Japan – Kyoto, Nara and Arashiyama

Reference: Inside Kyoto.

16 April. We arrived by highway bus from Kawaguchiko into Kyoto at around 6am. Found toilets at Kyoto station and proceeded to our hotel for the next 5 nights – Kyoto Tower Hotel Annex, a block away from the station. Left our bags, unable to check-in yet as it’s too early.

Grabbed breakfast at a cafe nearby and planned to go to Kiyomizudera temple, taking advantage of the early morning.

We bought a one-day bus pass JPY500. At the end of the day, we only used the bus 2x and the bus pass had not been worth it.  Board the bus at the rear door, put your bus pass into the machine by the driver as you get off, and if you’re not sure what to do – present it to the driver. Bus stops are announced in english as well, and there are plenty of signs in the bus. I was armed with google maps as well to track where we are.

Kiyomizudera temple

Kiyomizu-dera temple is best explored early in the morning. But there were already plenty of students on their field trips. The approach to the temple, the Higashimaya district, is lined with shops and restaurants and well-worth the wander around even as it gets busy from midday. Plenty of local potteries here to tempt you.

Higashiyama district

I wasn’t able to find the entrance to the ‘secret’ subterranean grotto (described here). But knowing it would be pitch black in there and slightly in a foul mood because of lack of sleep, I did not really bother looking hard.

We also found this massive cemetery at the back of the temple. It was quite peaceful there. And the headstones were fascinating to look at.

cemetery

For lunch, we sampled the region’s famed yuba (tofu skin) and had a kaiseki lunch made of different-flavoured yuba. I didn’t realise tofu can be delicious. I wouldn’t have chosen to eat here if I realised that was all they serve. Happy mistake (but maybe not for the teen sis in law ha ha).

yuba
yuba

Back at Kyoto station to check in and catch up on sleep. Kyoto Tower Hotel annex is a basic hotel. Dated facilities and bathroom that reminded me of easyHotel, but still quite clean. Room was cramped with an extra sofa bed laid out in a room meant for 2. No wardrobes/drawers for clothes, but I am getting used to that now. At an average of JPY15,600.00/night, this was the cheapest hotel we’re staying in and I am not expecting much. Toiletries provided throughout Japan hotels seems to be the same quality. Oh, and you get free tickets to go up Kyoto Tower – we didn’t get to use ours and it doesn’t seem exciting enough.

Just a note that any Kyoto hotels need to be booked way ahead of time. I started looking more than 2 months before and already didn’t have much choices. When we were there, Kyoto tourist office had a sign up saying all hotels in Kyoto are fully booked :0. This is not a place for spontaneous trips, even in non-peak seasons.

We have depleted 2 camera batteries and SD card space. Which had been unexpected because I only ever use 1 battery pack. Never occurred to me that I’d need to bring the charger. So off we went to Yodobashi (BIC camera and yodobashi are the place to go for anything electronics in Japan) for our camera emergencies.

Dinner, we inadvertently ended up in a chinese-japanese fusion restaurant for chicken yakitori. There are plenty of food choices around Kyoto station, but I really think you have to venture elsewhere get better food.

17 April. Daytrip to Nara. Didn’t mean to be venturing out of Kyoto so soon but I don’t want to leave a trip to a popular spot for the weekend.

I was here for the deer, more than anything. And not that there was a shortage of deer in the UK, just that it’s rare to be able to go near them or be able to feed them. Once you go past the shops from JR Nara station, the deers roam free. I purchased a deer biscuit (JPY150) and handed to the sis in law. They were a fairly rowdy bunch, approaching you as soon as they smell biscuits, biting clothes and will crowd and pressure you until you run out of food. I planned on buying more biscuits and feed them myself, but watching the sis in law had been fun enough.

IMG_7897
deers at Nara begging for biscuits

We dare to ask, the deer had been quick to approach people with deer biscuits yet they don’t crowd near the biscuit sellers. the biscuits are not packed with a simple band of paper, and surely they can smell it. why?

20140417_133052_Richtone(HDR)
deer biscuits at JPY150 if you want to be mobbed by deers

There was an english-speaking guide at Todaiji temple. She was explaining from the guidebook. Worth to stay a short while for some tidbits of information, but i felt it was better to read up the information on the internet yourself.

towards Todaiji temple

We were discussing about not taking photos inside temples/holy places. But the great buddha was magnificent-looking. Truth is, i thought, tourist presence in places of worship somehow undermines the sacredness of a place for believers. But it is in this sharing of culture and space that people learn more about tolerance and how similar we all are. learning always starts with fascination and curiosity.

I had another kamameshi lunch at Nara. And dinner was a kaiseki back at Kyoto station at one of the restaurants at the top of Isetan after failing to find a recommended sushi place in the same area. Discovered that I enjoy a cold sake (i never liked hot sake). And yuba features a lot in the dishes here in Kyoto (which i think the sis in law hates by now).

18 April. Visiting Kyoto, you can get a bit temple crazy and I was trying to rearrange our itinerary so we don’t get a bit too much of the same thing.

But you have to see the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Head early, we didn’t, as the stream of people never ends if you want the perfect photo of the toriis.

ultimate torii gate experience

We went to Nishiki market for lunch – grilled pork, rice balls, curry ramen. All wonderfully good and wonderfully cheap! We had dreams of owning japanese knives. And Aritsugu in Nishiki market was the place to buy. We now proudly own a his and hers knives for ‘only’ JPY24,300 – cash only and wait 30mins+ for them to sharpen/engrave knives. (back at home: they were almost scary sharp. they do require cleaning right away as they are not stainless).

Aritsugu
Nishiki market

Walking around the market and getting desperate for a cafe, the husband spotted a cafe sign within the Christian book shop. Turned out we disturbed a weekly gathering. They made way for us and welcomed us like we were there for the gathering, when we only wanted coffee. Only one of them spoke english and we introduced ourselves and what we’ve been up to. Halfway through, they had to bring it up and told us ‘please go to church’. It was funny, embarassing. Tea and cakes and you only need to donate money in return. Find them near the shrines.

We claimed our knives and went back to the hotel for a brief rest.

We made our way to Shijo Dori at Gion at dusk. People were crowding around a corner and word has it that geishas/maiko go past here. So we stayed as a few geishas/maikos scurried past. It was hard to take a photo, they walk by really fast. Some people were getting caught up in the excitement and were running behind them acting like paparazzis that I feel sorry for the geishas having to put up with all these on a daily basis.

at Gion

If you’re planning to eat in Gion, better book in advance. We didn’t and ended up in a yo-shoku restaurant in the side streets paying JPY3,000 each for a bento box meal that wasn’t really worth talking about.

19 April. I had almost forgotten about going to Arashiyama, and did not plan accordingly.

So right after breakfast we went to the JR ticket office to get tickets for the Saga Scenic railway (you really should be booking way in advance and not on the day). The staff kept repeating the details of the tickets and telling me everything else is booked. Typical tourist me only assumes he was making sure we were ok with the time, as none of us were aware of the station names. So we got our tickets for 4pm and decided to see the rest of Arahisyama first.

After getting off at Arashiyama, we piled into a taxi and headed off to Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple with it’s quirky-looking rakans. Very few people were here and it was a really nice place.

rakans
rakans

From the temple, we walked towards Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street. It really isn’t that far. Getting hungry, we got into the first place offering hot meals and got ourselves a curry rice. I found it too spicy and not really that tasty. The private houses here are really beautiful. I got too close to the chained cones on one house and promptly warned off with a siren blast.

thatched house

We made our way into the bamboo groves near the station. That would have been a really nice spot if it were quiet. But lots of tourists here.

bamboo grove
bamboo grove

Tried to find Togetsyuko bridge and almost got lost getting there.

Togetsukyo bridge

I wanted to get to Torokko saga station early as I was having doubts about our tickets. Turns out we were supposed to board the scenic train at the other end of the line – Kameoka! It was too late to get there (1 hour by bus) and we can’t change our tickets as the last train from Torokko Saga has already left. We were offered a refund minus a fee. Good thing the husband told me to try and get the refund at Kyoto Station instead (where we bought the tickets).

JR staff at Kyoto station was insistent he tried to make sure we were aware of the details of the tickets we bought and refused us any refund. We persisted and he spoke to his boss and finally agreed to refund us the full amount.

So we bought another set of tickets for the next day, wrote everything down on paper and handed that and rechecked the ticket way too many times.

Dinner was at Sushi Ina at COCON Karasuma mall near Shijo station. I was hunting for the sushi I can rave about and have failed to find that when we were in Tokyo. I had the Takumi sushi course – miso soup, appetizer, 13 pcs of nigiri and an option to not have wasabi, I was already impressed. We were seated at the counter and was awed by the skills of the sushi chef. And when my nigiris were served, it almost melts in the mouth – that was a spiritual moment for me. The sake they serve here are also worth trying.

takumi sushi course at at sushi ina

20 April. Quick breakfast at Yoshinoya and we were off to Arashiyama again. We were on the first train out from Torokko Saga. It was chilly. The views on both sides were indeed scenic. I can imagine how beautiful it could have been with the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

Saga scenic train

We reached Torokko Kameoka station and got directions for the Hozugawa River cruise to go back to Arashiyama. Tourist info at station near the exit has maps. It was a relatively relaxing ride, nice sceneries. Boat was full. The boatmen are quite used to the rapids and dodging shallow rocks, but this is far from a river rafting in spite of the nervous laughter of the other passengers. They entertain passengers with stories and point out sceneries – but only in japanese. We did feel a bit left out as everyone else was japanese and laughing along. There is a point where your picture will be taken (photographer was on a bridge/cliff) and they pass out a form so they can send it to you – we did not understand the form as it was in japanese!  You will get a bit wet, but they have plastic sheet to cover your lap so it will not get too wet. Towards the end of the ride, a motorised boat selling food and drinks will attach to your boat and you can eat dango and fried squid on the boat.

Hozugawa River cruise

We had lunch at the open air restaurant over looking the river. It quickly got too cold.

We spent most of the afternoon napping back at the hotel. I had asked reception to book dinner for us at Sukiyaki Iroha at Pontocho (near Gion) and made our way there in the evening. I had to rely on google map and ask around as there were no english signs and I had no photo of the restaurant front.

at sukiyaki iroha, pontocho

My mom cooks (filipino-style) sukiyaki and this is not far off from that. We were shown a tatami-lined room, with a low, sunken table. There is a heater and heated foot pads. A gas burner is placed on the table and the kimono-clad waitress showed us how to cook our sukiyaki – a teaspoon of sugar, a splash of soy sauce, add in the thinly sliced wagyu beef, veggies and vermicelli. crack an egg into a bowl and dip the beef in it. eat with rice. We were left to our own devices after that, but they check on you regularly. You can always order more meat and veggies. That was an amazing meal and well worth it.

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