While I was learning to love our new home of Japan and specifically Okinawa, we lived in such a large expat community it often didn’t feel like we were really living in Japan. So with a long weekend approaching we took advantage and headed to mainland Japan, specifically Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital city before Tokyo and remains much smaller than Tokyo, but with an amazingly dense amount of history.
The closest airports to Kyoto are in Osaka. . My sidekick and I flew into Osaka Itami Airport. My husband flew into Kansai International Airport, (he was traveling for work, we were traveling on a budget, thus different ticket reservations). Had we flown into Kanasi with him we would have taken a train directly from the airport to Kyoto; the train did not run to Itami though. Once arriving I inquired about getting a bus/shuttle to the train station where we would then be able to take the train to Kyoto - a process described on the internet as simple. We collected our suitcases, stopped by an information desk and were pointed in the right direction for the bus. We easily purchased tickets and queued for our 5 minute wait. Our bags were collected and we hopped on. Piece of cake; really couldn’t have been easier. It was after about 10 minutes on the bus as we headed out of the city I started wondering where we were headed. Since getting off the plane I hadn’t had a conversation in English, but felt that I was understood when I said train. It was as we hit the 30 minute marker I had a suspicion that I hoped was right. Was it possible that instead of sending us to the train station Osaka to take a train to Kyoto - they sent us on a bus to the Kyoto train station? Well, yes it is, because that’s exactly what they did. Not only that, but when the bus stopped across the street from the train station it happened to be directly in front of our hotel. They either didn’t understand me in Osaka or dismissed me as a tourist and just decided to send us this way. Either way a complete win!
We checked in and had just enough time to make it to our first sight before everything closed at 5:00 pm; and when I say everything closed at 5:00 I mean everything, sights, shops, restaurants, everything. This ended up being a common theme of annoyance. We weren’t interested in dinner at 5:00, but with nothing and I mean nothing else to do that’s what we went in search of. We found ourselves stalking any restaurant that looked like it might be considering reopening.
Day 1 - We headed off to the Philosophers Path, well kind of. Our Lonely Planet guide book had a longer walk mapped out that brought us by several gardens and temples and then finished up with the Philosophers Path. We did it all, right down to the curry udon for lunch. This was my first experience with asian gardens, and I was in awe. The simplicity, care and tranquility, as well as the complete feeling of peace just being surrounded by these spaces is incomparable.
After our last stop at Ginkaku-ji, we poured out onto a very touristy street where we rewarded ourselves for a full day of sightseeing with pork buns and a beer and then at 5:00 on the dot everything closed and I mean everything. The night before we had wandered around until places started to open back up at 6:00. We attempted to do the same thing on this particular night but we didn’t know the area as well … and we weren’t quite as successful … We stopped in a market, we found another place for a drink for the big people and a snack for the sidekick. We tried to wander our way to the least convenient subway stop ever. (I’m not really sure it even existed). All was well until one of us, (me), had to use the restroom. At this point we were wandering through a residential neighborhood with nothing commercial in sight. After roughly 17 hours we happened upon a mom and pop or in this case a mom and son (we think) “restaurant”, and I could see a sign for the toilet all the way in the back which was about 12’ from the front. I entered, full steam ahead, helping us to the only table, with my husband under his breath asking “are we really doing this?” to which I answered “yes” as I made a beeline for the restroom. Upon exiting the restroom and taking a deep breath, I sat down to find my husband staring at me and all 4 people in the restaurant staring at us. My husband who has what I call “menu fluency” in about half a dozen languages, not so calmly explained to me that Japanese was not one of them. I assured him it would be fine and an adventure. I then had my lightbulb moment! I took out my guide book and frantically looked for something I had read earlier; with everyone still looking at me. Then I found a paragraph describing how to order, and if all else fails to ask for “whatever the chef recommends”, and they had it in japanese. I handed my husband the phrase with confidence, like it solved everything. He spoke the phrase to the mom and she walked the three feet over to the sushi counter to conference with her son.. I’m not sure how much it simplified things, but it did end the staring and a little while later a large plate loaded with several things arrived at our table. Some of it even identifiable, most of it not, and much of it pleasant to try (not all of it). After our plate of unidentifiable food we were able to successfully order rice for the sidekick.
Thus far a successful stop - a local experience, with local food, a fed sidekick and Sake; a good night. -- 6 courses and who knows how much Sake later our night certainly qualified as an adventure. While this was all wonderful, what the guidebook didn’t address was the phrase to turn off the food, probably not anticipating this problem. Somewhere around course 4 a gentleman, who clearly frequented this establishment, wandered in and took a seat at the counter. After clearly noticing that the confused tourists were tonight's entertainment he started “chatting” with us in his limited english and our even more limited Japanese. He provided a little help translating for the chef and confirmed shellfish would not kill us. What I’m not sure about is if he actually simplified anything or added even more dishes to the experience. . When he insisted on buying us a glass of Sake and the waitress brought out a 30” tall bottle of Sake to pour from I certainly got the impression once again that watching us navigate this scene was tonight's entertainment. At the very least it was an amazing experience in trying new things and at the end of the evening our new friend insisted on paying, and after much gratitude and lots of bowing we headed on our way … still completely lost. Luckily with much less excitement and with a piggyback ride for our overtired sidekick. We worked our way to a main street and were able to catch a taxi.
Day 2 - Today we head south, staying directly across the street from the train station made this a pretty easy start to the day. We took off for Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, which remains possibly my favorite site in Japan. This was to be the first of many trips there for my sidekick and I. When we got off the train (with everyone else) we funneled through the gate out onto a pretty tight sidewalk, lucky we were only about 300 feet to the approach. There was a broad path leading through the first of thousands of gates. It was a nice space to spread out from the crowd, slow down and prepare ourselves to visit the shrine - which as a religious sight takes many different meanings to those visiting it. One of the reasons I like taking family and friends here when they visit is because it’s a great place to ring the bells. Yes, Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is a religious shrine but at this point it’s also a tourist attraction. It’s because of this it feels much more comfortable taking part in some of the rituals. Lonely Planet does a great job walking you through the appropriate steps. I always review this before I go.
What to Do at a Shrine
(Lonely Planet Kyoto)
After we rang the bells and took some time here we moved along with everyone else to the path of gates. It’s one of those places that’s more impressive than the pictures. When we started our way through the gates we didn’t necessarily have a plan, but once we fell into line with 1,000 other people our plan quickly became to move on as fast as possible until the crowd had thinned, and thin it did. An hour later we found ourselves on the top of the mountain with no one else around. We were able to just take in the beauty and the pure magnitude of where we were. My favorite part was the wander down the hill, and not just because it’s not up. But because it’s just you and the path of gates in the beautiful forest and you get to feel the space, be part of the space.
On the way back down we started joining the masses of people again. We eventually hit the “one way”, single file maze that first had us running for the hills, literally. On the way down there was a split in the path and while we didn’t know where this other path would lead it had to be better than the alternative of masses of people. This quiet path eventually led to a quiet road which meandered around to the side of the shrine, bu tnot before leading us by a perfect little cafe which was just the place to warm up and dry - oh did i not mention it had been misting on us for much of the day. - “ one coffee, one tea, one hot chocolate, and one sweet treat please!”
After our much needed respite we headed out, warmer, dryer and with the sun which was a nice surprise. When we arrived down at the entrance to the site we were greeted by a side street full of food vendors that had appeared while we were up the mountain; lunch time! If you hadn’t picked up on it already, local street food while traveling to a new area is one of my favorite things. We started with something I would best describe as a rice ball wrapped in bacon with melted cheese on top. This quickly became a tradition every time we made this hike. We then wandered along and added some skewers, juice, and something similar to a filled pancake to the menu. Full, we headed back to the train station.
With some time left in the afternoon to spare we headed to Nishiki Market Shopping District. This had been high on my list of places to visit and I'm not disappointed we went, but it wasn’t all I hoped for. The main streets surrounding the market were filled with large commercial shops. Within the commercial mecca are small shops/stolls and eateries. As eating while walking is a no go in Japanese culture we weren’t able to try things as we went. As things started closing down we were left with the same hour long closure we had previously struggled with. We eventually found a hot pot place and were their first enthusiastic patrons of the night. Once again equally as excited for a warm place and hot food to take refuge from the increasing could/dark/damp streets. After a pleasant dinner we headed out with just one more stop before heading back to the hotel. Need I say more ….
Finally back to the hotel to prepare for our early morning departure via the Japanese bullet train.
Lonely Planet Kyoto - As you probably noticed I referenced this book many times. This was my go to travel book for Kyoto. I used it over many trips and it never let me down. I would highly recommend it if you find yourself heading out on adventure there. As I write more about Kyoto in the future, I will continue to reference finds and suggestions I took from this book.