“It is impossible to remain indifferent to Japanese culture… it is a great intellectual challenge and a gorgeous sensual experience.” – Alain Ducasse
We loved Japan. So much so that we had difficulty putting our experience into words (clearly, since it’s been over six months since our visit!). As we pack our bags for our next big adventure, we’d be remiss if we didn’t share it with you.
Tuesday, March 7
Flying from Bali to Japan was quite the culture – and temperature – shock. We traded in our swimsuits and flip flops for our (vacuum-packed, thanks to JRL) sweaters and scarves to brave the chilly 50° winds.
Kansai International Airport is located on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, so you have to take the train into Kyoto. Pro tip: bring some yen! We tried (unsuccessfully) to get cash out of the ATMs before finally figuring out that one of the machines accepted credit cards. We took the morning train into Kyoto Station, which was as crazy as Times Square on a Saturday afternoon. It took us quite a while to navigate to our hotel (can I blame fatigue and hanger?), but we finally arrived only to find out we couldn’t check in for another few hours. We dropped our bags and headed back to Kyoto Station to find food. Not just any food, though. It was at Kyoto Station that we had our first SUSHI TRAIN EXPERIENCE. And it was life changing. Of course to those more familiar with Japan, we may have been eating what we call “grocery store sushi,” but to us it was Michelin-worthy deliciousness that immediately cured our grumpiness and jetlag. After taking a post-sushi train nap, we woke up refreshed and ready to tackle this new city.
Second pro tip: you can withdraw cash at 7-Eleven locations! After getting some Yen, we made our way to a restaurant known for their okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. This was a Japanese dining experience we’ll never forget – seated on the floor, snuggled in close to grill in front of you, almost back-to-back with the next table, drinking Kirin out of heavy pint glasses and inhaling second hand smoke from all the fresh-from-work locals ending their days around us. The okonomiyaki was outstanding. So good, in fact, that we ended up going back again before leaving Kyoto.
The next day we took the train to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, about 20 minutes outside of town. It was exceptionally crowded with lots of selfie stick sightings, so we didn’t stay long. Very beautiful, though. Next we headed to Nishiki Market, a five-block-long street market with hundreds of vendors and shops. We tasted (and bought) some sake and trinkets, then made our way to a nearby place for… wait for it… sushi!
After dinner we took a real Kyoto taxi back to our hotel. If you don’t know about Kyoto taxis, you must take one if you get the chance. They are the epitome of dignified, wearing full (crisply pressed) suits, hats and gloves. The taxi doors open automatically – it is gauche to try and open them. You also don’t tip the taxi drivers, as its insulting to them.
Once back at the hotel, I decided to take advantage of our hotel’s indoor onsen, a hot springs bathing facility separated by gender. I’d heard traditional onsens are incredible and, since it was the closest I’d get to one during this trip, I gave our more modern hotel version a go. It was a very new experience for me, and I made sure to read all about it on the provided brochure before entering so I wouldn’t make any cultural faux pas. I learned that you have to visit the bathing area before entering the baths; you’re not allowed to bring your towel (or wear anything) in the bathing area; and those with tattoos are not allowed. It was a very interesting and relaxing experience!
Wednesday, March 8
We couldn’t leave Kyoto without experiencing Nara, thanks to a recommendation from Ben and Mia. Nara is known for its deer. Yes, regular deer! They are everywhere, because they’re considered holy. From wikipedia: “According to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, the god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country.” We loved feeding them (second only to the monkey experience in Bali). We continued on to Nara Park to enjoy the traditional Japanese gardens (a personal highlight) and walk through the historic monuments of Nara, including Buddhist and Shinto shrines. We stopped for a break and enjoyed a cup of delicious Japanese tea.
We returned to Kyoto and enjoyed some wine in our hotel’s open air courtyard. Thank goodness they had a few fire pits!
Thursday, March 9
We decided to see Fushimi Inari-taisha, the Inari Mountain shrine with the iconic, bright orange torii gates, more than 10,000 of which line a path up the mountain. It was incredible and full of history. My favorite fact was that the fox, depicted frequently around the Inari shrines, is regarded as a messenger for the gods.
We were walking along the torii gate path up the mountain when we saw an American who looked familiar. It was Scott, a guy we’d met at the elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai three weeks prior! Imagine the odds, running into a fellow traveler in a different country, weeks later, on top of an obscure mountain. This is why we love to travel! We ended up hanging out with Scott all day, since his friends had returned home and he was sightseeing solo. John finally found someone who knew just as much (if not more) about planes and airline routes as he did.
We walked all around Kyoto that evening, visiting shops and a nighttime illuminated garden, and stopping for dinner at a fabulous restaurant specializing in shabu shabu, a traditional Japanese hot pot dish with thinly sliced meat and vegetables that you cook yourself in a pot of boiling water at the table. The restaurant required that you leave your shoes at the door and don their small Japanese clog-style sandals before being seated in private dining rooms. You sit on floor cushions around a traditional table. It was the coolest!
Friday, March 10
Today was the day: finally John’s dream of riding the Shinkansen would become a reality. The Nozomi Shinkansen is the fastest train service in Japan, and we rode it from Kyoto to Tokyo, a 2.5 hour trip. We’d read that if you sit on the left side of the car you can see Mount Fuji. John was so excited! I took a nap.
On to the big city… Tokyo!