Japan: Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan is a mix of the old and the new – and I loved it!

The trip started when Blair, Sarah, and I found each other at the airport in Osaka and took the train to Kyoto. Figuring out the train system took all three of us. We had to take one train to get from the Osaka airport to Kyoto then find the right train to get to the stop where our Airbnb place was. But we did it.

And stepping off the train felt like I had stepped back in time.

We arrived in Kyoto around 10:00 pm on a Friday. Blair and I were starving because we hadn’t yet eaten dinner. We wandered around for a little while before coming to the sad conclusion that our only option was 7-11. Granted, the 7-11 had some awesome selections, but, still, we were kind of excited about eating authentic Japanese food.

No such luck.

The city had shut down for the night.

We got our convenience store noodles and followed Google Maps to the Airbnb place. A key was waiting for us in a lockbox that the owner had messaged to Blair, and we went up to the apartment that was ours for the next three days.

It was one of the tiniest places I’ve been in: teeny foyer area to take off and leave your shoes, narrow walkway with a kitchenette on the right and doors to the bathroom on the left (one door for a luxurious toilet with heating and bidet options and a built-in sink on the back, amazing, and another for a regular sink and shower area), then a closet and three beds.

We sat at the tiny table squeezed in by the closet and ate our cold noodles. Since it was closing in on midnight, we settled in for the night.

The next day we set out to explore. I was beyond excited. Japan was a dream destination for me, and I was practically vibrating with excitement. Everywhere I looked there were women, men, and children dressed in kimonos walking along behind women, men, and children dressed in the latest Japanese fashions. Everyone appeared so fashionable, even riding bikes or walking on the street.

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The bridge to Starbuck’s – isn’t it wonderful?!

After a quick caffeine fix and map download at Starbuck’s, we left for the first destination of the day – the Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, is a Zen Buddhist Temple set in beautiful gardens with a pond in front. The top two floors of the building are covered in gold leaf plating which literally glows in the sun. It’s absolutely stunning.

Sarah left us at this point because she had gotten a bad cold and was feeling horrible so Blair and I went to Nishiki Market which was a bit of a disappointment although the place where we ate lunch, Tiger Gyoza, was fantastic!

After that, we headed to another temple, Fushimi Inari-taisha. Fushimi Inari-taisha is an important Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of torii gates and fox statues which are thought to be messengers to Inari, the god of rice. Individuals and corporations pay for the gates, hoping to garner favor with Inari.

Walking through the gates at dusk had a surreal, reverent feel to it despite the many tourists surrounding us. The orange and black color of the gates cast a warm glow over everyone. Since it was getting dark, we didn’t walk too far before turning back to head to the train.

The walk to and from the train station was lined with food and souvenir vendors so it was a lively and entertaining walk. We met back up with Sarah in the room and freshened up for dinner. Deciding to walk around the Pontocho area and find a local restaurant, we found out that we should have made reservations. Nobody had anything available.

So, here we are, traipsing through narrow alleys (which were so cool!) and asking if we could eat at these tiny places that looked like you needed a secret password to gain entry. And nobody had any tables available. We finally found a Japanese barbeque place that had a table and sat down.

It was a tiny place, each table only sitting four people with a little grill on the table so there was very little room for a plate and drink per person. We ordered some meat and vegetables which we cooked ourselves and shared. It was pretty delicious, but we didn’t order very much. It felt cramped and was hard to relax on the tall stool with our feet dangling. We ate what we ordered and headed out.

Blair and I were still hungry, though. Sarah was starting to feel sick again and headed back to bed, but Blair and I set out to see if we could find something better.

We did.

We found a teppanyaki place. Heaven.

For dessert, we had a taste of home at a Baskin-Robbins.

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The next day was more site-seeing at Arishayama. I absolutely fell head over heels in love with this place. It was gorgeous! I wish we could’ve spent more time there because we only had time to go to the Monkey Park which was pretty great, but I wanted to go see the Bamboo Forest and a few other things.

And here’s where I messed up. I scheduled tickets for us to go on the Sagano Railroad then take a boat back down the river, but I scheduled us too late. We were able to ride Sagano Railroad, but the boats had stopped running by the time we arrived. I was so sad.

We made up for it that night when Blair found us the most wonderful, authentic, old sushi place for dinner. I literally think about this meal all the time. The place was small and crowded, and we sat around a kitchen area with an all male staff hustling around cutting and stirring and scooping. They didn’t crack a smile. They just worked.

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Our last day was a tour that Sarah had done before. It took all morning and was so great. I would recommend it to anyone. It was a walking tour with Waraido. There were people in the group from all over the world, including Japan. That made everything so much more interesting.

We walked for five hours. We went to the Higashi-Honganji Temple which I can’t even describe. It’s the main Buddhist Center in Japan and was so spiritual. People store their family’s remains there and go visit them and pray for their souls. There were many people visiting when we were there so we had to be very quiet in the main hall. The hall itself is beautifully designed with wood that naturally repels insects and has intricate carvings. Everything about this place is amazing.

We left there and went to several Shinto shrines, one especially for women which I loved!  We walked around Gojo-rakuen, a former geisha area, and housing the original Nintendo company. That was pretty cool. Apparently, Nintendo started out with just card games. I didn’t know that.

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We also went to several traditional workshops – for tofu, fans, pastry, pottery, and candy. The fan shop made gorgeous fans! I wanted to buy some just because they were so pretty – but where would I put them?!

It was a long day but so worth it. As we walked, everyone asked questions. One of the other guests on the tour asked what the Japanese thought of foreigners. She said they liked them as the country is so homogenous, but what is difficult is when they cancel reservations. It is an insult in Japan as everyone has worked hard to prepare for you. It’s not about the money; it’s about the pride they take in their work and presentation.

Presentation came up multiple times: when we browsed handmade ceramics and she discussed the different dishes used for meals; when we went to the candy shop and had tea; when we went to the first temple and learned what different bows mean.

How old things are – the shops that have been in families for centuries. This isn’t old. It’s only been around since about 1865. Ha, ha!

Kyoto is the original capital of Japan; Tokyo took the capital by force and is the modern-day capital. People from Kyoto still consider it the true capital. Note that Kyoto and Tokyo have the same letters which are actually two names – Kyo and To then To and Kyo. Kyoto means Imperial Capital or Western Capital depending on who you talk to while Tokyo means Eastern Capital. So interesting to me.

And we walked by a toilet company. The toilets in Japan are AWESOME and the Japanese take great pride in them. They have heated toilet seats, music to play while peeing so others can’t hear, sinks on the back of the toilet, and more. Fancy toilets – who knew that was a thing?!

By the time the tour was over, we were done, exhausted, ready to head back to the airport and home. And we had the long trek back to the airport first. We got a last meal of ramen on the way, bought Tokyo bananas (gourmet Twinkies!) to take back to Taipei, and finally got on the plane.

It was a wonderful trip – and we packed a lot into two and a half days!

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