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aprillilacs May 29th, 2011 01:36 AM

Reporting from Kyoto
Ah, Kyoto. All the other cities in Japan seem like a prelude to the best of them all. It is our second visit (last time was six years ago) and I was wondering if it would be as special this time as it was the last. No disappointment--it's still wonderful! We have only 3 nights here this time--just enough time for another taste of some of its highlights.

We arrived yesterday late morning by train from Kanazawa. Since we couldn't check in to our hotel until two, we decided to stash our bags in coin lockers at the station and use our JR Pass to get to the amazing fox shrine, Fushimi-inari, just a couple of stops away on the Nara line. We had missed it last time so it was high on our list to visit on this trip. What a place! The sky was cloudy and showery, which probably kept the number of visitors down but didn't spoil the visit. The hundreds of closely spaced orange torii gates that make their way up and the hill, seemingly going on forever, are truly photogenic (and reminiscent of the striking Christo exhibition of tori-like orange flags that blanketed Central Park in New York a few years back--did he get his idea from Inari?). There were also a multitude of small fox shrines, complete with stone foxes, partway up the hill that made for an eerie scene in the gray and rainy weaher.

After we made our way back to Kyoto Station we retrieved our bags and took a taxi to our hotel, the Palaceside, appropriately named since it is right across the street from the Imperial Palace. It's a moderately priced hotel ($140 a night including breakfast), nothing fancy but comfortable enough, set in a nice neighborhood with lots of places to eat nearby and right on a bus line. Plenty of Westerners here--Kyoto definitely has the most Western tourists we've seen.

After checking in we still had time to walk to Nijo Castle, a good walk but very pleasant, in time for the last entrance at 4:00. We spent an hour there, visiting the building and the beautiful garden, and were serenaded with "Auld Lang Syne" as we made our way out of the grounds.

Just across the street is the Kyoto Kokusai Hotel, where we stayed last time we were in town. We remembered an Indonesian restaurant just across the street at the side of the hotel, rakuen asia, that had looked appealing last time and found it again. We had a drink in the relaxing Kokusai lobby and then walked crossed the street for dinner--delicious and highly recommended if you are looking for Indonesian or Thai food. After dinner we made our way back through the narrow, quiet streets of the neighboorhood to our hotel.

Today brought Typhoon Songdo to Kyoto, which meant a total washout in terms of the weather but didn't stop us from pursuing some fun activities, all of which we walked to: shopping at the Kyoto Handicrafts Center; visiting the Heian Shrine and its gorgeous garden (beautiful even in the hard rain); attending the exhibit of painted scrolls, calligraphy, and portraits of Shinran, the founder of an important Buddhist sect, which was on display at the Kyoto Municipal Museum (a pricey $15 each), along with a very temporary exhibit of the best paintings of the year by Kyoto area artists; and more shopping, in the covered arcade on Teramachi Street, where we bought a fresh supply of Uji tea at a lovely tea shop. In between was coffee and cake at a cute little shop not far from the museum. All this in mostly pouring rain (thank goodness for the umbrellas we bought a few days ago in Kanazawa)! We were pretty soggy when we arrived back at the hotel, but now we've dried off a bit and plan to go out again soon for dinner at a neat-looking Japanese/Italian bistro we passed last night.

Hopefully tomorrow will bring less rain--we plan to bus to the Golden Paviliion and to Ryoan-ji, and possibly go on to Arashimaya if the weather breaks.

DonTopaz May 29th, 2011 04:34 AM

How lucky for you to be in Kyoto, even in the rain.

If you haven't been there before, or even if you have, I hope you can spend some time in the streets of the Shinbashi area of Gion. I find it to be one of the most welcoming, most appealing city streets in the world -- an ideal example of how a neighborhood can be beautiful. functional, and still within the central portion of a vital city.

(For those of you going to Boston instead of Kyoto, have a look at Mt Vernon Street or Louisburg Sq for something comparable.)


kkukura May 29th, 2011 06:19 AM

aprillilacs- What is the temperature like in the rain? We head out next Sunday, in just one week!, for Japan. I plan on bringing a small umbrella and a fold-up rain jacket. Will we need both or just the umbrella? Boy, we could use some of the rain here in Houston, TX!!!!!

aprillilacs May 29th, 2011 05:08 PM

Thanks, Don. We'll spend some time in Gion this evening, our last night in Kyoto (need more time here!)

kkukura -- yesterday in the full-on rain the temperature was in the low 70s. A light rainproof jacket was helpful because our umbrellas are small (lots of Kyoto residents carry very large umbrellas and go coatless). If you want to do like the Japanese do, I think the umbrella should be enough. It should be warmer in June.

An interesting rainy day tidbid: most museums, stores, and hotels have umbrella-parking stands at their entrances, and lots of them set up little umbella-wrap st6tions that dispense long plastic wrap tubes with an opening at the end for an umbella to slide through. That lets you carry a dry umbrella into the facility. Clever, but a lot of wasted plastic!

One complaint about Japan (see my other posts for lots of things I love about Japan): the pillows are too small! I end up piling up towels under the bed pillow to raise it off the bed a bit. Oh well, if that's my only complaint I'm in pretty good shape, no?

We ended up eating last night at a little okonomiyaki cafe around the corner from our hotel. We had the house special okonomiyaki, which included shrimp, bacon, chicken, and small squares of something white on the outside and chewy on the inside--looked like cheese but definitely wasn't! The pancake was prepared on the griddle at the counter by the waitress (the only staff person in the cafe) and then brought to our table for warming on our table's griddle while we cut pieces off of it to eat. Delicious, filling, and only 980 yen per person.

aprillilacs Jun 1st, 2011 01:09 AM

We wrapped up our all-too-brief Kyoto visit with a full day revisiting some favorite sights and checking out some new ones. Another showery day, though nowhere near as bad as the day before.

We started with a visit to the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). We figured out the bus lines with the help of a handy bus map we had picked up at the tourist office and bought a 500-yen day pass that meant big savings on single-ticket rides. When we arrived at the Golden Pavilion it seemed like every middle-school child in Japan was there with us. In fact, all of Kyoto was inundated with middle-schoolers on 2- or 3-day field trips from other parts of Japan. And their assignment (besides spending 5 minutes at the tourist site in question) was to find a foreigner and "interview" them in English. We fit the bill and were happy to spend 10 minutes answering their questions, which the 6 kids who found us took turns asking. We complimented them on their English (and their Japanese, much to their delight) and then the wave of navy blue and white passed us, leaving good sightlines to the pavilion. A very pretty place.

Next up was the Ryoanji with its raked gravel and intriguingly placed stones. Last time we were there there were masses of people and it was an unsatisfying experience (hard to contemplate the meaning of the garden when there are tons of people clamoring to see it), but this time was far quieter--another benefit (to us) of the decline in tourism this spring/summer.

We also bused out to Arashiyama for the afternoon. The typhoon had provided a huge amount of water for the river, so no boats were running and the river was raging. The temple was impressive, though, and the bamboo forest was beautiful. We had a tasty noodle meal along the main street and then headed back to our hotel for a little break.

Finally, in the early evening we took the bus to Gion, where we arrived at dusk. What a beautiful place to walk around in. We were lucky to see a few maiko escorting men to dinner through doorways lit only by lanterns. We wanted to eat at one of the small restaurants but were still plenty full from our late lunch, so when we had enough of the strolling we returned to our hotel, stopping at the local 7-11 for some cash from the ATM and some prepared takeout from its shelves (quite a contrast to the Gion!!!). By hilarious coincidence, on the TV that night there was a reality show where a group of Japanese guys was trying to pick out the top 10 most popular take-out food from 7-11. It took them all night (time lapse) and many taste tests (they had to eat everything every time they made a guess), but they eventually found them all. I don't think our take-out choice was one of the most popular.

Yesterday we went on to the island of Miyajima, just a couple of hours by train from Kyoto, for an overnight at that magical place. We had stayed overnight on our last trip as well and wanted to do it again because we loved it so much. There's not really anyplace inexpensive to stay on Miyajima, so we decided to splurge and stay at the best -- the Iwaso. What a nice experience! Everything was perfect. We loved the beautiful tatami room overlooking the maple and evergreen forest, with the sound of the nearby stream echoing when we opened the big windows. The onsen baths were smallish but lovely, especially the outdoor bath at the base of the trees (how great is it to sit in a hot hot bath and look at that scene!). The 13-course dinner was the best we've had in Japan, served beautifully a little at a time (it took almost 2 hours) in our room. The staff were outstanding as well.

During the day we took the ropeway up to Mt. Mizen and then climbed the rest of the way for the great views out onto Hiroshima Bay and to the island-dotted sea beyond. We walked down, a steep but good trail that took about an hour and challenged my down-going muscles (the bath was especially nice after that). The other half of Japan's middle-schoolers were on Miyajima on their own field trips, but after they left in the late afternoon we pretty much had the impressive torii and associated shrine to ourselves. The light wasn't that great because of the clouds (no sunset to speak of), but it was magical nonetheless.

Today we used the last day of our JR Pass to take the train to Osaka, where we are staying at the Sheraton Miyako, which I chose mainly because it has a convenient airport bus to KIX, where we take off for Sapporo in Hokkaido tomorrow. The next couple of weeks should be quite different from the past 3 weeks, so we are really looking forward to our time up north! Hopefully less rain!

DonTopaz Jun 1st, 2011 03:32 AM

Still following, still enjoying.

hawaiiantraveler Jun 1st, 2011 06:59 AM


Try the corn candy on Hokkaido!


eigasuki Jun 1st, 2011 07:14 AM

Your reports are making me long to return to Japan - April 2012 seems far away.

I stayed at the Palaceside - it seems to have had a rate hike, have they had a makeover? One night I was simply too exhausted to go out for dinner and ate at their french restaurant. Totally against my principles but very satsifying and restorative (I was having a bit of a mid-trip meltdown to cut a long story short)

Love Kyoto. My new favourite temple is Kodai-ji.

Therese Jun 1st, 2011 07:53 AM

The chewy white squares in your okonomiyaki sound like cubes of mochi, the hard sort that comes wrapped like a little candy bar and get soft and very chewy when heated. Yummy.

Mara Jun 1st, 2011 10:30 AM

Still loving your reports!

Statia Jun 4th, 2011 07:36 AM I miss Japan. Enjoying your report and how it's taking me back to some of my favorite places, as well.

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