Sunday, May 21, 2017

Three Nights in Kyoto

May 21, 2017
Kyoto, Japan

A pair of would-be geishas posed for us outside the Gion Starbucks
For some reason, Japan never seemed to appear at the top of our list of places to travel. While not sure exactly why, when I think back it was probably subconsciously a few things. The high price tag, our pre-conception of the serious nature of the Japanese people, the overwhelming nature of an obligatory visit to Tokyo (if you’re going to travel all that way), the nagging feeling of inevitably committing various social gaffes in this unspoken-rule-oriented society, and the idea of more exotic destinations in the far east (if you’re going to travel all that way). 

Having the chance to opportunistically visit due to the logistics surrounding our Shanghai trip, we started to get excited about Japan. The food, the beautiful aesthetics of Japanese culture, the intriguing nature of the people, and after a few months in Southeast Asia, the order and cleanliness even started to sound exotic.  And if we only had a few days to spend, Kyoto seemed like the perfect place to introduce ourselves to Japan.

Osaka was a wonderful first stop, where we learned that nights out were going to be fun. We arrived in Kyoto by train the following morning, and immediately made the 15-minute walk over to our first night’s accommodations to drop our bags.  Prior to our departure, we had spent a LOT of time deciding where to stay.  We only had three nights in Kyoto and really wanted to try out a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.  Ryokans are sort of like B&Bs, typically older (sometimes ancient) Japanese homes, often hosted by a family, with traditional futon mattresses laid out on tatami mats on the floor. Dinner is usually served, in addition to breakfast, and likely to be authentically Japanese. En-suite bathrooms are uncommon, and there are usually shared baths where guests have a hot bath after dinner before retiring (not all guests at the same time).  That’s what we know about ryokans – I’m sure there are many more details that distinguish them from a Motel 6.

From what we could see, the ryokans of Kyoto tended toward inexpensive, bare-bones places without a lot in the way of charm, or alternatively, extremely atmospheric-but-pricey places. As usual, we were looking for the upper-middle-class option: plenty of traditional Japanese mojo without a $700+ per night price tag. We ended up on the upper side of upper-middle-class, at Izuyasu. Very charming, run by the same family for 170 years, and reputed to have one of the best kaiseki (traditional Japanese haute cuisine) dinners in Kyoto, prepared by their 7th generation chef.

The tranquil common area of the Izuyasu ryokan
Due to the expense, and the mystery surrounding the comfort of ryokans, we decided to book just our first night at Izuyasu, then move to a less interesting but more affordable location.  We chose Sakura Urushitei for the remainder of our stay.

Exterior view of the Sakura Urushitei. Seemingly typical of Kyoto's ryokans, our first night's lodging was similarly unassuming in appearance from the outside.
Located just a short walk away from our first night's lodging, this establishment also calls itself a ryokan, but is more what you’d expect of any fairly pleasant Asian inn.

Our room at the Sakura Urushitei. Perfectly comfortable but nothing too special.

As it was nearing lunchtime by the time we had dropped off our bags, our next priority was food.  We made our way back to Kyoto Station for some ramen up on the 10th floor of the train station, where there is a collection of quick service ramen restaurants. Apparently we weren’t doing all that well placing our order in the ATM-like ordering terminal, as an (extremely friendly) employee decided we needed help.  The ramen was tasty, but overwhelming in size and flavor.

Scott contemplates his overwhelming bowl of ramen
We didn’t even come close to finishing our giant bowls of noodles and didn’t think we’d be able to eat again in Kyoto after that.

With our fancy kaiseki dinner coming up, we had to work off that ramen to make sure we had sufficient appetites for the 9-course meal awaiting us. So we took a long stroll across the river and through the historic/entertainment district of Gion, ending up at the beautiful Chion-in temple complex just as it was closing for the day. By the time we got back to the ryokan, we had just enough time to freshen up and relax for a few moments before heading downstairs to the dining area – a counter behind which the chef prepared our food, course-by-course.

The chef presents our sushi course
Our room was big enough to allow for us to have dinner in the room, which is common at ryokans.  But we prefer the conviviality that other diners provide, and feel less self-conscious than being served all by ourselves.

We dined with two other couples – a young Chinese-Canadian couple from Toronto, and a couple from Sydney, Australia. The Asian couple had worn their yukatas (traditional Japanese robes) and sandals that are provided by the ryokan, so when we showed up in regular western clothes we felt a little out of place, and disappointed that we missed out on an opportunity to wear robes to dinner. The Australian couple showed up after us, also wearing regular, street clothes, which ended up making the Canadians feel self-conscious in the end – though they looked adorable.  The six of us made a good group, and had fun and interesting conversation throughout the meal.  Every course of the dinner was excellent, with standouts being the smoked mackerel and pickled salad assortment.

The smoked mackerel was excellent!
Contentedly full, we wobbled back to our room and slipped into our ryokan-supplied PJs to make our way to one of the baths. After the obligatory showering/scrubbing, we slipped into the piping-hot, pre-filled tub for a soak. 

Caroline models our bath pajamas (at least we think that's what they were for! LOL), before our post-dinner soak in the tub (located to her right but nearly invisible in the photo, as it was made of black tiles).
Nothing like a 9-course meal followed by a hot bath to make for a sound night’s sleep – even on a futon on the floor.

On the two days that followed, we visited some of the “important” sites, such as the vermillion gates of Fushimi Inari-Taisha, the Chion-in temple complex and surrounds, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, the gold-plated (and painfully touristed) temple of Kinkaku-ji, the Nishiki market, and the Imperial Palace Park (all the while, making up silly names for all the places we visited because we couldn't remember the Japanese place names to save our lives).  But as usual, our favorite memories are of the less-than-blockbuster sites, and the endless walks around the attractive streets of the city. 

Our personal tops list:

  • Strolling up and down the quaint alleys along the canal south of Shijo Dori Station
  • Visiting the Zen temple gardens at Tenryu-ji in western Kyoto, near Arashiyama Bamboo Park
  • The quiet, untouristed Jojakko-ji Temple, also in western Kyoto near Arashiyama Bamboo Park, that we happened to stroll by
  • Beers and bar food at Gion Yuki Izikaya
  • Sampling all of the functionality of the high-tech toilets
  • Walking up and down the smaller streets of Gion
  • Going to the Coffee Club in southeast Kyoto, per our friend Vik’s recommendation, to enjoy lunch and coffee served by the ancient but fastidious proprietor
  • Trying out all of the various combinations of robes(yukata)/ pajamas/slippers in our rooms
  • With Coffee Club a bit far away, enjoying sampling cans of Boss brand coffee from the ubiquitous Boss vending machines
  • Having a whiskey and chatting with the bartenders as the only customers in a tiny bar in the Pontocho district while waiting for our table at a nearby Yakitori restaurant
Overall, we had a great time in Japan, and talked non-stop about how we had to come back to see more on a dedicated trip.  Look out Tokyo, here we come!

More Photos:
Waiting in orderly fashion to board the train to Kyoto
At the Kyoto Train Station
At the Kyoto Train Station
Streets of Kyoto
Streets of Kyoto
Preparing tea for two at the dining table in our room at the Izuyasu
Our room at the Izuyasu
Tea time!
One of the numerous courses of our elegant kaiseki meal at the Izuyasu.  Don't ask me what any of this stuff actually is.  At least we were told not to eat the small green branches. LOL
Trying on the yukatas provided for us in our room at the Izuyasu
Although the vermillion gates were lovely, the crowds at Fushimi Inari-Taisha were a bit of a turn-off for us peace-seeking types.
A hard-won moment of solitude at Fushimi Inari-Taisha
More crowds (theme) in Kyoto's charming Pontocho District
A solitary lantern in the Pontocho District
Watching as our coffee is painstakingly prepared by the elderly proprietor at Coffee Club
Coffee Club
The tranquil gardens at Tenryu-ji
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Jojakko-ji temple
Jojakko-ji temple views
Apparently we've had too much leisure time lately; we found an errant broom at Jojakko-ji temple and decided it would be fun to do a little sweeping.

Getting our Boss Coffee fix!
Gion Yuki Izakaya
Gion Yuki Izakaya
Fried cheese on a stick at Gion Yuki Izakaya
A seafood stall a Nishiki Market
Kinkaku-ji Tample - you can hardly tell we are fighting with thousands of tourists to take a photo!
Sushi at Anji, an appropriate last meal in Japan before making our way back to the Kyoto airport for our flight to Chiang Mai

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