January 29, 2009

Kyoto, temples and sushi

Japan is one of the most hospitable countries I have ever visited. The stereotypes are true, people are so friendly and welcoming. I found myself bowing all the time, and loving it. I didn't have much time to explore the country as it was a last minute decision to visit, but I was able to see Kyoto and Tokyo over six days. Just enough time for a sampling of what Japan has to offer.

I flew from Manila, Philippines to Osaka, Japan on Cebu Pacific, the Philippines low cost carrier. They just opened this route, so flights were dirt cheap. Kyoto is only about one hour to ninety minutes from the Osaka airport, so I took a slow (cheap train) to Osaka and then on to Kyoto which got me into town in the evening. Japan has a complex train system consisting of super fast bullet trains (shinkansen), and then a number of local/slow trains. If you're short on time, pay for the bullet trains. If you're a cheapskate backpacker, and time isn't an issue, the slow trains are about half the price, and reasonable. Japan Rail offers multi-day passes, that are a great way to see the country if you're planning on visiting several cities, but I only took individual trips and opted out of the pass.

Most of the people I've spoken to about Japan, had this notion that it is the most expensive country in the World. Last I heard it was Russia, but Japan is either the same price, or even cheaper than the US. Kyoto was a little cheaper than Tokyo, and Tokyo seemed to be about the same price as New York. Public transportation on the subways and buses cost about three dollars, hostel beds are approximately twenty five dollars, and you can find cheap food for five bucks. Just after I arrived in Kyoto, I ate a late dinner at a fast food/diner type of place and had salmon, rice, and miso soup for four dollars, which by the way is also a traditional breakfast. No bacon and eggs here. I saw these types of restaurants all over Kyoto and Tokyo, so you can eat for cheap if you want to.

I checked into K's House, which is one of the nicest hostels I have ever been to. They are a chain of hostels all across the country, so you could make your vacation easy by just staying with them. If you want further proof, check out my photo of their electronic toilet. I swear, you have a heated seat, and it can clean your rear end with a push of a button and a little spray. Plus, when you flush, there is a built in sink above the water tank. If you can buy these in the US, please let me know. I spent two nights and two days at K's House in Kyoto, which was enough time to get a taste of the city.

Kyoto city is the place to visit if you want to see temples. The city was formerly the imperial capital of Japan, and has the largest concentration of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the country. My first day in Kyoto was spent visiting the famous world heritage site of the Kiyomizu-dera temple, and the surrounding neighborhood of Higashiyama (see map), which also contains the Chion-in temple and Maruyama Park. Kyoto is surrounded by small mountains, and Higashiyama is just at the base of the Eastern hills, so its backdrop is stunning. The neighborhood has numerous parks, temples, shrines, and traditional shops and houses. This was a great introduction to Japanese culture and history, and a must for anyone visiting the country.

Kyoto is such a photogenic city and the Japanese understand the need to take great photos. For the first time ever, I had people stop to avoid my camera, so I could get a great shot. It was like this all over Japan. So next time you see a Japanese tourist with a massive SLR camera, let them go nuts and take as many pictures as they want, because some day they might return the favor when you visit Japan.

After strolling through Higashiyama, I walked to the neighboring Gion district, and found a street festival that was packed with locals and amazing food stalls. I had just eaten a tasty okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) for lunch called Issen-Yoshoku, so I wasn't terribly hungry, but there were some interesting street treats. I did however have room for some homemade sake (rice wine), that I drank from a street stall.

Gion is supposedly famous for the Geishas that walk around the area, but I saw more along the tiny streets of Kyamachi-dori and Pontocho-dori, just south of Sanjo station, and next to the river. These streets were the place to be for night-time entertainment, as they were packed with trendy young Japanese, and it was just bars and restaurants as far as you could see. I really wanted to do Karaoke since I was in Japan after all, but I was on my own, and picked up a nasty cough and cold from the climate change, so I would have sounded like Leonard Cohen even if I tried.

Not far away from the nightlife of Kyamachi-dori are the Nishiki food market, and the clothing arcade, which by the way, had amazing post holiday deals on some trendy threads. I do want to mention that the Japanese are the best dressed out of all the cultures I have seen. They can make anything look cool, and if there is such thing as reincarnation, I'd like to come back as a Japanese kid. So, I did what any homesick Canadian/American would do, and I went shopping. I was also freezing, considering my wardrobe up until this point had been flip flops and surf shorts. So I had to buy a winter jacket and some pants, but I swear I could almost pass for a Japanese hipster when I walked out of the store. Thank you Right On, a great store if you visit the area.

After shopping I ate some sushi at a sushi train restaurant nearby, and that was one of the coolest experiences I've had in Japan. I had seen the sushi train restaurants in New York, where the little plates pass in front of you on a "train," and you just pick what you want. But this was a much larger scale, it was actually cheaper than New York (at about $1-2 a plate), and if you didn't see what you wanted, you could order almost anything from a touch screen menu placed in front of you. Give it about 3 minutes, and your customized order would come out on a different train. It was amazing, and I'm getting hungry just thinking about it. I should say that sushi in Japan is nothing like the intricate concoctions you get in North America. They make traditional Maki rolls, and you won't find things like cream cheese filled Philadelphia rolls.

My second day was spent seeing the Northwest part of Kyoto. I bought an all day bus pass, which is cheap, and took off to see the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine and Kinkaku-ji temple. The Kinkaku-ji temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a famous Zen temple that was originally built in 1397, but burned down by a monk in 1950. The top two stories of the temple are covered with pure gold leaf, and it's a spectacular site.

I didn't make it to the Nijo Castle and Imperial Palace, but I heard these were also nice sites as well. The Imperial Palace gives guided tours twice daily at 10 am and 2 pm, but it was a public holiday and shut for the day. I did take a bus around the Imperial Park grounds, and it looked like a quiet place to spend an afternoon when the weather was better.

To finish off my day, I strolled back through the neighborhood of Gion to get some gyozas (dumplings) that I was craving, and then made my way back to K's house to get my bags. I went to Kyoto station which is the main train and bus terminal, and got a really cheap overnight bus to Tokyo. I'm not even sure of the company name since the hostel arranged it for me, and I can't read Japanese, but there were about five or so companies outside on the south side of the station, that were competing for business. It was a comfortable ride, and I had an empty seat next to me for the seven hour trip. Maybe it was because I was the only foreigner, or somehow they knew that I was sick, and didn't want to seat someone next to me, but I wasn't about to complain. Next stop was Tokyo.

To get a better picture of my introduction to Japan, here are my photos from Kyoto.


Anonymous said...

Great post Jared! Japan is one place that I am sooo looking forward to. I'm glad to hear that you found it not to be too expensive as I am worried that placing it at the end of our trip will find us a little light on cash! I'm bookmarking this post in my Japan folder for further research. Cheers!

Globetrottingbride said...

Great post. I'm dying to go to Japan someday.