Thursday, October 29, 2015

Kyoto, Japan

Craig and I have been trying to do at least one international trip a year. Last year, we chose Turkey, which was amazing! For this year, we wanted to stick with the theme of a culture completely foreign to our lifestyle in the U.S..We also wanted to travel over Craig's birthday since he missed having a proper 30th celebration the year prior when we were moving from California to Washington. Because Craig has been mentioning for a while now that he wanted to visit Japan, I was not surprised that this spot was at the top of his birthday wish list.

We also splurged this year and used credit card points to get seats in business class for the roundtrip flight! With the food service, endless wine, video games, reclining seats, and warm towels, I certainly understand why people prefer this section over economy seats. However, I'm still not convinced that  I would spend my own money on the luxury if the the credit card points didn't foot the bill.

 First taste of Japan! Menu from top left to right: egg tofu with starch sauce; squid; prawn, pumpkin and prawn dressed with vinegar sauce; poached shiitake and spinach; duck breast and lettuce; halibut; lobster and taro with mustard miso; eel and radish; smoked salmon and egg yolk.

Craig showing business class how to relax.

 Starting off the flight with some bubbly!

They even had Street Fighter on the plane.

Thanks to being in business class with reclining seats, we felt much more rested than normal after a long flight and even got a few hours of shut eye! We arrived in Narita in the evening and took a train to our hotel in Tokyo. The following day, we were officially off to the start of exploring Japan. First stop, Kyoto!

Before getting to Japan, we bought rail passes that allowed use of the majority of Japan's vast rail system that connects most of the country. It even provided access to the bullet trains, which travel up to 200 miles per hour and made for a speedy transit time between destinations!

The train stations in Japan operated with a fascinating efficiency. Everyone lines up in an organized fashion for the car they are riding in. The trains always arrive exactly on time, doors open, and everyone boards quickly and the train is moving again at the exact time of scheduled departure! It's such a contrast to the trains I've experienced in the U.S. where the actual departure/arrival time can be up to plus or minus several hours of what is listed on the schedule. Needless to day, this efficiency made traveling within Japan a breeze.

Bullet train arriving to take us to Kyoto

Kyoto was fantastic. I should preface this by saying that it is one of those places that everyone talks about as a must-see, but admittedly when we got off the train, we were immediately disappointed. The train dropped us off downtown, which was full of boring-looking, gray structures and concrete. Once we settled in to our AirBnB apartment and started exploring the city and it's historic periphery, it became apparent what all the fuss was about because this is truly a beautiful place. 

As with most of our experiences in Japan, our time and activities in Kyoto were very random and probably best explained in photos. Below are highlights from our time in Kyoto:

Japan's temples were adorned with intricate details.

On one of the days, we sat in on a Buddhist prayer session, which was peaceful and filled with chanting and singing. After the session ended, patrons worked together to clean up the temple. They even turned it into a game and raced across the floor with towels (shown above)!

Ah, Kyoto's alleys! This is one of my favorite things about the city. Upon first glance, they look like a normal alley way meant to provide quick access the following street. However, when you enter them, you quickly find that they are filled with lots of restaurants (all of which looked amazing), shops, and temples. At night, the alleyways are decked with paper lanterns enticing patrons to enter, which appears to work because they are the hot spots of the city. Many of the alleys were also capped with gate as shown above.

One of the many, many, many vending machines we saw. I'm not sure if it is because it's a great business model with low overhead costs or because Japan has an introverted culture, but with an estimated 1 vending machine per 23 people, to say that Japan likes this concept is an understatement. For drink vending machines, it is expected that the product will be consumed and disposed of in waste receptacles next to the machine. This social norm may be one reason that Japan's cities were essentially trash-free.

We found out what Tommy Lee Jones has been up to! He was featured on many of Japan's drink vending machines throughout the country!

Sushi in Kyoto!

The Kiyomizu-dera, one of the old (built in ~1633) temples located in Kyoto's eastern hillsides.

Jizo statues with cloth bibs placed by parents in hopes that Jizo will protect their children.

Another one of Kyoto's interesting alleys filled with shops, restaurants, and complete with a vending machine to the left.

A smaller neighborhood alley.

Lunch! Water was served out of the cat vase.

I loved all the paper lanterns found throughout Kyoto.

A traditional dance stage in Kyoto. Unfortunately, we did not see any performances.

Kyoto has such lovely parks. Every detail seems to be planned to create a serene setting.

Another landscaped setting at the Shoren-in Temple, one of our favorite temples in Kyoto.

Every temple has a display of Buddha. They all vary from being simple to very elaborate such as this one.

A view of the Shoren-in Temple.

Many temples also have a large bell that is rung with a large wooden mast. It creates a penetrating tone that can be heard for large distances and is used for an alarm, times of celebration, or by tourists wanting to try it out. It was a common sound to hear in the distance walking through the temples. Some bells were so large that they required up to 25 people to sound it.

Toriis (or traditional Japanese gates) such as this were common at entry ways to Shinto shrines. They mark the boundary between the profane and sacred places.

Guardian lion statue

One of the largest temple gates in Japan. This one leads to the Chion-in Temple.

Toriis were a common site. Many of them were also orange as this is the color of illumination, the highest state of perfection, in Buddhism.

A very picturesque Japanese setting.

One of Kyoto's alleys was converted into a covered, outdoor shopping mall.

The view from our AirBnB apartment balcony.

Craig biking through a neighborhood in Kyoto.

Arashiyama, the Western side of Kyoto, with the Oi River in the foreground.

Macaques at Monkey Park. The monkeys at this park are wild and technically free to roam. However, a constant supply of food keeps them hanging around the top of this hill where the park is located.

Baby macaque

Macaque drinking from a coy pond.

Craig offers a peanut to a monkey from inside the feeding area.

So wise!

Spooning macaques!

After Monkey Park, we continued on our bikes to a bamboo forest. It was a beautiful setting, but swamped with school groups and tourists.

Stopping to take a photo of the forest.

My favorite temple we visited in Kyoto was Otagi Nembutsu-ji. It was located in the outskirts of the city and didn't attract a large crowd. It also featured thousands of hand-carved Buddhas from different people around the world. Can you find the Craig Buddha in the photo above?

Many are covered in moss and showing signs of deterioration, but you can still make out the faces on most of the statues.

Another view of the statues and shrines.

Biking in Kyoto's countryside.

The Golden Pavilion. This is probably one of the most photographed and visited temples in Kyoto. With it's golden siding, it is without a doubt a beautiful sight to behold. However, the crowds really soured the moment for me and I found it to be a hectic setting.

One of the highlights of our time in Kyoto was ninja training at a real Dojo. We stumbled upon it while looking for something cultural to do and I think it's safe to say that this trumps a calligraphy class! Although we expected it to be a group activity, when we arrived it was just the two of us with our own personal sensei! He gave us an introduction to how to breathe, walk, think, and fight like a ninja. We learned how to identify trap doors and try some ninja weapons (blow darts, ninja stars, swords, and ropes). As a bonus, we even got to dress like ninjas during the training! That's right, Craig (Grandmaster Pancake) and I (Rabid Bonsai) are officially trained for a secret stealth operation.

The last thing a fly sees.

Me getting serious with the blow dart gun.

Post training picture with the sensei!

The best meal we had in Kyoto (and maybe Japan) was this small ramen shop in an alley.

Tommy Lee Jones makes another random advertising appearance.

Parking in Japan's cities is no easy task. Here is an example of a parking facility that relies on an elevator system to stack the cars. 

We saw a few cat bars in Kyoto. Although it sounds like a nice idea to chill out in quiet room with a few cats, it was actually quite a cruel setting because the cats were clearly not enjoying the company. They all sat in the corner looking out into the next room trying their hardest to ignore the people who paid to come in to pet them. We didn't support the cause, but took this photo through the window.

Apartments in Japan were tiny! They were an ok size for one person, but with two of us, it became a little claustrophobic at times. The photo above shows the size of the little tub in the shower room.

The is the extent of the close-quarters apartment where we stayed in Kyoto.

In total, we spent four days in Kyoto and felt that it was a good amount of time to check out the temples and rural areas to the east and west of the city as well as indulge in Kyoto's delicious food scene downtown.  Consistent with everything we read, this definitely lived up to its reputation as a must-see when visiting Japan!