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Another breakfast at Sazuya (902¥) prepared us for our last full day in Japan and our tour of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. They have a guided tour in English; all tours require you make a reservation though. Reservations are made in an office building located within the ground of the Palace gardens. We had stopped by the office building the day after the festival; however, we weren't sure it was actually open. Some places were still closed for the festival holiday, and the building looked a bit desolate. We sat down for a bit in the garden mulling over what to do and watched a few other groups trudge to the building and turn around.
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Our goal for the day was to hop onto a train towards Osaka and visit Himeji Castle. We stopped into Sazuya for another round of breakfast breads (1039¥); a pair of US tourists were also breakfasting there. Headed off to the train station via subway (1200¥ round trip) and quickly found the proper ticket queue. Proving the Disney song correct, the same couple from Sazuya were also in line to purchase tickets, albeit to a different destination. The cute ticket seller and I stumbled through a pidgin English and Japanese exchange and figured out what train tickets I needed (8840¥). The hardest bit was determining if the train worked like the shinkansen and had timed tickets. Nope, just an ordinary train you can hope on whenever you get to the station.
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Next on the walking tour was Kōdai-ji; you guessed it... another temple. Didn't take a lot of photos here; just spent the time walking around the beautiful gardens and looking at the artwork. Most of the screens and artwork were historic enough to warrant the "no pictures" warning; at least, that's what my memory is telling me.
The walking tour continued through Maruyama Park, renowned for its huge cherry tree. It lived up to its billing; we strolled around and soaked in more scenery. Sat for a bit to rest up for the final leg of the walking tour. Our next stop was Chion'in, yet another temple. We were pretty much templed out by that point and just admired the architecture from the outside. Good fortune smiled on us again; two geisha were just outside, and I managed to get one to crack a smile when I asked in Japanese if it were alright to take her picture.
The rest of the tour would have taken us to Shōren-in and Yasaka-jinja, even more shrines! We were too tired and were starting to get a bit hungry; we decided to head back and stop at the Kyoto Craft Center before grabbing a bite. I took some pictures of the giant torii gate of Yasaka along the way and left it at that.
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Started our day with another hearty breakfast of tasty breads from Sazuya (818¥) before heading off on a walking tour. The Higashiyama walking tour from Kyoto Lonely Planet seemed promising; according to the guide, a bus could get us to the starting point, but I believe we managed to find a suitably close subway stop (600¥) to use instead. Memory is a bit hazy... curse me for not keeping up the note taking!
The first leg of the walking tour took us up a long hill towards Kiyomizu-dera; the path up was crowded with people making their way to the temple and shopping at the myriad stores lining the way. On our way up, we had our first close encounter with a geisha; Jm was keeper of the camera at the time but was reluctant to take her picture. I goaded her on until finally she broke down, ran down the hill to catch up with her, and asked to take her picture. The geisha was kind enough to pause, and the picture came out fantastic. Jm thanked me for strong arming her into taking it.
The temple required a modest entry fee (600¥), and we stopped just inside to give our feet a bit of a rest. A group of schoolgirls approached us and asked if we would answer some questions for them as part of their field trip assignment. How could we say no? They asked us a few questions, had us sign their guest book, and went away no doubt with tales of the two strange gaijin they interviewed. Perched high above the city, the view from various points in the temple was spectacular. Looking through our photos, I find them sparse and wish we had snapped more. Might have been due to the crush of people moving through, but still... wish we had taken more photos.
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If you guessed another shrine was the next tour stop, you would be correct! Kasuga-taisha is famous for its lanterns having over a thousand stone lanterns lining the path to the shrine. Bronze lanterns adorn the inside of the temple; basically, if you have the money, you can donate a lantern to the shrine and receive (hopefully) good fortune in return. Not much else to see other than the lanterns, so we didn't spend much time here.
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Next stop on the tour was Tōdai-ji, the largest wooden building in the world and home to a colossal bronze Buddha statue. The temple was in the middle of Nara, and its gardens were populated by the famous Nara deer. Vendors would sell you deer crackers you could then feed to the beasts or eat them yourself if you were so inclined.
As advertised, the statue was indeed colossal but not well lit; took a bit of playing with the camera settings to get any decent shots. This was made difficult by the sea of visitors crowding the inside of the temple. One of the temple pillars had a hole cut out of it; the legend is that the hole is the size of the statue's nostril. If you can pass your body through it, you will gain enlightenment in your next life. I was enlightened enough to not risk getting my fat load wedged in and become the next Fark cliché.
After taking in the enormity of the Buddha, we roamed about watching tourists feed the deer. This was one of the few stops where I wished we had come on our own; it would have been nice to explore the surrounding gardens and area more. However, our time was limited, and we needed to move along to our next destination.
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The second stop on our tour was meant to be the Imperial Palace; however, the Palace was closed to normal tour groups because of the festival. Instead, we were taken to Kitano Tenman-gū, a Shinto shrine popular with students during exams; they also host a flea market once a month. We did not have time to see the "Treasure House", but it was interesting to see a temple we probably never would have known to go to otherwise. Off to the next spot on the tour...
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Our first full day in Kyoto was mostly planned for us; while the city would be putting on its festival, we would be on a tour to Nara Park and other points of interest in and around the city. For breakfast, we decided to stop at Sazuya, a bakery near the hotel; they served a wide variety of breads and baked goods -- melon breads, breads with bacon intertwined in it, and standards like croissants. We picked up a small assortment and some juice for 588¥. It made for a tasty, filling breakfast that was significantly cheaper than our Tokyo breakfasts.
We had to walk to another hotel to meet up with the tour bus; our tour guide was an older gent who spoke English quite well. Our first stop of the tour was Nijō Castle, the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was a sizable complex with a set of beautiful gardens.
While the outer wall and defenses were impressive, the inner defenses were also impressive and clever. The outer corridors of the palace were constructed as nightingale floors to ensure no one could sneak about without being heard. They had the various rooms setup inside the palace to show what life was like back then; there were many tapestries and screen paintings I wish I could have photographed. However, due to their age and historical significance, photography was forbidden
Our tour was off to an enjoyable and educational start; our next stop would be Kitano Tenmangu.
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It was Jm's birthday! How nice to be spending it in Japan. Hmm... my last entry was a bit off; this day saw our last breakfast at Jurin (5082¥). After breakfast, we packed up, checked out of the hotel, and met the Sunshine Tour rep out front. We were whisked away to the train station; we already had our train tickets, but the rep escorted us to the check-in station. While we were arriving in Kyoto via shinkansen, our luggage had to be checked in and would arrive at the hotel via a bus.
Americans seem to have a reputation for being obnoxious tourists; Jm and I were doing our best to disprove this notion. Unfortunately, the people ahead of us in line were doing everything to ensure the reputation continued to be perpetuated. They were so disgusted with the level of service, and everything was a problem. All they needed to do was actually listen to the instructions being given by the staff; they were speaking English quite well and quite clear. I have no issue with complaining when service is actually poor; however, there is no excuse for being rude simply because you are an over privileged idiot.
Once our bags were checked, I picked up some white chocolate Kit Kat (120¥) for the train ride. Our train was the Nozomi service, the fastest line reaching top speeds of 250MPH. Again, the train is incredibly quite with only the scenery blurring outside your window as an indicator of just how fast you are going. A food cart would occasionally pass up the aisle, but my Kit Kat tided me over until we reached Kyoto around noon. Another Sunshine rep met us at the Kyoto station and loaded us into a taxi with another couple.
It did not take too long to arrive at the Kyoto Royal Hotel; while checking in, the lady at the front desk explained to us why we had trouble booking a room for this week in Kyoto. It was a Aoi Matsuri week! The city was crowded with people there to celebrate one of the major festivals in Kyoto. A large parade would be starting at the Imperial Palace and winding its way around the town. Curses... we were already signed up for a day tour to Nara and other points around Kyoto. Next time maybe...
There were no set plans for the remainder of the day, so we decided to explore a bit and try to find a tea shop called Ippodo. It was on the way to the Imperial Palace gardens, but we somehow missed it walking to the gardens. The Palace is surrounded by a large park, and we took our time wandering the paths. Preparations for the parade were underway with seating and platforms being setup along the parade route. We wandered around the city near the palace and picked up some drinks to cool off (330¥).
One thing we noticed was the change in how the city paced itself; Tokyo was a bustling metropolis with its sidewalks jammed with people walking to their destination. Kyoto was more laid back and subdued; there were plenty of people milling about, but it felt less crowded. Another change was the amount of people bicycling around; our tour books mentioned that bikes were the preferred method of transportation in Kyoto. They were not joking, not one bit. Next time, I think we will rent bikes for at least one day.
Walking back to the hotel, we managed to find Ippodo; we had managed to walk right by it on the way to the Palace. The shop was extremely busy; between the kids on their school trips and the people in for the festival, the employees were scrambling around taking order after order. Soon after we came in, we were handed an English brochure that explained the various teas available and the prices. However, we were having a bit of difficulty getting an employee's attention after that.
An older lady came to our rescue; after she received her order, she must have told an employee to help us next. She waved us up to the counter and waved the employee over to help us. We thanked her as best as we could; while Japan is noted for its exceptional service, having a native actually take the time to help us out was really touching. She had no reason other than kindness to go out of her way to assist us; I hope she took away a good impression of us as we did from her.
We ordered a small canister of matcha and a bag of sencha (2000¥). While waiting for to be rung up, a school boy, probably 13 or 14, turned to us and asked us in English if we liked green tea. We said "yes", and he started to say "me too" in Japanese but quickly caught himself and said it in English. He asked where we were from, and we asked him if he was from Kyoto. "No", he replied. "I'm from Shizuoka". He beamed as he said this either proud of his city or the fact that he was holding an actual conversation in English. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
We arrived back at the hotel and started to look up a place for dinner. The phone rang, and it took a bit of stumbling between English and Japanese to understand that our bags had finally arrived. We decided to try a restaurant called Fujino-Ya located in the famous Pontochō-dōri. This really is little more than an alley; two people can barely stand shoulder to shoulder while walking along it. Managed to find the restaurant by a combination of counting off the side streets we passed and recognizing the kanji/kana for fu-ji-no-ya.
We were seated out on the balcony overlooking the river; by seated I mean we squatted cross-legged on a tatami mat. A nice breeze was blowing, and we enjoyed the atmosphere as much as the food. An appetizer was brought out but damned if I have a clue what it was. It was a greyish ball of something; Jm did not like it at all, but I found it at least edible. We ordered an eel and tempura set that was quite delicious (8600¥). The only issue I had was with the seating arrangement; after all the walking of the past days, my right leg did not want to be folded up in any manner and decided to register its complaint via swelling in my knee.
Did my best to adjust the leg during dinner to keep the swelling down but was very happy when we could get up and walk around. The fluid drained quickly from the knee once I could get it moving. Spent the rest of the evening walking around the river area a bit; spotted our first geisha entertaining some guests on a restaurant balcony. Finally headed back to the hotel where we had to pass the bakery counter next to the elevators. Mmm... tasty looking cakes... Yes, we could not resist a bit of dessert and took a bit of cake (574¥) up to the room.
Watched a bit of TV before falling asleep; that was another big change from Tokyo. Late night Tokyo TV revolved around news, anime, movies, and the occasional drama. Flipping the dial in Kyoto showed nothing but bizarre quiz and variety shows. Most of the quiz shows revolved around trivia or brain teasers, their own unique take on shows like Jeopardy!. It was also my first introduction to the phenomenon known as Hard Gay. Jm and I were laughing as HG worked to promote a Ramen shop (subtitled clip in full post). It was an interesting and amusing way to cap off our introduction to Kyoto.
Note: I'm relying on Jm's notes and my memory from here; I neglected my journal keeping during the remainder of the trip.
Friday the 13th... not sure if it has the same superstitious connotations here, but it did bring cloudy weather to Tokyo. We decided to spend the day exploring Tokyo Bay; after our last breakfast at Jurin (3245¥), we hopped on the train and transferred to the monorail (1700¥ for the day) would take us across the bay to Odaiba-kaihin-koen. The ride provided us with some interesting views of the city and the Rainbow Bridge.
Our guidebook told us that a familiar face would greet us once we exited the station; a smaller version of Lady Liberty was on display in the center of the park. I was also greeted by the realization that every anime featuring the area has been remarkably accurate, right down to the giant Ferris wheel visible in the distance. Tokyo Bay is a series of connected parks, and we decided to start by strolling through Shiokaze-koen. It was a stroll along the boardwalk and piers; we took our time, relaxed, and enjoyed the view of the city. There were few people in the park, but we did find a large patch where various school groups and families were picnicking.
We made our way back through Shiokaze-koen and strolled along the Odaiba-kaihin-koen beach. Couldn't see any windsurfers out, but there were a few people playing with and walking their dogs. There were also a few men sprawled out on the sidewalk napping; they looked like they might have been construction works. Good to see "Don't kill the job" is a universal concept. The beach connected into the Daiba-koen peninsula. It was a perfect way to cap off our stay in Tokyo, just walking and unwinding in a peaceful setting.
We grabbed a few drinks from a vending machine (150¥) before heading back to the monorail; love that Aquarius. Wish the Asian supermarkets here carried it. Most of the day was gone by the time we reached the hotel, and we were quite hungry. Man cannot live on Aquarius alone; we flipped through the Lonely Planet guide and decided to try our hand at shabu-shabu. The guide suggested a place in Shinjuku called Ibuki, and the Lonely Planet guides have never failed us when it comes to restaurants. Ibuki was not the exception to this rule; we were seated and surprised to find the hostess (possibly the owner?) spoke fluent English. We were even more surprised when she simply asked "Lonely Planet?" That guidebook must be driving a lot of business to the place; wonder how much of an investment it was to make sure they made it in.
The hostess was very friendly and attentive, helping us through the whole meal. We ordered the beef shabu-shabu (8159¥); it was quite the meal -- beef, shiitake and other Japanese mushrooms, tofu, rice noodles, leeks, and even some leaves related to the chrysanthemum. She showed us how to swish the beef in the broth to cook it; we had two sauces available, one vinegar based and another sweeter sauce. Once we had our fill of beef and veggies, the broth was poured into bowls as a soup to round out the meal. Wish I had taken some pictures like Flickr user varf did, but I was too busy enjoying the meal to think about it.
Before we left, the hostess handed us each a bag of Japanese candy; we thanked her profusely for the meal, her help, and her kindness. I can't recommend this place enough, great food served, great staff. It was another perfect touch to end our Tokyo stay. We had nothing left to do but walk back to the hotel, pack, and grab some sleep before heading off to Kyoto.
Our intended destination for the day was Nikko for a day of walking and exploring the beautiful countryside. Nature had other plans in mind for us though; the weather report listed rain for most of the day in Nikko. Since I had taken up the previous day shopping in Akihabara, we decided that today would be spent shopping wherever Jm wanted. We ate another expensive breakfast at Jurin (5082¥) and hopped on the train (560¥ for whole day) to Harajuku.
Shopping was only one part of our day's plan; we were also following a walking tour of Shibuya-ku in our National Geographic guide. Our first stop was the Oriental Bazaar Store for some souvenirs, but the store was closed on Thursdays. Somewhere, karma was chuckling at us again. The next store on our tour was Kiddy Land, a multi-level toy store brimming with cuteness. Jm picked up a few Hello Kitty items, a notepad and hand towel, as gifts for our niece (945¥).
The rest of the antique stores would not open until 11AM, so we took our time strolling to the Hanae Mori building. I was happy with the pace; my feet were killing me. I made the mistake of wearing my aging sneakers the previous day, and they left me with uncomfortable blisters on my feet. The basement of the Hanae Mori building housed thirty antique shops, but many of them were closed well after 11AM. There were no signs indicating that they were closed on Thursdays or if they were simply out for an early lunch. We browsed the ones that were open and window shopped the others. Not a price tag could be seen, a clear indication that the items were out of our price range. Pity too, as there was a lot of pretty jewelry I know Jm would have loved to pick up.
Our tour took us on a nice stroll through Harajuku (Jm notes we passed a pastry shop along the way) until we finally arrived at Hachikō Square. While we sat and rested our feet, I told Jm Hachikō's story and took some photos of the famous statue. It is a bit surreal to watch anime now, see Hachikō Square, and be able to point and say " I sat right there once!" Having rested my blisters, we attempted to follow the NG guide's tour of Shibuya but kept going around in circles. Curse the lack of street signs in Japan!
Our circling proved to be fortuitous; we eventually stumbled onto Mandarake. What the...?! Mandarake was in Shibuya? I could have sworn it was in Akihabara, but there it was in front of us. Even though it was her day, Jm did not mind indulging me a stop in another otaku playground. The store was huge with aisle after aisle of manga. After browsing for awhile, I wrote down "Monkey Punch" on a piece of scrap paper and attempted to ask an employee if they had any of his works.
They did not have much in stock, but I was impressed that the employee found two separate places in the labyrinth that held some Monkey Punch manga. I picked up one of the Mamo color comics and the first two pocket volumes of Lupin Y (1470¥).
Emerging from the depths of Mandarake, we continued to search for a park listed on the tour. We found a Disney store instead and browsed in there for a bit.
The Disney store held nothing interesting; we left and stood outside still trying to figure out how to get to the park. A businessman stopped and stared over our shoulder for a good minute; I finally made eye contact with him, and he asked if he could help us. I pointed to the park on our map, and he laughed as he asked if we really wanted to go there. That should have been a warning sign, but we trusted the guide and said "yes". He fired off directions in rapid Japanese, and I nodded as I struggled to keep up. I managed to get the gist of his directions and thanked him for his help. While I still didn't know exactly how to get there, I had a better idea of what direction to head and what to look for along the way.
A Häagen-Dazs store caught our eye along the way, and we stopped in for some ice cream (640¥). The staff was friendly and helped us understand how to buy ice cream in Japan, or at least in that store. You would first place your order at the register, pay, and receive a receipt. You then move down the line and hand the receipt to the server, and they would then scoop up your ice cream. I don't recall what either of us had, but it was delicious.
Refreshed, we finally managed to find the park and immediately understood why the businessman had laughed at our request to find it. The park was a measly scrap of land featuring a rundown playground and a group of homeless people. We had a good laugh ourselves and headed back to the hotel to freshen up and decide where to have dinner.
Our hotel had a business center, and we briefly checked our e-mail for 200¥ per fifteen minutes. We got separate terminals (400¥); I checked my work e-mail and was pleased to see that there were no emergencies to take care of (damnit... I should have expensed this when I got back). Jm sent her dad a "Happy Birthday!" e-mail.
The Lonely Planet guide suggested a tempura restaurant called Tsunahachi; it was in Shinjuku making it an easy walk. However, we could not seem to find the right exit out of the sprawling Shinjuku station; as we stared at a station map, a young woman came up and asked us in exceptional English if she could help us. She pointed us in the right direction, and we thanked her profusely for her help. The rain from Nikko finally found its way to Tokyo, and the drizzle we were walking through turned into a downpour. This happened at the exact moment we were too far from shelter or an umbrella. We found Tsunahachi, but karma kicked us in the shin one last time that day.
Apparently, Tsunahachi is a chain of restaurants; the one we wanted was their tempura restaurant. Our soaking wet bodies had just stumbled into their fanciest restaurant; the maitre d' politely handed us a business card that had directions for the tempura restaurant. It was only a few blocks up and to the right. The tempura restaurant was packed, but we did not have to wait long to be seated at the counter. We both felt bad that we were dripping water everywhere, but the staff did not seem to mind.
We had to remove our shoes before sitting at the counter; behind us were a number of tatami rooms we could have requested. Sitting at the counter turned out to be the best decision; we both ordered a set meal and watched as the chef prepared it right in front of us. Everything was exquisitely delicious, and we were fortunate that the chef spoke English. He guided us through the whole meal suggesting how best to eat each piece. He showed us that the best way to eat tempura is to place some grated daikon in the sauce. The fish ball should not be dipped in the sauce but should have a tomato and daikon paste smeared on it instead. Shrimp tempura could be dipped in the sauce or simply enjoyed by sprinkling a bit of salt on it.
The set meal also included scallop, eel, shrimp balls, assorted vegetables, and miso soup. While the soup warmed us up, it was also filled with tasty bits of clam. For this large and sumptuous meal, we only paid 3780¥, a bargain compared to our daily breakfast tab. When we first sat down, an older businessman on my left gave me a hearty hello in English, shook my hand, and began to chat me up. He explained that this restaurant was the original Tsunahachi and had been around for over eighty years. As it grew in popularity, it began to spin off other restaurants like the fancy one we mistakenly stumbled into.
It was still raining though not as hard when we left; we made our way back to the hotel picking up some drinks (150¥) and some dessert (399¥) from Poppins along the way. Despite the day's setbacks, it turned out to be an enjoyable one nonetheless.