Traveling in a foreign country when you live in said foreign country is great! I have never experienced this before, but it is definitely the best way to travel. Having a prior understanding of the language, customs, culture, food, transportation, and being able to carry wifi on your person takes the stress out of being somewhere totally new. Plus you get this fantastic rush from being able to help out real “tourists.” So I may be biased when I say that Kyoto is an amazing place to travel, but here’s what we were able to accomplish on day two; hopefully you will find yourself here someday as well and can tell me how it went.
The forecast was guaranteed rain all day, so umbrellas in hand we ate conbini (the word Japanese use for convenience store) breakfast and hopped on the bus to Arashiyama in the western edge of Kyoto. For $12 you can buy an all-day subway and bus pass for unlimited rides, this is a must. Pays for itself after four or five rides, or you can just sit on the bus and enjoy the air conditioning. After about forty minutes, we arrived at the aptly name Storm Mountain in the midst of heavy rain. The only good thing about the rain in summer is the fact that it makes the air feel slightly cooler, although it is still 85 degrees with 90% humidity, so you are wet from the rain and wet from your own sweat. Yum…don’t come to Japan in the “summer,” if you can avoid it. If you can’t, enjoy being wet. But seriously, don’t come in the summer.
Despite all this, the Tenryu-ji temple and it’s gardens were beautiful. From there, you can head straight into the famous Bamboo Path, a short walk lined by a thicket of tall bamboo. Despite being in the shade its actually hotter underneath the bamboo.
Next, we enjoyed the Kameyama Park and the Hozu River Walk, which takes you back to the bridge across the Hozu River. From here, you can cross and hike a really, really long path completely uphill to see the Iwatayama Monkey Park. 114 Macaque monkeys roam free, and on a clear day you get a great view of Kyoto. While this is a bit of a novelty, it’s quite lovely and sitting next to dozens of monkeys is an interesting experience.
Still raining, we grabbed a bus headed for Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It is indeed very golden, and although the rain just wouldn’t let up, we were able to snap a few nice photos. It is definitely a stunning site, and I can only imagine how radiant it would look with sunlight reflecting off it’s golden exterior. Not much to do other than gaze upon its majesty, but it is absolutely worth the price of admission. Since we weren’t yet templed-out, we headed to central Kyoto to visit Nijo Castle, a stunning representation of shogunate glory.
Finally, the rain stopped, as if it understood how important it was to see this incredible structure. We were thrilled, not only for this good turn of luck, but because in all our time in Japan so far we had yet to actually step foot in a castle. The Imperial Castle in Tokyo is not open to the public save for twice a year, and Sendai Castle no longer exists. You can visit the “Castle Site” where it used to sit, but an empty expanse of land touted as a famous destination is a giant let down. We were not at all let down by Nijo-jo.
There are two palaces within Nijo Castle; one, Ninomaru, is open to the public and contains amazing examples of Japanese architecture and wall murals. You must enter the palace before the natural light is lost because nothing is artificially lit, so as to preserve the precious artifacts. You take off your shoes and walk the halls of the shogun palace, noticing the squeaking of the wooden boards, especially designed that way to alert the residents to the sound of trespassing footsteps. After touring room upon gorgeous room, we headed out into the gardens, which are equally breathtaking. Although the castle is situated among the busy streets of Kyoto, you can hear nothing of the outside world behind its walls, only the sound of cicadas buzzing like electricity. Thoroughly awed, we headed east in central Kyoto to find the Kinshi Masumune Sake Museum & Tasting.
Sake breweries in Kyoto have almost equally forbidding exteriors as the castles. Usually you only know they contain a sake brewery when you see a large, brown ball of cedar leaves hanging discretely over the entrance. For this particular brewery, no entrance sign or hours of operation were posted. We basically opened a sliding door, stuck our heads in and asked for sake in very broken Japanese. While they did not appear to be open for business, the gentleman there let us come in and tour the grounds, and also gave us a brief tasting of their three best nihon-shu and one ume-shu. This private tasting only wetted our appetite for sake, so we headed to North Gion and the Izakaya area to find some sashimi to eat with more sake. Luckily, you really can’t choose a bad sushi restaurant in Japan. We choose one on a side street and ordered the chef’s sashimi recommendation with a small bottle of Junmai-ginsho. Another great thing about Kyoto is the prevalence of tourists. Normally, tourists are annoying, but since we can go weeks without seeing another non-Japanese person in Tohoku, foreigners are actually friendly faces. During dinner, we met a lovely couple visiting from Britain who took our tips about which sake to order and ended up staying to drink sake with us for a couple hours. Hopefully we can look up Baz and Pinda if we decide to visit Cambridgeshire. After parting ways, we headed north to Ponto-cho, the nighlife “alley” that some people consider the seedy side of Japan. Honestly, I haven’t experienced anything in Japan I would call truly seedy, and I found Ponto-cho to be delightfully humming with energy and charm. Despite that it was Monday and a little quiet, we decided to create our own Japanese bar challenge. Most of the bars and restaurants here are layered between many floors of one building. So we started at the bar on the basement level and worked our way up to the bar on the top. Luckily the building we choose only had three floors. The first bar was a Jamaican-style establishment named Rub A Dub, where we had a couple decent mojitos and got our fill of Bob Marley. Next was Bar Moon Walk, an anime-themed bar with anime-related paraphernalia, and they made a nice tiny Cosmo martini. Most bars charge you a seat fee just to sit down in their establishment, an odd practice to enforce when your bar is totally empty. However, this bar made it up to you by charging only $2 for any drink, so obviously we had three rounds. Finally we trekked up to the top story, a non-descript Japanese style bar that was completely empty. The TVs in the bar were set up for karaoke, but were stuck in a preview loop that played 20-second snippets of only Britney Spears videos. After developing a rapport with the extremely bored staff, we got them to do karaoke with us. They sang Japanese songs for us, and I sang something by the Beatles, of which I have little recollection of, but I’m willing to bet it sounded pretty awful. The staff at Sakura were great sports nonetheless.
We stumbled out around 1am, realizing none of the buses would be running anymore, so we hopped in a taxi for the first time in our four months living in Japan. It is quite a testament to the Japanese transportation system that we could avoid cabs for so long. The meter starts at $6, and we ended up with a tab of $7.50, so you can see that taxis in Japan are not the ideal way to get around.
Once back at our guest home, I proceeded to devour left-over o-nigiri from breakfast. I have no recollection of what was inside, but I’m sure it was delicious. There is something oddly comforting about washing down a night of sake with late night rice balls. I may not have needed to come all the way to Japan to experience this, but it sure feels right when you’re here.
So there you have it; a million experiences in one day. No wonder I’m addicted to traveling.