Saturday, March 13, 2010

Kyoto, Part 2

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.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kyoto Travelogue at Long Last

It's been two weeks since we returned from our trip to Kyoto, and I am on the couch with my laptop, water bottle and frozen yogurt, ready to post a long update about our journey. Hope you enjoy it. I have gotten about two-thirds of our pictures up on Flickr and hope to get the rest up before I leave for the U.S. next week.

Keegan and I left for Japan on a windy, rainy morning, feeling quite sorry for ourselves that the weather was so bad. We flew from Busan on Asiana Airlines, which really impressed us. The plane seemed roomy and comfortable, the food was decent, and we were heartily entertained by, I'm embarrassed to say, America's Funniest Home Videos during our one-hour flight. We landed at the Kansai International Airport. We were met at the gate by our shuttle bus driver, who took us on the 90-minute drive to Kyoto. He was a friendly guy and a careful driver, which we appreciated. As we drove through Kyoto, he pointed out the Gion district and then began to wind through increasingly beautiful streets, lined with traditional buildings. Eventually, we turned onto a cobblestone street where we had to stop and walk because the street was blocked off to all but pedestrian traffic. We couldn't believe that our hotel was in such a beautiful area!

We stayed at the Rikiya ryokan, where an elderly Japanese woman greeted us, showed us around our room, and served us some tea. The elderly woman's somewhat less elderly daughter welcomed us with a few words of English, but it was plain that both women's English ability was limited. The room was huge, with a sitting area and a sleeping room, and we had a wonderful view towards the Kiyumizu Temple close by.

We were hungry, so we headed out in spite of the rain and quickly found a warm and welcoming noodle shop, where we each tried a steaming bowl of udon noodles. Mine had tofu and egg and was delicious. After our lunch, we strolled around the Gion area, which, fortunately for us, has many covered sidewalks that protected us from the rain. We enjoyed peering into the many souvenir shops along the way. Then we ventured out into the rain to explore the Maruyamacho Park, which was beautiful even viewed from beneath our umbrellas. After our rainy walk, Keegan enjoyed a hot bath in our funny, cube-shaped bathtub, while I read for a while. Then we headed out to dinner. We found a great little place across the street from the colorful entrance to the Yasaka-jinja shrine. We ate in front of the window with a gorgeous view and were very happy to be eating Japanese food and sitting in the warm, dry indoors.

On Friday morning we ate breakfast at a cafe recommended by the ryokan. We followed the route they recommended to get to the main street where the cafe was, and we later discovered that our uneventful walk to breakfast was on a street that the Lonely Planet calls "perhaps the most beautiful street in Kyoto." It was indeed quite nice, paved with cobblestones and lined with lots of traditional houses. Each house had an elegant doorway flanked by meticulously cared-for plants and flowers. Our breakfast at the cafe was delicious, especially the toast, which was sliced about 2 inches thick and slathered with butter. Yum.

It was sprinkling in the morning, but as we embarked on the Lonely Planet walking tour we had planned for the day, the rain began to let up, and we did actually see the sun a bit. We started with the Kiyumizu Temple, which was spectacular. The temple is known for one aspect of its architecture: its giant veranda supported by huge wooden columns several stories high. I can't imagine how they built such a place in 798, when the temple was originally constructed, but it was impressive. We saw a number of Japanese women and one couple dressed in colorful kimono as they visited the temple and suspected that they had dressed up to get particularly special souvenir photos of their trip to Kyoto. I took some special souvenir photos of them, too. We also saw "the famous love stone," which is actually two stones, placed 18 meters apart. You are supposed to walk between the stones with your eyes closed, and if you successfully make it to the second stone, then you will find love. Keegan was successful, but I veered way off to the left and ended up running into another, apparently unromantic, rock. Keegan found this hilarious.

After some time at the temple, we headed back into town down a hilly street lined with souvenir shops. I saw some beautiful handbags that caught my interest, but couldn't find anything that was the right size, the right material, and the right price. Maybe next time. Our walking tour led us down street after street lined with old-fashioned buildings and fairly classy souvenir shops. The neighborhood reminded me of Insadong in Seoul, with older buildings and more expensive items for sale. Worn out from shopping, we took a detour back to Thursday's noodle shop and tried two different varieties of udon noodles for lunch. Then it was back on the trail to visit the temple across the street from our ryokan, called Kodai-ji temple. This temple had really beautiful grounds, complete with an impressively dense bamboo grove. It was so wonderful to spend the day walking around surrounded by so much elegance and beauty - definitely a welcome break from dear Okpo.

After the second temple I was dragging a bit, so we decided to stop for some ice cream. The little cafe we stopped in had a big koi pond and splendid garden outside the window, and the fish entertained us while we ate. We also saw two women in full geisha costume on the street outside the cafe. I managed to take some pictures of them through the door. Later on in the trip, we passed a nearby shop where you can pay to dress up as a geisha (with make-up and everything) and then walk around the neighborhood and have your picture taken. So I suspect that was what these women were doing. They were stunning.

After our ice cream break, we continued to walk along the walking tour path, but by this time it was so late that the temples were closing. We took some pictures of the exteriors and strolled all the way to the Heian Shrine, past several museums and a gorgeous, modern public library. We walked back along the Kamo-gawa River, which turned out to be a good choice because when we arrived back in the Gion district, we stumbled on another of the most beautiful streets in Kyoto. This one runs along a little canal and is lined with traditional buildings, cherry trees just beginning to blossom, and graceful lanterns glowing in the twilight. We were enchanted. We also were excited to spot a tempura restaurant that promised to be a fabulous spot for dinner. We returned there after our nightly bath/reading time and had another delicious dinner, with plenty of fried vegetables and seafood, miso soup, and sake for Keegan. Needless to say, neither of us had trouble falling asleep in our little futons on the floor of the ryokan.

To be continued...