Blog 4: Kyoto here we come.
Let’s start with the station, it’s huge!! That said, our hotel (New Miyako) is only a few hundred meters away. After settling in (and finding the nearest family mart for supplies) going out for a meal by taxi (I’m working on the principal that every taxi has Sat Nav- not so!). We got the concierge to write the address down in kanji/katakana. It wasn’t any help as we got lost. Finally the taxi driver phoned the restaurant for directions. We were close, but 2 blocks away!! The taxi back was OK.
Next day, decided to sight see. The subway/bus stn is on the far side (North) of the main station building (Kyoto tower is a good landmark). The subway runs N-S and E-W, and for Y600 you can buy a day pass (it’s more prudent to get a bus pass, same price but larger area covered- the buses are numbered so it’s not too confusing). First stop, the international Manga museum. Spent a couple of hours here (discount at the café with your entrance ticket). Then Nijojo castle (this is well worth a visit but remember those closing times 16:30/17:00!!). Shoes off!! The ‘nightingale floors’ in the dojon made for an interesting escape from sightseeing, trying to ‘creep along without making a noise, ninja style’!! (for those of you who have seen the movie ‘Big’ with Tom Hanks, the scene was similar to where he plays the floor piano!!). Chilled back at hotel before venturing forth in search of sustenance. Teramachi-dori has a large covered shopping arcade (with most shops closing at 7pm, something to do with Sunday?) we came across an all you can eat pizza parlour (Shakeys) for Y892 (funny price!!) at the western end. We then walked on to Pontocho alley (to see the Geishas, no luck!). This is the old district (gay quarter) with a very narrow alley with lots of inns etc. There is supposed to be a ‘badger shrine’ in memory of when it nearly burnt down (although we didn’t see it).
Up early the next day for the Shinkansen to Hiroshima (2 hrs and pre-booked seats). This morning the ‘efficient’ train service was delayed by 1hr 40mins! (train broke down). It was finally brought into Kyoto, allowing all the delayed trains to ‘catch up’. After finally arriving (tourist info on the main platform) we caught a tram directly to the ‘atomic dome’. A very poignant and sombre moment reading the plaque, being in the ‘area’. That said, the city has risen from the ashes to be a modern post-war city. Walk over the river to the ‘park’ and see all the folded paper cranes from children around the world. The eternal flame monument frames the dome (go down past the flame/arch and look back towards the dome). Went for a nice meal at ‘Spicy Bar Lals’ (Nepalese restaurant) for a set meal (Y6000 for 4). Returned early to Kyoto, and ate at the stn (11th flr of Isotan dept store) at ‘Buono Roji’, where a set meal for 4 cost Y7500 including drinks (this became a favourite!!)
Day 4 saw us visit a walled garden Shosei-En (Kikokutei) garden which is a quiet oasis in the middle of a bustling city. We were advised to take bread to feed the carp. A ‘gratuity’ of Y500 to visit the gardens (you get a nice brochure). Take your time to meander through the paths skirting streams/ponds. However, our ‘quiet moment’ was soon to be disturbed. Mozzies! One moment standing by the pond throwing bread to the fish (do they feed them as they appeared quite hungry!), the next was a cross between a highland fling and a Bavarian ‘schuhplattler’ dance (hopping up and down, slapping at legs etc..). The other visitors must have thought we were outpatients from a mental institution!! The ladies at the entrance were quite concerned at Paulas’ bites (she reacts quite badly) and offered ‘Tiger Balm’ which worked wonders in relieving the itching. So, be warned and be prepared with long trousers and lots of insect repellent!
Returning to the hotel, we called in at Kyoto Tower (this is well worth a trip up in daylight, Y750, Y600 for kids). The views from up in the observation platform are excellent, with all the city displayed (the kids played spot the smoker, using the ‘free’ binoculars to spot workers having cigarette breaks on roofs etc..) and we could see where we had been to. More sightseeing, off to the Golden Pavillion and the Walled garden. Bus ‘205, stand B’ for Y220 takes you to the Rokuon-ji temple. Y400 and a nice souveneir ticket to keep! Have your picture taken using the ‘gong’. Take it slow and easy, as when we left (exit the temple grounds and turn right) we had a 20min walk to our next stop at the Ryoan-ji temple (it was a nice day). Y500 entrance, follow the signs and you walk through landscaped gardens eventually arriving at the temple. Shoes off!! It all went quiet!! If you want to contemplate/get lost in your thoughts for 30mins this is the place to go. Return to Kyoto bus terminal (bus stop directly outside the temple entrance- Y220).
Day 5 visited Nara (exit station tourist info on right). Decided to walk the 1.4km to Nara-Koen park (it was only about 20 minutes) and the Todai-ji temple. On the way stopped in at the 3 and 5 storey pagodas where we ‘met’ the deer (they are very friendly and will eat almost anything!!!). For Y150 you can buy ‘cakes’ to feed the deer. You get 8 and they last about a second each!!. So Y1500 later with the deer fed (watch out as they’ll eat anything that’s not tied down, so hanging straps etc on cameras and they’ll nip your bum etc. to gain attention). You need eyes in the back of your head (don’t wear white clothes!!) and watch out for the antlers. Carried on up through the park to the temple.Lit some candles and incense sticks. Before entering the temple itself go to the ‘Chôzuya’ (hand wash trough). Fill the ladle and rinse off both your hands, then pour some water into cupped hand, rinse mouth and spit out onto floor (not the trough!!). Try the ‘hole in the pillar’ (behind the ‘Bhudda’, which apparently is the largest in Japan), if you do then Nirvana awaits you (or the fire brigade!! If you get stuck).
Went ‘Japanese’ for our evening meal. There was no English menu available (just pictures) point and order, easy. What could go wrong? It doesn’t tell you if its hot or cold! Mikes was cold noodles and strips of beef/egg. Shared my 5 course set with him. A couple of Sapporo beers made the evening. Back to hotel to pack. Sad to be leaving.
Last day/night: back to Tokyo for our last night. It’s gone too quickly. Stayed at the Park Hotel, this time with a city view of the ‘Tokyo Tower’.
Catch taxi back to airport (it certainly has taken the stress out of lugging suitcases, negotiating stairs/escalators etc..). The airport (once airside) seemed short of shops/restaurants. We eventually find out most of these are land side, so be warned. Also, no duty free as it needs to go into the case. Disaster!!! That said, we purchased a couple of bottles on the flight home.
That’s it. Holiday over. It was one of the most memorable trips we have ever done. I would thoroughly recommend it to everyone. My thanks to Michael (Houser) for all his helps and tips he and his team have provided me. Best wishes.
Clive + family
Some hot tips (some of these are repeats of previous ones):
• Flew with BA (deal with Trailfinders, so no option on carrier). The service was OK (no reflection on the staff who were good1) on board (but all meals are standard British fare, so no Japanese drinks or food which gutted me!!). Poor legroom (I’m 6’2”), the décor was tired and the in flight entertainment kept failing (outward and return journeys). Only 1 bag can be checked so fill it up (to the 23kg limit).
• Getting to Tokyo. There is a train direct to Tokyo main stn or a bus that drops you off at the city terminal. Either will require a journey by taxi/subway to your hotel (and you are in an unfamiliar city!! Tired, irritable, moaning kids!!). Our return taxi cost £180 for 4 of us (plus bags) and it took the pain out of the journey, being dropped off directly outside the hotel.
• JR rail pass (£220 for 2 weeks), invaluable especially if you are travelling around a lot. We had a 2 week one. Used it on Yamote line which circles Tokyo. Some buses as well (Kyoto). Pre-book Shinkansen tickets where possible (it save time later on and guarantees you a seat) at least a couple of days before travel. You can either buy snacks before you board, but there is a hostess service with hot/cold drinks and snacks.
• Guide books ‘Lonely Planet-Japan’. Invaluable (not many pictures and the print is a bit on the small side), but everything you need to know with some good tips and ideas. We carried it everywhere and used it all the time (£18 well spent, from all leading bookstores).
• Ghibli museum. Buy tickets (£9) before going as only certain numbers allowed in per day (you get to chose which day).
• Taxis- can be easier/cheaper than subway if 4 travelling, but in Tokyo use the subway (but get a multi day ticket for toing and froing, as the cost soon mounts up). In Kyoto use the bus (they are all numbered and Y600 per day is recouped after 3 journeys). The subway is limited to N-S and E-W, so it’s easier to get to the temples etc by bus.
• Take a brolly (or buy one, only a few hundred yen). They are valuable for both sun (sunshade) and rain
• Clothing- mainly T-shirts/short sleeve shirts and crop pants (shorts are so naff!!). Some dressy clothes to go out in the evening but not necessary. Didn’t need coats etc as it was so warm.
• Take a tape measure with you! If you son wants a samurai sword, will it fit in the case?
• Tourist info centres (main stations and elsewhere) can provide invaluable info on what to see/do. Also provide tips on best way to travel about and maps etc..
• Take a small rucksack. Invaluable for carrying those small items, purchases, soft drinks etc..
• Mosquito repellent (not required most days but visiting parks etc best be prepared)
• Kyoto International Manga museum for the buffs is a must (they have a good English section and most other languages)
• Nara- a nice gentle stroll. Feed the deer (Y150 per 8 cakes) and watch your back to prevent ambushing!!
• Hiroshima- day trip from Tokyo/Kyoto. If only for an hour or 2. You’ve gone all that way, make a bit of effort.
• Hakone- day trip from Tokyo (40mins by train) to Odawara on JR line or private line ‘Romance car’ from Shinjuku (buy a 1 day free pass). For Y5100 this will allow use of all the bus/train/fernicular/cable cars/ferry around Hakone. Last trains/bus around 9ish so you can pack a full day in. Foot spa at Myanoshita (just down from train stn)after a long day walking is heavenly (we did it at the open air museum)
• Odaiba- island in the Tokyo bay (take the ‘driverless monorail’). Some good shopping and kills an hour or 2. You could explore and go to the fun fair/spa.
• Tsukiji fish market. If you are in Tokyo, for an hour or so (but go early enough, 5am) it’s entertainment. If you manage to find the stalls selling prepared sushi, have a go as you won’t get any fresher. The tuna auction (no flash photos but it’s well lit) is amazing.
• Shopping- Shibuya (so has Ginza) has plenty to offer. Go to Starbucks directly opposite the stn and (if you can get a window seat) watch the world go by. Apparently up to 20,000 people can be crossing the road at once (it is very busy!!). Don’t forget to get your picture next to Hachiko statue at stn entrance.
• Akihabara, Tokyo- the electronic district. It’s not any cheaper than anywhere else (Hong Kong, Singapore etc for the bargains) but take your passport for purchases over Y10000 to get the duty free. We went to Laox (7 floors) and bought virtually all our souvenirs/presents in one go (there are others). Don’t forget the rucksack!
• Ueno Zoo, Tokyo is good for the day (no Panda!, sorry it died). Exit stn, turn right and cross over road (either walk up steps to left of crossing and go through park or turn right and follow road up, and around. Can’t miss it). Buy tickets at automatic machine.
• Restaurant etiquette: you get a wet wipe to ‘wash your hands’ before the meal (it’s not for after).
• Make the most of the free ‘iced water’. You don’t need to buy drinks with your meals (many Japanese do the same).
• Set meals (3 or 4 courses) are good value in most restaurants. Asking for non-smoking means you will be sat apart from the smokers but it still drifts over!! Ask for the bill with index fingers crossed in an X. Beer/lager is ‘beeru’ and Coke is coca-cola (universal).
• Chopsticks or knife/fork? Usually both are provided, but you could ask for a ‘forku’ if they are proving to be a bit fiddly.
• Don’t like the food? It’s not all rice and raw fish as some people think. If you want to eat Sushi/Sashimi fine. Japan is an international country, you can get burgers, pizzas, curry etc. sausage and chips at the local mini-marts. When in Rome etc…
• Try the Japanese language. A please/thank you etc goes a long way. If that fails smile, bow and say thanks etc in your own language. If you want something point/gesticulate (don’t forget the smile!!). Practice at home before travelling.
• Finally, tipping. Not required. Most places now include a service charge. No one is expecting it (unlike the US) and it can get a bit uncomfortable if you aren’t aware of this for both the giver and receiver (cf Hard Rock episode).