As I sit here at my exactly the right size desk in my exactly the right size hotel room in Gion, Kyoto, I think this trip will either make me or break me. My knees hurting like blazes and my tummy rumbling, I realize I like Japan , I like the Japanese, I even like walking around a town where nobody speaks my language and I can't read any of the signs... but I don’t really like Japanese food. Everything I’ve seen is either boiled or in soup, and much of it has runny eggs on it. At 2.50 for a dozen stick of carrots and radish, I may have scurvy before I get back home. But hey, the Yasaka shrine is gorgeous, the Sakura blossoms are in full bloom (and really do look like snow when the wind catches them) and the kembu performance was actually well worth the wandering all over town trying to find it, the steep steps down, the over-stuffed room waiting to start, the steep steps climbing back out, and the lurching, standing bus ride back to my hotel.
Got in late last night and lost a day due to time zone changes, so I was bright eyed and bushy tailed at 5:20 AM.
Too bad almost nothing in town opens until 10 am. Except the Yasaka Shrine that's literally across the street from the hotel, which is open always and is free (I wish they had a donation box. I would have made one). Sakura trees were everywhere, in full bloom, as the sun rose over the hills behind the shrine. It was incredibly peaceful... except for the crows, who were freakin’ huge and sounded like foghorns. Still, one of them led me to a secluded view of rocks and tumbling water and a quiet bridge and a well… and he did lead me, hopping along the fence in front of me and cawing at me until I followed him.
[Weeping Sakura at Yasaka Shrine]
The Weeping Sakura was especially pretty. I went back at the end of a very long day of wandering around lost, and while it was pretty with the lanterns shining brightly, it was also jam-packed with men drinking and smoking and booths full of people cooking... things (seriously, what’s the fascination with gelled food and pork? Where's the fresh fish and veggies Japanese food is supposed to be famous for?) being fried (nearly all of it. Felt like I was back in Scotland, where they fry everything including Mars bars). Between the smoke and the grease, the smell was bad, and the crows were long gone. Corvids are smart. I stayed long enough to verify that yes, Sakura petals blowing in the wind look like robust snowflakes, the wind was cold, and the shrine looked like a carnival complete with cotton candy and fatty foods.
Sunrise was much better than sunset.
Most of the rest of the day was taken up with trying to contact the local tour company to arrange for a pickup tomorrow, since I don't want to walk 40 minutes to the office. They were supposed to be open at 8 according to their website. Since the hotel doesn't allow calls out (even local calls) I prevailed upon the kindness of hotel staff to call for me (that entailed three trips to the desk, as the number Viator had emailed me was incorrect, so I went back up to my room on the very end of the last hallway on the top floor, fired up the free wifi, got the actual local phone number from a site in Japanese, trundled back down to the desk, bugged them again, and when they finally got through, the voicemail said the JTB/Sunrise Tours office opened at 10 am. Website lied!
The third trip to the desk (by now all four people currently working are trying to figure out how to help me. None of them speak English. I speak exactly two words of Japanese - gomen and arigato. Together we all figure out which bus I need to take to get to the mall where the tour office is. I have the great good fortune to catch it exactly as it arrives, and a half hour later find myself back at Kyoto station.
Good news - now I don't have to pay 15.00 to take a cab back on Saturday, to catch the express train back to Kansai International. (end note: except, of course, I did catch a cab, because there was no way I was hauling all my souvenir-filled luggage onto the bus. Side note: another new experience – hailing a cab a curbside, because as the hotel staff explained, if they called, it would be ‘long time!’)
Bad news - I wandered literally around the entire freakin’ station before I finally see the building across the street on the back end of the station... trundle over to it... and discover the office is open at 1 pm. Voicemail lied!
Since the Samurai Kembu performance I'm heading off to see begins at 1, obviously I will be taking a bus tomorrow to get to my Nara tour.
I then wander literally for an hour trying to figure out how the heck to get back to the other side of the station without buying a ticket. Even with the "help" of an irritated train station security officer, I can't figure it out, so I make the sad mistake of catching a cab.
18.00 later, instead of taking me to the shrine as I'd asked when the cabbie couldn't read the address and I couldn't translate it into Japanese for him (phonetics only go so far), he has a cartographic epiphany and drops me off at the Kembu theatre... two hours early.
I then spend the next two hours vainly trying to find something to eat and someplace to sit down. After a fiasco with what I thought was a cinnamon bun this morning (no idea what it actually was, other than tossed in the trash can - my hotel room had two), I am wary. I am also weary, and can find neither recognizable food nor a spot to perch.
Finally in desperation I approach... McDonald's. It was bad enough that my first meal in Japan was a rice ball (thank God for onigiri, again!) I bought at 7-11 in Kyoto station because everywhere else was closed and I had to get checked in to my hotel, but McDonald's... I don't even go there at home! I bite the bullet, and when I go in, realize their only seating is up a flight of stairs I couldn't climb even if I wasn't already too stiff and sore to move.
Needless to say, I didn't eat at McDonalds.
Happily, there was a Family Mart (sort of the Japanese version of Circle K, except they actually have Circle K, so I guess there’s no American analog) that had some kind of warm stuff on a stick that I thought was dough but turned out to be minced meat of some sort (I didn't even care by that point). The blessing was they had a tiny counter with a chair!
So I sat and ate my minced fried meat and rested until it was time to brave the stairs at the Kembu theatre.
Not even going to go into the rude Spanish couple with their kids, or the bitchy Australian quintet, or the French woman who wouldn't sit still - because the performance Was Amazing.
50 minutes of short tales, in the traditional and modern styles, with swords and fans and acting and samurai and ninjas and regal ladies and funny bits and sad bits and romantic bits, and in the end there were pictures. SO MUCH FUN. There was the Master, who looked a tiny bit chunky but could move like a bird, a tall lady who was sad that we didn’t laugh at her jokes (I did!) but did some amazing work with both fans and swords, a tall man who seemed solemn but played a crazy Ninja, a shorter lady who was the romantic lead, and a younger man who was the romantic lead but looked like he had a tummy ache (didn’t stop some amazing moves with the sword, though). They explained as they went, complete with a slide presentation on a tv, and it really, really worked. As we were leaving they gave everyone a complimentary scarf that reminded me a lot of the flight scarves my pilots wore a quarter century ago in the USAF. I accepted one with cats on it (of course).
Then I found another bus, got back to the hotel with a short stop at the mini grocer (Lawson's, of all things) for some actual vegetables to eat, then flopped on the bed for an hour and read Le Carre's new bio.
When my ankles were back down from major balloons to where I could rotate them again, I wandered back out, found some souvenirs, found no edible food, and trundled back up more stairs to the shrine. See above for how that turned out.
Tomorrow - Nara! Deer! And according to the forecast, rain. Ha.
Second full day in, and I remember why I have so much fun traveling.
Yesterday was a pain in the tail feathers, because I did all the stuff I needed to do to make sure today went well.
4:30 this morning, wide awake because I'm not caught up from the time change, and I surf the net to find an anime shop in Kyoto. Not only are there two, but one is in the same building as the tour operators I'll use for most of my tours.
So that was this morning. Caved and went to the western style coffee shop for French toast that was more like cake with syrup and a hot milky tea that was basically tea latte (yum). The resultant sugar high kept me bouncing most of the day, but it was okay, because I needed the energy.
Animate in the Avanti mall had a small bonanza in Yuri on Ice merchandise, an unexpected treasure trove for Servamp, very little on D-gray man and nothing for Bleach or Black Butler (what can I say, I'm anime old-school). Though it was pretty funny seeing the expression on the very helpful clerk's face when I asked if she had anything for Kiss Him Not Me (snicker). (side note: it was even funnier when I got to the main Animate Kyoto store and the very first section was All Yaoi).
Happily, they accepted Amex, because I went a little crazy. But hey, if ya can't go a little nutty happy when in Japan buying anime memorabilia, when can you?
Then I wandered around, picked up a pork cutlet sandwich to go with the veggies I got at Lawson's and called it lunch. Kyoto is interesting. It is incredibly clean, with no graffiti anywhere, but there are NO trash cans. Anywhere. Bizarre. I guess they just have a lot of garbage collectors or maybe brownies or something, because it has to go somewhere. (side note: tour guide on Friday mentioned that everyone is expected to take their trash home and throw it away there. To my intense surprise, they actually DO.)
1:30 rolled around, and we boarded one of 5 buses headed to Nara (yay, deer!) I don't know why they don't start these things earlier (I had the same complaint in the Netherlands). By the time we got there it was 2:30, sunset is at 6:30, and we had to fly through the truly incredible Buddhist temple. I didn't even get a chance to feed the deer. Although I was amused and impressed when a half dozen of them staged a raid on the little stand selling deer pancakes and made off with a whole bag. Not so good for the old lady running the stand, but good for the bandit deer.
[A Friendly, Hungry Nara Deer]
Still, the temple was very impressive. Originally built about 1400 years ago, with a 150 foot high Buddha in it, the building was burned down twice in civil wars and the Buddha was slightly melted but fixed after. I wandered around after giving up on trying to hear our wonderful tour guide (name, not kidding, Psycho :) – probably spelled Tsaiko) who was actually very sweet and funny. I picked up a few nice souvenirs - hope the funds go to support the temple and help keep it up. The flowers, the statues, the amazing wooden architecture - all quite grand and very beautiful.
We had very little free time, but that was better than the next stop - where we had none. The Shinto Kasuga Shrine was eerily lovely, lined with stone lanterns past the bright orange gate (a lucky color). People were giving prayers, in amongst the crowds of tourists. I felt a little like we were partying in somebody's church during services. The line of brass lanterns was also gorgeous. The old buildings dotted along the path were lovely too. I wish I could have had the time to actually look at them, but other than snapping a few desperate pictures, I spent all my energy trying not to slip on wet stone and gravel while running after the guide. Yes, we toured the whole Shrine in thirty minutes.
In the rain.
A bit treacherous, but still amazing. It felt a bit like Delphi. You could tell it was an active place of worship that had been so for generations. It was in the stones.
There was one more stop but I didn't bother getting off the bus. It was supposedly to shop and for a bathroom break, but they gave us literally less than fifteen minutes. Wasn't worth getting off the bus because I couldn't walk over there and back in that short time, much less get any souvenirs. Seriously, they need to start earlier in the day, and allow enough time for people to actually enjoy the sights!
Still, it was an excellent experience. Afterward, I stayed at Kyoto Station and gave in to hunger... for my first truly Japanese meal, I had miso ramen with pork and what looked an awful lot like dango in sweet brown sauce. Slurping up the noodles with chopsticks was easier than I expected it to be, and thankfully they gave me a ladle (too big to call it a spoon) so I didn't have to pick up the bowl and drink from it. I'd've probably dumped it all over myself, I was that tired.
But it was a good tired! And I managed to find the correct platform just as a bus was coming in to take me back to Gion. It's reassuring to know I can navigate at least half of the city on buses and not get lost!
Tomorrow... palaces and castles! If I don't oversleep, because along with not allowing any phone calls and not actually speaking any English, the hotel staff also do not make wake-up calls, and the clock is all in Japanese so I can't figure out how to set it.
On the plus side, even though the hotel is on the busiest street in Gion, my room is VERY quiet. And the bathroom is like a single modular mini-suite with a self-contained shower, sink, and western style toilet! Which, if you know what a traditional eastern toilet is like, is a very good thing. Plus, it's very neat and tidy. I want one. I just need to remember the five inch drop as I step into the room, before I break an ankle.
Just came in from one of the MOST fun things to do when traveling... wander around after dark, get totally lost, discover cool little shops, watch people, find a tributary of a river lined with blossoming Sakura trees and follow along it until finally asking sweet-faced sharp-dressed probable-gangsters how to get back to the shrine next to the hotel. Heh. Substitute museum and bus station for shrine and that worked in Amsterdam, Inverness, and now Kyoto.
The night was gorgeous. The people were adorable - especially the boys and girls in traditional dress out on dates looking at the Sakura trees and blushing a lot. I wandered until I found a restaurant in a department store, of all places, that had a wonderful pork cutlet (yes, it's a theme, but at least it's cooked - the sheer amount of half-raw egg and nearly-raw meat and fish on the food here is astonishing). Along with the cutlet came four kinds of pickled veggies, of which two were yummy, one was okay, and one looked like it had a runny nose so I didn't even try it. Then pork miso soup (managed to drink from the bowl without wearing it), shredded cabbage with this really interesting creamy sauce, and the ubiquitous white rice, all of which I nearly successfully ate with chopsticks.
Nearly, because I got distracted watching a lovely lady in a full formal kimono walk by (did I mention my hotel is in the geisha district?) and dripped sauce from a piece of cutlet onto my shirt. I did not, however, drop the pork, so that was a plus.
I then wandered back in the general direction of my hotel, taking a left on a whim down a VERY long alley lit with red lanterns (hey, it worked in Amsterdam). While there were no lightly-clad ladies in windows here, there were a ton of restaurants, bars, and one very cool little souvenir shop called the Kage shop where I found my souvenir chopsticks (so pretty) and some gifts for friends.
Wandering back there was a long walk along a narrow river, with lots of sweeping Sakura trees lining it, and lots of people wandering around just like me. There was a trio of boys (two of them wearing strange headgear that might have been bird or rabbit ears) singing outside the Disney shop. They were quite good, but I think I recognize the tune, and I'm pretty sure they were singing the Princess parts. I hope they changed the words.
Nearly back to the hotel, and I have to grin, because a trio of street musicians in their mid-fifties are playing spirited Dixieland jazz - all about Bourbon street in New Orleans. Damn good job too, but obviously aimed at the tourists. Would have loved to hear some music in Kyoto that wasn't from the US. Just a thought.
So the evening was a win. The day was mostly a win, too, if a very tiring one. I went on a whirlwind tour of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, where the last Shogun signed over power to the Emperor, then on to a hike up to the Golden Pavilion, which was magnificent in its reflecting pool, then a quick hike around Nijo Castle, that had a beautiful garden.
The Imperial Palace and its garden were gorgeous in an understated way. The Palace had nightingale floors (now I know what all those Bleach stories were talking about when Ichigo was training to be a ninja). Air in the nail holes under the wooden floors work as a warning system because they make a chittering sound like a bird when you step on them. They're called nightingale floors because those birds only cry at night. Cool! (note: no pictures allowed inside the Palace, to protect the ancient paintings) There were amazing refurbished paintings of pine trees and tigers - one with six legs, if I heard correctly, because there were no tigers in Japan, so the artist was working off reports from visitors. Apparently some visitor saw a mutant tiger. There were also cranes and ducks and mountains painted on the walls, plus gorgeous painted carvings on the ceilings, and truly amazing carvings along the top of some rooms (in one, a peacock's head was actually coming out of the carving to stare out into the hallway). The gardens, that we essentially ran to then got a few minutes to breathe and take pictures, were absolutely gorgeous, serene and peaceful even with the hordes of tourists.
The Golden Pavilion was exactly that, and I wish we hadn't been so rushed, because if I hadn't had to spend so much time watching my feet to make sure I didn't skid on the loose gravel, I'm sure there would have been some lovely scenery.
We didn't go into Nijo Castle but we went all the way around it. The buildings were interesting and historical and again we were rushed through. I did meet some very nice photo buddies, and we took turns taking shots for each other. That's the best part of a tour - fellow travelers who share enthusiasm and enjoyment of the gorgeous scenery and are happy to help with picture taking. Because let's face it, selfies suck.
At the end of the tour, we were at the Kyoto Handicraft Center, where I found more gifts, then went next door and spend a relatively obscene amount of money on a porcelain doll that will be shipped to me for even more money. That was my Big Spend, and it was completely worth it.
All day long, I was impressed with how genuinely nice the Japanese people are - this is another trend, as I've been similarly impressed with the Dutch and the Greeks. The thing that surprised me is how many jokes they've told, all with a straight face, and looking so tickled when you laugh. Now I just need to get used to some of the cultural differences, like no paper towels in the public bathrooms and no trash cans anywhere... on the up side, the hotel bathroom amenities are amazing. Prepackaged toothbrushes with tiny tubes of paste, razors, hair ties, you name it.
Plus, the little cinnamon crackers Kyoto has been famous for since 1689 are absolutely DELICIOUS.
Tomorrow - racing through more shrines and temples. I'm going to the National Museum on my own! (end note: yeah, that didn’t happen). Note: Shrines are Shinto and Temples are Buddhist, separated by Imperial Decree in the late 1870s because Shinto is the native Japanese religion and Buddhism came over from China. Funnily enough, the several hundred years of co-belief haven't been changed in practice, proving once again that law doesn't necessarily make difference in real life.
Day four is done - started with fan frustration and ended with an unexpected night tour via the wrong bus that netted a meeting with Jess, a fun young ex-pat living in Thailand who also got on the wrong bus.
The morning was spent wandering, taking pictures, trying to find postcards (a near impossible task), having my credit card declined even with a pre-authorization because the merchant's machine didn't like my card (seriously. It actually charged me three times, and all three times got an immediate, merchant-initiated refund. Sometimes technology can be a real downer). Turned out all right in the end, though, because I found much cuter fans at the end of the day.
Lunch was at Kyoto Station waiting for my tour to start (third time with that refrain). This time I was seduced into Konoha don because of the name (thank you, Naruto), so I have no idea what I ate, but it was tasty and the miso soup was yummy. Mine was the only white face in the Japanese crowd, so that's always a sign it's real Japanese food. Most of it looked unappetizing because, again, too many runny eggs, but the don was tasty.
Then on to the tour, where once again we ran through temples and shrines like it was a marathon. By the third one, I gave up - not worth taking my shoes off for five minutes running through the temple after ten minutes hiking up the hill in the middle of a rugby scrum - er, incredible crowd of tourists, mostly native or Chinese. The walk down was full of amazing shops, and I found the perfect fan as well as sharing cat photos with the shop clerk (for kitty love IS universal).
The highlight of the tour was the incredible statues in the Sanjusangen-do temple. True, the hundreds of statues of Kannon (the god behind the name chosen by the Cannon corp for their cameras, as one of his powers is the ability to see far distances) were cool, but the real stars were the various guardian gods. WOW. Visceral, terrifying, beautiful. And apparently, while the Japanese got Buddhism from China, the Chinese got their gods from India, because analogs abounded. Kind of like how the Romans got their gods from the Greeks. Still, so very cool.
Dinner was fish and chips with a half Caesar salad at a western-style sports bar at Kyoto Station, because I was gasping for veggies that weren't pickled or boiled or part of a soup. Sadly, while the fish was tasty, it was fried with the skin still on, which grossed me out, and confused the waitress when she picked up the plate and found a pile of scraped-off breaded fried fish skin.
Then, as mentioned, I mistook the 208 for the 203 and took a long night tour of working-class Kyoto. Jess was also trying to find Gion, and after we wended our way all the way around the bus route back to Kyoto station and saw the line waiting to fill up the next four buses, gave it up and shared a taxi.
Picked up onigiri and cold tea for breakfast since I'll be awake three hours before anything opens to buy breakfast, stopped by Starbucks for the local black tea to end the night, and here we are.
Tomorrow, last day! Anime and the National Museum and dinner with a performance by a Maiko (lady in training to be a geiko – not a geisha – geiko are performers who sing and dance at private dinners). Looking forward to it, and also am very sad that it's coming to a close.
Friday started out with onigiri and bottled ice tea, at 5:30 am, because time change ack. Fell back asleep for a couple hours, because nothing was open and my feet weren’t up to hiking to another temple.
After that, an amazing day began. I didn't get to the National Museum, because after finally finding some postcards at Kyoto Station yesterday (none of the shops had any!) I walked to the Takashimaya department store where they have both an international ATM and a post office. Sent off the postcards and on a whim walked up around the corner to Kyoto Animate.
Am I ever glad I did! Not just because they had a much better selection than Avanti Animate, and I scored big time not only on Yuri on Ice stuff but also D. Gray-man Masquerade which isn't even out in the US yet, but because going to Kyoto Animate led me down into the wonders of the Shin-Kyogoku and Compasso Termachi shopping arcades.
Which is why I didn't make it to the museum.
Because... stuff! Cool stuff, like entire shops for different kinds of chopsticks, cats, owls, finally finding a canvas Kyoto bag, munching on a fish shaped red bean paste stuffed crisp cake (taiyaki) bought from a street vendor (ohmylord, yum), smiling at a gorgeous little Shinto shrine sharing walls on both sides with shops, and having lunch upstairs of a movie theater where, yes, half the movies were anime and two others were the latest Furious movie and White Man on the Wall or whatever the movie is with Matt Damon saving China. Anyway, it was an 'American Cafe' in much the same way tacos are Mexican food - as in Not, but still delicious. I had a 'burger' of a tempura diced shrimp with tartar sauce and shredded cabbage that was fantastic.
In the middle of it all was Bengal Cat cafe Kyoto, and I sat for a half hour while an adorable bengal kitty fell asleep on my lap. SO cute. Then it was upstairs to the Owl Forest, which was at once fascinating and sad. It was amazing to see the various kinds of owls up close, and gently pet a couple, and share blinks with a snowy who was a ringer for Hedwig, but also sad that they were tethered to branches with no room to stretch their wings. I hope they got some flight time during off hours (being nocturnal, that would work with the daytime job) but the language barrier stopped me from asking.
Then more shopping, and after five days cumulative walking and six hours specifically today, I was wiped. went back to the hotel for a short nap, then bounced over to Gion Hatanaka restaurant and ryokan for a lovely and very fun evening.
Getting lost, as I always do, just made for more fun exploration of side streets. Tiny window shrines and red lanterns and vertical wooden slats shading windows… very glad I gave myself the extra hour I always do because I am slow and I wander. Eventually I found the place, and everyone was SO nice.
I shared a table with Jerry from San Francisco and a nice couple from Bulgaria by way of Nairobi. There was a multi course Kaiseki dinner (Kyoto cuisine), about half of which I could eat, then a great performance by a young Maiko (geiko in training) and her nee-chan, a Geiko plus a Geiko playing the shamisen. (not Gieco nor gecko, not the lizard in the insurance commercial but a singer/dancer in the traditional style). There was dancing, there was singing, there was conversation via an interpreter with the absolutely adorable Maiko, there were even drinking games, and I won one! The game was kind of like rock-paper-scissors, only with the characters of tiger, samurai, old lady. Samurai beats Tiger who beats Old Lady who beats Samurai (because she's his mom :)). The man I was playing against, on advice from his geiko, played against type as an old lady, but I chose the character of the tiger (because I will ALWAYS choose the tiger) so I won a lovely pair of chopsticks and didn't have to drink any beer (yay!).
Then it was one last walk through the Yasaka Shrine, admiring the lighted lanterns and the bright gates while trying to ignore the food stalls, before back to the hotel. So my stay in Kyoto ends the way it began, with a walk through the Gion shrine, admiring the beauty and ignoring the food!
Tomorrow, packing, then train back to the airport. Funnily enough, I will arrive in LA before I leave Osaka Kansai. The wonders of traveling through time zones - a unique kind of time travel.
Ending with a sincere Japan ROCKS!