Blossom, beef and fishy business!

Trip Start Aug 07, 2011
Trip End Jul 14, 2012

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Friday, April 13, 2012

Well hello there!  It's Andy taking over today! It's a rather long one because I'm covering the 6 days we spent in Kyoto, so here goes...

After a glorious day in Mount Fuji we left Kawaguchiko station on Saturday 7th April bound for Kyoto. I was excited because today we definitely would be going on our first bullet train (we checked just to make sure!).  We had to travel back to Tokyo to connect to our bullet train which would take us the 450km or so to Kyoto. At over 270kmph this part of the journey only took 2 1/2 hours. It was seriously impressive and the trains look so cool with their huge front noses!

We arrived at 6:45pm and headed straight for our hotel. After our rather unsuccessful search for a hotel to stay in Kyoto while at Mount Fuji we'd managed to book into pretty much the only place we could find - a 128 a night hotel room. For that price you'd expect a decent room, but to put it bluntly I've seen bigger wardrobes! That night we simply headed out for some cheap food before crashing for the night.

The next day we headed out early doors to try and find some cheaper accommodation before exploring the city.  We managed to find a 'ryokan' - a traditional Japanese inn, where the rooms are minimalist with a Tatami (straw mat) flooring and you sleep on essentially bedding, i.e. no mattress.  Ryokans are normally very expensive to stay at and are famous in Japan for guests to be able to experience elements of Japanese culture and customs and this was something that we'd wanted to experience ourselves. However, at a higher price than some hotels we couldn't really justify the price. The one we found here though was as cheap as chips (by Kyoto standards) and so we couldn't refuse. 

After breakfast we returned and left the bags in reception while we headed out to explore the city. Kyoto was the former imperial capital of Japan for more than 1000 years before Tokyo took up the reigns.  It's famous for its ancient Buddhist temples, palaces, zen gardens and arguably has the richest Japanese culture. 

We decided to head for the eastern Higashiyama district where there's a walk that takes in many temples, shrines, gardens and museums.  This part of town felt like Japan-of-old with its narrow lanes and traditional wooden houses. However, at this time of year it is hectic to say the least as literally hoards of tourists (surprisingly, mainly Japanese) come to Kyoto to take in the beautiful cherry blossom. It's said this is the best place to see it. This year was no different with tons of people making their way around the narrow streets. We started off at Kiyomizudera Temple, but this was so busy we took a quick walk round and headed northward.

It's not long in this city before you turn a corner and catch a glimpse of a sight so on our walk we stopped off at numerous pagodas and shrines on our way up to Kodaiji Temple.  Kyoto's richness in culture is also seen through its people too. Around the city and particularly these narrow streets there were Japanese dressed in traditional kimonos and getas (the traditional wooden sandals) making small pilgrimages to various shrines. It was lovely to see.

At Kodaiji Temple there are various small shrines that you spin, rub or touch to give you good luck in areas such as life or marriage, or indeed to heal you from a particular health problem. Naturally we rubbed the statues related to wishing for a happy marriage.  

After wandering the traditional streets of Higashiyama we walked to Maruyama Park where supposedly the cherry blossom is great to view. After passing another temple on the way in we were again confronted with masses of people. Many of whom were sat down on picnic blankets eating, drinking and chatting to celebrate the coming of cherry blossom. It was lovely to see the country really getting behind such a wonderful event and time of year.  Fran and I both agreed it would be great if the UK celebrated something like this back home. 

We decided not to eat in a restaurant that evening and instead just picked at the variety of food stalls that lined the paths in the park. We've been trying to eat something different each day and here there was a huge variety of foods to try.  My favourite was this thin crispy pancake with what looked and tasted like rice crispies on top, together with a really runny egg, teriyaki sauce and mayonnaise! Yum! After gorging on savory stuff we just had to finish off with a sweet of the red bean paste variety! They love red bean paste in their sweets over this side of the world, and I've definitely been converted! Sooooooo good!

Afterwards we wandered out of the park, taking in the picnic scene and drunken antics of the Japanese who had clearly had too much sake during the day! We headed for Gion, which is the going out district with its numerous bars, clubs and restaurants so we wandered around there through the narrow cherry blossom lined streets before heading back to our ryokan for the evening.

When we returned to the ryokan we went to look at the room which was pretty traditional.  I obviously had to try on the Japanese-style robe - I can't get enough clearly! Unfortunately for us that was about as good as it got because being a cheap place there was always going to be something wrong, indeed it ended up being that the place stank of fish! Nice!

Never mind we decided to stick it out anyway as there literally was nothing cheaper in the whole of Kyoto and you kind of got used to the place after a while.

The next day we had a late start to the day and headed to the north west corner of Kyoto. We caught the bus to Daitoku-ji where we had a look around our first zen garden in Daisen-in sub-temple. We didn't really know what to expect from a zen garden.  Yes it's all based on Buddhism and everything (and I mean everything) has some sort of meaning, but what we didn't realise is how much deep thought goes into the reasoning behind all elements in a zen garden. To be honest it wasn't my cup of tea but an interesting experience all the same.

Afterwards, we got back on the bus and made our way to the wooded hills of Kitayama which is home to Kinkaku-ji the famous Temple of the Golden Pavillion. It's a pretty special sight seeing a golden temple appear to rise out of a large (mirror) pond.  It was pretty busy here, for obvious reasons so we took a few pics of the golden wonder and briskly walked around the gardens.

It was around 5pm by now and so we caught the bus again, south this time, to the central district and Nijō-jō (Nijo Castle). Around this time of year they open up the castle in the evening and set lights to highlight the beautiful cherry blossom trees around the gardens. It didn't open until 6pm so we went for a coffee and came back when they were opening. When we left there was no queue, when we came back a humongous queue had formed. Luckily it didn't take long to get through. One thing we have come to realise in Japan is the amount of inefficient employment.  It reared it's head again in this queue. There was actually a man employed to hold a sign high up at the back of the queue... no, not because he was selling some tickets, he was actually there to tell everybody else that the point where he was standing was in fact the back of the queue.....brilliant!

When we got in the sun was setting which made for a lovely light for the blossom trees. As the sun set further the sky turned a real deep blue, and the cherry blossom set against this backdrop was absolutely stunning!  

After a romantic wander around we headed for some katsu curry for dinner! We'd been craving it for ages and it was sooooo good!

The next day again we didn't get away that early but nevertheless caught the train to the port of Kōbe. You might remember the name Kōbe for the massive earthquake that hit there in 1995. Apparently it completely devastated the city, but it soon rebuilt itself and looking around it now you'd never know it was pretty much levelled to the ground over 15 years ago.

You know you're in a bit of strange place, when within 5 minutes of leaving the station you pass a life-sized statue of Elvis Presley playing the guitar, draped with Hawaiian flower necklaces and his music permanently blaring out into the street. The weird thing was it was in the middle of nowhere with nobody else about!  After this we headed over to the symbol that was built to commemorate the city's revival from the '95 earthquake. Normally you'd expect some sort of plaque or stone pillar or something along those lines. But no, here in Kōbe they built a giant-sized statue of a famous manga and anime fictional robot called Tetsujin 28. Impressive or slightly weird? You decide!

Afterwards we got on the sightseeing loop bus and headed for the eating quarter. The main reason we came to Kōbe was to sample arguably the best beef steak in the world - Kōbe beef. Apparently once you go Kōbe you never go back. This beef doesn't come without a hefty price-tag mind! Unfortunately by the time we reached the eating quarter all the restaurants had closed until dinner service at 5pm. No matter, this just meant we had to kill a couple of hours wandering about town.

We got back on the sightseeing bus and headed for the north of the city and the Kitana area. Here there was the Shin-Kōbe ropeway to the Nunobiki herb park at the top where apparently you could get great views of the city. Unfortunately when we got there it was a pretty hefty price, and knowing we were shelling out almost a full day's budget on dinner we couldn't justify the expense. So instead we spent the next couple of hours exploring the Kitana area and doing a full loop of the sight-seeing bus!!!

Anyway, 5pm soon came and we managed to find a steak house serving Kōbe beef. The beef is graded with the best Kōbe beef being grade A1, this means an A1 price tag. We ended up going for a grade 3 and 4. The beef was cooked teppenyaki-style, i.e. on a hot grill in front of you. After the vegetables were busily being cooked, the chef chucked on our seafood - when I say seafood, I mean a couple of scallops and a big shrimp. I had to take a double take because in my head I was sure I'd just seen the shrimp jump and squirm on the grill! So I said to Fran, "Bubs, I think the shrimp's still alive?"

Fran responds, "don't be silly Andy its the heat from the grill making it twitch".

"No seriously Fran, I'm pretty sure that's a live shrimp that's just been chucked on the grill", I said.

Turning to the chef Fran says, "excuse me, is that shrimp alive?"

Grabbing the shrimp with a set of tongs, the chef shows it to Fran, and as she inspected it it wiggled its little legs in her face, she just couldn't help but let out a little squeal! So, yes it was a live shrimp being chucked on the grill! Yummy, we (well I) couldn't wait!

Anyway, the beef was soon cooked and we had our first mouthful...

Oh. My. Word. There is no going back to any other kind of steak. Seriously, it literally melted in our mouths. Simply stunning!

It was getting late and, after our fill, we decided to head back to Kyoto. Kōbe's a nice enough place but lets face it it's all about the beef!

On the way home we treated ourselves to a cheeky bottle of red, which we drank lying on the bedding in our room because there was nothing else to sit on and passed out to the smell of kippers wafting up from downstairs.....very rock and roll!

The next day, Wednesday, it was raining so we weren't hopeful of a good sightseeing day but nevertheless we ventured out from the fishy ryokan with umbrella in hand. We headed for the International Manga Museum as it was indoors and we could just sit the rain out reading comic books. As we said in Tokyo, the Japanese are obsessed by manga and anime so we couldn't come to Japan without reading some. Unfortunately when we got there the sign read 'closed on Wednesdays'! 

Instead we had a day of wandering.  We stopped off in a book shop, wandered around a shopping arcade, grabbed a coffee and even a haircut (much needed!), had some udon noodles for dinner and headed home in the rain. So overall it was a bit of a wash out, made up for by another bottle of red before hitting the hay. Nice.

On Thursday the weather looked much better and so we decided to head to Himeji to go and see Japan's most impressive castle, Himeji-jō. It was only an hour on the bullet train to Himeji station and then a 20 minute walk to the castle itself. We knew there was a lovely area to picnic on out the front of the central keep in the castle and so decided to pick up a bento box for lunch in front of the castle. 

Unfortunately the central keep is undergoing major construction and is covered in scaffolding so you can't see it. You can still go inside but from the outside you kind of have to imagine what it would look like. Nevertheless it's still a pretty sight sitting in the park in front of it surrounded by lots of cherry blossom trees in full bloom.

After lunch we headed in and took up the offer of a free English guide who took us around the castle for a couple of hours. The castle itself was lovely and was in fact a location for the James Bond film 'you only live twice' (fact! ;-)). They also filmed some of 'The Last Samurai' in Himeji so all-in-all its a pretty famous place.  It made it magical that the whole place was filled with cherry blossom and thankfully it was lovely weather which made the visit all the better.

We were back in Kyoto that evening and just chilled out for the evening.

On Friday, we had a lazy morning and early afternoon decided to make another attempt to go and see the International Manga Museum. Luckily this time it was open. After wandering around and having a read of an anime comic called Astro Boy, Fran had a go at making her own anime. I'll let you decide how good you think it is!

It was interesting to go see the history of manga and anime but to be honest I don't really get the obsession! Anyway, afterwards we headed towards Gingkaku-ji temple but because it was nearing 5pm we didn't end up going in and instead sat down for some cake and a cup of green tea. 

That evening we'd booked ourselves onto a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This was a wedding present from our good friend Dr. Nush and we were looking forward to getting involved in some traditional Japanese culture and etiquette!

We arrived at the house a few minutes early and entered into a traditionally decorated tea room. It was quite nice because we were the only ones that had booked onto this tea ceremony which made it quite special.

If wasn't long before the tea ceremony was started by the lady tea master. What an ace job title....tea master! She welcomed us and started to explain the tea ceremony elements, history and process. She then performed it for us in total and respectful silence before asking us to have a go ourselves.

We put some green tea leaf powder into our bowls and gave them a good whisk according to her example. I was completely hopeless at whisking. The idea was to get a thin layer of froth on the top of the green tea. It was only supposed to take 30 seconds, but after at least 90 seconds of me whisking it was clear I was never going to make tea master any time soon! 

We completed our ceremony by tasting our own-made green teas alongside a Japanese sweet.

It was a really lovely experience to understand the symbolism and importance behind the Japanese tea ceremony and if we ever get invited to such a ceremony back home we'll know what to do! 

We'd just like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Nush for this present, it was a true experience of traditional and authentic Japan which we really enjoyed learning about and taking part in. Thanks so much again!

After the tea ceremony we had some dinner and headed home. We'd had enough of the fish and so we decided to leave Kyoto the next day and head for Osaka for a few days. 

Well, it's been a bit of an epic one so I better sign off quick.

Bye bye fishy!

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