Hiroshima: Heartbreaking and beautiful

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Hiroshima Peace Park

There wasn’t all that much on my must-see list in Hiroshima, but what there was meant a lot: the Peace Park and Peace Museum. I also wanted to see Hiroshima Castle, but it’s a simple fact that all pales beside the remembrances of the dropping of the A-bomb on this city.

The park is an easy walk from our hotel, the Japanese business hotel Daiwa Roynet Hiroshima which is part of the Daiwa Roynet chain. It was super-conveniently located to the #1 tram from the train station (a 1-minute walk from the nearest stop), and an easy walk to the Peace Park. It was also just what I had I mind to complement our other Japanese lodgings: We’d done an upscale American chain, a Japanese apartment…now it was time for a typical Japanese hotel.

The Daiwa Roynet Hiroshima did not disappoint: Our welcome could not have been friendlier, although English was minimal. Since the skies had opened up yet again just as we arrived, we were offered two small towels at check-in in addition to those in the room; very handy for drying off ourselves and our luggage. We were also give our choice from a box of amenities including bath salts, a body sponge and various hair bands and clips for women. More amenities awaited–of course–in the room: toothbrush and toothpaste, foldable brushes, pressed night shirts that reach demurely to mid-shins on me, but are much more interesting on David’s 6’3″ frame. Our room is a compact, but well-equipped double-bed space with a fridge and Japanese satellite t.v. (I’m despondent that the sumo tournament has just come to an end! I love following sumo when in Japan and had been watching avidly in Kyoto.)

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum spans the entrance to the Hiroshima Peace Park. It’s a simple, but deeply moving memorial to what the dropping of a nuclear weapon means in human terms. [The museum is 200 yen/adult (appx. $2). The park is free.] Viewing clothing and other personal effects of the victims, along with twisted metal girders and roof tiles; fused glass; preserved biological specimens of scarred tissue, hair and even the finger skin and fingernail of a boy saved by his mother to show his father who had been away; and photo after photo of destruction and horribly burned human bodies left me feeling sick to my stomach. As it should.

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Clock counting days since the A-Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the days since the last nuclear test (sadly, only 17 days)
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Girders warped by the bomb
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Fused Japanese roof tiles

When you buy your ticket to the museum, you’re given post cards made from recycled paper cranes that people gift to the museum. You can buy stamps at the museum shop and you’re encouraged to write and share your thoughts after visiting the museum.

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Mementos of Obama’s visit, the first sitting U.S. president to do so: a note wishing for peace and origami cranes folded by the president in memory of a girl who died of radiation-induced leukemia

Outside the museum, we wandered the park with its many memorials: to children, to Koreans pressed into service by the Japanese, to the tens and tens of thousands of victims. There’s the mound where bodies were cremated as they began to stink in that hot August, and the peace bell, and the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall, popularly known as the A-Bomb Dome which was 600m below and 170m to the southeast of the detonation. Everyone inside died and the building is preserved just as it was immediately after the explosion.

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Memorial Cenotaph with the A-Bomb Dome visible beyond
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Childrens’ Memorial with girl on top holding a crane, representing Sadako, a girl exposed to the bomb at two who died 10 years later of leukemia (She folded 1000 origami cranes in the vain belief they would grant her wish to be cured.)

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Chains of origami cranes at the Childrens’ Memorial

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Memorial Mound where bodies of A-Bomb victims were cremated and ashes interred

There’s also a Memorial Hall to the dead on the park grounds. Entry is free and there are videos and photos to memorialize the dead. Fountains grace the inside and downstairs of the Hall because so many of the vicims plead for water before they died. Much of the park is intended to offer peace and rest to the souls of the dead.

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The A-Bomb Dome
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Close-up of the rubble of the A-Bomb Dome

After the Peace Park, we made our way to Hiroshima Castle. Destroyed in by the A-Bomb, of course, the medieval castle has been charmingly restored and was a fun break from the somberness of the morning. The long defensive building outside the inner moat is free to explore and offers models of the castle as well as photos depicting how a Japanese castle is built. It’s 360 yen to enter the castle itself, but the exhibits of samurai swords, videos, the tower view, and the opportunity to try on samurai armor are all fun and well worth it.

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Outer moat and defensive wing of Hiroshima Castle
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Koi in the castle oat with a eucalyptus tree that survived the A-Bomb
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View from the top of Hiroshima Castle of the green dome of the sports arena and the A-Bomb Dome to the left of the arena

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fushimi Inari and Nijo Castle, Kyoto

 

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Fushimi Inari

With its 10,000 red torii gates flanking pathways through mountain woods, Fushimi Inari has to be one of the most spectacular, unique sights in the Kyoto area…and it’s close, free and always open. Awesome!

For 200 yen one-way (appx. $1.96pp), we caught the frequent local San-in train from Nijo Station (near our apartment) 2 stops to Kyoto Station and then connected on the Nara Line for a 5-minute ride to Inari Station, just across the street from the entrance to Fushimi Inari. (From Kyoto, the one-way fare is 140 yen.) The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be his messengers, so fox statues and votive offerings abound.

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Fox statue outside Inari shrine

Walking uphill from the main shrine past many smaller shrines, we were directed to the first of many virtual tunnels of torii gates framing the paths on the mountain. A split in the paths made a one-way loop and the mobs of people funneled into this area made us wonder if Fushimi Inari was going to be a huge disappointment. Thankfully, the crowds thinned (and the tour groups disappeared) as we walked further up the mountain. The gates also be came larger than those at the early one-way section.

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Early on, crowds are funneled into one-way lines through narrow torii gates…fortunately, this dissipates as you climb higher. [Note the lack of writing on gates while on the uphill climb.]
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Yet another mountain shrine
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Leaving the crowds behind. Looking back through the torii gates (writing visible)
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Fox-shaped votive offerings

As we hiked ever higher, we walked past streams, waterfalls and small ponds. The forest air was cool and fresh, but heavy with humidity. We came upon several tea rooms with beautiful views and many vendors selling fortunes and votive offerings along with snacks. The mountain rewards the climb with sweeping views over Kyoto at Yotsutsuji intersection, high on the mountain, but still a ways from the summit. We stopped at a nearby stall and teahouse for mixed soft-serve ice cream: vanilla and “soy flour”. Delicious. We could have hiked even higher, making the loop past the summit, but with diminishing gates and a sense that not much was changing, we opted to turn back. We’d spent a couple of hours wandering the mountain. It would have taken maybe another hour to make the final loop.

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Tea room beside path on Mt. Inari
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View of Kyoto from Mt. Inari

Don’t miss Fushimi Inari if your travels take you to Kyoto! (Day trips are also possible from Nara and Osaka.)

Back in Kyoto from Fushimi  Inari in time for a quick lunch at the apartment, we decided to spend our last afternoon at Nijo Castle. We’d been admiring one of its watchtowers from our balcony since we arrived, and knew we didn’t want to miss it.

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Beautiful interior entrance gate to Nijo Palace

Unlike other Japanese castles, Nijo was always meant to be a palace castle, not a fortified castle that happened to serve as a palace. Consequently there is something more delicate and beautiful about it. Original wall paintings have been removed to the nearby gallery, but reproductions let you see the palace has it must have been when used as a shogun residence. I loved the idea of being able to finally get inside a building, and this one in particular. Most exciting of all for me, Nijo Castle boasts a “nightingale floor,” something I’d read about for years, but never experienced. It was nothing like I’d imagined!

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Nijo Castle interior

We decided to get an audio guide at 500 yen apiece, something I usually skip, but really enjoyed on this trip. Entry to Nijo Castle is another 600 yen. The walk through the sprawling castle was fun, but the absolute highlight for me was the experiencing the nightingale floor. Designed to make noise on purpose to alert the shogun to assassination attempts, the sound was not the squeak I expected, but high-pitched and truly something almost musical. David and I both first wondered if it was a soundtrack, so stopped and spent much time listening to the noise, trying to match it to our footsteps and those of the people around is. The chirping had a weirdly disjointed quality, seemingly removed from actual footsteps, but nonetheless resulting from them.

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Nijo Castle
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Nijo Castle garden

The Nijo Castle grounds actually encompass two palaces. The main palace with the nightingale floor and another castle within yet another moat in the center. This castle, built entirely of cedar, is not open to the public, although you can cross the interior moat and walk through the gardens and up to the raised foundation of a long-destroyed tower.

 

Daytrip to Nara

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Nara lies nearly due south of Kyoto and is an easy daytrip. Both JR and Kintetsu trains run to Nara, but the Kintetsu makes the most sense if you’re not tied to a JR Pass. The Kintetsu station sits just outside Nara Park which contains not only the Todaiji Temple with its enormous Buddha, but also herds of sacred deer.

You can’t buy the tickets for the Kintetsu trains at the machines downstairs in Kyoto Station. Instead, take the escalator up to the second floor (Look out the windowed alcove to your right at the top for a great view of Kyoto Tower.).

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Kyoto Tower from Kyoto Station 2nd floor alcove at top of escalator

Then go to the end of the long hall to your left. Signs will direct you to turn right to the Kintetsu ticket counters which will be on your left inside a small glassed-in area. The woman at the door spoke English and came over to help complete our purchase of roundtrip tickets (1240 RT; 620 one-way). There are no reserved seats on this metro-like train. There’s a faster 35-minute Kintetsu with reserved seats for nearly twice as much. Kintetsu accepts credit/debit cards with a PIN only. The time varies slightly by train, but runs generally 45-50 minutes. If you want to use the JR, the time is about the same (and it costs 710 yen each way, if you don’t have a pass), but you are dropped off at a station about a 20-minute walk from Nara Park.

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On the Kintetsu non-reserved seat train to Nara

The star of Nara Park is Todaiji Temple with its huge Buddha statue, Diabutsu, the second largest in Japan. You approach the temple through the ancient wooden Nandaimon Gate.

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Inside the temple complex, the Daibutsuden or Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden structure in the world. Dating back only 300 years, its predecessor was even larger. Scale models behind the Buddha statue let you see the evolution of the temple. At one time, two large pagoda flanked the Daibutsuden, but they are no longer standing. Fire–due to war, accident and natural causes–has destroyed most Japanese temples at one time or another. Religious purification also leads to the dismantling and rebuilding of certain temples.

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Daibutsuden, The Great Buddha Hall, the largest wooden building in the world
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Daibutsu, the second largest Buddha in Japan
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Daibutsu and one of his attendant gold statues

The Daibutsu and his attendants are awesome sights, the sheer size hard to convey in photos. In addition to the models of the building behind the statues, there is also a column with a narrow hole in the bottom through which people were lining up to try to crawl through. Supposedly, this brings good luck (but a failed attempt could be really terrible luck).

Protected as sacred, deer roam everywhere eager for the “deer cookies” sold at 150 yen/pack. The deer can get aggressive and the warning signs are funny. I found the primary hazard of feeding them is that deer hooves hurt on sandaled feet. The two I fed were pushy, so I had to keep backing up to keep from getting stepped on a second time. When I turned away to break the cookies into pieces, one even pulled on my skirt. Sacred deer spit. Must be auspicious.

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Pack of deer cookies
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Deer hanging around a box of deer cookies
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A mother with the youngest fawn we saw

Up a hill behind and to the right of Todaiji as you face it, is a path that wanders to a huge bell, rung every night at 8pm. Continuing on past the bell, a flight of lantern-lined stairs to the left leads to Nigatsudu Hall. This structure is one of the most interesting in Nara Park allowing you to wander its big deck for free, taking in the view over Nara, shrines and a small waterfall.

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Nigatsudu Hall

We walked beyond Nigatsudu and up Wakakusayama Hill (a wide grassy expanse with yet more deer) to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The shrine sits in an ancient forest. The building is large and houses many brass lanterns, but we weren’t tempted to enter. The draw of this magical place to me is the 3000 stone lanterns that flank every path leading from the shrine down toward the center of the park. The sight is incredible and I can only imagine how enchanting it must be when lit at night, which happens during festivals in February and August.

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Stone lanterns lining the paths between Kasuga Taisha Shrine and the center of Nara Park

As predicted by the nice lady at the Information desk in the Kintetsu Station, our leisurely wanderings through Nara Park took about 3 1/2 hours, including a stop for lunch at a noodle restaurant near the Nandaimon Gate.

 

 

 

Affordable Kaiseki and friendly service: Kyo-ryori Kaji

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Picture-perfect appetizer course

I’d been wanting to try a kaiseki dinner, a traditional Japanese haute cuisine that’s as much art as food. With its extensive courses, seasonal ingredients, and careful attention to detail and beauty, these meals can be exceedingly expensive. When our AirBnB host, Eoghan, suggested Kyo-ryori Kaji (“Kaji”) as an affordable kaiseki restaurant, we had to go.

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Our friendly chef prepared much of the food right in front of us

We got off to a hectic start, by running late across town at Kiyomizudera at sunset, then hopping the wrong bus, so that we ended up catching a taxi and getting Eoghan to call the restaurant for us to explain the situation. (We could WhatsApp with Eoghan with my data SIM, but couldn’t make phone calls easily and didn’t have the number for Kaji anyway.) All this left us with no time to change out of the very casual clothes we’d been wearing all day in, periodically in the rain. I felt terrible showing up bedraggled and underdressed (David in shorts and me in cropped pants and a t-shirt), but the delightful people at Kyo-ryori Kaji welcomed us as honored guests and could not have been friendlier the whole night.

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First soup course

Dinner consisted of a number of set courses and three price options. Each price option contains the same number of courses of the same general description, but each option offers an increasingly augmented version of the course. Kaji doesn’t accept credit cards. Since we’d made our mad dash to get here on time and didn’t have time to get more cash, our decision was easy: it was the 3900 yen/pp (appx. $38.61 at the time) dinner for us. [Other options were 6000 yen ($$59.40) and 8100 ($80.19) yen.] This turned out to be an excellent meal, and although David would have tried a different version just to compare, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about our dinner.

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Menu page listing the courses offered and the price options

I took pictures of all but the opening “aperitif” which was nothing but a small splash in a saucer of a “September flower” liqueur that tasted not-so-appealingly of perfume. The least successful “course” of the evening.

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Sashimi course
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By way of comparison: This is the sashimi course for a neighbor’s 8100 yen dinner.
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Tempura was substituted for the grilled course.

Our chef did his best to explain each dish to us. His English was limited, but he did his best and was cheerful, friendly and engaged throughout the meal with us and with those dining at the counter beside us. A couple of times, he pulled out a map to show us his favorite area sites. We already planned to go to Fushimi Inari, but he also suggested Tofukuji Temple not far from Fushimi Inari. He also encouraged us to visit a shrine near the restaurant (and our hotel) that he explained had something to do with “god and money.” Sure enough, a later trip to the small shrine revealed a golden torii gate and people praying for financial fortune…and a children’s party with a cowboy making balloon figures. Japan is often mystifying to us!

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Palette freshening course

Kaji also offers a simple, but classy atmosphere. It’s not elaborate or fancy, but certainly not a casual diner either. I found its understated decor warm and relaxing.

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Steamed course: minimally-seasoned steamed vegetables plus a squash stuffed with steamed seafood paste
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Pickles, miso soup and rice with green tea

Cold sake was our drink of choice. We tried two, but most enjoyed the Jyun mai daiginzzyou at 1200 yen which is smooth and dry. The Hon-jyozou (700 yen) was also good, but with a heavier rice-y taste that I associate with sakes more often found at home in the States.

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Sake and Shochu menu

We were given a choice of three desserts: 2 sorbets and an ice cream dish. We both chose the ice cream, mostly because we were intrigued by the sake gelée that came with it.

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Dessert: sake gelée, walnut ice cream with a large black bean and blueberry
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Drink menu
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Restaurant details

You can find Kyo-yori Kaji at www.kyoto-kaji.jp and at the address and number shown in the photo above.

 

 

Kyoto on the Autumnal Equinox holiday

 

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High on my list of temples to visit in Kyoto (and there’s a long list to choose from!), was Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It’s probably Kyoto’s top sight and who wouldn’t want to see a Zen Buddhist temple with two stories covered in pure gold leaf?

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The first hints of fall color beginning to show at Kinkakuji. In a couple of weeks, the leaves–and the hordes of tourists–should be spectacular!

The history of Kinkakuji dates back to a 1397 villa that became a temple upon the death of its owner, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, most recently in 1955. Kinkakuji inspired the similarly named Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion, we visited the day before.

Although I really wanted to visit Kinkakuji, I had some misgivings since it happened to be the Autumnal Equinox holiday in Japan, a public holiday when people often flock to temples with their families. Hmm. We decided to go for it anyway, hoping the cloudy weather and threat of rain might work to our advantage again with regards to crowds.

Today, we opted to buy a Kyoto bus pass. At 500 yen/day (about $4.90), they’re a good deal if you plan to do some scattered sightseeing. A regular one-way ticket on a bus is 230 yen. (You get on Japanese buses in the middle and pay a machine by the driver when you get off.) Three “Raku” buses (numbered 100, 101 & 102) are included on this pass in addition to the regular city buses and they hit many of the top tourist sites in Kyoto. Lots of locals use them, too. A Raku bus picked up near our apartment and went directly to Kinkakuji in the west of the city without requiring any changes, so we were there in less than 30 minutes.

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At Kinkakuji: People toss coins at the bowl among the statues for good luck.

The rain held off and, not surprisingly, the crowds were pretty thick at Kinkajiju, but not as bad as I might have expected except around the main Golden Pavilion photo op. [Tickets are 400 yen. (about $3.92)] After walking the temple grounds, we had much fun sampling snacks set out at several food stalls just beyond the final shrine: sweet nama yatsuhashi, a Kyoto specialty, and more savory bites of crunchy little balls flavored with wasabi, ginger, curry, etc.

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David samples nama yatsuhashi, a soft, triangle-shaped Kyoto sweet with various fillings: cinnamon, sesame, chestnut, and many more

After a lunch break at the apartment, we decided to head to the east side of Kyoto to see Sanjusangendo. Despite the fact I can never remember the name of this temple, what I’d read about the many statues of Kannon housed there definitely stuck in my mind. I had to see this place!

Sanjusangendo exceeded expectations. Housed in a long, narrow temple redolent of smoke and incense, row upon row of the many-armed goddess of mercy stand, shimmering in gold. A huge statue sits at the center of this host, making 1001 statues of the goddess.

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Central statue at Sanjusangendo

Sanjusangendo is 600 yen (about $5.88), a bit more than some other temples, but well worth it my opinion. A highlight!

We stayed till closing at Sanjusangendo, but figured we still had time to make it to Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizudera) for sunset. Kiyomizu is known for its huge terrace overhanging a hillside, its views of Kyoto, and a holy spring. We were tired, it was drizzling on-and-off again, we debated, but we decided we could do it. (It’s this kind of thinking that has us walking 8-10 miles a day before we know it.)

A short bus ride later, we started hiking up the shop-lined street to Kiyomizu. The area is charming, its small shops and restaurants stylish. A 3-tiered pagoda welcomes visitors to the temple ground. Up more steps, we paid 400 yen (appx. $3.92) to continue on to the large wooden deck jutting from the main hall. A path wandered beyond that and along the side of a mountain, then down to Otowa waterfall. The stream supplying the waterfall splits into three parts here and people used cups on long poles to drink from the water. Each is said to have a different benefit: longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. (Drinking from all three is apparently considered greedy.)

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Three-tiered pagoda at Kiyomizudera
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View towards the deck at Kiyomizu

With darkness setting in, it was time go. We had reservations at Kyo-ryori Kaji for a multi-course kaiseki dinner our AirBnB host recommended highly. I’ll review that fun meal in a later post.

Kyoto in the rain…and crashing a funeral?

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The first touches of color on leaves near the Choin-in Temple gate

Although Typhoon Malakas wasn’t a dangerous storm by the time it reached Kyoto, its effects lingered. For the first two days of our stay in Kyoto, it seemed we’d fallen into some bad travel mojo: Google let us down a couple of times, leaving us searching for bus stops it insisted were right under our feet… and always, just then, the skies would open up. So much for beautiful autumn in Kyoto! Not willing to quit, though, we kept on and discovered that one benefit of the rain was a decided lack of the crowds we’d been told to expect. I’m a sucker for a silver lining!

To start our day, and more or less on whim, we hopped the subway nearest our apartment and got off near the middle of a walk I’d seen recommended by Frommer. We ended up blowing off that itinerary, when we stumbled upon a “worship walk” through Chion-in Temple. The paved path wandered through temples and shrines and we were thrilled to find a full service in progress, seemingly open to the public. Inside, thick incense filled the large building (Honen Shonin Mido) while an older man in robe and headdress chanted before an elaborate altar, flanked by rows of younger monks, one beating a two-block “instrument.” Worshipers sat behind the monks in the main room. Along with other guests, we were met by smiling greeters and directed to seats removed from the main action, but with a clear view. The service was beautiful, and occasionally those seated in our immediate area would get up to either leave or pray at a side altar. Not until after we left and spotted a few signs regarding memorial and cremation services did I do a little research and realize we may have crashed a memorial service. Yikes. [Photography was forbidden inside or I’d share just how picturesque it was.] I actually highly recommend this visit since no one seemed to mind–in fact they were very friendly and welcoming even though we were clearly tourists–and it was a wonderful experience.

Our main target for the day was Ginkakuji, a famous Zen temple. Known as the Silver Pavilion, there’s nothing silver about it except for its original owner’s unfulfilled plans to cover it in silver leaf. Still, it is a beautiful place with a unique, stylized sand garden shaped to suggest waves and Mt. Fuji. It looked as if the weather had taken its toll on “Mt. Fuji,” and we arrived to find workmen putting the finishing touches on a big pile of sand shaped like a #4 coffee filter.

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Ginkakuji: The Silver Pavilion
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Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion): Men at work on stylized sand representation of Mt. Fuji

Even in the clouds and drizzle, a fair-sized crowd wandered the paths around the pavilion and up the hillside garden.

We took a beer pub break (I was with David, remember!) for lunch at  Tadg’s Gastro Pub which we really enjoyed and I’ll review separately. It didn’t rain throughout lunch, but five minutes after we set out for Heian Temple (a 20 min. walk) the skies opened up, sending us darting for cover under an awning until it lightened up enough for our umbrellas to do the job. The orange and green temple is immense and its gardens probably great (but too pricey on a rainy day at 600 yen).

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Heian Temple

We’d decided to head back home on the bus and hope for better weather later, when I noticed that the bus went past the Imperial Palace, a place we wanted to visit and not too far of a walk to our apartment. The rain had let up for the moment and it wasn’t like we were going to dissolve, so we decided to hop off at the palace. This turned out to be a great idea. We beat the last entry at 3:45pm by minutes so got to walk around the Imperial Palace (within the walls, but the buildings are not open to the public) with only a minimal crowd. The palace sprawls and the walking route lets you explore quite a bit. Although you can’t enter, you can view some painted screens in three of the receiving rooms through glassed-in sliding doors and certain temple buildings have porches open to the outside. The park surrounding the Imperial Palace is 1500 meters long by 700 meters wide.

The Imperial Palace used to require reservations and guided tours, but has just this summer switched to a free, no-reservation, self-guided policy. Excellent!

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The Imperial Palace, Kyoto
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Oikeniwa Garden in the Imperial Palace

 

Beware the dread “semi-double” bed!

Space is notoriously compact in Japan so we resigned ourselves to the idea of a double bed in at least some of our lodging, but in searching hotels and apartments online, I discovered a nasty little trick called the “semi-double” bed. The first time I came across this term, I’d clicked on a listing for a “double bed” room that seemed like a surprisingly good rate. Getting right down to the booking stage, I saw the phrase “semi-double.” This was new. The listing had only said “double.” Having no idea what the term meant–but feeling suspicious–I did a little research. Sure enough, a “semi-double” is basically somewhere between a single and a double or full bed in width (110-120 cm), i.e., a somewhat bigger single bed. A double bed is usually around 140 cm and a twin around 90 cm.

I came across this term over and over in Japan: Selling a beefed-up twin bed room to two people. And, often the semi-ness of the semi-double is not clearly specified until a later screen (and sometimes not at all–I call if in doubt). You’ve got to be kidding! I love my husband, but he’s a big guy and neither one of us would get much sleep with the two of us crammed into a bed that size. And, I can only imagine the size of the room that goes with these beds, too. It’s hard to picture where luggage for two people would go either. Anyway, be advised.

Tokyo to Kyoto in a typhoon

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View from the Park Hyatt of the worsening weather

The sunny weather gave way to occasional mists and light rain in the days following our arrival in Tokyo as the first advance wisps of Typhoon Malakas reached the city. It wasn’t enough to interfere with our plans–other than nixing trips up Tokyo Tower, the Skytree or the Government building. The sweeping views with Mt. Fuji in the background that my boys and I had enjoyed on a previous visit just weren’t happening this time.

We got a light mist at the Meiji Jingu Temple, but the thick trees of the park surrounding it did much to shelter us. At least three weddings proceeded in quick succession while we were there; a veritable production line of brides. Clearly, it was an auspicious day with or without the rain.The clouds did drop the temperature pleasantly, so all and all, things worked out for the newlyweds and for us…if you don’t count my head of increasingly frizzy hair!

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Wedding party at the Meiji Jingu Shrine
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Wedding procession at Meiji Jingu Shrine

Our first week on Honshu, the main island of Japan, encompassed two Japanese holidays: Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox. The first holiday fell while we were in Tokyo and treated us to wandering groups of costumed people toting shrines through the streets of Shinjuku and chanting. A festive air reigned through the neighborhood with stalls of food being hawked by groups of smiling people dressed in costumes to match the shrine-bearers. An open stage blared live Japanese rock music, trucks trundled by broadcasting music sounding more military than anything else to our bemused ears. Inquiries resulted in answers that lost something in translation: “There’s a ghost in the box.” when we asked about the shrine bearers. Oh well, it was big fun anyway.

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Despite the variable weather, we visited the soon-to-be-moved Tsukiji fish market which was top on David’s list. Unfortunately, the big commercial market was closed for the Respect for the Aged holiday, but the food stalls overflowed with people.

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This guy was giving out free samples. David tried it, but couldn’t identify.

We wandered popular Shinjuku Park and explored its greenhouse, braved the rain to try an izakaya (Japanese gastropub) on the 40th floor of a Shinjuku building where we dined among the clouds. Wanting to see the relatively-new Park Hyatt, we got a birdseye view of the worsening weather which we were soon to discover was no minor storm.

In Tokyo, we stayed in the Hyatt Regency, using 1 free night apiece David and I had from our Hyatt Visa credit cards. At $95/ year, we find these cards to be no-brainers: With our travels, we’re bound to be somewhere–like Tokyo–where we can get a much more expensive hotel for the yearly fee on the card, plus the perks of the status the card gives us. In Tokyo, this saved us about $200/night. When we discovered that a typhoon was bearing down on Japan, threatening high winds and devastating flooding in the south on the day we were scheduled to depart on a bullet train to Kyoto, it was nice to have the super-helpful concierge staff at the Hyatt checking on the status of trains and providing detailed transfer information from the hotel to Tokyo Station.

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The massive chandeliers at the Hyatt Regency were only a week back from cleaning and more magnificent than ever

We’d planned to catch a taxi from our hotel near Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station where the bullet trains depart, but it turned out to be faster to simply catch the Oedo Line from Shinjuku to Tokyo. The price was also included in our bullet train ticket. [We did not purchase a JR Pass because the math just didn’t work out given the length of our trip and our proposed train travel. Also, David wanted to ride the fastest bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto and that train, the Nozomi, is not included in the JR Pass. The time difference is minimal between bullet trains, but it was something he wanted and, as I said, it made financial sense anyway.]

The ride itself was uneventful–and fast. I don’t think the weather caused any slow-down, although we were told that was a possibility in typhoons. We enjoyed our bento box lunches and the trip flew by.

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Inside the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto (2nd class, reserved seats)
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Bento box lunch bought at the station; beer bought on the train

We arrived in a rainy Kyoto. No surprise there, but not exactly the beautiful fall weather I’d envisioned. Oh well, such are the whims of the travel gods. After a short ride with a truly nasty-tempered cabbie (the only unfriendly person we encountered in Kyoto), we arrived at our AirBnB apartment. As billed, it sits just across the road from Nijo Castle and our balcony looks out on one of the watch towers. Beautiful, even in a typhoon!

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Nijo Castle in a typhoon; view from our balcony

One of the joys of lengthy travel is being able to slow down and try to get at least a little taste of living in a place. It’s a big reason why I like renting apartments rather than hotels, along with the extras like a washing machine and kitchen. Usually, apartments provide more space as well, but a typical apartment in Japan also means compact. I’d chose Kyoto for our longer apartment stay and, as always, ran it by David before booking. David’s 6’3″ and I knew some of the features of the apartment I’d chosen might be a little tricky for him. As usual, he was game.–It’s one of the things I love about him.

The apartment is exactly as described: immaculate, small, but well-equipped and well-thought-out. We have a double bed*, a tiny kitchen, a washing machine/dryer combo (that doesn’t do much in the way of drying), air conditioning, free bikes at our disposal, wifi and a portable wifi hotspot. I love the odd, but practical, touches–like the toilet where you can wash your hands in the water that’s refilling the tank. (‘Makes sense: It’s clean water, you’re recycling…there’s just something about the idea that’s a little unsettling to the Western mind.) We’re in a good location and the building is very nice. It’s a big change from living at home, but it’s fun…and funny to listen to David banging around in the bathroom while he tries to bathe in the meter-long bathtub. He really is a great sport!

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We’ve got a large grocery store just a couple of blocks down the street and we’ve had fun shopping the often-mystifying items. Once again, Google Translate has been invaluable as we scan labels of products we’ve never heard of.

*A double bed may sound small to my American friends, but I’m going to do a separate short post on why it’s actually a very awesome thing. Hint: Beware the “semi-double!”

Off the ship: Tokyo and a favorite boat ride to Asakusa

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Nijubashi Bridge at the Imperial Palace

As David likes to describe it, after 15 days on a ship, we’re like a couple of baby birds kicked out of the nest when we land: What?! We have to figure out where to eat on our own?? Kind of pathetic. Despite the initial adjustment, we were more than ready for some time ashore on our own. Cruises are fun, but it was time to dig in a bit deeper.

We lucked into sunny skies our first day in Tokyo, the only real weather problem being a bit too much heat and a haze that made tower viewing of Mt. Fuji a nonstarter. We spent the first night onboard, so only baby steps required: taking a train from Shinagawa station (the station nearest the industrial port where the ship berthed the first night before moving to the nicer Yokohama cruise port). The ship shuttled us to Shinagawa, so all we had to do was catch a train to Tokyo Station. Easy, right?…Except for the total lack of English on the signage. Thankfully, helpful young ladies in uniform are stationed throughout area train stations and we were soon on our way.

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Equestrians at the Imperial Palace gardens

After wandering the gardens of the Imperial Palace, we walked to Hama-Rikyu Park, a place I remembered mostly for its old duck hunting blinds…and the water bus to Asakusa, the real reason to go for me. For around $6 apiece, we caught the water bus for a 40-minute ride along the river to the charming old Asakusa district with its temples and narrow, crowded roads. The water bus has both an air conditioned interior and an open, covered interior deck (with tinted transparent roof, so you can see up). There’s also an air conditioned toilet. An audio guide is broadcast in both Japanese and English as you glide under bridge after bridge, taking in the changing cityscape; it really is one of the best deals in Tokyo.

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Looking back at the water bus dock at Hama-Rikyu Park
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On the water bus

Asakusa is big fun. Lots of locals rent kimono to wander the old temples and vending stalls, adding much to the scenery themselves. I get a particular kick out of the young couples, out on a date in their traditional clothes, selfie-sticks at the ready and the family groups with everyone down to a toddler in the stroller decked out. We came upon two weddings: one bride in a gorgeous red kimono and the other in a traditional Shinto white kimono and headdress. David was shoulder-to-shoulder with the official photographer, but no one seemed to mind.

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David’s fantastic photo of the happy couple

We joined a line for a small restaurant with no idea what they served. David confirmed the presence of air conditioning inside and it smelled good, so we went for it. We ended up with overpriced–an Asakusa hazard–tempura prawns with a large tempura bay shrimp patty in a bowl of rice with cold beer. The tempura suffered from a lid placed on top so that steam robbed it of crispness. Not great, but a pretty darned enjoyable break after much walking in the heat.

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Lining up for lunch in Asakusa
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Tempura lunch

After the technology and skyscrapers of modern Tokyo, Asakusa provides a wonderful contrast of Old Tokyo: temples and shrines, the smell of incense and street food, the flash of kimonos among the throngs, shaven-headed monks and rickshaw drivers running with amazing stamina. I wouldn’t miss it!

Using Google Maps and Google Translate to navigate Japanese transit systems (and other useful things)

Our first full day truly off the boat with luggage in tow, we made our first travel error by hopping on a train going in the wrong direction. So much for my travel wiles! It’s not something I do often, but I’ve definitely done it before. Usually, I catch it sooner, though: It took me 30 minutes before I noticed we were getting more rural instead of the expected Tokyo skyline. A personal “best.” Aaargh. Oh well, easy enough to get on a train going the other direction; just an annoying waste of time and some extra schlepping of luggage. But, this was when I discovered a really great trick for navigating Tokyo trains, metro and bus: Google Maps combined with Google Translate. [Both require Internet connection (although there’s an offline option for Google Translate where you download a specific language; see below), so get a SIM card if you can. See my earlier post about NTT Docomo card. It’s been great for us.]

Google Maps will actually tell you the next train going to your destination, give you the platform number (a vital bit of info when nearly everything at hand is in Japanese), and count down until departure. If you miss that train, you can re-search for the next fastest departure and it will find other routes as well.

screenshot_20160920-110118 Unfortunately, we discovered in Kyoto that while much info provided by Google is in English, Google often gives you bus, bus stop names and other info in Japanese characters:

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This is where Google Translate comes in handy: Take a screen shot. Open Google Translate [choose Japanese to English, of course] and tap on the camera icon. Instead of taking a photo now, select the little box with a mountain scene in the bottom. This will take you to your recent photos where you can choose the screenshot. Let Google Translate scan and find the Japanese writing. When it’s finished scanning, you’ll see the Japanese writing (and sometimes other words) in boxes:

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Then, just scribble over the Japanese writing with your finger and Google Translate will translate the words you’ve chosen into something you can read:

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You can use the same method with screen shots of locations on Google Maps.

We use Google Translate all the time when we travel. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty amazing (and sometimes funny). Using the eye symbol feature (where available), you can translate live time. It’s like peering through a magic window into an English-language world wherever you are. It even preserves fonts in live-time. In Belgium, we’ve been able to look at a hand-written chalkboard menu in Dutch and see the translations, as if written in chalk in English. Wow. On our current Asia trip, we use the simple photo translate option for information plaques and the like. It was a huge help when I needed prescription eye drops in Kyoto and the pharmacist spoke no English. I could translate my needs by typing a couple of words in Google Translate on my phone (and pointing to my eye), then read the dosage information of the package by taking a photo in Google Translate.

You need an Internet connection to use Google Translate, unless you choose “offline translate” and download the language of your choice–a great feature.

Thank you, Google. I love technology!