Day 9 was a transitionary day, marking the end of our time in Tokyo and the introduction of a new city.
With a train leaving earlier than the hotel’s restaurant would open, we instead ate our Cup Noodles made the other day, along with some snacks purchased at the convenience store the previous night. It was a measly breakfast compared to the mackerel to which I had grown accustomed, but it served its purpose.
We waved our goodbyes to Tokyo and hello to the famed Shinkansen. These bullet trains look like something out of a futuristic science fiction movie, and as far as speed goes, they cook! We clocked ours at about 160mph at its fastest. However, it’s difficult to tell you’re going that fast. The train is remarkably smooth; I had to watch the buildings blur by to get the proper perspective.
We ate some Japanese comfort food while on board: melon bread and dango. And no, they surprisingly did not originate from a vending machine.
Three hours later, we found ourselves in stunning Kyoto. We dropped our bags off at the ryokan, but we weren’t able to check in just yet, so we went exploring. A few blocks from the ryokan was the Kyoto Zoo. Just outside, I found a beautiful fountain.
As frequently happens when I find something interesting to photograph, I invariably wander. “What’s around that next corner?” “Ooh, that’s a cute little street; I wonder where it goes!” Before I knew it, I had left Aaron far behind, and I found myself on a beautiful street corner, bathed in autumn colors – precisely what we came to Japan to find! I even managed to photo-snipe a couple out on a photoshoot.
By this point, we were hungry and ready for lunch. The first thing we noticed was that the restaurants nearby were significantly more expensive than what we were used to in Tokyo. We wouldn’t find any ¥400 meals here. We settled on a tiny shop down an alley. As with everywhere else, the food didn’t disappoint.
Still with some time to kill, we walked up the hill to the shrine perched up there. We found a beautiful aqueduct draped in moss, tunnels of arches underneath it, and all sorts of wending paths.
We popped into the Tenjuan Temple and were blown away by the breathtaking beauty. I didn’t see many colors in Tokyo, and I feared we had come too early. However, this dispelled all worry; the trees flushed with fire were more than worth the wait. We spent a long time appreciating the peaceful garden before heading back down to finally check into the ryokan.
A ryokan is a unique experience. If you’re looking for traditional Japanese pampering, this is the place for you. Forfeit your shoes at the door, replacing them with provided slippers. You will later trade your room key for your shoes when you leave, making the reverse exchange when you return.
The rooms are simply adorable and, compared to typical hotels, spacious and luxurious. Our unit faced a garden and provided more than enough room for us to wind down from a long day of exploration. Tea was also provided to us in the room, and our room was converted from a living room to a bedroom each night.
We selected our preferred time for breakfast the next morning (we weren’t able to get a reservation in the packed restaurant for dinner, but we signed up for breakfast with our room) and headed out for the evening.
We wandered into an amazing sushi restaurant where we were seated at the bar and stared at as the many bored servers waited for us to call upon them. We were well before dinnertime, so the restaurant was fairly empty. I was glad for this when a small group of businessmen later came to dinner and lit up their cigarettes at their table in the back. We were also spared the embarrassment of the general public witnessing our sloppy sushi eating. I’ve heard that foreigners are frequently deliberately seated at the bar so they are in close proximity to ready assistance. Fortunately, this also afforded us front-row seats to the creation of our delectable morsels; it’s fun to watch the masters at work!
Venturing further down the road, we came across the Gion Corner, a center for educating visitors in traditional Japanese culture. We were just in time for the 7:30 presentation, an hour-long show including a tea ceremony, flower arranging, a court dance, a bunraku show (with a magnificently crafted multi-puppeteer puppet), and a comedy sketch (my favorite part). The show is entirely in Japanese, but the program is provided in several languages (including English) and includes synopses of each act so everyone can follow along.
Afterwards, I couldn’t believe the clouds illuminated by the bright moon. I fortunately had my tripod, so I positioned my camera with a nearby shrine in the foreground.
The building was annoyingly illuminated in one corner, so I used a fun technique to burn that spot while taking the picture. Basically, I held a corner of my black camera strap in front of the lens, covering the offending bright spot. At the very end of my long exposure, I quickly pulled it away to gently expose it in the frame. This can be tricky to find the balance between a persistingly bright area and a picture of your strap, but after a few attempts, you’re left with a better-exposed image, requiring far less work in post.
The rest of the shrine didn’t disappoint in the darkness; the corridors were lined with photogenic lamps, and there were very few people at this time.
We walked back to the ryokan to find our futons laid out for us. I took advantage of the on-site “hot spring” – in truth, a small public bath. There was no one else when I went, so I had it all to myself (which meant I could also take a few pictures, though my lens kept fogging up from all the hot steam).
Though I was tired from the long day, I’m happy I insisted on making the trip; it was pleasantly soothing on my aching legs and back. It made the futon feel that much more comfortable.
- Shinkansen are fun if you have the opportunity to ride one.
- Kyoto moves at a much slower pace.
- People seem friendlier and not as anxious to race off somewhere. We even had someone proactively approach us in the station asking if we needed help.
- People are very willing to help you through your baka gaijin moments. They also care very much to make you comfortable and happy, even if you object, thinking you’re inconveniencing them. Let them.
- When you visit temples, some individual gardens and buildings require an entrance fee. Pay attention to the signs at the entrances.
- Hotels and ryokan don’t expect you to dry your hair in or near the bathroom. Look elsewhere for the hairdryer; there may be a vanity area with a separate mirror.
- Cars turn their engines off at intersections. It was interesting to see this in such common practice.
- Cars stop well back from the intersections.
- It’s not as obvious how to recharge Pasmo cards in Kyoto. Pay close attention to the machines.
- Eat roe sushi with your fingers; don’t use chopsticks.
- Keep left. Unless everyone else is on the right. Just follow what they do.
- Shrines are much better in the evenings, when everyone has gone home.
- Everything feels pretty dead after sundown (even when that’s 5pm). All the tourists have gone home and the shrines are closed (though you can still walk through most of them).
Baka gaijin moment of the day: Smaller restaurants don’t always have a waiting list upon which to put your name. Instead, people wait in line outside. Don’t inadvertently cut the line by trying to add yourself to a list.