Castles, culture and the wrong kind of canal in lovely Kyoto (Part 1)

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June 19th 2019
Published: June 22nd 2019
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After a painless 4 hour flight to Kansai Airport, of which Senan slept for two hours, we arrived in Japan around 5pm local time.

Japan has been on our wishlist for a long time now, and we even very nearly got here 3 years ago, but Senan's impending arrival put the kibosh on that somewhat back then. So needless to say we were super exciseted and curious about what awaited us.

Having booked this leg of the trip wholly through Trailfinders in Dublin, we received a warm welcome from their airport welcome agent, quickly spotting our name on a welcome sign as we came through departures. With our trolley fully loaded with bags & cases we accompanied her to another section of the airport to arrange our Japan Rail (JR) pass and to reserve seats for the further train legs between Kyoto and Tokyo. Armed with our JR passes, train tickets, a mobile WiFi router and a thick file containing information and vouchers for the rest of our trip, we managed a quick nappy pitstop before being politely ushered into a largish taxi bus with some other passengers. Destination: Kyoto - about a 90minute drive away.

Darkness fell as we made our way from Kansai to Kyoto, snuggled in on the backseat of the bus, keeping Senan entertained (and stuffing him full of fruit to stave off his hunger).  Somewhere on the outskirts of Kyoto we were transfered to a Toyota Crown car, complete with traditional white taxi seat covers (mental mammy note: do not enter Japanese taxis without baby wipes to hand!). The new taxi took us through the quite streets of post rush hour Kyoto and deposited us at the Hotel Vista Premio Kyoto Nagomitei - our new home for the next three nights.

While it may be true that we haven't seen a lot of young children out and about in Japan (with exception of human trains of school children walking on the street), the locals have thus far been amazing with Senan, generally stopping short of melting when they see him and he gives a smile or a wave. The taxi drivers and reception staff at the hotel joined his club of admirers as he disarmed them with his own cute version of 'Kon'nichiwa'.

Loaded up with our bags we were hoping to have a quick check-in to still have time to run out to grab some food before everything shut. The gentleman checking us in had reasonable English and was keen to help us out in any way possible. We asked for a map of the area, dropped our stuff in our new digs and ventured out in latenight (9.30pm!)Kyoto.

They say you only get one shot at a first impression and I must say Japan has lived right up to expectations and exceeded them. There is just an immediate sense of order and tranquility mixed with an overriding feeling of honesty and helpfulness, which makes you immediately feel safe - despite walking down a darkish road late at night. We were too late for last orders in most restaurants and so instead wandered towards the main street to find a supermarket.

It looks like a supermarket, it feels like a supermarket and has many similar products to a Dutch/Irish supermarket, but, with the exception of a few known brands (Always Coca-Cola!), our grocery shopping expedition involved a lot of supposition and finger-crossing guesswork. It just adds to the fun and intrigue of being in a country where you have no clue of the local language! After handing over my credit card and trying to do some quick mental math on exchange rates, I figured cost-wise we were on a par with Dublin. So, not cheap! We headed back to our latest digs to scoff the result of our scavenger hunt, before gladly all pouring into bed for a desperately needed good nights sleep.

The next day we were booked to get a tour around Kyoto by a private guide. After a deliciously precise Japanese/Western breakfast containing lots of teeny dishes, we loaded up our backpack with Senan stuff, yen, water and suncream. Our guide for the day was a lovely 60-ish year old Japanese lady who taught herself English from TV (Downton Abbey!) and has raised 4 children in Kyoto over the past 30 years. Having a 2.5yr old granddaughter herself meant she understood our constraints for the day and was a perfect stand-in Granny-for-a-day for Senan. He took to her pretty much immediately!

First stop the Nijo Castle, which we reached by foot, getting acclimatised to the early morning humidity and gleaning some tidbits about the local area from the guide as we walked. The Castle itself was our first exposure to Japanese history and it was really interesting to hear our guide share the meaning of all the imagery (when we weren't chasing after an escaped toddler that is!). From what I could gather it's all about life longevity and the Shogun impressing/intimidating his guests, showing his domination by the choice and size of animals drawn on the wall. Wandering through several halls, the ones that stood out were his own Chambers (complete with Secret Service staff hiding in a side room) and another particular room where people were sent to commit suicide! There was a kitchen area too, but apparently the poor guy never got to eat warm food as they always had to wait 30 minutes to see if it poisoned his taster first!

Next stop the Golden Pavilion, a magnificent building. It is notable that it was rebuilt 30 year ago with donations from the public. So much gold representing so much pride in their heritage! As a World Heritage site the place was throbbing with tourists, but we took our time, joined the queue of people snaking around the complex and admired the building from all angles before Senan KO'ed on my back and we went to grab a taxi. .

Our guide still wanted to show us the Ryoan-ji gardens before lunch. After dragging an empty buggy up multiple steps, with a still sleeping Senan on my back, we were able to enjoy the white garden in the peace and tranquility that it was intended to bring. It is impressive the amount of thought and care that goes into everything here! True to Buddhist teaching, you cannot see all 15 stones from any angle - as you can never know everything in life.

Lunch was a short 'purple' train trip away, which basically saw Senan melt the hearts of many, many, Japanese women during our short trip. At one point I looked up and just saw a sea of 'Awwwww' smiling faces looking at me (him) - in fairness the kid was working the room with his little royal wave and coy smile!. 

Although I fear we haven't fed Senan much variety on the pasta/noodle theme these past few days, he is just so happy when he gets a plate that that's what he got, yet again, for lunch. We've basically decided we'll forcefeed him vegetables in Australia to make up for the noodle fest here! Our own lunches of beef curry and tuna sashimi with a side order of tempura, washed down with some beers, were quite simply delicious. I enjoy a lot of Asian food, but Japanese food is quickly rising to the top of the list!

After lunch we took a further train trip to visit the youngest shrine in Kyoto - only 150 years old. After learning how to purify ourselves with the little water scoops outside, we performed a longlife ritual with a lot of bowing and waking a figure of 8 through a big hoop before making our way inside to some beautiful gardens. Japanese gardens are so peaceful. Everything is meticulously maintained and in an appropriate place. Senan got a great kick out of feeding the fish with his rent-a-granny and Philippe and I turned into big kids ourselves, hopping across the big stepping stones in the middle of the pond.

With the legs nearly walked off of us, we had just one stop left on the itinerary. We gratefully hopped in a taxi to head across town to the Gion and Higashima area. It is a very touristy area, which is basically a big matrix of streets around the Yasaka Pagoda next to the colourful Yasaka Shrine. The place is filled with shops selling all sorts of local specialities and tourists dressed like Geishas. (Our guide informed us that they were not 'the real deal' as in Japan the Geiki are taught to walk with their feet pointed inwards! It was a bit full-on in terms of impressions, but worth doing as the final item on a truly enjoyable guided tour around Kyoto.

Back at the hotel we dumped our stuff and headed out to find the sushi place our guide had recommended, but half way there, Senan decided we had other plans as he basically dozed off sitting on his Daddy's neck. OK then - toddler rules win. Sushi can wait for another time! We grabbed some sandwiches and turned in for the night.

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22nd June 2019

thanks for this update!!

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