Ten days in Japan, and it was time to take things at a slightly slower pace. We explored Kyoto, wandered a peaceful path, ducked into a few temples, discovered a bit of culinary heaven, and wrapped it all up with 10,000 gates.
We were up early, as usual, to catch breakfast at the ryokan by 7am. We weren’t downstairs by 6:55, so we actually got a call to our room, asking if we were coming. Punctuality is extremely important (and you want hot food anyway). I then wasn’t paying enough attention in the restaurant to realize our seats were up on tatami mats, so I neglected to remove my slippers first. Oops…
After the simple Japanese-style breakfast at the hotel in Tokyo, this was a true luxury. We had a dozen dishes each, filled with several bites of a variety of fish, soup, rice, vegetables, and boiled tofu (heated at our table). It was an amazing start to our day.
We set out for a day in the city, walking up the hill to the nearby Philosopher’s Walk. Being early birds really pays off, as we were able to pop into a few temples completely devoid of tourists. The path was also quiet enough that cats who take residence in the area were hanging out, even following passers-by for more attention.
At the north end of the walk, we went into Ginkakuji Temple. This has spacious grounds, with a path that goes up the hillside, providing spectacular vantages of Kyoto below. By this time, it was fairly crowded, but we enjoyed it nonetheless, particularly for the fall colors.
We came out into a little stretch of shops, so we stopped for some souvenirs and beef and anko buns before making our way back to the ryokan at a (gloriously) leisurely pace.
There are so many things to distract you along the way, including some Jizo statues, though these were much simpler than the ones we saw in Tokyo. Jizo is also a god for travelers, keeping watch on all those who venture past.
Next, we boarded a subway bound for Fushimi for the afternoon. I was excited that our stop was one with a level crossing, complete with the “dtong dtong dtong” I’m so used to hearing in anime (I just want to live in an anime for a week or so… ^_^).
On the other side of the tracks, we walked through a covered shopping strip, stumbling on a decadent piece of mouth heaven: taiyaki. We had sought it out in Tokyo – and we found some – but it wasn’t anything really special. How little did we know the mouthwatering treat that awaited us!
These little fish were hot, fresh, crispy, and amazing – everything our first ones weren’t.
Reluctant to wash the amazing taste from our mouths, we proceeded to our destination in Fushimi: the sake museum.
Unfortunately, we arrived at 4:30, which happened to be closing time. Bummed, we wandered further down the street to a bridge overlooking a small waterway populated with jikkobune boats. The last tour left at 4:20, so we couldn’t even do this as a backup activity. Strike two.
We were out of luck for activities in Fushimi, so we compromised with a bottle of sake to-go and went, instead, to pay the god of rice a visit – after we sorted ourselves out from boarding the wrong train.
Fushimi Inari is likely the most recognizable shrine in Japan, and it was one of my most anticipated stops. Even at night, when the businesses had closed and the tourists had vanished, it was a spectacular sight. I was actually glad for the lack of visitors, as I’m not really one for crowds, though there were still a decent number wandering about.
The one downside I found to visiting such a popular shrine at night was the fact that we were there at the end of the day, after everyone else had been there. The shrine itself was fine; you would see far more evidence of disarray and use visiting an American attraction. However, with tourists comes ignorance. Fushimi had only squatting toilets, and unfortunately, most nonnatives simply don’t know how to use them. With such high traffic, the bathrooms were absolutely disastrous. Aaron reported the men’s room was fine, but men have had a bit more practice with their aim. After such remarkable cleanliness everywhere else, I was unpleasantly surprised by this find.
The quiet darkness of this popular shrine was worth it. However, I only regret not having more time to ascend the mountain and get the most out of the views. Alas, we were starving by this point and beyond exhausted. So once I got my photographic fill of the 10,000 torii, we made our way back to the station.
We found a promising ouchi restaurant nearby to sate our grumbling stomachs, though there wasn’t any English on their menu out front. We were feeling adventurous, so we fired up Google translate (with the handy feature of being able to take a picture of the foreign text and having it recognize it and translate it) to get a general sense of the offerings. We met another English-speaking couple inside who raved about the food, so we knew we were in good hands.
We eventually made our way back to our ryokan. Despite being perpetually tired, I knew I only had one last chance to take advantage of the downstairs “hot spring,” so I indulged. After another busy day, I welcomed the relaxation to unwind before crashing once more in my cozy futon.
- Ryokan do have yukata! Check the closets.
- Japanese bedding does not include an upper (unfitted) sheet as in America. Instead, there is a fitted sheet over the futon, and another fitted sheet that covers the underside of the comforter. Don’t try to wrap yourself in the comforter like a burrito.
- Do not be late. It is considered extremely disrespectful to be even a few minutes late.
- Few places open before 9 or 10am. Some don’t open until 11am. They like to sleep in.
- Get out early to avoid people and catch the cats.
- Outdoor cats in this area are captured, neutered, and released, marked by a triangle cut out of their ear. I’m glad they’re proactive with population management, but the practice makes me sad. There must be a better means of marking them.
- Squatting toilets aren’t just urinals. They also occasionally have the dual flush options.
- The local-to-tourist ratio is much better in the smaller city. You’ll bump into more English-speakers in Kyoto than Tokyo.
- When leaving Ginkakuji, prices for the same items get better the farther you get from the shrine.
- Parking lots have spaces that lock your car into the spot either by raising a U-bar in front of the vehicle or a plate between the front and back wheels to prevent it from being able to drive forward. This could be an anti-theft measure, though crime is low and they don’t even lock up their bikes. Perhaps the tourism element fuels this practice. Alternatively, as we later learned with bikes, this could be a way to enforce paying to park.
- Get down to Fushimi during the day. Places close early.
- Leave far more time for shrines than you think you’ll need; it will invariably require more than you anticipate, especially if you have a camera.
- Aaron observed that foreigners seem to be sat in areas without tatami mats, perhaps because they don’t expect them to know the etiquette. Don’t be afraid to request it if this is the experience you want.
Baka gaijin moment of the day: Always take off your shoes (and slippers) before walking on tatami mats. This includes in the restaurant. Needing to step up is a good indicator.