Author Archives: DebHallSF

Kyoto

Shrines, temples, temples within shrines, shrines within temples, they are everywhere we’ve visited, especially in this city and nearby Nara. Many Japanese consider themselves to be both Shinto and Buddhist, which explains the mix of practices. To show respect, wash hands before approaching a shrine. Toss in a coin, bow twice, clap twice, pray, then bow again. Cleanse in incense at temples, then bow once.

We wrapped up our organized tour in Kyoto, spending a couple sight-filled days with our new friends. With four extra days, Nancy and I took a couple side trips and saw a few more sights in this comfortable city. With a population of about 1.5 million, it’s not overwhelming like Tokyo.

April 7, 2017 – Torii Gates and Bamboo Forest

We took a short local train from Kurashiki, then a Shinkansen, arriving in Kyoto late in the morning, finding warmer, but mistier weather. After checking into our hotel, we walked back to the JR station, a huge complex, first going to the top for a cloudy view of the city (Team Stairs beat Team Escalator to the top, guess which one I was in). We had ramen for lunch, ordering from a machine. Mine came with a side order of rice and chicken that was better than the main dish. From there, we took a subway and walked to see the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, with 10,000 torii gates and numerous small shrines dating back centuries. That may not be an exaggeration; we walked through hundreds of vermillion gates, but not nearly all of them. What an amazing place! With more time, I would climb to the top of the mountain.

When I saw Mari pull a cute, facecloth-sized towels from her bag, I realized why these are for sale everywhere; almost none of the restrooms provide towels, conserving paper to help make up for the excess packaging on most purchased items. We took a subway and train to our next stop: the bamboo grove in the Arashiyama district of western Kyoto. Mari challenged us to come up with a haiku about the bamboo forest, here’s mine:

Leafy green columns
Dark and peaceful in the mist
Unseen birds chirping

Another our walk, I had another yummy crepe served like an ice cream cone, served from the side of a small van. Back in town, we picked up dinner in the Isetan basement, salad and a mango smoothie. Nancy and I had a bit of a challenge getting connected to WiFi and had to arrange a call from an English-speaking tech specialist.

April 8 – Temples, Tea Ceremony, and Farewell Dinner

Beep-boop, beep-boop, chirp, chirp-chirp, beep-boop, beep-boop, chirp, chirp-chirp, … these sounds are found at every signal we’ve encountered throughout Japan. We heard them throughout the night in our hotel room across from the train station. (Window opened to get some air). We were pleased to discover that breakfast was included, though this time it was a very crowded place with a much smaller selection than our first hotel, in Tokyo.

After our meal, we took a subway to the Gion district and walked from the Chion-in Temple (shrouded in construction cloth) to the Kiyomize-dera Temple. Lots of cherry blossoms, bringing lots of people. We then split up and headed in a few directions. I had hoped to return to our hotel for an afternoon break, but that was only wishful thinking since our morning excursion took longer than anticipated. Instead, I hopped on a bus back to the Gion District with Marty and Dori. We crossed the river, had lunch, walked through a shopping district, then caught a subway to our rendezvous spot at the T10 subway station. Nancy caught a cab with Raj, Katy, and Alana to go knife shopping.

We reconnected for a tea ceremony at the Hosomi Museum, a welcome, peaceful break in our otherwise too busy day. We learned how to prepare, serve, and drink green, powdered matcha tea. From there we headed back to our neighborhood for a farewell dinner – sashimi, tempura, roast pumpkin, and tofu. We had considered a night of karaoke, but were all too tired. I dropped everything and crashed. Packing could wait until morning.

April 9 – Goodbye Hugs

 Mari air-dropped photos she’d taken along the way, we confirmed email addresses, and gave everyone a final hug. Some are heading home, some have a few more days of travel. I’ll miss Marty’s and Raj’s humor, morning walks with Dori, Mari’s great smile, and everyone’s good company. May you all have safe travels; perhaps we’ll meet again. Nancy and I headed to the train station to visit Nara, followed by side trips to Hiroshima and Miyajama (see earlier posts),

April 11 – Back from Miyajima

We stopped at a 7 Eleven on our way back to our room in Kyoto where we picked up items for dinner and breakfast, my standard: yogurt and a rice ball (onigiri, often triangular and wrapped in seaweed). These convenience stores, and another chain called Family Mart, are all over the place.

April 12 – Cherry Blossoms, Temples, and a Castle

I woke up early, as usual, wrote a bit for my blog, then headed out for an early walk before Nancy got up. I returned to some of the sights we saw a few days ago, covering in reverse our path from Kiyomizu-deru Temple to Maruyama Park, enjoying the lack of people.

I returned to our lodging, anticipating a leisurely final day, but Nancy had a burst of energy so we walked to the Nijo-jo Castle. It wasn’t raining, but I had to dig out a couple warmer items from my suitcase. Though also surrounded by a moat, the architecture was totally different from the castle we saw in Matsumoto. This one was a whole complex of low buildings with murals of tigers, trees, and birds. The restored entry gate was amazing.

From there we caught a bus to the Kinkakuji Temple, a.k.a. Golden Pavilion. We arrived at closing time, hoping to avoid crowds, but that wasn’t possible. Fortunately, visitors are separated from the pavilion by a pond and we were able to appreciate it in the afternoon light that broke through the clouds.

I was exhausted when we boarded a bus for a 45-minute ride back to our neighborhood, so I was happy to get a seat. We had our last Japanese dinner, more sashimi than anticipated, such as in our salad, but satisfying. According to the health app on my phone, I walked 10.5 miles, a record for this trip. Before I started, I worried that I’d get out of shape for my next big adventure, hiking in the alps; instead I averaged over 15,000 steps a day!

April 13 – Home Again

Our alarm went off at 5:00 and the taxi arrived promptly at 6:00, whisking us to the bus station in five minutes. We took an hour-long bus ride to the Kansai airport. After spending my last few yen on novelty yummies, I realized that I left my carefully packed bag of breakfast and plane snacks on the counter. Fortunately, Nancy found an onigiri and bag of the crunchies I’ve been enjoying, small rice crackers mixed with peanuts, at a place that accepts credit cards. (Many places accept only cash, unlike in Iceland where credit cards could be used for everything).

On the flights home, we had a layover in Seoul, I finished reading, 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Cathy Davidson, a series of interesting observations about the culture based on her experience teaching English there in the 1980-90’s.

I’m going to miss Japanese toilets, the kind with warm seats, not the squat ones. (I’m going to put one in my bathroom when I remodel). I’ll also miss cherry blossoms (of all varieties), sculptured trees, bowing merchants, quiet voices, Japanese gardens, torii gates, wafts of incense, the peacefulness found at many temples and shrines even when crowded, robust and reliable public transit, fresh sushi, peach water, and strawberry mochi. I won’t miss crowds of people, ugly, utilitarian buildings, prefab bathrooms that stub my toes, futons (we slept on the floor about a third of the time), tofu or noodles. I look forward to a soft bed, affordable fresh fruit, and seeing my friends, family, and cats.

P.S. When I got home, I was surrounded by a whirlwind of obligations and commitments, a common occurrence for me post-travel, so it took a while to get this last post out. Now I need to start work on a slide show.

Hiroshima and Miyajima

We took an overnight trip to the magical island of Miyajima, stopping in Hiroshima on our way to visit the Peace Park.

April 10 – Peace Park and Shrine Tour

We left most of our luggage behind at our airbnb in Kyoto and traveled with our backpacks, via Shinkansen, to Hiroshima. It was overcast when we boarded the red tour bus that took us directly from the JR station to the Atomic Bomb Dome, it’s shell left standing as a reminder of the horrors of nuclear warfare. We spent a couple hours visiting the numerous monuments throughout the park and briefly touring the museum; I couldn’t stay long, the images and tattered remains were too depressing.

We then caught a fast, direct boat to Miyajima, getting to the island in about 45 minutes. As on Nara, Sika Deer wander through town; I helped another tourist recovered her booklet from one. When we picked up a map at the tourist information center, we were thrilled to hear than our hotel, Jukeiso, offers a shuttle service. We were picked up 15 minutes and whisked uphill, bypassing the congested main village, and delivered to the nicest place we’ve stayed on our trip. (It was also the most expensive and the only one available when we tried to book a room a couple weeks ago). Though I’m not fond of sleeping on thin, hard futons, our room was spacious with a pleasant view.

From there, it was a short walk down a stone staircase to the shrine and its famous torii gate. It was low tide so many people were walking out to touch it. The shrine, and whole island, feels peaceful. A light misty rain began as we wandered down shop-lined Omotesando street. I bought one of the wooden dolls I’ve been eyeing since we arrived. We returned along the shore.

Back up in our room, we changed into yukata robes and slippers for a fishy feast – sashimi, sushi, salad with fish, beef sukiyaki, tempura with prawns, fish, and veggies, tofu, rice, miso, and a few unidentifiable items, plus an Asahi and dessert! I was as stuffed as at Thanksgiving. Afterwards, I took a 5-minute walk to the shore to photograph the lighted torii gate, now at high tide. I got back to our room just in time for our half-hour soak in the private onsen with an opening overlooking the hillside and down to the torii gate. This stop makes a perfect bookend to Mt. Fuji, which we visited early in our trip.

April 11 – Rainy Stroll on Miyajima

I took a short walk up to the Daishoin Temple in the morning; it was raining harder than I realized, so I didn’t stay out long. We had breakfast at our hotel, included with our room, Japanese for me (rice, salmon, cooked this time); Nancy chose Western food (eggs cooked with bacon and toast). I would gladly have traded my warm tofu for her yogurt, but was otherwise happy with my choice.

The rain slowed a bit, so we walked back to the port, climbing up to the base of the five-storied pagoda on our way. I paid to enter hall of adjacent Hokoku Temple, removing my shoes, so I could take pictures without getting my camera wet. I had left my umbrella behind in Kyoto, so I was dripping by the time we boarded the ferry (my lightweight rain shell passed the test and kept me dry). From the ferry terminal it was about a half hour train ride back to the station where we caught a Shinkansen back to Kyoto.

 

 

Nara

After reaching our final destination, Kyoto, we took a couple side trips. I’m going to cover these first before wrapping up with Kyoto after we get home. Our tour, while wonderful, offered too little down time for me to keep up with photo sorting. Now that Nancy and I are on our own again, we’re slowing our pace, a bit.

Established as Japan’s first permanent capital in 710, Nara is less than an hour south of Kyoto. It contains some of the oldest and largest temples in the country.

April 9 – Nara

We stopped at tourist information and planned our route through town. It was Palm Sunday and we saw priest and a few people singing, holding palm fronds. Only about one percent of the population is Christian. Wild, but tame sika deer, native to Japan, were wandering about everywhere. Up until 1637 they were considered sacred and killing one was punishable by death. Now they follow tourists around seeking out deer crackers prepared for their consumptions; one nibbled my map. The city was filled with tourists, many taking pictures of the deer and cherry blossoms.

Isuien Garden was peaceful and provided a glimpse of Todaiji Temple gate, the only one we would see not covered in construction cloth. In the temple, we saw one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha. Fifteen meters tall, this seated Buddha is flanked by two Bodhisattvas and numerous small buddhas. From there is was uphill, past many sights, to the Kasuaga Taisha Shrine, filled with hundreds of lanterns (tōrō). We took a bus back down to the train station.

 

 

Kurashiki

It took us three trains and much of the day to reach Kurashiki, the southernmost spot we are visiting on Honshu, the main Japanese island. We left the cold weather behind and I moved my warm clothes at the bottom of my suitcase. We spent a day and a half here, strolling along the river and riding bicycles through rice fields.

April 5 – Stoll through Old Town

We checked into our hotel in mid-afternoon and walked a block to the old part of town where we strolled along the river, glad to have finally reached the land of blooming trees. Nancy and I walked uphill to the shrine. She stared aghast at the length of the staircase. The temple closed before we reached it, but we enjoyed the beautiful light, peach ice cream (closer to sorbet), and laughed through dinner with a waiter who spoke no English and kept trying to get us to order things we didn’t want. Fortunately, Mari, our guide, was persistent. Nancy and I split a couple dishes, including a tasty rice porridge with chicken and veggies.

April 6 – Kibiji Bike Ride

We took a couple short train rides to reach the beginning of our 22 km ride on the Kibiji bike route. Our one-speed bicycles had comfortable seats and a basket in front like in ET or the Wizard of Oz; this came in handy for holding the bottle of peach water I purchased at a vending machine and the lunch we picked up at the largest grocery store we’ve seen in Japan. We rode through rice fields and stopped at ancient sights – shrines, temples, and burial mounds. It was overcast at the start, then the rain started so we skipped a few sights in the second half. It was only one train back from Araki, our endpoint, to Kurashiki.

Back in town we strolled along the canal, picking up peach cider to drink with crepes served like ice cream cones. My strawberry, chocolate, custard combo is the best dessert I’ve had in Japan.

 

 

Takayama

We took a bus ride through the snow over the Japanese Alps (many tunnels) to reach this town in the Gifu Prefecture. We spent two nights in a traditional guesthouse, with one day to tour a folk village and explore the town.

April 3 – Traditional Guest House

We arrived in late afternoon. Our host picked up our luggage from the bus station and we walked, in a light rain, to our guesthouse near a large torii gate along the river. We stored our shoes and put on slippers, which we slipped off before walking onto the tatami mats in our rooms. After settling in, we donned yukata (house robes) and went downstairs to see a beautiful dinner spread out before us. We sat on mats and enjoyed many new dishes eaten in a specific order. Before bed, I enjoyed a soak in the onsite onsen, the small soaking pool filled from a local hot spring.

April 4 – Hida Village and Beef

After a beautifully presented breakfast at our guesthouse, we strolled through the morning market selling food to the locals and souvenirs to the tourists, walked through a temple, and caught a bus uphill for a tour of Hida No Sato, a demonstration folk village. The buildings, covering a variety of styles were relocated from around the area, some of them due to be flooded after a dam construction. In general, the insides were dark and cold. Fires would have been burning continuously making them smoky. Some of the top floors were dedicated to the raising of silkworms.

Back in town, we split into two groups for lunch. Nancy and I joined Marty for pizza, thin crust and yummy, while the others went to a restaurant serving soba noodles. (I’m tired of noodles). Next we went sake tasting. Of the five we tried, we agreed that the freshest and the plum versions were the best. The former required refrigeration so I bought a bottle of the later to take home. With a couple hours before our rendezvous at the torii gate, I visited the shrine, then headed uphill to Kitayama Park which had nice views of the town and mountains. I almost dropped my camera here when the strap holder detached from my camera, a problem I’ve never heard of in all my years of photography.

Six of us walked back to a restaurant we’d spotted earlier serving Hida beef, apparently almost as famous as Kobe beef. My beef bowl was indeed delicious and the sukiyaki that Raj let us taste virtually melted in my mouth; I never imagined beef could be this tender, though I don’t expect to convert to being a regular beef eater. Our already enjoyable meal reached another level of hilarity when I returned from the restroom to report on the latest invention we have encountered, a toilet seat that rises when the door is opened. The inside of the bowl also lit up with blue light. Marty then checked it our and reported that in the men’s room, both lids raised and music came on. The locals probably thought we’d lost our minds.

 

 

Matsumoto

Another one-night stop, this time to see the Matsumoto Castle, also known as the Crow Castle due to its black exterior. Built on a plain in the 16th century, it was surrounded by moats and gatehouses for protection.

April 2 – Castle at Night

When we reached Matsumoto, another town in Nagano prefecture, it was late afternoon. After checking in to our hotel, a block away, we returned to the station to buy tickets for our future trip to Miyajima. All of our credit cards, two each, were rejected. Stumped, we finally tried charging one ticket each and the charges went through. Security measures must be rejecting the purchase of multiple tickets.

While I was tempted to sign up for a massage, instead I enticed Nancy and Alana to take a taxi up to the Matsumoto Castle for night photos. It was beautiful. We virtually had the place to ourselves. With nearby streets deserted, we didn’t even try to find a cab; it took only 15 minutes to walk back. We stopped for another tasty Japanese dinner on the way, avoiding the restaurant serving horsemeat.

April 3 – Crow Castle

I had a delightful morning walk with Dori and Martyn before breakfast, taking a loop up past the castle and discovering Nawate, a street lined with shops, on our way back. Initially located between the river and the castle moat, horse carriages were not allowed; it is still vehicle-free. Later, as Nancy and I were wondering about all the frog sculptures, a shopkeeper handed us a slip of paper explaining that it’s some sort of word play on the multiple meanings of the Japanese word “kaeru” meaning buy, go home safely, or frog, depending on which characters are used.

After our walk, we met our group in the lobby and walked back up to the castle for a one-hour tour of the inside. We took off our shoes and walked in our socks across the dark, cold, smooth wood floors. We were shown a hidden third floor, not visible from the outside, that was used for storage, a closing window grate that enabled the samurai to block return fire after they used their firearms, and various display cases, mostly of weaponry. The steps up to the top floors are quite steep.

We had a few hours to wander around town. Nancy spotted a café called Sweet that turned out to be so yummy that we flagged down the rest of our travelers and let them know about it. Started about a century ago, in Seattle, this bakery has been in the same family for four generations. We had the lunch special, a half sandwich of curried chicken, another half with the best egg salad I’ve eaten away from home, a small salad, and a refreshing fruit dish with grapefruit. After that it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and head onto our next stop.

 

 

 

 

Nagano

I don’t care for one-night stays, but this stop was definitely worthwhile. (If on my own, I’d make this a two-night stop, time permitting). We made oyaki buns, toured an ancient temple and saw snow monkeys.

April 1 – Zenkō-ji Temple

I met Dori in the lobby in Tokyo and we walked for an hour, holding umbrellas, before meeting the rest of our group in the lobby. Our guide, Mari, had trouble with her ticket, so we barely made our bullet train. We jumped on the first open car and pulled our luggage through six moving cars to get to our seats.

After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we took a bus to the top of town, a short distance, where we stopped to make oyaki buns filled with bean paste and veggies, one of each. We rolled the dough and stuffed them, then took a 20-minute stroll while they cooked. Two rolls each with miso soup was a perfect lunch.

After lunch, we toured the Zenkoji temple, built in the 7th century before Buddhism in Japan split into different sects. It contains a hidden Buddha statue, believed to be the first Buddha statue brought to Japan. A replica is shown to the public every six years, but no one alive has seen the original. We took off our shoes and walked in a pitch-black tunnel beneath it, feeling our way along the smooth, well-worn wooden wall on our right. After wandering the grounds, we strolled back down to our hotel, enjoying being back in a human-scaled city.

We are in another hotel with a bathroom clearly assembled as a module offsite; I keep tripping over the step, especially confusing when one side is deeper than the other.

April 2 – Snow Monkey Park

Despite the blackout curtains, I woke up again at 5:30, sunrise; it’s a good thing we haven’t been staying out late. I looked out the window to see clear skies with snow-capped peaks in the distance. We had breakfast in the room; I had a rice patty filled with bits of veggies and meat, a banana, sold individually wrapped in a plastic bag, and a yogurt-like substance that I later learned was soy bean yogurt. (Raj’s phone app translated the label as “Act Love Struck, Bean’s Milk”; I’m guessing the former is the brand name).

We took a forty-minute ride to Snow Monkey Park, mountains visible to our left. The walk from the bus stop to the park is about a mile and a half uphill, a challenge for Nancy especially since the last 1.6 km was a muddy snow-lined trail. It felt good to hike and I was excited to see my first snow monkey along the way, possibly one of the males that live on their own most of the year. The females and youngsters live communally in their troop. The park was relatively small with a manmade pond along a thermal stream. These red-faced Japanese macaques are acclimatized to people; the monkeys frolicked about ignoring us.

We had lunch at a café just outside the stairway leading up to the park, then caught a bus and train back to Nagano. Our ticket covered transportation and entry fees, others arrived by car and had a shorter walk to the park. We then rolled our suitcases back to the JR (train) and headed to our next stop, about an hour away.