Getting Kultured in Kyoto

They may be spelt using the same letters, but Tokyo and Kyoto are very different places. From the second we stepped out of the station, we noticed the change in pace. More space, less people. This was looking good.

After a long day of traveling, and having had our first chance to flash our flashy new JR Rail Passes and ride the Shinkansen, we arrived at the food capital of Japan, ready to get ‘kultured’ (trademarked by Dan). Ever the man with the plan, he had already researched what Kyoto was good for, and off we headed to find burnt miso ramen – a specialty in Kyoto. With a thick caramelized teriyaki taste, it was one of the best meals I’ve had this trip. And that’s saying something because I’ve had a few best meals. But just ask Romy, she thought it was so good she decided to pour it all down her front just to make sure she smelt like burnt miso ramen for the rest of the trip. #dedicated

We opted for an early night that night as our next day was going to be as full as our stomachs were as we stumbled home.

First up, we hit the subway and headed out to Aryashiyama to the Bamboo Forest. Hundreds of meters of thick bamboo groves towering over the path, it was the perfect place to take your photo, or someone else’s if you’re Brandon. I can’t blame tourists coming up to us and asking up to take their photo though. Out of the seven of us, five of us are walking around with enormous SLR cameras around our necks.

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After a singalong led by DJ Michelle to the likes of Chris Brown, Kendrick Lamar and some random Japanese boy band while walking the backstreets of Aryashiyama, we made our way out to the temple of the Golden Pavilion. When it comes to popular tourist destinations like this one, we’ve come to really start to appreciate our height difference. Apart from selfie-sticks, there isn’t much that interrupts our view of the landmarks. And I’ve never considered myself tall before.

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Chasing the sun, we headed off to the Fushimi Inari-taisha, one of my favourite shrines from the last trip. Considering my favourite colour is orange, it shouldn’t really be a surprise. The shrine is made up of long rows of orange torii, and running through it is something of a spectacle. Even better is watching the sun set over it. And playing with a little kitten we found running around.

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But with such a successful day, and with so much achieved, we couldn’t possibly let it end there. Sponsored by 7 Eleven, our night ended with Suntory Highballs, Smirnoff Ice, cup noodles, nuts recommended by a friendly stranger, and a nightclub called Butterfly.With odds lost, the boys faces were caked in makeup – a sight I can’t wait to forget. But the worst thing we lost that night was Ed (or more appropriately DEdward), who hit the road while the rest of us hit the dance floor, and ended up walking an hour and a half in the wrong direction. Good one, DEdward.

A late start for some, and an even later start for others, we woke the next morning and headed off to the Nishiki Markets. Anything and everything pickled and the smell of fresh fish would have been welcomed, had we not all be recovering from our previous night. A short stroll over to Gion, where Ed realised he had ended up the night before, we really found the kulture in Kyoto. Beautifully preserved, the streets got smaller, the gardens became more zen, the houses quaint and traditional. Geisha’s packed the streets and shrines hid in every corner. It was so much fun to just walk around, popping into little stores and just waiting to see what we’d run into.

We did have a mission though, well at least I did. I’d heard that you could do pottery classes in Gion, and was determined to find one. Thankfully the boys were very patient and persevered until we did. After a quick lesson, we considered ourselves masters and hit the clay. He made a beautiful plate, Ed a sake bottle, and I just let the clay do what it wanted. I ended up with a bowl/vase/cup thing that I really liked. The best part about it is that we all got to choose a colour which they will paint for us, fire, and then send home for us. I can’t wait for that little surprise to arrive in the mail when I’m back in the slug of reality.

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Even better though, we accomplished another mission when Ed darted into a little side store after spotting a beautiful damascus knife, similar to the one that he had bought. Actually, turns out it was exactly the one that he bought. Just #bffl things.

We saved the best ’til last for our final dinner in Kyoto – flaming ramen. More of a show than simply a meal, it was nothing short of a seamless operation. Clad in aprons and led through strict instructions like “don’t run away, your seats are soiled in oil”, we had our cameras collected and connected to a series of purposely positioned selfie-sticks behind the bar. Leaning back, our chef walked along the bar pouring flames into our ramen like some kind of fire chief. It was mad. And very delicious. Within half an hour we had been wowed and then chowed, and were back on the road again.

Controversial I know, but I think Kyoto has been my favourite so far. Osaka tomorrow.

E x

 

 

Kyoto also spells Tokyo

It has hit that point, as it does in every trip, where you suddenly realise how fast the time has gone, and how little you have left. As the cold seems endless, the race through train stations never ending, and the new faces familiar, the days begin to blur into one and you lose track of how long you’ve been traveling for. But if you ask me, these are the greatest days. The days you don’t have internet connection, but don’t even realise. They days you forget about time-wasters like makeup and planned outfits. The days you just want to lose yourself in a city in order to truly find its treasures. The days that challenge you, change you, but stay with you forever.

This week started with an end. On our final morning in Kyoto, we vowed to find the large Buddha we had spotted on the edge of town while we were up the Kyoto Tower. A true test of how well we knew the streets, we managed to find it after going in a few circles (however that was most likely due to us getting lost in conversation). The monument, we learnt on arrival, was called Ryozen Kannon and is a tribute to all the unknown soldiers who bravely fought and died in World War II. The 24 metre high compassionate Buddha is a symbol of peace, both for the state of Japan, and for those who died fighting for it. Not mentioned anywhere in our guidebook, I was particularly pleased with our discovery. It was an interesting and un-touristed little complex with plenty of temples, memorials and shrines – some for luck, marriage, peace and even blessings for miscarried foetus.

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After our walk back to the hostel, the falling snow made it all the easier to jump on the toasty-warm Shinkansen train for three hours, headed to Tokyo! As we laid back in our spacious seats, we watched the world literally fly by – the dense city centres to the sparse rural villages, all looking as though someone had lightly dusted them with a fine icing sugar. All going too perfectly to plan, we were two stops out of Tokyo when the cabin crew realised we were on the wrong train (our JR pass did not cover super express Shinkansen, only the express) and asked us ever so politely to get off at the next stop and get on the next train. While ordinarily this sort of mistake could have been disastrous to a tight schedule, the next train came in a measly 5 minutes. Nice one, Japan!

Once arriving in Tokyo City, we found Hiroko, after a kind gentleman helped us decode a confusing pay phone, much to both ours and his amusement. Hiroko is a friend of my grandmother’s who hosted me when I first visited Japan, some 19 years ago. She had kindly offered to have us stay at her house for the first night we were in Tokyo so we could see her perform in a traditional drum concert to be held the next day. She was more than hospitable while we stayed with her, more than we could ever have asked for or expected. She treated us to the most amazing sushi train experience I have ever had (they filleted the fish before your eyes), the chance to cook our own okonomiyaki, a real crazy Japanese experience at a Ninja restaurant, cakes, cats, and most of all an insight into a side of Japanese culture we could not have got through guidebooks. She even introduced us to her friend Emi who, with her husband, kindly took us up the Tokyo SkyTree to 350metres above Tokyo and treated us to a lovely lunch while Hiroko practiced her drumming.

One of my favourite things I discovered while staying with Hiroko was the technology. Her toilet can be put through a range of strange motions such as spray, heat, dry, mist, etc (you can work out what for), her bath heats and fills itself up and tells you when it is ready, and her washing machine will weigh your load of washing and tell you how much soap to put in and how long it will take. What are we doing in Australia!?

All in all, we could not have thanked Hiroko enough for her immense generosity, and although all she would accept was a bunch of flowers and some chocolates, we are eternally grateful for all that she did for us and can’t wait for her to visit Australia to repay her for her hospitality.

On our second night in Tokyo, after a delicious dinner, Hiroko was kind enough to drop us to our hostel (quite literally to the door, any closer and her car would have been through the front window) where the second half of our Tokyo journey began. But more on that later…

Good night for now. I hope you are all smiling just as much as me.

IMG_0203 Our sushi plate stack – we tried Tuna, Sea Urchin, Salmon, Bloody Clam, Scallop, Red Fish and many more…

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IMG_0204 Lunch with Emi and Hero

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IMG_0206 Making our own okonomiyaki

Kyoto

It’s quarter past two in the afternoon and I’m lying on the couch in my hostel wearing my pyjamas. Before you judge me, Hannah is on the couch next to me passed out. So I’m doing okay. The last couple of days in Kyoto have been a whirlwind, and this trip shows no signs of slowing down. Apart from today. Today has been a very slow day. But a very deserved day.

We started the week by packing our bags, farewelling our host Mark, and hitting the subway for the next leg of our adventure. Settling into our seats on the Shinkansen, for what we expected to be a lengthy ride to the next city, ended up being a short 15 minute trip to Kyoto. Sydney should really invest in trains that travel at 220km/hr. And in trains that leave precisely when they are scheduled. It’s too easy.

Arriving in Kyoto we had no idea what to do. We had planned to read our Lonely Planet on the train ride but clearly had our reading time cut short. Nonetheless we went wandering and found the local Nishiki Markets full of fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. Freezing and hungry we found a bustling little corner and sat down for some delicious fresh ramen and soba noodles. My face was so cold I couldn’t feel that I was burning my tongue until afterwards. Worth it though. On our walk towards Kyoto Tower we walked by a Cat Cafe, and I thought of my crazy cat lady at home. For those unaware, a cat cafe is just a cafe with heaps of cats walking around. We poked our heads in the window and it looked hilarious. Oh Japan, you continue to entertain me. On we walked, past liquor stores where we checked what the damage would be for the nights that would undoubtedly be to come. $12 for a bottle of Vodka and $16 for Baileys. That was very doable.
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After following two good looking chaps from our hostel who had #swag we navigated our way to Kyoto Tower where, for what feels like the 100th time, we climbed to see an amazing 360 degree view of the city. We can’t help that we enjoy getting high! Apart from the amazing view watching the sun set and the lights come on all over the city, the tower was also great for organising the rest of our time in Kyoto, as we were able to spot the temples and districts we wanted to visit in the following days from the one convenient spot. After taking a photo with a group of random guys from Korea (the third group to ask for our photo so far!) we left and headed to the Gion district. We managed to find the district eventually but weren’t so lucky with finding any Geisha. We did however find some delicious gyozas for next to nothing, although I’m pretty sure Hannah enjoyed the condiments more than the meal – helping herself to pretty much all of what looked to me like rice bubbles. Clearly she was deprived of good old ‘Snap, Crackle and Pop’ as a child.
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Literally running home to avoid frostbite, we warmed up by sitting on the heated toilet seats and entertained ourselves by watching the Clown fish in the common room of our hostel. YES! I found Nemo! Definitely not at 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.

The next day we woke to find tiny snowflakes falling from the sky outside our window. And after putting on two pairs of socks, three thermals tops, a jumper, a jacket, two scarves and a beanie, I was ready to step outside. After flashing our JR train passes at the station like celebrities, we hopped on a train bound for Nara – a town which is hard to say whether there are more tourists or deer. Like an obstacle course, we managed to dodge the cold, the camera lenses, and the crazy deer ramming at your legs for food, and arrived at the Todai-ji temple – the home of a 15 metre high Buddha. The temple itself was pretty incredible, and no photo could accurately depict the size of the room and Buddha. Regardless, it didn’t stop most tourists, and the continuous camera shutter sound was harsh against the peacefulness of the Buddha. After watching a group of tourists holding biscuits be attacked by a mob of deer we pop back on the train headed for Kobe. However, we didn’t last there long. Our frozen fingers and rumbling bellies won over and we headed home for dinner which we cooked ourselves! Anyone know how to use a rice cooker? Because I don’t.
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The next day was a big one, and also the cause of the state I am sitting in now, on the couch, with Hannah passed out next to me. It started with a challenge. We took our map to reception to ask the best way to get to where we wanted to that day. The girl looked at us and laughed, saying that it was a lot to achieve in a day. Challenge accepted.

First stop was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which happens to feature on the cover of our Lonely Planet guide. Hannah and I have had a growing obsession with bamboo ever since we started recording the various ways it was used through out South-East Asia, and it was great to see it in such abundance and so green. Big shoutout to the kind man at the station who was laughing at us trying to work out where we were for helping us, and for telling us all about tofu for some reason.
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Next stop was to the Kinkakuji Temple, or the Golden Pavilion. After a fairly solid walk we reached the pavilion – a beautiful gold temple sitting on a stunning serene pond. A truest Japanese looking setting. No filter required. After getting lost in conversation we managed to find the exit and set off back to the station, but not before being interviewed by a small group of Japanese students on an English excursion. KAWAII!!!!
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The last stop of the day was on the other side of the city and we were in a race against the sun. Making a vital mistake and not reading the guidebook properly we decided to walk instead of train to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. Not a particularly pretty walk, we found ourselves out if the tourist zone, and lost. Thankfully a very kind old man pointed us in the right direction before wishing us a happy day, and we with sore feet we made it to the shrine. Which is located a few metres from the station. Good one Emma. Walking through the food stalls we gave into temptation – Hannah got some okonomiyaki and I helped myself to a pork and shallot skewer dripping in teriyaki sauce. Gone in one bite, we then had to carry our rubbish for miles. Japan is immaculate and you never see any rubbish on the floor anywhere. But they have NO bins anywhere in the streets. How do they do it!?!?
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Getting the the shrine was amazing. 228 metres of bright orange torii dedicated to Inari, glowing in the fading light around them. A really really cool shrine. One of my favs to date. And we arrived at the right time because it wasn’t too crowded later in the evening.

Getting back to the hostel we treated ourselves to some Baileys at the bar…while wearing slippers. Classy. At this point the hostel had been taken over by some 50 odd American a College students who were on a Semester at Sea program which sounds incredible. Over 100 days, 12 countries, 4 continents. I was jealous to say the least. One Baileys turned into two, which turned into four, which turned into us dashing down the block in our slippers to the closest corner store to buy more drinks, which turned into two Aussies and a whole heap of Americans roaming the streets, which turned into a karaoke bar, which turned into joining random Japanese peoples karaoke rooms, which turned into a lot of Katy Perry, One Direction and random Japanese pop music. Waking up with a whole heap of new friend requests, a pretty sore head, and a rough throat, I farewelled our new friends, and got comfy on the couch. Which is where I still find myself….six hours later. Hannah eventually made it up to join me, but has been unconscious for most of the day. Our new room mates have just arrived though so I should probably go shower and make myself approachable.

I’m pretty hungover, but pretty goddamn happy right now. How about you?

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