Kyoto - The adventures of me and #1

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August 11th 2009
Published: August 13th 2009
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Arriving a little after 11pm in Kyoto I missioned strait for a pay phone and managed to secure a bed for the night on my third call. I had grand ideas of making a night adventure of the walk to the backpackers but after leaving the station it quickly became apparent that it was perhaps a silly idea to get lost in Kyoto at 11:30pm so I refrained from indulging in adventurous temptation and opted, rather, to hail one of the myriad of cool Japanese old school taxis.

Man Japanese taxis are cool. They are all old style Toyota Corolas with original dashes complete with sliding air-con buttons and white doily like curtains and headrest covers to boot, somewhat of a contrast to the ultra modern, state of the art, leather interior, TV/GPS kind of taxis I’m used to in SK. What also made a nice change was that the Taxi drivers have some old school taxi driver chivalry! I hailed a cab on a busy street corner but regardless the taxi driver had the courtesy to properly stop the car, switch on his hazards, get out of the car, help me load my bag into the boot and he then opened my door for me, if you can believe it, it was awesome! Once we reached the backpackers he then got out of the car, took my bag out of the boot and carried it to the front door for me at no extra charge! What I would do for that kind of taxi service on a regular basis!

After a great night’s sleep I emerged, at a leisurely pace, from K’s house around 8ish and headed for Gojo guest house where I was booked in for my two nights in Kyoto. I’d been given directions from the lady at K’s who told me it was a 20 minute walk to Gojo. Since I’m not shy to walk and explore along the way me and my wheely bag hit Kyoto’s streets in the direction of Gojo-dori. 20 minutes turned into close on an hour in the 32°C, 90% humidity, blazing sun and ek se vir jou wow it was crazy hot! I looked as though I had just emerged from an Onsen and forgotten to dry off when I finally entered the reception at Gojo Guest house!

Quick luggage drop off and the parting of a precious few Yen, to hire a bike for the day, and #1 and I were on the streets ready for some market visiting and then onwards to explore Kyoto’s cultural sites, Nishiki food market was my first point of call. On rout to the market I popped in at a lovely Shinto shrine tucked in amongst the stalls after which I ducked down one of the allies alongside the Shrine to see what delicious morsels Nishiki had to offer. I did manage to entertain one of the local vendors with my sheer doffness when I attempted to eat a banana leaf triangle without realizing that unlike the banana leaf triangle I ate in Thailand this morsel actually required that you remove the leaf itself and only consume the contents, ooops. I think I was a little overexcite at the thought of this specific triangle being the same as the delicious Thai one I ate in January that I eagerly handed over my ¥100 and motioned the triangle towards my mouth at which point the very bemused lady let out a little gasp followed by a good laugh while pointing to a bag, right in front of me, that contained previous buyers
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Taking mid-morning tea
discarded banana leaves. Turned out that the banana leaf triangle in question couldn’t have been more different to the Thai taste sensation! In this instance the banana leaf was in fact “hiding” a cold, jellyfish looking and textured, sweat red bean paste blob! Since I’d done such a good job of making a spectacle of myself there was no backing out so I gingerly popped the glob into my mouth while the sales lady watched in anticipation. I was very grateful I managed to maintain composure throughout the swallowing of the dodgy squelch so as not to offend anyone before I’d bid goodbye! I did vow to avoid Japanese banana leaf triangles at all cost from that point on! I absolutely love food markets and Nishiki was a great way to start my day. Food is always a great way to get a feel for a country, ok maybe the triangle was a little sketchy but I thankfully encounter some tastier treats!

Once I’d done a circuit of the market I headed in the direction of the Southern Suburbs Temple/Shrine/Pagoda pilgrimage as mapped out by the Lonely Planet’s “If you have one day in Kyoto” suggestion. I followed the
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Taking tea
directions (well followed is a strong word since at the base of the hill from where you start “the pilgrimage” I had already managed to inadvertently take myself on the path less travelled!) however Instead of taking teapot lane I managed to find myself on, what I dubbed, cemetery lane and let me tell you cemetery lane AKA Chawan-zaka could rival a stage in the Alps on the tour de France! Gojo Zaka slope’s side roads and Chawan-zaka in particular should most certainly come with a “don’t take a bike up unless you are very stupid” warning!

A ¼ of the way up the slope where the gradient was still manageable I stopped in at my first Southern Suburbs Temple for the day after which I continued up Chawan-zaka through Nishi-Otani mausoleum attempting to make my way to Kiyomizu Temple. #1 had been a real champ until the ½ way mark where I had to take over on foot, nothing like hauling an over sized bike up a mean hill when you are wearing a pretty pink boob tube dress! Naturally undertaking such madness you automatically attract attention from the locals and I managed to acquire a 60 year
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fishing in the Kamo-gawa river
old Japanese shadow along the way who couldn’t have been more perplexed that I was taking a bicycle up the path! Thankfully Chawan-zaka cemetery is very scenic so my regular stops to recuperate from the exhaustion and heat could have been mistaken for taking in the beautiful scenery! Once I reached the top of Chawan-zaka I was greeted by a not so expected challenge (perhaps that’s what my Japanese shadow had been trying to warn me about while on the schlep up) a nice set of steep splayed steps! A little while before being greet by the steps my Japanese shadow had disappeared so on seeing the steps I was rather grateful that no one would be there to witness the silly western dolly in the shocking pink dress execute the “hauling #1 up a set of steps mission”! I clearly counted my chickens well before they hatched cause just as I started up the step thinking no one was watching my Japanese shadow came running up behind me like a long lost friend. I suspect she was so stoked to have arrived just in time to an unobstructed view of the proceedings! I do hope that my shadow was suitably impressed with my efforts cause I have no idea how I managed to get myself and #1 up the steps without injury or a flash show! By 12pm I looked like I had been caught in a torrential down pour and I had under taken enough physical activity to warrant the consumption of as many yummy Japanese treats as I could find along the way!

The remainder of the day was spent weaving in and out of the small streets that connect the myriad of Temples, Shrines and Pagodas. While I have a massive appreciation for historic architecture and all that’s cultural and historical I have to admit a day spent hopping from UNESCO sight to UNESCO is a complete energy sapper and it’s far from the way I like to spend my precious travel time! I have to admit I have far more appreciation for such sights when you discover them in amidst lovely scenery or quaint, non touristy, shops as opposed to following a strong current of tourists all fighting for their place in front of the sight to capture a been there done that photo, not kiff!

Once I was suitably exhausted I left
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An insane monstrosity of a place that pumps human traffic through its gates like a factory.
the temple mount and headed to Kyoto Tower to get a sense of the city from above and it was then ont to explore Gion, the Geisha quarter, and find some grub! Gion is a very quaint district with lovely old wooden buildings and captivating houses perched along a stunning canal but on a Wednesday night Gion didn’t offer much in the way of Geishas, Apprentices or any memoirs of a Geisha type ambiance at all! It was still worth the pretty ride through the quarter along the canal in the lovely warm summer evening though.

All the day’s activities had resulted in a furious hunger so the quest for a good meal was underway while browsing the streets of Gion. I’m not going to lie but finding a suitable spot to eat that night was proving challenging and it took me two hours of riding around and exploring to eventually happen upon the restaurant street housing the entrances to all the restaurants that line the Kamo-gawa River. Amongst all the restaurants I spotted one that served do it yourself fondu type tempura, what a win, well at least so I thought till it turned out that I would have to order the portion for two. Since there wasn’t any suitably game individual sitting at the counter that looked up to sharing I hopped back on #1 and went back to Gion. As Murphy would have it I landed up at the very first restaurant I had looked at that evening, a spot serving Okonami-yaki (a regional delicacy of savoury pancakes).

I sat down at the restaurant and the lady immediately came up to ask for my order without even giving me a menu if I knew off hand what was on offer!? I motioned for a menu which she graciously brought over but on opening it I found out that you could order Okonami-yaki or Okonami-yaki or Okonami-yaki so after a ‘long’ deliberation I ordered the Okonami-yaki and waited in anticipation! I’m not going to lie Okonami-yaki is not something that would appeal to many people I know, in fact you have to be super open minded cause man alive it looks mighty dodgy. Okonami-yaki is a savoury pancake that gets filled with layer upon layer of just about anything you can imagine; onion flakes, spring onion, some other greens, beef mince, crab stick, something else that looked fishy, and then a couple of other ingredients I couldn’t identify and the whole ensemble is then topped with an egg, folded over and left to cook for a while. I happened to be sitting next to some Americans so they were my guinea pigs. The daughter and father looked very unconvinced by the restaurants speciality dish but the son (who was incidentally living in Japan working in the navy) was quite content to help them finish off what they could not force down. I have to admit this 2:1 ratio against Okonami-yaki was making me slightly nervous about my impending meal but hey when I finally got my taste it wasn’t too bad at all! Perhaps when you live in Asia for an extended period of time you harden up and learn to eat just about anything!

Suitably full I spent a little more time riding around the Southern neighbourhoods before retiring to Gojo for the night.

Kyoto up until this point had been nice but not quite as mind blowing as I expected and to be honest it smacked of South Korea. While it wouldn’t be admitted the Japanese influence on South Korea is quite uncanny, even the local food offerings (aside from Okonami-yaki) are all things that are served readily in your every day restaurant here in the Republic. Not sure I had travelled all that way just to visit another South Korea! Gojo guest house was also nothing to write home about so all in all the Southern Suburbs had made me feel more angstige thank excited for the following day! Not convinced that Gojo was woth another nights stay I entered into some artful negotiation to avoid yet another 70% cancellation fee and I got up super early the next morning to secure myself a bed at K’s rather. (The same spot I stayed at the first night). All in all a much better location and vibe already putting day two in Kyoto on a better footing!

Although I was totally over the site seeing I did plan to take in two more UNESCO must sees. (I hired a bike for the day, again, this time from K’s and blow me down if it wasn’t also named #1 it was fate!). The first of the two sites I had on my list to visit was Nijo Castle. The Castle was lovely and I spent some time walking amongst the well manicured Japanese garden followed by a trip through the squeaky wooden floored castle building and then onto the next site on the list, The Imperial Palace. I saddled #1 and ducked down a small ally heading in the Palace’s direction but it took riding the perimeter of the gigantic castle grounds at least three and a half times before I eventually found the inroad only to discover that you needed to have prearranged an entry permit (a fact I had read and noted to self but which had clearly been lost in the dense gray matter). In hindsight I am thankful I didn’t book a ticket cause what they don’t tell you is that your ticket gets you on a group tour of the palace with some 50 other picture snapping Tommy tourists. While I may regret it in years to come I was happy to get back onto #1 and avoid hours spent jostling westerners for a glimpse of the Palace and a snap shot, I really think such an experience would have ended me!

Content that I had completely exhausted my capacity for Kyoto’s obligatory must sees I opted for something that was far more in line with my sense of enjoyment, a little trip out of the city to a gem of a valley called Kibune, something out of the ordinary! What a win and just what I needed to relieve my angst. I started my exploration with a lovely walk along the river towards Kibune town which is lined with Ryokans on the one side and Kawa doka (wooden platforms) spanning the Kibune-gawa on the other. It was ironic that I stopped in at a Shrine between menu scouring but the cliché “location, location, location” couldn’t have been more apt, the shrine set up on the hillside was magnificent!

Kibune is not exactly a cheap place to eat since it’s renowned for Kaiseki (Slap-up eat till you pass out epitome of Japanese cuisine) that ranges anywhere from ¥8500 to ¥15000. Lunch is the best time to go if you don’t want to choke at the bill and it’s a very pleasant spot to escape the sweltering summer heat! Since I wasn’t keen to eat myself into a coma nor was I keen to spend even ¥8500 on lunch I went in pursuit of Hirobun for an affordable meal with a difference. At Hirobun you sit under a foliage awning on a kawa-doko looking out onto a stunning cascade while fishing nagashi-somen (chilled noodles) from a bamboo shoot, it was so awesome I can’t begin to explain! The noodles are so yummy when dunked in a very unusual sauce and wow you think that it won’t fill you but let me tell you I was very satisfied by the time the pink coloured noodles, signalling the end of the meal, came down the shoot! It really was a meal unlike any I have had before and coupled with the stunning setting I left with a big smile on my face and in the right frame of mind to give Kyoto city a second chance!

The previous day while weaving in and out of the little side streets in Gion I happened upon a lady who was offering a tea ceremony experience. I had popped my head in to see what it was about but she was hosting a group so she had told me she would be open the following day. Having enjoyed enough of Kibune’s tranquility I hopped back on the train headed for
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how to prevent dogs from peeing on your tyres!
the city, I collected #1 from outside the family mart (you have to be very careful where you leave your bike in Kyoto cause they impound bikes left, right and center and leave you with a very formal note telling you where and at what time they impounded your wheels and what the fine is to retrieve it, so I took to parking my bike outside the convenience stores cause that seemed about the safest option). Bike in hand I smelt my way back to the side ally in Gion for some tea. I was really grateful that I was ducking in and out of Kyoto’s little allies allowing me to spot the tea ceremony experience tucked away in one of Gion’s little nooks and I was even more thankful that I actually managed to locate it again the following day cause what a fantastic experience!

The young Japanese lady who has just started hosting tea ceremony afternoons is such a lovely lady who traded in her office job to study traditional Japanese culture and host the experience. While it’s not a proper tea ceremony she basically offers you a really good insight into the traditions, history and etiquette of the tea ceremony and goes through the tea making ritual and then gives you the opportunity to make a cup of tea yourself. It was so lovely to sit in a traditional Ryokan sipping yet another cup of very delicious Japanese green tea while chatting at length to the charming host who was more than happy to share, all that is Japan, with me! Kibune and my tea ceremony experience were exactly the kind of experiences that I had hoped to have while in Japans historic capitol, what a truly spectacular and very memorable afternoon!

Suitably content with my wonderful afternoon I headed back towards K’s house to try and get some recommendations for a good dinner to round off my day when I bumped into a couple of mates that I met in Thailand, who also teach here in the ROK and who I periodically keep in touch with. It was completely co-incidental that they should also be there, so awesome to unexpectedly run into mates! I spent the rest of the evening hanging out with the boys starting with sun-downers on the roof, followed by some very yummy noodles and tempura and then a night out on the town! All the fun and games and insanely late night did mean that I missed my 7:16am train to Hiroshima and had to get on the 9:45 train but hey it was well worth it cause it was a super fun night!

I am so glad that by the end of my stay Kyoto had redeemed itself cause I have to admit after my first day I was very skeptical about all the reports that deem Kyoto as “The City to visit if you go to Japan!” For anyone heading to Kyoto make sure you have more than two days, go easy on the site seeing and do yourself a favour try and intersperse the must sees with an exploration of some of Kyoto’s more unique offerings!

Additional photos below
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Trying to find a little reprieve from the heat!
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Kamo-gawa River

Riverside buildings

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