Kansai Field Trip: Day 1 in Kyoto

All of the postcard-worthy shots in this post came courtesy of my very talented husband. 

I won’t lie: One of my favorite parts about traveling to Japan is breakfast. While some folks are all about the hotel buffet (and that is me sometimes, I’ll admit), there are certain rules I toss out when I set foot on the Land of The Rising Sun. First and foremost is that breakfast doesn’t happen anywhere else than but a Japanese bakery by or in a train station. Their creativity and palate takes French pastry to a whole new level. We made Holly’s Cafe our first notch on the breakfast card and were instantly transported to the magical world of Japanese toast. It’s thick, it’s light, and it’s slathered with butter. There’s really nothing to not like about it.

Also, they had this super-cool cold brew setup in their window.

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After brekkie, we retraced our steps to the apartment and collected the bikes that came with our rental so that we could explore the city at a faster pace. After the cycling snafu that was Strasbourg, I was really looking forward this. It wasn’t just being on a bike myself in a foreign place, but being on a bike with Chris. He hadn’t ridden one since he was fifteen. I was giddy to finally be reintroducing him. Obviously the next step would be spandex, but that was for another day. You know, after his sit bones remembered what it’s like to spend a few hours in the saddle.

“cruiser” style bikes don’t have the most comfortable seats by the way. He was sore for a good two days after our adventure. But for one day, we got to travel across the city and visit the Heain shrine and gardens for the first time. Heian is an impressive site with an interesting history. Built as a 5/8 scale reproduction of the Heian Palace for the anniversary of the establishment of Kyoto as the nation’s capital in 1895, it was kept as a shrine to Emperor Kanmu. Much of the shrine was rebuilt in 1976 after a fire destroyed nearly all of the buildings in the complex.  I was built in 1976 too, but I’m not nearly as exquisite as this place.

Almost half the land of the shrine complex is a mature and well-cared for garden designed by Ueji, using water from the Lake Biwa Canal. It was all I could do to tear my husband away from the place and keep us on schedule, but I suppose we were helped by the fact that most of the trees there (and in Kyoto in general) had yet to burst into their fiery autumn splendor. Were they in that state, I’m sure we would have spent all day here without a single complaint. Instead, just a few overeager maples provided a shock of accent color to a backdrop of lush greens.

We continued East and up the Path of Philosophy only to come across the most awesome stationery store I’d ever seen: Sheets of hand-printed patterns, notebooks of every size, paper trays, paper pens, origami papers, postcards and just about every other paper product imaginable. I. Was. In heaven. But since I was on a bike, I also exercised an admirable level of restraint and only filled one shopping bag with their many delights.

We kept on the path, stopped at a roadside stall to buy some beautiful ombre silk scarves for friends back home. We shot right past Ginkaku-ji temple without realizing it, and just kept going because the road was pretty and we weren’t in any hurry to alter course. We had Kyoto-style ramen in a tiny shop near the university. The thick chicken broth was intensely satisfying, more restorative than any soup I’d ever eaten as a kid when I was sick with bronchitis or the flu.

We were startled out of our wits by the Japan emergency alert system activating on our phones after a 6.6 earthquake happened 95km away… And were subsequently disappointed when we didn’t feel a single shake. (This cliche is actually your attitude toward quakes when you grow up in Los Angeles. If you don’t feel it, you missed out).

We made our way south along the riverbank and stopped to watch the world go by for a bit before cruising through the Imperial Palace grounds. We completed the circuit by riding around Nijo-jo castle and back to the apartment for some well-earned relaxation time. All told, it was only about nine miles of cycling but it was nine of the best miles I had ridden in a very long time. My only regret is that Chris hasn’t had enough time on a bike yet to tackle the ride North to Kurama. It would have been a blast to visit the onsen there.

How to celebrate our lovely ride? We opted for a leisurely walk along Kiyamachi Street, starting at Kawaramachi and heading South with the evening crowds along the river channel down to Nishinmoncho. While not quite the spectacle it is when all the cherry trees are in bloom, it was still a delightfully scenic nighttime stroll that afforded us some great photos.

We made a slight detour to Daimaru for one very very important reason: KitKat. Between our last visit to Japan and this one, Nestle opened up several boutique KitKat Chocolatory stores to sell some of the fanciest candy bars you ever did see. No green tea bars here, my friends. We stocked up on champagne raspberry, strawberry maple, yusuf, and butter (yes, butter) KitKat bars to share with our friends back home. At 8000 yen per box of four bars, no less. But we didn’t spring for the 129,000 yen melons we saw in a nearby stall within Daimaru’s cavernous food hall.

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Walking back up towards our starting point, we popped into an Izakaya for dinner. After seating us, they politely asked us not to stay more than two hours. This wouldn’t be the only time during our trip that we were advised of a time limit at dinner, but it was a new experience for us! Though not ones to linger after finishing a meal, it would appear that were in the minority.

We finished our night by walking back to our apartment, exhausted but giddy from a long day of adventure and consumerism. My backpack was stuffed with the spoils of our wanderings and my heart was bursting at the seams with affection for this city. I couldn’t wait to see what sights our next day would hold.

Kyoto - Kiyamachi Dori (October 21, 2016) #

Photo by Chris Panagakis

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