Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 2: Kyoto Koan

There's nothing like a warm snuggly futon for a good night's sleep.  We woke up, refreshed and in time for breakfast.  Unlike dinner, breakfast would be served at the restaurant downstairs.  But first we pondered - should we not wear our yukatas downstairs?  Weren't yukatas expected to be worn everywhere in a ryokan?  Which was worse - being dressed in our street clothes while others were dressed in yukatas, or the reverse?  After some handwringing, we took a deep breath and just went with the former.  Surely, as foreigners, we would be forgiven for any faux pas...

Downstairs, we were relieved to find that, while some of our fellow guests were indeed dressed in their yukatas, others were, like us, dressed in their street clothes.  We surmised that it wasn't de rigueur in ryokan hotels, unlike traditional ryokans.  What was traditional though was the breakfast.

the ultimate Big Breakfast

tofu, for sure

a dashi-based soup

something different - brown rice porridge garnished with rice crackers

After breakfast, we ventured down to the basement for one last bath.  On the way there, we were most bemused to see people dressed up in period costumes.  Was this some kind of cosplay convention?  Some of the participants looked a fair bit older than the usual cosplayer...

On the way down to check out, we saw the "cosplayers" moving in and out of a function room.  I put forth the theory that it was some kind of fair where the sales staff had to be in costume.  We didn't get a chance to ask anyone just then; Kumiko-san came by to say goodbye while we were checking out.

After that, we rushed onto the hotel's shuttle bus, with one other departing guest, to be ferried, to the Kintetsu Nara Station.  Enroute though, the shuttle bus driver, having a chat with our fellow passenger, pointed out a film set... "Dorama..." he said in Japanese.  Ah so, mystery solved - the "cosplayers" were in fact actors in some drama (get it?) and the hotel's function room was their green room.

Our original plan had been to proceed to Kyoto in the morning.  However, it had been such a pleasure exploring Nara the day before, we decided not to leave quite so soon, so from Kintetsu Nara Station, we first walked back to Nara Park.

"Oh what a bee-yoo-tee-ful morning..."

"Oh what a bee-yoo-tee-ful day..."

"I have this wonderful feeling everything's going our way..."

Naramachi was the area we had yet to venture into. Literally "Nara Town", it was where the old shophouses had been preserved.  In the Nara period though, the entire area formed the grounds of one of Nara's most important temples then, the Gangoji Temple.  Most of the temple complex had since disappeared, much of it burnt down in the preceding centuries, leaving just a few extant buildings.

formerly a monk's dormitory, now a temple hall

the distinctive lattice work doors and white stucco walls

rows and rows of...

stone buddha images

worn smooth with time

memories & memorials

the original roof tiles (c. 13th century)

The grounds may have been small, but they were picturesque.

what kind of bird

some kind of fruit



The rest of Naramachi consisted of rows and rows of machiya or townhouses.

converted into cafes and restaurants...

... and shops

Amidst the commercial enterprises were the museums like the Naramachi Shiryokan.

a social history museum

preserving artefacts such as these signboards

Unfortunately a number of these institutions were only open on the weekends, so we had to content ourselves what was on the outside.

like these roots that were drying - were these decorative or therapeutic in function?

decorative & functional

decorative but possibly functional

Not everything was closed.

we did manage to catch some exhibitions

And then there was the Naramachi Koshino-ie or Lattice House, a conserved machiya that was open to visitors.

view from downstairs

view from upstairs

the kitchen

the eponymous latticework - note the ingenious pulley system for opening and closing windows

a local tourist

By this time, our stomachs were rumbling.  Kyoto would have to wait till after lunch.

Tempura Asuka - this restaurant caught our eye

inside the restaurant

one of the sets we ordered - before


what was inside the bento box

what was inside the bento box

the house specialty, tempura, of course

Sated, we were finally ready to leave Nara.  We headed for the JR Nara Station on foot.  On the way, we passed by...

a shrine probably

the Sarusawa-ike once again

its denizens

including a grey heron

After that, it was straight down a pedestrian-only street towards the station.  The street though was lined with food...

hmmm, would that be mock seafood?!

As eager as we were to get going, it was hard to ignore the crowd outside this place.

what was everyone hanging around for?

The shop sold mochis.  Oddly enough, they weren't the handmade sort.  It was the novelty of a mochi-making machine that was the draw.

oh look at the machine "lay" mochi

Handmade or otherwise, we had to have some.

we had one each

And those were some of the softest, stickiest mochi we had ever eaten.  Yummy!

finally, the JR Nara Station

We caught the next JR train to Kyoto.

a J(apan) R(ailways) train

Less than an hour later, we arrived at the JR Kyoto Station, and, boy, was it an edifice.

emerging from the platform, this is what it looked like.

Kyoto Station in and of itself was worth a spot of exploration.  (The wonder of travelling without the hassle of luggage - we could dawdle as long as we liked.)  First, we admired the modern steel and glass architecture.

steel and glass

steel and glass

steel and glass

steel and glass

steel and glass

We made our way to the viewing gallery (yes there was one, on the 10th floor).

Kyoto Tower

Then it was teatime so we did as the Japanese do - we stopped for a spot of tea.  Left to my own devices, I would probably have opted for something savoury, like ramen.  HM of course would have none of that.  In any case, the Japanese thing to have would indeed be some form of pastry.

At the station's food court, we found a dessert shop, specialising in ice cream and more.  We had something familiar...

matcha (green tea) ice cream, with warabi mochi and kinoko powder, on a matcha wafer.

HM insisted on trying something new.

a "motfuro" - as far as we could tell, some kind of "sandwich", made with some kind of waffle and Japanese red beans

I dismissed it as some newfangled novelty but had to admit, the chewy texture was surprisingly delectable.  We just couldn't put our finger on what it was made of...

After tea, we took our first subway ride in Kyoto.  Emerging at the Karasuma-Oike junction, we had our first good look at Kyoto.  Our first impression?  If Tokyo was Times Square, Kyoto was 5th Avenue - broad boulevards, stately buildings, smartly dressed people.

We located our hotel, Hotel Monterey Kyoto, but not before getting a little disoriented at the Karasuma-Oike junction.  At check-in, we were politely informed at our luggage had arrived before us.  This was the way to travel indeed!

To be honest, we had been a little concerned about the decor; it had looked a little over the top in photos on the internet.  We were relieved to find that our fears were unfounded!  Our room was striking...

our room

our room

our room

In the evening, we headed out to Gion, the heart of Kyoto's traditional nightlife scene and the district where geishas could still be spotted.  Armed with a one-page bus guide provided by the hotel concierge, we took our maiden ride on a city bus to the Yasaka-jinja or Yasaka Shrine.

the main entrance

inside the shrine

dedications from devotees

not surprisingly, the shrine's devotees were businesses in the area

never too late for a blessing

a beautiful moonlit night

The lanes of Gion were lined with restaurants and bars, much as it must have for centuries, with well-preserved machiyas even.  We wandered around for a bit, indeed catching a glimpse of kimonos and powdered faces trotting down small lanes, disappearing into dark entrances and getting into posh cars, but no more than that.  It was cold out and dinner beckoned.  Serious geisha-spotting would have to wait.

Most of the dining options in the area seemed exorbitantly priced and/or exclusive so we chose a mid-range option which, more importantly, was guaranteed to serve a piping hot meal - a shabu shabu restaurant!

small and cosy

the side dishes - my favourite was the tofu-equivalent of a "lion's head" meatball (bottom right-hand corner)

nicely marbled beef

the veggies for the pot

It was just the thing we needed to get warmed up.  Fortified, we sallied forth to continue our exploration.

Out on the main street, we were happy to discover a dango mochi stand.  We had just eaten but HM has yet to encounter a mochi she can resist.

all kinds of mochi

And I discovered a type of mochi that was just my cup of tea - savoury mochi!

coated with a soy sauce and sugar syrup and grilled to caramel-ly goodness

That served as dessert.  Across the road from the mochi stall was this big building.

clearly some kind of institution

We made a mental note to find out what the building was.

We plunged back into the warren of small lanes, following Lonely Planet's walking tour itinerary.

rows and rows of machiya

Right at the end of one of the lanes was the bridge, Tatsumi-bashi, which overlooked the Shirakawa Canal.

scenic spot especially at night

Next to it was the Tatsumi Shrine.

where hostesses and mama-sans reputedly prayed for good business

We waited around a bit but didn't catch any hostesses or mama-sans in action.  Perhaps it was the wrong time of evening.  Onwards we walked, passing more...

... exclusive restaurants and bars

We finally came across some cheap eats, as recommended by LP.  Near the main road was Issen Yoshoku, an okonomiyaki joint.

food being freshly prepared

all ready to go

spot the waiting customer!

We considered trying one but were still too full from dinner and dessert to eat anything else.

From that corner, we crossed the road.  According to our LP guide, this was the grand ol' kabuki theatre, the Minami-za.

mystery solved!

From there, we crossed the river, Kamo-gawa, to Pontocho, an even narrower alley.  Still paved with cobble stones and lined with traditional buildings, we could almost step back in time...

... except for the liberal use of modern day neon!

We noted that, amidst the high-end restaurants and bars, there were indeed more casual izakaya and even...

... street food

We would have to return on another night to check out the possibilities.

Back at the bus stop, the audience from the Minami-za was just spilling out of the building after a show, proving that kabuki was still popular.  While they milled around, possibly wondering where to head to next, we boarded our bus.  It was time to call it a night.

1 comment:

  1. I miss Kyoto more than I miss Tokyo. Hahahaha! I didn't get to visit Gion in the day. In fact, I so want to return to Kyoto!