- Travel Topics
With comments by Dave in Bold/Italics
After the golden treatment we received from Masashi (homemade breakfasts and dinner, free bike rental, personally guided city tour) we were a little sad to bid him farewell, but alas, it was on to the next couchsurfer – a family with two young boys in the center of the city.
We met Shutaro outside a Starbucks by the Sanjo Kyoto metro after several failed phone call attempts. For a second I worried I had written the number down wrong or that he just wasn’t answering – I am increasingly becoming more neurotic (she’s not lying). Thankfully he arrived, oldest son in hand, and we followed him into his centrally-located, new and modern apartment, where we met his wife and baby boy. Given that he is a surgeon we started to understand how he could afford such a place.
For dinner we had a home cooked delicious Japanese curry meal. To their surprise we said we had tried Japanese curry before since Masashi had prepared it for us the prior night as well. Along with the curry we had a salad and thinly sliced beef cold cuts. American butchers and cattle ranchers could learn a thing or two from the Japanese. The beef here is impeccable. It brings the term marbling to a whole new level and it literally looks good enough to eat raw. I don’t even consider myself a huge fan of beef but I found myself reaching for a second slice. Tender and delicious is all I can say. (Was this whole paragraph really just about food?)
After couchsurfing with a retired, older man it was a welcome change to stay with a family with two bustling and energetic, young kids. We taught them English words and they repeated after us.
Since Dave had informed them that we had sleeping bags (which in fact we do not) we unfortunately were not provided any sheets, pillows or blankets (oh well). I instantly called dibs on the couch and slept wrapped up in my silk sleep sheet with my jacket as my pillow while Dave slept on the bare floor, too lazy to scrap together his clothes to form a pillow (I was beyond tired at that point).
With the kids up and running around at 7am we had an early start to an ambitiously planned day. A tour of central Kyoto and many of the major temples were on the agenda and being the intense sightsee-er that I am, I was pumped and ready to go (I was not).
With Shutaro’s help we mapped out a route, which took us through the Nishiki market, (a fascinating look through stalls and stalls of completely unfamiliar foods), and the Gion district (known for its teahouses and Geishas) before hitting our first shrine of the day – Yasaka-jinja.
With the shrine located right by Maruyama Park we took the time to go for a leisurely stroll and stumbled upon a fascinating cemetery snaking its way up the mountainside.
From there we made our way up to the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex, but not without stopping by the Ryozen Kannon (memorial commemorating the Japanese who died in World War II) and the Kodaiji Temple and museum (side trip to temples on the way to other temples…).
In the process of climbing up to the Kiyomizu-dera temple we walked along Sannenzaka St – a charming street that resembles historic Kyoto and is packed with souvenir shops, and cafes which give out ample free samples(the best part). Dave and I fully indulged and tried more than our fair share of Japanese mochi sweets. Instead of sitting down to a full course lunch we filled up on samples and a few street eats. We enjoyed both the rice cakes and deep fried patties that we found on Sannenzaka St. (another paragraph entirely about food).
With renewed energy we made our way to the main temple. Unfortuntately renovations slightly ruin the view but at the Kiyomizu-dera complex you do get an unparalleled panoramic view of the city. After the temple main hall, turn the corner and walk up left where you’ll find the love stones – 2 stones spaced 30 feet apart where you must walk from one to the other with eyes closed in order to have your love realized. Dave and I both tried this and failed miserably (it was not meant to be). To our defense between the two stones there is always a myriad of tourists pacing back and forth, which more than slightly disrupts your course (love involves many obstacles). Also, if looking for a mystical way to rid yourself of your troubles, try writing them down on a paper doll and adding the paper to a bucket of water – when the doll dissolves your troubles should be gone as well. We didn’t splurge on this as the dolls are 200 JPY ($2.50) a piece (sounds like a temple scam to me…).
From the Kiyomizu-dera Temple we made our way to the Fushimi Inari Shrine (In case you’re wondering, we don’t understand the difference between a temple and a shrine either). Although much faster reached by subway we opted to walk instead – choosing to save a few dollars (and shed a few pounds), and stop by the temples we passed on the way. Of all the temples and shrines we saw in Kyoto the Fushimi Inari stands out to me the most. Unique and magical is the best way to describe it, the shrine contains thousands of torii which snake their way up Mt. Inari. The entire walk takes around two hours and it truly is mystical.
Unfortunately, as always, Dave was rushing me along and we did not get to walk through all the gates as I would have happily done, but we did get to see the jist of it (the jist indeed). With bright orange colors, and writing on the gates representing the donors, this truly is a fascinating place and highly recommended for all Kyoto visitors.
A perfect way to end our walking tour, we headed to the grocery store to pick up some produce for the meal I had promised to prepare for Shutaro and his family (actually I promised she’d prepare it – oops).
I settled on pasta in a cream based sauce with garlic chicken, asparagus and tomatoes – the dish turned out to be a hit, and while I preferred to eat the Japanese style soup and rice Shutaro’s wife had prepared, Shutaro seemed to enjoy my pasta.
To relax our muscles and complete our Japanese immersion, Shutaro took us to an onsen – a Japanese bath. While Dave, Shutaro and his son all walked off in one direction I was left on the ladies side by myself.
More than a handful of naked Japanese women of all ages without a shred of shyness in a large bathroom lit up by fluorescent lights is not exactly what I expected. If anything I thought there would be the dimly lit romantic atmosphere of the US resort spas I had been accustomed to, but not here. This was an extra large bathing room with stools for perching yourself on as you scrub (and I mean these women are really scrubbing) yourself clean before heading into the numerous scolding hot pools or sauna. I was slightly intimidated to say the least – especially considering I wasn’t sure what the procedure here was. I just followed along and mimicked all the naked ladies around me. These women bring an entire soap and shampoo set caddy with them (while all I had was my measly LUSH bar of shampoo and body soap) and they washed their hair at least three times – which I did too just to show I was super clean as well. There’s just nothing quite like sharing a sauna with two other naked Japanese women who are carrying on a conversation without you understanding a single word (tell me about it). Overall it was an interesting and enjoyable experience, especially pleasant after a full day of walking all over the city. Unfortunately I forgot my LUSH shampoo bar and soap there, though to be honest I wasn’t too happy with it’s shampooing skills anyway.
(My experience was pretty similar, except replace old naked women with old naked men. I benefited from having Shutaro and his son to show me what to do).
As the night drew to a close we had fun playing with the kids and it was especially entertaining to watch Dave play with a baby as I’m sure he had never interacted with one before this moment (refreshing to finally speak with someone on my level).
The next day – our last day in Kyoto we were up early and took the subway to Kyoto Station to drop off our bags in a locker (seriously love the abundance and ease of use of lockers in Japan). With a 2pm bus to Kanazawa we ran around the station for a while trying to figure out where the bus was leaving from and finally when we felt confident enough we set off to explore our last few temples.
To be easy on ourselves (me) we restricted the temple viewing to within walking distance of the station. With some difficulty, since our Kyoto city map was solely in Japanese, we made our way through the Toji Temple, Nishihongan-ji Temple and finally the Higashi Hongan-ji temple. Unfortunately the Higashi Hongan-ji temple was being renovated so most of the structure was blocked off but the building itself is huge – one of the largest wooden structures in the world and a must see. The Nishihongan-ji, directly opposite of the Higashi Hongan-ji is also worth a stop.
For lunch we found a cheap and delicious restaurant directly across the street from the Higashi Hongan-ji temple. With cheap noodles and dumplings we were stuffed and ready for our first long distance bus journey in Japan. Kanazawa here we come!
Maruyama Park: free
Ryozen Kannon: 200 JPY ($2.50)
Kodaiji Temple: 600 JPY ($7.50)
Kiyomizu-dera Temple: 300 JPY ($3.75)
Fushimi Inari Shrine: free
Toji Temple: 500 JPY ($6.25)
Nishihongan-ji Temple: free
Higashi Hongan-ji Temple: free