Kyoto always seems to be the highlight of any Japan itinerary I’ve seen. In light of the city’s popularity, we planned a full week there. Kyoto is famous for it’s gardens, traditions, shrines and temples, and most of the major attractions around the city that warranted a high place on the Japan itinerary had to do with all of the shrines and temples. There are over 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shines in and around Kyoto. What we did not anticipate: By the time we reached Kyoto after Tokyo, Kanazawa and Takayama, we both suffered from an acute case of Religious Structure Fatigue, or (RSF). At that point, neither one of us cared too much about seeing another shrine or temple. They were all gorgeous and interesting, truly, but after seeing 50 or so big giant awesome shrines and temples, they all rather blend together. Erg.
In retrospect, we would have spent a couple days less in Kyoto. That being said, the culture in Kyoto was really great; arty, sophisticated and quirky all at once. The shopping arcades were filled with interesting items and foodstuffs, not to mention anime and manga related paranerphelia to keep Duke busy for days. The stationery stores were every writer or book nerd’s dream. The boutiques were filled with clothes that could be described as art. I will definitely go back when I have a bigger clothing budget. The food in Kyoto, like everywhere in Japan, was great. We had some awesome experiences, but all in all we would have been better off spending four or five days instead of seven, and adding days in Hiroshima or Osaka.
We did all of the typical stuff that tourists do in Kyoto; saw the mountainous, many red gated Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, and the Geisha and Samurai districts. We walked in the cold rain along the Philosopher’s Path, stopping frequently for hot green tea or coffee.
We took a day trip to Nara, which was about 45 minutes away by train, and notable because it was established as the first “permanent” capital of Japan in 710. This “permanent” status lasted for 75 years, at which point the new “permanently permanent” capital was moved to Kyoto. Today the capital is Tokyo.
Nara is also notable for its ubiquitous cheeky deer, the object of many tourist kids’ affections, including Duke, who spent many a yen feeding them. Indeed, the entire downtown was practically a petting zoo.
We were physically wiped out the day we visited Nara, probably from walking around for miles over the few days before. We spent the day shuffling through the busy parks until we were able to find the preferred, less traveled hiking routes which led us up into the hills and away from the tourists into a spot labeled “Primeval Folest” on the map. (That is not a typo.) We walked uphill for about an hour, saw no way out, and so turned around and came back down the way we came, which ended up feeling so much like a different trail that we thought we took an impossible wrong turn. We chalked this up to being tired and maybe dehydrated. Suffice to say we made it back safely to the tourist street, where we promptly procured an order of hot octopus balls, which are chunks of octopus wrapped in doughy soy flour, grilled, and then drizzled with sweet soy sauce. Yum.
The best day in Kyoto was the day we took a train to the western side of town, to the mountainous foothills and the bamboo forests of Arashiyama. This was truly gorgeous and more than a little bit surreal. There were mystical-feeling graveyards, bamboo and pine forest views, alternate-consciousness inducing smells and sounds, and the temperature was a balmy breezy 72 or so. We ate red bean buns, a mutant sized, certainly genetically modified orange filled with orange gelato, tempura, a little bit of sushi and lots of green tea. There was a scenic river and a hike up to see baboons on a low mountain-top with a great view over the city.
Other explorations in Kyoto included the Nishiki market, the Imperial Palace grounds, the International Manga Museum, and we found a super fun and animated restaurant that we liked so much we went back two additional times. Sashimi and happy hour priced Asahi ruled the days. There were also endless back streets of boutiques, coffee shops and galleries, where getting lost for hours is a great way to spend a day.
As we spent much of our trip staying in Japanese lodging, we spent several nights sleeping Japanese style, on tatami mats. It actually wasn’t that bad. The pillows are not like western pillows, they are small, rather hard and seem to be filled with buckwheat husks or something similar. I actually have come to prefer these pillows, as they are designed to hold your head at precisely the right height, allowing your spine to rest in a totally neutral position while you sleep.
If you see my Facebook posts, you might know that I have a bit of love for Japanese toilets. Bidet, schmidet. These wonders of ergonomic plumbery have heated seats, a choice of sound effects and deodorizing options, and complicated ergonomic and strategically-aimed warm water jets. These are far preferred to a Lazyboy (or any other chair for that matter) for reading. I don’t know why Americans are not buying up Japanese toilets, especially with the increasing rate of irritable bowel syndrome. If you have to spend a bunch of time on a toilet, make it an awesome toilet, I say! Japanese toilets will be ready to warm all of our loved ones’ posteriors at the Hall-Hollander dream house, whenever/wherever it is constructed.