Okay, so I was a little panicked and a lot embarrassed. Suddenly I felt like I was leading us in the wrong direction on Mount Gagazet. As we stood in the taxi line waiting for the next cab, I tried to stay calm. After all, this was a vacation. Would the world end if we didn’t make it to the palace by 2? Of course not. Would there be other sights nearby that we could wander around instead? Duh. But the meticulous travel planner inside my head had taken the reins of my sanity and I was mortified that I had made such a goof during what I had hoped would be a nearly flawless trip.
No trip is flawless. But if you play your cards right, you might get lost and discover fantastic things as you find your way back. Sometimes they’re things about yourself. More on that in a bit…
I practically dove through the window of the cab when it pulled up, and quickly discovered our driver didn’t speak a lick of English. I fumbled with my Japanese while trying explain where we wanted to go, but with a little help from Google Maps I was able to show our driver where I had meant to take us in the first place. We arrived on the grounds just past 2, but the guards kindly let us in and pointed us to the tour group which was about 500 feet away and slowly being herded towards the third point of interest. The tour was full of foreigners with expensive, poorly utilized cameras. Our guide was a charming older Japanese woman with too much free time on her hands. Truth be told, if I was retired and living in a big city, I’d probably jump at the chance to give tours to foreigners as well. I bet it’s hilarious.
Ah, but I know you’re wondering what this place looked like, right?
After our tour, we walked back to the hotel mainly as an excuse to eat another meal and not feel guilty about it. We had read about the food offerings at Japan’s department stores and figured there’s no harm in combining two of our favorite pastimes. Daimaru appeared to be a solid bet that happened to be nearby our hotel, and the route there happened to pass through the large covered marketplace of Teramachi. Our first pass through this ancient street turned outdoor mall was more of a recon mission than anything else, as we had already decided that our last day in town would be the true shopping day. We walked past incense shops, bargain stores, vintage clothing resellers and several kimono outfitters before emerging on the southern end and heading west towards Daimaru. Kyoto’s bustling downtown shopping district was filled with music and people making their last purchases before heading home for just another in a string of Monday nights.
Daimaru’s depachika (food hall) in the basement is revered as being one of the most diverse and mouth-watering among the Kyoto department stores, and the size of the place is overwhelming– especially if you’re hungry. The wide array of grilled, fried and steamed treats was such a sensory overload that we retreated to the top floor’s food court, where glass cases displayed carefully detailed plastic recreations of the meals available from each vendor. It was nearing 8 p.m. so we quickly ducked into one of the smaller operations. I ordered katsu-don and beer, and it was brought out with a fantastic ceramic mortar and pestle of sorts containing sesame seeds. Freshly ground sesame over katsu was turned out to be the ingredient I never knew this dish was missing. Absolutely delicious.
With dinner finished and Maruyama park conveniently located at the end of the street, there was no reason not to walk there to see what turned out to be the last night they were illuminating their famous cherry tree. The place was packed with locals and tourists alike (though I daresay more locals), eating and drinking up a storm. Stall vendors sold everything from karagae (fried chicken) to roasted fish on a stick. There was even a haunted house!
Night was wearing on, so we left and walked up Kiya-machi Dori and experienced what has to be the most beautiful nighttime stroll I’ve ever taken. The canal running along the West side of the street was draped in blooming sakura. Music filled the air, people filled the streets. It made me want to stay out all night, smoking cigarettes and listening to jazz while dogs bark in the distance. You know how it is.
By the time we reached our hotel, there was just enough energy left to walk into a FamilyMart, pick out a dessert and a whisky I’d yet to try, and feast my eyes on this unfortunately named snack:
We retired to the hotel room, ate our ice cream, and quickly passed out. In the morning, I slowly trudged into the peculiar all-in-one-piece bathroom and stared in the mirror in disbelief: I had a sunburn! How could this be? I didn’t bring a hat of any kind to Japan because for some reason, I had it in my head that the sun couldn’t possibly by as strong as it is back in Los Angeles. So today, as my punishment for such foolishness, I would be carrying around a bottle of sunscreen with me. And it’s a good thing I did, because we spent a great deal of time on foot at Fushimi Inari and Tofuku-ji in Northwest Kyoto during the sunny hours.
Here’s where I have to admit that I’m a quitter. We only made it about halfway up the mountain.
In our defense, Fushimi Inari is massive and we were on a schedule. It would be easy to spend a day here, and not because we are slow climbers. The heavily-wooded area is filled with paths covered by thousands of vermillion torii gates inscribed with the names of those who donated money to build them. And as the de facto “mother shrine” to Inari, it’s always filled with people who have come to explore or pay their respects. We made it to a small lake about halfway up Mount Inari before turning back and heading North to the Tokofu-ji temple grounds.
Tofuku-ji was a far more cultivated landscape of traditional Japanese and Zen gardens nestled among large ceremonial buildings still very much in use today by the buddhist community. While there, we caught sight of a young couple taking their engagement photos in front of the main temple. When gazed upon through the massive ceremonial gate (the oldest of its kind in Japan), they were but a tiny speck! Tofukuji’s gardens are very famous. The most well-known of them, filled with nothing but sand, moss and carefully placed stones, requires separate admission from the rest of the grounds. We didn’t make it into that garden. It’s not that we’re cheap, but there was already so much to see that we lost track of the time.
I myself was so transfixed by one in particular, that I sat motionless on the shaded benches in front of it for nearly twenty minutes. My mind cleared. My body relaxed. I didn’t want to leave, but my stomach was growling.
We’re just a pair of wild and crazy guys.
Though there were hundreds of restaurants around us to choose from for lunch, Chris was determined to hit another spot from the Lonely Planet book called Asuka, which was noted as having awesome tempura and several fabulous obasans working the tables. Their limited English was no barrier here and the food was indeed very tasty. Though quite small and cozy (don’t expect western chairs and tables), I’d highly recommend it to anyone wandering Northern Higashiyama in search of a delicious a low-cost meal.
We arrived at the tail end of lunch time, so the place was mostly empty. I dove face-first into a kara-age plate while listening to a couple of older women talking about their families, shocked that I was picking up enough of their words to get a gist of the conversation. Chris couldn’t stop staring at a pair of Chinese ladies nearby who were eating with their mouths open. He also kept scolding me to take “little lady bites” of my food, but I was helpless against all of the yum sitting on my plate. With our stomachs filled, there was one more important thing we had to do today while there was still some light in the sky:
Here’s a bit of advice for those of you looking for a place to do a bit of wash before you move on to your next destination: 1) Don’t trust Apple Maps; and 2) bring lollipops. While I give them credit for getting us close to our intended destination, the fact remains that two young men in shorts and tees wandered into a rather fancy sit-down restaurant and desperately attempted to converse with to high school-age hostesses in the hopes that they could point us to the correct coordinates. With my bare-bones Japanese and their kind determination to see us on our merry way, we were able to figure out that Apple Maps was only off by about two blocks. Which really, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t bad at all. We wanted to thank the hostesses for being so kind and understanding, and so it was with much gratitude that we gave them our last remaining See’s Candy lollipops. Their eyes totally lit up and everyone in the room felt much better about how silly the situation was.
The one last thing I’ll say on the subject of laundry is that once again, the Japanese have nailed it when it comes to technology. One machine does everything, it even provides the soap and fabric softener. And it only takes an hour to wash and dry your clothes. Brilliant.
After that adventure we returned to Nijo castle (this time on purpose) for the nighttime viewing of the grounds, which featured a stunning display of sakura and a fun makeshift bazaar that was basically a miniature version of what we saw at Maruyama park the previous night. I went straight for a bowl of udon, but Chris had his heart set on another regional delicacy, okonomiyaki. Loosely translated, it means “anything you want” and it’s basically a giant pancake full of delicious things that’s covered in mayo and a special okonomiyaki sauce. He ate it too fast for me to get a picture, so here’s a picture of the sauce instead:
Oh and of course, some photos of our night at Nijo Castle:
It probably goes without saying that we stayed until they kicked us out, but I was still able to convince the nice gift shop lady to let me buy a few postcards as they pushed us towards the exit. From there we walked back through the city to our hotel, the health benefits of which were instantly negated by our eating more convenience store ice cream. Chris dared me to try out this dessert bar, but I’d already had my fill of noodles for the day…
Getting into bed was a little sad, as this was the last night we’d spend in Japan. Tomorrow would be a day of shopping followed by the closest thing we have to traveling in a TARDIS…
Want to see more of my photos from Kyoto? They’re over on Flickr.
Some of these shots were taken by my talented husband. He’s put quite a few up on his own Flickr page as well.