Japan’s school year ends in March, and that means it’s spring break for Steph! No classes for three weeks means vacation possibilities, so Steph’s mother and step-father Peggy and Michael chose this time to stage their inaugural visit. Their time was limited, and since it’s easy to lose a day getting to and from Noshiro, we all decided to meet in Kyoto, by all accounts one of Japan’s oldest and most profound cities.
We were not disappointed. Steph and I took the sleeper train on a Friday night and arrived bright-eyed in Kyoto on Saturday morning. After hitting the tourist office to load up on maps, we found our lodging, the Chita Guest Inn, a Japanese style hostel/guest-house run by a delightful motherly woman with whom we enjoyed conversing in our broken Japanese. It’s amazing what a 1st-grade vocabulary will get you here. She let us check in at 10am even though the official time wasn’t until 4pm. Within two days she had given us not only apples from her family that was coincidentally visiting from Aomori at the same time as us, but four free train tickets to Nara that they had been unable to use. Saved us $40!
(Aside: from the very beginning I have called Akita the Oregon of Japan – it’s full mostly of lumber and hicks. Ha ha! No offense, Oregon; my grandma lived in Medford for years. The funny thing is that Aomori is the Washington of Japan: known for apples and directly north of Akita. Amazing.)
Steph spent weeks researching all the things to do in and around Kyoto, and the results were marvelous. Each day basically focused on a geographic area. We’d arise in the morning, go to the designated place, and start walking. Most days we walked for a few hours, had lunch, returned to the hotel (or perhaps just a local restaurant) for a rest, then hit another spot in the afternoon/evening and walked some more. I think we walked about five miles each day. Every day was capped by a delectable meal of vittles unavailable in Noshiro.
Steph has a nose for culturally enlightening events, and she dug up the fact that a bunch of girls would be doing a flower dance at a random Buddhist temple south of the city. We hopped on the subway and found ourselves sitting on tatami watching drizzling rain, chanting monks, and very sedately dancing girls.
But bigger is better, and there was a temple down the road that had “big” right there in its name. Here we found our first of many pagodas on this trip, as well as the quintessential Japanese koi-pond-temple-bridge scene.
And, of course, one of the big attractions of any real city for us is the eating opportunities. This first day featured Thai food for lunch, British pub (with GOOD fish and chips!) for dinner, and a late-nite Mexican snack, complete with really bad (“Ra Bamba”) live music. It was a great night.
Today we slept in to recover from the not-so-great sleep we got on the train the previous night. We were woken at about 9:45 by a jolt from the big earthquake that hit to the north that morning.
First we hit Fushimi Inari, a Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of orange Torii gates arranged into winding corridors. It was cool beyond description, and ultimately I think our favorite shrine of this trip. It’s a fantastic place because it’s free, it’s amazing, and you can easily spend all day there hiking through the mountains amidst the wonderful calming atmosphere of a Shinto shrine.
That afternoon we visited a few temples in the northwest corner of Kyoto, including the famous Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion. Kinkakuji was lovely but not moving; though I must say the admission price was surprisingly low, the lowest of any of the (charged) temples we visited.
Sunday’s food included mountainside udon and bad Indian food.
This was our first day trip. Kyoto (unlike Noshiro) is in a region just full of larger-than-life tourist attractions. Armed with a discount train ticket that allowed us to go anywhere on slow trains all day for about $15 each, we made the three-hour trek to Amanohashidate (天橋立 literally heaven-bridge-stand), one of the official three most beautiful scenic views in Japan. (We visited one of the others last year.) This is a natural land bridge that cuts across a bay on the northern side of the island.
Any good tourist attraction needs a gimmick (especially in Japan), and the one here is that you are supposed to bend over and look at the land bridge between your legs. This way it becomes a brige across the sky, see? (Hence the name of the place.) It was actually pretty fun, and there weren’t a whole lot of people out so we got a nice and rare feeling of seclusion.
The highlight of the day had to be throwing Thai coconut cookies (from lunch Saturday!) to a group of seagulls and hawks and photographing the results.
The second highlight of the day was discovering a Buddhist temple high in the hills over Amanohashidate. We eschewed the vastly overpriced bus and walked 20 minutes up a steep switchbacky road and were rewarded with a wonderfuly peaceful and mostly-deserted scene of a mountain temple.
On the way home, we experienced that rare treat, a late train. It screwed up the whole train schedule on the way back because we had to pull over and let all the on-time trains pass. We ended up stumbling home after 11pm, which ended up being past curfew (surprise! there was a curfew), but Sakai-san didn’t mind and that was when she rewarded us with the train tickets and apples!
Day trip number two was to Himeji castle, a place that is actually not particularly close to Kyoto (it’s an hour on the opposite side of Osaka, in fact). We have seen a few castles in northern Japan, and none of them are what you would call impressive, interesting, or even particularly beautiful. The main remnant of many Japanese castles is the huge park grounds surrounding them, and these often are worth a visit.
But Himeji is different. Apparently the best-preserved castle in Japan, it has been around since the 1300s and stands very impressively on a hill over the otherwise modern city of Himeji. The hype is true: this is a great place to visit and the experience of exploring the various buildings and the six floors of the castle itself are well worth the price of admission.
In addition, the cherry blossoms really started coming out in full today, which despite the rainy day added an extra quality to the castle grounds.
And of course, the day wouldn’t be complete without exotic food. Just a block from the castle we found a wonderful Persian restaurant. The sight of the Persian owner conversing with a Japanese guy in fluent Japanese was a treat.
Today marked the auspicious arrival day of Peggy and Michael in Kyoto. We started with a wonderful walking tour conducted by the cutest-ever old Japanese man who has been doing this for 12 years. We had to rush from there to Steph and Peggy’s 3pm appointment to be made into geisha, after which we stumbled upon the greatest hole-in-the-wall okonomiyaki establishment ever.
I believe this was the only day on which we ate entirely Japanese food.
Nara. We finally got to use our free train tickets from the Chita proprietress. Nara is a temple town south of Kyoto, known for being full of free-roaming deer. I don’t know where the deer came from and why no other place in Japan seems to have them, but the hype was true.
This lovely day only got better upon the discovery of an Indonesian restaurant called Hati Hati. The food was superb and Steph even got to trade business cards (and a bit of Indonesian banter) with the owner.
Friday was exotic-trip day. Arashiyama is a suburb to the west of Kyoto. A river, as they say, runs through it, and it’s also on the edge of a range of hills through which the train passes on your way out of Kyoto. We had heard about this boat cruise down the river, starting upstream and ending in Arashiyama where we wanted to end up. We were skeptical at the $35/person price, but decided to do it anyway. Imagine our surprise when we discovered it wasn’t so much a cruise as a (tame, but still) whitewater rapid trip down the river in a large boat rowed, poled, and ruddered by four entertaining guys. Considering that Steph and Peggy have been longtime river-rafting nuts, this was a treat.
At the bottom, it was time for lunch, monkeys, and zen. Arashiyama is home to a random monkey sanctuary (which of course doubles as a Shinto shrine, this being Japan). These monkeys live high on a hill overlooking all of Kyoto. It was a cloudy day but the air was sparkling clear and the panorama was brilliant.
This was also Michael’s birthday, which we celebrated at a great Indian restaurant. After that we walked to a nearby park where hundreds of people were out celebrating the advent of the cherry blossoms.
Our last gasp in Kyoto before Peggy and Michael had to get back to Osaka for their flight. More walking and more temples and shrines marked this unremarkable but still fun day. In the afternoon we packed up and headed for Osaka for a single night of food and rest.
April Fool’s Day meant it was time to send Peggy and Michael home and get on back to Noshiro ourselves. We had the morning to kill in Osaka, and it turned out our hotel was just around the corner from Osaka Castle. It looked impressive from the outside, but we had heard that it was disappointing after Himeji so we didnt try going in. Great looking building though!
After packing the folks onto the airport train, Steph and I headed back to Kyoto for one last hurrah. After getting on the right bus in the wrong direction, we eventually reached one last temple (which we’ll have to properly visit next time), and then got the overnight train once more to Noshiro. The train arrived at 6:17am, just in time for Steph to have a shower at home before heading to work.
It was a wonderful trip. Kyoto lived up to all expectations, and even after nine days of exploring various parts of this city, Steph still has a list of stuff that could fill another week.
Tune in a month from now when we return to Kansai with our friend Claire for the four days of Golden Week!