Ted has decided that my bullet-point blog posts are in a boring format, so here you get actual writing. Thus it’s longer. Comment which way is more interesting. =)
2011-07-25: Tokyo to Kyoto
After relaxing at Brian’s house in the morning, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Kyoto. Got on a hikari train, the second-fastest type! We went through a lot of tunnels: apparently shinkansen don’t go *over* hills; they go *through* them.
Upon arriving at Kyoto station, we transferred to a city bus. The buses here are advanced (by our standards): they announce upcoming stops, both by sound recording and on a screen, and they are air-conditioned! Not as scary as usual, where you have to frantically find each intersection you pass on a map and hope you haven’t missed your stop. We got off at the stop that the tourist info guy said to get off at… but then promptly got lost trying to find our ryokan (Japanese-style inn) because the map he gave us was crummy.
We finally arrived at Ryokan Uemura about an hour after we said we’d get there, and were greeted by Ms. Uemura, the innkeeper, who showed us to our (air-conditioned!!) room and served us tea and cake. Although this inn was listed in Lonely Planet, got high reviews on TripAdvisor, along with recommendations to book far in advance, and has only 3 rooms, we were able to book the room by phone last night. We did not expect it to be available. Thought maybe it had had a cancellation; however, it appeared that we were actually the only guests there…
We relaxed in the room cooling off for a bit, then went for an evening walk through the Ishibei-koji, Ninen-zaka, and Sannen-zaka areas, which are cobblestone, wooden-house-lined cute streets. (Our inn happens to be located on Ishibei Koji.) Most places were closed, and the streets were nearly deserted but lit up prettily. We wandered down to the Yasaka Pagoda nearby and saw part of a giant Buddha statue at the Kodai-ji Temple (but could not enter to see the rest of it because it was closed). We were definitely located in the cutest part of town.
When we finally decided we wanted dinner, we discovered nothing was open anymore (7:30pm). Apparently it’s very weird to eat dinner past 7:30pm. We asked Ms. Uemura where we could get dinner, and after being astonished that we hadn’t eaten yet, she escorted us down the block to a Chinese restaurant that was still open. This was our first non-Japanese meal since arriving.
After dinner, we showered and relaxed in our room for the rest of the night. We found a book on Japanese architecture in our room; according to this book, our room looks very similar to a merchant-class Japanese house. The floor was lined with 8 tatami (woven straw) mats; it was encased with sliding wooden and paper doors; there was a table in the middle of the room which could be moved to make room for the futons on the floor; there were little alcoves displaying decorations; and there is was separate passageway which had a sink and an area from which to view the garden through the window. It’s a cute room.
- Tokyo was hot. Kyoto is even hotter than Tokyo. Air conditioning is good. Brian thinks we’re wimps.
- We were told that while in Tokyo, you stand on the left side of the escalator and people pass on the right side, it is the opposite in Kyoto. However, this is not true. We tried standing on the right side and were just in the way.
- Disposable chopsticks here are no better/worse than those in the U.S.
- Vending machines have a lot of water and tea; it is hard to find juice around here.
2012-07-26: Kyoto on our Own
We had to wake up early for breakfast, for which we were served fruit, eggs over ham, toast, and orange juice by our hostess. Yay juice! She also offered us tea and coffee, was surprised when we declined both, and brought us extra juice and toast.
Ms. Uemura had us take an umbrella when we left today. That umbrella and the fan that was a gift from Akie were both instrumental in preventing heat stroke today, and the towel that was a gift from Eiko has proven instrumental in drying hands and removing sweat. California should adopt a parasol, fan and towel custom, especially in the Central Valley where it gets really hot. Maybe we’ll start a new trend.
We began by walking through Maruyama Park and the Yasaka Shrine to the Chion-in temple complex. We would like to note that gardens are cooler than temples. Especially gardens with shade from trees and running water. We strolled through the beautiful garden area at Chion-in, then got lost in the confusing temple area with the terrible map they gave us at the ticket booth. Chion-in has a lot of stairs and dead-ends. Also, its main hall is under construction, with a huge crane, a lot of scaffolding, and a sign saying it will finish restoration in 2019. We started to get sick of the temple when we couldn’t find a way out, and eventually went all the way back and left through the front gate.
Next, we took the metro to a station that connected to a “rail line” and discovered that the “train” was actually a streetcar (singular), like the ones in SF, attached to lines overhead. We took this streetcar to Arashiyama, which means “western mountains” and is the western border of Kyoto. (Our inn is in the “Higashiyama” district, which means “eastern mountains” and is the eastern border of Kyoto.) The buses, trains, and metro are all air-conditioned. Yay.
In Arashiyama, we had Katsu-don and Oyako-don for lunch at Yoshida-ya, a place our guidebook recommended. Then we walked to Tenryu-ji Temple, where we were able to enter both the actual temple itself and its extensive gardens. We exited the gardens to find the Bamboo Grove, which is like a forest made entirely of large stalks of bamboo. While strolling through the bamboo grove, we watched a girl doing a photoshoot dressed up in a kimono. Bamboo groves are really cool. Unfortunately, Bamboo groves are also full of mosquitoes. Mosquito bites are itchy. Mosquitoes like Ted. He’s got around 40 large red splotches all over his legs and arms. =\ Two of his bites even got a pus-filled blister. =\ Pamela’s favorite spot was Ted’s least favorite spot.
When Ted got tired and grumpy from walking through mosquitoes, we got lost trying to find the Japan Rail station and wandered through a residential neighborhood. We eventually took a (real) train/metro back to our area and had dinner (nyumen and soba noodles) at Hisago, where we watched a girl dressed up in a kimono having dinner with her boyfriend. Pamela’s study of Hiragana finally paid off: We’d tried to find Hisago for dinner last night and failed, but today in daylight, Pamela recognized the name of the restaurant written in Hiragana.
After dinner, we stopped at a cute store selling a lot of things made with beautiful fabrics and spent some time shopping until the shopkeepers got grumpy because they wanted to close. (It had been the only shop still open.) Then we got some (more) ice cream from a convenience store and headed back to our ryokan.
- We saw several girls wearing kimonos; they look cute. However, their outfits look terribly hot for this weather; Ted thinks they should have portable air conditioners wrapped in the fabric on their backs.
- Our inn has funny bathrooms. The sinks are on top of the toilet tanks, and the water runs out of the faucet and into the toilet when you flush. Then there is a cloth towel dispenser, which rolls cloth towels out and back up.
2012-07-27: Kyoto Walking Tours
We spent most of this morning and afternoon on a Kyoto Walking Tour called “Walk in Kyoto, Talk in English.” We’d wanted to do the walk with Johnny Hillwalker, the guy who started it and is highly recommended, but he only does tours on Wednesdays now. Our guide was Emi. Over the course of 5 hours, she took us to Higashi-Honganji Buddhist temple, another private Buddhist temple with a graveyard, Ayako-Tenmangu and Ichihime Shinto shrines, a fan-making workshop (Kyosendo), a pottery workshop (Yuki), a rosary-making workshop, lunch at a café in a shopping center, tea and sweets at a tea/sweet shop (Kaikado), the old Nintendo headquarters, a couple “teahouses” in the old geisha district, the gangster headquarters (where she asked to please not all look at the same time), and the only bath house in Kyoto that allows you into the bath with tattoos on (conveniently situated right next to the gangster headquarters).
Before the tour, we didn’t understand the difference between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples; we couldn’t tell which was which. They both have offering boxes that you throw money in and bow to; some of them have bells to ring; they all have large traditional buildings; many of them have Stonehenge-ish gates at the entrance—but there is no distinction as to which have which of the above. During the tour, Emi claimed that Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are different, although they may look similar to the casual observer. Buddhism is used for death (does funeral rites, etc.) while Shintoism is for life (does weddings, etc.) Both religions thus seem incomplete. At Shinto shrines, you must clap to draw the attention of the gods, because they are just spirits floating around. At Buddhist temples, you need not clap because there is a statue of the god right in front of you; they have form. Shinto shrines are colorful, using reds and oranges. Buddhist temples are plainer (on the outside). Only Shinto shrines have tori gates. Also, Buddhist rosaries look different from Catholic rosaries. I’d assume they’re prayed differently, too…
We also learned that apparently you are not supposed to step on the edging of tatami mats because it wears off faster. Oops. The fan-makers we watched made fans incredibly fast: using pre-folded 3-layer papers, the woman picked up a set of sticks, wiped them with glue, and inserted them into the papers. The man folded it up, made sure it was lined up right, and set it aside. When it is dry, they’ll go back and attach the sides. The whole process took under half a minute.
During our short break in the afternoon, we wandered into some shops and stopped at a café for shaved ice. It was too hot to do much. We gave up and took a bus to Gion, where the second tour we wanted to attend (same company) would begin. We went into an Internet Café hoping for Wifi, but found computers and cigarettes instead. Then we went into a bookstore, where we ended up with 4 people helping us find a book on Wagashi recipes for a friend, and still failed.
After leaving the bookstore, we went to the meeting point for the Gion walking tour and discovered we were 15 minutes late. We attempted to follow the tour route and actually found the tour though!
This second tour was a walking tour of Gion, the current Geisha district, with Mie. Mie was more fluid in English, and even used a word Pamela was unsure about: auspicious. Mie walked us around Gion showing us geiko/meiko (geisha and apprentice geisha, in Kyoto dialect) dormitories and teahouses and explaining the traditions to us. We happened to be stopped in front of one dormitory when a taxi pulled up, and Mie told us that meant a meiko was coming out because they only use that one taxi service. We all stood there for like 15 minutes waiting for her to come out so we could take a picture of her. Only Ted succeeded, so others in the group started taking pictures of his picture…
Both walking tours were good. The tour guides stopped often enough that we were not exhausted or dying of heat stroke, and we learned interesting things (although Ted claims not to remember anything). Both guides had good English; probably the most fluent English we’ve heard anybody speak since getting here. Emi had two English quirks: she often confused masculine and feminine pronouns (her/his, she/he, her/him), and pronounced all English “r”s with the Japanese pronunciation. Whenever she was grasping for a word, she’s kill a millisecond saying “how should say…” and then continue right along. Pamela also noted that Emi (in the old district) said that the geisha are still sometimes used as prostitutes today since official prostitutes were banned; while Mie (in the new district) refuted the claim.
At the end of our Gion tour, we went back to an okonomiyaki restaurant that Mie had pointed out during the tour for dinner. The noodle dish was good, but the place in Tokyo had better egg dishes.
While walking back to the bus stop, we got passed by a geiko going somewhere. Ted tried to take her picture, and she literally ran away. We passed her again waiting to cross an intersection, and she kept looking at him nervously.
- Ted uses ice cream to cool off. Pamela must limit Ted’s ice cream intake so that he will be able to eat meals.
- The AC is never turned down very cool. Maybe cools off to 80 degrees (F), which feels good compared to outside but is not “cool”. Opposite of places in the US, where you have to go out carrying a sweatshirt because it’s cooled down to 60 degrees inside.Ted’s suggested itinerary for next time: sightseeing in morning and evening; shopping in the afternoon.