Welcome to Kyoto

by mjcarney

WARNING: This is a word-y one. I hated to leave anything out, but completely understand if you just want to scroll through the photos!

On the morning of our trip to Kyoto, we headed to the train station early to activate our JR Passes. We bought 7-day, Green Car passes. The process was very simple and were given only one instruction–Do NOT lose the passes. Easy enough. We went ahead and purchased our train tickets, but we didn’t realize we ought to be particular about which side to sit on. The train ride boasted a gorgeous view of Mount Fuji on the right side of the car. (The left side of the train had some amazing views of the coast, littered with small fishing towns and rice paddies too though.) The good thing about the Green Car (which is basically the first class car) is that it is often nearly empty (and a little nicer, although the regular cars are pretty nice themselves). An older Japanese woman motioned for us to move to the other side of the car to check out the view, and what a view it was.

The train ride was over before we knew it and we piled into a cab and headed to Kiraku-an, the “machiya” we rented through Airbnb. (Machiya are traditional wooden townhouses that are found throughout all of Japan, most specifically in Kyoto.) It was my first time booking with Airbnb and it couldn’t have been a better experience. The owner, Saki, met us there and was so adorable. She gave us a tour of the townhouse and drew out all of her favorite sights on a map for us. The townhouse was perfect–every detail was well thought out. We were instructed to remove our shoes upon entry, and slip on some comfy slippers. Downstairs was the kitchen and shower and upstairs were two bedrooms with a vanity in each bedroom, and a (very advanced) toilette in a separate, connecting room. The room we stayed in had two twin sized beds and the other had traditional Japanese sleeping mats. I didn’t try out the mat, but they are supposedly very comfortable. As we were getting ready for dinner, Sam realized he’d lost his wallet. Luckily, he still had his passport, but the wallet contained his credit/debit cards, license and more than $300 in cash. He was sure he’d had it in the cab on the way to our machiya. By some odd twist of fate, Sam took a picture of me from the inside of the cab that showed the driver’s name and company. He sent it to Saki to see if she could help track his wallet down, and before we knew it, she called back to say it was waiting at the police station for us. Once we got there, the police handed it over with not a cent missing. The Japanese are SUCH amazing people. Where else would that ever happen??

It was raining the first night, so we popped open our umbrellas and took a stroll in the drizzle. Japan is nearly dreamy in the rain–we didn’t mind it one bit. We made our way to Ippudo, a chain ramen restaurant. In Japan, a chain restaurant is considered a good thing–it means it was successful/good enough to open another branch. And let me tell you–they know ramen. It was my second favorite ramen in all of Japan (I’ll get to my favorite later) and we ended up going back multiple times. So deliciously soul warming. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Except Gyoza–which they also kill. There are two branches in NY, which I will definitely hunt down the next time I’m there. SONY DSC Waiting for the bullet train with all our belongings! SONY DSC SONY DSC My tempura bento box, which looked pretty but was actually a little on the sad side.   SONY DSC Mount Fuji in all it’s glory. SONY DSC The little tree patches were pretty spectacular in person. They had an uncanny resemblance to broccoli.  Pictures of really beautiful things just never do them justice. SONY DSC The rice paddies. You will see many of these any time you hop on a train in Japan.  SONY DSC Cute schoolchildren in Kyoto Station SONY DSC The Kiraku-an Kitchen SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC    SONY DSC SONY DSC Isn’t Kyoto in the rain just dreamy? I feel like it takes you back a couple hundred years.  SONY DSC SONY DSC Sam cheering after the cops showed him his wallet.  Just a few initials and off we went, wallet in hand. SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC Ippudo serves you tea instead of water (like many Japanese restaurants). You are seated at a bar with different toppings, including my favorites, spicy bean sprouts and greens. SONY DSC Akamaru ramen from Ippudo. If in doubt, just know it comes in the red bowl. It’s Tonkotsu ramen filled with things from Heaven: delicious broth, slippery noodles, melt in your mouth pork, plenty of black garlic oil, scallions, a boiled egg and a little bit of nori… oh my gosh. This stuff is incredible. Just. Incredible. SONY DSC Partiers shouting into the night.

We spent the next day in Arashiyama (more on that in my next post), but made our way to Gion once we were back in Kyoto. Gion is the stuff Japanese dreams are made of. Or at the very least, the stuff Memoirs of a Geisha was made of (it was). The stone streets are tree lined, and wind along and over the most picturesque rivers. The Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) line the other side, and as you stroll the streets, you can see people being served dinner through the windows. We were dying to stay at Shiraume but sadly they were all booked by the time we planned our days in Kyoto. Kiraku-an was great, but from the reviews, Shiraume would’ve been beyond perfect. SONY DSC Gion is what I wish all of Kyoto looked like. It’s so beautiful and looks exactly how it looks in Memoirs of a Geisha. SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC

We made it to Yasaka Shrine just before sunfall. Immediately in the heart of Kyoto, it is open all hours of the day and we seemed to pick just the right time to go. There were few tourists and we were able to wander in quiet, exploring every path. The color was beautiful and was a delight to photograph. SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC We took a taxi to the restaurant (Yakiniku Hiro) and made it in time for our 7:30 reservation to be seated on the deck overlooking the Kamo river. The deck is part of a unique Kyoto tradition called Kamogawa, which allows customers to dine outside during the summer months. It was beautiful–the lights reflected off the water and there was a slight breeze. (Hence my slightly interesting outfit. I wanted to wear something that would cover my legs without wearing jeans and only had one choice–the black maxi. I didn’t want to show too much skin, seeing how modest the Japanese are, so I wore a scarf to cover my cleavage and piled on a sweater when the temps dropped.)

This was my favorite meal in Japan (unless you count ramen). Not only was the atmosphere perfection, but the food was to die for. I’ll start by saying that there was a huge language barrier at this restaurant. (It might have just been the waiters on duty that night, as no one has mentioned it in the reviews.) Our waiter explained the three options: “Good”, “Better”, “More Better”. We shrugged and went with the good option. The waiter turned on the hot plate on the table in between us and quickly returned with a sort of bento box and left again, without much explanation. We observed the table next to us to see what to do. The first box was eaten without cooking (Was it precooked? Was it raw? I’m not sure?). Next, we were given beef and scallion rolls, and this is when I really started to get on board. I’m not even a big beef eater, but I would have sold my left arm to keep the hot plate going that night. Luckily, I didn’t have too. Because next, the waiter placed a huge platter of Wagyu beef on our table. It had to have been nearly two pounds of meat. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. A heaven overlooking the river in Kyoto. They brought rice and miso soup and we spent the evening laughing and talking and drinking and entertaining ourselves with the grill in front of us.

SONY DSC SONY DSC We were given a little blob of fat to melt on the hot plate SONY DSC You can see how excited Sam was about his wagyu beef searing SONY DSC SONY DSC Miso heaven  SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC The next day, we woke up with bells on and headed to the place I had been so looking forward to seeing–the Toji Temple Market. It’s a huge market that only happens once a month. All different kinds of vendors set up shop on the grounds of the Toji Temple and sell their homemade and vintage goods to shoppers. SONY DSC Kiraku-an, like many other Japanese homes, is certainly built for smaller people. The ceilings are all high enough, of course, but the doors could use an inch or two.  SONY DSC SONY DSC Toji Temple Market goes rain or shine SONY DSC Diving into my taiyaki SONY DSC Okonomiyaki is about as much food as you could ever imagine for $5. I don’t think Sam got through half of it.  SONY DSC The funny woman with the kimono tent. We walked back by later and it was filled with women searches for beautiful kimono, available in every pattern under the sun.  SONY DSC SONY DSC Plenty of china was available. SONY DSC This man and his wife were selling honey. His wife was handing out samples about as fast as I could taste them. Her technique worked, as we left with a bottle of her smoothest stuff. There were little Winnie the Poohs on the border of his table clothe that Sam asked him about. He looked confused and then busted out laughing– “Oh! Pooh-san!!” And we followed in laughter as well.  SONY DSC More adorable children SONY DSC SONY DSC Japanese Calligraphy SONY DSC A Kewpie doll! I so wanted her, but I figured that one doll was enough for a 26 year old to bring back with her from holiday. Probably a good rule to live by. SONY DSC We also brought home the prettiest pottery serve ware made from a local artist, standing behind me in the photo. SONY DSC Toji Temple has the tallest Pagoda in Japan. SONY DSC Ginko Biloba trees line the streets of Kyoto. They look like trees wrapped in ivy–they are so beautiful.

We then took a leisurely stroll along the river (and watched the birds come and go) on the way to Sanjusangendo Temple. This was my favorite temple in Japan. The main building was huge–larger than a football field–and was filled with 1,001 gold Buddhas. They were positively breath taking. I would’ve loved to photograph them for you, but no cameras were allowed inside and the policy seemed quite strict. We spent much time inside, soaking up every bit so we wouldn’t forget what it was like once we were home. Words can’t really do it justice. It must’ve been field trip day in Kyoto, which only made sightseeing so much sweeter. We had several children staring and smiling at us everywhere we went that day. One group of girls ran up to us and pulled out a sheet of paper.

Excuse me, Can I ask you a few questions? (Of course!) Where are you from? (The United States.) What’s your favorite Temple? (Sanjusangendo) Ohhh!! Yes!!

They then asked us for our signatures, which were met with much excitement. We asked them a few questions and gave them our address so they could send us a postcard in the mail for their English class.

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC Take your shoes off before entering the temple! SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC I loved these girls. They were 13 and 14 years old, and looked so much younger than girls that age in the US. It must be the damn hormones in our food.

We took a quick trip out of town for the afternoon (which I can’t wait to share with you in the next aforementioned post) and were famished when we got back. We wanted something quick and delicious and found ourselves standing in front of Ippudo for a second time. We didn’t fight the urge and left fat and happy. SONY DSC Mmmmmm icy cold draft beer. It cannot be beat. SONY DSC Kanpai! SONY DSC