Travel to Japan, Part 4: Kyoto

08/17/2011

Day 8

Kyoto is almost a suburb of Osaka. Kind of like Fort Worth is to Dallas, it’s far enough away to have it’s own identity, but close enough that the subways connect. Someone described Kobe (think Osaka’s Denton) as the Beverly Hills of Japan, due to all the high end shopping and stuff. Granted I didn’t get very far from the train station in Kobe to really know, but Kyoto could certainly hold that title I think. Very clean, lots of high end cars, lots of parks and shrines and temples and all of that. The buildings are mostly modern, there’s a freaking grid system (!!) for the streets, and you can easily find any high end shopping you want. Dallas has nothing on the shopping in Japan. After arriving in Kyoto and speaking with some locals I realized that Osaka was really a bit of an outlier in Japanese cities. I’d compare it to Houston – big, but dirty and without much culture.

I spent the first day in Kyoto doing laundry. Exciting I know! I decided it would make more sense to pack a week worth of clothes and do laundry at some point than to try and cram 2 weeks into my bag. The hotel I booked in Kyoto said it had laundry facilities on site, but it turns out that what they mean by that is they’ll give you a small plastic bag and a menu of articles that they can clean for you. Socks were the cheapest on the menu at about $4/pair. I explained to the woman at the front desk that I had a lot of clothes, and really just needed to find a place to do it myself, so she gave me directions to a coin operated laundry place down the road. So I packed my clothes into the plastic shopping bags I had acquired and set off!

As you’d expect, the japanese laundry machine is a model of efficiency. Put clothes in, it auto-dispenses soap, washes them, then drys them, all with a countdown clock. 50 minutes later, ding and done. It’s like a microwave for laundry, and it cost about the same as 2 pairs of socks at the hotel.

By the time laundry was done it was getting dark, so I set off in search of food. The map the hotel gave me to show me where the laundry place was also had a “food market” on it a few blocks away, so I thought that might be a good place to start. When I arrived pretty much everything was closed though. I think it must be a daytime fish market or something, not a collection of restaurants. So I went back to my usual routine of wandering around the side streets, checking out the menus of the restaurants (most have them laminated out front), looking for something that looked palatable. I ended up finding a place with a chicken for a logo, and thought that was probably a good sign. These are actually pretty popular types of restaurants here (Yakitori), where for 100-200 yen you can get a little kebab stick of meat. Mostly various parts of chickens (I tried chicken hearts with Ash and Ryoko in Osaka), or “sausage” which  was basically a hot dog. They also do fried chicken – so I had a few kebabs and the fried chicken to finish it off.

On my way back to the hotel I came across a ‘beer garden’ which was basically an open air garage off the street that served a small bar menu and appetizer stuff, so I took the opportunity to try some Japanese whiskey (which is pretty good).

Day 9

The following day I got up and out to go see some shrines. The one everyone said was a ‘must see’ was Inari Shrine, which has all the red gates to walk through. Within minutes of arriving I had a man come up to me asking if I spoke english, and if I could help the small group of students he was with to practice their english. Apparently I’m an obvious foreigner.  Turns out he was a taxi tour guide (english speaking tourist guides who take you around in taxis) and was touring a group of 15 year old students from Tokyo around Kyoto’s shrines. It was actually an assignment for them in school to find an english speaking foreigner with whom to practice. So he helps them get out a few basic sentences in english, and then invites me to tour the shrine with them, and of course I agree.

So the guide (‘Hiro’), shows me how to pray to the shrine’s god (the god of business), and explains a bit about the gates and such. Each one has a name on it, which is the person who donated the money to the shrine for the gate. So basically, you can buy your own gate, which will also apparently buy you favor with the god of business. And business is good! There are thousands of these gates, and I’d guess they go on for over two miles, all around this little mountain in the middle of the city.

So I toured around all the basics with the students, who were a little shy to engage with me, but we conversed a bit with Hiro acting as translator. The girls wanted to know what I thought of Japanese girls, and if I had a girlfriend. Typical 15-year old stuff.

One of the boys had his fortune read by a fortune teller that was there. I was a little surprised that she talked to him for at least 15 minutes, and he was looking pretty somber by the end. Apparently she didn’t have good news for him. We all went to lunch together as well at a place with Soba noodles and the poor kid was depressed all through lunch. I suggested he needed a beer, but the drinking age in Japan is 20, not 15, so no go.

While we were eating, Hiro tried to give me tips on improving my chopstick dexterity. Apparently despite the compliments I received in Hiroshima, my technique is not optimal. Having done it one way for years, however, my hand cramped up trying to hold them differently as Hiro suggested. My chopstick ego dashed by a more honest local, we parted ways and Hiro took the kids on to the next shrine.

We hadn’t gone very far into the shrine with the kids, so after lunch I decided to head back in and head up the mountain. There are thousands of the red gates all the way up, but after walking up stairs for nearly an hour, I decided I needed to stop if I wanted to be able to walk around Tokyo for a few more days. The hike was completely exhausting, especially in the heat. My calves were burning the next day!

I had wanted to visit at least one more shrine while I was here, but I was just beat. I went back to the hotel to dry off my shorts with a blow dryer and take a nap before venturing out again for dinner. I had wanted to go back to the beer garden, but it was closed for a wedding party (I think Kyoto is really popular for weddings, there seem to be a ton going on. The hotel even has it’s own chapel). So I found an italian place instead, as I was just feeling tired and didn’t want to deal with finding suitable japanese food. It was still a japanese restaurant inside though – no english menu, no pictures. I managed to order pasta with meat sauce and wine though, and it was good. Soon after I got there a group of 5 girls came in and sat at the bar near me, speaking french. I asked the english speaking one where they were from – “Switzerland.” I told her I was from Texas. “Oh! That’s a long way away!” “Well, no farther than switzerland!”

Their group was spending 3 weeks in Japan basically doing the same thing as me, touring around the different cities. They had already been to Tokyo, and were working backward against my agenda looking at Hiroshima and Osaka as places to visit next. They weren’t sure if Osaka was worth going to, and I was kind of hesitant to recommend it. I asked our waiter what he would do in Osaka if he were visiting there. He thought for a moment and said “Osaka castle? Maybe?” – see what I mean? It’s like houston. Giant city without much to do :)

I noticed behind the bar at the restaurant they had some wine labels stuck up on the wall, as well as a $10 bill. I asked if they were collecting currency, and donated a $1 to add to the collection (the girls gave them a swiss franc). So now I can say that my $1 bill is in a little restaurant in Japan now.

So on to Tokyo now, hoping that the weather cools down!

Continued in Part 5: Tokyo