Of all the places I’ve been, only Japan has made me feel like I’ve made some mistakes in my life.Mistakes like not visiting Japan years ago, or not moving to Japan to teach, or like learning Mandarin, instead of Japanese.I feel an obsession a’brewin. Hopefully it doesn’t get too strong – the Japanophile rabbit-hole is pretty damn deep.Maybe this post can show you why it attracts so many fans. In this one, I’ll tell you about our time in Kyoto Touchdown!
We landed in Osaka’s Kansai International Airport. After the grungy and cramped budget flight (don’t fly Peach if you can help it), Japan’s spic-and-span techno-smarts made us feel worlds away from Hong Kong. The train system confused us, of course, so we ended up taking a long time to get to town. But before long we found Hotel Chuo, our lodging for the night. After dropping off our bags, we visited a nearby restaurant, and accidentally got pretty loaded. Highballs are sneaky. The night started with highballs and octopus balls, and it ended with shochu and kim-chi 5 hours later. We made some new Facebook friends! We also hated, hated the next morning. Hotel Chuo boots out guests at 10 AM. I, at least, could barely get my legs into my pants, and the urge to throw up would follow me around for the rest of the day. So getting to Kyoto via an express train proved to be pretty challenging. Thank God Piece Hostel (an excellent place to stay!) is pretty close to Kyoto Station, although we still had to lug our suitcases up and down plenty of stairs. At least we burned some calories: Only several thousand more and I’ll lose a pound! Thanks, Kyoto! Rebecca and I consider it one of the crowning moments of our relationship, that we didn’t murder each other that morning. Sensible people would sit down and wait out their hangover, but somehow we were feeling ambitious. We took off to Nishiki Market, a famous stretch of covered stalls selling seafood and miscellaneous trinkets. Buried deep in this market, in a tiny hidey-hole, was Hale, a vegan restaurant that Rebecca had researched. Like many classier Japanese restaurants, this place did not allow photos. It had a charming atmosphere, though, and the food was beautifully spread and wholesome as hell. But vegan food sometimes leaves me feeling pretty ravenous. So I went and ate about a pound of unagi from a nearby stall. Love that stuff! I think this was meant to serve 3. For the rest of the day we ducked into coffee-shops and restaurants, trying to take shelter from Kyoto’s blech February weather. Since we had a rough night previous, we hit the sack pretty early.
Day 2 in Kyoto
Lonely Planet calls Kyoto a “city like New York or Paris – everyone should see it once.” That’s because it’s such a powerhouse of cultural importance. 18 UNESCO world heritage sites! So after our hangover-day we had to get busy seeing some of them. First, a quick visit to Higashi Hogan-Ji, one of the many places in Kyoto that claims to have “the largest wooden structure in the world.” Very cool: After that, we took a train down south to see Fushimi Inari-taisha – a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of rice. It’s at the base of a mountain, and you can walk under thousands of torii gates on the pathway to the top. We got to see a Shinto service here. Very elaborate and austere, but again, no pictures allowed. Afterward we rushed out to see Ginkaku-Ji, “The Silver Pavilion”, a Zen retreat in eastern Kyoto.
I’d retreat here, too. Ginkaku-Ji also had cool sculpted sand: From there we went to see Nanzen-Ji, another Zen temple, formerly the headquarters of all Zen activity in Kyoto. I didn’t get any good pictures here, really: But here’s, uh, a pot I saw. Three shrines might not sound like a lot, but they left us plenty bushwhacked. We took a cab back toward the hostel, stopping to fill me up with one of my favorite dishes on earth: RAMEN. Honke Daiichiasah is a no-frills establishment that churns out traditional, soy-sauce-based ramen. It would be the first bowl of many. After that, we wandered to a different restaurant to get some tofu-based goodies for Rebecca. The restaurant sorta sucked, so in our disappointment we sought out some comforting hot cocoa. The place we found had the same atmosphere as the inside of a music-box, down the weird tinkly piano cover of “My Way”. Good cocoa though! And then, sleep.
Day 3 in Kyoto
The next day I pushed us to go see Kurama Dera, a famous Shinto shrine in the mountains north of Kyoto. Very cool sights here:
The view from the top Aaaaaand here’s a penis-face. It was a hefty hike, and we slammed down some (always reliable!) Indian food afterward. Then we scooted back to our hostel, in order to move our stuff. We had other lodging booked on the other side of town, at the Shunko-in Temple at the Myoshin-Ji Temple Complex. This temple was even cooler than we knew – a quick Wiki-ing and I found out that it’s one of the places where DT Suzuki formulated his notions about Zen practice, and it’s also one of the only places in Japan to host same-sex weddings! Not that I knew this stuff beforehand… That night we visited Ippudo, one of Kyoto’s best-reviewed ramen restaurants (where Rebecca could eat nothing), and then we went to Yoramu, to get ourselves an education in sake from Yoram, the Israeli guy who owns the joint. A smattering of the stuff we tried Yoram has lived in Kyoto for 14 years (“In Kyoto that’s nothing,” he said. “Try 14 generations…”). He taught us how to taste sake properly (you need to suck it over the tip of your tongue), and he carefully assured us that no matter how hard we tried, we would never have sake that good again. I think I believe him. Then, sleep.
Day 4 in Kyoto
The next morning we got up and jumped out the door, just in time to catch the wrong bus. It took us about half an hour further away from Arashiyama, where we wanted to go. We eventually got on the right bus, where we met a charming older guy named Kasaka. He liked to practice English with foreigners and he kept a little book full of autographs from the people he talked to. He was also a Patsy Cline fan. Who’da thought, eh? The bus dumped us off at Tenryu-ji (UNESCO site #5, by the way), a temple that housed Shigetsu, a vegetarian restaurant that Rebecca had found rave reviews for. Look at that spread! Awesome food, and the waitstaff took pains to make sure they weren’t poisoning Reba by giving her any wheat. From there we went and saw Arashiyama’s famous Bamboo Grove. Can’t capture it on film, really. Or at least I couldn’t.
Then to Kinkaku-Ji, the Golden Pavilion, one of Japan’s premier sights. That’s real gold, people! Pretty happy I captured this heron, majestic-ing all over: That night we visited a restaurant called Kitchen Raku-Raku, where the head chef Akira whipped us up a bunch of surprise dishes he thought we’d like. His green tea-shochu cocktails were also tasty. Glutton that I am, I insisted that after dinner #1 we go to Jumbo, for dinner #2: Okonomiyaki! That’s an egg pancake, made with shredded cabbage and pork bits and some squid, topped with a sweet-spicy sauce. The “small” could easily feed a couple of me. Fantastic! After that, sleep.
Tune in next time…
And that, friends, was the last night in Kyoto. Check out Part 2 for info Takayama and Tokyo!
We bade goodbye to Kyoto early-ish, so that we could catch a series of trains to our next destination. That morning felt glorious, because we got to activate our Japan Rail Passes! For tourists only, JRPs enable you to hitch a ride on any train on Japan Rail Company’s extensive network, and that includes the Shinkansen – the bullet trains! We could only ride the Hikari-class trains (only slightly slower than the fastest, the Nozomi), but they served us well. Look at us ruining the hushed, professional atmosphere:
We took one of these guys from Kyoto to Nagoya, where we got a connecting train to Takayama, in the Japanese Alps.
The main event here would come the next day, but in the meantime we dropped our stuff off at J-Hoppers Hida Takayama Hostel, and let Takayama entertain us with its little delights, such as…
…people celebrating “Throw beans at the demon” day!
…this red, faceless thing that was everywhere! Seriously loved this little city. For dinner we ate at a celiac-friendly izakaya (neighborhood diner kinda thing). Once again, excellent food. Are you noticing a pattern, here? Look at how pleased Reba was!
After dinner (#1) we walked to the Hida Folk Village, about a half-hour outside of town. On the way, we found a free public foot-bath!
Once we got to the village, it just about charmed the pants off us. And it wasn’t just the free booze:
YES, please. But also the statuary:
And the old-fashioned homes.
They have such steep roofs so that snow can slough off easy.
We started to walk back just as a cold drizzle started to fall. We tried to take shelter (and find a cab) in a nearby shrine, but no dice. We had to hoof it all the way back. Finding everything else closed, we returned to the same izakaya we had just eaten at, for dinner #2. Then we collapsed back at our hostel. Takayama Day 2 Finally one of the big days of the trip had arrived – our day to go to the Onsen Town! For the uninitiated (I’m lookin’ at you, Grandmas!), onsen are natural hotspring baths. You get a room at an onsen hotel, and then you go outside, completely naked, to soak. And soak. And soak. Luxurious. I had already experienced Onsen in Tokyo, and I fell in love. I knew that Rebecca would love it, too, after she overcame a slight squeamishness about the public-nudity thing. So I was jittery about getting to Hirayuno-Mori, the resort where we had our reservation. Before we left we had an important thing to do in Takayama: go on a sake brewery tour! Our guide had a small notebook of the English that she needed to tell us, and she was petrified as she read from it, verbatim.
She had my sympathy, though, because the English that’s involved in sake-brewing – “pasteurization”, “micro-organisms”, “sterilized”, etc. – is pretty daunting for a non-native speaker. They gave us a sample at the end of the tour and Rebecca and I got ourselves a bottle. Good for us. Afterward we had lunch at Center 4 Hamburgers, which dished out a superb burger, and also had a weird obsession with Colorado:
Then we got on the bus bound for the mountains. It took us an hour to reach our resort, and by the end of the ride, the scenery had completely transformed. Up around our resort, it was real winter.
These resorts loan you robes to wear, and I for one was thrilled to get out of my smelly clothes.
Now, obviously pictures weren’t allowed in the nudity-filled hotsprings outside. But I’ll tell you – it was beautiful. We went outside for 3 different bathing sessions, including once at around 10 at night. Watching the stars in a hot bath in the mountains, under a gentle snowfall, is a mental picture I won’t soon forget. We could have done another couple days there, but we had another important stop before we left Japan. The big one.
Onward to the Capital The next day we said goodbye to our hotsprings and to our quiet mountain town, and got on the train toward the biggest city on Earth.
Supposedly, if you get lucky, you can spot Mt. Fuji on the ride from Nagoya to Tokyo, but we had no such luck. We arrived at our hostel, Khaosan Kabuki Tokyo (hostelworld.com’s #1 rated hostel in Asia!), in Asakusa. We took in our environs a little bit:
Tons of places to eat the dreaded fugu! …and then we set out to have an adventure. That night really wore us down. For one thing, we had a lot of trouble getting cash. We took an hours-long trudge around different banks and convenience stores, trying to find an ATM that would take my card. No dice. Only later did we find out that Japanese ATMs don’t process international transactions after a certain hour. Blech. Another problem with the night – for the first time ever, really, Lonely Planet’s recommendations underwhelmed us. The authors said that if you have 2 days in Tokyo, you should eat at this restaurant, Hantei. Huge overstatement. Near-empty restaurant, so-so food, and pretty poor value for the money. Would not eat again. Lonely Planet also pushed Popeye, a beer-pub in Ropongi. Admittedly, it was pretty cool. It offered 70-odd different beers from Japanese microbreweries on tap, along with a bunch of imported stuff. But I’ll say that Popeye felt more like a place for homesick expats, rather than for tourists. It’s pretty skippable if you’re only there for a short while. So Tokyo didn’t blow us away that night. But that’s okay, because… Day 2 in Tokyo Wonderful day. First I got to introduce Rebecca to the Meiji Shrine, which my buddy Hidemi had toured me through. Now she and I both have fortune-telling cards from the shrine in our wallets.
Hers written by the Empress, mine by the Emperor
After the shrine, we walked to nearby Harajuku, a neighborhood for fashionistas and cos-players, and also bizarrely long lines for Garret’s Popcorn. Harajuku also had a 5-floor mega toystore called Kiddyland, which was well worth exploring. I think these things might be a human-rights violation, though:
Those poor children From Kiddyland we took a train to our big splurgy meal of the trip, at Tofu-ya Ukai, right underneath Tokyo tower. Everything about this meal impressed us. They put us in a private room with a full-panel view of a zen garden:
They knew about Rebecca’s food allergies/veganism, and they created a delicious substitute course menu, just for her. My favorite bites were:
Deep-fried tofu, with egg+radish
Clams (in the cup), salmon sushi, shrimp, and rape-blossoms, with a side a wheat-gluten served with tahini. The service was perfect. One lovely thing about Japanese restaurants — they bring the food, and then leave you the hell alone. It’s wonderful! I also had two shoots of sake:
That’s “shoots”, not shots. And some perfectly sweet plumb-wine. All-in-all, one of the best single moments of the trip. After that we took some time to relax at a cafe near our hostel. Then we went out souvenir shopping just outside Senso-Ji, a famous temple in the area. Rebecca looked like she intended to steal something, but she didn’t:
From some nearby security footage. After an unremarkable dinner, we went back to the hostel and passed out. Last Day in Japan For our final day, we wanted to see Skytree, a mega-tall tower with excellent views of the city. Lucky for us, it was just 15 minutes away from the hostel. We went as high as we could – 450 meters -, and when we got to the observation deck, we made a new friend:
That’s Mt Fuji in the background! We got very lucky. The weather doesn’t often clear up enough to see it. Skytree also had a “Lover’s Bench”, which I didn’t really understand the purpose of:
For lovers only!! After coming down, we went and toured Akihabara, the anime/video-games/porno center of the city. We didn’t have too much time to linger, but I’m glad I stopped to get my ass handed to me in a round of Street Fighter IV at an arcade. For our last Tokyo meal, we went visited a conveyor-belt sushi place close to our hostel, called Maguro Bito.
We stuffed ourselves stupid, and Rebecca even ate some salmon and some fatty tuna! I swear, she did it under no coercion, and she loved every second of it. The End… And that was that. After sushi we hopped on the bullet-train to Osaka, where we stayed at Hotel Nikko, which was attached to the airport. We tried to buy Braveheart on the hotel’s pay-per-view, but it gave us 4/5ths of Rocky V. That was weird. Not bad, exactly. But weird. The next day we flew back to HK. More than any other of our trips, I grieved when this one ended. Japan’s a special place. I’m sure I will find more excuses to keep going back.