantic, in the sense that feeling safe enough to take those risks with someone you care about is, in my mind, the definition of happiness.  Sure, it could have gone "better", but in the end it's about who you are with.

All in all it was a good evening, even though if I had to do it over again I would have stayed an extra day in Kyoto just for the temples.  Suffice it to say we slept very well that night, and we were looking forward to seeing some actual, real life Sumo in Nagoya!

All about that (and the best hamburger I ever ate) in my next blog post: Nagoya.

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.