Since the original plan was to go for Japanese Food, this trip was all about the dining. Here is a little “food journal” of our experience.
The big advantage of hitting popular sightseeing spots in mid-January is that the crowds are relatively light. The big disadvantage is that it is freezing. We spent two days in Kyoto and went to Nara yesterday. There were many Shrines and Temples. Dating, as they frequently do, from the 8th century, none of these places have heating. We got very cold.
In Kyoto, we went to the Heian Shrine and then walked around the east side of the city. We traced part of the Philosophers’ Walk path, but were driven away by a heavy wet snowstorm… Freezer Tourism at its best! On Wednesday, we circled around the west and visited two large Buddhist Temples. Then we went to the Nijo-Jo Castle. From the castle we walked over to the Imperial Palace grounds, but there were no more tours that day so we signed up for and English language tour the next morning. Then we visited the Shoren-in Temple and its wonderful garden, and walked around the Gion district until we got very hungry.
On Thursday, we took the Imperial Palace tour. A decent tour, for what it was: you don’t get to go inside any of the buildings but they do have some good pointers about the architecture and building styles. Did I mention it was cold? There was also a flurry of light snow, but much less than the day before. We hear all these palatial quarters were built without any heating at all: they were more concerned with keeping cool in the summer than keeping warm in winter, since they had to sit around wearing many layers of ceremonial garments. We, though, were not wearing ceremonial garments. We were chilled to the bone but that’s what you get when you do Freezer Tourism!
Nara, 25km south of Kyoto, is interesting because it has been spared much of the turmoil and upheaval that befell Kyoto. A number of significant buildings have been preserved from its days as the first capital of Japan. It has the largest wooden building in the world, the Daibutsu-den, housing a 24 meter high Buddha statue. We walked around the Nara-koen and were accosted by some of the 1,200 sacred deer that hang around the park jonesing for handouts. One of them took a nibble on Laura’s maplet.
We did well last night looking for dinner: coming back from some shopping in Harajuku, we stumbled upon a little Yakitori place tucked away on the third floor of a building right across from the station. Yakitori involves little bamboo skewers with chicken and other goodies, grilled over charcoal right at the counter. It was a little place, full of locals and the guys behind the counter were a hoot–they put on more of a show than our earnest Teppan-yaki guy earlier this week. This hole-in-the-wall Yakitori was one of the best meals we have had in Japan.
I haven’t been getting my voice mail on my iPhone here in Japan. When I got off the plane, it hooked up with Softbank which is the company that sells iPhones locally (using a cute, white dog as a mascot). However, no voice mails come in and when I go to the voice mail tab on the phone, it says it can’t connect.
Then my phone switched briefly to NTT Docomo and behold: two voice mails came in. Could it be that Softbank’s own iPhone support interferes with foreign iPhones’ roaming?
We traveled to Kyoto today by Shinkansen. We activated our Japan Rail passes at Shinjuku Station (tip: go to the Information office on the southeast side of the station). Then we took a train to Tokyo Station, where we eventually found the Tokaido Shinkansen platform (as opposed to the regular Tokaido Main Line which is not a bullet train and runs from an entirely different part of Tokyo Station). The Shinkansen runs every half hour, so it did not matter much that we missed one by going to the wrong platform. We just had the ticket counter create a new reservation.
About the Shinkansen itself: wouldn’t it be nice to have something like that run through the California Central Valley some day? I hope that plan works out.
We are staying at the Granvia Hotel Kyoto , which is not only very nice but also very conveniently located, sitting as it does right on top of Kyoto Station.
So, what do you do if you want to blog every day about your trip and flake on the first two days? For now, I’ll just talk about today. Perhaps the previous days will fill in but the Jet Lag is kicking in.
We spent today in Asakusa. Tempura is a specialty here, and we actually managed to find both restaurants we looked for. We were cowed by the line at the first one, but braved the line at the second and had Shrimp Tempura and Soba Noodles for lunch. Then we visited the Sens?-ji temple complex and headed back to Shinjuku. There we had a disappointing “western style” dinner, and finally managed to find the jazz bar covered in the New York Times article on traipsing around Tokyo on a budget: the JazzBar Samurai is exactly as advertised, with hundreds of maneki neko statues around the room. It is well hidden on the fifth floor of a nondescript building right outside (as it turns out) the south exit of the Shinjuku Station. We didn’t see the sign until we happened to be standing right in front of the building.
Quick shout-out to Oakland Airport: they now offer free Wi-Fi on the concourse. Most webpages get a little advertising frame across the top, but that seems a small price to pay. Lower fares, cheaper parking, free Wireless: how can you go wrong. Plus the Southwest terminal now has little desks at the gates with wall outlets to charge the laptop.