Rob Harris and the Tokaido Trail group continued their tour back in November from the hot springs of Hakone to the old capital of Kyoto where they were to stay the next 3 nights. There is so much to do in this city and so much that they did do on this tour. If you want to know a bit more about what does happen on tour, have a read of the Tokaido Trailing Diaries from Rob Harris….by the way always worth looking at the links….
Day’s 6 & 7 – Kyoto
Feeling very much refreshed, we packed up our stuff and said a fond farewell to the ryokan staff. I was pretty sad to leave, as I’d felt very much at home in Hakone, with its laid-back atmosphere, warm welcome and stunning mountainous scenery. In this land of contrasts, Hakone had given us all yet another different aspect of this fascinating country. One thing remained constant though, as everyone we encountered on our travels appeared unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful. And if you were able to use even the most basic of Japanese phrases, and do so in a polite, respectful way, they responded with a big smile and even greater displays of gratitude. Something tells me I’ll be back there at some point in the future.
Another bus took us back down the twisty mountain road to Odawara station to catch the 10.12am train – and not just any old train, this time it was going to be the long-awaited Shinkansen, the famous “Bullet Train”. Even queuing up on the platform is done in an orderly, polite, well-mannered Japanese fashion. You find the number on the floor matching the carriage your seats will be in, take your place between the painted lines, and then wait for the exact minute – and I mean, the EXACT minute!! – the train arrives, and then lo and behold, the door to your carriage comes to a halt precisely opposite the markings on the floor, almost to the inch. Considering some of these trains can be 16 carriages long and travel anything up to 190mph, that’s pretty impressive accuracy.
On board, the feeling is more akin to an airliner than a train carriage – smooth, quiet and very efficient. There was little sensation of the speeds we were travelling at, so I used a GPS speedometer app I’d downloaded on my smartphone, clocking an indicated 166mph as a peak speed. I don’t know how accurate that was, but it was the second fastest I’d ever travelled on land. The smooth ride gave us the chance to catch up on making notes of the trip so far, grab a quick catnap, or just stare idly out of the windows at the scenery flashing past – unfortunately we were again denied a clear glimpse of the elusive Mount Fuji due to cloud cover.
Arriving in Kyoto Station with its dramatic main hall, we dumped our bags off in the storage lockers, and then caught a local train down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The bright sunshine reflected strongly off the luridly orange torii, another of those iconic Japanese images that I found fascinating. After doing the obligatory purification ritual, and also following the necessary procedure to make a quick prayer to the Gods at the Shrine, we took a shortened tour through the avenues of torii gates – the full hike up the hillside can take 2-3 hours.
I ticked another item off my “Things to do whilst in Japan” list at lunchtime, with a visit to a proper sushi bar, the kind with the conveyor belt of various dishes passing by in front of you, and the chefs preparing the food before your very eyes. I’m not the greatest lover of fish or seafood, but in the spirit of at least trying every new experience I could whilst in Japan, I tucked in – and I have to admit, it was pretty darned good!
After collecting our bags from the lockers, we had the first taxi of our time in Japan for the short trip to our hotel. I’ve mentioned before about how polite the locals are – Japanese taxis are so polite, they even open and close their own doors for you!! Quickly dumping off our bags and collecting the luggage which had been forwarded on from Kamakura, we had time for a short pit-stop, before another taxi-ride to the Minamiza kabuki theatre to meet Mie, our guide for the Geiko district tour. For me, this was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Mie was a brilliant host – witty, knowledgeable, with a well-practised patter, she brought the district to life and gave us a fantastic insight in to a world which is still largely secretive and unknown, even to the Japanese themselves. The Geiko themselves, along with their Maiko trainees, are very elusive and private people, keeping their customers and business on an extremely exclusive basis. Mie told us how hordes of paparazzi lurk outside the larger teahouses, hoping for a glimpse of a Geiko or Maiko, and how once spotted, they tend to walk very quickly out of sight – if we were fortunate, we might catch a glimpse ourselves too.
We were fortunate indeed that night, as within minutes of starting the tour, we saw our first Maiko, followed by another three or four as the tour progressed through Gion district. Even Mie was taken aback at this, and said it had been an exceptional night. I claimed it was good luck brought on by my bright red fleece jacket!! (white and red are considered “lucky” colours in Japan) Saying farewell to Mie, we had our traditional multi-course kaiseki Japanese dinner, with each small dish comprising only the freshest, locally-sourced, seasonal foods and each complimenting the other.
It was then time to hit the town and sample some of the late-night attractions the bright lights of Kyoto had to offer. For the second time on tour, I hit the sack at about 3am – the next day was likely to prove challenging!!
Today was to be a day of temples and pounding the pavements. First up was the Yasaka Shrine, before heading to the Kodai-ji Temple with its tranquil Zen gardens, huge bamboo grove and striking architecture – yet another archetypal image of Japan. Walking further on, through the timeless streets lined with restaurants and shops of all kinds, accepting the free samples of green tea and pickled plums as we went, we headed up towards the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We were left to our own devices today and were confident that we’d learnt enough about Japan to get around by now.
After sipping some of the holy water (the “kiyo mizu” of the temple’s name), we walked back towards central Kyoto in the search of some much-needed food! At this point, I have to apologise to all my fellow tour members, and make the admission that I took the easy option and headed to McDonalds once more. Making our way back to the hotel, we met up with Claire and then took a further walk up to Nijo-jo Castle. This was definitely worth the extra pain in my feet, as the castle and its surrounding gardens are simply stunning. It was amazing value too, being just 600 yen to enter – we reckoned a similar experience in the UK would have been three times the cost.
A lot of people who I’d told I was coming to Japan had expected it to be expensive, but in my experience, it wasn’t really the case. OK, the beers in the evening weren’t exactly student bar prices, but the things which really mattered, the transport and the visitor sights, were all very reasonably priced. You could also grab a pretty decent meal for no more money than it would be at home too, plus you had the reassurance it was in all likelihood a whole lot fresher and better prepared!
Tonight’s dinner was yet another new experience, with Alain taking us out to experience a hot pot meal. Dipping the thinly sliced pork and vegetables in to the hot bowls of citrus-based ponzu sauce was reminiscent of the shabu shabu we’d had on the second night in Tokyo, and very tasty – once all the pork and vegetables had been eaten, we mixed a little green curry paste in to the remaining sauce, and drank it as a fabulously spicy soup.
Walking back through the neon-lit streets of downtown Kyoto after dinner, it all felt very easy-going and relaxed, until we came across a Pachinko parlour. We ducked our heads in for a quick look, and were astonished at the noise! How on earth do the regulars there tolerate the din without going deaf? We’d had enough after about two minutes, and that was more than long enough to experience one more of those uniquely Japanese things I’d had on my list.
You are probaly wondering as to why there are only two nights from Kyoto here. There is another day, which is considered a ‘free day’ when travellers can choose to wither stay in the city or utilise the Rail Pass and head out to one of the many places which are easily reached via the sleek and speedy Shinkansen…but we will save that for another post. Thanks for sharing this Rob!
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