Japan Trip Day 5 - 2010-07-08

Pictures from today. (Sorry technical difficulties, they should be up soon.)

Today was our last day in Kyoto before heading down to Osaka. There were so many things that we wanted to see, it was tough to figure out what we wanted to do. We ended up going back to the same spot where we had breakfast the previous day, since it was a good combination of getting enough food and not paying too much. After that, we decided to make our way towards Kinkakuji Temple.

Kinkakuji Temple is one of the most popular sites to visit in Kyoto, so we didn't want to miss it. It wasn't accessible by subway, so we needed to take a bus. The bus system would have been impossible to figure out with the maps we had, but the hotel gave us instructions that were pretty easy to follow.

There were a number of buildings in the area, but the main point of focus was the giant golden pagoda beside a beautifully landscaped pond. A plaque said that each floor of the 3-story pagoda was decorated in a different style, but it wasn't open to the public. The area was very nice looking, check out the pictures (once I get them posted).

Since we were in the area, we decided to also check out Ryoanji Temple, which is known for its zen rock garden. This was a short bus trip away from Kinkakuji, so we made our way over there next.

The landscaping and paths around this area were also quite nice, with a large pond and several island. The rock garden itself was rather un-spectacular, in my opinion, but I suppose that is the point. The simple nature of it is supposed to inspire deep thought, but I preferred the nice trees and moss in the garden around the corner.

After that, we headed over to the Imperial Palace Garden, which I had been wanting to visit since it was a huge green patch on google maps, so presumably there was a nice park there. When we arrived, however, it wasn't very nice at all. There were some nice trees, but the path was about 50 feet wide and gravel, which was very unappealing. There may have been nicer pockets of the park, but it was so huge we didn't have the energy to seek them out and decided to move on instead.

Our final stop was at Nijo Castle, which we had tried to see twice before but it was closed both times. Finally, we made it, and it was quite a sight. I'm glad we kept at it!

The whole area is surrounded by a moat, and there is a palace surrounded by some gardens. There is an inner moat and another palace. The first palace was quite interesting: the floors were built to intentionally squeak to warn of intruders. There were a number of different rooms, each beautifully decorated with silk paintings on the walls and doors. The gardens in this area were also very beautiful!

With the evening approaching, we decided it was time to make our way to Osaka. This proved much easier than we anticipated: there is actually a subway/train line that leaves from right near our hotel and goes right into downtown Osaka. It only cost about $3 each, and took about 40 minutes. Amazing!

For the the rest of Day 5 and the following days at IPP, I will be writing on my puzzle blog. Head over to see the rest!

Japan Trip Day 4 - 2010-07-07

Pictures from today.

Today we decided to take the Southern Higashiyama walking tour that was described in our Lonely Planet Japan guidebook. We wanted to see Kiyomizu-dera, and it sounded like the walk went past some other interesting locations in the area.

We were considering taking a cab to the start of the walk, but decided to take the subway and then walk to the starting location instead. The walk from the subway station was pretty long, and it was a very hot day, so we were regretting this decision.

As we were walking along, we would pop into stores to get out of the heat, and in one of them Kellian found a really neat umbrella. It had a lot more spokes (or whatever they are called), than a standard umbrella, so it looked more circular and rounded. She was looking for a parasol to beat the heat, so she ended up getting it.

Finally, we arrived at Kiyomizudera, and it was quite impressive. The structures in this area were much more brightly colored than the other temples and gates. Usually they were a dark brown wood, but these were painted orange.

The area was bustling with tourists and school groups, as this is a very popular area to visit in Kyoto. As far as the temple goes, it was not as impressive as some of the other temples we saw, but the location was picturesque. It is located on the side of a mountain with lots of greenery surrounding it, which frames it nicely. Also, there was a large pagoda near the entrance gate that was pretty impressive.

After seeing Kiyomizudera, we continued along the walking tour. The next stop was a nice little place for lunch named Hisago. They were known for their chicken and egg over rice dish, which I had and was quite tasty. The vegetarian options were a bit limited for Kellian, she ended up having cold udon noodles in a dipping sauce, which apparently was quite tasty.

When her meal first arrived, she wasn't sure what to do with the sauce and was about to dump it over her noodles when a woman from the table next to us stopped her and instructed her that it was for dipping. The woman seemed quite relieved to have prevented this catastrophe!

After lunch, we walked Ishibei-koji, which is a beautiful little street in the area lined with historic inns and restaurants. It was quite narrow and winding, with beautiful buildings on each side. The exteriors of the buildings really make you wonder what could be inside.

Just then, it started to rain pretty hard. We took cover under a shop awning and tried to wait it out, but it continued for a while. Eventually we decided to grab a cab and make our way to Puzzle-in, a puzzle shop owned by IPP member, Naoyuki Iwase.

For more on our trip to Puzzle-in, check out my entry over on my puzzle blog. I'm trying to keep events that are of interest to puzzlers separate from general sightseeing.

After my visit to Puzzle-in, we headed over to Nijo castle, but unfortunately it closed at 5:00 and we were arriving at around 5:10. We were a bit tired, so we headed back to the hotel to rest.

For dinner, we were going to go to the same restaurant we went to on Day 1, but we would have had to wait for a table, so we decided to go elsewhere. There was a nice looking restaurant near the hotel that we walked by previously, so we decided to try that.

The waiter spoke some English, which was a nice surprise. Typically they spoke little or no English, so it has been a bit of a challenge, particularly if the menu has no English. We ended up getting a salad which wasn't bad, and I got a variety of things on skewers. It looked like it would be good, but the meat was really dry. Oh well! Kellian's fried tofu and vegetables in sauce were the best meal she's had here so far!

Japan Trip Day 3 - 2010-07-06

Photos from today.

Today we planned to check out a few more of the major temples around Kyoto, but first we needed to get some breakfast. We headed up the road where we walked yesterday, since there were a few little breakfast places that looked tasty. We ended up finding one that had an americanized breakfast and decided to give that a try. I'm not up for fish for breakfast quite yet.

It was pretty tasty, and almost exactly what we had at our hotel yesterday, but rather than an 'omelette' they had a fried egg. Plus, it was about 1/3 the cost, so I was pretty pleased.

As we walked around this area, we stumbled upon a stationary shop where Kellian wanted to pop in. I had forgotten my puzzle collector business cards, so we tried to ask if they were able to print some for me. This was a real challenge because the shop owner spoke zero English. Kellian managed to communicate with her through a combination of gestures and drawings, but unfortunately it was going to take 7 days for the job to be complete and we didn't have that kind of time. Oh well! The shop keeper seemed to have a fun time trying to figure out what the heck we were talking about.

Next, we decided to head over to Nijo Castle, which looked like it would be pretty cool. After walking for about 20 minutes in the sweltering heat to get there, we discovered that it was closed on Tuesdays. How randomly annoying!

Since we were really hot and tired from our walk, we decided to take the subway over to our next site, which would be Nishi-Honganji Temple and Koshoji Temple. On the way we stopped by a Kinkos to get some more business cards made. The guy at Kinkos didn't speak much English either, but he knew enough to figure out that I wanted him to photocopy my old cards in black and white onto white paper.

In this area, we also found a bookstore that had a nice looking phrasebook that we thought would come in handy.

We continued on to the temples, though the walk was fairly unpleasant. We walked along a major road which wasn't nearly as nice as the little backstreets around our hotel. Getting tired of this, we cut in along some of the side streets, but it was just a residential area, so that wasn't much fun either.

Eventually we ended up at Nishi-Honganji and Hosoji Temples. They were quite large and very cool looking, though not a whole lot different from the other temples to our untrained eyes. We sat in each one for a little bit to rest and cool off before heading on our way.

Next,  we made our way over to the Higashi-Honganji Temple, which is evidently the largest wooden structure in the world according to a sign that was posted outside. It was magnificent (check out the photos of the outside) but it wasn't orders of magnitude larger than the other temples, though it was pretty large.

After that, we headed to get some lunch. We were looking for a particular restaurant that we saw in the Lonely Planet guidebook that we had, but unfortunately once we found it, it was closed. Some Japanese folks walked up while we were figuring out what to do, and they were also surprised that it was closed. They headed into the place next door, so we followed suit.

It ended up being a nice little restaurant, it looked like it was family run with the father cooking and his daughter and wife waiting tables. We ended up sitting at the bar, which was nice since I was a bit tired of sitting on tatami mats while eating. They didn't have an english menu, so I told them in Japanese that Kellian didn't eat fish or meat with a phrase that a friend, Justin, gave me before we left.

They understood, and after conferring a bit determined that veggie tempura would be a good bet. I told them fish was fine with me. Our lunches were quite tasty. Mine consisted of a small lump of fish and some veggies in a sauce, some spongy white blocks in another type of sauce (I don't think it was tofu), rice, and  some miso. It was all pretty tasty! Kellian had the same stuff, but rather than fish she had some tempura which was also good.

After that, we headed back out into the heat to check out Shosei-en Garden, which sounded pretty cool. It was very green with water throughout the garden. After hanging out there for a while, we decided to make our way back to the hotel to rest and find some air conditioning.

After enjoying some AC and Avatar for a bit, we headed over to the Gion area to grab some dinner before checking out a traditional Japanese culture show that Kellian wanted to see. We stopped by before eating to make sure we could get tickets, and ended up staying for the earlier show rather than returning later.

I was pretty tired and hungry at this point, but the show was only 50 minutes, so we thought it woul be good to do it now rather than rushing back from dinner. The show wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. It started out with a Japanese tea ceremony, accompanied by live Koto, Japanese harp, and some folks doing Kado, Japanese flower arrangement. Any one of those by themselves would have  been a bit dull, but everything happening at once kept it more interesting.

Next, they had some Gagaku, which is Japanese court music, that was really unpleasant. It was quite shrill and dischordant. After that, there was a traditional comic play that was mildly amusing. Then there was some Kyoto Style Dance, with the dancers dressed in elegant kimonos. This was also not particularly impressive. Finally, was a puppet play (Bunraki) that was pretty cool. There was only one puppet doing some sort of monologue, and it took three people to manipulate the puppet.

After that, we headed out to find some dinner. We found a neat looking narrow side street that looked promising, but it was completely deserted, so we didn't know if the restaurants would be closed. We ran across a Geisha who bid us 'good evening' (konbanwa), as she passed and disappeared behind a closed door. Neat!

Eventually, we settled on a restaurant that looked decent (thought it was hard to tell), and went inside. We were pleasantly surprised that it turned out to be quite nice. We had learned our lesson from the prior night and ordered three dishes, since they tend to be small. We started out with some fried tofu in a sweet sauce, that was pretty good.

I ordered salted sweet fish, which ended up being a whole fish, though it was tiny. It was quite intimidating since I couldn't even figure out how to get into it: the skin was completely in tact. Eventually I just tore it open and started eating. It wasn't bad, but there wasn't a lot of meat on it. Kellian had some grilled eggplant with miso sauce that was also pretty tasty.

It was 9:30 and we were completly exhausted since we didn't take a nap, so we took a cab back to our hotel and went to bed.

Japan Trip Day 2 - 2010-07-05

Photos from this day.

On Monday, we woke up around 9:00, got ready, and headed down for breakfast. The hotel offered an american-style breakfast, so we figured we might as well give that a shot. It was a bit pricy, but wasn't bad. Their odd version of an omelette was pretty odd: it looked like it was probably made up of a single egg, and was wedge-shaped with a brown sauce on it. Quite unusual! Fortunately, there were a few other parts to the meal, like mini-bacon, some sort of lunchmeat, corn/potato salad, green salad, and bread, that finished up the meal. I wasn't stuffed at the end of it, but it was enough.

We had no idea what we were going to do today, other than check out some kind of temples. We spoke with the front desk and they pointed out a few that we may want to try first, so we started to make our way towards them. Initially we were planning on walking to a bus line that took you to the temple, but we were enjoying our walk so we just ended up walking the whole way.

We walked down lots of little side streets that had all sorts of cool little shops. Kellian kept popping in to look at the things that they were selling and wes pretty close to buying a hat, but it didn't fit quite right. Oh well! In our wandering, we stumbled across Nishiki Market which was pretty amazing. It was really long and narrow, and it was lined by lots of little shops. Most of the shops sold food, though some were restaurants and others sold various other things.

We spent quite a while walking through the market and looking at all the stuff that was being sold. The market was covered, and it was really nice getting out of the sun for a little bit. It was about 90 degrees and humid, which made it pretty uncomfortable when we weren't in the shade.

Eventually we came to the end of the market and were starting to get a bit hungry, so we started to look for a place to eat. We couldn't decide where to go, so we just followed a group of Japanese ladies into a building, which we hoped was a restaurant. The funny thing about not knowing how to read any Japanese, is that you sometimes can't even tell what a particular building contains.

Fortunately, it was a restaurant and it ended up being pretty good. We sat on tatami mats and had some soup with noodles. Mine had fish cakes which were kind of gross. They were chewy, which I don't really like. Oh well! The broth and noodles were good. Kellian had some kind of fried tofu in hers, which was good.

After finishing our meal, we crossed over the Kamo River. After walking down Sanjo street, another road with lots of shops, we ended up at the area that contains the Yakasa Shrine. At first it was a bit un-spectacular: there were a lot of little shrines and a few shops. The large shrine, which was presumably the Yakasa Shrine, wasn't completely open, you had to peek in through wooden bars on the door which was a bit annoying.

We walked up a bit further and found some nice paths, which were part of Maruyama Park. This was a nice looking park that has lots of trees and a nice little stream coming through it. Kellian and I were pretty hot, so we found a secluded spot and stuck our feet in the stream, which was nice. Probably not allowed, but nobody noticed.

After that, we headed over to the Chion-In Temple which was just a little ways north. This was much more interesting. There was a huge gate at the beginning of this area, followed by a steep hill with a bunch of stairs. Once we got to the top, we saw the gigantic temple.

This temple was actually open to visitors, so we went in and listened to the monks chanting for a while. There were two monks chanting, and a fellow in normal clothes in front of them. After a while, he got up and left, after thanking the monks, and a woman came in. It seemed like they were paying the monks to have them say some prayers for them. Pretty interesting!

There were a few other temples around this area. We found one that was empty and sat in there for a bit. The inside was made of dark wood, with gilded statues and laquored furniture. It had quite an impressive appearance, but we couldn't take photos.

There were also a number of shrines, which always had a little fountain of water where you were supposed to purify yourself before entering the shrine. This consisted of pouring some water on your hands, and putting some in your mouth and spitting it out. Since it was a hot day, we took every chance we had to pour cold water on our hands. We put it in our mouth and spit it out once but it didn't look quite right so we didn't do that again.

Next, we made our way over to the Nanzenji Temple. It looked like it was pretty close on the map, but it ended up being a bit of a hike. We cut through some back streets and discovered an interesting looking building.

It was pretty unusual: you walked in and entered a maze of paths with small buildings and gardens. Very cool! A woman in a kimono was a bit confused as to why we were wandering around there, so we made our way out. Another woman at the entrance informed us that it was a restaurant. It was super-expensive though...I think something like $200 each.

We continued walking and eventually found the Nanzenji Temple. This area started off with a large gate. You could pay $5 each to walk inside the gate and up to the top to see a good view of Kyoto. I thought that might be fun, so we decided to give it a try. It wasn't quite as high as I had hoped, so the view wasn't all that great. The view of the surrounding temple area was quite nice though. It has lots of trees and was beside a mountain. We sat up at the top for a while and rested our legs.

We wandered around this temple area for a while. There was a network of little streams throughout the area, filling the area with the sound of water flowing. The temple itself was closed, you could only peek in through the wooden bars on the door.

We were exhausted, so we headed back to our hotel for a nap. After that, we went down to Pontocho road, which is a very narrow street with a ton of restaurants. It was pretty much impossible to figure out which one would be good, so we just went into one. They had outdoor seating along the river, but you needed to order a $50/person fixed menu, which we didn't really want to do. Indoors, it was quite warm, so we decided to leave and try another place.

The next place we tried also had the fixed menu to sit outside, so we figured that everywhere did that and gave up on eating outside and ended up staying at this place. The prices weren't bad, but the portions were really tiny. We decided that instead of sinking more money on another tiny portion, we'd just grab some snacks if we got hungry.

We found a few shops that sold some Japanese sweets, and ate those. We had some mochi balls, which were pretty tasty. They're kind of sweet and chewy. We also had some otcher rice ball type things that were in a weird looking syrupy goop. We sat by the Kama river and ate our snacks.

It was a long day, so we headed back to our hotel exhausted and planned out what we were going to do next.

Japan Trip Day 1 - 2010-07-04

Photos from this day.

Our trip over to Japan was fairly uneventful. As expected, the flight was quite long, but we were happy to find that we had personal video monitors at each seat. I'd never been on a plane like that, so it was pretty exciting and it made the time pass much quicker.

We ended up watching two movies, How to Train Your Dragon (or something like that), and Clash of the Titans. The former was kind of cute but some spots were really annoying. I particularly disliked the names of the characters and the voice actors they chose for some of the parts. The story wasn't bad though. Clash of the Titans was just awful, it looked like it was done in the early 90's, but it has come out fairly recently. We also watched as many episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender as possible- until Kellian's computer battery died (thanks Amy for lending us the DVDs!).

When we arrived in Tokyo, we had about an hour and a half to make our connection, which was plenty of time. We had to go through customs and collect our bags, then re-check them. It took us a bit of wandering to figure out where we needed to go to check our bags. A nice employee noticed that we were confused and sent us in the right direction.

The flight from Tokyo to Osaka was pretty short, we slept through most of it. When we arrived in Osaka, we had to figure out how we were going to make our way to Kyoto. Fortunately, there was a clearly labelled bus that we were able to get tickets for. The bus only took about 50 minutes to get us to Kyoto.
Once we got to Kyoto, we had to take a cab to our hotel which was about 10 minutes away. The cab driver didn't speak much english, but fortunately I had printed out the name and address of the hotel in Japanese, so I just had to point to it.

We arrived at our hotel at around 8:30PM Japan time, which was 7:30AM Boston time, having not slept very much. Still, we wanted to stay awake until it was time to go to sleep on the correct time zone. We were also hungry, so we needed to get something to eat.

First we dropped our bags off in the room, which was nice and clean though a bit small as you would expect. We asked the front desk for a cheap recommendation. The sent us about a block down the road to a small little restaurant. We sat down and tried to order, but the waiter instructed us that we needed to pay through the odd-looking vending machines in the front of the shop.

Since we clearly didn't know what we were doing, he was kind enough to punch the correct buttons on the machine for us when we pointed to what we wanted on the menu. The food came quite quickly and was really tasty! My stomach was a bit confused to be eating dinner at what it thought was 8:00AM, but it managed.

After that, we wandered around the neighborhood a bit just to get the lay of the land. The hotel, Hotel Gimmond, is on a fairly major road, so there's a lot nearby. We checked out the 7-11 which is across the street, and were pretty amused to find the huge variety of things that they sell. Lots of snacks and ready-to-eat meals, which was interesting.

Finally, we headed back to the hotel exhausted. We had been travelling for about 24 hours, so it was about time to get some sleep.