We woke for our first day in Kyoto refreshed and anxious to see a handful of the city’s many shrines and temples, but were met by a downpour of rain. Unfortunately, all the main attractions in Kyoto are centered on the outdoors, typically connected by walking tours down streets and sidewalks. So after adding another umbrella to our arsenal we bucked up and headed out on our walking tour of the Eastern Higashiyama neighborhood, starting with the Hein Shrine just next to our hotel. One of the largest and brightest shrines in Kyoto, this one features an enormous outdoor plaza and painted steel torii gate.
Walking through the gate we headed south to the Shoren-in and Chion-in temples. While located within close proximity to one another, the first temple is a quiet refuge from the tourist crowd while the other is quite the attraction with its massive, single room temple dwelling. After touring the grounds of the Chion-in temple and aweing over its impressive prayer room and entryway gate, we made our way to Higashioji street and brekfast. After having two mornings of fish and soup for breakfast these sweet and light pastries were absolutely scrumptious and when paired with the sweet and spicy flavor of the chai milk tea was heavenly. But time halts for no man, so with only a few hours before we needed to be back at the hotel and plenty to see we umbrella’ed up and left.
Continuing through the rain and puddles, we came to the Otani Mausoleum, the final resting place of the renowned Buddhist Shinran. The grounds featured a towering stone stairway, as well as a gorgeous prayer hall and tree garden including several ornate fountains. After spending some time admiring the beauty of the Japanese misty hillsides under the information office’s overhang, we proceeded out to the entrance to the Gion district. Amidst the classic geisha homes styled from the Middle Ages, lie some of the Japanese Buddhists community’s major points of interest including the Kodai-ji temple.
The temple grounds included a secluded stone path, complete with a raging river of runoff water flowing alongside, through a mix of old growth tree canopy and bamboo groves. After reaching the summit we got to walk the grounds and came upon the massive Buddha statue. After paying a small entrance fee, Beth and I were given sticks of incense to pray with and granted access to the Buddha, the tomb of the unknown WWII soldier, a large golden wishing ball, and the offering area for the incense. While the famous Kamakura Buddha is older and built from bronze, this Buddha statue is carved from a solid piece of stone and has a sandstone-like coloration versus Kamakura’s dark green shade.
Making our way back into the Gion district we were met by rickshaw drivers, traditional teahouses and ornate fan shops all in small wood framed shops. The smaller streets in the GIon district were a break from the flow of traffic and we were able to stroll right up to the Yasaka Pagoda. While not as towering as Kyoto’s famous Toji Pagoda, Yasaka Pagoda is the main landmark of the Gion district and throws you back in time.
Well, all morning it had been pouring rain so naturally everything below the shin was soaked after several hours of walking, and with our check in time at the B&B Keiko looming we grabbed a bus back to the Three Sisters and gathered up our things. What seemed like an easy half hour walk down a major Kyoto street became a wet and soppy march that washed away our sense of direction. Piled high with all of our clothes, belonging, and gifts we had accumulated thus far we trudged through the rain, all the while making a series of phone calls to the hotel to update our directions. After 40 minutes or so we made it to our rendezvous point and were met by the innkeeper Raphael, an expat from Brazil, who filled us in on the area while guiding us back into the quiet side street that the B&B sat on.
Located in a quiet neighborhood not far from the Imperial Palace, the B&B Keiko features two traditional tatami rooms to stay in, plus a community common room, washroom, and bathroom. The rustic woodwork and straw matted floors created a great reprieve from the rain outside and after getting some tips for places to eat nearby we shed our packs and changed our socks to set out again.
But our bad luck wasn’t quite over yet, after getting turned around twice in the monotonous, but charming lanes of central Kyoto we ended up 30 minutes away from the restaurant we planned on getting to. After back tracking through the rain we made it to what Beth and I claim to be the best udon place on Earth! Freshly made udon noodles are prepared right before your eyes and they offer the tastiest tempura I’ve had all trip with all sorts of different things. Beth got an assorted vegetable mix, I got a thick and juicy squid chunk, and we split a freshly prepared slice of sweet potato, all dipped in the house’s tempura batter. It was delicious! We thanked heaven that we found this place and made sure to tell our innkeeper thanks for sending us here.
After that things started to look up for us. The rain stopped, and we were only a block away from the famous Kyoto shopping streets. These streets used to be the main commercial boulevard for Kyoto since the 19th century, but now serve as the town’s most famous indoor-outdoor mall with an assortment of shops and restaurants for blocks and blocks down Teramachi and Shin-kyogoku Streets. At the end of the shopping arcades the streets makes a right turn into the Nishiki Food Market, and what the shopping arcades was for consumer goods, the Nishiki Food Market is for anything edible. Shop owners pedal a diverse mix of flowers, peanut brittle like crackers, produce, fish, and much much more. After stopping for a coffee pick me up in the foggy late afternoon, we hopped a train to take a glimpse at Kyoto’s very own Imperial Palace Grounds.
Kyoto was the capital city of Japan before the emperor moved his residence to Tokyo. Unfortunately for us, the palace was closed for the night, but we were able to walk through the expansive grounds in the dense fog. Having the park to ourselves was enjoyable after the crowded markets, and between the fog, the vast and empty pathways, and the low burn of the streetlights it made for an eerily beautiful walk.
We headed back in the direction of our B&B, experiencing the charm (and trendy coffee shops) of Teramachi Street. After meandering the streets in our hunt for dinner brought us to a vending machine restaurant, complete with egg and beef bowls with a side of dumplings. Mmmm, mmmm. Beaten down by the day’s rain and long walks (Kyoto’s very spread out with much of their sights on the periphery) we headed in for the day. Setting up on beds and planning for our day in Hiroshima we settled onto what has been the comfiest futon yet and quickly slumbered to bed.
Our time in Tokyo has come to an end, and when we left off Beth and I were speeding out to the Hakone region by train. While it may not be the well-known Bullet Train, our Udayara RomanceCar was the first time I ever traveled somewhere by train. By and large it’s very similar to taking a plane: trays that flip down, chairs that recline, shades for the windows, and attendants with snacks and beverages. However you get a whole lot more leg room, can swivel your seat to face back for groups bigger than 2, and is a very smooth ride. For being an hour ½ ride, the time flew by. Watching the landscape transform from cities and suburbs to green fields and rural towns was mesmerizing and before you know it we were in town.
After a quick bus ride from the station we arrived at our traditional Japanese hotel, complete with shoe locker and slipper setup before checking in. After getting everything stowed away (my size 13s only fit if I put them in sideways) we headed up to our room on the second floor. Just like the entrance to the hotel, our room has an entryway complete with bedding closet and slipper stowaway (socks or barefeet only) Moving from the entryway we slide the door to the right to find the main room, complete with low table and floor chairs. At night the table and chairs move to the side and we setup our sleeping quarters. Complete with futon mat, sheeted comforter, and pillow we bunked down on what became a very comfy floor. Off the main room is a sitting room, complete with two chairs and small table with a view out to the river behind the hotel, as well as a sink. Connected to this was a small toilet room, but more importantly was the outdoor stone shower and hot springs tub (more about that later). Finally, in typical ryukens and onsens (traditional Japanese lodgings and hot springs) normal everyday street clothes are not worn. Instead guests use a yukuta, which is essentially a heavier version of the more well known kimono. This yukuta is far more than a bathrobe, as it is worn to meals, throughout the hotel, out on the grounds, even to bed if you so choose.
Well, after two long days of serious sidewalk touring around Tokyo, Beth and I jumped at the chance to settle into some comfy robes and hit up the reserved private onsen, or hot springs. Once inside we were able to soak and shower in a traditional tile bath house. Unlike the Western view of the hot springs being centered outside around a nature geyser or spring, the Japanese often bring the natural spring water in to use for bathing and soaking. No bubble jets or jacuzzi settings here, just good ole fashioned hot baths.
Following our first soak, we then partook in an outrageous traditional dinner filled with all the staples of Japanese dining: noodles, broths, rice and fish. Surprisingly, it wasn’t separated into courses, but if it was would be a 6 or 7 course meal. The centerpiece of this feast was a delicious simmering stew cooked table side. This Miso based delight came with mushrooms, onions, noodles, tofu, and shaved pork that we added to simmer and were super tender. We also enjoyed tempura fish, roasted potatoes and veggies with a honey mustard dipping sauce, a soy based side soup, steamed rice, pickled veggies, and a few other goodies…including a pear sherbert dessert. Paired with this gluttony of all things Japan was a bottle of their local brew, Shonan Lager. While it fit well with the typical light and hoppy taste of most Asian beers, this lager carried a more robust flavor and crispness with it that certainly enhanced its hoppiness.
After dinner all Beth and I could think about was going back to the room and trying out the private room tub on the outside porch. Keep in mind it is November here, and while it may not be snowing yet the temps have come down to make these fall nights crisp and chilly. So the meeting in the middle of steaming hot bath water and the chilled November air pouring in from the Hakone foothills truly enhanced the feeling of relaxation and ease that a good soak gives. Granted, it was painfully slow to fill up, but it was well worth being able to sit in piping hot water almost up to your shoulders. We stayed in until the water was almost lukewarm and then settled in for a goodnights sleep amidst the running river. Between the Japanese league baseball on TV and the faint glow of the moon through the wood and paper door I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Waking up the next morning Beth and I were treated to a traditional breakfast featuring steamed rice, a light broth with onions, noodles, and chinese cabbage, a full grilled fish, and lots of pickled and root veggies. Unlike the bacon and eggs or milk and cereal breakfasts of the West, our morning meal in Hakone is quite similar to our other meals, featuring rice, noodles, miso broth, and fish. Planning our adventure for the day we discover something special about the Hakone Region. Much like Summit County, Colorado has lots to see spread across several towns, the Hakone area is much the same, with various attractions in different towns. Furthermore, each of these towns are separated by switchback roads and tall mountain valleys, making the local bus system key to our travels.
Our first stop was Hakone-Machi, home to the famous waterside arch, part of the Hakone Jinja shrine. There we got to enjoy great views of Mt. Fuji, complete with Ashi Lake in the foreground. The Hakone area is well known for its unique and skillful woodwork, and got to admire some pieces ins several of the woodwork shops throughout the town. Everything from tea trays to inlay paintings, to kids toys, to their famous puzzle boxes were on display, each of which done with care and craftsmanship. All that shopping worked up an appetite, so we got lunch at a little sausage and brat shop that was a nice retreat from the typical Japanese meal, yum yum.
Finishing our meal, we walked up the hill through the shrine area and got to admire the beauty of the old growth forest and skillful designs of the shrine. So far I’ve found that Japan is a country whole heartedly devoted to stairs and stone steps, so it was no surprise to see a great set of ones leading up to the main shrine. After making it to the top we were rewarded with a graceful trip back down using switchback paths past lush foliage, dragon statues, and a koi pond. Once we reached the bottom of the hill it was only a short walk to get up close and personal with the torii gate. The way the gate frames the water and stands in stark contrast to the surroundings is hard to do justice to, even with photos. After trying our best (despite our pesky camera’s refusal to use the flash setting) we headed back to town along a quiet stone path by the water.
To get back to our hotel we took another bus, but it was more like a Nascar with handles the way our driver handled it. The hair-raising ride kept me on my toes as the handle would jerk at each turn and I’d need to use every muscle to steady myself at the abrupt stops. Just for kicks we decided to take a pit stop at the town of Miyanoshita, the next largest up the road from our hotel, with the idea of window shopping, looking for dinner, and probably walking down to our hotel for a soak and sleep. Well, things got colder, darker, and closed real quick – November in the Hakone mountain’s is quite chilly and the sun goes down around 5pm, so we decided to hop back on the bus and head to the hotel. Thank goodness we did as the distance down the winding two lane highway was great, with no easy place to walk. What seemed like a 15 minute walk on the map would have surely taken an hour or more, something neither of us wanted to do. Our driver this time around couldn’t be more different than previously. Very polite, very careful, he always checked his seven mirrors before starting again and warned passengers to “hang on tight” when tight turns approached.
Finally, we reached our hotel just as the sun cast its last rays and got a breather before planning to search for dinner in Hakone-Yumoto later. While stretching our legs and enjoying a cup of freshly made tea, Beth and I were lucky enough to catch a sumo match on the television. Sumo is a full-contact sport where a wrestler attempts to force another wrestler out of a circular ring or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. After watching several matches we concluded that the bouts are much more about the tradtions, rituals, and pomp and circumstance rather than the few quick moments of intense competition. Every so often we got to see a duel that lasted closer to 20 or 30 seconds, but most were finished in 10 seconds flat. Well after all the walking we did during the day Beth and I built up quite the appetite and went out to search for dinner.
We took a quick bus ride down to Hakone-Yumoto for dinner and seemed to only find an odd mix of train station diners and high priced sushi dens. Just when we thought all hope was lost, we poked our heads down a side street that featured a great little yakiniku, or Korean BBQ restaurant. Yakiniku is a form of Korean BBQ somewhat similar to Mongolian BBQ in the states, except its only beef and the portions are a little smaller…and you grill it. That’s right, each table comes with a inset grill used to cook your beef to perfection. And while that sounded tempting, Beth and I enjoyed their special of the day: pork and chicken bowls. These bowls featured scrumptious chicken or pork coated in a sweet and savory BBQ sauce served with kimichi and rice with a side of miso soup. Simple and to the point our dinner was delicious. Similar to sweet and sour sauce at home, the Korean BBQ sauce was the highlight of the meal for me. That being said, the chicken and pork were both very tender (even if they were a little fatty).
After dinner we returned to the hotel and away from the chilly and brisk mountain air. Before heading out to dinner Beth and I reserved another 30 minutes in the private bath house for when we returned, and it was the perfect way to end the day. Immersing in the hot water felt great on some tired muscles from three days of serious walking. Before you know it the thirty minutes were up and we headed back to the room, rested and relaxed…just what we came here to do.
In the morning we rose, had another breakfast complete with fish, soup, and a slew of pickled veggies, then checked out for the day. Complete with our big backpack of clothes, our little one of stuffs, and a bag of gifts and souvenirs from Hakone-Machi, we made our way to the train station in Odawara. After pulling into the sprawling station, we popped most of our things into a storage locker and set out to explore the town. Unlike the small mountain towns of Hakone, Odawara was a bit more urban, complete with mid-level rise buildings, fast food chains, and lots of commercial industry. We had a few hours to kill before setting off to Kyoto that afternoon, so we made our way to the Odawara Castle. After walking past some shops and sushi dens, we came upon the grounds for the Odawara Castle. Unsure if the grounds were open to the public, Beth and I ventured through two sets of walls and gates before seeing another visitor. Traveling during the week in November has its perks as mostly young vacationers and retirees can be seen at most tourist attractions. The grounds contiuned through a maze of walls, gates, and vertical rises before we entered the inner courtyard and castle keep. Thew keep rises up five stories and has beautiful views of the Hakone hillsides. Unfortunately, the original keep which was first constructed in 1447 was destroyed by the Meiji Restoration in 1872. Fortunately, it was rebuilt in 1960 utilizing ancient architectual plans and construction techniques to house a gorgeous museum featuring the area’s feudal history. Once we completed our schooling in the ancient samurai, we went back to town and I got to sample my very first beef bowl. A common fast food staple in Japan is the local rice bowl eateries, which Beth and I have lovingly nicknamed beef bowl shops. They all have huge outdoor banners promoting their cheap and tasty rice bowls piled high with onions and beef. I had seen these in each of the towns and cities we had been through but had yet to sample the wares; Boy was it tasty and filling!
After our late lunch we went back to the station, collected our bags, and waited for our shinkansen train that would take us to Kyoto. This was something I was very excited about because the shinkansen train is the Japanese name for the Bullet Train! These aerodynamic trains feature long sets of cars and travel at break neck speeds all across Japan. Essentially replacing the need for domestic air travel, these trains are quiet common and are used frequently. But for two Westerns e couldn’t keep our jaws from hitting the station platform as we watched the first of several bullet trains speed through the station. In the blink of an eye the train would be gone (as we discovered while attempting to take photos of it) just a flash of white and blue. After a half hour or so of frenzied train spotting, ours had arrived and we got to board. Unlike the excitement of watching the train from the outside, the inside operates much like an airplane that never really leaves the ground. The setup is similar to the RomanceCar, except a bit more modern with bathrooms, smoking lounges, changing rooms, etc throughout the cars. It wasn’t until we got to full speed in the countryside and hit a few banked curves did I fully appreciate the speed, style, and smooth ride that our shinkansen offered. We’ll get to ride more of the bullet to visit Hiroshima and Nagano, and I can’t wait to see what those trips offer.
Arriving in Kyoto we gathered up all our belongings and bags and headed north to our hotel after a quick subway ride from the station. Unlike bustling Tokyo with lights and people everywhere, or the one horse towns in Hakone, Kyoto is a big city with an old soul. Restaurants are typically closed by 8 or 9pm, and shops much much earlier. As we walked down the darkened street it seemed closer to midnight than 7:15, and Beth and I feared that dinnertime may have already passed. After quickly dropping off our bags at the hotel we got directions from the innkeeper of a close-by noodle house that should still be open. Thankfully it was and we ended our touring day with mix of authentic udon noodles, curry and rice.
After a hectic day of travel we settled into our room at the Three Sister’s Inn Annex. Opening shop in 1969, this inn is used to receiving western tourists and have seen enough to fill volumes of travel anecdotes. We had heard about it through Beth’s parents who had stayed at the Inn back in 1970s, and the great reputation for service and style hasn’t changed since. Tomorrow is our only full day ins Kyoto to sight-see, so it’s sure to be jam packed with temples, shrines, and all sorts of cultural experiences to share. Hope you’re enjoying my travel log as much as I am, stay tuned for more tales of a Denverite abroad!