Kyoto, Kinki, Japan
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
We flew into Japan via Osaka’s Kansai International Airport on a steamy summer’s night. As we had traveled all day we decided to check into the airport hotel so we could rest before heading out to Kyoto the next day. The hotel is minutes away from the passenger terminal and we collect our luggage and clear customs in record time. The efficiency of Japanese service is impressive and in no time at all, we are wheeling our luggage trolley straight out of the airport and into our hotel.
The Nikko Kansai Hotel is lovely, the rooms are quite spacious for Japanese standards and very comfortable. Flopping down onto the firm but the comfortable bed we log into the hotel’s free wi-fi to let all family know we have arrived safely and promptly set off for dinner. It is late for Sofia who has managed the 10-hour flight like a champ and we need to get her fed and into bed.
The next day we check out leisurely at noon and head for the train station which is located right in front of the hotel to board the Haruka Express for Kyoto. The convenience of this kind of travel is a dream when you are traveling with a young active toddler. We line up in order of carriage numbers having made seat reservations and watch as our train glides into the station. It disgorges its stream of passengers and out of nowhere a team of cleaners appear and quickly give the carriages a quick clean. The seats are rotated to face the opposite direction to suit the new route, its old technology but of so practical. At exactly 12:16 pm on the dot, our train quietly speeds off for Kyoto which takes a little over an hour. Getting out of Kyoto’s train station I pause to marvel at how enormous the building is. It is apparently the second largest building in Japan incorporating a shopping mall, hotel, movie theatre, Isetan department store and several local government facilities under its 15 story roof. It is an imposing structure and its escalators seem to go on upwards for miles.
We are here as Peter has a conference for the first three days so we check into the Kyoto Brighton Hotel in central Kyoto itself. Sofia and I amuse ourselves for the first few days taking strolls around the neighbourhood looking for good ramen noodle houses, exploring the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace and its expansive gardens – we are delighted to discover playgrounds tucked into certain corners of the grounds and is shared with a menagerie of children, joggers, and dog walkers. As the weather is oppressively hot this time of the year we spend a couple of our afternoons in the hallowed departmental stores of Daimaru and Takashimaya.
I love Japan, it is one of the most child-friendly countries I’ve ever visited. As soon as you enter either of these malls there are strollers (and wheelchairs) at every entry point so I strap Sofia in as we cruise each level with glee. My childhood goes through a second revival as we discover the San Rio stationary section and my inner 12-year-old indulges in its re-acquaintance of Hello Kitty, My Little Twin Stars, and My Melody products and enthusiastically introduced them to Sofia. While she seems less interested, I assure myself that she will come to enjoy the basketfuls of stationary I’m buying ‘her’ in due time.
Everyone I know who has been to Japan tells me about the famous food markets at the basement level of each departmental store so we make our way down by the elevators which are serviced by lovely young women announcing your arrival at each level and wishing you a good day as you get off. As the doors of the elevator slide open we are greeted with an ocean of people, it is lunchtime and the basement is literally packed cheek by jowl with polite orderly people. But it is the selection of foods that amaze me – there are entire sections of food – boulangerie’s with their sweet and savoury breads, pretty bento boxes packed with all sorts of things – rice, meats, pickled vegetables, potato salads; tempura of vegetables and seafood; skewers of tasty chicken yakitori, plates of crispy chicken kara-age; boxes of yakisoba noodles; trays of lightly fried gyoza on hot pans and succulent steamed pork dumplings; cakes and desserts of all kinds – both Western and Japanese varieties.
Eating in Japan is such a pleasure, we eat where the locals do and the quality of it is just so good. Japanese food is simple, their tastes are subtle and clean, and it is their presentation of it which is just so aesthetically pleasing. You eat with your eyes first which I appreciate. We go out for sushi and feast on the exquisite pieces of fresh raw fish and seafood. We sit at the bar as the sushi chef entertains us and his other patrons with a show as he serves up your orders. His knife skills are evident in how the pieces of nigiri are served and how they taste. The pieces of salmon and tuna melt right in your mouth and I swooned at the mouthfuls of sea urchin which taste of the ocean, and the big pearls of fish row as their yielded their salty nectar with each bite.
Sofia has also been a dream to feed, she loves rice, udon and ramen noodles, gyozas, crispy chicken and the lovely Japanese bakery foods so she has been eating extremely well. As soon as we enter any restaurant, high chairs are presented immediately as are child-sized sets of bowls, plates, and cutlery. Children are catered to very well and Sofia makes friends with every waiter/waitress/hotel staff/taxi driver that we come across. As soon as she catches their eye she babbles earnestly in deep conversation, waves enthusiastically goodbye when we leave and has even started bowing in return which is just so amusing to watch! Everyone is so delighted of course which makes her even happier that her audience always requests encores. Japanese people love children and it is evident in how they interact with them.
We get caught up in one of the worst typhoons to hit Japan but luckily as Kyoto sits in a valley we are relatively unscathed except for a few heavy days of rain. On the worst day of the typhoon, friends from Osaka come up to meet us for lunch, it has been almost a decade since I’ve seen Mari who I met in Brisbane and it was heartwarming to meet her husband Yukio and her gorgeous daughter Lisa.
After Peter’s conference is over we meet up with Nikki and her friend Cara who have flown over from China and we move over to Neneko house in Southern Higashiyama. It is an old style Japanese style house with sliding screen doors covered in rice paper and we sleep on tatami mats and futon beds on the floor. It is a very small, compact but comfortable house which sits right next to the Kyoto Handicraft centre. We haven’t seen Nikki since January when she left to work and travel in China so the reunion was a particularly happy one for us. We have really missed her and Sofia remembers her right away with a gasp and giggle as Nikki walks through the door.
Over the next few days, we take in the sights of Kyoto as we explored both Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) and Kinkaku-ji temples (Golden Pavilion). While the Silver Pavilion didn’t particularly excite us, we did find the Golden Pavilion much more interesting. Kinkaku-ji is a three-story Zen Buddhist temple set in the grounds of the Rokuon-ji temple complex. The top two stories of the pavilion are covered with pure gold leaf and the garden complex is an excellent example of the Muromachi period which was considered to be the classical age of Japanese garden design. It sought to integrate structures within the landscape in an artistic way, and a minimalist approach was introduced into the garden design by recreating larger landscapes in a smaller scale around the structure. The Japanese are masters when it comes to creating such balance and harmony. The Zen garden is seen through the rock composition, the bridges, and plants are arranged in a specific way to represent famous places in Chinese and Japanese literature. While the temple is smaller than I anticipated the strolling gardens that it sits in is worth the visit. Just be prepared to fight the hordes of tourists going through it which takes away a little from the quiet and peaceful surroundings.
But it was the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kiyomizu-dera temple that whets our appetite. It has a main hall with a large veranda which is supported by tall pillars at its base. The verandah juts out over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city. In its construction, not a single nail was used and the main hall and verandah were constructed in such a way during the Edo period to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims. It is swelteringly hot on the day we are there – 34 degrees and the temple is inundated with a steady stream of visitors or pilgrims who are there for Obon which is a custom here in Japan to honour the spirits of one’s ancestor’s. People are queuing up in droves to buy the talismans, incense and paper fortunes which are especially popular during Obon to honour their ancestor’s. I browse these stalls with great interest, there are so many talismans you can buy – those to bring you good health, luck, more children, and fortune, of course, being the usual ones. But it is the ones which are supposed to bring you luck when you are driving that interests me the most – surely these would be more pertinent in places which have more relaxed driving standards and regulations rather than orderly Japan?
Our list of must do for Japan lead us to other places like Arashiyama, the famed bamboo forest where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed. To be fair, it was more of a grove than forest but we did enjoy the trek up to some of the shrines tucked away in the mountainside. We wished we had done a bit more research as we discovered a boat ride up the river which looked very picturesque and would’ve been a nice way to see more of Arashiyama itself.
Sofia has been traveling relatively well with us this whole time in pretty hot and sultry weather strapped into our second-hand kid carrier, the Deuter Kid Comfort II. It has been the perfect mode of transport for her as all the attractions we have been to involve hiking up multiple sets of stairs. It even has a sunshade to keep her head covered from the sun and rain and a little pillow where she can rest her chin in case she falls asleep (which she does often on our treks).
High up on our list of the things we enjoyed most was the day trip to Nara to see the giant Buddha housed in the magnificent Todaiji temple. The temple is the largest single wooden structure in the world and contains the largest statue of Buddha. The scale of the Todaiji temple was simply breathtaking and was really worth the visit. Upon entering the temple, despite the hundreds of people milling in and out, one could not fail to feel the stress of the world melt away as you looked up at the benevolent smiling face of Buddha.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is actually made up of eight different temples, shrines and ruins which surround a deer park where you can mingle freely with wild deer. According to local folklore, deer in this area were considered sacred due to a visit from one of the four Gods of the Kasuga Shrine who appeared riding a white deer. From that point, deer were considered divine and sacred. After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their status and were instead designated as national treasures and are today still protected as such. Sofia was ecstatic to wake up and discover she was surrounded by deer, she almost bounced out of her kid carrier in excitement, gesticulating madly as each walked around her. She says so many words now and was equally delighted to be able to say deer. There were lots of tourists buying deer crackers to feed the deer and there were many a person who found themselves surrounded and would start shrieking as a hungry pack descended on them.
There is so much to see that one could easily spend a whole day walking from one temple to the other but we are not blessed with enough time and traveling with Sofia also means that we travel at a slower pace.
On our last day, we headed out to the Fushimi Inari shrine which sits at the base of a mountainside and its thousands of orange torii gates which lead up to the mountain in a very scenic and meandering 2-3 hour trek. This shrine is said to be the most popular shrine in Kyoto and it isn’t hard to see why its gates form a continuous tunnel and is a photographers dream as the rays of sun piercing through sends a beautiful diffused light through the tunnel making it glow. And the green mossy mountainside we are climbing through is cool and verdant, we are surprised as we come to a lake midway where a host of little restaurants are set up to offer drinks and food to the hungry and thirsty stream of tourists eager to catch their breath on the steamy hot day. We are thankful to take our shoes off for a few minutes, and snack on bowls of shaved ice drenched in strawberry syrup – Sofia is in heaven. There are even fans on offer so you can cool yourself down as you rest your feet. It was a brilliant way to end our stay in Kyoto.
All the temples and shrines we’ve visited allow for visitors/worshippers to write their prayers or wishes onto plaques which are burned or if written on strips of paper tied to poles or wires. Then they line up to ring the gongs or bells or burn incense at the shrine. There are hundreds who partake in the tradition, I had thought of doing the same but instead, I say a quiet prayer of hope for some things I’m working on this year.
There is still so much more to see such as Gion after dark when the lamps are lit up but Sofia’s bedtime doesn’t allow for late nights out. We did have an early dinner in Gion on one of our nights and we were lucky to spot a couple of Geisha or Maiko on their way to what we imagine would be one of the tea houses. We have dinner at a restaurant facing a river and there are two beautifully dressed ladies in kimonos next to us who Sofia takes great interest in. They giggle at her throughout which intrigues her even more. There more people in the traditional dress than I thought and it was wonderful to see. The modern style kimonos are less elaborate but are still beautiful nonetheless.
Kyoto has really gotten under my skin in such a short period, I feel so comfortable here, I could actually picture myself living here. I have to make a mention of how well dressed Japanese women are, they remind me of French women in how elegant and understated they are but they are meticulous in their presentation. Most of them are also very slim or look like they spend a decent amount of time in the gym and hairdressers every week. Even the men put me to shame, they put so much more effort into styling their hair than I do. I’ve found Kyoto to be such an enchanting city and I will be sad to leave but I promise to return here again one day soon.