[Author’s Note: We vacationed in Japan from late May into the first week of June 2018. This was my second trip and my wife’s third.]
It had been 13 years since we last visited Japan and we were eager to return. Our trip in 2005 was nothing short of enchanting, experiencing a culture so new, so alluring, we don’t know why we hadn’t planned our return until now. Everything in its time, I suppose.
We arrived at Osaka Airport midmorning and quickly found ourselves unprepared not for the lack of English or readable signage, but for the volume of people we encountered. Having lived in Hawaii for six years now, you get used to a general lack of people being around. (Granted, we were a bit unnerved having almost forgotten a carry-on when we left the plane. Luckily, we were able to get back on the aircraft after everyone had deplaned without too much trouble. Thank you, Japan Airlines!) The lack of English was the ancillary problem; though I’d been studying Japanese for two months, everything went out the window the second I was actually in country. If we hadn’t been concentrating on getting where we were going so much, I would’ve been mad at myself. It is true that most Japanese can speak English and will ‘strike first’ if they suspect you are American, but I didn’t want to be that tourist. I was anyway, at least for now.
We took a bus from Osaka airport to Kyoto where we’d be staying a week before going to Tokyo for a few days. As we rode through Osaka, I couldn’t help but observe the many, MANY golf driving ranges dotting the metropolis. These people really like golf, I thought a least a dozen times. But my mind was more on Kyoto, which I loved far more than Tokyo our first go ‘round. Once we arrived in Kyoto proper, I was a little bit shocked to see the number of tourists; we certainly don’t remember so many of them last time though I understand Kyoto has risen as the ‘traditional’ Japan tourists desire, as opposed to cosmopolitan Tokyo. Off the bus, it was a perfectly pleasant day and found our AirBnB ten minutes away from the city’s famous train station with little trouble. Not a bad place and at least larger than the hostels we stayed in our first trip. Our little getaway also came with usage of the owner’s pocket wifi so we always had use of our smartphones, something we found to be absolutely indispensable. If you go to Japan and don’t speak/read Japanese, you’ll need pocket wi-fi.
After settling in, we were determined to have a good dinner since we had problems with food back in 2005. So, naturally, we wound up at an Indian food restaurant a half hour’s walk north of our abode. And this is one of my favorite things about Japan: You can walk around a strange city and feel safe while taking in things like small, simple shrines people place in front of their homes. Good thing, too, as we’d marked off more restaurants on Google Maps then we’d ever actually get to. (We might’ve gotten to more eateries if not for the fact that Kyoto Beer Lab was literally right around the corner from where we stayed, and that’s where we ended almost every day of our week.) While tiresome on the feet, just walking around Kyoto was a delight as it wasn’t unusual to see citizens vacuuming the sidewalk or using a broom to sweep canals. Interesting, while many Japanese building will be dirty or in disrepair, Kyoto’s people keep their streets and streams clean. Really clean. (Well, for the most part. Generally the more touristy an area the grubbier it gets, by Japanese standards anyway. More on this later.)
With six more days to go in Kyoto, we had to get out and about, doing our exactly-as-planned ‘temple and garden’ tour with a few new twists.
Day two – Ginkakuji/Silver Pavilion, Ryoanji shrine, Ninna-ji Temple, Arishiyama. The Silver Pavilion was small and crowded though we arrived before the gates opened. While we waited, we had our first of many doses of green tea ice cream cones whose first taste in years was like a shot of heaven straight to the brain. Then we congregated to enter the Pavilion, holding back, waiting for the hordes of school children to do their thing. (More on this later.) Ryoanji featured a small rock garden so bland it might as well have been pointless. Comparatively, Ninna-ji was a huge complex whose walkways were pretty neat and suspiciously light on people. Then we travelled clear across town to Arishiyama in a bid to find the mysterious Monkey Park we’d seen on Youtube. Arishiyama is a very touristy town but the climb uphill to the monkey park kept a good measure of people away. Once arrived, we found monkey’s roaming freely but not very camera friendly. Actually, they seemed to harass each other a lot, perfectly in line with their descendants. Fortunately the air was clear so you could catch a good glimpse of Kyoto below. Unfortunately, the town’s acclaimed bamboo forest walk later on was nothing to talk about; I’d seen better bamboo in Portand, in my backyard where I used to live. Day one’s dinner was a stop at a yakatori restaurant whose portions were so small I think they only used a quarter of the chicken. For a little more food, snacks really, we hit Kyoto Beer Lab again where one of the unpretentious co-owners turned out to be Aussie. Cool guy.
Day three – Kinkakuji/Golden Pavilion. My. God. The masses waiting to get into this place. How many people are there in this country? I thought they were all just passing through Kyoto Station. Do any of these people work? Do the school children ever go to school? The Golden Pavilion would be an amazing place without the people, but since there’s never not people there, it really is a shame. Then we walked across the city, to Indian food again, then Kyoto Beer Lab. We don’t actually drink as much as my recap suggests, except we do when we’re on vacation.
Day four – Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto’s foothills. The viewing deck of main hall that overlooks the city of Kyoto was closed for construction so I wasn’t willing to waste money going in. My wife did and while I waited, I figured I’d get some shots of the city from up here best I could. However, I was thwarted to this end as the best place to view the city from the temple steps was locked down by a European guy proposing to his girlfriend. She said yes and I said dammit as they embraced for what seems like the rest of their lives. I waited and they finally cleared out but before I could get to the viewing spot, it was annexed by two young Chinese ladies way too into themselves. Eventually I gave up as by the time my wife returned too many people had shown up. I don’t remember what we did after that but I’m sure green tea ice cream was involved. Oh yeah, we went up a super scary cable car to some trails in the foothills in another part of town where we somehow found ourselves in a French garden. What the heck, indeed, but then again this wouldn’t be Japan without random stuff like this around. And I don’t remember where, but my wife got a hold of a bell and rang it much to the dismay of some monks. Once we ran away and got back down into Kyoto proper, we had a terrible time trying to figure out the ticket machine which – with some help – found out you have to put your money in first before it’ll work. Then we ate dinner at Gojo Paradise restaurant, a place in Kyoto that seems to double as a hostel for Europeans. The food was surprisingly good, unsurprisingly small as is the case most places you’ll eat in Japan. This is how the Japanese stay thin, what with these portions also being expensive. EOD? KBL.
Day five – Phoenix Temple in Uji and Todaiji Temple in Nara. Uji is an under-rated town and I don’t say that because I successfully spoke Japanese here. The shops in this green tea haven are top-notch and I had the BEST green tea ice cream here as it was topped with matcha powder. That was followed by the best green tea gyoza ever, followed by the best green tea soba noodles ever. I mean, this little town fried my nervous system! Oh yeah, the Phoenix Temple was cool, too, an underrated attraction judging by the reduced crowds here. (Keep in mind we get everywhere early in an attempt to beat the rush.) From there we travelled to Nara to the Todaiji Temple that houses the largest indoor bronze Buddha statue. Todaiji is quite impressive despite the undulating masses that pass through its massive South Gate. But for me, Nara is always remembered as the place where the deer attacked me. Deer, regarded as messengers of the gods, roam the streets freely in Nara. If you want to feed them, you can purchase crackers from any number of vendors. But, my god, once the deer see you with the crackers, you’d better run. They will _ you up. Strangely enough, after fleeing the deer we ran into a German Octoberfest in the middle of town, so of course we had to have a few beers. (It was hot and we knew Kyoto Beer lab was closed today.) Somehow we made it back out of Nara with my nethers intact, but not before considering going into an owl café before deciding that was just too sad to elicit that business.
Day six – We got up early to hit my favorite place in all of Japan, Fushimi-Inari Shrine, trail of the thousand tori gates. In the quite of morning, this place is magical and words cannot convey what I feel when I am here. Near the top, which is nothing special really – you just come back down – there was a man playing Japanese flute and it sounded so beautiful. On our way out of the area, my wife began her hunt for authentic Japanese ceramic blue bowls. Meanwhile, I had more green tea ice cream. This would pretty much be it today as we were quite tired from running around the previous few days.
Day seven – Breakfast at a quaint little coffee shop in Kyoto called Murmur. French Toast with a dollop of vanilla ice cream with dripped-to-perfection coffee = heaven. Then onto the bullet train to Tokyo! where loud, obnoxious Indian tourists have no respect for local culture. At least the view of Mt. Fuji from the train was nice. We arrived in Shinjuku Station to even more mobs of people than we’d seen in Kyoto! We are they putting all these people? How is this many people even possible? Walking through Shinjuku Station is like being a human pinball. Somehow we made it to the Hyatt Regency which was decent enough, I suppose, though the staff is the standout there. After settling in, we navigated back through the train station to the touristy side of Shinjuku which reminded me why I hate Tokyo – it’s downright filthy while trying too hard to be chic. On a more positive note, Shinjuku does have Godzilla popping over a building and a Godzilla store. I did score some Godzilla underwear of all things but stopped short of buying the mask. Talk about regrets.
Day eight – Big day; first down to Kamakura south of Tokyo. We arrived in town and hit a bakery so we’d have something to nosh on as we trekked across town to a bamboo forest. At the temple near the train station, we sat down to eat some of our food when we see a hawk circling overhead. We’re sitting under a tree and don’t think anything of it. Then – I kid you not – my wife is handing a pretzel in a bag back to me when something slaps my ear, I hear a crunch, and next thing I see is the hawk flying away with our food! Up, up, and away. “Did that hawk just steal our food?” I blinked. I’ve been around four decades and nothing like this has ever happened to me; I was floored! Good thing it didn’t take anyone’s fingers off with its talons, if we’re being positive. (Even though we had been here before, we just now learned about Kamakura’s thieving hawks.) Flabbergasted, we walked almost two miles across this German-influenced town to a bamboo forest that hosts a tea house serving the best matcha green tea I’ve ever had (I’m saying that a lot, aren’t I?) thus turning the morning around. We made our way to the Great Buddha after that which – surprise! – was mobbed with tourists and school children. Don’t these kids go to school, ever?! We must have been here before Japan blew up as a tourist destination because you couldn’t just sit and enjoy the statue’s stature. I have to admit, this was my second favorite place I wanted to go and was sorely disappointed. Dejected, we left the temple but found a kebob place nearby, a hole in the wall really, that served the best kabobs…ever. And by an authentic Turkish man who was super polite. On our way back to Shinjuku, we aimed for an area of Tokyo known as Odaiba, a fledgling Disneyland of sorts. We found it to be a surprisingly large area, making the time we had left before the attractions closed scarce. We were able to see the Museum of Emerging Technology and caught a glimpse of the famous robot Asimov in action. While the giant Gundam was cool, too, the Statue of Liberty here felt out of place and we just didn’t have time for the ferris wheel. Just as well because it started to mother-of-god pour. Figures, too, as it was the one day we left our hotel without an umbrella, not that you’re ever very far from an umbrella in Japan; they’re weird that way…
Day nine – We didn’t get up much in the morning; just a jaunt over to Harajuku in the morning where the local kids weren’t in their usually Cosplay getups, presumably because it was too early. We did go to one of Tokyo’s popular cat cafes which proved to be nerve-wracking – the cats seemed pretty stressed out, probably because the employees give you a strict laundry list of rules to follow. Somehow I felt stressed for the buggers. The coffee? Predictably terrible so we went to another café, some vegan place that is quite the novelty in Japan. You see, the Japanese really love to eat meat (and rice). You’d think given their general size they’d eat more veggies but veggies are actually scarce in restaurants in Japan. Why, I do not know. Without Harajuku popping we headed back to our hotel for some pool time before getting ready for the big concert – Ludovico Einaudi – the whole reason my wife planned this trip. While the symphony hall itself was beautiful and the acoustics marvelous, Einaudi’s piano music just doesn’t translate into the arena rock type of show he tried to pull off. I hate to say it, but the guy’s music is better heard than seen. We finished the night spending entirely too much for small portions at the hotel’s restaurant while seated next to a table of very jubilant teenagers having a birthday party. Sigh.
Day ten – The trip home. We stocked up on food in Shinjuku station seeing how our twenty hour trip home would take a train, a bullet train, another train, a shuttle tram, a plane, another plane, and a shuttle ride home. Our cats may have been happy to see us when we arrived, until they sensed we’d been somewhere and cheated on them. Within two minutes they no longer cared. We longed to back in Japan already.
Some General Things I Noticed in Japan
1-They love steep stairs. Or very short, wide stairs. Or a strange combination of the two. They like stairs. Keeps ‘em fit.
2-Not as polite as I recall. Shop owners are, but the public in general, not so much. Given the influx and behavior of some tourists, I can’t say I blame them.
3-They like %$#&@ hot water. I’d forgotten but the blisters reminded me.
4-They love Cosplay, just not in the morning.
5-Their infrastructure can be interesting; they’ll build sidewalks upon sidewalks that have crumbled instead of repairing the whole thing. This reminded me of being in the army where we would just paint over anything sufficiently dirty.
6-They don’t mind capitalism inside their shrines.
7-Kyoto’s citizens dress very conservatively compared to Tokyo’s residents. Kyoto is the more modest of the two by far.
8-Indian tourists are the rudest tourists in Japan, that or we were just lucky.
9-Maybe my most fun experience in Kyoto was in Gion when I was interviewed by a schoolgirl wanting to practice English. None of the school kids claimed to know where Hawaii was, which lines up with Japan’s dark, secret underbelly. But I humored her when she asked what I like about Japan; let’s see, shrines, anime, and Godzilla. This gave her a good laugh. My wife was interviewed, too, and their teacher gave us gifts. Super cool Japanese!
All Rights Reserved (c) August 2018 John J Vinacci