A time for reflection in Kyoto…

A good nights sleep, but I still couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. It was our last full day in Kyoto. Staying in bed wasn’t going to slow the day down. We left the room just after 8:30 and quickly checked the internet: emails etc. Our first port of call was a temple just around the corner from our hotel. But Bukko-ji temple was closed, like everything else it seemed…to be fair, it wasn’t even 9 o’clock yet.  

A small owl hung outside a house in Kyoto

 

We grabbed some breakfast then headed to Pontochō one of Kyoto’s historic geisha districts. The street itself was very quiet (I think this is the best time to appreciate the beauty of the street) and you could see the history just oozing out of the buildings.  

Me down Pontochō

 

At the top of Pontochō opposite a clearing with a view of the river, we came across a homeless man (one of many in Japan) sat with two black and white cats, who didn’t seem to mind being stroked so early in the morning.  

Cats of Pontochō

 

We headed back to Gion and did a bit of shopping. Our next stop was Maruyama Park to visit the Chion-in Temple. We walked through the grounds of the Yasaka Shrine and came upon Maruyama Park. The grounds of Maruyama were beautiful. Traditional Japanese landscaping and a pond full of leaping koi carp. Rob bought us a couple of ice creams so we took time out to watch the locals admiring the park (in the rain). We searched the park in the search of the temple, but it seemed we were walking in the wrong direction.  

Japanese women enjoying a day in Maruyama

 

We discovered a small gateway to a house in a wooded area in the park. A man was bustling around in the garden beyond the gate. We asked him for directions (well Rob did, it was about time he clocked up some asking directions time) and after giving us an animated display of directions…in Japanese of course, we somehow found what we were looking for.  

Nice weather for ducks

 

While walking to the temple, we came across a small sheltered seating area, as we approached it two small cats appeared, we think they were hungry, but we had no food. All we had to offer was our attention for 5 minutes.  

Cranes in Maruyama

 

Now what happened next was completely Rob’s fault. He wanted to visit the Ryozan Museum of History, so we took the steep incline up to where the museum was, only to find that it was closed. Cheers Rob. Note to self, check when museums are actually open next time!  

Flower feature

 

Luckily for us, the Ryozan Kwannon (which was built as a memorial to the two million fallen Japanese soldiers of World War II) was nearby, as well as some small craft type shops where I purchased my first Japanese fan. At the entrance to the Ryozan Kwannon, you are given an incense stick to place in front of the Buddha. You can sit inside the Buddha statue, which houses several smaller shrines. It’s a place of relaxation and reflection, more so for practising Japanese Buddhists.  

Ryozan Kwannon

 

We headed to the train station as we had buy our Bullet Train tickets. This was followed by another round of shopping- including some sake tasting, then back to the hotel for an early night. Tokyo tomorrow!  

Ryozan Kwannon

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Kyoto Cosplayers, Gion Corner and a greedy heron

Before I write anything else about today, I have to say that my fiance ate fish. There, happy now Rob? I convinced him to have a Japanese breakfast with me. The menu was pretty much the same; fish, miso soup, rice, pickles and boiled vegetables. The mama-san brought us green tea and iced water while Elton John’s ‘My song’ played over the stereo (on the shamisen of course).  

The day itself was pretty amazing. We hired two bicycles for ¥735 and can safely say it is the best and quickest way to get around Kyoto. We rode to the Kyoto Manga Museum, only to find it didn’t open until 10:00, so we rode to the Imperial Palace.  

A cat in the Imperial Palace grounds

 

Not much to write about with regards to the palace. You can’t actually get in as it is surrounded by high walls and thick wooden gates, but the surrounding area is one massive park full of trees and flowers and is noted as a great recreational area. We saw dog walkers, bird watchers, joggers and young loved up couples.  

Me outside the Imperial Palace

 

We headed back to the Kyoto Manga Museum where we were warmly greeted at the entrance. The woman at the desk asked us where we were from and what made us visit the museum. I explained it was down to my obsession of manga and anime, and we were in! Nearly every wall in the museum is covered in books, from unreadable private collections to manga sent it from around the world including Korea, China, Malaysia and France.  

Kyoto Manga Museum

 

There was even a room dedicated to the old school in which the museum is housed, with displays of old school books and photographs. I was even lucky enough to photograph some girls dressed in Cosplay too – I have heard Harajuku Cosplayers can be quite stuck up now or just generally sick of the attention they attract. The Kyoto Cosplayers were very willing to have their photograph taken.  

One of the many rows of book shelves in the museum

 

We bought a ticket for a special exhibition that was showing at the museum. It was an exhibition dedicated to the work of manga artist Saibo Reiko as it was her 25th year in the manga industry. Her work is often disregarded by some critics, but I found it to be quirky and kind of old school.  

In the exhibition

 

The best part of the museum was the portrait section where me and Rob got our portrait done by Takeshi, a young manga artist. He was very chatty and told us of his trip to London and Stonehenge. He mentioned that he wanted to buy some shoes but they were too expensive…like everything else in London. We left Takeshi with our painting, photographed a couple of Cosplayers (there was over a hundred in the museum courtyard) then did our routine trip to the gift shop.  

With our manga portrait

 

Nishiki food market is a long stretch of covered food stalls selling everything from; fish, sake, octopus balls, tea and vegetables- well every Japanese food delicacy, including some very expensive leaves…a sign in the window asked us not to photograph them. The great thing about the market is the ability to try before you buy, that’s if you dare…  

Nishiki market

 

We headed back to Gion as I wanted to see Gion Corner. To get to Gion Corner you have to walk through the streets of old Kyoto…it’s like being transported back in time. Beautiful wooden houses stood side by side in rows, with windows covered by raffia mat style blinds, to keep out the heat or the noise from the tourists outside?  

Gion Corner

 

We seemed to stumble upon Kennin-ji temple, but boy are we glad we did! It is the oldest Zen Buddhism temple in Kyoto, possibly in Japan too! We made our way around the temple- barefoot on tatami is bliss- and ended up in a beautifully ornate room containing a statue of the Buddha and the most exquisite ceiling full of clouds and dragons. Photographers sprawled out on the floor, balancing hundreds of pounds worth of equipment above them, just to capture the beauty of the art above. We decided it was time to return the bicycles, and after getting slightly lost we found our bearings and returned to the ryokan where we collected our cases.  

Beautiful ceiling at Kennin-ji

 

As we walked to our new home for the next two days we spotted a heron sat on a set of traffic lights above. It flew down and landed on the bridge next to a temple we had visited on our first day in Kyoto.  A little old woman came running up the street and began feeding it slabs of salmon (I presume she does this to stop it eating the carp).  

Feeding the greedy heron

 

We arrived at our new hotel about 10-15 minutes after we left the ryokan and treated my aching body to a bath. We ate some snacks we purchased from the Family Mart next door- including a cake coloured like a cow, and relaxed for the rest of the night.     

Sunset on the streets of Kyoto

 

   

   

 

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Fish breakfast, sailor suits and tourist geisha…our first day in Kyoto

Kyoto early morning, and it was time for breakfast. Well for me anyway, I had ordered a traditional Japanese breakfast for about ¥1000 at the ryokan. I was shown in to the dining room by a young girl and an elderly Japanese lady (who I assumed was the cook). All the breakfasts were set out on the tables already (it seems I wasn’t the only one who had ordered one) and sunlight was pouring through one of the windows. I was shown to a single table and brought a steaming cup of tea, a glass of water and a large black box (which I later learned was packed with rice). The tray laid on the table in front of me was full of little pots and dishes full of pickles, boiled vegetables, tofu and some sort of chestnut, cut into to make what looked like little stencils. In the centre was a piece of salmon. I began to work my way through the course in earnest, trying everything in each pot. Miso soup sat in a little bowl, I watched as seaweed swirled around my chopsticks. I sat for a while in the sunlit room listening to the Japanese shamisen interpretations of western songs, sipping tea and watching the little old lady potter around the kitchen. My tea was topped up after half an hour or so and when everything had gone I thanked the little Japanese lady who bowed me out of the room. 

Me outside the ryokan

 

We headed to the bus station to catch a bus to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. After purchasing an all day bus ticket (which turned out to be a complete waste of money) we walked to our stop where we were met with a  massive queue and the uncertainty of whether we were going to get on the bus already waiting to fill up, or hang around in the sun for at least another half an hour. But in true Japanese style we were forced on to the bus like cattle and razed the streets of Kyoto…until we had to stop for the lights. 

Kiyomizu-dera temple monk

 

We got off at our stop and trekked up a long, sloping street to the temple. Some Japanese students in sailor uniforms (or sailor suits as we call them from watching too much Fruits Basket) greeted us in English as we grabbed a drink from a vending machine (again, one of many in Japan). 

Kiyomizu-dera temple

 

Kiyomizu-dera temple is beautiful, surrounded by trees and hills (and lots of school children unfortunately). We walked around the grounds and admired the many shrines, including the famous Jishu shrine of love. We were asked by two Americans (well one really as the guy didn’t seem too bothered) if we could take their photograph, and she took ours. In true American style she exclaimed “have a great day now” as we walked away. 

My fiance and I at Kiyomizu-dera

 

We left Kiyomizu-dera in search of Yasaka shrine. It took us a while and we ended up a random street. We were luckily enough at this point though to see some geisha (well not real ones) but ‘tourist geisha’ the closest I would ever come to seeing the real thing!. We eventually found Yasaka shrine. Again we walked around admiring the grounds and the buildings, and also browsed the many stalls dedicated to providing good luck charms and prayer beads to those in need (or the odd tourist). 

Yasaka shrine

 

Gion is amazing! As you step out of Yasaka shrine you are instantly greeted by Gion, a long road full of the few remaining traditional Japanese buildings in the country, and boutiques selling an array of quality geisha paraphernalia including some very expensive hair combs! I also managed to visit Yojiya, the famous specialist cosmetics store founded in Kyoto in 1904. We walked over Shijo bridge and saw the Minami-za Kabuki Theatre then strolled up Shijo dori, Kyoto’s main shopping street. 

Yojiya

 

We then decided to head to Nijo Castle, thinking it wasn’t that far away. How wrong we were. A random man (and I mean random as he appeared out of nowhere) pointed us in the right direction- with a good dose of hand waving and grunts. Nijo was worth the walk. Unfortunately you are unable to take photographs inside, but in one word the inside can be described as ‘breathtaking’. Most of the walkways are what is called Nightingale floors because as you walk over them, they squeak and whistle like birds. This was to warn the people of the castle of any intruders who may have made it in. We walked around the castle gardens and saw a snake sunbathing, our second one of the trip, and probably our last. 

'Tourist geisha'

 

We then trekked back to the ryokan where my fiancé left me at the top of the street to go get some supplies to munch back in our room. Today was worth the sunburn and the aching feet. 

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To Kyoto we go…

Nothing much happened today, I think we were more impressed we made it to Kyoto at all…
Yasaka shrine

We said goodbye to Osaka today. It was another early morning and it was raining. We checked out of the hotel and visited the Yasaka shrine one last time. I wanted to photograph the giant dragon head at the end of the path leading into the grounds. The two kittens which we had admired in the pet shop down the road were still in the window, the tabby awoke, but we had to leave.  

We caught the train to Imamiya, took the JR loop line to Osaka, then the JR Kyoto line to Kyoto! The 10:30 took us to Kyoto in no time at all. The landscape took a different form. There were more suburbs but more trees and hills, it was a refreshing change from concrete and glass. 

Welcome to Kyoto

 

Kyoto station is space aged, and if I didn’t know what it already looked like I would have been completely shocked, or thought we had come to the wrong station. After failing to find a reasonably priced place to eat, we decided to look for the hotel. It was very easy to find (we had a decent map for a change). I ducked under the noren curtains of the ryokan we had booked for the next two nights. We were welcomed in by two lovely Japanese hosts who spoke excellent English. We couldn’t check in until 16:00 (like most places in Japan) so we went to go find some lunch. 

Ryokan Shimizu

 

We found a good restaurant in a nearby shopping centre which was actually underground. We both had a sweet and sour pork set meal, then went to the Higashi Honnganji temple where we were fortunate to experience Buddhist prayer. We sat on the tatami matting of a large hall which was full of the chanting of a monk at the front. A very peaceful moment.  The Nishi Honganji was not as ornate as Higashi as I had read in one of my guide books, but it was still pleasant all the same, and it had stopped raining. When we got back to the ryokan we were shown to our room by a younger member of staff. The hallway was full of the beautiful scent of incense and decorated with Japanese ‘maneki neko’ (lucky cats) and ‘Tanuki’ a kami in the form of a dog (often mistaken for a racoon). Room number 27 Kiyamachi would be our home for the next couple of nights. 

My fiance and I at Higashi Honnganji

 

We took off our slippers as we entered our room (we had left our shoes at the door) and walked into our beautiful Japanese room. Tatami flooring, paper screens and a couple of futon laid out on the floor. Very traditional Japanese! A beautiful black, lacquered box holds a teapot and two tea cups, along with a tea caddy. 

Our room

 

I went downstairs to use the internet, ¥100 for 20 minutes. I take longer than usual as the keyboard is a mixture of Japanese and English. Later on we nipped to a convenience store called Lawsons and get some supplies in the form of Japanese biscuits and a couple of manga books. And now we are both dressed in our yukata and obi watching Japanese television. Time for bed I think… 

Our Japanese teapot

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Fish, ferris wheels and a fried egg…our last day in Osaka

Today was definitely worth the sunburn and the blisters…

Osaka docks

 

We caught the subway to Osakako, home to the Osaka Aquarium! Breakfast consisted of Mcdonalds (healthy I know) then we headed to the aquarium. It didn’t open until 9:30 so we walked to the waterfront, took photos and watched the boats coming in. 

The Tempozan Ferris Wheel

 

The aquarium itself was amazing. Tanks of fish and sharks, penguins, otters, seals, manta ray, jelly fish, iguana and giant crabs. We spent a good while at the aquarium. We visited the gift shop (both of them) then waited until the shopping complex next door opened. At first the complex looked rather ‘samey’. We went upstairs and was just about to head back down until I saw heaven…a Studio Ghibli store! I must have been in there a good 45-50 minutes and I didn’t leave empty handed. 

Osaka Aquarium

 

We also went up the Tempozan Ferris Wheel located next to the shopping complex. The views were amazing, and needless to say it is a hell of a lot cheaper and quieter than the London Eye! Our next stop was the Umeda Sky building. As we got into Umeda we realised we didn’t have the best map to find our way to the building. Fortunately there was a city worker nearby having a smoke. I forced my fiance to go and ask him for directions (because of knowledge of Japanese I had been the one to always approach people and ask them for information, enough was enough). It turned out her spoke really good English. He confirmed what we already knew…the map in my guidebook was crap. He used one of the other maps we had (still not good, but better than the one in the book) and gave us an animated display of giving directions. To cut a long story short we found it. It was worth the walk. The views of Osaka were incredible and the city seemed to go on forever. We sat at a little café on the top floor and ate a hotdog whilst watching the traffic (which looked like tiny ants from this height) and followed aeroplanes as they came in and out of the city. 

View from the top of the Umeda Sky building

 

We decided to go out for tea tonight. After a bit of a walk we stumbled upon (would you believe it) Dotonbori! After spending ages trying to find it yesterday and the day before we found it illuminated and busy as ever. The phrase ‘seek and ye shall find’ does not always ring true. We eventually settled on a small food place. We placed our order in what looked like a small vending machine, handed the printed ticket to the waiter, and took a seat. The waiter brought us a jug of iced tea, followed by our meals. I had a chicken and onion dish with a bowl of steaming rice and boiled vegetables, and Rob had the Japanese take on a burger with a fried egg, chips, vegetables and crispy fish. I had to see the Glico man one last time before we left. Every space in Osaka was covered by lights- and Dotonbori was no exception. 

Glico man at night

 

Flashing neon signs and glowing, beckoning lanterns lined the street as people walked and talked and waiters touted for business. Nearly every building was some sort of restaurant. Osakans certainly love their food, and after reading the history of the area it is hard not to see why. There is a local saying…Kyoto is the place to ‘shop till you drop’ (kidaore), Osaka is where you ‘eat till you drop’ (kuidaore). 

The famous Zubora-ya restaurant

 

We walked steadily back to the hotel, so much so we got lost. When we made it back to the hotel we had the unfortunate task of having to pack…we would be leaving tomorrow.

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Ema boards and sake

We started the day early again as we left the room around 8:30 and headed down to the hotel lobby to send a quick email home. Our first port of call was literally right behind our hotel.

One of many ema boards found at shines around Japan

 

If you wake up early enough you can hear the claps at Yasaka shrine from the hotel. Clapping at a shrine is supposed to create the very same sound that divided chaos into heaven and earth and gave birth to Japan, clapping is then followed by a bow or two. As you walk through the gate of Yasaka shrine you are met by the snarling face of a large dragon. It is impossible to miss him as he sits right at the bottom of the path. The shrine grounds are surrounded by trees which are great for keeping the area cool as well as blocking out any excess noise from the street. There was a man raking up leaves and one man greeted us with ‘ohayou gozaimasu’, good morning in Japanese for those who didn’t know. 

Yasaka shrine guardian

 

Something which I had always wanted to see were ema boards, and today I wasn’t disappointed. Ema boards are small wooden plaques which people write their prayers or wishes on. They are then hung up at the shrine, usually by thin rope on specially made boards and then the kami (spirits or gods) of the shrine are suppose to read them and make your dreams come true. A collection of ema boards were hung up on a wooden frame just to the left of the giant dragon head. Paintings of rabbits and tigers covered some of the blocks, others were covered with beautiful Japanese characters asking for a miracle. 

Ema board featuring a tiger

 

We walked to Namba station from Yasaka shrine and headed to Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine and gardens. The shine and gardens are separated by the train station and row of shops. We explored the vast space in which several shrine buildings are housed. We hear the claps of prayer several times through out our visit (apart from being one of the most revered shrines in Osaka it is also Golden Week). There were several sake barrels lined up along the perimeter fence (no sake inside unfortunately) as well as a stall in which three ‘miko’ or shrine maidens sat selling charms and good luck items. 

A 'miko' or shrine maiden walking in Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine grounds

 

Namba station again and this time we were in search of Dotonbori, a place I had read such a lot about and was determined to find it today, after yesterdays failed attempt. Dotonbori was heaving, as was to be expected and the Glico man was just how I imagined (although I wish there were fewer people). We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping and grabbed a drink in a café called Churchills (in Japan…I know!) and headed to Family Mart to get some supplies. Tomorrow is our last day in Osaka . We are planning on going to the Osaka Aquarium. 

Dotonbori

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Osaka, our home for the next four days…

Going to bed at 5pm in the afternoon was not the best idea. We both awoke after midnight and was awake….until now. Well I was anyway. I got out of bed at 6am and began with a shower and dose of Japanese morning television. We eventually left the hotel around 8:30 and hurried to Namba station (it was already 20˚C at least) and when we arrived at the station we caught a train to Shin Imamiya and then the JR Osaka Loop Line to Osaka jo koen. 

Osaka Castle

 

The station leads straight on to a wide open paved area surrounded by trees and flower beds. On either side of the path (and we never worked out why) were hundreds of young teenage girls with posters and fans of young Japanese men…possibly for some sort of boy band? 

Cat in the early morning sun

 

We headed straight over to Osaka Castle, the approach was very impressive. The castle is surrounded by a large moat so we crossed over a bridge and walked through a small entrance gate. In front of the castle is an open courtyard full of food and drink stalls, vending machines and people. The place was heaving despite being only very early in the morning. 

At the foot of the castle

At the foot of the castle

 

We finally got to try an Osakan delicacy…octopus balls! The stall vendors were very  polite and seemed proud that we were sampling their food. We bought eight pieces for ¥400. The octopus balls themselves were sprinkled with some sort of fish flakes which danced in the breeze and made them look alive. The verdict…well lets just say I had one and my fiance had seven, despite the bright purple tentacle which flopped out on to the table. 

Octopus balls

Octopus balls

 

We spent the morning looking around the castle which had eight floors, seven of which were dedicated to providing information on the history of the castle which was beautifully displayed on the walls around the rooms (including English translations). The eighth floor was an observatory deck allowing you to see Osaka in all its glory. 

One of the best reasons for going up the castle is you get to see not only the beautiful scenery, but things like this!

 

We left the castle just after lunch time and walked a very long and samey street to the Osaka Museum of History. The museum building, according to my book, is built partly on the site of Naniwa Palace which can be seen on display boards inside. Luckily for us there was a special exhibition on one of the floors, The World of Japanese Toys and Manga in the Showa Period, it was a privilege to see such items as this was Japanese history right in front of my eyes. On one of the floors we took a break. On every floor of the museum is a dedicated seating area allowing you to view Osaka from different levels. There are boards telling you what buildings are what and the large glass windows allow you to take it all in. 

Osaka Museum of History

Osaka Museum of History

 

When we had finished in the museum we took the scenic route back to the station, the scenic route I have to say is through the castle gardens as opposed to the grey expanse of road we walked earlier. We returned to Namba and headed out the nearest exit in search of Dotonbori. Unfortunately we never found it, but vowed to return the next day. But (much to my fiance’s pleasure) we found a Taito and Sega games arcade. We returned to the hotel some time later after sampling some Japanese cuisine and were asleep in no time. 

One way of making bicycle stands a feature

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