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...