Two Wild Bazilchuks in Kyoto

Last week, my mother came to visit me here in Kyoto and I took a few days off from work to get in some sightseeing. I’ve done a little sightseeing on my own, but I seem to gravitate more towards the ‘can I run there?’ than actually walking around and looking at things like a good little tourist. Here’s what we did; some of it is most definitely on the beaten track, while others are more on their own little side trail.

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Mom enjoying herself despite jeglag in Gion.

The first afternoon, I took an extremely jetlagged Mom to Gion. The Gion district is where old Kyoto lives on, and is famous for being the area where the geishas lived and trained. All the tacky tourist shops in the world (and there are plenty) can't seem to rob the mystique from Gion. In a weird juxtaposition of old and new, people wander around Gion in rental kimonos, often taking selfies. My favorite feature of Gion is all of the houses that have trees growing in closed-off courtyards, giving the impression that the trees are emerging from the houses themselves.

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Trees appear to grow out of the houses in Gion.

We walked from Kawaramachi up to Kiyomizudera temple, which takes about an hour depending on how much you stop. I still haven’t been inside any of the temples in the this area. It’s kind of enough just to walk around and soak in the ambiance. Afterwards we had okonomiyaki, a kind of Japanese savory pancake, at a little restaurant called Kiraku at the foot of Kiyomizu.

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Okonomiyaki (left), fried noodles (center) and grilled Japanese yam with bonito (right).

The next day, after a refreshing morning run, we headed out to walk the Kawaramachi shopping district and the Nishiki market. We stopped for what we thought would be a quick cup of coffee at a little café near Karasuma station. They had the world’s slowest service; it literally took 20 minutes to place our order and another 30 minutes for the baristas to make 2 cups of coffee. I will not be frequenting that one...

After quickly downing our so slowly prepared lattes, we headed to Nishiki market. This large covered market seems to go on forever. They sell all kinds of strange Japanese food, making me wish I knew what everything was. There were colorful pickled vegetables in all varieties, cracker-like snack foods in all shapes and sizes, various fried things on sticks (I tried something with quails eggs), and even a shop making fresh bonito flakes, a staple of the Japanese kitchen. In addition to the food shops there was also a Snoopy shop and a number of other fun, little boutiques. It took a long time to walk through the whole market due to the crowds, and we were bombarded with new sights and smells the whole time. The whole experience was pretty cool, if a little claustrophobic. 

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Mom considers the pickled vegetables at Nishiki Market.

Next we went to a very large and posh department store called Takashimaya for lunch. The restaurant area was on the top floor, and we ascended through several floors of luxury goods before we saw the kimono floor. They had some truly breathtaking silk kimonos for sale there - I would go there just to check them out! There were numerous busy restaurants on the top floor, and we finally picked one with only a moderate line. The food was beautifully presented in typical Japanese fashion.

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Clockwise from the left: Udon noodles with tempura shrimp, mystery side (probably involved pickled vegetables), sweet rice wrapped in tofu ’skin’. The little bottle in the center is Japanese seven spice, a condiment I am growing to adore since I like to add a little spice to my food.

Next we took the train out to Inari to visit Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for the rows of torii. I wanted to hike up Mt Inari again, but it began pouring rain and we only made it about halfway before aborting the mission to drink tea in a little café. The rain looks good on Fushimi Inari, though!

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The entrance torii at Fushimi Inari

In the evening I took Mom out for Shinkansen sushi, at Kappa Sushi Nishkyogoku. It’s basically conveyer belt sushi, but there’s an upper conveyer belt that is used if you order special pieces, and the pieces come on their own toy Shinkansen train. Only in Japan! Kappa Sushi is a little outside the downtown, but it’s cheap sushi and fun presentation. 

The next day, we took the train out to Arashiyama, anther old district on the outskirts of Kyoto city. There were numerous temples, and we dutifully paid to see the insides of some of them. I often felt we were getting a little ripped often as the areas we paid to see weren’t very big. I wonder if it would be better to sell a sort of ‘all access pass’ to the temples in this area, instead of each temple charging its own admission.

The highlights were the bamboo forest, which was beautiful if a little crowded...

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Light filtered through the bamboo

…a yummy lunch of soba noodles and dipping sauce at a small café...

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…and a visit to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji temple, which contains thousands of tiny statues commemorating the souls of the dead.

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There were also some cool houses with thatched roofs that reminded me vaguely of the Rohan people in the Lord of the Rings. Apparently Arashiyama will be even morning beautiful when the leaves start to turn in a months’ time, so I’ll be back!

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Thatched roofs in Arashiyama.

In the evening we headed to Yamafuku for shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot). The restaurant was really hard to find - I didn’t see it until I was literally next to the entrance! After taking our shoes off we were seated in a room on tatami mats, and treated to excellent service. The waiters spoke great English and explained how to eat everything (not always obvious in Japan!). While other types of hot pot I’ve tried are spicy, the Japanese is richly balanced, from the salty-but-creamy flying fish and soy milk broth to the sweet dipping sauce. We had wafer-thin, exquisitely marble slices of beef and pork, vegetables, and tofu. A great dinner, if not the largest portions I’ve eaten.

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Shabu-shabu at Yamafuku

After all this strenuous tourist activity, it was time to retreat to the spa town of Kinosakionsen on the north coast. We took the train from Kyoto midday on Saturday, and I enjoyed the quintessential Japanese train food: the Bento box. 

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I ate everything except the weird, glutinous rice on the lower right.

Kinosaki is a charming old-fashioned hotspring (‘onsen’) town that has been in use since the 8th century. Mom and I checked into our ryokan, or traditional Japanese hotel, and cooed over the neat decor and cotton kimonos, or yukata, in the closet. From the information in our room, we divined that you were supposed to put on the yukata and then walk from hotspring to hotspring in Kinosaki. Giggling like little girls, we put on our yukata.

“Are we really going to walk around in these things?” said Mom incredulously.

“Of course! How often do you have the opportunity to do something like this?” I enthused, although I privately was afraid of feeling silly.

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Mom in the garden at our ryokan in her yukata.

Once downtown, it became abundantly clear that yukatas were the outfit of choice for hot spring goers. We blended in nicely, except for the fact that we were the only Western tourists in sight.

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Ice cream eating in yukata

The hot springs were basically public bathhouses. Since everyone is nude inside I couldn’t take pictures, but they were typically beautifully laid out with both indoor and outdoor pools. We visited three hot springs, which was more than enough soaking for me. At least there was post-soak beer!

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Beer drinking in yukata

In the evening a group of kimono-clad women performed a traditional Japanese dance through the streets of Kinosaki. They wore odd, tapered hats that obscured their faces, but this had the effect of removing the focus from their faces and moving it to their dancing.

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Dancers in the streets of Kinosaki.

Here’s to a great weekend of sightseeing! (I’ll be back to my old tricks soon enough)

- The Wild Bazilchuk