The last time we were in Japan we ended a long hot day of a fantastic river trip in this little town which we saw a bit of and then hopped the train back to Kyoto. All we had seen that time was a pretty place of tourist shops—and we were quite tired!
Searching for a final day’s excursion we decided to give Arashiyama another try. I swore I had seen enough temples for a lifetime, that they were all beginning to run together, but we didn’t have a better idea so hopped on the train and 15 minutes later were there. After reinterpreting the tourist map near the station, which of course had North pointing down, we started in on a recommended walking tour. The first stop was Tenryo-ji and paid the $8 to see both the temple and the garden, an extremely famous and popular spot that was, for an off season Saturday, full of tourists. Let’s see why it is so popular:
I could call this “suggested wallpaper/screen savers” and I suspect David and I will be rotating several of these for just that. While we were there we saw gardeners working, sitting or kneeling pulling up the tiniest weeds and raking up, with mini-bamboo rakes, the smallest leaves. Their care certainly shows. The north exit of the temple takes you right into the famous Bamboo Grove, which is pretty cool but was also filled with visitors taking pictures. We walked through but kept going, and as the route goes gently uphill, and the day was cool and a little drizzly, we were rewarded for our energy by ever dwindling fellow visitors.
We walked slowly up and up, peering into a few temples but moving on until we arrived at Jojakko-ji. This one made my top 5 or 6 of the trip. So quiet, with beautiful views back toward the city of Kyoto, a truly gorgeous main temple with stunning gold Buddhas, a mysterious-feeling cemetery and a bonus as we left (see video below the photos).
In the long view picture above, Kyoto Tower (a block from our hotel) is peeking up, but the misty day makes it impossible to see here–it is in that loop of branches right in the middle of the photo. I just loved this place–it was a little hard to leave and move on.
We were getting hungry and voila, an inexpensive noodle shop popped up a little way further up the hill and we ducked in for a bowl. Yummy, quick, and we were off.
The weather slowly improved as we decided to trek on to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji, almost to the top of the hill. The guidebook called this “rather unusual” and where the abandoned bones of paupers and 8000 stone images (which had been uncovered about 100 years ago, having been discarded or buried, unclear) were dedicated to their spirits. Lonely Planet said “not a must see” but “interesting.” We beg to differ on the category. This was one of the most moving, beautiful, holy places we have visited anywhere, with powerful and intense spirits.
We stayed for a while, then wandered down to the train station where we passed the unnamed, unremarkable shrine in the photos below, about a block before we found the station entrance.
So, who had the fantastic idea of going to Arashiyama? It was a magical, peaceful day and suitable end to our stay in Kyoto (end except for our third sushi engorgement…).
As we get ready to leave Japan I realize I’ve accumulated a few items that don’t deserve a full blog entry, so I’ll run through them here. Then a post or two about our last excursions.
Elevators in Korea and Japan Unlike the US, every elevator bank we used required you to push the button per elevator. Not realizing this, we had a few undue delays thinking that a single up or down request would apply across all the elevators in a bank. So remember—push every “up” or “down” to speed the arrival of what you want.
Japanese Tourist Maps We had forgotten this little quirk from our last visit–one of the oddest things about using the little billboard maps that are posted in many neighborhoods, train stations, and in other tourist-heavy areas. You know, these are the ones that have the red You Are Here circles to show you how to get to the next place or out of where you are. There are many of these around Kyoto and the often appear just when you need them.
However, first check is which way the North arrow is pointing. For some, to us, unfathomable reason, N is not always up as it is in the US. It can be to the left, to the right, or pointing to the bottom of the map, requiring you to completely reorient yourself. It is surprisingly difficult to figure out what’s what when N is pointing to the right, so there you are twisting your guidebook and your head around to make sure you are not heading in the exact wrong direction. As many times as we looked at these maps, and knew about the N issue, we repeatedly started to read the map incorrectly.
Disability Access and Using Escalators Accommodations for disabled or simply tired (or old!) folks are spotty, and there are places where there is escalator service but no elevator when an elevator seems called for. Getting to the JR train platform at Kyoto Station, where many folks are going long distance or to the airport, there is an escalator and no elevator. Other places have signs forbidding using the escalator if you have a suitcase (similar to the US), and in one department store signs stated no walking on escalators. We also found elevators quite slow and/or tucked into corners. Plan accordingly.
Since we were last in Japan about five years ago we did see many, many more disabled people out and about. It was great to see that people who obviously were always there were now in public without incident, even several severely disabled in fully motorized chairs. On the subway we saw a man in a motorized chair, and the moment the train stopped a train employee (there are many around who give directions or, more often instructions) put a small ramp in the doorway so this fellow could drive off easily across the gap. Twice I saw a train employee accompanying a blind person across the station, chatting away. (I say train employee, but I am not sure who they work for—perhaps these are public employees. They wear uniforms and they are in transit stations.)
We saw no wheelchairs or other disabled people in Korea which could have been chance or an indication they are still kept out of the public spaces. There isn’t much sign of accommodations there.
Rules and Worries and a Few Inconveniences It is cliché that the Japanese have traded conformity and safety for some kinds of American-style freedom as we like to think of it. It is true that people are expected to follow rules and instructions, and our first taste was when we landed in Osaka and proceeded to the train platform. Two uniformed men were checking each ticket and then telling us exactly how to line up for the train. This line, not that one. Put your baggage here, not there. Line up in an orderly queue. Do not step on the yellow barrier. It was quite lovely for us tired travelers because we knew for certain we were in precisely the right place and would end up in the correct car (the queuing lines were by car number for trains, bus number for buses) and subsequently in Kyoto Station. Even when the “instructors” seemed a little bit severe and unsmiling, we were continually grateful that we weren’t allowed to make an unfortunate mistake.
There are also a lot of signs in Japan, both official and handwritten, which even when a little alarming (“Bears have been sighted in this region.”) were helpful. My favorites were warnings were combined with seemingly unnecessary instructions. A cute example was at a neighborhood Shinto shrine, a rather raggedy and charming set of very small shrines and statues and figurines of animals, with a few flowers and teacups set out in honor of woodsy fauna. At the small entry there was blue tape and sign: “This barrier is to keep wild boars out. Please step over the barrier to enter.”
Both countries are seemingly free of petty crime. Bicycles are everywhere, and lots of bicycle parking lots in Japan. While there were bike locks, we saw many bikes leaned up or on kickstands outside of stores and houses as in the picture below taken from our hotel room of the alley behind the building.
We never for a second worried about making sure a bag was zipped up, or walking around with a phone in hand, or putting down a package for a minute to get organized. It was common to see bags left along the paths in shrines and temples while the owners took photos or walked around.
Both Japan and Korea seem bereft of trash cans. In Korea we finally asked—where do you throw anything away? A few times we traded a small purchase for an excuse to ask a shopkeeper to let us throw away a bag or beverage container. It seems the custom is to use the public restrooms (they are everywhere) to find a trash container, but even many of those had none, as they have either air dryers or nothing. Carry something to dry off with if you prefer not to shake off the drops or (as we did) use your jeans. In both countries every sit-down food place starts with a plastic-wrapped damp hand towel; we accumulated them when we didn’t need them right then, so we had them ready when we were sweaty or just a little greasy. In Korea, street food is usually served in a paper sleeve of some kind, sometimes even a sliced paper cup. While this is convenient for immediate eating it is messy and those extra hand towels were great.
In Korea, all the public restrooms I used were western style. In Japan, women beware that there are still many toilets which require very strong knees and sense of balance—they are porcelain troughs (in private stalls) which I could neither get down to or, I am sure, get up from. Some public restrooms had both, but a few only the troughs. One of the last I used had western toilets (this was in Arashiyama) complete with instructions. See photo below and note Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. In general, in both countries there are many more public restrooms than you see in the US or Europe (where in some places I have learned to march into large hotels like I know where I am going, because there is always a restroom near the lobby).
Re public smoking, it’s pretty much gone though the isakaya we went to did have a couple smoking in a corner. We may have seen one or two incidences of smoking in public in Korea, but this scourge of international travel is clearly on the wane, thank goodness.
Traditional Clothing Both countries have many, many traditional clothing rental places, mostly around hanok neighborhoods (Korea) or clusters of shrines and temples (Japan). In Japan we also saw many younger men and women in kimonos in shopping areas. As we had noticed last time, it seems to be rather hip to dress traditionally. In Japan we occasionally saw older women in what seemed to be their normal go-to-work kimonos compared with the very colorful styles worn by younger women. Two or three times we saw westerners dressed in hanbok or kiminos. They looked very odd and were clearly enjoying themselves.
Both countries have gazillions of drink vending machines, and in both countries cold coffee in various versions and brands are ubiquitous. When you order coffee at a stand or in a bakery or cafe (cafe=coffee) you must state whether hot or cold, unlike in the US where coffee is hot, and iced coffee is iced coffee. In both places you find drink vending machines in out of the way corners, at public parks or shrines and temples, and in Japan we started noticing that prices varied quite a bit with the same drink, same size, sometimes as cheap as a dollar and sometimes as expensive as two dollars or more. Occasionally there was also a place to put an empty drink container near the machine. At the top of Inari there is a vending machine and next to it in the little wooden shop (where you can buy shrine-related tokens and offerings) there is a sliding glass door and a wooden table inside on which to put your empty. This is where I discovered Pokari Sweat, a sports drink that was perfect for a sweaty American on a hot and humid day, and was especially grateful a woman showed me where to stow the empty can.
In Japan we started noticing that in the row of machines there is often one with beer and perhaps other liquor. We didn’t see any note regarding age restrictions, not that they could be enforced anyway. Nor did we ever see public drinking or rowdiness.
Convenience Stores Go to Youtube if you want an education about convenience/7-11 type stores in both countries. These stores have everything and then some, especially food of all kinds including hot soup, croquettes, and in Japan fish cakes in various forms in tubs of broth or hot water (not sure—didn’t want to try). They are fun and inexpensive—and we found that if you go away from the main street a few blocks prices drop. They also all have ATMs, not just 7-11’s as in the past. We use a bank that reverses the service charges so we used them regardless. Just check for the Visa/MC/Cirrus stickers—not all ATMs have them but those that did worked for us 90% of the time and at about that same rate we were able to find the “English” button.
Public Transit We like BART. Multiply BART by 100, or even the NY subway/bus system by 2 or 3 in convenience and reach, and you have something approaching the public transit options in Korea and Japan. Korea wins by a mile for English guidance—almost all subway cars and buses have full English stop information—but even in Japan it’s not at all hard to figure out where to go, how to get a ticket, and so forth.
In both cities, Seoul and Kyoto, the subway seems at first much easier, but because the subway maps are schematics that do not conform to actual geography you never get much of a sense where you are going or how one place relates to another compared with taking the bus. Also, most of the subway trains are almost entirely underground, so no scenery. With just a little practice the buses are more convenient and better educationally for finding your way around.
In Kyoto a few bus routes (e.g., #100) are oriented to tourists, and announce all imminent and upcoming stops displayed on the big monitor up front as well as by announcement, in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese, with advisories as to what sights or major destinations are nearby. It was comforting to know the stop we wanted was the third one after this, and great to see and hear confirmation in English.
The one-day and other passes are a fantastic deal if you plan just a little bit. In Kyoto a one way bus fare was $2.40 or so, but the one-day bus pass was $5.00 so you are ahead with just 3 trips. There are several information counters at Kyoto Station and we got 100% accurate advice even if the English was incomplete. Also, the buses depart from numbered queues which also have (as in Korea) full “next bus” information at the stops. At Kyoto Station there are uniformed men who tell you where to go, or when a bus coming into an adjoining queue will get us there faster. And, of course, they tell you exactly how to line up, with individual bus numbers on marked queue lines in case you are a complete idiot. Do not fear—Japanese people were asking as many questions about which line/which bus as we were!
In Seoul public transit, including taxis (which we never used), is extremely cheap, too. We hopped on and off without a care to the cost.
If you thought American youth are obsessed with taking selfies The selfie craze, with sticks 95% of the time, is overwhelming and funny and annoying. Just be prepared to get out of the way!
Coffee and Food in Kyoto Yes, Japan is expensive but with a little care you can eat for less. First, breakfast and coffee—if you go to a good coffee place (there are many, but our fave by far is Ogawa Coffee in Kyoto Station) you can pay $5 for a latte. Look for a place with a “breakfast set” which is coffee and what was for us plenty of food to start the day. At Ogawa the breakfast set was $5.80, which includes coffee, a fantastic croissant, and a small dish of unflavored yogurt (yeah!!) with a drizzle of honey and a few frozen berries, usually a mix of currants and a black- or raspberry. It was quick, delicious, and perfect fuel to start the day.
Eat sushi! We found the conveyer belt sushi, Musashi, in Kyoto Station was incredibly inexpensive and very high quality. Inexpensive—most plates with 2 pieces of nigiri, most as in almost all, were $1.46. The fancy stuff was 1 piece for that price, or $3.46 for 1 or 2, depending. We ate there 3 times in one week, and with beers the total bill was about $44…and we ate, each time, 22 plates’ worth.
Eat noodles! And shop for price/quality. We had several quick lunches of udon or somen for about $7. The ramen at Karako, which is on a busy street a few blocks from the museum neighborhood, was about $7 and the best I’ve ever had. Get the kotteri. The ramen at Ippudo, which is right next to Nishiki Market was very good, not quite as exciting but a fancy as opposed to old (OLD) lunch counter style ambiance, and was about twice that. In Arashiyama, right on the tourist trail (an exquisite walk that I write about on this blog) were two noodle places with very similar appearing menus where in one the price was $12 and the other $7. Directly across from each other—point being, do not assume the prices are generally the same regardless of where you are.
Isakaya! For very reasonable prices (about what we spent for sushi) we got nice and high on sake and ate more than we should have. Plus it was comfy and fun and super casual.
Takeout! See the lower floors of any big department store—if you are smart and are staying near Kyoto Station, go to Isetan. There is an unbelievable array of takeout food, putting Harrod’s to shame in variety and price. Wander around for 10 minutes before you make a choice, and if you are hungry for good bread go up one floor to the sweets department and visit the Danish bakery. Grab a basket and tongs and get everything from unidentified bread-like concoctions to good old fashioned baguettes and hard rolls.
We had visited this most famous of Kyoto sites when last here, but it was so very hot and so very humid it was unimaginable going very far up into the shrine. This time we were determined to make it to the summit, and we did it!
It was amusing that the city bus emptied out at the Inari stop, all but 4 of us Japanese tourists, and not a one of us knew which way to go to the shrine as the bus stop is on a busy street, rather nondescript. One Japanese woman had her iPad out, map active, and she became our defacto leader as we all walked the 2 short blocks to where the line of stalls and stores leads to the main entrance.
There are gazillions of pictures of this amazing place…but that didn’t stop us from taking a few of our own. We were there early about 9:30 or so, and already there were lots of uniformed school kids and others entering the shrine. In the first few segments of the path the crowds were thick and, being mostly adolescents, annoying as they sauntered, took pictures, and poked and teased each other (Field Trip!) and we had to squeeze past clump after clump so we could go at our own brisk pace. At each main junction, where a map showed you where to go (it is quite a confusing warren of paths so signage is necessary) and snacks and prayer tokens in various forms were sold, the crowd thinned a bit more, and within half an hour or so it was pretty clear though never lonely. It was fun to hear Americans every now and then turn a corner and OOOH at the views of the city and the winding paths of gates up and up.
We were relieved and thrilled to get to the top, where there is a maze of shrines seemingly on top of each other, every one with the statues of the two foxes, a few demons, one or two dragons, but fox statues everywhere and of various ages and condition, some quite worn down, others sharp and a few with painted eyes.
At the top was the ubiquitous vending machine, where I had the Pocari Sweat. It was cold, slightly sweet, and refreshing and felt like it didn’t even pass my stomach but went directly into my blood stream, I was so sweaty!
Down we came, wet and hungry. I wanted to head to a ramen place that was in the Lonely Planet book, Karako, and though on the other side of town we hopped the train and were there in 20 minutes. After a walk of maybe 6 long blocks (hot!), and thank goodness for google maps when they work (quite unreliable in that sense) we came upon this tiny place with 11 counter seats and a few men silently eating ramen and karage (fried chicken). Inside as soon as we sat at the counter the owner/cook welcomed us, pointed to the three dishes on the counter and said “Help yourself” while we looked at the menu. We both ordered the recommended kotteri, with meltingly good meat and noodles in a slightly thick broth, and helped ourselves to the refreshing slaw, bright green cucumber pickles, and a kind of chicken and carrot stew (these are the side dishes set out on the counter). It was delicious and fun!
After some temples, sub temples, mini-shrines in the hills along the east side of the city (with blessedly cool breezes), we hopped the train to return to our apartment for a rest and showers.
I had wanted to go to an isakaya while here, and the web suggested a place just a few blocks from our hotel–this location was fortunate because after all the sake we drank a longer journey home would have been tough. This place would be impossible to find, being down a sort of alley/hallway, unmarked during the day (though a sign was lit when we staggered out), and we crept along wondering if we were in the right place. The hall ended at a sliding door which we tentatively opened and there it was, a homey, funky, bar where we were greeted with smiles. The older woman, probably the owner, spoke a little English and when we said we wanted sake she immediately came with two enormous bottles for us to taste. We quickly selected the one we wanted and settled in for a few hours of drinking and bar food–though nothing like the US, as the menu was about 8 laminated pages of fried, lightly fried, salads, grilled, and a variety of sashimi. We had fried chicken, potato croquettes, a sort of soup of fried smelt and fried eggplant in a savory broth, grilled peppers…in addition to the fried squid which appears as “appetizer” as soon as you start drinking. We sat next to a fellow from Scotland, shared travel experiences, and drank a lot more sake (at least I did). It was delightful.
Today we go downtown to Nishiki market and to search out, I hope, more ramen!
We are so fortunate to have visited Kyoto a few years ago with our cousins, who know it well and with Harumi’s native Japanese navigation was a snap. We just did whatever Harumi told us to do and didn’t have to think much about which bus, which train, which sight or store to enjoy.
This time we are on our own–so different and so much fun in a different way. We flew into Kansei airport in Osaka, about an hour and fifteen minutes by express train to Kyoto station and by far the best option because it is direct (no changing trains) and quite comfortable. First thing I noticed was the hyper-organization of the country contrasted with Korea. Two uniformed men are on the train platform to make sure everyone is in the correct line–and they mean the exact correct line, with your suitcase “here!” and stand “here!” which was comforting. No way to make a mistake! But don’t stray out of the line–you will be quickly herded back into the queue. In no time, it seemed, we were at the station and had to find the hotel. It is just a block or so away but it was dark, we had a bunch of stuff with us, and we were a little daunted but there it was, and in the mailbox an envelope poked out that said David M Roth and inside was the key card and simple instructions (the office was closed) and all was well. I will write about the hotel/apartment in another post but suffice to say it works beautifully, location is ideal, price is right, and like our airbnb in Seoul we have a bit of a kitchen and a washing machine! Bed is luxurious. Great place.
This post will cover just a few exceptional experiences of our first few days–Mt. Kurama, Fushimi-Inari shrine, and associated meals.
Best Day Trip Ever–Mt. Kurama
You hop on one of the subway lines and take it (north) to the end; go upstairs and get on the electric trolley/train (the line starts at that station) and off you go into the suburbs of Kyoto. Very lovely, quiet, scenic, and within 15 minutes you are surrounded by trees brushing up against the windows on both sides and into the mountains. You get off at the last stop and are in a tiny village–you and the other 8 or so passengers who are clearly there daytripping, walk up the hill and in a minute you are climbing into a temple, large for the scale of the town, and in front of you are steps and paths winding into the forest.
It was magical how quickly we were out of the city and into an entirely new place. We had little idea how long, how high, how far we would be going. We picked up a map that showed stairs and paths and switchbacks up up up and off we went. It was about 9 in the morning or so, and while still hot and humid less so due to the forest and many streams winding down. Though we were sticky and warm it was just cool enough we figured we’d make it.
The route is not only lovely as mountain forest, but every 10 minutes or so you come across another temple. Some tiny, a few pretty big (big for the setting but not by Kyoto city standards). We were not totally alone on the trail–this is a popular day trip–and 90% of the people we saw were Japanese. It is not an easy climb in places–the stone steps as you get higher are obviously old and the dirt between them worn away–and in other places it’s similar to hiking in a northern California forest with slightly different trees. After maybe two hours we reached the summit, hurrah, and started down on the other side where it was quite a bit steeper and more unrelenting a climb.
We were glad we started in Kurama and ended in Kibune.
Kibune was described in the guidebook as almost impossibly quaint and yup, that is correct. A rushing river (though small) winds down through the town, so the background sound is lovely, and the town itself is just a string of inns and a few restaurants along the single road.
We were so hungry and thirsty so eating there was mandatory, and we decided we’d earned a fancy lunch so ate at Hirobun, an old style tatami-lined dining room with windows along the river. They have 3 different fixed price meals (roughly $27 each)–I had the tofu meal and David the tempura, and we ate our fill and more. This is a very welcoming place and the food was exceptional (including a whole fish each “cooked for 3 days, very tender” and they were–you eat the entire body, head and all and yum). We staggered out and walked down the road looking for the train station when we came upon a bus stop. A small bus was just pulling in so we hurried onboard and were whisked down to the train in 3 minutes and we came back to Kyoto. Peak experience, no question.
That night we decided it was time for yet another sushi orgy. We had gone to Musashi, a conveyer belt sushi place in Kyoto Station, the night we arrived, and now two nights later we went again. Suffice to say we ate more than enough, and with two beers the bill was a little under $44.
Above, our plates as we reluctantly wound down the meal.