Almost everyone we spoke to before arriving in Japan told us we should visit Kyoto. It is known for its traditional Japanese buildings, its overwhelming number of shrines and temples, and its beautiful gardens. It is at the top of every Japan Tour list and so we decided it was a “must see” for us. We are so glad we made a visit.
We arrived in Kyoto yesterday evening after taking the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Yokohama. It was turning dark, raining and not really the right time for sight-seeing, so we did what we do best–explored the restaurant and bar scene! Everyone who has ever been a poor college kid (or who was raised in a house with my mom) has had their fair share of Ramen noodles–you know, the hard brick of noodles with the flavor packet. You may have had the Cup-o-Noodles variety. I’m sure you are familiar. Don’t get me wrong, they are great and perfect for cheap eating. But that little 49 cent pack of Ramen barely comes close to resembling the real thing. We tasted our first real Ramen at Ippudo which sits nestled within the tightly packed streets of the Nishiki Market district. We spied the food in front of the people next to us, pointed to their dishes and the picture of dumplings on the menu, and our order was complete. While we waited we watched our neighbors eat Ramen with chopsticks and a spoon so we would know the etiquette. Slurping is totally allowed and putting your lips up to the side of the bowl is expected. Thank goodness! When our huge bowls of steaming hot Ramen arrived, we had broth flying everywhere! The flavor combinations were really amazing with fresh scallion and some delicious peppery oil drizzled on top. However, the real highlight of the meal were the Gyoza, Chinese style dumplings. These were like little bites of heaven–easily the best dumplings I’ve ever had.
After our delicious dinner, we made our way to some bars. Our first stop had us trying our hand at darts fairly unsuccessfully. We left there defeated and once again found a tiny little alley and wandered down it to see what was happening. It was so cool–door after door were bars with people lined up on stools taking turns singing karaoke. Well, we couldn’t resist! We are in Japan after all. We went into one that was essentially empty and took it over by singing everything from Bon Jovi to the Backstreet Boys. It was so tiny that when we sat on the stools our backs were up against the sliding doors. It was essentially a hallway. The bartender brought us this crazy looking plate with fish and noodles (which we didn’t ask for or want) and continued to chain smoke while we sang. We were having a blast in this cramped little space, until the bill came. We couldn’t believe how expensive our two beers were. It turns out, we think we were being charged for each song we sang. Crap! We had no idea and we tried asking, but she spoke no English at all. Oh well, that was a tough lesson learned.
This morning, we hit the ground running and went to Hagashiyama, an area in Kyoto loaded with shrines, temples and gardens. Wow, we fast-paced New Yorkers could really learn something from these Buddhists. We first went to Shoren-in, an ancient temple complex which is no longer in use. After taking our shoes off, we strolled along the tatami mats and wooden walkways of the temple buildings. In the center of this serene complex lay a beautiful garden with a koi pond. We found ourselves just sitting there, listening to the singing cicadas and rush of the water. Relaxing isn’t even the word for it…more like, peaceful. My brain felt clear and still. I can completely understand why people would come here and pray. We both agreed the equivalent to this would be amazing in New York City. Not far from Shoren-in, we walked to Chion-in. This is another huge temple complex, but it is still actively used today and is a popular place of pilgrimage for Buddhists. Unlike the other, this temple was bustling with people and activity. We could hear chanting and bells ringing and there were certain places where we could not go because there were people worshiping. The coolest part of this temple is the San-mon, the gate at the main entrance. It is the largest temple gate in Japan and let me tell you, it is huge! Pictures really don’t do it justice.
After seeing a few temples, we were in the mood for something a bit different, so we headed to Nijo-jo, a castle built in 1603 which was the official residence of the first Tokugawa shogun (essentially a military dictator). The castle and its grounds are absolutely gigantic! We were unable to take pictures (or even sketch them, not that we would have) inside the building, but we basically understood that the shogun was the most important person in the room and all activities revolved around him. For his protection, the castle is surrounded by both in outer moat and another inner moat. However, if some stealthy Ninja warrior managed to get past both moats, they would have a hard time getting past the “nightingale floors.” These are floors which “sing” each time they are stepped on so intruders are unable to come in unnoticed. (I think Phil’s mom should have had these floors installed in the house he grew up in to keep him from sneaking out while she slept.) The movement of the boards really does cause them to creak at each step–very clever, shogun. Very clever, indeed.
After traipsing around Kyoto in the crazy-hot sun, we found ourselves exhausted and ready for a rest. Luckily, a smooth and air-conditioned ride on the Shinkansen awaited us. And so, we said goodbye to Kyoto feeling much richer in our understanding of Japanese culture and history. Now we attempt to understand modern history as we head to Hiroshima. We both anticipate being disturbed by some of what we will see there, however we feel it is important to pay our respect and gain a greater understanding of this city and the events which took place here so many years ago.