I enjoyed the free breakfast again. We walked through Higashiyama and stopped at the % Arabica Coffee here, which was much quieter and more pleasant than the Arashiyama location (although it was mobbed at 5pm when I walked by the other day). I had a cappuccino, which is a drink I’ve been enjoying recently when I want something a bit lighter than black coffee, and we sat and watched the other patrons take selfies with their coffee.
We walked up to Kiyomizu-Dera, a temple complex overlooking the city in southern Higashiyama. I would have gotten up early but the main temple is under construction and hidden by scaffolding so I think I’ll come back next time. The temples and colors are beautiful but the crowds were horrendous. Jake compared it to Florence, almost like a city full of relics and history but overrun by crowds, which I think is more apt than my earlier Rome comparison. I think most of the tourists are domestic (and maybe Chinese and South Korean too). There is a modern side of the city, but it doesn’t seem to have much energy.
We decided not to pay to enter as the main building is covered in scaffolding, so we just walked around a bit and then were cornered by two middle school girls who wanted to ask us some questions, I presume for a school project or something (although Jake suggested that it was the government keeping tabs on tourist activity).
We walked down through crowded Higashiyama across the river and into a quiet downtown area between the station and the shopping/entertainment district. I passed lots of cool construction, which never ceases to entertain me. We walked to the Higashi Honganji temple, which was pretty huge. After, we headed to Kyoto station, where I got more data at the BIC Camera store, after more than 2 days without it, I felt relieved, but it had also been nice to not have the option to constantly be on my phone. But happy to be mapping again. We passed Kyoto Tower, which opened in 1964 and is the tallest structure in the city. It’s been controversial since it’s inception, and I found it to be an eyesore. It reminded me of a lighthouse, but one designed by an amateur. It certainly has no place in this city (which is where a lot of the controversy comes from), although I guess when you walk by temples located next to apartment complexes and chain stores, it’s almost moot. The modern glass facade of the massive Kyoto Station and the sight of the tower are certainly in stark contrast to the temples dotting all of Kyoto.
We headed to lunch, but the ramen place we tried first, Honke Daichii Asahi, had a line, and it sounded like it might be extremely salty (the broth), so instead we walked back the way we came and a little north of the station found a wonderful little ramen counter specializing in miso tsukumen, Ginjo Ramen Kubota. I ordered a large with an egg and a side of rice at the machine and sat at the counter, where I watched the two chefs produce two bowls of hot, thick dipping broth and dangerously chewy, thick tsukumen noodles, served cool. My portion was indeed large and I actually nearly ran out of dipping broth by the time I was done, so I didn’t really get to have any soup (which you make by pouring dashi broth into your remaining dipping sauce). Nevertheless, the noodles were firm, the egg was perfectly boiled and the miso was thick, rich and flavorful and just a bit spicy. I was also really proud of myself, as I managed not to get a single drop of anything on my bib, which I like to wear when available as a precaution. Most of the times I stain my clothes happen while eating noodles. I left happy, thinking that there should be more good tsukumen in the U.S.
We were close to the next stop on our agenda, Nishi Honganji temple, which along with Higashi Honganji, is the head temple of one of the two main sects of Shin Buddhism. Nishi represents the Jodo Shinshu sect, and dates to the 14th century. The buildings are mostly original, and they’re pretty striking. I really liked the interior of the two main halls, especially the chandelier-like golden things hanging from the ceiling. You have to take your shoes off to enter, and you’re provided with a plastic bag to carry them in, so there’s this kind of strange scene where people enter and exit carrying plastic bags holding their shoes.
I know it’s a relatively meaningless designation, but we’ve seen so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the last four days that I’ve honestly lost count. The concentration of major temples and shrines in Kyoto and Nara, the two major former capitals of Japan, is pretty incredible.
I really admire all the temples and shrines I’ve seen both architecturally and spiritually, and I really appreciate how significant they are for so many people and how much history they contain, but I also find myself not really feeling anything. I find these spaces more powerful and resonant than Western religious spaces, but they’re still really just cool old buildings made of wood or something to me. Some of the gardens have resonated more with me, and a lot of the quieter spaces. Maybe nature and peace are universal but religion and spiritually are subjective and selective. I like that. And I can of course appreciate the impact for the people who come here. There is something weird about standing inside the temple grounds and hearing construction and car engines.
The image of the stressed, drunk salaryman is honestly pretty accurate. You really notice it everywhere, from ramen counters to izakayas to public transportation to just walking down the street. It helps (or doesn’t) that pretty much all the men wear similar clothing. I think I talked about that already, actually, but it bears repeating. Also, people (mostly men, but also teenagers and the occasional woman) smoking everywhere is really noticeable, especially because smoking is pretty confined to restricted areas. Some restaurants and bars still allow smoking, too, although most that we’ve been to have not. There’s a lot of vaping everywhere. Jake and I have been talking about how interesting the smoking and drinking cultures are, especially because the Japanese are so strict about other drugs. Weed is obviously less harmful than cigarettes, so I wonder whether it’s a cultural thing or just conservatism and tradition.
Two more random thoughts. The lights are really so so long here; sometimes it feels like I’m waiting forever for the light to turn green. When I visited Georgetown in Washington D.C., there’s a light that counts down from 70 or so, and I laughed about how long that was. Now, that pales in comparison to some of the lights I’ve had to endure waiting for.
There are also hardly any bike lanes. People are both aggressive and also not simultaneously. They’ll run you over but won’t use their bell or horn to ask you to move to the side. Bikes act as pedestrians and even when there are dedicated bike lanes, they’re mostly ignored, as far as I’ve observed. I think many people do ride bikes (mostly without helmets), but there doesn’t seem to be the same biking culture and certainly not the same emphasis on safety, which is curious.
From Nishi Honganji, we walked to the Kyoto Railway Museum, which is about 20 minutes west of the station overlooking a huge railyard and train tracks. I couldn’t come to Kyoto without going to one of the three biggest train museums in Japan (actually, Kyoto is the largest)! The others are in Nagoya and Saitama (a Tokyo suburb), which I probably won’t get to on this trip. The museum has 53 retired railway vehicles on display, some of which you can walk through (although most are closed off). More of the emphasis is on steam trains and older cars, although there are some early Shinkansen models and more recent examples that are interesting too (The other two museums are more present and forward-looking). There were interactive models and displays, even if most of the information wasn’t available in English, and many, many children having a blast. For once, the kids didn’t annoy me, since I would have been one of them (and in a way, still am).
Outside, there’s an old turntable and roundhouse with about a dozen old steam engines, which reminded me of Thomas the Tank Engine (in all his authoritarian glory). We weren’t able to try the driving simulator, which requires you to enter a lottery for a timed ticket, or see the larger model display that happens every couple of hours, but the museum was still really fascinating. The best part was the terrace on the roof, which overlooked the rail yard. I had been standing by the edge waiting for a train to go by for no more than 30 seconds before a Shinkansen came into view. I watched for about 10 minutes as more bullet trains and various local trains came and went. It felt like I was watching a model train display from above, but it was real life.
See the above link for a video of a passing train (and a Thunderbird, the train to Kanazawa). We left the museum and walked back towards the station. I decided to stop at Kurasu Coffee as we had a few minutes before our train. I was so happy I did, as they had cold brew. Real cold brew! I told the very friendly barista how happy I was and she informed me that it’s more readily available in the summer, but hard to find in the winter, as I’ve found. She says Kurasu serves it year round because some of its regulars like it. I want to meet those regulars! Even better, she pulled out a Hario cold brew bottle identical to mine (well, with the regular brown top instead of my bright blue) and poured me a delicious, smooth cold brew. I was so happy that I looked at the coffee implements for sale and settled on a nice scoop. I also got a sticker, and I decided to come back in the morning on the way to Kyoto Station for another coffee and maybe some more merch. The two baristas were also by far the friendliest I’ve encountered, especially since leaving Tokyo.
We got to Kyoto Station and hopped on the Nara line for 2 quick stops to Inari Station. From the station, it’s just a few steps to the bottom of the Fushimi Inari Taisha, the head Inari shrine (there are tens of thousands of sub-shrines around Japan). The main shrine area, where its main structures sit, was mobbed, even in the late afternoon.
Jake had a hilarious thought while riding the local Nara line to the Fushimi Inari shrine. What if people came into the train here and performed similar antics to New York: swinging from the poles, singing, dancing, asking for money. On this silent, somber car. I’m honestly not sure what the reaction would be, but it’s such a funny image.
We walked up the path through seemingly endless pathways of torii gates, which seemed to unhelpfully get taller and wider as we climbed, even as the tourist hoardes thinned out. There are around 10,000 torii gates on the main path of the shrine, each of which has been donated by a Japanese business (that has its name inscribed on the gate). The shrine is open 24 hours a day, and it takes maybe an hour each way to climb to the top of the path.
The first few minutes and first two legs of torii gates almost felt like a roller coaster or a ride of some kind, as you were shepherded along amidst the selfie stick-wielding, slow-walking, loudmouthed tourists. It was really something. After the first two sections, though, it quickly calmed down, and we walked up a bit higher, enjoying the torii-covered pathways and the natural beauty. The light was also beautiful as it approached dusk. We were both pretty tired and didn’t really feel like climbing up to the top in the dark, so we turned around and strolled back down, pausing to admire the sunset. We took the Keihan Railway (the local this time) back to Gion and returned to the hotel to refresh before dinner.
We were both in the mood for yakitori, so we tried a few places, but they were all either expensive or full or didn’t look good, so we ended up back at Tsumugi, the same place as Monday night, which was again quiet and local and great. We were so hungry, so we ordered a ton of skewers, and then another couple of rounds. I branched out a little and tried some new pieces, including some crunchy cartilage and tasty neck. I love that they brought big bowls of rice, too. It’s like they’re not just trying to get you to order as much as possible. If anything, the bowls get bigger each time you order another.
We were full and happy after dinner, and we walked briskly back to Nokishita for one last masterpiece from Tomo. It was busy and some Americans from Baltimore started talking to us, but I was pretty focused on Tomo’s wizardry. I asked him to make me a drink with shochu and he responded magnificently, with a drink made from bamboo (home distilled) gin, shochu, lemon, cinammon, coriander, lemon, and maybe some other spices, in a little rice bowl with lines running all around.
I was going to ask for another drink but Tomo walked out and announced he was making a run for more eggs. He returned in remarkable time and resumed furiously mixing his drinks. I thought the quality might suffer because of the rush, but they were the same as ever. It’s something I’m normally a bit squeamish about in the states, but I feel pretty good consuming a drink with egg whites here, especially after I saw Tomo run out for fresh ones. Food standards are so stringent here. That’s one of the reasons there’s so much food waste. I was really disappointed when I learned there’s almost no composting to speak of. There’s a lot of waste here, from food to the constant stream of plastic bags everyone seems to accumulate.
Back at the bar, we were cornered by one of the Americans, a well-meaning but awkward game developer who wanted to show us the latest production he worked on, a mobile game that was pretty much a knock-off of Clash Royale or a similar popular game. Jake got roped into playing a few turns and I pretended not to pay attention. I instead got another drink, the Botanical Garden, which came in a fishbowl with flowers and indeed reminded me of a botanical garden. It was just a really good gin and tonic, a bit floral.
Before leaving, I asked Tomo to surprise me with one more drink and his face lit up, despite how crowded it was. He returned shortly and handed me a glass filled with dark liquid and said, this is my favorite new drink, it’s a coffee negroni. How did he know!? Two of my favorite things. Like every other coffee Negroni I’ve had, it was amazing, maybe even the best. I asked him what was in it and he told me it was his own coffee gin, with very strong coffee, and Campari. I was delighted. I had had enough to drink at that point, so I said a wistful goodbye to Tomo, left some cash (I can’t get over the pay-what-you-wish policy), and returned to the hotel to pack and get ready to leave in the morning.
Wishing there was a branch of Nokishita in New York,