Enjoying a traditional riokan
Kyoto is the historic capital of Japan and nowhere else can you see so many temples. At the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo we chatted with a local who confessed that the two places he dreams of visiting are Paris and Kyoto! Surely Kyoto could not disapoint!
Well, our first sight of Kyoto was the ultra modern train station which surprised us as we were expecting old style buildings. Passed the surprise, we headed towards the ryokan (a traditionel Japanese house) recommended by Kae, Philippe's wife. We were not disapointed as we found a little palace! A small appartment in the backgarden of our host where there was a twin bedroom, a traditionel living room with tatami mats, a kitchen fully stached, a lovely Japanese bathroom with a tub and view on the Japanese garden, and even a washing machine! All this for the same price as our bunk beds in Kyoto. Had we mentioned the delicious and huge breakfast included? The cherry on the cake was that we had the most adorable hosts in the world: we soon called them Mama and Papa (that's how they refered to themselves in their limited English) which was handy!
Not only were they kind, but generous and helpful. We got invited to Mama's birthday and spent an evening with their little family sampling yakitori and singing "Sur le pont d'Avignon" as Papa learnt French at school :-) Short of ideas, we gave her a DVD of Amelie ("Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain") for her birthday. We thought that it would ring the bell to them but not at all, they had never heard of it, Amelie has yet to reach Kyoto! Papa and Mama are in charge
After 4 lovely days experiencing all the assets of the flat, we had to leave as Golden Week (almost a full week of bank holidays) was starting and somebody else had booked the flat. Worried that we would not find another place to stay, Papa and Mama phoned around looking for a room for us and offered us to stay in their house should we not find accomodation. After lots of phone calls they found a place for us and to our regret we had to leave our palace and the company of Papa and Mama (we were secretely praying for them not to find anything).
They were so kind that they drove us to our next ryokan. In between we needed to send a parcel back home, when we asked for the nearest post office, they took care of everything from finding a box to packing the parcel (throwing in a couple of kimonos, obis and bags to fill the gaps) and driving us to the post office, they were real parents to us! Indeed they made our stay in Kyoto a warm memory, not only we had great weather but also met the nicest people in the world. When we spoke to Philippe about Papa and Mama, he explained to us that Japanese people really feel responsible for the well being of the people they are in charge of. Having been recommended by Kae, they took such great care of us that we couldn't have asked for more. Later on we found out that they phoned Kae to let her know that Mama had had a great birthday dinner with us! Golden Week in Kyoto: beware
Kyoto is manageable in terms of size and it was easy to find our way around town and catch local buses and trains. It's a nice city with a very different feel from Tokyo, it's less urban in a way. We spent a week there visiting the many temples and other historic palaces and pavillions. As it was the Golden Week, other (millions of) Japanese tourists had exactly the same idea! Sites were beautiful (especially the Golden Pavillion, the Kiumisu temple, the Philisophers' path, the Silver Pavillion and the Geisha district of Gion) but way too crowded.
However thanks to the Golden Week we happened to witness many festivals. For example, you will see pictures of men wearing the same white or blue clothes and carrying portable shrines, those beast weight 3 tons we've been told, and require many porters. People from different neighbouroods have their own shrine (hence the different costumes) and on that day, each team was carrying the shrines around the streets. On Children Day we saw some people wearing traditional clothes and walking around the street with a big pole. They were boucing the bell located on the top of the pole, surely there is a meaning to all this... Sampling Kobe beef: the best beef in the world
We could not have come to Japan without trying the legendary Kobe beef! It's said to be the most expensive and best tasting beef in the world. The ox get pampered, massaged with beer etc. to produce a fatty and exquisite meat. Kobe beef fame has been reinforced to us through our friend Valerie who came to visit Japan a few years ago. Being so close to Kobe we could not miss it so we took the train down to Kobe and treated ourselves to a fillet and sirloin steak: Yes, it deserves its reputation... Near Kobe there is also the longest suspended bridge in the world (almost 4 km) linking the Honshu island to another smaller island.
We've seen the story of its construction on TV so we went to check it out. Finally since we were heading towards Kobe we thought we might as well stop by the Himeji Castle, one of the best preserved fortress in Japan. There were too many people to enjoy the visit really so we were happy to escape the crowd in the nearby Japanese gardens. Last minute surprise from Papa and Mama
We were to take our flight the next day from Osaka, 2 hours train from Kyoto. To our surprise it turned out that Papa had phoned the hotel to tell them he would drive us to the train station which meant that he had to pick us up at 5:30 AM! As usual Papa and Mama were bang on time and so worried we would miss our train. The lady of the hotel also woke up at 5:30 AM to say goodbye and gave us a little gift (a collection of miso soup sachets of different flavours, how sweet is that?). It was raining again that day, and if it had been for them Papa and Mama would have carried umbrellas above our heads to prevent us from getting wet!
Japan has been one of the best country we visited (it makes our top 5). Great food, lovely people, strong culture and great inventions such as heated toilet seats ;-). We've spent 3 weeks there but have only seen a portion of the counrty: it's a clear call for a second visit!