Frank and I just got back from an 8 day trip to Japan. The trip was much too short, but much too long for one post. So, I’m breaking it down into cities. Hope you like photos. Note: they were all taken with my iPhone : )
First city: Kyoto – 5 nights.
We did a lot of research for this trip. We watched most of Lost in Translation, flipped through a Tokyo Lonely Planet book and well, I spent 8 hours in the Narita airport once on my way to Bangkok. We felt rearry* prepared!
*Rearry is a new word we learned from our Japanese friends. It means “really.”
We had a great start to our trip when the man at the Japan Airlines counter switched our seats to side by side exit row, isle and a window seats. Crucial for a 13+ hour flight. We were flying on the brand new Boeing Dreamliner direct from Boston to Tokyo, a route that has only been flying since April 22 of this year. Exciting! It’s smaller, more efficient, faster and more comfortable, with specious cabins, bigger, tint-able windows and extra oxygen flow. Apparently Frank’s not only a schmexpert on whales, but planes too. He told me the Dreamliner went through Earth since that was the fastest way to Asian, and that the wings flapped… Anyway, although I had a window seat with endless legroom, various books, bottomless booze, a tv with movies and games for entertainment, and was sitting next to my best friend, the flight was loooong. I would have been better served by eating some Tylenol PM and knocking myself out for the majority of the flight…But since I was awake most of the time, I made some interesting observations: the Japanese are so detail oriented and tidy that they had a flight attendent clean the lavatory after every few uses, and I saw one lady wrap a piece of tape around her hand to pick up lent on the floor…. incredible.
Once we got to Narita airport, we had to train it to Tokyo, then take another train to Kyoto. Luckily the trains are super-speed in Japan, that is, if you can navigate the stations with Japanese-only signs and dozens of subway lines. It was in the Tokyo station, while admiring the numerous high-tech vending machines, that we realized the woman at the AMEX Currency Exchange at Logan airport gave Frank Islandic Kromurs instead of Japanese Yen… At first we thought we hit the jackpot (USD -> Norwegian Kroners compared to USD -> Yen would have worked out seriously in our favor), but then we realized Islandic Kroners are worth a fraction of their Norwegian counterparts and consequently, we got screwed. So we didn’t have a single Yen, it was too late to exchange money and there weren’t any ATM’s…
Roughly 18 hours after we started, moneyless, delirious from exhaustion, and hungry, we pulled into Kyoto station. We found a 7/11 with an ATM and taxi’d to our apartment, Shirakawa Cottage, in the neighborhood of Southern Higashiyama. I found this little traditional Japanese -style apartment on VRBO. Despite Frank hitting his head on the miniature sized door frames and his feet hanging off the end of the bed, it was perfect for us: super cute, in a great location near lots of temples, and cheaper than most hotels.
Shortly after settling in, the owner stopped by to check on us. He drove us to his favorite little farm-to-table style restaurant in downtown Kyoto. Obviously a locals place because people seemed surprised to see us. This was a really lucky break. He ordered us some plum wine, a few dishes (dried fish, fresh veggies, tempura corn) and left us alone. The food was so fresh and delicious. Really set the bar high! We moseyed home by foot, which was pleasant after almost 24 hours of sitting.
We set out in search for an early breakfast. The Japanese seem to think we eat salads for breakfast because all the ads said “Western-style breakfast” and showed pictures of salads. Weird. Wonder where they got that idea?! We settled for a carby breakfast of croissants and weird Japanese pastries. They were quite tasty.
It was pouring (did I mention it’s monsoon season in Japan?) so we headed to Nishiki market, a mecca of fish, octopus with quail eggs stuffed in their heads…, rice, intricate mochi candy, gifts, tea, beautiful paper, knives, etc. Consequently, I bought a Travel magazine in the airport that had a detailed breakdown of all the not-to-be-missed stalls in the market, so we had direction. After a long time perusing the shops, we settled in a tiny little Travel Mag- recommended seafood restaurant. We ordered saké, a beer, two enormous oysters, two scallops and some mystery sushi that turned out to be delectable. As one woman was leaving, she said “try the whale, it’s great with saké.” Uhhh, no thanks! We watch Whale Wars AND we’re fresh off the whale watching boat in New England..
After lunch we did what anyone else would have done. We took a 6 hour nap… Yeah, we figured out the key to conquering jetlag is exactly what “they” tell you not to do; nap. From 4-10:30 we slept, and awoke refreshed and hungry, so we went out in search for dinner. If you haven’t noticed, our day revolves around food. Get used to it. We went to Bamboo, an Izikaya (“drinking establishment”) right down the street from our apartment. Wow, we were really hittin’ home runs with the food in Kyoto. At Bamboo we cooked our own Waygu beef, which melted in my mouth, and we ordered fried squid rings and cheese and shiso, tofu-skin spring rolls. Yum! After dinner and lots of bowing to the chefs, we walked downtown for a drink. On the way, we bumped into two friendly guys who agreed to take us to their “most favorite” bar for a beer. One was extremely hungover, so when he fell asleep at the table, we decided it was time to move on. We exchanged facebook info and set out for one last drink, which happened to be at a smokey little DJ bar that stayed open til 8am… We didn’t have the energy to stay up til 8; we went home at 2:30 and crashed.
We decided to take advantage of the blue skies on day two by spending some time wandering around the various temples throughout Kyoto. We started out at Shoren-in, which turned out to be, by far, our favorite. It was marked by huge, ancient Camphor tree, picturesque with their intricate, exposed root system and covered in moss.
There were hardly any other visitors, which made for a calm and serene visit. The garden area, the temples and the bamboo forrest were so quiet and peaceful.
We were asked to take our shoes off when entering the buildings, which we did, but then we started to notice people looking at our bare feet. Apparently you’re not supposed to be barefoot outside, only in (guess that defeats the purpose of preventing outside filth from coming in). oops. Stupid Americans! It did feel nice though, to walk on the smooth wet rocks in the garden….
Next stop, another temple. Don’t worry about the name of this one. It was under construction and therefore lacked the beauty and atmosphere of Shoren-in. On our way to lunch we walked through Gion, the Geisha District, where we were lucky enough to witness a group of Geisha walking along the quaint cobblestone streets. So cool! They look like dolls.
We had lunch at a ramen place near Nishiki market that we’d spotted the day before and vowed to return to asap. It was sooooo tasty, but hot noodles in a small, hot, open-kitchen restaurant on a hot afternoon wasn’t that comfortable.
The meals in Japan are beautiful. Cilantro and sprouts and pork were delicately placed on our soups, and then a single sheet of seaweed stuck out of the top. So much detail and love and time is put into the food, only to be quickly destroyed and devoured by me : )
After lunch we took the subway to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, known for it’s thousands of brightly orange lacquered torii (gates). If you’ve seen Memoirs of a Geisha, you know what I’m talking about. Well, I was super excited about this, but much to my chagrin, it was a total bust. I mean, the sheer number of gates was cool, but otherwise it felt contrived, like Disneyland. The souvenir shops and bus loads of tourists probably contributed to the inauthenticity, but nonetheless, we didn’t stay long.
For dinner we tried to find a Lonely Planet recommended Izikaya called Zuzu, which had been converted into a cheesy looking Spanish restaurant since the book was published. We passed on that, and instead had our first shitty meal in Japan. The place claimed to have a location in NYC, but I don’t buy it after eating there. Here’s a picture of our gross food: cold, bad eel, bad pork stir-fy and bad miso. I HATE wasting a meal on bad food. Thumbs down.
It rained again almost all day, but we made the most of it by buying ponchos and staying under cover in Nishiki market, a tea house (where we discovered green tea shaved ice – my new favorite treat), and an interesting lunch spot in Gion. The traditional, secluded restaurant was called Aunbo, and we were the only ones there for lunch. In fact, I’m not totally convinced they were really open for lunch, but the Japanese are so shy and non-confrontational that they wouldn’t have turned us away if they’d been closed. Well, the chef and a waitress were there, and that’s all we needed. They sat us at the bar overlooking a quaint little courtyard garden (common in every store, restaurant and home in Japan), and the mountains in the distance.
It was a pleasant view, even with the pouring rain. We ordered the Omekase (a good word to know if you’re an adventurous eater at a Japanese restaurant where you can’t understand a single word on the menu). It means “leave it to the chef.” Our meal consisted of a pickle sampler plate (delish), whole, tempura fried fish (delish), herring and squash (delish), some kind of custardy egg (weird and flavorless), miso soup, steamed rice with little bitty dried sardines that kept staring at us, and dessert of tapioca pudding (yum). Good thing we’re not picky eaters.
It was a really cool experience. Exactly what we’d been waiting for. They bowed to us repeatedly as we left.. We began to notice that Japanese people bow until you’re out of sight… kinda awkward.
We strolled along the narrow streets of old Kyoto before heading home for our daily rest.
It finally cleared up, so we set out for Nanzenji, a temple that I’d read about where you can sip tea in the teahouse overlooking a waterfall. How romantic!? The temple and the surrounding grounds were amazing. Set at the foot of a mountain, the expansive grounds were lush and rustic.
Like Shoren-in, there were few tourists, which added to the ambiance. When we tried to go to the teahouse after meandering around for a bit, it was closed : (
I was really disappointed until we found a little path up the mountain to a series of shines and a waterfall where, apparently, Monks come to pray during all season…. even winter. This adventure cheered me up. We met a Buddhist crab who, when I leaned down to catch a better look, side stepped closer to get a better look at me. I held a leaf out to him and instead of pinching it, he grabbed it and hugged it in his arms. Peaceful little crab.
We went back to Gion for a tempura dinner at a restaurant called Ożawa, again recommended by Lonely Planet. We sat in the “Western room,” which means you’re sitting on the floor, but there’s a ditch for your feet so you don’t have to sit Indian-style. Frank and I agreed that, although it was interesting to watch the old ladies hand batter and dip eat individual piece of fish, eggplant, pumpkin, crab-stuffed mushroom, etc, the restaurant was overpriced.
4th of July! Last full day in Kyoto : (
We moved from our apartment to Hiragiya Ryokan, which I heard about from Anthony Bourdain.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, where you take your shoes off at the door, are waited on by kimono clad woman, and you can’t sit or lay down comfortably in your room until bedtime because only then do they roll out your futon. During the day, in place of bedding, there’s a low dining table and chaires on the floor. Comfy…
We dropped our bags and hit the pavement for a 1.5 hour walk to Northwest Kyoto, where the famous Golden Pavilion lies at the base of a mountain. This is second only to Mt. Fuji as the most visited sight in Japan. For this reason, we walked 1.5 hours only to stay for 15 minutes, then turned around and caught a cab home. The Pavilion was a gorgeous sight, all gold, with a mountain backdrop, that is, if you could catch a glimpse through the waves of tourists. We took some pictures, were herded like cattle along the guided path, and bounced at the nearest escape route. At least we got some exercise…..
Lunch was mediocre, so I’ll skip to dinner: Kaiseki at the ryokan. Included in the (mighty) price of a night’s stay at a ryokan is an in-room, 12 course traditional Japanese dinner, and breakfast the next morning. We had no idea what we were getting into! Poor Frank, bless his heart, couldn’t get comfortable on the ground with his long, stiff legs. He situated himself up on his knees until the lady came in and told him to relax, at which point he stretched his legs out straight under the table onto my lap. We started our first course with anticipation, energy and a little saké, but after about 6 courses of sushi, boiled eel, pickles, beef-wrapped dates, etc, we began to fade.
We picked around at the rest of the courses, trying everything but finishing nothing, before the final yummy watermelon jelly with apricot cream dessert arrived. That we both finished.
I was about to fall asleep on the floor when Frank reminded me we had made plans with one of our friends from the second night. Since it was the 4th of July, I decided to muster up my strength, get to my feet and put on my American Flag sweater. Maty picked us up at our ryokan with his friend, and they took us to a rooftop beer garden for a few beers and some saké. They were hilarious. They showed us pictures of their backpacking trips abroad and we taught them “bottoms up” in English. Frank likes to tease me about fitting in well in Asia since my eyes are so small and squinty, especially when I smile…. but here I just look rearry sleepy.
They kept saying their “most favorite” Japanese beer was Suntory Premium Malt, and couldn’t believe that we hadn’t tried it, so after the beer garden they insisted on stopping by 7/11 for a beer before heading home. We agreed, and ended up sipping beers outside the convenient stores with our new friends for at least hour.
Exhausted from the day and our dinner, we went home and crashed on a freshly made-up futon.
We ate a Western breakfast (including a salad, of course) in our room, during which I got ketchup all over my kimono-robe sleeve… disgraceful. I’m not sure how they reach across the table with those things…?
We cleaned up, packed, bowed a bazillion times to our ryokan hosts and headed for our train bound for Tokyo.