Kyoto Day 2

This post is being written in the middle of the Strait of Taiwan on our sea day between Ishigaki Island Japan and Xiamen China about our second day in Kyoto last month.

We woke up early and after a quick breakfast from the bakery next door to our hotel, we took the subway to Nijo Castle/Ninomaru Palace. Prior to being relocated to Tokyo, the capital of Japan was Kyoto. Originally built as a fortress by a shogun, this castle later became the palace for some of the emperor’s relatives and hosted a long visit by the Emperor.

The entrance gate is heavily decorated (actually everything is that way!) and I found some of the details just beautiful. Even the back is the gate is impressive.

The palace building is a series of rooms each having a different purpose, the first ones administrative and the further interior the more private. All are also highly decorated. Additionally, the floors chirp when you walk on them. It is said this was done for security so that an intruder could be heard coming. However, my mama would have said the floors squeak and they ought to call the contractor back to fix them! Unfortunately, photos weren’t allowed inside but I’ve included some photos found on the innerwebs below.

The gardens of the Castle/Palace are lovely and I suspect more so during blooming season. They were designed to be viewed from inside the building and the waterfalls and plantings create pleasing vignettes for the royals pleasure.

There is a second building onsite but it was under scaffolding being restored but we did cross it’s most and climb up (and I mean climb) to the castle walls.

Throughout the grounds there are several tea houses most of which are not open to the public but instead are used for official entertainment or can be rented for events. These were originally used by the royals. One of them was open during our visit so we decided to have a rest and have macha tea for the first time. Macha is a powder made from green tea and rather than steeping it, you mix it using a bamboo whisk with hot water. When you hear about a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, it means you will be drinking macha. The tea house was lovely but rather than being traditional and sitting on tatami mats on the floor, we elected to have our tea on a bench (much easier to get up off of) on the porch (much cooler than inside). It was an enjoyable experience with a beautiful view into the garden but we won’t need to have macha again! Thankfully we also had some cold green tea which we knew we liked since that’s what we drink at home. With our tea we got a sweet-typically Japanese it was the consistency of bread dough with a sweet bean paste inside. I later learned we should have eaten with the macha as the sweet would have made the bitter of the tea more enjoyable..or so the guide said. The first video is of us making the tea and a lesson from Mike on its health benefits while the second one is worth watching just to see the look on Mike’s face as he tastes the sweet!

After tea and a stroll through the beautiful garden we headed towards the exit of the Castle/Palace with one last stop at the Imperial Kitchen. This huge building (surrounded by many small storehouses) is now used for exhibits. There was a photography exhibit of everyday Kyoto life on display which was interesting but I found the huge beams and beautiful architectural details and doors even more fascinating. But best of all were the beautiful long handles shoe horns waiting at the entrance/exit to assist in putting your shoes back on!

It was lunchtime by the time we left so we decided to walk towards our hotel (thankfully the taller buildings provided shade to the sidewalk) and find some food. We of course were looking for something traditionally Japanese-soba noodles perhaps but when we saw Mos Burgers we knew we had to try Japanese fast food! It was great fun-the cashier didn’t speak English but between her smile and my google translate we did just fine. The menu had burgers, shrimp burgers, fried shrimp on a bun, tofu burger and all sorts of others. We elected to have the Mos Burger which was a pork and beef mixture and the shrimp on a bun. Both were tasty, the fries and onion rings were just ok. After eating our sandwiches we were still a bit hungry so we split a hotdog. It was really good-more a German sausage than an American hot dog.

After lunch we continued our stroll (Death March) back to our hotel passing some interesting architecture and what we presume was a negligee store along the way.

We also passed a bakery with beautiful cakes so we order us up a slice of thebfig version to take back to the hotel. We were more impressed with the packaging than the cake unfortunately. Not only did they pack it in a beautiful box and bag, there was a cardboard spacer in the box along with a teeny ice pack and an even teenyer fork! All this for $4 bucks. No wonder the cake was just alright tasting! 😂 Back in the room, I made myself a cup of coffee using the coffee system that we found at both hotels in Japan. The coffee comes in what looks like a small packet that you typically use in 4 cup maker but the packet has cardboard “arms” which you just to hang it over the coffee cup. You then just add hot water and it brews to a quite tasty cup o’joe.

After a rest (read nap for someone), we headed back towards Gion. On the way we stopped to have soba. These noodles are thicker than ramen and made of buckwheat. Here rather than pork in the broth like in Tokyo, the tradition is to have tempura with them. Mike had a hot dish, while I selected cold noodles which are served with a cold mashed yam paste. We both liked them.

After supper we headed to Gion Corner. This theatre is the official headquarters of the Geisha Association and they have two shows a night which include a traditional tea ceremony, flower arranging and music (all happening simultaneously), a traditional orchestra performance directed by a conductor in an elaborate costume and mask, a traditional comedy play, a puppet show (with big puppets operated by two or three people) and a traditional geisha dance-in this case performed by a first year and second year maiko. You can tell the second year as her upper lip is also painted. You can tell they are not yet geishas, as their obe (belt is long in the back rather than tied into an elaborate knot. The show was a little hokey but I’m glad we went as otherwise we wouldn’t have seen a real geisha at all.

After dinner we had a nice stroll back to the hotel through Gion (where maybe we saw some modern Geishas??) and along the river which was quite lively. We also popped into the two story supermarket beside our hotel. The upper floor was a specialty market with lots of foreign foods-who knew you could get Brer Rabbit Molasses outside the south? Of course at $8 a bottle I wouldn’t be buying it very often!

Tomorrow we head to Hiroshima.

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Typhoon

Yikes! Glad we visited Japan when we did. The awful typhoon that hit there on Saturday caused major flooding. The picture above is if the storage/repair yard for the bullet trains we took. As you can see, inundated with flood waters. We passed that yard on one of our rides, I remember being amazed at how many trains were being stored. The bullet train system is huge but apparently a 1/3 of the train cars of that particular line are damaged. 😢

Kyoto Day 1

This post is being written as we leave port in Ishigaki Japan headed back to China and covers our first full day in Kyoto back in late September 2019.

Kyoto turned out to be the highlight of our time in Japan. There was lots (too much?) to see, everyone we met was friendly, and we got in a groove of getting up relatively early and sightseeing, having lunch and then returning to our hotel during the heat of the day and then venturing back out after sunset.

The first morning we met the Kyoto Free Walking Tour just outside one of the stations near our hotel along the river. We have done these tours in several places and they have always been very good for an overview of a new place and this was no exception. There is no charge but at the end of the tour you tip the guide whatever you wish.

This tour met beside the river which is well used in the daytime as a bike path and exercise site. We loved seeing how the Japanese behavior of not wanting to offend extends to even the trimming of hedges. Not only were there cones places along the sidewalk, but one of the workers held up a screen while the trimmer was running and when someone approached on the sidewalk, they stopped work and bowed slightly. Once we passed by, the trimming started again. Imagine any one of those happening in your town!

Our tour started in Gion which is the old part of Kyoto, known for the Geisha culture and narrow streets. This part of the city has had its electric lines buried so it comes as close as possible to looking like it did back in the day. It appears that in order to maintain the appearance of ancient Kyoto, they even camouflage traffic cones with bamboo covers! The last picture was taken on another visit to Gion but gives you an idea of how it looks at night.

We had hoped to see a Geisha or a Maiko (geisha in training). Alas we saw neither though we did learn about their history, practices and training. Geishas aren’t prostitutes, rather are entertainers and in more modern times escorts (more or less).

The houses which train the geishas are by the wooden blocks above the door each identifying the ladies who reside within.

There is a highly defined pecking order and rules regarding their appearance, how they wear their kimono and even lipstick. 1st year Maikos only apply lipstick to their bottom lip! The rules of Gion apply to us tourists also. Apparently there is such a problem with people touching the Geishas that the city had to put up signs to insure proper behavior. (No touching the geishas, no leaning on the buildings, no drinking, eating, littering (all of these are true throughout Japan-again that making sure to not impact others) and no selfie sticks!)

I (of course) was intrigued with some of the construction details, especially the tile roofs and the ornaments found on them.

Leaving Gion, our group headed towards a Buddhist Temple (or was it a Shinto Shrine?-they were starting to run together, especially if you don’t go fully inside. Anyway, the title photo for this post is of a pagoda we passed along the way. Apparently it’s temple burned down but the pagoda remains and is a landmark throughout this part of town. We saw it going up to the shrine and then again on our way down.

The shrine area was quite peaceful and beautiful. We had planned on trying to go back and really explore but time (and our feet) ran out. The last picture shows the tea bushes that serve as a hedge for part of the shrine. Originally, the monks used these to grow their own tea.

Leaving the shrine we headed downhill along a narrow shopping street which included (of course!😢) a Starbucks. Though if you blinked you might miss it.

At the bottom of the hill was a large and beautiful park that stretches from a Torii Gate uphill into the woods. It is full of cherry trees and is the favorite place for people from Kyoto to come and enjoy their blooms. It would be beautiful to see in the spring! There were also several other shrines we visited during our tour. One was the Three Monkeys Shrine. Here people bought stuffed monkeys and left them with their prayers.

You can see “See No Evil, Speak No Evil and Hear No Evil” along the top of the entrance gate.

Our tour ended at this spot and luckily for us there are also a lot of vendors in the park and we took advantage to have a quick nosh. Both the dumplings and the yakitori of chicken and scallion were delish!

While we hadn’t seen any real Geishas, we had seen plenty of fake ones. Apparently from our guide told us, lots of Chinese tourists rent kimonos (and hire rickshaws) for sightseeing selfies.

After a return and rest at the hotel (and presumably some lunch?) we returned to the subway station via a walk along the river to head to Fushimi Inari Takisha, probably Kyoto’s most famous sight.

This Shinto Shrine is famous for its 10,000 Torii Gates. So famous in fact that it is overrun with tourists. While researching I ran across a blog post describing the author’s visit during the evening. Not only was it cooler and less crowded, the darkness added a mystery to his visit. He had me at cool and less crowded!

We found our way on Kyoto’s subway system (didn’t even have to change lines!) and arrived just as the masses who came for sunset were leaving. We spent the next hour to hour and a half, walking uphill through the shrine and the seemingly endless pathway of gates to more altars. We didn’t go all the way to the top as it would have been a three hour trip oneway! We really enjoyed our time at the shrine and I highly recommend an evening visit. ‘Nuff said, here are some pictures so you can see for yourself.

After returning to the subway station, we got back to our neighborhood and as the Soba Noodle place was already closed we opted for conveyor-belt sushi. It was great fun and we happened to be sitting beside a graduate student from Houston doing a year abroad at Signapore University. She was with some fellow students and they said they had had eaten conveyor belt sushi everyday they had been in Kyoto and that this was the best! Lucky us. 😊. You pay by the plate, the different colored plates represent different prices. As you can see we had plenty!

After a very full, tiring but great day we returned to the hotel for some much needed sleep! Tomorrow, we are off to the original Imperial Palace!

Tokyo to Kyoto

This post is being written in early October from Okinawa about getting to Kyoto last month, hopefully someday I will get caught up!

After a great night’s sleep in Tokyo, we headed to the nearby train station and took the metro to the Tokyo Station (the same one we had visited on our first day in Japan) to catch the bullet train to Kyoto.

Before heading for the train though we did a quick tour through the hotel located above the station. This beautiful restoration/reuse of the original station is currently one of the Small Hotels of the World. Would be great to stay there! There are two sections, one on either side of the station’s grand entrance. To get between the two sections you walk around the mezzanine, which is also a history gallery of the station.

Since we started researching for this trip, I think has been most excited and intrigued by the bento boxes one can buy in the station to take on the train. So we arrived early to have shopping time.

Imagine the first floor of an older department store with all the cosmetic counters, except the cosmetics are now sweets, pastries, noodles and beautiful boxes with sushi, pork dishes, or rice and vegetables. Throw in some freshly steamed dumplings or buns along with a couple of hundred people and you will have an idea of one (out of five or six) of the areas in the station devoted to train food!

While making our lunch purchases, the pumpkin croquette caught my eye. Yes, it appears even Asia has gone pumpkin mad! Anyway, $2 later I had one to try. Turns out it was real pumpkin! Not a donut like I had expected at all. Almost savory.

After making our purchases we had to make our way thorough this huge and busy station. Below is a short (30 seconds originally?) time lapse video that will give you some idea of the number of people using the station. Keep in mind we were there about 10am on a holiday so not a rush hour crowd.

We were soon aboard our train (that’s it arriving in the title picture) and ready to head to Kyoto.

We had elected to buy first class railpasses at a surplus of about $125 each since we were worried how our big bodies would fit in trains designed for petite Japanese. I think we would have been only slightly less comfortable, but the real benefit was having reserved seats. One thing we didn’t like about the seat was the foot rest. It didn’t do us any good and it really impinged upon the leg room. On our older trains to Hiroshima and Osaka later in the week, the footrest was much better designed. We found it interesting that each rail employee upon entering and leaving each car, bowed to the car. We have been really impressed with the politeness and calmness of the Japanese. Our only other complaint was that they didn’t show you the speed of the train. The train’s top speed for our run was supposed to be 180 mph. The video below was NOT timelapsed.

We had reserved seats on the right side of the car in the hopes we would see Mt Fuji, alas it was very overcast so no such luck. Gives us a reason to come back! We did pass some interesting bridges and countryside.

While the countryside was passing us by we enjoyed sharing our lunch purchases. We first enjoyed an assortment of dumplings. Pork, mushroom, scallion and mushroom and a fourth that I can’t remember.

We then shared this dish if pork with vegetable and rice.

We were impressed by the nice disposable chopsticks (with matching toothpick) and the lightweight but attractive packaging.

We soon arrived in Kyoto and because we had sent our bags ahead (we had our necessities and our change of clothes packed in a small rolling underseat case we bought at Costco in Seattle) we were able to use the subway to get to our hotel with only minimal stress-why can’t they mark the subway exits better so you don’t walk all the way over there to come up and find out you basically have to retrace your steps above ground???

We found our hotel through some YouTube and TripAdvisor research and booked it through Mike’s credit card which refunds the fourth night cost to his account. It was very nice and located about 10 minutes from two subway stations so it was very convenient!

The room was a little smaller than the one in Tokyo but the beds were a little higher. However, the shower was the best we have ever experienced anywhere. The water pressure was great and it had both a rainhead and a handheld. Like the shower in Tokyo, it was in a glass enclosure with the tub. While I wouldn’t want this configuration in my house, since I wasn’t cleaning I appreciated the extra room. We had lots of amenities including nightshirts that wouldn’t fit and an even fancier toilet. It flushed itself when you stood up and had a deodorizing button!

After setting in and relaxing a bit, we headed out to explore the neighborhood and find supper.

The hotel was surrounded by shops, restaurants and there was even a roofed shopping street that started at the end of the block. A block away was the river which was an enjoyable place to walk and people watch.

We ended up having Yakitori (Grill) for supper at a tiny place a block or two away. We had to wait for some other customers to leave before we could go in. Everything we had was delicious and made and served to us immediately from the grill by the smiling chef.

We stopped at the 7-11 on our way home and got some yogurt for breakfast and I got this interesting waffle ice cream sandwich for dessert. The waffle was meh, but the ice cream was delicious. Mike bought what was basically a flat nutty buddy. He liked it because it was almost all crunch!

Hope to get a post about our Free Kyoto Tour that we did the next morning and our visit to the Torii Gates posted soon!

Tokyo Day 2

This post about our time in Tokyo several weeks ago is being written aboard Viking Orion somewhere in the South China Sea between Shanghai and Okinawa.

After disembarking Celebrity Millennium, we took the provided shuttle to the nearby station to ship our suitcases ahead to Kyoto. This is a common practice all over Japan. For a very reasonable price, your bags can be shipped same day from the train station or airport to your hotel or in two days to just about anywhere in Japan. That’s Mike filling out or more accurately having the agent fill out the paperwork. Total cost was under $35 which was much easier than dealing with them on the metro and trains we would be using to get to Kyoto the following day.

Those are our big bags over on the right. But wait longtime readers are saying, y’all went to Europe for seven months in just a rollaboard apiece, why the big suitcases for this trip. That is the same question we’ve been asking ourselves since we rolled the bags into the train station in Vancouver!

Previously we have been staying in Airbnbs with washing machines but there were 13 days between leaving the ship in Tokyo and boarding Viking (which has free washers and dryers) in Tianjin. So we had enough clothes for that length. (We planned well, we each had one pair of clean socks when we boarded Orion!) Anyway, we have learned our lesson (again). We have agreed that never (ever) will be travel with more than a rollaboard!

After shipping the luggage we took the train/metro to the Hyatt Regency in Shinjuku which Mike booked using points. The hotel was very close to the station and they provided a very nice shuttle bus back and forth to the station. The lobby had the biggest chandeliers I’ve ever seen hanging over more orchids than I’ve ever seen in one place outside of a greenhouse!

They let us check in early (around noon) and we had a great room, though the bed was very low. This was also our first experience with the electric Japanese toilets. We liked them, unfortunately neither this hotel nor the one in Kyoto had opted to install the drying option 😢 The Hotel also lived up to what we had learned (thanks YouTube) about amenities at Japanese hotels. In addition to the usual shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, the beautiful box included a comb (snagged), a nice folding brush (snagged), a sewing kit (snagged), nice toothbrushes, disposable wash cloths, hair bonnets (sorry Karen I didn’t snag one for you 😢) and other assorted necessities. Out in the closet were bathrobes and slippers and on the bed were nightshirts. Of course none of the last three fit us 😢

After a bit of a rest (finding our way out of the huge station had been a bit stressful), we decided to go explore the neighborhood and have lunch. We ended up at a ramen place highly recommended on TripAdvisor, Menya Musashi. Wow, so delicious. We had ramen and tsukemen which is ramen but rather than being served in broth, you get the noodles on the side and then dip them into a thicker version of the broth. When you’re done with the noddles, there are pitchers of chicken broth that you thin out what’s in your bowl and drink like soup.

The whole experience was a blast. There is a machine at the entrance with pictures (and sorta English descriptions) of the eight or so dishes you can order. You make your selections, feed cash into the machine, get a ticket and then go stand along the wall behind folks sitting at the counter until a seat is available when the nice lady behind the counter takes your ticket m, asks what size you want (all cost the same-we got medium) and waves you to a seat.

Then the fun really begins. There are pitchers of ice water along the counter, along with napkins and bibs! You can see the ordering machine behind the picture of us modeling the bibs.

It was great fun to watch the well oiled team, cook noodles, rinse them for the tsukemen, slice the pork belly, add it, egg , seaweed and deliver the bowls to the waiting customers.

We were really glad to have the bibs as we are still beginners with the chopsticks. I gave Mike a hard time as the six year sitting next to him didn’t use a bib and had nothing on his clothes when he was finished! The ramen were everything you’ve ever heard about them-just so so good. Certainly not Cup o’Noddles!

We explored the neighborhood a bit on our walk back towards the hotel. It’s an interesting area with the nearby train station, several shopping malls, new high rises and little side streets with tiny restaurants. And of course everywhere signs of the upcoming summer Olympics.

We intended to go the observation deck on one of the towers of the Tokyo Municipal Building, but between the long line (it’s free) and an impending rain cloud we decided to head back to the hotel.

After watching the National Sumo Wrestling Match on tv, we decided while not hungry enough to have a real meal (the medium bowls of ramen were large!) we did need a bite to eat. Luckily there was a 7-11 in the same building as our hotel! So we had the feast shown below, which included (clockwise from the lower left) a corn dog, a salad, egg salad sandwich, yogurts (for breakfast the next day), edemame, an egg roll, chicken on a skewer and in the center for dessert, a banana pancake. Everything was very fresh and tasty. The dessert was a pancake that most closely resembled the cake of a Little Debbie Swiss Roll, filled with a chocolate dipped banana and some whipped cream.

While we enjoyed our one extra night in Tokyo, if we had it to do over we would elect to stay In Yokohama. I didn’t expect it to have anything interesting to do. But between the Cup o’Noodles Museum where you can make your own custom cup, the other sights near the cruise port, the lower hotel costs and in general it being easy to get around, if we ever cruise back (and we hope we will) we would stay in Yokohama.

After finishing watching the wrestling and attempting to recreate their incredible forward facing manbun, it was time for bed as we had a morning train to Kyoto the next day.

Tokyo

This post is being uploaded well after the events took place from aboard Viking Orion. The Great Firewall of China kept me from being able to publish it sooner

Our ship docked in Yokohama which is 40 minutes to an hour from Tokyo by train/subway. I had gotten a group of six of us together and requested a “goodwill” guide. These are local volunteers who guide visitors around their city for free! The tourist only pays for any admission costs, transportation during the guided period and any meals shared with the guide.

Our group was lucky that Yuko was our guide, she had been great via email and even rode all the way out to Yokohama (1.5 hours from her home) to meet us at the station about a 10 minute walk from our ship. She even sent a picture of the entrance where she would meet us. That’s her below with Phil one half of Corry & Phil).

Yuko helped us buy our tickets. Tokyo (actually all of Japan) has an extensive and interconnected mass transit system and different lines are owned by different companies. This means that our rail pass was good on some of the transit we used but not on others. Very confusing. Below is the map just of Tokyo.

But buying a ticket, while taking a little learning to figure out turns out to be relatively easy once you press the “English” button on the upper right of the machine.

After getting our tickets we road about 40 minutes to our first stop. The train as expected were crowded but while we saw them, we didn’t experience the pushers. These gentlemen cram folks into the trains during rush hours. But it was full enough for me.

Our first stop was in the Askausa district where we went up to the roof terrace of the visitor center for the view shown at the top of this post. The tall Tower is the tallest in Tokyo. From this perch we also looked down upon the Buddhist Shrine we would be visiting next.

In the picture above, the main gate is under the big roof and the green roofs are over the market street that leads up to the shrine.

Vanna is pointing out the huge lateen that hangs from the center of the gate.

As you can see it was crowded everywhere we went in Japan. The Rugby World Cup was underway and fans from around the world had traveled to cheer on their teams. This is sorta a test event for the Olympics next year. As you can see from the title picture, Tokyo is counting down the days.

The market area was originally fruits and vegetables but is now tourist souvenirs, street food and kimono rental places. Apparently it’s big business to rent tourists (particularly Chinese girls) kimonos for their day of sightseeing. We saw them everywhere in Tokyo and Kyoto. And no, we didn’t try to rent one.

After making our way through the crowds, we arrived at the temple. Mike and I both paid a yen or three and shook the metal canister to release a wooden skewer with a number on it, we then opened the corresponding drawer and received our fortune. Mike’s was great so he kept his, mine not so much so I tied it to the nearby fortune tying place so it would blow away and not come true!

The Japanese honor both Buddhist and Shinto teachings (Buddhist is about life and Shinto about that afterlife) and the temples and shrines coexist peacefully. In fact across the street from the Buddhist temple was the oldest Shinto Shrine in Toyko.

The Buddhist temple has another big gate (those are Buddha’s big sandals!) and an incensor where one waves smoke over oneself to be purified. Then you walk up the steps to the temple, throw in some coins, ring the bell to get Buddha’s attention, pray, clap three times, now and leave.

The Shinto Shrine also had a gate and we were lucky enough to be there when a wedding (or at least the pictures of a wedding) was taking place.

From the temples we rode the subway to the Ginza area where we had a traditional lunch at a little restaurant. As you can see, we were greeted warmly by even the kitchen staff! Some of our group went fully traditional and sat at low tables on the floor. Mike and I elected to sit at a table with Yoku. Given how hard everyone had to work to get up after lunch, I know we made the right decision!

I had a delicious pork, soft boiled egg, vegetables, pickles and rice dish (also great miso soup. I thought I hated Miso soup, but it’s tasty in Japan) Mike has a beautiful selection of shashmi, tofu, and other nibbles.

After lunch it was back on the train to the central Tokyo Station for our visit to the nearby gardens of the Imperial Palace. This original station is huge and beautiful. The upper floors are now a Hilton associated hotel, unfortunately we couldn’t get a room there on points but we did walk through it on the day we left Tokyo for Kyoto so stay tuned for those pictures.

The gardens were pretty but I bet they are spectacular with spring flowers or the cherry trees are in bloom.

After retiring to the station, we headed for the famous crosswalk in the Shibuya district. This crosswalk reportedly is used by thousands each day which is probably true, but I think most are there as we were as tourists and crossed it not to get to the other side, but just to cross and come back.

From the Shibya station we said goodbye to Yuko and the rest of us headed back to the ship-luckily it was a single train all the way to Yokohama so nobody got lost!

We had a great day in Tokyo and got a brief overview. While we hated to leave the ship the next day, we were excited about our Japan and China adventures yet to come!