Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Japan: Kyoto, torii gates and monkeys

As mentioned in the last entry, when we woke up for our last morning, in Nara, we packed and then made one last attempt to go back to the shaved ice place from the previous day, but were thwarted when the early reservations were already filled. So, we went back to our rental, pulled on our bags, closed up our place, and began the trip to our final destination: Kyoto. 

Sarah, fully loaded! The kids both had small packs on this trip, but Sarah and I were still the main pack mules.

At the train station, we buy tickets for the express to Kyoto, but end up boarding the locale, which had, like, 8 more stops. But, fortunately, it only added about 20 minutes to our ride, so we sort of shrugged it off.

Arriving in Kyoto, we manage to get lost twice, basically right away. Both times, locales leapt to our rescue. The first time was coming out of Kyoto's enormous train station, which looked like an oversized set piece for Robocop. We'd managed to get turned around in an underground mall (again) looking for a bus stop (it made sense at the time), when a smartly dressed woman came up to us, practically pulled the phone from Sarah's hand, and lead us out of the mall, around a corner and pointed the bus out to us. A short time later, on a small side street, we got confused, thinking our Airbnb should be on it. An older gentleman stepped out of our place, and -after squinting at our phone for a moment- announced that the place was around the corner. 

Soon, we were at our new rental, and though entering it involved walking down a dark alleyway to get there, it was probably our favorite apartment yet. 

Tired and hot from our trip to Kyoto, we doubled back to a place we saw that served cold noodles and shaved ice... really big shaved ice.

Stella head-sized shaved ice. At this place, the flavors were served on the side, and you added them yourself, to taste.

After lunch, we go by a dessert shop. But, while Stella and Sarah browser, Otto announced that he needed to go to the bathroom, so I walked him the few blocks back to our place. Which gave me a chance to use my first beer concession machine!

I'd heard Japan had beer concession machines but, while the "coffee boss" machines were everywhere, this was the first, and only, one I came across on the trip.

After that, we all rested at the rental for a bit. (Well, I ran back to the cold noodle shop to use their wifi, since ours wasn't working.) Then, it was back out for dinner. Sarah had read up on Pontocho Street, a narrow pedestrian only street, that used to be more know for geisha's and gentleman's club, but had morphed into an unending strip of restaurants. It sounded promising, so we set off. 

The hike there was long, but pleasantly, most of the time we were walking along the river waterfront. Eventually, we arrived, hungry and started down the street, which did not disappoint, in terms of ambiance and restaurant selection. 

Walking along the Kamo-gawa River, on our way to Pontocho Street.

Pontocho Street. Barely as wide as an alley, both sides are lined with restaurants selling just about any style of Japanese cuisine you'd want.

We end up, after much back-and-forth, at a yakitori restaurant. The restaurant itself, is barely 10ft wide, and we up sitting at the window on the 3rd floor. The yakitori itself, which included my dish, which was a skewers of a half dozen different chicken parts, wasn't amazing. But, it served it's purpose. 

After, we crossed the river, and made our way home, letting the kids talk at us about whatever it was that crossed their minds, and taking in the view across the river. I was content. 

Riverfront restaurants, across the Kama-gawa River.

The next morning, we were up early, and back on the train, taking it two stops down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, and it's 10,000 torii gates. Anyone whose reached travelling to Kyoto quickly learns about the  Fushimi Inari Shrine. Its seemingly endless vermillion gates are on seemly every travel guide cover, and in any travel YouTube video with "Kyoto" in its title. 

And now, having unloaded from the train, with the kids in town, and surrounded by a sea of sweating tourists, I could still already understand why. From the train, it was pretty much a straight climb to the temple entrance, and -after the customary claps, and bow, bell rings and coin toss- you join to slow moving crawl up through a seemingly endless tunnel of torii gates. So many gates.

But, also so very hot and sweaty. In fact, as we climb up, up and up again, I become convinced that I'm sweating more here than I did on the Kumano Kodo hikes. Plus, while the crowds start to thankfully thin as we move farther up the trail, Stella isn't really having it, and is moping and acting grumpy. 

But, we soldier on, climbing past more shrines and through more gates... up, up, and more up. Eventually we reach a bit of a bit of a rest stop where we buy snacks and drinks from a vendor, and a nice Italian family makes conversation with us. 

Finally, we do the top loop section and, while we are tired and hot, this section is the least crowded and probably most shaded, so it feels more forgiving in some regards. Eventually, we reach the top and start following the look back down again.

The entrance to the main shrine complex. Giant gates and lots of crowds.

Beginning of the path. Still really crowded. Also, lots of fox statues. The foxes, I believe are messengers for Inari, the rice god.

Gates, gate and more gates. But, the crowds thankfully thin a bit.

...and stairs. Lots of stairs.

Toward the top, there were lots of shrine complexes like these, and places that seemed to be graveyards. At points like these, my knowledge breaks down, and I just let myself be awed by the volume and beauty of all of it.

  After making our way back to the bottom, we board the train again, back to Kyoto Station. Once there, we head back to the underground mall we had been lost in the day before, to do something Sarah and Otto have been eager to have since we arrived: Conveyor belt sushi!

Now, we have a chain of conveyor belt sushi places in Seattle, Blue Sea Sushi; but we still knew we wanted to have the experience in Japan. And, Otto had been clambering for sushi at any opportunity he could have. He was in heaven.

You could either grab the sushi on the conveyor belt, as it passed by or -if you didn't see what you wanted- you could order from the iPad-like screen in front of you.

Stella doesn't really eat seafood, so she made due with cucumber rolls. But, afterward Sarah ran her over to a French bakery in the same mall, where she could get a baguette, and a brief respite from Japanese food. Then, while she ate, we browsed a book store, bought some manga and cooled off in the mall's A/C. 

Our next destination was the "old town" of the Higishiyama District, so we took a bus to it (getting off early, and then catching a second bus). We start in a park, where we take another break, long enough for Stella and I to have "soda" flavored ice cream, which is blue and mildly citrusy. Then, making our way past a temple and through a large gate, into the historic old town. 

While a lot of the more modern architecture we'd encountered in other parts of Osaka and Kyoto was utilitarian and underwhelming, this part of town definitely felt like what I'd always imaged historic Japan to feel like: sloping tile roofs, dark wood frames and white-washed walls, manicured garden spaces. 

The kids, "reading" their newly purchased manga on the bus ride to Higishiyama District.

Otto, seemingly unimpressed by the comparative calm of these streets.

Traditional architecture, stone walls and lot of green.

As we wander, roughly following the path laid our in our DK guidebook, we notice that is seems to be a "thing" for Japanese women (and some men) to rent traditional kimonos, while they tour the neighborhood. While we weren't exactly sure why they were doing this, it did seem to present them with the opportunity to take well-staged photos, that probably made it look like they'd stepped back in time. 

But, while the kids seems less impressed with the historic neighborhood that Sarah and I, we stumbled across something that did get their attention: A Miyazaki Store. Seeming to be an official shop, it had a ton of wonderful gifts in it, and the opportunity to take your picture next to a life-sized Totoro. 

All they need is an umbrella and some rain.

So excited!

We carry on following the path in our guide book, and make our way onto Sannenzaka, or "the slope of 2 years" where, according to superstition, if you trip and fall, you get 2 years of bad luck. Otto, not knowing this, trips immediately... so we'll see how that goes. 

Sannenzaka turns into Ninnezaka ("the slope of 3 years"), where I buy a pickle on a stick. Then, Ninnezaka dumps unceremoniously onto Hanamikoji Street, leading up to Kennin-ji Temple. At this point, the quaint appeal of the old town had been replaced by the overwhelming tourist shops and the usual press of tourists. So, while we continued up to the entrance of the temple, we decided to call it a day. We'd heard the main temple building was under restoration, anyhow, and the kids were getting worn out. 

The stairs of Ninnezaka. Still charming, but the crowds were getting thicker, and the shops more touristy. 

The entrance to Kennin-ji Temple. Peering past these buildings, we could still see the main temple, wrapped in scaffolding. So, we decided to call it a day.

Our initial plan was to stop by the cold noodle place again, so the kids could have another shaved ice (can you tell we are just bribing them with shaved ice at this point), but it was closed. So, we head back to the rental to rest. 

Later, we go out for a nice steak dinner. Having been burned a couple of times in Nara, for not having made reservations, we'd dutifully made reservations for this dinner... so of course we were the only people in the whole restaurant. Still, we enjoyed out meal.

For out last full day in Japan, we hop on a series of subways and trains, to the Kyoto suburb of Arashiyama. After the crowds yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to step off the train into what seemed like a quiet, river-side community. But, as we first cross a small scenic bridge, then a larger bridge which spans the main portion of the river, I realize the we were just on the quiet-side of the river, and soon find ourselves amongst the tourists again. 

We make our way down the river a bit, then turn inland, in search of our first destination: Arashiyama's famous bamboo grove. In route, we come across a fun surprise, a row of monk statues, each delightfully individual. I'm not sure who they all were but, based on the quite depiction of each, I had to imagine they were each characters from folklore or history. 

Crossing the first half of the river, before the crowds.

Monk statues. Each individual in their own personality. I have to image each has his own story.

More monks. The guy on the right is peeling his face back to reveal a second face.

After that, we take some time to explore a beautifully maintained garden, surrounding a temple. But, while it was neat to see actual zen rock gardens, Otto was growing hungry and cranky... and was far from zen himself.

A beautiful garden, a grumpy boy and a sister who is nominally trying to cheer him up, but really is just adding to his crankiness.

Beyond the garden, we reach the bamboo grove itself. The grove itself is visually amazing, but again, the tourist crowds are growing thick, and Otto continues to scowl at anyone who makes eye contact, so it's a bit hard to appreciate it all.

I mean, sure the bamboo is majestic, but I'd like to draw your attention to the person in the lower left.

If you look up, beyond the crowds and cranky 8-year-old, you can see the appeal.

Emerging from the other side of the grove, we run into another train station, and are finally able to get some food in Otto, which improves his mood greatly. But, we also realized that we somehow got turned around, and would need to double back to get to our next destination. 

We head back through the grove, through another grove, where people are trying to sell tourists on rickshaw rides, and hurry down the crowded main drag, and back across the river to our second main destination: The monkey park!

Paying our admission, we enter the monkey park, and start down the path to the monkeys. Or, rather, start up the path to the monkeys. Because, apparently we weren't escaping Japan without another sweaty death march up a forested hill. But, at this point, we are old hat at hiking up hill in 95 degree weather, with 90% humidity. So, we make good time up it. 

And, the monkey's don't disappoint. 

The monkey park basically had two ways to watch and interact with the monkeys: There was a small building that you could enter and buy apple slices or peanuts in. Then, while still in the building you could feed the monkeys which stood on the window cells outside the building. It sort of felt like a reverse zoo. 

The second way was to wander around outside the building. There you could walk freely amongst the monkey, which were kept loosely out of trouble by yellow-shirted minders who would shoo them away if they weren't where they should be, or got to aggressive with a tourist. 
Feeding a mom and baby monkey, inside the building. I tried to get a picture of the kids feeding the monkeys, but both the kids and the monkeys kept moving too quickly. 

Monkeys on the roof of the building, eating food I think they stole from the minders. 

Otto, taking a break from the monkeys to look back to where we just hiked from.

Not the best picture, but posting it because, right before we headed back down, another monkey came up behind this monkey, surprised it and it made a wild leap down and into the pool below. It was impressive.

Having had our fill of monkey business, we headed back down into town. At the base of the hill, we stopped for udon (where I had a nice spicy bowl), and then the obligatory stop for shaved ice. 

A couple of train and subway stops later, we were back in the neighborhood of our rental, so we stop at the cold noodle place, so Otto can have another shave ice (and maybe -more importantly- Sarah and I could have a beer). At this point, the nice couple who ran the cold noodle place were becoming as close to friends as we had in Japan. Then, it was home for a rest. 

Our evening plan was to head north by subway and bus, to the famous Philosopher's Walk. Once there, we'd planned on stopping at one of the restaurants we'd heard lined it. Unfortunately, we didn't consider how early it was going to get dark, and it was already night by the time we reached the neighborhood. 

Even more unfortunately, it started to downpour. Hard. 

Scurrying along, we made our way down the Philosopher's Path for several blocks, ducking under trees to break. But, we weren't seeing any signs of restaurants, and we were getting drenched. Totally soaked through. 

Sarah and Stella, dark and drenched on the Philosopher's Path. I'm sure there's some philosophical lesson to all this.

So, we cut back toward the main strip that the bus had originally dropped us off on, hoping to find a place to duck into, eat, dry off and ride out the rain. But, through we got back to the main drag, there still weren't any restaurants, so we took shelter under a bus stop, and plotted how to return to our neighborhood. 


As we stood there, waiting for a bus, a trio of American's jogged up, also soaking wet. The older man explained they were from Pennsylvania, and that they younger two were his sons. They'd been following a train just beyond the neighborhood we were in, when the rain started. Together we all waited under the shelter and swapped stories. At some point a random woman ran up, handing Sarah and the kids giant plastic bags, presumably to use as ponchos. Yet another random act of kindness.

Less familiar with Kyoto's public transportation, the trio followed our lead on the bus and subsequent subway, they waved farewell when we got off at our stop. Despite the scuttled walk down the Philosopher's Path, Sarah and I could both tell the dad was impressed both with how comfortable and assured we were, navigating home, and with how easily we were traveling with our comparatively young kids. And, I think we both felt a little proud. 

Once back in our neighborhood, the rain had let up. We were all getting tired, but I pleaded my case, and the family agreed to pop in to a ramen restaurant we'd noticed previously. Looking like drowned rats, and now a little cold from the A/C, the kids probably would have preferred to just go home, but I was pleased they humored me. It might have not been the perfect, final evening in Japan, but with my beer and my bowl of ramen, I was happy. 

Ramen and a beer, not a bad last dinner.

And that was it, mostly. 

The next morning, we woke up, finished packing and began our long trip home: Subway to train to monorail to plane to bus to plane to taxi. Then home. Lots of time sitting. Lots of time drifting around airports. And finally, walking through the front door, unpacking quickly and falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon from jet lag.

Goodbye, Japan! It was amazing! Hope we can come back, someday!

One last subway ride, loaded down with bags.

One last random meal: noodles on a hotdog bun.

Then, finally, home and sleep.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Japan: Deer and Giant Buddhas in Nara

The next morning, we woke, early as usual, ate breakfast, packed and -with one last look at our charming guesthouse- hiked down the hill to the bus station. We took a short and uneventful bus ride to the train station in a neighboring town, bought our tickets and boarded our train. We also happened to run into the two hikers from the Netherlands again. The kids, again, seemed happy to see these two random guys, and it reminded me of our 7-month Round the World Trip, where we were perpetually becoming temporary best friends with other people whose paths overlapped with ours.

The view from the front yard of our home stay guesthouse.

The train ride back to Osaka, wrapping around the Kii Peninsula, back to Osaka, was long but also uneventful.
Sarah on the train back to Osaka. Sadly, not one of the famous bullet trains, but we made good time. 

Back in Osaka, albeit briefly, we switched trains, for another hour-long trip to Nara. While we all wanted to go to Nara, it was sort of "Stella's pick" once she had heard about the deer that live there. Again, the ride went smooth, and we soon found ourselves to at Nara's train station. Next, to get to our guest house there... if we had one. 

We'd been sort of loosey goosey with this portion of our trip. We weren't certain how we'd feel after the hike, and if we'd want to make our way to Kyoto quickly, or take the slow road. But, yesterday, after wrapping up our hike, we decided to head straight to Nara, so we could maximize our time there, before Kyoto. As a result, we hadn't even tried to arrange our AirBnb until that evening. And, while the AirBnb owner had responded, we still hadn't received any check in info. 

Fortunately, we were able to navigate our way there, and found the rental, though we still didn't have instructions on how to get in. So, while Sarah stood guard with our luggage, I made the obligatory run to Lawson Station (the Family Mart competitor) to get snacks, with the kids. 

By the time we came back, with our bag of snacks, Sarah happily exclaims that she just got a message from the Airbnb person: "Door's unlocked, we can let ourselves in!"

The front of the rental house.

After several days of hiking, and then a day of traveling, the kids needed some down time. In addition, all of our clothes were dirty and sweaty, so we needed to do some laundry. So, while Sarah and the kids read and played video games, I tried to figure out the nearby laundromat. That ended up a lot of running back and forth, a trip back to Lawson Station for some laundry soap, and a lot of trips past what appeared to be a mysterious abandoned prison around the corner from our place. But, eventually, the laundry was done. 

And we were all hungry. 

I'd read about an isakaya a short walk away, so we tried to go there. But, when we arrived, it turned out to not only have a crowd of tourist milling around out front, but was also all booked up for the evening. So, we headed back to what appeared to be another izakaya, a half block from our place. We peaked inside and saw a woman bartender, with a single man sitting at the bar. The both looked a little confused to have some tourist poke their heads in, but smiled and waved us in.

What followed was a very entertaining meal. Isakaya's are basically bars, but they serve food and since Japan's laws are different, there's no problem with kids coming in, too. It's just not that conventional, and this place obviously wasn't a regular stop for tourists.

Fortunately, the man had lived in the US for a while, and while his English was a little rusty, he was more than happy to jump into a lively conversation with us, while refilling our sake cups. And, for her part, the bartender filled my beer mug and began passing food across the bar to us indiscriminately. The entire atmosphere was lively and fun, and the sake didn't hurt the situation. Eventually though, it was getting late. and a pair of women had also arrived, and lit cigarettes, and the small room was getting smoky fast, so we politely said our farewells, paid our tab, and made our way home. 

The next morning, both Sarah and I woke up with slightly upset stomachs. Since the kids seemed fine, we blamed some pasta salad we'd had the night before. So, we had a slow morning, to make sure things didn't get worse. 

Fortunately, a short time later, both Sarah and I are feeling better, so it was time to see some deer!

Heading out, we make our way to the main east-west street, Sanjodori Street, and start heading for Nara's large central park. 

Our first stop was the Kofokuji Temple complex, which had once all belonged to the second most powerful family in Japan. And, while many of the original buildings have since burnt down or otherwise been lost, still had a number of shrines, temples and a 5-stories pagoda. 

The pagoda and neighboring temple. 

Otto rings the bell on the main shrine.

It was also here that we got our first peak of the deer. Probably the main reason that people come to Nara these days is the deer. Originally, left alone because they were considered sacred, they have now become, er, semi-tame and fill Nara's large park and some of the surrounding neighborhoods. Over the years, the deer have learned that, if you bow to them, and they bow back, you will give them a cracker.

So, with that in mind, we bought some crackers from a nearby vendor, to feed the deer. 

But, it turns out that the deer know when you are buying the crackers, and are eager to have the crackers... and, when you have a half dozen deer coming at you, it's sort of intimidating. I barely got a couple of crackers passed to Stella, before they were on me, tugging at my backpack, prematurely bowing and one even casually bit my butt. 

So, while Stella backpedaled, and hastily passed out her crackers, Otto waved off my attempts to pass him crackers, and I handed the rest out myself.

Deer swarm!

Stella and a deer bowing to each other.

But, while it may have been a bit daunting to feed them, the deer were still really amazing to see. It was crazy to see so many of them, and most of them had no problem with people walking up and petting them, or even taking selfies with them. 
Deer selfie!

They even seemed to understand crosswalks. This one waited at the intersection and the cross when the lights changed. Deer crossing!

Other tourists being swarmed by deer.

Sarah's turn! She quickly learned than when the bucks bowed, they also inadvertently started waking you with their horns.

The kids and a deer try to beat the heat with a misting machine at a souvenir shop.

But, while the deer are the main attraction for most visitors, they aren't Nara's only draw. Nara also has the world's largest Bronze cast Buddha, house in one of the world's largest wood buildings. So, weaving through deer and under a giant gate, we make our way there.

The temple housing the Giant Buddha. It's hard to get a sense of a scale, but just look at the tiny people walking into it. And, the fact that it's all wood gives it an unexpected sense of artistry. 

The Giant Buddha. Again, hard to get a sense of scale, but those little Buddha's are effectively life-sized. Apparently, it's lost it's head 3 times over it's history. Twice when the head melted when the temple burnt down, and it once fell off in a particularly strong earthquake.

There's also a number of other statues in the temple, including this fierce fellow.

In one corner of the temple, there is a post, with a hole carved in it. It's said that, if you can squeeze through it, you will achieve Enlightenment in your lifetime. After watching another tourist nearly get stuck, Sarah and I decided to pass, but the kids slipped through as quick as can be.

They both literally squeezed through so quick, I couldn't get a good picture of either... so these will have to do. 

On either side of the Giant Buddha, there also sat additional Very Big Buddhas, who would be an impressive centerpiece in nearly any other temple.

After checking out the Giant Buddha, we continued to wander through the park some more, taking in a large golden pole and a shrine surrounded by dozens of stone lanterns. But, we were also starting to get hungry and tired, so we began looking for a place to get lunch. 

Eventually, we settled on a place just outside the park, which served soba noodles. So, we enjoyed those, and some air conditioning.

Dabbing for soba noodles.

As had become tradition, after lunch, the kids were promised shaved ice for dessert. So, after a little detour so Stella could check out a stationary store we'd seen on our walk to the park, we headed down a long, covered pedestrian street, looking for a fancy shaved ice place Sarah had read good things about. 

Arriving at Hoseki Hako, we were shocked (socked, I say!) to see a "sold out" sign up on the front door. Apparently, in Nara, shaved ice places need reservations! But, while we stood there, looking at the storefront dejectedly, a minor miracle happened: One of the women working there walked to the front door, opened it, and said "would you like shaved ice? We've had some reservations cancel."


So, we took our seats, and ordered our shaved ice... and it was amazing. We'd had quite a bit of shaved ice, since arriving in Japan, but most of it was pretty unexceptional: Roughly shaved ice, in a paper cup, with the invariable cherry, blue Hawaiian or macha green tea flavors. But, this set a new standard. Large, with exciting flavors and toppings and immaculately made and presented.

My kiwi, basil and cream shaved ice.

Sarah excited for her peach hibiscus shaved ice. Taking a bit of the peach on top, she declared: "This is the second best piece of peach I've had in my life!"

As we departed, the server explained that they opened at 10am, but people queued up before 9 to secure a reservation. We decided that we'd come back the next morning to get a 10 or 10:30 reservation and enjoy another shaved ice before catching out train. But, (spoilers) by the time we arrived at 8:30, those times were already sold out.

After enjoying out shaved ice, we made our way back to our place for some downtime. When it came time for dinner, we were excited to try out an amazing smelling yakitori restaurants, but -in a twist that should surprise no one- it was already all booked up for the evening. 

So, faced with two starving kids who didn't have the patience to wander around looking for some random restaurant to please mom and dad, we just made our way to the next open place we could find: An unexceptional restaurant that at least had noodles and potstickers for the kids, and a beer for me and we amused ourselves with the odd and unappetizing translations on the English language menu.

"Can I get the lungs tempura and random salad?"

With food in our bellies, and the light fading quickly, we made our way back to our place again; wrapping up our all too brief stay in Nara.