Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday, April 15: Kyoto

Our breakfast - yum!
We began our day by heading to the banquet hall in our ryokan for a Japanese style buffet breakfast. There were tons of options! My favorites were the creamy, crab-esque mashed potatoes and also the slice of Japanese sweet potato. Mark's favorite was the salmon, of course. They also had fruit cocktail - which is similar to ours except there are colored and clear gelatin cubes in it (firmer than jello). Intriguing.

Japanese fruit cocktail with gelatin cubes
Japanese toilets are awesome. Heated seats, built-in butt squirters and bidets, clever use of tank lid as a faucet to wash your hands,  and option of a fake flushing sound to cover up those more embarrassing bathroom visits.

Then we headed to church. We only got lost a little getting to the subway station, but we had allowed ourselves time for that and still made it to church early. The missionaries were all from the U.S. and they swarmed us. Apparently they don't get English speaking visitors too often. A nice younger guy who had served his mission in San Francisco and attends BYU-Hawaii translated for us. Everyone was extremely friendly and gave us some good travel tips.

On the way to church
Mark likes getting his picture taken with trains
It was a gorgeous day. About 70 degrees and the sun was shining. We headed to our hostel after that, put down our bags, and rented bikes to go explore more of Kyoto. We rode up the river on the trail right next to it. Apparently this is a very popular spot for Kyotians on a Sunday afternoon. Again, people lay out on their blue tarps and enjoy food, fun, friends, and family. What amused me most was an old man sitting by himself singing old-style Japanese songs into a microphone. The river was lined with blossoming cherry trees, so this made for a great ride. I hadn't been on a bike for 5 years, so my poor butt suffered the consequences of a long ride afterward.
A pretty blossoming tree along our ride.

Every summer, these symbols in the mountains get lit on fire. Yes, the Japanese are so hardcore they set their mountains ON FIRE.
We took a detour from the river to visit a site that had been highly recommended to us, The Golden Pavilion. Thusfar, we hadn't paid to enter any of the temples, but our guidebook said this was a very popular site and we couldn't see anything from the outside, so we went ahead and paid the admission fee. And wow, was it worth it. I think I said "wow" at least a dozen times as we walked through. It is a gold-plated temple situated on a beautiful and picturesque pond. There were herons and gorgeous scenery. The pictures describe it better than words can, but being there in person was simply amazing. At that point of our trip, this was by far my favorite thing that I had seen.

At shrines, tying your fortunes to string-lined poles is pretty popular
Afterwards we headed back to our hostel but decided to stop for a very late lunch/early dinner. Unfortunately for us (good for them!), most restaurants are closed on Sundays aside from chains. We ended up grabbing a bite at a cheap Japanese fast-food joint (we had thinly sliced beef over rice with miso soup and pickled salad). It was very mediocre. We took another detour on the way back to bike through the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park, which is quite extensive. Lots of grassy areas to enjoy picnics and again, lots of cherry blossoms. I am so glad we hit Kyoto during peak cherry blossom season.

This was a sign advertising a beauty salon. Probably not the best English word choice.
In Kyoto Imperial Palace Park
We got back to the hostel (By the way - this hostel was great! It is called K's House and we would highly recommend it to anyone traveling in Japan. It was better than all our hotels except the ryokan. We had a private room (bathrooms are shared but this wasn't an issue), everything is clean, extremely friendly and helpful staff, great location.) and crashed. I fell dead asleep around 7. I really wanted to stay asleep and neither of us wanted to go out but we decided to go out anyway to try to conquer our jet lag. We just walked around near the Kyoto station and Kyoto tower areas. I really wanted to hit up the 100 yen store (equivalent to our dollar stores), but it was closed. We will be back!

An entire row of toy vending machines in Yodobashi Kyoto - and it continued in the next aisle!
Then we walked into the craziest store I have ever been to - called Yodobashi Kyoto. This is a chain store than can be found in all the major cities in Japan. It was a store with 8 stories, each floor about the size or a large Safeway or Kroger. I described it to Mark as in the form of a store. Electronics, toys, kitchen items, beauty/drug, clothing - they had everything except groceries. The top floor was like a food court. We were stupefied. There were so many choices for each item - an entire row of iPad covers, at least 6 aisles of rice cookers, at least 200 bike models, an entire section dedicated to camera tripods, etc. It was unbelievable. We will probably go back there before we leave Kyoto to get food at the food court.

Then we basically sleep-walked back to our room and crashed.

Saturday, April 14 - Kyoto

Well, that was an interesting night of sleep. Our hotel room was tiny. As in, you can easily touch both walls on either side of the bed at the same time. We still somehow managed to get some sleep. In the morning we went to a nearby convenience store to get breakfast and went on our way. Breakfast was fruit in gelatin (Liz had mandarin oranges, Mark had loquats), a strawberry waffle for mark, a bean-paste filled donut for Liz, and some strawberry milk.

We took a train to Tokyo station and managed to find our Shinkansen (bullet train) without much trouble. We found our seats and made ourselves comfortable for the 2.5 hour ride to Kyoto. Yes, the bullet train is very fast. It was a nice ride but we were worried about weather: it was raining in Tokyo, and either rainy or cloudy most of the ride.

At Kyoto station, we bumbled around aimlessly until we found a food court called Eat Paradise. We decided on a place that specializes in katsu, and it was very tasty. Liz had tonkatsu, I had two small tonkatsu and two crab croquettes. The miso soup was tasty. Instead of tofu and kelp, it had tiny clams at the bottom. Our next stop was the ryokan (which is a traditional Japanese inn). We rode both lines of the Kyoto subway to get there and walked the rest of the way. My Google street view directions did not fail! We left our bags there and the reception desk worker showed us how to get to our next destination.

You can even count your calories on the subway steps.
We rode the bus to get to a point to start our walking tour. You enter the rear door of these buses and pay as you leave. It was crowded, but it got us to where we needed to go. There were lots of cherry blossoms along the way, so it was a pretty ride.

We were not at the start of our walking tour of southern Higashiyama. There were lots of people here. We started at one of Kyoto's most famous temples, Kiyomizu-dera. We didn't go inside, except for a place at the Tainai-meguri. You walk around in total darkness, guided by a railing. Apparently it is meant to symbolize emerging from the womb as you leave. To make it a more authentic experience, you can exit naked and screaming, but that may get you into trouble.

We then descended a crowded street with lots of shops on both sides. There were numbers of people wearing kimono and even a few geisha. I was hoping one of them would photo-bomb us, but no dice.

More 'hanami'
We saw another temple, Kodai-ji, and then found Maruyama-koen park. It was crowded and there were lots of people having picnics on blue tarps. We walked around and took in the sights, and then moved in to Chion-in temple. It was a huge entry gate with big old stone steps. We walked up and walked around, but unfortunately there was some construction up top so we didn't see too much. By this point we were getting pretty tired, so we skipped Shoren-in and hopped on the subway to return to our inn.
This is the most renowned cherry tree in all Kyoto

Ur so geisha

One of these things is not like the others.

So, a ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with a bath, floor mats for sleeping and paper sliding doors. They even give you a yukata to wear (they are light, comfortable robes). We hung out in the room until dinner, and may have nearly fallen asleep at one point (hard to do on these hard floors). Our food came at 7, and while good, it was way too much. Liz had the sukiyaki and I had shabu-shabu. They are like Japanese fondue, cooked in a pot and then you put them in your dipping bowl and eat it. There was beef, veggies, mushrooms and rice noodles. The sukiyaki was dipped in raw egg, which is surprisingly delicious. We couldn't even eat half of the food, unfortunately. Just too much.
Hmm! Good!

Next up was a bath. They are communal baths, divided by sexes. The process goes as follows:

1. Get naked.
2. Fill up a bucket and rinse off.
3. Get into the hot water and relax.
4. Get out and clean yourself with soap, then rinse.
5. Get into the hot water again. Continue relaxing.
6. Dry off, get dressed and leave.

It was relaxing. There was a Swedish guy in there with his half-Japanese son, we chatted for a bit. Upon returning, we found our beds (tatami mats) set up for us, and we quickly fell asleep.
Our sleeping arrangements

Liz's observations from the day:

  • Green tea is life. If you see anything green, it probably has green tea in it. Green tea sweets, ice cream, and so on. It's water here. At lunch we were given green tea (not water) with our meal. We were also served green tea in our ryokan room when we arrived.
  • Beef cooked like fondue and then dipped in raw egg sounds very scary, but in fact it is rich and divine!
  • Japanese toilets are way better than ours. The toilet seats are heated, and most have a built-in butt squirter and bidet. About half have a faucet above the tank where you can was your hands - genius!
A truer word was never spoken.

April 12-13: Traveling and 1st Day in Japan

First of all, this is something I swore I would never do - start a blog. However, after our recent trip to Japan we decided that blogging about each day would be the easiest way for friends and family to get details about our experience. Mark and I alternated writing in a travel journal each day, and we will be transcribing it onto this blog. There is probably more detail than you want, so feel free to just skim and look at the pictures.


Well, our journey started out with a flight to Chicago, where we spent the night. We stayed in a hotel called the Garden Hotel which was cheap (and it showed!) and had free airport shuttle. According to our taxi driver the next day, it used to be one of the premier hotels in Chicago, but due to neglect it was in pretty bad shape. Scariest shower outside of Peru I've ever used. I felt that the water knob was about to fall off, and it was just in bad shape. The sheets were so old they just grabbed at your clothes. The best part was their continental breakfast, consisting of coffee and a gigantic stack of packaged Ho-Ho's. I laughed when I saw it. I really wanted a picture but when we came back with the camera, they had put the Ho-Ho's away. Needless to say, we got a much better breakfast at a nearby diner.

Then came time for the big long flight. It was, well, long. Luckily we had individual video panels on the back of each seat which helped to pass the time. The flight attendants also stuffed us with food. We had two hot meals plus a sandwich in-between. Thirteen hours is a long time to be cramped in a plane. Our neck pillows, eye masks, and the noise cancellation headphones that I got from Mark's mom helped a ton! There was daylight for our entire flight which was pretty crazy.

Mark happily riding his first train in Japan.
We both started to get pretty excited when we began our descent into the Narita Airport, about an hour outside of Tokyo. My biggest surprise as I looked out the plane window was seeing golf courses. I didn't really expect to see any golf courses during our stay, and there were 5 or 6 that we saw during our descent. (sidenote: Those were the only ones we ended up seeing during our trip.) Mark's biggest surprise was how many cherry blossoms he could actually see from the air. Then we made it through immigration and customs without a problem, and we even made it all the way to our hotel in Tokyo without getting on the wrong train! Mark was really, really, excited to ride the trains. Along the way to the hotel, here are the observations I made:

  • About one in four Japanese people wears a surgical mask. While in our society that is laughable, in Japan it is socially accepted.
  • I didn't realize the Japanese drive on the left side of the road. What that means for us is that all the people naturally veer to the left when walking on the sidewalk/in the train stations. That's really hard for us to follow.
  • We happened to be headed to our hotel at the end of the business day. The Japanese dress much more formally than we do for work. Almost every man we saw was in a suit with a white shirt and tie. The women were mostly in business suits as well-white shirts, skirts (much more common than dress pants), and matching jackets.
Yup, this was our room. This is a "double bed," although to us it seemed more of a twin bed + 4 inches. Also note how tired I was.
Mark can touch both walls!
When we got to our hotel, we were pooped. As expected, the hotel room was teeny tiny and had no A/C. The unexpected was that the window in our room was not designed to open. The room felt really muggy, especially since we were sweaty and nasty from traveling and carrying luggage around all day. That made our decision on whether or not to go out that night pretty easy. We headed to Akihabara, which was only one train station away. The particular train line we were on didn't accept our rail pass, so we had our first test at buying tickets from the machine, which we passed successfully. Akihabara is the area of Tokyo that sells tons of anime and electronics and it is all lit up at night. It was fun just walking around and taking in the sights. Here are our observations from Akihabara:
  • Tons of vending machines (which I hear is the case everywhere in Japan). There were restaurants where you use a vending machine outside to select and pay for your food from the plastic food displays and then you pick it up inside.
  • There was an entire store full of claw machines you could play to try and grab the prizes. Claw machines and nothing else.
  • There were teen girls on just about every corner "cosplaying" and handing out fliers. Cosplay is a word that Mark taught me a week or so before the trip which basically means that you dress us as anime characters.
  • There was a pretty river (I have no idea its name) that ran right through the middle of the city.
  • There was an arcade packed full of Japanese men in their business suits playing video games. That was a pretty funny sight.
  • There were train tracks built on the roofs of shops. Of course Mark is the one who noticed that.

The unknown pretty river in Akihabara.

Akihabara 1

Akihabara 2

Well, that was our first day in Japan. It rained as we came back from Akihabara which was nice since we still felt pretty nasty and sticky.