I’m big in Japan: Off to Kyoto (2005 May 14)

6 minute read

It was Jm’s birthday! How nice to be spending it in Japan. Hmm… my last entry was a bit off; this day saw our last breakfast at Jurin (5082¥). After breakfast, we packed up, checked out of the hotel, and met the Sunshine Tour rep out front. We were whisked away to the train station; we already had our train tickets, but the rep escorted us to the check-in station. While we were arriving in Kyoto via shinkansen, our luggage had to be checked in and would arrive at the hotel via a bus.

Americans seem to have a reputation for being obnoxious tourists; Jm and I were doing our best to disprove this notion. Unfortunately, the people ahead of us in line were doing everything to ensure the reputation continued to be perpetuated. They were so disgusted with the level of service, and everything was a problem. All they needed to do was actually listen to the instructions being given by the staff; they were speaking English quite well and quite clear. I have no issue with complaining when service is actually poor; however, there is no excuse for being rude simply because you are an over privileged idiot.

Once our bags were checked, I picked up some white chocolate Kit Kat (120¥) for the train ride. Our train was the Nozomi service, the fastest line reaching top speeds of 250MPH. Again, the train is incredibly quiet with only the scenery blurring outside your window as an indicator of just how fast you are going. A food cart would occasionally pass up the aisle, but my Kit Kat tided me over until we reached Kyoto around noon. Another Sunshine rep met us at the Kyoto station and loaded us into a taxi with another couple.

It did not take too long to arrive at the Kyoto Royal Hotel; while checking in, the lady at the front desk explained to us why we had trouble booking a room for this week in Kyoto. It was Aoi Matsuri week! The city was crowded with people there to celebrate one of the major festivals in Kyoto. A large parade would be starting at the Imperial Palace and winding its way around the town. Curses… we were already signed up for a day tour to Nara and other points around Kyoto. Next time maybe…

There were no set plans for the remainder of the day, so we decided to explore a bit and try to find a tea shop called Ippodo. It was on the way to the Imperial Palace gardens, but we somehow missed it walking to the gardens. The Palace is surrounded by a large park, and we took our time wandering the paths. Preparations for the parade were underway with seating and platforms being setup along the parade route. We wandered around the city near the palace and picked up some drinks to cool off (330¥).

One thing we noticed was the change in how the city paced itself; Tokyo was a bustling metropolis with its sidewalks jammed with people walking to their destination. Kyoto was more laid back and subdued; there were plenty of people milling about, but it felt less crowded. Another change was the amount of people bicycling around; our tour books mentioned that bikes were the preferred method of transportation in Kyoto. They were not joking, not one bit. Next time, I think we will rent bikes for at least one day.

Walking back to the hotel, we managed to find Ippodo; we had managed to walk right by it on the way to the Palace. The shop was extremely busy; between the kids on their school trips and the people in for the festival, the employees were scrambling around taking order after order. Soon after we came in, we were handed an English brochure that explained the various teas available and the prices. However, we were having a bit of difficulty getting an employee’s attention after that.

An older lady came to our rescue; after she received her order, she must have told an employee to help us next. She waved us up to the counter and waved the employee over to help us. We thanked her as best as we could; while Japan is noted for its exceptional service, having a native actually take the time to help us out was really touching. She had no reason other than kindness to go out of her way to assist us; I hope she took away a good impression of us as we did from her.

We ordered a small canister of matcha and a bag of sencha (2000¥). While waiting for to be rung up, a school boy, probably 13 or 14, turned to us and asked us in English if we liked green tea. We said “yes”, and he started to say “me too” in Japanese but quickly caught himself and said it in English. He asked where we were from, and we asked him if he was from Kyoto. “No”, he replied. “I’m from Shizuoka”. He beamed as he said this either proud of his city or the fact that he was holding an actual conversation in English. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

We arrived back at the hotel and started to look up a place for dinner. The phone rang, and it took a bit of stumbling between English and Japanese to understand that our bags had finally arrived. We decided to try a restaurant called Fujino-Ya located in the famous Pontochō-dōri. This really is little more than an alley; two people can barely stand shoulder to shoulder while walking along it. Managed to find the restaurant by a combination of counting off the side streets we passed and recognizing the kanji/kana for fu-ji-no-ya.

We were seated out on the balcony overlooking the river; by seated I mean we squatted cross-legged on a tatami mat. A nice breeze was blowing, and we enjoyed the atmosphere as much as the food. An appetizer was brought out but damned if I have a clue what it was. It was a greyish ball of something; Jm did not like it at all, but I found it at least edible. We ordered an eel and tempura set that was quite delicious (8600¥). The only issue I had was with the seating arrangement; after all the walking of the past days, my right leg did not want to be folded up in any manner and decided to register its complaint via swelling in my knee.

Did my best to adjust the leg during dinner to keep the swelling down but was very happy when we could get up and walk around. The fluid drained quickly from the knee once I could get it moving. Spent the rest of the evening walking around the river area a bit; spotted our first geisha entertaining some guests on a restaurant balcony. Finally headed back to the hotel where we had to pass the bakery counter next to the elevators. Mmm… tasty looking cakes… Yes, we could not resist a bit of dessert and took a bit of cake (574¥) up to the room.

Watched a bit of TV before falling asleep; that was another big change from Tokyo. Late night Tokyo TV revolved around news, anime, movies, and the occasional drama. Flipping the dial in Kyoto showed nothing but bizarre quiz and variety shows. Most of the quiz shows revolved around trivia or brain teasers, their own unique take on shows like Jeopardy!. It was also my first introduction to the phenomenon known as Hard Gay. Jm and I were laughing as HG worked to promote a Ramen shop. It was an interesting and amusing way to cap off our introduction to Kyoto.

Outer wall of Imperial Palace Entrance gate closed off for festival prep Beginning of parade route Some grinning tourist River parallel to Pontochō-dōri; balconies similar to the one where we had our meal.