We woke up early today to catch the 7:55 ferry from Honmura to Uno and had a nice walk with the morning sun rising over the mountains to the ferry stop. The ferry was pretty crowded with children clearly heading to school and young adults to work. We got to Uno and stopped for some onigiri before catching the local train to Okayama, which was filled with commuters. People seem sad a lot of the time, but maybe they’re just guarded. I find it much harder to be outwardly happy here, though. It seems like expressions of emotion, at least in public, are discouraged, if not outright frowned upon.
We switched to an earlier train from Okayama with no problem, and had some time to kill in the station. I spotted a local coffee stand (Little Okayama, I think) and stopped for a pour over, much better than a Starbucks or Seattle’s Best, which is a different chain that’s a thing here. I was hungry so Jake sat while I wandered around admiring the vast assortment of food, sweets and other goodies. I thought about sushi but settled on some nice-looking onigiri and a yakitori box with three skewers and rice. I also wanted to try the donuts at Mister Donut, a chain that has a good reputation, so I bought a chocolate and an old-fashioned to try. Another thing I love about Japan is the guarantee of a clean, accessible public restroom, pretty much everywhere you look.
We boarded the train a few minutes early and found our seats in the mostly empty green car. I ate all my delicious food as the train sped through bucolic hills and busy towns. The Shinkansen route seems pretty consistently populated, although there are hills all around and pretty frequent glimpses of farmland and water.
I love the feeling of a passing Shinkansen. You feel a kind of reverberation and a whoosh as it flies by. I think I could do nothing but ride the rails here for a couple weeks. The variety is astounding and the quality is unparalleled, although as I write this, I think we might be delayed, we’re just sitting at a station. No matter, more time on the train is never a bad thing here!
We arrived in Kyoto after a pleasant ride and took a taxi to the hotel, with a friendly English speaking driver. Our room wasn’t ready so we took a walk. We are staying in Gion, a historic district which is an entertainment center that’s known for geishas, among other things, although there aren’t that many left. It also has a ton of restaurants, izakayas, boutique shops and of course, some of Kyoto’s most well-known temples and shrines.
We walked through pretty streets with wooden houses to Muraji Ramen, which is a supposedly “trendy” ramen spot. It serves chicken ramen, but it almost acts like pork tonkotsu broth. I had the black ramen with shoyu and Jake had white with shio. We also had delicious Chinese fried rice and decent karate. The place is upstairs, with 2 big tables. I could hardly finish my bowl, not because it was so heavy but because of the depth and richness of the broth. There was so much umami it was almost hard to eat. For dessert I had green tea (matcha) ice cream. The noodles were very good and the bowl was a really interesting kind of hybrid but very filling.
After lunch, we walked down through Gion to the Kennen-ji temple complex, the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Japan. There were still red leaves on some trees in the massive complex, which must have housed hundreds of people at it’s peak. People wearing kimonos are everywhere. I think a ton of people come to Kyoto and buy or rent kimonos to wear around for the day and take pictures. The temple was simple but pretty, especially with the trees in the garden, and we walked around for a while.
From there, we walked across the Kamo river into downtown, central Kyoto, which was very busy and just like a typical city center, with lots of shopping, malls, stores and people. We walked to a coffee place that sounded good, but it was in a mall so we kept going, through the crowded Nishiki Market that we may return to (but may not, as it honestly seemed kind of generic and overhyped and crowded), to Weekender’s Coffee Tominokoji, which is hidden in the back of a parking lot north of the market on a side street. It still amazes me how quickly streets change from busy to quiet here. Weekenders provides beans for many of the best local coffee shops, and they recently opened this tiny unassuming storefront here in a parking lot, I imagine for cost reasons. I liked the coffee, but it was tiny, maybe 6oz for a pour over, which just isn’t enough.
I suggested to Jake that I’ve liked the coffee so far, but except for the one special place in Fukuoka, I don’t think it’s been noticeably different or better than the places I go to in New York or elsewhere in the states. He took issue with that, and I’m obviously spoiled by the preponderance of world-class coffee at home, but I haven’t found it to be remarkable. I’m still hopeful for Kyoto and Tokyo. I think part of it is that I’m partial to cold brew, which doesn’t really exist here. The Kyoto-style cold brews I’ve had haven’t been my favorite, nor have the iced coffees. I’ve had good cappuccinos and drip coffees, but honestly, they’re all on the smaller side and a lot of them feel pretty comparable to a pour over I might make at home. I like the places and the focus of the baristas, but in some ways it feels like another thing that’s been copied from America, but this time it hasn’t been improved.
After the coffee, we walked up through the center back towards the river and into Gion. Jake stopped for a pastry at a bakery. I miss dark bread. The bread here is very white, I think modeled after French bread. We walked back to the hotel and checked in and settled into our room. We still had a couple hours of daylight (I was glad we caught an earlier train) so we headed back out and walked to the nearby Maruyama Park, where we walked through the Yasaka Shrine and some of the temples and gardens in the park, and along a big stone street. We wandered around the park and watched the sun go down, and then walked south into the heart of Gion and Higashiyama (the name for much of the eastern part of Kyoto).
The sheer number of temples and shrines and gardens is a bit overwhelming. I’ll write more about this, I’m sure, but you really feel the weight of history here. We stumbled upon the Ishibeikoji area, a Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings, which had an extremely strict no photos policy. Normally, that makes me more inclined to take photos, but I really felt the weight of the request and abided. I’m not sure why, but it felt more significant and heartfelt. And also matter-of-fact, definitely, with the intense no photos signs everywhere. The streets felt old, and it’s impossible to know what most of the buildings house, but most are probably beyond mortal imagination. The stone and wood were gorgeous and I hope we see more areas like this. Kyoto definitely feels different.
Once we left the historic district, we walked through Gion to the Yasaka-no-tou pagoda, a magnificent five-story pagoda. The best part, honestly, was the crowd of tourists obsessively attempting to take the perfect picture of the pagoda, even though I couldn’t see any ideal angle. A lot of the shops looked interesting, and I think we’ll be back another night.
We walked down towards the river as it got dark. The river seems to act as a natural division between old Kyoto in Higashiyama and modern Kyoto in the center. We walked through old streets and stopped at a 7 Eleven to pick up some toiletries.
We thought we wanted sushi for dinner, but couldn’t find a good place, so we decided we would find yakitori. We walked north to a place I had read about that sounded really great, but it had a big sign outside saying there were no seats available. We looked for another place and found one nearby. It turned out to be perfect. We sat at a table in a quiet yakitori restaurant, Yakitori Tsumugi, with friendly waitresses that spoke some English.
The skewers were about 100 yen each, and we ended up ordering three or four rounds. I had delicious local sake served in a nice container, and each of the skewers was better than the last. The highlights were the skin, which was crunchy and soft, and the “ass chicken,” which I think was genuinely chicken butt, and was soft and juicy. I had a lot of fun making jokes about that, which I won’t share here. The grilled rice ball and the many other skewers were all delicious, too. We must have had about 30 between us, and could have kept going. For the same quality in New York, we would have paid a couple hundred dollars at least, but the bill came to less than 7000 yen, including drinks. Part of what makes a lot of food here (not sushi as much, but noodles, yakitori and things like that) so reasonable is that there’s no tax or tip, so the price is genuinely the price. Workers are paid fair wages, and tipping is heavily discouraged. If you tried to tip, it would signify that you were surprised by the level of service, which would be seriously insulting.
As a side note, I seem to have developed an insatiable taste for rice. If I don’t eat 3-4 bowls of rice or the equivalent) every day, I find myself wanting more. I wonder if that’s just because I’ve become accustomed to it. I’ve been eating a lot, but I don’t feel unhealthy or heavier. If anything, I’m in better shape than when I arrived, despite hardly exercising.
After dinner, we stopped at a sake bar (JAM +SAKE, in the lobby of a hostel), for an early nightcap. I had a sampler of Niigata (on the northern coast of Honshu, north of Tokyo) sake and Jake had one with local Kyoto sake. The three ( was luckily given four because they didn’t quite have enough to fill the third little glass) sakes were really good and progressed from lighter and sweeter to drier and stronger. Always fun to try. The bar was empty and the waitress, who was from China but has lived here for 8 years, asked us a lot of questions about ourselves, our studies and our travels, until we got tired of answering and excused ourselves to head back to the hotel. The room is normal, if a bit small, and the place feels like a real hotel. We have a big day planned tomorrow. There’s so much to see in Kyoto.