söndag, maj 10, 2009

Finally - The Kyoto Story!

Tobias has given me special permission to add this post, as it isn't strictly part of our collective NZ story, but it was the end of my part of it, so here it is.

When I was booking my trip home to Sweden, I asked about the possible stopovers, thinking it would be nice to see Singapore again, as I loved it so much when I made the NZ-Europe journey the first time around. But as soon as the travel agent mentioned Tokyo and Osaka as options, I realised how much I've always wanted to see Japan. So I couldn't wait!

I was advised to go for Kyoto (near Osaka), as I only had two days in Japan, and spent weeks reading guide books and preparing. I carefully wrote myself a step-by-step itenary (which I followed almost exactly, it was excellent!) - to include gardens, shopping, food, nightingale floors and geishas - the important stuff.

And on the 22 of September I arrived at Kansai International Airport and got the bullet train to Kyoto.

These little statues were everywhere. I'm guessing they're supposed to bring good fortune or something - although what's so lucky about a demented bear is unclear.

I bravely bought a bento box at the station from the first of many kindly Japanese people with almost no English and ate everything that looked remotely edible (which was about half). ;) And then I tried to find the youth hostel K's house, based on my map from the Lonely planet which didn't actually have very many street names on it.

Eventually I conceded defeat and walked up to a taxi driver. He had doilies on the head rests and white gloves on so I was glad I did. He had less English than the lady at the station but at least I had the name of the hostel in Japanese in the guide book and after a few phone calls he drove us off triumphantly. The hostel was in fact all of half-way around the block, so my sense of direction obviously wasn't as bad as I'd feared. I can't actually remember if he even charged me. I said as many Arigatos as I could squeeze in, left my shoes at the door and checked in gratefully.

The next day I erred on the side of caution and had a Western breakfast, which was horrid, but at least looked like food usually does. And then I headed for the nightingale floors, zen garden and carp-filled moat at Nijo-jo castle.

I'm not sure how much to say about a lot of what I did other than everything was as I'd imagined it. Clean and efficient and on time, the buses for example, brilliant! And Kyoto itself was traditional and just beautiful. I had staggering expectations but wasn't disappointed by anything. It was awesome! And really hot too, the hottest place I've ever been in September, was hotter than tropical North Queensland or the Cook Islands.

Anyway, after the castle and the horrid breakfast I had to eat again, so as I walked towards the shopping district I stopped at the first noodle place I found. It had the best system ever - a vending machine with pictures and prices which you put your coins into and out came a little voucher, which you took to the counter and a few minutes later your noodles arrive. I ordered the bog standard soba noodles which you dip in soy sauce and little bits of seaweed.

The thing about the pictures is that they don't convey details such as at what temperature your meal will be served. So the noodles were cold, of course. But I was brave and ate them all and felt much better for it.

Next stop Nishiki food market. I didn't have a clue what most of the things were, but they looked cool. A giant peach! And othe giant food, just like in the video game Katamari! And the Y100 shop was great. My currency conversion was as follows: divide by 2 and lop off a zero, and you get the price in Swedish crowns. This meant that most things were pretty cheap. I'm not sure how accurate this was.

I was hungry again and luckily the Teramachi covered arcade had an awesome little burger place with Japanese-inspired burgers called Mos burger. I had the rice bun with seafood burger and fantastic hot chocolate. I had decided that not eating fish for my two days in Japan would be slightly ridiculous. Sorry fish.

Found great presents (mostly for me) at the Takashimaya and OPA department stores. The Hello Kitty department was particularly memorable, not least for all the screaming children it contained. I thought Hello Kitty was for little girls over the age of 20?

For myself I bought lacquer teaspoons and chopsticks, scarves, pencils, origami paper, tea tins and postcards. So I didn't exactly go berserk, but it is nice to have a few things.

My ryokan (Japanese inn) was in Gion, the historical/Geisha district, and on the way there I saw a few, although you never know if they are real ones or just people dressing up. But even just knowing that they might be is pretty neat. There are some beautiful buildings and streets around there and more great shops.

I had to ask for the locals' help again, after wandering around what I was sure was the right area for some time. A small group of girls and I had been waving our hands and smiling at each other for some time when a woman walked past, explained that she worked at the ryokan and that we were standing right in front of it. Helpfully for accommodation mostly catering for tourists, the sign was in Japanese only.

Anyway, I checked in, booked my dinner and bath times and headed out for an evening stroll. Most beautiful.

Ryokan Motonago was the best place I am ever likely to stay. My 13-course kaiseki haute cuisine meal was served in my room, and the lady serving me brought it a few dishes at a time, explaining each one in reasonable English. Here is the full menu - although some of it is guess-work on my part (with asterisks to indicate which courses were brought in together and the ryokan's descriptions first):

1. First appetizer: Boiled fig and deep-fried prawn.

2. Main appetizer: Mixed vegetables, olives on toothpicks, sea urchin, chestnut coated with deep-fried noodles.

3. Fresh slices of raw fish: Tuna and flatfish sashimi

Plum liqeuer.


4. Boiled and seasoned food: a single mange-tout pea, some white vegetable, fish and something I couldn't identify

5. One pot dish: Egg (served whole and raw for you to beat and poach) soup with salmon, onion, mushroom and leek


6. Broiled fish: Served with daikon, mushroom and Japanese lemon

7. Warm dish: Warm, deep-fried sushi rolls (with soba noodles instead of rice, shrimp, fish and vegetables) with a warm sauce


8. Fried food: Tempura prawns, aubergine and red pepper

9. Vinegary delicacies: Pickled cuttlefish, vegetable, cucumber and flower


10. Miso soup: Served with hundreds of tiny little mushrooms in, 3-4 mm across

11. Rice

12. Pickled vegetables : Served with soy sauce


13. Dessert: Cold stewed apple with sweetened whipped cream.

Almost everything was delicious, except the warm sushi and some of the pickled stuff. Nice small servings too.

And then I got into my dressing-gown/kimono thing for my Japanese bath - crouched down to rinse myself off with a little shower just like you're supposed to, then hopped in. Bliss. Meanwhile, the nice lady moved away the table in my room and spread out the futon. All this for only Y20 000 per night!

Note the awesome toilet slippers (as well as the awesome toilet). They're big on hygiene, the Japanese.

The next day I had my Japanese breakfast in a similar fashion - the fish and pickled vegetables somehow slightly less appealing at that time of day. Luckily the receptionist?/manager? insisted on photographing me as I left the ryokan, otherwise there would have been no photos of me in Japan at all!

Then I boarded the bus for the western suburb of Arashiyama. Fewer Westerners go there, but the Lonely Planet had tipped me off and I wanted to see the gardens. Suddenly hardly any signs were in English, but I managed.

The Tenyruji temple and gardens were easy, near the bus stop. The green icecream was great, no idea what flavour it was. The bamboo grove was pretty obvious. The Okochi-Sanso villa gardens were harder. But the sign in roughly the right place, with the same prices as it said in the guide book, was all I really needed. The Gio-ji temple was also tricky, but I managed to match the symbols in the book with the ones on the sign. If I ever become a nun, that's where I'll retreat to.

I have now found the last of the photos - a great one of a lady harvesting rice in one of those big round straw hats for example - so have added them at the bottom!

By this time I was getting a bit tired and by the time I'd got the bus to the other side of town the craft museum Fureaikan was closing, although I had a quick look round. So I got another bus to the station and had my dinner at one of the food courts there, taking full advantage of the wonderful plastic displays showing exactly what each menu entails, plus of course my new-found knowledge of Japanese cuisine. So I had the tempura, with soba noodles and sushi of course, and very good it was too. The station building was worth seeing too, all futuristic and with great views from the 12th floor. For a photo, see below. Also a shop window, which I assume contained medical supplies, but who knows.

And then it was back to K's house for my last night in Kyoto before I got the bullet train back to the airport. And now I can find my way around Kyoto no worries!

Anyway, it was a magic end to a pretty magic trip. This is likely to be the last post on this blog, but it was fun while it lasted! ;)

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