I can’t believe that I am already embarking on my next adventure before I’ve even finished updating about the trip to Japan. I figured a 14-hour plane ride is as good a time as any to spend some time writing, so I’ve got my laptop out as we fly over the Pacific on our way back to the United States.
When I stopped last, we had just finished our first full day in Kyoto. We both woke up considerably more tired on Saturday morning, so we had a bit of a slow start. Eventually, though, we managed to find a new café for breakfast and then make our way to the subway station for a trip to the Arashiyama district, on the west side of the city. The subway station was a bit baffling since the automated ticket machines at the station we were in were all in Japanese. But we persevered and eventually determined that as long as you put your money in first thing, it’s not too hard to figure out. From the subway, we took a private rail line to Arashiyama. The rail line was clearly designed for tourists, and we got an English map and guide to all the stops and the attractions once we got there. On our guide, we saw that there was a “foot spa” at the final train station, so that gave us something to look forward to after a day of walking around.
The first place that we went after we arrived was a temple called Tenryu-ji, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple buildings were not particularly ornate, but the garden surrounding them was really beautiful, especially because we could see snow on the mountains in the background. A few cherry blossom trees and a few trees with delicate yellow blossoms were beginning to bloom in the gardens, and we felt lucky to see the combination of snow and the start of spring. It helped that the weather had finally cleared up and was gloriously sunny and at least a little bit warmer. Another feature of the temple grounds was a gorgeous, thick bamboo grove, which we oohed and ahhed at appropriately.
Finished with the temple, we headed back towards the train station to find lunch. We ended up in a small, nondescript Japanese restaurant where the menus were only in Japanese, with no pictures. The waitress didn’t bat an eye and just motioned us outside to the window display of the available dishes rendered in plastic. There, we could point to what we wanted. We both had udon soup again.
After lunch, we headed to a nearby park close to the river. The street along the river was really beautiful, wide and lined with restaurants and shops and rickshaws with pushy drivers offering tours. In the park, we ascended a fairly steep hill (my pregnant body was not very cooperative – I was really huffing and puffing!) and came to a lookout that revealed a stunning view of the river valley, complete with old-fashioned small boats carrying tourists. We emerged from the park into a huge, really impressive bamboo grove, of which the temple garden grove had only been a small part. Near the grove, we marveled at a small bamboo storage yard and then bought a bamboo wind chime at a little shop full of cool knick-knacks made from bamboo. Keegan later said that he really enjoyed this little excursion out of the touristy parts of the city and into the quiet natural area.
The Lonely Planet recommended another temple that was a fair distance from the bamboo grove, so we set off to find it. To get there, we walked through some quiet residential streets and enjoyed looking at the yards and gardens. Finally, we neared our destination, which was actually a very small convent, I think. The temple/convent was called Gio-ji, and it had a really amazing atmosphere. It made me think of a lush emerald, tucked away on the side of the mountain. Once we passed through the first gate, we were in a little microcosm of velvety green moss, slender bamboo, and blowsy white peonies. It didn’t take long to see everything there was to see at this tiny temple, but the first impression was definitely striking.
By the time we left the temple, we were both dragging a bit, so we decided it was time for another ice cream break. We stopped at a coffee shop where we ordered, once again, from the window display. Keegan had pancakes, which he had developed a hankering for after seeing the plastic ones on display at yesterday’s café, and I had an ice cream sundae that could only be described as an architectural masterpiece, involving lots of fresh fruit and chocolate sauce. Just as the day before we had enjoyed watching koi in their pond, on Saturday we watched little green birds in the trees outside the window, where the owners of the coffee shop had put tiny dishes of seed and water. The birds were so colorful and interesting that passersby on the street also stopped to watch, and we felt lucky that we had chosen such a pleasant location for our snack.
Finally back at the train station, it was time for our relaxing footbath. I had expected cushy chairs with individual foot spas, like at the beauty salon, but instead there was a large hot water spa with two big tables in it. The customers sat around the edge of the tub and could have coffee or tea at the tables. It was very difficult to take our feet out of the warm water and continue on our way. Fortunately, the train was toasty warm, and we both had a chance to soak in the tub for a bit before our dinner at an Indian restaurant in Gion. Once again, we had no trouble falling asleep after the day’s adventures.
On Sunday we planned a trip out of Kyoto to the smaller city of Himeji, where I had read that there was a very impressive Japanese castle called Himeji Castle. We had a bit of trouble figuring out which train to take, and we ended up with tickets on the super-fast bullet train. Everyone should experience a ride on the bullet train at least once. This one really impressed us because it took us back through Osaka, where we had come from on Thursday, but in half the time of driving. I could definitely get used to that!
Himeji was a city clearly bending over backwards to please the tourists who came to visit the castle, but also clearly not as established as a tourist destination as Kyoto. It was a fairly short walk from the train station to the castle, down a very broad street lined with nondescript stores and businesses. The castle itself was huge and commanding, on a hill overlooking the street. We couldn’t stop taking pictures of it as we approached. Inside the castle walls, we looked at a side residence mostly for the castle’s women. It was completely unfurnished and very plain, quite a difference from the meticulously designed temples and gardens we had been visiting. A sign nearby informed us that “This is indeed the best castle in Japan.” We were happy to be reminded. Inside the main building of the castle we saw displays on castle life. Everything was very spartan and clearly designed for defense and withstanding siege. There were a lot of very steep wooden stairs to climb. The view from the top of the castle was nice, but since the castle itself is the focus of sightseeing in Himeji, not incredible.
After enjoying the castle and taking a million pictures, we got lunch at another noodle shop. This one had really, really long homemade noodles. My noodles came covered in very thin, dry flakes of some unfamiliar composition (fish?) that waved around alluringly in the steam from the hot broth. When I stirred them into the soup they took on a meaty texture that was very tasty. I will have to remember to ask my Japanese friend about what those were.
After lunch we visited Himeji’s other main attraction, a series of tranquil gardens next to the castle. Keegan was a good sport and enjoyed the koi ponds and the bonsai-style cherry blossoms on display, but the gardens were typical of gardens viewed in the winter: I couldn’t stop thinking how pretty they’d be once everything was in bloom. Our Sunday ice cream snack was eaten on the walk back to the train station. I tried a black sesame and soy milk swirl, and Keegan had green tea with vanilla.
Back in Kyoto, we hungry travelers stopped at the first place that caught our eye. There were very few customers there, we were a little off the beaten path, and the proprietors seemed thrilled that we had chosen their place of business for our dinner. I tried yu-tofu, an elaborate dish involving skin skimmed off the top of fermenting tofu, boiled in a paper cone of soy milk over a flame, and then dipped in a sesame/soy type sauce. Keegan tried “kaiseki,” which is a Japanese haute cuisine that Kyoto is famous for, focusing on a number of small dishes presented elegantly. I read that real kaiseki restaurants can be quite formal and daunting for foreigners, so I suspect that this was “tourist kaiseki,” but we enjoyed it anyway. When we left the restaurant, our waitress attempted to communicate with me in Japanese, but it was an unsuccessful interaction. She pointed out my height and then gestured at my nose and gave me a packet of oil-absorbing wipes. I really don’t think she intended to insult me, but geez.
Back in our room, I felt the baby kicking like crazy, so I made Keegan put his hand on my tummy. Sure enough, he felt her kick several times and then felt her roll underneath his palm. I was so happy that he was able to participate, especially on Valentine’s Day. I’ll always remember that.
Monday morning, and the last day of our trip (are you glad to be coming to the end of this marathon?). We awoke to a chilly rain and decided to pace ourselves rather slowly during the day. After another delicious rice ball breakfast, we headed to a temple that Kayoko had recommended, called Sanjesangdo. Inside were 1,000 golden Buddha statues, as well as a number of statues of other deities and spirits. It was amazing to see the hordes of statues and fun to look at the interesting characters portrayed, but it was hard to get a good sense of the scale of the place from inside. Behind the statues was a display about archery contests that used to be held along the length of the temple’s porch. There were all kinds of contests, including one to see how many arrows a person could shoot within a given amount of time.
In the afternoon, we tried to visit the steam locomotive museum, but found out it was closed on Mondays. We went to the post office and spent some time working out how to access our bank account so we could pay the hotel bill. It was altogether a somewhat disappointing day, with the combination of the gray weather and the closed museum and the logistical hassles, so I will not dwell on it for long. We did have a nice dinner in a restaurant on a historic street in Gion, and we saw what I think may have been an honest-to-goodness geisha as we wandered the beautiful streets after dinner. So the day did get somewhat redeemed in the evening, and we had an upbeat end to our trip. There was so much we didn’t see, though. Guess that’s just a reason to go back again someday.