Japan, Day 12: Tokyo – Harajuku

Saturday morning was Leigh’s conference presentation, using her freshly rebuilt slides.  I came out to watch, and as far as I could tell, it went over very well.

The conference would only last a half day, so I headed back to town with plans to meet Leigh later after she got done.  Not wanting to get too far away, I spent the morning in the vicinity of Ikebukuro.  The first thing I visited was a girls’ school designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Unfortunately, there was some sort of event going on, so I couldn’t go inside, but it was still pretty neat.

Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Next, I wandered down to a lovely little neighborhood Japanese style garden park, which had a sternly worded sign out front.  Google Translate informed me that a TURTLE had been found in the pond, and anyone caught dumping turtles in the pond would be in big trouble.  Remember kids – when you go to Japan, don’t dump turtles.  (Don’t do it anywhere, they’re a serious invasive species issue in a lot of places.)
Small park

Leigh messaged at that point that we would be having lunch with two of her undergrad students, who had made the trip all the way to Japan for the conference.  I had read that the department store on the WEST side of Ikebukuro station had a nice food area, so I spent half an hour trying to locate the correct elevator to get to it.

I should mention – there’s two department stores in Ikebukuro station.  The one on the west (西) side is called Tobu.(東武) The one on the east (東) side is Seibu. (西武) It is apparently an absolutely deceased equine to point out that the western store has the character for east in its name and vice versa. “Park on a driveway and drive on a parkway” level of eye-rolling “we know.”

We ended up not eating in that food area anyway.

After lunch, we went to see a dance festival that I had found an article about before we left.  Called a Yokosoi, it’s an ancient style of dance that dates all the way back to (checks notes) 1954. Still, that’s getting pretty ancient at this point.  And the dances were amazing.

Each group consisted of a large number (20-50 or so) dancers, a few people waving very large flags, and a hype man, who narrated and chanted along with the music. I’m pretty sure the actual term is not “hype man,” but I’m going with it. (Which is not to imply that this person was always male-presenting, as they absolutely were not.)  The other defining feature of yokosoi is a small clapper called a naruko, which is always incorporated into the dance.

The groups ranged from reasonably good (including one delightful group that seemed to consist entirely of senior citizens) to absolutely spectacular, with phenomenal dance moves, costume quick changes, and flags the size of Luxembourg.

Yokosoi group
This one had two small children on stage for no apparent reason other than it was cute. Which it was.
Yokosoi group
The amazing thing is how MANY groups there were.  Each performed for about three minutes, and then a minute later there was another one.  For HOURS.  Over two days and five stages.

This stage was at the corner of Yoyogi park, a large park that contains the shrine to the Meiji emperor.  In addition to legendary figures like Inari, shrines can also be constructed to memorialize specific people.  The Meiji emperor was “restored” to power at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate after the Americans showed up in the mid 1800s.

However, it’s important to note that what “restoring” the emperor actually meant was moving the real power from the shogun’s “advisors” to the emperor’s “advisors.”  The emperor himself didn’t have any MORE power than he’d had for centuries, he was just being used as an excuse for replacing one faction with a different one.

It’s difficult to learn much about the actual PERSON of the Meiji emperor, but it’s pretty clear he had a serious alcohol problem, which made this massive display of sake barrels at his shrine somewhat ironic.

Large display of sake barrels

Irony or not, it did still feel somewhat awkward to take too many pictures of the shrine itself.  Yes, EVERYONE was doing it, but the shrine was full of actual Japanese people, performing the rituals of veneration with apparent sincerity.  Instead, here’s one of Leigh from just outside the shrine, sporting the latest in portable air conditioners.
Leigh outside of shrine
Seriously, we traded that thing back and forth all trip.  It was an absolute godsend.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we walked back through the park to the bustle of the city again.  In particular, Harajuku, which is known for being the center of cosplay / kawaii / youth culture in Tokyo.

Although it probably isn’t.  From what I’ve read, it was the center twenty years ago, and now it’s the center of tourists taking pictures of other tourists looking for the center of youth culture.  The main street is Takeshita Street, and we were NOT walking down there.
Takeshita Street
Nope.  We wandered around a bit and looked at some other stuff.  We found the shrine to Admiral Tōgō, who defeated the Russians in the Battle of Tsushima.  It’s a very important story, which I am not going to go into here except to point out that this long form video about the “Voyage of the Damned” that the Russian fleet took to GET to its destruction at Tsushima is great.

We then realized we were right near a woodblock museum that I had thought about taking us to, but also that it was about to close. Shoulda gone straight there after the dancing.

Which was STILL going on, by the way.

Yet more dancers
We also so this guy trying to wrangle an absurd number of dogs.

Many dogs

However, at this point, we needed to leave to meet friends for one more quintessential Japanese experience – Karaoke!

We headed back up to Ikebukuro to a place called “Karaoke-kan”.  No, not the one at 1 Chome-23-1 Nishiikebukuro, Toshima City, Tokyo. The identical one two blocks away at 1 Chome-25-1 Nishiikebukuro, Toshima City, Tokyo.  Seriously, there are a LOT of karaoke places in Tokyo.

This was organized by one of Leigh’s fellow conference goers, and over the course of our two and a half hour slot, more and more people kept arriving.  We started in a private room that held about ten people, and by the time it reached twenty or so, the staff realized they needed to move us to a larger room.  There were two tablets that we could use to select songs and perform other functions, although given that the other functions were all in Japanese, we didn’t use those much.

As these were all goers to a music perception conference, the average performance level was perhaps somewhat higher than normal.  Or not, who knows.  I sang “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”

What the Karaoke place DIDN’T have was food other than small snacks, so after the singing broke up, Leigh and I went to a tiny, tiny gyoza place I had found online earlier.

How tiny, you ask?

Tiny gyoza shop
There were only six seats, three of which were occupied by the owner’s family.  The dumplings were, unsurprisingly, fantastic. We even managed to deploy our terrible Chinese to say “Thank you” to the owner, who was from Taiwan.

My, that was a long day, wasn’t it?

Japan, Day 11: Tokyo – Random Wanderings

Day 11 was not terribly exciting, from either a photography or a reportage perspective.  Leigh was in her conference all day, so her pictures are full of things like this:

Academic poster
Interesting stuff, but requires a bit of background, and not particularly Japan-specific.

Meanwhile I didn’t do any big things – I just wandered about.  I started the day in Ueno park, which DuoLingo informs me is “a very pretty place.” (とてもきれいな場所) It is, too, although I did see my first evidence of homelessness since we had arrived in Tokyo.

Paddleboats in front of a city skyline
I only wandered around the south end of the park, and mostly failed to find a few geocaches.  I returned to the north end of the park later in the trip, so more here later.

Most stuff in Tokyo doesn’t open until at least 10, so I was at least partially killing time at this point.  Looking at a map, I noticed a nearby shrine (Yushima Tenjin), which as it turns out, was dedicated to education and learning. I like those things, so I wandered over and had a look.

Stairs
Oh good, more stairs.  Did I mention it was still really, really hot?

Still, the shrine itself was pretty cool, and among other things, still had a functioning gas lamp.

Gas Lamp

The reason I was killing time is that I wanted to check out the bookseller’s district.  Tokyo does this thing where a lot of the vendors of a particular thing will cluster in one place.  The downside is that you may not have a good used book store near you (although you probably still do).  The upside is that there are DOZENS of used bookstores all right next to each other.

It was REALLY fun to walk past and look at all of them.

Naughty French Spot Illustrations (book)
However, unsurprisingly, the books were mostly in Japanese, which three months of DuoLingo was really not enough to prepare me for.  I was hoping to find some sheet music, but the one store that had some didn’t have anything that really jumped out at me.

Just down from the bookstore district is the musical instrument district, so I had a peek down there, but I certainly wasn’t buying any of those, and I was too self-conscious to ask to try out a French horn.

And overlapping with both of those districts is… the curry district!  If you Google for the national dish of Japan, the most likely result isn’t ramen or sushi – it’s curry, made with sauce cubes out of a box.

Fortunately, in the curry district, they go a BIT nicer than that, although it’s still a similar sweet-mild flavor profile.  Found a great place where I could try two different styles, separated by a fortification of rice.


After lunch, my plan was to go explore the east gardens of the Imperial Palace, but… I just couldn’t do it – I got maybe a third of the way from the nearest train station to the entrance, and realized that I just wasn’t going to be able to appreciate them properly while trying to stave off heat exhaustion.  So instead I went back underground and made my way to the Seiko museum, more or less reversing the route we had taken a few days earlier to get from Ginza 6 to Tokyo station.

Apparently, most big companies in Japan have a museum dedicated to how great they are.  (This isn’t a Japan-only phenomenon, as anyone who’s been to Battle Creek or Hershey can attest.)  The Seiko museum is full of fascinating old clocks and watches.  Here’s a bunch of them that were fused together in the fire after the Kanto earthquake of 1923.

Pile of melted watches

And here’s probably the most famous Seiko in Ginza. (This is not the museum, which was on a back street.)

Seiko House

I also went to the Yamaha main music store, which had an absolutely amazing sheet music store on the third floor.  Still too shy to ask to play either any pianos or horns, though.

After all this walking and museum viewing, I decided I deserved a treat, and stopped off for some gelato. Matcha and salted watermelon.

Gelato

I made my way back to Ikebukuro to have dinner with Leigh, who discovered that all of her slides for her presentation the next day had randomly borked themselves, so after a brief flurry of cursing and fixing stuff, we went out for a rather frustrating attempt to find dinner.

I had planned to take us to “Gyoza Stadium”, which is a cluster of different kinds of gyoza shops, inside an amusement park, inside a shopping mall, which I had been assured was tasty and entertaining.  However, the admission price to the amusement park had been raised a LOT since the reviews I read, and most of the shops were about to close anyway.  So we spent quite a while wandering around neighborhood trying to find somewhere to eat that didn’t look too skeevy, but still wasn’t a Denny’s.

We eventually got some chicken skewers at an extremely understaffed restaurant, and vowed to find some good gyoza later in the trip.  (Spoiler: we did.)

So… yeah. Went to book stores – didn’t buy books.  Went to music stores – didn’t play instruments or buy music.  Went to gyoza store – didn’t get gyoza.  Went to park – didn’t actually go to park.  On paper, it doesn’t sound great, but it’s fun to just BE in a new place.

Japan, Day 10: Tokyo – Ikebukuro and Shibuya

Leigh’s conference started on this day, but as we were still getting accustomed to the Tokyo rail system, I rode out with her so I could see where it was.  The conference was at a university in a quiet residential neighborhood in the northwest suburbs.

After dropping her off, I wandered past a nearby shrine. This one has an ersatz Mount Fuji, so if you, a pilgrim, can’t climb the real one, you can climb this:

Ersatz Mount Fuji

Or at least you could on the three days a year it’s open.

I had breakfast at a tiny little bakery that clearly doesn’t get many tourists, but I managed to order some nice cheese toast.  And then I had the rest of the day left to my own devices.  Apparently, left to my own devices, I forget to take pictures, because there isn’t a single one on my phone for the remainder of the day until I reunited with Leigh.

After not making it to an arcade in Osaka, I headed for the Round One arcade near Ikebukuro station. This is a building with ten floors of various forms of entertainment, but I was only interested in the fifth floor – rhythm games! Turns out, there’s a lot of new ones since I last played DDR and Rock Band on the regular, and they’re a lot of fun.

There were also some terrifyingly good teenagers playing, but I didn’t bother them, and they didn’t laugh at me, so it all worked out.

I then wandered over to the Sunshine City Mall to check out the world’s largest gachapon store.  Gachapon are machines that sell you a plastic capsule with a toy in it.  A given machine will be dedicated to a theme, like “Dinosaurs”, or “Moomin,” or “Midcentury Danish Furniture.”

You think I’m making that last one up, don’t you?

I swear I am not making that one up.

At any rate, at the world’s largest gachapon store, there were several THOUSAND of these machines, and people wandering around sticking money into them to get plastic toys, and then going over to tables to look at what they got, and then going back to get more plastic toys, ad infinitum.

Tokyo is kind of the final boss of late stage consumerism.

After that, it was lunch time, and the department store on the east side of the station had a food hall, but also a roof garden where you could EAT the food hall food.  I settled on a chicken karaage bento, but the clerk insisted on “omikase” – picking out the BEST chicken bento for me, in her considered judgement.  Who was I to argue?

Took the bento up to the roof, where there were also a number of small food stalls including one selling Cornish pasties. (!?!)

After lunch, I bonked around a bit more looking for geocaches and was eventually joined by Leigh, since the first day of the conference was only a half day.  We went down to Shibuya to look at the famous “scramble” street crossing, and this is where I can finally break up the wall of text with some pictures.

Parfait
Oh, sorry, did you want a picture of the crossing itself?  Sorry, too hot.  Here’s a parfait.  You can sort of see the crossing in the background.

We then wandered over to see what else there is to see in Shibuya.  There’s this, in a park built OVER the train tracks.

Doraemon sculpture
That’s Doraemon!  According to Wikipedia, Doraemon is “an earless robotic cat who travels back in time from the 22nd century to aid a boy named Nobita Nobi.”

Okay then!

Then we went to an art gallery in the basement of a Diesel store, which I’m going to let speak for itself, because it was AWESOME.
Dan with art
Art

Leigh with art

We wandered around a bit more, and managed to run into friends in an art gallery on the 6th floor of a nearby high-rise.  Running into friends at a tourist destination is one thing, but running into them at a weird art gallery was even LESS likely. Small world, I suppose.

There was also a nice view of the sunset over the scramble crossing from there.

Sunset over Shibuya
And here’s what it looks like while waiting to cross at ground level.
Scramble crossing from ground level.
For dinner, we decided to do the quintessential tourist thing of going for conveyor belt sushi.  (Apparently non-tourists ALSO do this, but probably not right in the heart of Shibuya.)  It is just as silly as you’d expect, but the sushi quality is still pretty darn good, given the circumstances.  Better than most neighborhood sushi joints in Vancouver, which is not a slouch in the sushi department.
Sushi on a conveyor belt
In addition to taking stuff off the belt, you can make special requests of the chefs.  I ordered a taco.

Sorry, I ordered “tako”, which is Japanese for octopus.

The final damage:
Empty sushi plates

And this pile of plates is how you are billed – the attendant comes around, counts up your empty plates, and gives you the total.  Which, for this stack of plates, came out to less than 30 dollars.  It’s an insanely good deal.

And with that, it was time to head back to the hotel.

 

Japan, Day 9: Tokyo – Ghibli Museum

I mentioned in the planning post that we had schemed to acquire tickets to the Studio Ghibli museum.  And by “schemed” I mean “set an alarm on my phone two months ahead of time.”  Tickets for the museum go on sale once a month, and they sell out within an hour or so.  Incidentally, if you’re not sure what Studio Ghibli IS, they’re an animation company that has made a bunch of really incredible films that you owe it to yourself to watch.  Maybe don’t start with “Grave of the Fireflies.”

The museum is out in a suburb called Mitaka, which also contains a cat / capybara café.  We never ended up going to that one, because we couldn’t figure out how to make the online reservation system work.  Among other things, you have to enter the pronunciation of your name in katakana, which proved to be challenging.

Does this mean we didn’t see a capybara today?  It does not!  The Ghibli museum is in a medium sized park, which also contains a small satellite zoo to the Tokyo Zoo.   I’m willing to bet that after the construction of the museum, something like half their traffic on weekdays became tourists, like us, waiting for their admission time.

For some reason, I thought it would be entertaining to take selfies with a bunch of the animals.

Selfies with animals

This should give you an idea of the type of zoo we’re talking about.  It has an entire enclosure where visitors can walk around and get an up close and personal view of… squirrels.

Anyway, here’s the aforementioned capybara.

But with that, it was time to go to the museum!  It’s an amazingly whimsical building.  Random spiral staircases.  Balconies with tiny doors. Bridges over courtyards. SO MUCH WHIMSY.  Are you not bemused?  Sadly, it does not allow interior photographs. But here’s the box office attendant.

Totoro at Ghibli museum

Given that ticket sales are online-only, I suspect there’s some boredom at play here.

In addition to exploring the space, there’s amazing exhibits about Ghibli’s animation specifically, and animation processes generally. There was a temporary exhibit about Miyazaki’s one TV show, “Future Boy Conan,” which we’d never seen but now kind of want to.  I also had a pork cutlet sandwich at the café with a potentially inappropriate decoration.

Pork cutlet sandwich with biplane flag.
IYKYK.

On our way back to the train station, we stopped by the capybara café again to confirm they didn’t have any slots available.  They didn’t, but we did get to see the capybara through the door, so that’s cool. Two capybara sightings in one day!

Heading back into Tokyo, we decided to go to Shinjuku, and meet a friend of ours at the Giant 3D Cat Café.

Fancy coffee drink

To be clear, the Giant 3D Cat Café is NOT a cat café.  Rather, it’s the café located under this…

3D cat billboard

…a giant 3D cat.  The 3D effect from the billboard on the left is really quite striking. And the giant cat meowing down at the square is a pretty damn Tokyo thing.  So’s this sign, not to mention all the lights around it.

Kabukicho sign

That’s the entrance to Kabukicho, a “red light district”, although our understanding is that that mostly just means hostess clubs and the more seedy types of maid cafes. (i.e., NOT the kind you take your kids to get an omelet with a happy face drawn on it in ketchup.)

Shinjuku at night is CROWDED.

Shinjuku crowds

We went and got some delicious ramen, which I remembered to photograph after already having eaten half of it.

Ramen

And then we went up to the best free observation deck in Tokyo, at the Metropolitan Government Building.  Tokyo is really pretty at night from up high.

Finally we headed back to the station for the night, but along the way we passed a crowded square, packed with people cheering for… something? going on on a stage.  One by one, groups from the audience were going up to the stage and joining a growing crowd, to big cheers from the crowd and excited Japanese from the hosts.

Awards ceremony?

A bit of Googling when we got back to our hotel, and as far as we could figure, this was a singing contest for all the companies with offices in the adjacent skyscraper.  Each company could enter a group, and we had caught the award ceremony.  But none of the actual performances.

At this point, it was time to crash, as Leigh’s conference started the next day.

Japan, Day 8: Atami to Tokyo

As if the incredible meal the night before weren’t enough, the ryokan also provided breakfast.

Ryokan breakfast

You know, just a small something to take the edge off.

Here’s a view from the grounds in daylight.

View from Ryokan

And the picture of the pair of us the concierge offered to take as we were leaving.

Us!

At this point, however, it was time to leave the calm of the inn and head to the insanity of Tokyo.  I was able to successfully deploy my approximately eight words of DuoLingo Japanese to tell the cab driver “The train station, please,” and that was probably the most use I got out of them the whole trip.

Also the hotel probably told him where we were going.

But we were off to Tokyo, a short 40 minute ride from Atami.  Just enough time to get in some quick Japanese practice.

Duolingo quote: "Tokyo Station is lively, isn't it?"

That’s… certainly one way of putting it.

We arrived around noon, and had reservations for a sushi dinner near the station. We didn’t want to go all the way to our hotel on the opposite side of Tokyo and back, so we put our luggage in a coin locker and went for a wander around Ginza, the ritzy shopping neighborhood.  Maybe I could find some nice Jimmy Choos…

No, I’m just kidding,  we went to another stationery store. But we were also getting hungry, as we hadn’t actually had lunch yet. And what should suddenly appear before us but…

Fluffy pancakes

Finally.  And they were everything we had hoped for.

We also wandered into a large bookstore with an art gallery attached.  Most of the art had “no photography” marked, but we did get a picture of the BOOK for an artist we really appreciated.

Jeremey Yamamura book.

We also went out on the roof of the department store, but it was REALLY hot, so we came back inside.  I know we’ve been carping a lot about the heat on this trip, but it does explain what we did NEXT.  Rather than look around at more of Ginza above ground, we decided to see if we could successfully navigate all the way back to Tokyo Station from the basement of the Ginza 6 department store without once setting foot on the surface.

A brief travelogue:

Department store counter with fake tree
Stained glass in Tokyo underground corridor

Robot in Tokyo convention center

Do you want Skynet? Because this is how you get Skynet.

Train wheels in Tokyo station
Art near Tokyo station

Tokyo Station

So yes, you can totally walk from Ginza 6 to Tokyo Station while remaining underground the whole time.

It certainly is lively, isn’t it?

We wanted to have one omikase (chef’s choice) sushi meal while in Tokyo, but we couldn’t afford a three-star Michelin place where you can’t get a table unless a friend of the chef vouches for you six months in advance.  We did, however, have an excellent mid-priced meal near the station.  However, nice sushi places kind of prefer you EAT the sushi when it is handed to you, rather than stopping to take pictures of each piece, so eat it we did.  It was excellent.

And from there, a train to our hotel!  The Tokyo train system is fiendishly complicated, but it’s well signposted, in both English and Japanese. So as long as you have data to allow Google Maps to handle the routing, and an IC card so you don’t have to worry about purchasing tickets on the correct network, it’s actually perfectly manageable. As long as you don’t try to ride inbound during morning rush hour.

But there’s no way we’d be dumb enough to try that, right?

Japan, Day 7: Kyoto to Atami

We had a Shinkansen to catch around noon, and we didn’t want to drag our suitcases around Kyoto in the broiling heat, so we spent the morning having a leisurely breakfast and then poking about the station to see what else we could find.

We found Legos, for starters.

Lego model of Kyoto station

It’s meta to find a large Lego model of the building you’re currently standing in, right?  I think that’s meta.  Or maybe recursive.  Something like that.

We also found a public piano, which I spent a little time playing, and Leigh photographed from a very long way off so that I wouldn’t get self-conscious.

Dan playing piano in Kyoto station

It’s a very nice piano.  When I had walked past it the previous evening, there was a line of people waiting to play it, but there wasn’t anyone else around at 10 AM.

But, out of further ideas, we went and purchased our lunches for the train, and then just hung around until it was time to board the Shinkansen for Atami.

Leigh got a perfectly cromulent set of sushi, and I got this bonkers thing.

Large Bento box

Some of those were better than others, but most of them were pretty darn good.  Each one had identifying information printed UNDER it, meaning you had to eat it before you could find out what it was. I’m going to have to figure out how to make the crispy lotus root dish. (Which Google informs me is called Kinpira Renkon.)

I have skipped an important point, namely – WHY were we going to Atami?  It’s not exactly the most famous of Japanese tourist destinations, at least not for international tourists.  The answer is that we were taking a scheduled break.  We had been in Japan for a week at this point, and we had just over a week to spend in Tokyo.  That meant that this was the midpoint of the trip, and it seemed a good time to spend a night in a Ryokan, or traditional Japanese Inn.

One of the traditional places to PUT a Ryokan is near a hot spring, and Atami is a seaside resort with lots of those.  We would get to have a nice quiet evening in an inn, take a hot spring bath (onsen), and be unsettlingly pampered by the staff at this extremely expensive hotel.

First up, here’s the room:

Ryokan room
This one had western style beds, but it still had the ceremonial alcove, tatami mat floors, a small private hot spring bath, and yukata for us to wear to dinner.  (Definitely not pictured: us wearing yukata.) Here’s what it looked like from the outside:
Ryokan room from the outside
Did I mention it was a private building? This was definitely a splurge.

In addition to the small onsen in our room, there was an open air one you could reserve, so we worked out how to put on the yukata in the manner that DIDN’T imply we were corpses (seriously), and clopped down to it in our provided sandals.

A hot soak was EXACTLY what we wanted at this point in the trip.  You are expected to use the onsen naked, so DEFINTITELY no pictures of that part of the afternoon.

After that, we were off to dinner, which was another kaiseki multicourse meal. A terrifyingly polite server brought us all of the following: (There was a printed menu, which we kept, and is the ONLY reason I am able to describe these dishes in detail.)
Ryokan meal, part 1
Apertif:
Plum wine, (not pictured, because we drank it before remembering to snap a picture)

Appetizer:
Cold savory steamed egg custard, tomato and clam jelly, plum, Genovese sauce with wasabi, foie gras, shrimp, wheat gluten, water shield, pickled Japanese ginger

Hors D’oeuvres:
Sushi of sea eel, vegetables pickled in sake lees, apricot with cheese, skewered wakame seaweed with herring roe, cucumber, boiled Malabar spinach and dry-cured ham, pine nut, red bean tofu, sea grapes, carrot, soy sauce with broth.

Ryokan meal, second course

Soup:
Dumpling of shrimp, seaweed, burdock, small melon, bamboo shoots, carrot, shiitake mushroom, yuzu.

Sashimi:
Tuna, baby sardine, chives, grated ginger, cucumber, red shiso, wasabi.

Ryokan meal, third course

Note that that is a small pot full of actual glowing charcoal on the table.

Grilled Dish:
Spanish mackerel grilled with Japanese pepper, grated okra and yam, bell pepper, paprika, boiled soybeans, corn, gingerroot.

Food Boiled and Seasoned: (It probably sounds better in the original.  It certainly TASTED delicious)
Fried eggplant simmered in soy sauce, mirin and broth. Fried sesame tofu dressed with rice cracker. New Zealand spinach, butterbur, scallop and broth syrup, wasabi.

Ryokan meal, fourth course with duckRyokan meal fourth course with fish

Meat Dish:
Simmered roast duck (top picture), or sauteed golden whitefish and vegetable wrapped in pie and grilled.

Ryokan meal, fifth course

Vinegared Food:
Akamoku seaweed, soy sauce with onion and yuzu, cucumber, dried chrysanthemum, pickled potus roots, stem of taro.

Rice Dish:
Steamed sticky rice with green tea and eel broiled with soy sauce, snow pea, shredded baked egg, miso soup, pickled vegetable.

Ryokan meal dessert

Dessert:
Muskmelon, kyoho grapes, arrowroot starch noodles of Shikuwasa, dumpling, bayberry simmered in sugar syrup.

I wouldn’t even know where to start talking about this meal.  I’m going to let the pictures and the menu speak for themselves.  Just no words.

The ryokan stay here in the middle of the trip was a good plan.  We planned good.

Japan, Day 6: Kyoto

We knew our planned destination for the morning of our third day in Kyoto would involve a lot of stairs.  After almost suffering heat exhaustion at the monkey park, we decided to get smart and get an early start. And so we were off to Fushimi Inari, the head shrine for the deity Inari.

Fox statue

Inari is the kami of rice and agriculture (thanks, Wikipedia), but the servants of Inari are usually depicted as foxes. So you get fox statues everywhere. (Remember that Inari itself is NOT a fox, however.)  Inari is an incredibly popular kami to pray to, and as such there are literally thousands of Inari shrines throughout Japan, including dozens of subshrines at Fushimi Inari itself.

Shrine buildings at Fushimi Inari

The main buildings of the shrine are quite impressive, but they weren’t the primary reason we had hauled ourselves out of bed at six in the morning.  Rather, that would be the senbon torii, or “thousands of torii” that straddle the paths up the mountain.

Torii Gates

Torii Gates

Torii Gates

Torii Gates

Spectacularly photogenic, these things.  At 7:30 in the morning, we only had to cope with a few other groups, but even then we were tripping over people getting their perfect social media shots.  They couldn’t detract from the overwhelming impact of the path, however.

The view from the top of the trail was pretty spectacular, and while we were up there, we witnessed a proposal to boot. (She said yes.)

View from Fushimi Inari

We were also quite proud of ourselves for figuring out the secret code on the back of the gates.  And by “secret code”, I just mean “Japanese traditional dates.”  But we figured it out, with just a LITTLE help from Wikipedia to pin down which emperor was which.

By this point it was getting EXTREMELY warm, so we staggered back down the mountain and headed back into Kyoto for breakfast.  Afterwards, we decided to check out the large temple complex we had passed in the cab the night before, since it was conveniently only two blocks north of our hotel, and both of those blocks could be walked underground where it was slightly cooler.

The temple complex in question is called Higashi Hongan-ji, and it is ENORMOUS. All of the publicity material for the Founder’s Hall in this complex claim that it is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.  Interestingly, I cannot find a single independent verification of this claim.  However, I still believe it.

Higashi Hongan-jiThe Founder’s hall (just under the cloud) is 50,000 square feet in size, and 125 ft. tall.  It’s big. After staggering across the unshaded gravel courtyard which was approximately the temperature of the surface of the sun, we made it onto the porch of the temple and, removing our shoes, stepped into the hall.  Shortly after we arrived, however, a service began, and we didn’t want to be disrespectful, so we didn’t take any pictures.

The second hall, just to the left of the Founder’s hall, is nearly the same size as well, and there are a number of other buildings in the complex in addition.  The scale is hard to appreciate from the pictures, but it was massive.

After this, we went to meet our friends for more okonomiyaki.  There’s a great debate over whether Hiroshima or the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto and evirons) region has a better version of the dish. We naturally couldn’t make up our minds without trying both. Verdict? They’re both good.

After lunch, we took the subway up to the Kyoto Wagashi Museum.  Wagashi are traditional confectionary of the region, usually served with matcha tea.  The museum was a single room, but it had some really impressive displays of preserved confectionary. Entire flower arrangements, birds, trees, and other bravura displays of artistry.  Sadly, no photography was allowed.

Where photography WAS allowed was in the tea shop downstairs, where the museum docent served us matcha and our choice of seasonal wagashi.  I think they speak for themselves in terms of appearance.

Wagashi

Wagashi

The flavors were also exquisite.

Frankly, we think the docent was a bit bored – we were the only other people in the museum the entire time we were there, and she went out of her way to show us the various other aspects of the tea room, including the decorations, the garden, and a neat musical instrument that makes sound by pouring water into a spring. She also took this picture for us.

Picture of Dan and Leigh in Kyoto Wagashi Museum

After that, we considered going to visit another park, but it was just too ungodly hot.  So we went back to our hotel to rest for a bit before joining our friends again for another gourmet dinner, this one consisting of tempura, and at a restaurant in the hotel in the train station itself.

After a plate of warmup treats,

Appetizers

we were presented with a selection of things to dip our tempura in, and the chef would make recommendations as we went along as to which dishes would be better dipped in which topping.

Tempura dips

Finally, we waddled back to our hotel.  I snapped this picture BEFORE dinner, but it seems a great way to end the entry.
Kyoto Tower
(There wasn’t a UFO invasion going on, that’s just the reflection of the station lights in the glass.)

 

Japan, Day 5: Kyoto

This morning we set out to explore the Higashiyama (eastern hills) area of Kyoto, which is known for picturesque streets, lovely views of the city, and a truly enormous number of shrines and temples.  Higashiyama

In particular, our first stop was the temple complex, Kiyomizu-dera, situated on a hillside overlooking the neighborhood, and by extension, all of the city.

We took a bus out to the area and, after a quick breakfast, started our walk to the temple. Just a few minutes after we started out, we turned a corner and ran into the friends with whom we would be having dinner later.  This was completely unplanned and unexpected – Kyoto’s not as big as Osaka or Tokyo, but still a bit larger than one expects to have this sort of thing happen.

Our friends had already been up to the temple, so we parted ways and resumed our climb.  They had the right idea to go early in the morning, as it was once again extremely hot, and also quite crowded.

Crowds at temple

But the views were, as promised, amazing.  The porch at right in this picture is justifiably famous.
View from temple

And from it, you can see a famous spring with three streams. Each is thought to confer a different benefit, but it’s considered greedy to drink from all three.
Spring with three streams

This pagoda is said to help provide an easy childbirth.
Easy childbirth pagoda

And here’s a view of that porch from below.
Porch viewed from below.

By this point we were getting severely overheated again, so we stopped for a shaved ice, still on the temple grounds. Once again, that interesting mixture of spirituality and commerce.  On leaving the temple, the crowds were starting to get pretty fierce on the main street leading up the hill.

Crowds in eastern Kyoto

But interestingly, when we went just a few streets over to take our own photo of an EXTREMELY famous view of the area, there were many fewer people around. (Not NONE, of course – just fewer.)

Pagoda in Kyoto

The pagoda in the photo, Hōkan-ji Temple, is unusual in that it’s one of the few that you can not only enter, but actually climb to the second floor. The pagoda was first built in the 6th century, but the present structure dates from 1440. The inside is dark and cramped, but it’s still striking to see the structure from within.

Hōkan-ji Temple Pagoda

But not for too long when it’s in the 90s,because my goodness wood retains heat well.

After that, we headed back to downtown Kyoto to look for lunch. We tried the food hall of a well known department store first.  Japanese department stores usually have a floor or two dedicated entirely to food.  This tends to fall into three categories.  There will be a number of counters dedicated to gift food: nicely wrapped boxes of tea, fancy cakes, or hand-selected fruit costing upwards of 50 dollars per apple. The second category is groceries – meats, vegetables, and the like that you’d take home if you were planning on actually making dinner.  And the third category is ready-to-eat meals – bento boxes, noodles, sushi, anything you can think of, really.

The catch is that there’s nowhere to eat it.  All this amazing looking food generally cannot be consumed in the store, and many of the stores don’t have designated areas nearby to eat it, either.  It’s aimed at either workers who can take it back to their office, or for people who can take it home with them.  Since we were neither, we wandered back out to a nearby shopping street and had another graze. Fish on a stick, chicken on a stick, and this:

Scallop with cod roe

What’s not to like?

We spent the rest of afternoon wandering about downtown. We visited a large stationary store (like most of them) that also happened to be a stationery store.

Having seen various stores selling buns shaped like a 10 yen coin, we decided to try one.  I’m not sure WHAT possessed me to think a steaming hot bun would be a good idea in this weather, but it was tasty.  We assumed this was some sort of traditional street food, since we had seen it everywhere, but it turns out it’s a trendy influencer thing that’s only been around for a few years. We’re trendy! Now if only we’d taken a PICTURE of the damn thing, we could have posted it to our Insta. Or our gram. Or our stagr, or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

We sat down on a bench to eat it in another covered shopping street, only to realize that we were sitting across from yet another temple, this one built into the mall itself.

Shopping mall temple

That red logo is a traditional Buddhist symbol that dates back millennia, and is a mirror image of the one you’re probably thinking of.  Just a few doors down in the same street was a path leading to yet a DIFFERENT temple, this one famous because it’s where the first of the “Three Great Generals”, Odo Nobunaga, was murdered.

After that, we’d had enough of the heat and walking, so we went back to our hotel to rest a bit before dinner.  And dinner was going to be a doozy.  One of our friends who we had run into earlier was taking us for Kaisekei – a traditional Kyoto multicourse meal – at a restaurant with a Michelin star.  I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to dress appropriately given packing constraints and the heat, only to discover that the other party at the restaurant was wearing shorts and a backwards ball cap.  Sigh.

And I do mean the ONE other party – the restaurant is a single counter with eight seats.  There were five in our party and two in the other, and that’s the entire room.  The chef prepared each course in front of us and placed in on the table. Fortunately, our friend and guide is a native Japanese speaker, so he was able to translate our questions and the chef’s comments.

We didn’t remember to take pictures of all the courses, sadly.  First up was a dish of abalone and pickled vegetables.  Next, hamo fish.  This is a fish with an absurd number of bones, that is only made palatable by an incredibly sophisticated knife technique that makes dozens of cuts to render the bones imperceptible.  It takes many years for a chef to be properly trained in this technique.

Hamo fish

Next, sashimi.

Sashimi

Not pictured, grouper in dashi broth.  And it’s a shame there’s no picture, because of all these exquisite dishes, this is the one that was probably our favorite.  We were just too blown away by the flavor to remember to pull out our phones.

Next up, an assortment of small items.

Small food items

I don’t remember all of these, but there’s crab, cod roe, seaweed, edamame, tofu, and fried fish belly.  Speaking of fish… several dishes earlier, we had watched the chef pull a number of live small fish out of a tank and thread them (still wiggling) on skewers.  Each of these were placed on a charcoal grill, and for the last few courses, he had repeatedly returned to the grill to turn them.  Now they were pulled off the grill and placed whole in front of us.  And that’s how we were told to eat them – whole.
Eel over rice

I thought it was amazing, but Leigh was a tad bothered.

One other thing to mention – all of the plates in these pictures were ALSO made by the chef.

Traditionally, the last main dish in a meal like this is the rice dish, so we were served eel over rice with more pickled vegetables. No picture of that, or dessert, which was honey ice cream with lemon juice, followed by carefully prepared matcha tea.

What a meal.  Definitely one of the best we’ve ever had.

To finish the evening, we went and walked around the architectural marvel that is Kyoto Station for a bit.  These stairs light up in various animations – it’s really cool.

Glowy stairs

And here’s the view down the same stairs from the top.

Kyoto station at night

It was a long, but seriously amazing day.

Japan, Day 4: Kyoto

Kyoto was the first time in Japan we really had time to sit down for a nice breakfast – Osaka was closed due to a typhoon, and we had trains to catch the next two mornings.  We had heard a lot about fluffy Japanese pancakes, so we set out to acquire some.

However, it turns out fluffy Japanese pancakes are not breakfast food.  Nowhere that sells them (and there are lots of places) does so before 11 AM at the earliest.  So French toast it was.  And it was fine.  But we swore there WOULD be pancakes before the trip was over!

Swearing accomplished, we had a few hours to wander around Kyoto before we needed to make our reservation on the world’s least romantic Romantic Train. (More on that later.)  We decided to visit a nearby Buddhist temple, but we had to stop and take pictures of a set of shrines we passed on the way. (A quick word on terminology – temples are Buddhist.  Shrines are Shinto. But it’s not always easy for knucklehead tourists such as ourselves to determine which is which.)

Shrine in Kyoto
This was early days yet, so we didn’t realize just how ubiquitous these shrines were going to be. You pass small ones on nearly every street, particularly in Kyoto, which was largely undamaged in WWII.  Some estimates place the number of Shinto shrines in Japan at over 100,000, and the number of Buddhist temples at around 80,000.  It’s truly impressive.

“Impressive” is also the word I would use to describe our actual destination, the Tō-ji temple complex.

To-Ji Temple Pagoda, Kyoto

The complex as a whole dates from 796.  As would turn out to be a common theme throughout the trip, due to fires, earthquakes, and conflict, the actual BUILDINGS at many religious sites were significantly newer than the site itself.  This pagoda, for example, was originally built in the 9th century, but was destroyed and rebuilt four times, so the current structure is ONLY about 380 years old.

There are two large temple halls, neither of which allow pictures inside.  Both are amazing to enter, however.  The rooms are huge, dark, smell of incense, and contain statues of Buddhas ranging from the merely very large, to the truly enormous, all of them hundreds of years old. Even without pictures, it was an incredibly memorable place to stand.

Which, I am aware, does NOT help you, the reader, visualize things.

After that, we needed to walk to the train station to catch the train to the other train we had tickets on, and Google directed us down a quiet back street of Kyoto to cut through a park to our destination.

At least, it was quiet at first.  Soon we heard… drumming? Well, ONE drum, anyway. And… kids? We turned a corner and saw something we definitely wouldn’t expect in North America; there was a class of about 30 children probably around 5 years old, wearing matching uniforms, with several adults supervising.  One of these adults had a marching bass drum on a stand and was hitting it.  Every time he did so he’d shout an instruction and the kids would, in unison, perform a gymnastic move with their partner.

I used to teach five year olds – I was lucky if I could get 30 of them to not MURDER each other, let alone perform synchronized gymnastics to a beat.  We didn’t take any pictures, because that would have been creepy, but my goodness I wanted to.

However, we had to get moving, because we had to get to the starting point for our trip on the world’s least romantic Romantic Train.

I should explain.

In the northwest suburbs of Kyoto, there’s a mountain gorge with a scenic railroad running through it.  This train is known as the “Sagano Romantic Railroad.”  In theory, you can have a lovely romantic time on a train going through beautiful natural scenery.

And to be fair, the scenery IS very nice.  Here’s the station where we boarded:

Rural train station

And here’s a view from the window:

View from train window

Lovely, innit?  Now let me paint a picture of what it’s actually like to BE on this train.

The train is PACKED.  Every seat is taken with tourists, families, children, none of whom are observing the usual rules of silence on Japanese trains.  In addition to the passengers, the train itself is EXTREMELY noisy.  There are a pair of photographers roaming the aisles insisting on taking photos of everyone, and requiring a crowbar to convince that you do not actually wish to PURCHASE a souvenir photograph. Over all of this chaos, there is an announcer on the PA speaking in rapid, highly amplified Japanese. Continuously. For the entire (20 minute) length of the trip.  At no point does disembodied announcer person ever appear to take a breath.

It was utter madness.  It was not in ANY WAY romantic.

It was bonkers, I’m so glad we went.

Upon disembarking, we got to experience the peaceful stillness of the Arashiyama bamboo grove… with several hundred of our closest friends.

Bamboo grove

It’s amazing, you should go see it, but if you want to get that perfect Instagram photo without running into several million people ALSO trying to get that perfect Instagram photo, you’ll need to get there very early.  Fortunately for us, we don’t even know how to SPELL Instagram.  I think there’s a “w” in there somewhere?

The grove leads to another temple complex, this one quite different from the one in the city, by virtue of its more rural setting.

View from temple

At this point, we were hot and tired and in need of lunch.  So we walked through the (extremely touristy) town of Arashiyama to a restaurant which promised… pancakes!  They were very good, but not the super fluffy ones we had been hoping for.  Our quest continued…

But there was no time to waste on longing for pancakes, because we had monkeys to see!  There’s a monkey park in Arashiyama!  Where you can hang out with monkeys!  It’s just the other side of this bridge! (Built in the medieval period, current iteration dates from 1934.  See what we mean?)

Togetsukyo bridge
It’s just the other side of this bridge… and a twenty minute walk up a steep hill.  In 95 degree weather.  Oof.

At least we weren’t like some of the tourists trying to do it in rented kimonos and sandals.

Once we got to the top and caught our breath, the monkeys WERE everything we hoped for, and the view was spectacular too.

Monkey sitting on post overlooking Kyoto

Monkey sitting on a ledge

You can buy apples to feed to the monkeys.  In order to do that, you have to go in a cage, so they can make fun of you while you give them food.

Monkey being fed

Monkeys are neat.  However, at that point, we had to haul ourselves back DOWN the mountain, catch the train back into Kyoto, and go find dinner.

We did this using a Japanese restaurant review site called “Tabelog.”  The great thing about Tabelog is that there’s no grade inflation.  If a restaurant has more than 3.0 rating, it’s good.  If it has more than 3.5, it’s excellent, and if it’s over 4.0, you are NEVER getting a table, loser. The only problem is that it’s more or less entirely in Japanese.  Thank goodness for Google Translate. (A frequent refrain on this trip.)

We decided to go to a place with a rating of 3.68.  Down this alley.

Dark alley in Kyoto

What could possibly happen?  Well, this, primarily.

Duck ramen

Absurdly good.  Tabelog is amazing.

We also selected this restaurant because it’s a block or so from Yasaka-Jinja, a shrine which is unquestionably best visited at night.  Why?

Shrine at night

Shrine at night

That’s why.

This had been a LONG day, so we had a nice walk down to the bus stop and headed back to our hotel.  Not much to see along the walk, really.

Kamo river at night
Well, OK, except that.  Kyoto is really pretty.

 

Japan, Day 3: Miyajima

I’m not going to bury the lead – this is my favorite picture of the entire trip:

Deer resting in front of Tori gate

Isn’t that something?  Those deer are jerks, though.  Let’s back up.

After our day in Hiroshima, we had an excursion planned to the island of Miyajima, followed by a Shinkansen to Kyoto, where we would be spending the next few days.  So we stashed our bags in lockers at the Hiroshima train station and boarded a train to Miyajimaguchi station.  Entertainingly, apparently enough people accidentally get off at “Miyauchikushido” station by mistake, that there is a special announcement on the train NOT to get off there if you are going to Miyajima.  So we didn’t.

But what’s the deal with the deer?  Well Miyajima island is one of two tourist destinations  in Japan (along with Nara) famous for extremely friendly deer.  They’re still wild animals, but they wander around amongst the tourists.  Eating stuff.

Deer

Seriously, we watched two different deer eat two different poorly managed kleenex in the space of five minutes.  This one tried to take a bite out of our crappy umbrella when I refused to share my maple cookie. (a local specialty)
Maple cookieDeer

Other than deer, why come to Miyajima?  Well, the number one attraction is the tori gate in the first photo.  It’s enormous, and it’s out in the water, so at high tide, you get beautiful photos like this:
Floating torii

And at low tide, you can walk right out to it.

Tori gate at low tide

Tori gate from below

In addition to the gate, there’s some other things to see on the island.  There’s a large shrine, built directly out over the water, associated with the gate.  Also visible in this photo are a 15th century pagoda (center) and a 16th century shrine commissioned by Toyotomi Hideoshi. (left)

View of shrines in Miyajima

In particular, the last of those, Itsukushima Jinja Senjokaku Pavilion, was particularly welcome, because we were starting to REALLY suffer from the heat, despite consuming copious quantities of vending machine beverages.  The pavilion is open, shaded, and on a hilltop, so what breeze there was went straight through. It also has stunning views.

View from hilltop pavillion.

After our encounter with the umbrella-eating deer on the main shopping street, we found a much quieter area with a small, family-run restaurant specializing in eel.  It’s amazing how easy it was to go from the packed tourist street to an absolutely quiet residential neighborhood just steps away.  The meal was fantastic, too.

Eel lunch

After lunch, we set back out in the heat to visit Daisho-in, a large Buddhist temple complex overlooking the town. It was an enormous, picturesque set of buildings ascending the hillside.  It included this garden full of buddha statues, all wearing knit hats…
Buddhas in knit hats

Incredible architecture…
Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple
…aand this thing, brought to you by Mazda.

This was our first encounter with the juxtaposition of the spiritual and the utterly corny, but it wouldn’t be the last. And as it turns out, it’s NOT a much of a break from tradition as you might think.

As I learned from Isaac Meyer’s amazing “History of Japan” podcast, a lot of religious sites in Japan were explicitly marketed as tourist attractions for large portions of their history. (Note: if I have borked any portion of this explanation, that’s my fault, not his.) During the Edo period, it was generally illegal to leave your home domain without explicit permission, and one of the few reasons you could get that permission was for a religious pilgrimage.

The keepers of the various shrines and temples realized that since there was a ready supply of people keen to travel, it was up to them to make their PARTICULAR temple desirable for a visit. So in addition to promoting their actual religious significance, sites would try other gimmicks as well.  Don’t have time to make a complete circuit of all of the pilgrimage sites on the island of Shikoku?  Daisho-in has you covered! We’ve got sand from all 88 of them, conveniently located a few feet apart, so you can do the whole thing in an hour!  Then have your picture taken in this Mazda cutout!

I don’t want to sound like I’m dismissing the spiritual portions of these sites.  They are still profoundly moving, and we saw solemn worshippers everywhere we went. I’m more trying to say that the fact the big ones all had gift shops as well isn’t a modern innovation – they’re part of the tradition as well.

Rounding off the day, we had one more local delicacy of grilled oysters.

Grilled oysters
And with the sun gently setting over another jerk deer, it was time to head back to Hiroshima to pick up our luggage and catch the Shinkansen to Kyoto.
Deer