If you’re just visiting for the first time, you’re probably experiencing a little bit of cognitive dissonance as to how the two whitest white guys you ever did see ended up in Japan. You’ll obviously want to review Part I (Chicago!), Part II (Jetlag in Japan!), and Part III (“The Happiest Place on Earth.” How do you say that in Japanese?) to bring yourself up to speed.
The day after our visit to DisneySea, we’d planned on taking the “bullet train” (actually called the shinkansen) from Tokyo to Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and anagram of “Tokyo.” We were only going to spend about 24 hours in Kyoto, per the original plan, and I wanted to make those hours count, mostly because the shinkansen tickets were hyperventilating-ly expensive: around $250 roundtrip, per person…and that was with a discount through Japanican.com! I fretted for awhile over whether we should spend that kind of money at all for such a short period, but when planning this trip, we were both operating under the understandable assumption that we’d never have the opportunity/resources to come back to Japan, so we figured we might as well do what we wanted.
It was around this point, though, some 60% or so of our vacation over, that I couldn’t ask either Lance or myself to keep pushing ourselves, dragging our luggage all over Japan, sticking to a rigid plan and feeling exhausted from lack of sleep and an overly ambitious itinerary.
See, I originally hoped to be out of the hotel and on the shinkansen to Kyoto by 8:00 or 9:00AM, but Lance took a late check-out opportunity as a sign that maybe we should just spend the morning relaxing and trying to catch up on some sleep. I begrudgingly agreed–not that I wasn’t agitated about taking things slow, but I knew in my heart of hearts that if we kept pushing ourselves, one of us was going to break.
As part of my membership level with Hilton HHonors, we were comped breakfast, and their buffet spread was enormous: your normal Western dishes, like oatmeal, eggs, bacon, and Japanese fare, and then…spaghetti. Can somebody tell me which culture eats spaghetti for breakfast so I can thank them?
Around 11:00, we finally left the hotel. Though I try to keep my tricket-y junk purchasing to a minimum these days, I was feeling a little light on souvenirs from Tokyo Disney, only having purchased the 10th Anniversary DisneySea book, so we stopped by Bon Voyage, the big Disney store near the main rail line in and our of the resort area, to see if I could find anything else:
I eventually purchased a little Chandu, the tiger cub in the bejeweled turban from Sinbad’s Storybook Voyages, and a lenticular postcard which I spent about $4.50 and have subsequently lost track of. Ah, souvenirs!
At the Japan Railways (JR) station to take us back to Tokyo proper, Lance spotted Happy Up! in one of the platform vending machines. REJOICE!
The ride from Tokyo Disney to Tokyo Station, where we’d catch the shinkansen, was only about 15 minutes, and we were once again teased by Tokyo Sky Tree (the enormous non-striped tower in the photo below). Tokyo Sky Tree, as of this writing, is the tallest tower (note, not building) in the world. We tried, though ultimately failed, to see it up close on this trip, though we made peace with that fact after we read that it cost northwards of $30 a person to go up to the observation deck.
Once we got to Tokyo Station (the only train station in Tokyo from which the shinkansens to Kyoto leave), we had to find a train that had open seats, since our tickets did not guarantee us a seat on any particular train. Thankfully, at that point it was around noon, so we were able to walk right on to the train.
The train we got on was also the Nozomi, which is the fastest (i.e., makes the fewest stops) of all of the shinkansen. We’d get to Kyoto, some 285 miles away, in two hours and 20 minutes.
Our surroundings changed pretty quickly…
The most amazing thing I found about the shinkansen, besides it being impressively fast, incredibly clean, with snack carts and ticket agents in dapper attire who bow to the entire car before exiting, is that these trains run every 10 minutes. No train in Philadelphia (obviously, I understand there’s a scale issue) runs every ten minutes, but apparently there’s enough demand in travel between Tokyo and Kyoto that these trains, which I imagine cannot be cheap to operate, can run six times and hour nearly all day long. The fact that it isn’t cheap, either, makes the demand that much more perplexing.
At around 2:30, we finally disembarked in Kyoto, feeling our way out to the bus information desk which had Kyoto Sightseeeing (read: free rides on the public transportation) Passes for us to pick up as part of a package deal with our shinkansen tickets. From the main JR Kyoto Station, we took the subway north a few stops to downtown Kyoto where our hotel was located (#5 of 7 on this trip!).
Annnnd this was the first two two times on this trip that the Lonely Planet guidebooks totally let me down. Though the names of the streets are written in the Roman alphabet in the Lonely Planet books, almost none of the street signs in Kyoto had Roman letters on them, not to mention the fact that both Kyoto and Tokyo are LOADED with tiny side streets that aren’t captured in the Lonely Planet guides at all. We ended up spending an hour, walking in circles and having many HI-larious conversations with convenience store clerks, trying to find our hotel when it was actually just around the corner.
This, of course, cut into that precious Kyoto time which I was already quietly fretting over. The whole trip so far was me walking around with this thought in my head: ARE WE GOING TO BE ABLE TO GET EVERYTHING DONE?? I had a whole list of temples and shrines in Kyoto that I wanted to see, but daylight was fading fast and most closed at dusk.
Of course, since it was past lunch time, Lance had to be a big jerk and be all hungry and stuff. Fine, whatever. And, just to spite me, of course, he’d used the Lonely Planet guide to find a ramen place:
I have to say, though while this may have been one of the cheaper meals we had, it was, in my mind, one of the best. Who doesn’t love noodles??
We then re-commenced our journey to hit up the key sights of Kyoto, though at this point we’d lost so much time that my original plans were completely worthless and I was plain ol’ flummoxed about how to prioritize what I wanted to see. Thankfully, there are temples and shrines every which way in Kyoto:
With it already approaching late afternoon, I dragged Lance into the first big temple I could find: Higashi Hongan-Ji, which is a major place of worship for people of the True Pure Land Buddhism faith. The structure itself is, as you can see, enormous and beautiful (and best of all: FREE to enter!!!!):
Though it looks old, this structure actually only dates back to the late 1880s. The original Higashi Hongan-ji, created in 1602, was destroyed in the 19th century, but female devotees braided a massive rope made of human hair (ick!) to use in hauling wood beams to recreate the structure.
Higashi Hongan-Ji is just a little north of the JR Kyoto Station, so we hopped in for a quick snack at Mister Donut!
…And right next door to Mister Donut, we stumbled upon a…Cafe du Monde outlet?? As somebody whose family heavily identifies with all things New Orleans, this was completely odd to me. The little eating around right around this counter was dressed up with ‘Nawlins street signs and “wrought-iron” fencing, but they didn’t serve beignets. I mean, c’mon!
Above: Probably one of the biggest intersections in Kyoto, right outside of the JR Kyoto Station. While there are some similarities between Tokyo and Kyoto, Kyoto is substantially quieter and more contained that its kid brother.
After our Mister Donut dinner, we headed across the Kamo-gawa River to stop at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto for a drink, which Lonely Planet said was was of the coolest bars in town.
While incredibly well-designed, it was a Friday night and nobody was there except a bunch of lonely Australian businessmen and a British family with their kids. Why would you bring your six-year-olds to a bar this intimate?
Completely dependent on Lonely Planet at this point (we are suckers, ain’t we?), we tried out their night walk through the Southern Higashiyama neighborhood. The starting point was Yasaka-Jinja, “the guardian shrine” for the part of the city we were in, which dates back to the 1650s.
We eventually crossed into the Shimbashi district, which Lonely Planet refers to as the most beautiful streets in all of Asia. Though that might be a little bit of hyperbole, the area is full of traditional Japanese restaurants and bars, and it was quite peaceful to wander along.
We then found out way back to Shijo-dori, one of the main streets in Kyoto which would take us back to our hotel.
One of the reasons we didn’t consider trimming off the Kyoto segment of our trip, even though it was damned expensive to get there, was because we were entranced by the novelty of the capsule hotel. Lance had seen this one, “Hotel 9 Hours,” online somewhere years ago and at the time we joked about how funny it would be to stay in such a seemingly weird and futuristic operation.
Who would’ve thought we’d actually get there one day?
While Tokyo has its own fair share of capsule hotels, 9 Hours seems to have the market cornered on chic. Everything is white or gray, like living on the inside of an iPod.
First, you check in, leaving your shoes in a locker on the main floor.
Then, you use this diagram to figure out where you’re supposed to go. Thankfully, they used the same artist as IKEA does for their instruction manuals:
From the ground floor, you take a sex-specific elevator to a sex-specific shower floor. Here, you get another locker which also shares the same number as your capsule. Inside are, yup, pajamas and a Special Edition 9 Hours toothbrush. OOOOHHH!
Once you get all clean and hop into your jammies, you head down to your sex-specific capsule floor.
Okay, I know that Japanese culture is in many ways different than America, but there weren’t even, like, doors that you could lock on these pods. All you got was a little screen you could pull down, which is not going to stop any ne’er-do-well from trying to have their ways with you (not that this happened at all, but we’re trained to expect the worst.)
The capsule itself was pretty spacious, much more so than I expected. Size-wise, it felt like you were sleeping on the bottom floor of a bunk bed. There was an alarm clock built into the capsule, which would also raise the lighting slowly as it became time for you to wake up to give you a more natural experience (though you are still sleeping in a plastic hole in the wall, with a bunch of snoring businessmen and backpackers around you).
It was definitely an experience. I can’t say that I’d do it again, since the capsules for both of us were about the same as a night in a regular hotel room, but it was definitely worth trying once. At least now I have some understanding of what it will be like to go into hypersleep during a deep-space voyage.
The next day, again cramped for time but determined to get in at least two or three temples, I had a whole, to-the-minute agenda in my head…which promptly flew out the window when Lance’s heartburn was acting up and we needed a Frappuccino STAT. (Oh, and there was this little thing where the hotel wouldn’t let us check our bags for the day so we needed to find a public locker to store them in or whatever…)
We had a previously scheduled engagement at noon, so we ended up only being able to get to one temple, Kinkaku-ji, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
The story behing Kinkaku-ji? Well, it was originally built in the 14th century as a retirement condo for a shogun. The shogun’s upstart son decided to donate Kinkaku-ji to Buddhism, and thus the shrine was born. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf and there’s a pretty swanky phoenix perched on top.
The temple stood there for centuries as a place of worship, weathering hurricanes and Mothra attacks and all sorts of nonsense, only to be burned to the ground by a crazy monk in 1950. It’s obviously since been rebuilt, much to the chagrin of crazy monks everywhere.
This was actually the most tourist-y place we’d visited the entire trip: all around the grounds of Kinkaku-ji are gift shops and vending machines. This one was Lance’s favorite: it would dispense a cup, fill it with ice, and then pour soda overtop.
We hopped back on the bus in order to get down to our next agenda item on time. Unfortunately, Kyoto buses are not built for 6+ feet tall white guys:
This was actually the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most, and another reason I just couldn’t skip going to Kyoto. Several months ago, I saw these cooking classes featured in Conde Nast Traveler: this guy, Saeki Taro, holds traditional Japanese cooking classes in his home. I thought this would be a great, sort of out-of-the-ordinary thing to do, and best of all, Taro spoke English and it was only about $60 a person for a 4-hour lesson, and you got to eat your food at the end!
Taro emphasized just how important plating is when having guests over to your house. Above: our pretty appetizers: aemono, dashimaki tamago, and kinpira (stir-fried root vegetables).
So, your options for entrees were chicken, tofu, or Kobe beef (the kobe beef option was like $25 more a person). Taro pointed out the differences between real Kobe and fake or smuggled Kobe that we see here in the U.S. Basically, 99% of what is advertised as “Kobe” in the U.S. is actually not really Kobe, or has been illegally smuggled out of Japan. Real Kobe is only sold in Japan, and is extremely limited, since only a few thousand cows each year from the Kobe region are actually selected to become “Kobe beef” and then are raised with a very particular set of rules. Each cow is then certified and each piece of meat is given a tracking number so that you can go online and trace which cow it came from.
Since we are cheap, we settled for the chicken.
After three and a half hours, it was time to eat!
What a gorgeous spread. I did that, Ma!
All in all, it was a really relaxing, enjoyable experience, I felt. I’d recommend it if you’re looking to have a more unusual experience, where you actually go into somebody’s home and learn how to cook a more traditional dish than you’d probably even find in a restaurant.
I’m sure Lance would’ve loved it as well if we’d make chicken fingers…or, at least, if he’d gotten Namte’s phone number.
Afterwards, we strolled through the bustling Teramachi-dori Shopping Arcade, which had its own shrines and temples nestled inside:
The gorgeous, intimate inside of the temple:
Annnnnd then there was the outside of the temple. Goes to show you just how cramped the space is, even in a smaller city!
After Teramachi-dori, we fetched out luggage from the public lockers and lugged our stuff back to Kyoto Station to catch the shinkansen back to Tokyo.
We had two nights left in Japan (thankfully in just one hotel!), and I was still feeling a little unfulfilled. I hadn’t done everything that I wanted to do, and it was upsetting me a little bit. With one full day left, how could we possibly get to it all?
To be concluded…!