Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Signature moves in Kyoto

Kyoto – March 10 to 13, 2010 (by Swiss)

Yes – I’ve been lazy again and thus lagging behind.  Writing motivation has been lacking recently, so apologies for that.  Here’s to hoping I get back on track :)

The "middle" stop in our brief tour of Japan was in Kyoto.  Probably best known to Americans for the namesake of a little treaty that we didn't sign, Kyoto offers a wealth of interesting sights, history, and Japanese culture.  Once the former capital of Japan, today it is probably most famous for it's temples, geishas, and excellent spring water.

High Speed train once again
There were, as always, a couple of options for us to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, a distance of about 500 km (310 miles) the way the crow flies.  The most famous, I would venture to say, is taking the Shinkansen train, also known as the infamous bullet train.  Around 12,300 Yen buys you a non-reserved seat ticket, which basically means you show up at the station at a semi-reasonable time, take your place in the marked queue area by the tracks (see first pic), and ultimately try to score a decent spot in one of the “non-reserved seat” cars.  There were seats aplenty, so we both managed to get a nice window seat with power outlet.  Reserved seats can be had at a premium if you’re into that, but proved unnecessary in our case.

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Now let me tell you something about high speed train travel.  And granted, I have a slight bias due to my Swiss background.  But man, it's amazing how much more relaxing and less stressful it is to travel by rail compared to planes, bus, or car.  Clean, efficient, power outlets by the seats, smooth ride, quiet, and none of the usual hassles affiliated with air travel (security, cramped seat, ears popping, etc.)  It was downright relaxing and a nice way to take a brief glimpse at the countryside, be it moving by at up to 300 km/h (186 mph.)


Upon arriving in Kyoto, we walked the 15 minute walk to K's Backpacker Hostel where we had booked dorm beds for our stay.  The hostel seemed brand new and offered a very good location.  It was clean, had decent beds, common showers, free wifi, and beautiful common areas (including a fully functional kitchen.)  Highly recommended if you ever make it to Kyoto.  For a sample, here's a pic of their lounge:


The remainder of the day was fairly anti-climatic and drew to an end shortly after consumption of dinner (rice and grilled beef) at a nearby spot.

Temples, Geishas (sort of, I guess), Castles, and even some blossoms

As so often happens when we get to a location, one full day is usually dedicated to sightseeing.  Since our intended stay was fairly short, that day fell on day two of three and would include a sampling of the Kiyomizu-dera temple, the geisha district, and the Nijo castle to top off the day.

Kiyomizu-dera, located in the eastern part of town, was established in 778 A.D. and re-built in the 17th century.  It offers a variety of sights and great views of the city.  As luck would have it, the weather ended up being quite nice that day, which allowed for some nice pictures and enjoyment of the temple grounds.

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The feature of Kiyomizu-dera was probably the drinking of the local spring water.  In fact, part of the reason the temple was founded at that location was due to the discovery of clean spring water source by a monk back in the day.  So water was of course sampled as well (no pun intended):




Upon completion of our little visit, we were off to explore the adjacent Gion district, aka the Geisha district.  In addition to a long and storied history of geisha, the hood is a great spot for sampling Yatsuhashi, which is a cinnamon based snack item prevalent in the area.  We quickly got into the rhythm of sampling various foods, checking out cool pastry making machines, topped off by a documented sampling of some green tea ice cream (Jason) and cream puff (me.)

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The highlight, or so we initially thought, was the witnessing of some “geisha” walking down the street.  Later uploads of the pics to flickr and subsequent snooty comments by an apparent geisha connoisseur revealed that what we thought we witnessed as being real geisha were likely "fakes" who got made up by one of many studios in the area.  We had not done our homework, so they seemed pretty real to us at the time.  It’s moments like this where ignorance can be bliss, but it is what it is.  Oh, and I digg the smile :)


As (unfortunate) luck would have it, we were just one week too early for Kyoto's annual lantern festival, where they light up lanterns along the streets in preparation for the Cherry blossoms.  Ergo, we also happened to be about two weeks early for the cherry blossom festival, though we did manage to catch some early risers.  Despite our timing, the neighborhood was gorgeous with beautiful architecture and a cool place to check out.

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Our afternoon activity would involve the visit of the Nijo castle.  First, however, we had to chow down.  That economical feat happened at Mos Burger, Japan's answer to McDonalds.  It was also where I managed to sample my first burger that came between two  pressed rice “buns.”  Good stuff.


We arrived at the castle in the later parts of the afternoon. Given our seasonal timing, we were coming in at the end of plum blossom season/beginning on cherry blossom reason.  So besides the castle, we managed to catch (and smell) some blossoms on the grounds. This would also conclude our major activities for the day.

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Monney Monney Monney...Moooohhney

The first 40 minutes of our official Friday fun involved locating an ATM.  Yes, an ATM.  As in the thingy that gives you money in return for a piece of flat plastic and a PIN code.  ATM's that accept international cards are very limited in Japan.  We had heard there were machines on the top floor of the iSetan mall at Kyoto station, so naturally this would be our first stop.  As it happens, we couldn't find them, but instead tracked down a tourist office on the 9th floor that was quite helpful and seemed to offer a variety of services.  They kindly informed us of the post office next to the mall, which allowed us to get our cash fix.  FYI, post offices are probably the best way (as in most plentiful) to get cash in Japan if you're a foreigner.  From what we saw, Citi bank also has locations which allow international withdrawals, though locations are more scarce.  Bottom line:  Getting cash in Japan ain’t quite as easy as you think. 

So what would a visit to Japan be without sampling sake?  We had learned that there is a sake brewery in Kyoto that offers tours, so it would be on our list of things to check out.  In order to get there, we hopped on the train 15 minute ride to the Fushimi neighborhood.  After a quick lunch, we wandered towards Gekkeikan Museum.  Along the way, we noticed a water well where locals came to fill up their water bottles.  Apparently the water in Kyoto is quite good (as witnessed by our temple visit the prior day), and as such, offers a nice basis for their local sake. 

We arrived at the museum shortly after lunch, and were informed that in exchange for 300 Yen (just over USD 3), we were granted admission to the museum, a sampling of their sake, and a gift bag with a small glass of sake for the ride home.  The museum itself was executed very well, and covered the history of the Gekkeikan brand along with the process of creating what we know as sake.  A good two hours were spent at the brewery, including yet more sampling of Kyoto water.

P3122568 IMG_4696 P3122570 IMG_4698 IMG_4699Content with our little sake excursion, it was time to head back toward the hostel to do something we hadn’t done since Sept 2009:  Cook a meal.  Given the great kitchen setup at K’s coupled with higher priced restaurant food, we decided that it was time for some cooking.  This came in the form of Cordon Bleu with pasta.  The menu was a result of our desire to minimize ingredients that had to be bought/wasted.  The chicken, pasta and sauce were used up that evening.  That left cheese, eggs and bread crumbs.  The crumbs were donated to the hostel kitchen, while the eggs, cheese, and ham were combined with some toast to create a breakfast of sorts the next day.  It ended up being a surprisingly tasty and efficient meal.

IMG_4714 IMG_4716 IMG_4717 Our night time activity was slated to be a visit to the local spa, or in our case an Onsen, which is a natural spring water spa.  Like many such establishments in Asia, it’s gender specific and involves the removal of all clothes….you know, you’re naked.  The bath we visited was very nice, with multiple pools at various temperatures and flavors (green tea was one, I think.)  My favorite, however, was the electric bath.  It was basically a narrow basin with two electrodes on either side, with a sign warning folks with heart problems not to take a dip.  So Lawton opted out, and I slowly immersed myself into the tingly water.  It was a very strange sensation, especially when my arm muscles started cramping up due to the electricity flowing though my body.  But it was strangely relaxing, and left my fingers with a stingy/tingly feeling well into the night. 

Everybody’s heard that the bird is the word

We got ready for our departure on Saturday.  This involved the usual packing of our gear, which happened after our left-over breakfast ingredients from the following night.  Prior to hopping on the Osaka train, we did manage to swing by Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji.  Established in 1321, it features the world’s largest wooden structure and was a nice morning activity, even though part of the structures were under construction at the time.  The highlight, as documented in the latter parts of the picture set below, was the feeding of the pigeons.  If you buy food, they will come.  The first two pictures are meant to be “stitched together” to give you a good feel of the size of this all wooden temple.  It was literally too large to capture by our cameras.

IMG_4733 IMG_4734 IMG_4736 P3132579 P3132582 IMG_4768     IMG_4778 So that about wraps up our little adventures in Kyoto.  I do, however, want to share some Japan-isms that I’ve observed during our stay in the land of the rising sun.

Japan-isms as noted by Swiss

1.  Sliding door buttons.  As in the US, most modern stores in Japan have sliding glass doors.  What makes them unique in Japan is that they are often equipped with a button as shown in the picture below.  It allows users to open the door, and the proximity sensor sometimes is disabled altogether.  Why is this awesome?  How many times have you been in a crowded situation when a sliding glass door keeps opening and closing because someone is standing by the sensor?  Exactly.  Also a good way to keep cold out and heat in during winter.


2.  Automatic ordering machines.  Many restaurants have a machine outside where your order selection can be made and paid for.  You get a slip with your order, which is handed to the server.  Quite nifty when you can’t speak the language or have anti-social tendencies (I have both of those afflictions at times.)  Plus it removes the need for the staff to deal with money and change.

IMG_4691 3. Trash cans.  Or really, a lack thereof.  Trash cans are notoriously hard to find.  In fact, I think they have a pact with ATMs to elude us westerners.  We actually got in the habit of taking pictures when we managed to find a trash can.

IMG_4586 Oh, and Japan remains notoriously clean despite this elusiveness.

4.  Toilets.  I understand that some people may have an issue with the concept of a bidet.  You’ll find plenty of them in Japan.  And they are actually quite practical.  But the best part, especially in the winter, is that toilet seats are HEATED.  Trust me, you won’t want to go back.  Other features include a button to create a flushing sound for folks with stage fright and deodorizers for folks with….well, you get my point.  Way cool.

IMG_4596 5.  Making smokers feel guilty.  The signs say it all:

IMG_4695 IMG_4712 6.  And last but not least, the lack of Sprite.  Well, at least in Kyoto.  I was in need of caffeine free soda one night, and wanted  a sprite.  Visits to three different stores and one McDonalds yielded nothing.  It wasn’t until two days later, in a dark alley near our little spa, where I found this:

IMG_4724 Yes, I took a picture of a vending machine selling Sprite.  Clearly time to wrap things up.  If history is any indication, Jason will have stuff on Tokyo and Mumbai fairly soon.