06/28/2019 - 07/01/2019
Once we decided to center ourselves in Beijing for the trip we had to decide if we would spend the whole six weeks in China or if we would spend part of the trip in another country. We'd had great experiences in Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei on our prior China visits and there were still a lot of east Asian countries we hadn't visited. The problem was I wasn't comfortable going to most of them because we were still fresh off Spenser's frightening asthma attack in Mississippi. Eventually we decided it had been long enough since our visit to Tokyo that we could use a Japan refresher so we settled on Kyoto. I was confused when I researched the flights from Beijing to Kyoto because they all required a plane change in Tokyo, hundreds of miles to the east. Soon I realized that the major international airport in the area is not in Kyoto, but Osaka. Even though Osaka is Japan's second largest city (if counting Tokyo and Yokohama as one), I'd heard very little about it as a travel destination and assumed it was a relatively colorless large city. Once I started reading about Osaka I realized there was so much of interest there that we would probably want to spend more time in Osaka than Kyoto. However, it made more sense to do the Osaka visit last so that we wouldn't have to get all the way back to the airport from Kyoto the day we left.
The flight from Beijing was only three hours but the ease of that leg was deceiving. The Kansai airport was a madhouse and we had to find our way to the Japan Rail office to get the discounted tourist tickets for the train to Kyoto. Once there, we waited almost an hour on line to buy the tickets for a discount that wasn't worth the trouble. We didn't have assigned seats and the car we boarded was completely packed. Fortunately enough people got off at early stops that we were able to get the kids into seats but I had to stand for the entire hour and a half. By the time we arrived in Kyoto it was after nine and we were in dire need of sustenance. There was nothing but noodle vending machines in the station but we found an underground mall just outside and we were able to get in to one of the restaurants just before they stopped seating for the night. One of the many great things about Japan is that the staple foods you can find anywhere are really, really satisfying. We ate udon, ramen, and sashimi ravenously and emerged from underground with renewed energy. We were going to need it since the bus we had been instructed to take didn't seem to be taking us in the right direction. All I had was the GPS on my iPhone since we hadn't purchased a SIM card for Japan. Our Osaka host would be providing us with a portable wifi and we had figured we could get through three days in Kyoto without our own internet access. The bus driver shook his head when I asked about our stop and we clambered out to the street at the next opportunity. It was close to midnight and we had no clue where we were. We found a taxi fairly quickly and the driver appeared to be in his mid-eighties, although he could easily have been older. We showed him the taxi instructions our host had provided us and he looked at it blankly. At this point we capitulated and began using our AT&T international wireless service so that we were able to get directions on Google Maps. At first we tried handing the phone to the driver to put on his dashboard, but he made it clear he had no idea how to use the navigation. Instead we held onto the phone and I quickly looked up the Japanese words for left, right, and straight ahead. Somehow we got close enough for Mei Ling to recognize the street from the Airbnb photos and we tumbled out of the cab. Twenty bucks for the fare and ten for activating our cell phone service meant that we hadn't exactly saved money by skimping on the Japanese SIM card.
Our Airbnb was a machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse whose interior was classically styled with sliding paper doors, tatami floors, and exposed wooden beams. Even though I'm below average height even by Japanese standards, I still had to duck through the doorways and wedge myself into the toilet and shower rooms. The biggest surprise was the bathtub which was a round well sunk about three feet into the floor. I don't think most elderly people or anyone with a significant physical disability could have negotiated it. I have to admit it was fun tossing all three kids into it and pretending that I was making soup.
The other draw of our Airbnb was that it was centrally located, just across the Kamo River from the main downtown attractions. The river originates in the mountains north of Kyoto and courses south through the eastern part of the city before merging with the larger Katsura River. Kyoto historically had trouble with flooding from its rivers but with improved drainage and concrete reinforcements the Kamo seems to have been welcomed to the urban landscape. People stroll the promenade on the western bank which is also lined with restaurants that feature balconies for outdoor dining. The entrances to the restaurants are on Pontocho Alley, a pedestrian street that runs parallel to the river.
Japan doesn't have the culture of buying fresh food at community markets that is shared among most other East Asian countries. Typically these types of markets in Japan are mainly geared at tourists, but they are still a good way to experience the variety of Japanese cuisine in a lively setting. Nishiki Market is the only street market for food that I was able to find in Kyoto. The market takes place every day on a long covered arcade whose narrowness ensures it is consistently crowded. The market features snack stalls, small restaurants, grocery stores, pickles and dried foods, and some boutiques selling traditional art and tableware. Most of the customers were clearly tourists and prices were generally high but not exorbitant.
We were able to feed ourselves pretty well, first with rice bowls in a restaurant and then with fresh seafood prepared a la carte at the market. It's hard to resist live oysters and sea urchins that are being opened right in front of you.
On the way back to the bridge we took a quick walk up and down Pontocho Alley to scout out possible dinner locations. It was a little early for most of the establishments to be open but the vibe seemed very promising. Pretty much every building appeared to be a restaurant.
Kyoto is much smaller than its neighbor Osaka but much better known to Western tourists. One of the reasons for that is areas like Gion, a neighborhood just to the south of our Airbnb on the eastern side of the Kamo. Gion is the most historically preserved neighborhood of Kyoto, full of machiyas and traditional teahouses where customers are still entertained by geishas. There are many women wandering Gion in geisha-type costumes but the vast majority are tourists who have rented them for the day to spice up their photos.
Gion is also the site of several important shrines including Yasui Konpira-gu where people crawl through a narrow hole in a creepy-looking rock completely engulfed in white prayer strips. The sight of people emerging from the hole seemed like it might have been the inspiration for more than one J-horror movie.
Just to the east of Gion is the Higashiyama area which contains a small network of pedestrian streets that are a hive of tourist activity during the day. Of course the scene was very commercial which rendered the traditional architecture of the buildings irrelevant. It was a great example of what I call Epcot Syndrome, in which an authentic location over-commercializes itself to such an extent that it becomes indistinguishable from the Disney World pavilion for its country. The best known streets are Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, both of which include long staircases lined with shops.
One of the more enjoyable parts of our walk was when we took a side street seeking a shortcut. The street eventually ended in a dead end, which explained why the tourist crowds completely vaporized as soon as we turned off the main pedestrian artery. It turned out to be a great opportunity to experience an authentic Japanese neighborhood in complete peace and quiet just a hundred meters from the artificial madness.
The morning flow of tourist traffic in Gion leads to Kiyomizu-dera. Visiting shrines is the main way that tourists in Kyoto keep themselves busy and prove the completeness of their experience on social media. Our preference is for markets and neighborhood walks but it's hard to visit Kyoto and forgo shrines entirely. The shrine sits atop a hill that requires the ascension of several flights of stairs. At the top are views of the city to the west and a forested mountainous area to the east. Kyoto reminded me a little of Seoul in that there are some impressively wild and uninhabited areas within the densely populated urban expanse. There was quite a lot to see outside the formal entrance to the shrine so we decided not to join the hordes of tourists lining up to pay the admission fee.
We still had some time before dinner so we took the bus north to the Philosopher's Path close to the eastern edge of Kyoto. I was expecting to find this well-known walking trail quite crowded on a pleasant Saturday afternoon but as it turned out we saw hardly anyone at all. The path follows the course of a shallow canal that is fed by mountain springs in the area, and derives its name from the philosopher Nishida Kitaro who used it to reach Kyoto University from his home in the early twentieth century. The path is lined with cherry trees but I was glad we weren't there during sakura season so that we could have the walk to ourselves. Despite the absence of foot traffic in that moment, a bank of colorful and elaborate vending machines testified that the path had the potential to be overrun with thirsty visitors.
Once we had completed the scenic portion of the path we continued our walk into residential areas alongside the canal. We hoped to come across a restaurant but the neighborhood seemed to be devoid of commercial activity. We didn't mind the opportunity to see some immaculate and uniquely Japanese houses in a completely untouristed corner of Kyoto.
Soon we abandoned the idea of stumbling upon a restaurant area and I employed the Restaurants Nearby function of TripAdvisor, which has often proven invaluable in our travels. This time was no exception as it guided us towards the major avenue in the area where we found several restaurants. We chose Okariba and were greeted by an elderly man with a serene demeanor who directed us to a booth containing a wooden table with a central robata grill. The stools were short sections of logs with cushions on top. He quietly whisked away a sign on the table that marked it as reserved. We didn't try to speak any English and neither did he, but he produced an English menu with pictures of intriguing dishes such as grasshoppers, horse sashimi, and grilled boar. Crisp and refreshing beer arrived in large frosted mugs and was a welcome companion as we worked our way through most of the items on the menu. The proprietor was never far away, beaming at our kids. A few other groups showed up at the door while we were seated and he turned them all away. I had a distinct feeling that we probably would have encountered that same fate if we hadn't had the kids with us. I think he sensed that we really needed his restaurant at the moment we walked in, and we returned his generosity by eating as quietly and courteously as we could. Looking back on our stay in Kyoto it's clear to me that this evening was the highlight of our visit. A warm welcome and delicious food after a peaceful walk in a beautiful place, and best of all we had discovered the real Kyoto without another tourist in sight.
The next morning we had to brave a downpour in our plastic ponchos. Fortunately our first destination was the Daimaru department store food court so we made a quick detour upstairs and bought the kids some real raincoats. According to the forecast it was going to rain frequently for the rest of our stay in Japan so it seemed like a smart investment.
Japanese department store basement food courts, or depachika, are the stuff of legend and have influenced food culture all over East Asia. I still have vivid memories of my first experience with them in Tokyo thirty-five years ago. The enormous selection of sashimi and cooked foods at Daimaru was overwhelming. It was like eating at a restaurant with a menu the size of a phone book, with all the time in the world to browse the selections and choose whatever made our stomachs growl the loudest. It's certainly not cheap eats, but still less expensive than eating equivalent food at a restaurant. We put together an enormous meal of roast cod, conventional and exotic sashimi, and seafood salads and consumed it in a basement coffee shop.
Based on my research from travel guides and blogs, most Western tourists in Kyoto spend their visit traipsing from shrine to temple to shrine with an emphasis on the ones with the most impressive visuals. I knew I wanted to visit Ryoan-ji because I had memories of being there with my parents as a teenager, and that made its neighbor Kinkaku-ji an obvious choice as well. I knew exactly what to expect if we went to see the famous torii gates at Fushimi Inari Temple or the Sagano bamboo forest in Arashiyama: crowds of tourists jostling each other for the perfect Instagram photo. We decided to keep the impression we had of those places from the flawless pictures on the internet rather than spoil the illusion.
Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji are just outside the northwestern edge of the urbanized Kyoto area, in the foothills of the Kitayama mountain range. Kyoto is surrounded on all sides except the south by mountains which create a sharp delineation between urbanized and wilderness areas. A very detailed and interesting description of Kyoto's topography can be read here. Kinkaku-ji can be accessed from downtown by an easy bus ride. Now that we had paid for internet access and were using Google Maps, getting around Kyoto by bus had become quite easy. The only downside was the frequent fearful looks our hyperactive kids elicited from middle aged Japanese women as they hopped from seat to seat.
Kinkaku-ji is probably Kyoto's number one tourist attraction because the pavilion's upper floors are covered in gold leaf. Cover pretty much anything in gold leaf and people will come to see it. Try it with your house! In terms of the history or cultural significance of the temple, I doubt one in twenty of the visitors had a clue and we were no different. I only learned later that the golden pavilion is a modern reconstruction of the 14th century structure that was burned to the ground by a schizophrenic novice monk in 1950. The temple was crowded but not obnoxiously so and it was possible to get a few pictures without being photobombed. It's unquestionably a splendid building in an attractive setting, but we didn't linger very long.
Most people take the bus between Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji rather than walking twenty minutes, but we were too impatient to wait. Three buses passed us as we walked between the two temples, but we got to take a close look at the exterior of the Insho Domoto Museum of Fine Arts which was a very intriguing structure in its own right.
The Zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji is one of the emblematic images of Kyoto. We arrived in the late afternoon not long before the 5 PM closing time and were rewarded with a relatively empty temple. The symbolism of the rock garden has been lost over the centuries, if there was ever any at all. Lover of greenery and landscaping that I am, I prefer the less photographed moss garden at the rear of the temple. It wasn't the first time that I've retraced the footsteps I took as a child traveling with my parents, but it was one of my clearer memories and elicited some contemplation about the passage of time. I was sharing an experience with my own beautiful wife and children that my parents had originally given to me, and I could imagine the pride they would have felt if they were still alive.
I had researched a couple of fun and unique food experiences for our last evening in Kyoto. At Alpha foods & drink, close to Nijō Castle, we bought a Cloud Coffee and a potted plant chocolate dessert. The cotton candy cloud suspended over the steaming coffee will eventually melt and "rain" into the coffee, but our kids didn't have enough patience for that. They were also highly amused by the diapered terrier that roamed the cafe.
Menbaka Fire Ramen is unquestionably a tourist trap that no Kyoto resident would want to be caught dead in. In fact, the first thing the staff asks when you enter the restaurant is which country you come from. The truth is I'm not averse to touristy stuff if I think it's fun, I just won't go somewhere only because it's considered obligatory. Also, I couldn't wait to see the kids' faces when the flames shot up in front of them. Fortunately the restaurant is well-prepared for the selfie aspect of the experience. As soon as we sat down they cautioned us that it was not safe to take our own video as the flaming oil was poured, but they placed my phone in one of the many holders that was attached to the kitchen equipment in the ceiling. The video came out much better than any I could have managed on my own, and the kids' jubilant expressions were very gratifying. The ramen itself was perfectly good, although I'm not enough of a ramen enthusiast to say if it was in any way distinguished from any non-flaming ramen we might have encountered in another restaurant.
Menbaka had been fun but we weren't about to let a bowl of ramen be the coda of our eating experience in Kyoto. We returned to Pontocho Alley and picked the most promising izakaya we could find. We tried almost every grilled skewer they had on their menu, from sweetbreads to Camembert, before returning home for our last night in the machiya. We had accomplished all of our goals in our two days in Kyoto and we were excited to begin our much longer visit to Osaka.