Rabbits, Blossoms and Lanterns

Once again back in the hotel, bathed and relaxing. Mia is reading an English Language Classic in reduced form for those learning the language – “Breakfast at Tiffanys”, I’m half-watching a baseball match between Korea and Japan on the telly – and back to catching you up on our travels…

The last part of our day in Kyoto began with a bus ride across to the area where the Higashiyama Hanatoro lantern festival was. Kiyomizu Temple was at the southernmost point of the lantern-lined streets, and we had been told it was a perfect place to watch the sunset from. Being after 5pm, however, our bus became part of the metallic ooze of ‘rush-hour’ traffic.

By the time we started walking up the long street which lead to the Temple, dusk had fallen and there was no need to rush. On each side was shop after shop taking advantage of the crowds – and oddly enough it seemed like every second one specialised in very stylish & high quality rabbit-themed goods.

The approach to the Temple entrance was immediately stunning, with the pagodas and trees lit up, and a spotlight shining up into the night sky behind them. We paid the admittance fee, and ascended the steps to the buildings.

The temple grounds spread across a hillside which overlooks Kyoto, and is covered in trees. Many were already in blossom, most notably the magnolias, as well as either peach or plum trees (we haven’t managed to tell them apart yet). Each time we thought the place couldn’t be more beautiful we were proved wrong. The combination of the temple surroundings and the elegant and understated way they were lit was breathtaking.

Just as we were tiring of walking and feeling a bit chilly, we came down the path to a restaurant with tables outside. It didn’t take long for us to be seated, serving ourselves tofu, sauce & spring onion from a small wooden tub, and drinking hot sake.

After the much-needed break, we walked back down the hill and caught the bus to our last stop for the night – the park near Gion which was also lit up for the festival. We were both a bit shattered, and it would’ve been nigh-on impossible for anything to compare with where we had just been – but the lantern-lit paths and illuminated blossoming plum tree were gorgeous all the same. The park itself was really neat, and we’re actually hoping to stop by there again tomorrow during our second trip to Kyoto – this time a little less ambitious in the early to late stakes. =)

Finally, we headed back to Osaka and our hotel – secure in the knowledge that we didn’t need to be anywhere until 12:25pm the next day, when we would be catching a train to Kobe to meet 12 other Couchsurfing.com members and tour some local Sake breweries…

Published in: on 25 March 2009 at 3:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Kyoto and the Toji Temple Market

Both a bit shattered, Mia and I are currently watching Spiderman 2 in Japanese on the television in our hotel room. I think it’s time for another cup of tea, perhaps – along with some more almond chocolates.

Right, tea sorted. Update time.

Yesterday was epic. We awoke at around 7am to get ourselves sorted and on the way to Kyoto. One of the things Mia really wanted to do while we were here was buy some kimono fabric – and a bit of research made it clear that the optimum place to do that was a temple market. It turns out that one of the largest and most well known of these occurs on the 21st of each month at Toji Temple in Kyoto.

We took the JR line from Osaka, and arrived in the absolutely stunning JR Kyoto Station. Stepping out through the main entrance, our first task was to get our bearings. Thankfully, the Kyoto Tower across the road was marked on the map, and was due North of the station. The temple is to the South West, so we made our way around the station and headed in what we figured was the right direction. The closer we came to Toji Temple, the greater the crowd moving down the footpaths.

The multi-storied pagoda on the temple grounds was the final confirmation that we were in the right place, oddly out of sorts with a skyline dominated by traffic lights and power poles. As we joined the masses within the temple grounds, the comparison with our visit to the Nippombashi Street Fiesta was rather apparent. In the few days we have been here, one of the most prevalent themes has been contrast – and these two large public gatherings are a perfect example.

We browsed the many pretty things on offer, ate okonomiyaki from one of the food stalls, Mia bought a kimono, we ate takoyaki from another of the food stalls, we browsed more, Mia bought two more kimono, we ate tasty sweet bean-curd filled waffle things that were shaped like fish, and we found a magical candy stall.

One of the really amazing things was how the presence of this vast and hectic market didn’t take away from this being a place of worship. People threw offerings into large wooden boxes, burnt incense, lit candles and wrote on prayer sticks. Monks entered the main temple building through a side door. Mia pointed out how much the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ live side by side here, and somehow it just works.

Marketed out, we needed two things – a coffee, and some idea of how the bus system works in Kyoto. We knew that for 500 Yen you could get an all-day bus pass, but we had no idea of where to get one from, or where exactly the buses ran around the city. We figured our best bet for achieving both our needs was to go back to JR Kyoto Station – returning the same way we came. First stop was coffee, and it was clear from the building directory that the place to go was the 11th floor, with its “e.a.t. Paradise”.

The top floor of the station department store was full of expensive restaurants, and impeccably dressed probably wealthy people who didn’t blink in patronizing them. There was a cafe with staff dressed in what appeared to be cruise ship uniforms – they had encouraging pictures of their coffee, and seats – we were sold. Precisely what we were sold were two cappuccino (lattes) for 580 Yen each. We’d made a pact not to convert prices into NZ dollars, but we couldn’t help but consider that these were basically $12 coffees. Entirely drinkable, the uniformed staff were lovely, and we got a chance to rest our feet – we weren’t complaining, just a bit mystified.

After a brief visit to the roof of the station with its Happy Terrace, we made our way down the escalators back to the main entrance. Conveniently enough, pretty much directly outside was a bus information & ticketing building – after working out which counter we were meant to go to, we soon had both all-day passes and a bus route map with English bus stop names. We successfully deciphered which bus left from which platform, and were off into the city.

Our afternoon was largely spent just wandering through some of the small residential streets – trying to work out if the amazing buildings inside walled areas were temples, shrines or people’s homes. We met a friendly cat, drank BOSS canned coffees (Mia’s ‘Rainbow Blend’ was much nicer than my ‘Cafe au Lait’), and eventually headed toward Kyoto Castle. After walking around its perimeter moat, we discovered that we were in fact 20 minutes late for the last admissions for the daytime – so decided that we might come back for the night viewing later, but for now would find dinner.

Coco Izkaban curry came to the rescue, and we feasted on tonkatsu, mushroom curry, mango lassi and prawn & seaweed salad. Once again we rested, recouped, and planned the last part of our day trip. Mia’s main goal in Kyoto was the temple market – mine was the Higashiyama Hanatoro – an annual Lantern Festival through the streets of the East side of Kyoto. Incredibly full of curry, we made our way back to the bus stop to head over to what would be the most perfect experience in our trip yet.

But it’s now time to sleep, so I’ll have to come back to that later on – along with this afternoon’s trip to some of Kobe’s sake breweries with a big group of Couchsurfing members…

Published in: on 23 March 2009 at 12:42 pm  Comments (3)  
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Love from Japan

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It’s the second night of our already totally amazing trip to Japan, and truth be told I’m rather sleepy. I was holding together fine until my onsen-style bath, but now I’m almost ready to crash.

Alongside the cheap Air NZ auction airfares we scored between Auckland and Osaka, we’ve managed to do as much else we can with maximum cost efficiency. This began with getting up to Auckland International Airport by doing a Rental Car Relocation through Avis. The deal is that you take a car which needs to get from Wellington to Auckland airport, and pay $10 a day, plus petrol (we added the $26 insurance surcharge too).

As we had to be at the Airport by 3am, the theory was to stop in with my folks in Hamilton and get a few hours sleep. I think I did achieve some level of reduced consciousness in the end, but I have no idea for how long. After much waiting at the International Terminal, we boarded our 11 ½ hour flight during which I once again got plenty of shut-eye, but minimal sleep.

So anyway, that’s why I’m occasionally drifting off as I type this – only to lift my head again and continue typing. We’re relaxing in our small Japanese-style hotel room after a rather active day. There is room for the two futon mattresses, television, refrigerator, suitcases and very little else – and it is totally perfect for our needs. The place is called Hotel Taiyo, and I’ll no doubt go more in-depth into what it’s like to stay here in a later post.

After checking in yesterday (our first challenge in communicating with almost zero Japanese language skill) and having a little rest, we went for a wander around the immediate area. Just to the east of the hotel is a long covered arcade, full of restaurants (which were all open) and shops (which were mostly shut). We ordered dinner at a tiny restaurant through the power of plastic food, had our first go at the wildly confusing and noisy Pachinko, and did some shopping at the local “Tamade” supermarket.

Day two of our holiday began with breakfast in our room (of things we picked up the night prior) and then going for a walk Northwards up the city to Nippombashi – or Den-Den Town. It was over this little journey that the reality of where we are really began to sink in. One of the first things we discovered was that most of the shops don’t open until after 10am, and the quiet streets were a welcome ease into what was to come later on.

We stopped off for a bloody good coffee, purchased some stunning prints from a tiny shop and had our first unforgettable meal of the trip at a curry place called “Sun Bridge”. By the time we’d finished lunch the Nippombashi Street Fiesta was well under way. This yearly event on the first day of Spring sees the main street of Den-Den Town shut off to traffic and filled with people making the most of big sales at the local stores, watching performances on multiple stages, and mostly taking photos of a multitude of cosplayers who really make the event what it is.

Many photos and explored Den-Den Town shops later (such as “Super Potato” retro game store and “Super Position” figurine shop), we were ready for a break. We taught ourselves how to use the ticketing machine at the nearest subway station, and headed back to the hotel for some rest. Being a Friday, it’s No-My-Car-Day – where unlimited subway passes are only 600 yen (rather than 850) in an attempt to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

To make the most of our passes, we finished the day with a trip out to the other end of town – the area around Umeda & Osaka Stations. In comparison to the second-hand shops and Pachinko parlours of Nippombashi and the Tennoji district where our hotel is, Umeda is surrounded by five star hotels and luxurious department stores (with prices to match). We had set out in the hope of visiting the Gyoza Stadium – but quickly realized we weren’t exactly sure WHERE it was, and without internet access had very little hope in rectifying that. We cut our losses, and after exploring a couple of the big stores we headed for the rabbit warren of restaurants and bars we’d discovered on our way out of the subway.

Cue the second unforgettable meal of the trip – at a little place where we had to queue to get into (as we did the “Sun Bridge”, I guess a good sign). We shared a mixed yakisoba and a pork & kumki okonomiyaki, and washed them down with a couple of Kirin beeru. We were able to watch the chef making each dish on a large section of hot plate, and then they were placed upon the slightly cooler strip of hotplate in front of us to dish up for ourselves. Suffice to say, both were extraordinary and left us unquestionably inspired to make more Japanese food at home once we return.

Which (barring a stop to purchase of a box of English Breakfast tea), saw the close of our second day of outings here in Osaka. Tomorrow we take our first day trip out of the city – to Kyoto for a temple market, a nighttime lantern festival, and a world of possibilities in-between…

Published in: on 21 March 2009 at 3:27 am  Comments (2)