Oh, Kyoto, how you captured our hearts.
After spending a couple of days exploring Sapporo (namely, the alcohol of Sapporo) we opted to take it down a notch and head more south to the culture-rich Kyoto. Personally, this was the part of Japan I had been looking forward to the most. It’s advertised with pictures of geishas, tea houses, temples and shrines – pretty much exactly what one would envision when thinking of Japan. We wanted to go there so badly because we wanted a true cultural experience in Japan. There are certain cultural things that we experienced throughout our previous 8 days but we wanted to feel surrounded by it, so to Kyoto we went. Boy, we were not disappointed. Walking off the train we were almost instantly greeted with small, winding alleyways, people on bikes and houses that looked exactly as I expected them to. A couple of blocks away from the train everything almost instantly felt calmer… slower… more mellow. We walked for a while until we found our hotel which provided a welcomed kitchen for cooking breakfast and an in-room washer – which was much needed at this point as the laundry detergent sheets we got from Eddie Bauer were an epic fail and we only had dirty clothes despite trying to wash them twice in the sink the day prior.After dropping our backpacks off we ventured out to see Kyoto. We were staying by a nearby temple, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, so we headed off to check it out. Remember that quiet, calm, mellow feeling I was talking about? It was completely replaced with chaos about a half a mile in. Leading up to the temple was one long, steep road filled to the brim with tourists and people dressed up as geishas. The street was lined with shops selling souvenirs (including amazing sake sets that we couldn’t buy due to the inevitable fact that I would break it between now and June), ice cream shops (Lord knows I love a good ice cream cone), restaurants, and stalls selling traditional sweets and food. Of course I made Tim indulge in more food on a stick. You know what you need to not want to eat food on sticks anymore? Disgusting food on a stick. Mine wasn’t half bad – some sweet potato/carrot ball – but Tim? He decided to be adventurous and try something called a “red ginger”. I appreciate his willingness to try to new food but it was awful. Basically it was a ginger flavored stale jello ball, if you can imagine that. Yuck. Alas, we continued our trek up the hill taking in the crowds, among geishas and sights of the beautiful, immense temple at the top of the hill. We reached the top to turn around and find a beautiful view of Kyoto with the mountains behind it. We took awhile to tour around the temple, appreciating its size and grandeur. We walked around and really just took in the sights. We did see a sign that lead to the “easy birthing house” which I’m sure all of my new mom friends would find humorous :).
After spending ample time walking around the grounds, we headed back down the hill, weaving in and out of shops and stopping for free samples of Japanese treats. After dipping into yet another delicious ramen restaurant for dinner, we called it a night. Megs’ ramen count: 6 (in almost as many days. I’m addicted).
Day 2 in Kyoto was perfect. Probably my favorite day in Japan and well up there for Tim as well. In my opinion, it was Japan at its finest.
We woke up to a beautiful, sunny day that started with matcha tea lattes, eggs and toast. Our only missions for the day were the bamboo forest and ice cream cones (spoiler alert – both were accomplished) and we decided we would just see what the rest of the day would bring us.We took a train a few stops away from central Kyoto towards the bamboo forest but were quickly distracted by something called “monkey forest”. Tim had originally asked if I was interested but I quickly had said no as I knew we were heading to Bali soon and would probably see more monkeys there than we did sheep in New Zealand (which was a lot of sheep, which was awesome because sheep are the best. But I digress). Back to monkeys. The brochure got me with the pictures. They were so fluffy and cute! All of a sudden I had to see the damn monkeys. There is only one native breed in Japan, the macaque, otherwise know as snow monkeys. We walked through the woods uphill for about 20 min, seeing a couple of the monkeys in the trees and in the path along the way, until we eventually go to the top of monkey park. There were snow monkeys everywhere! They were so fluffy and had bright red faces and were just adorable. The view of the city from up there was pretty incredible, too. Much to our delight, we also saw two baby monkeys. They were literally hanging off the side of a building waiting for people to feed them. I’m now adding snow monkey to the list of pets that I want but Tim will never allow.
After the monkey park we headed to our original destination, the bamboo forest. It was one of the most frequent pictures we had seen of Kyoto so I was really looking forward to it. We walked around the town for about half an hour, along the water and through the trees and parks until we found it. It was worth finding for sure. It was just a forest super dense with bamboo as far as you could see in either direction. We quickly came to what was like a hallway of bamboo to walk through until you got to the other side. It was so pretty and despite the crowd, very calming.
Upon exiting the forest we quickly found ice cream cones! Hooray!! Despite our ill-fated attempt of trying new foods the previous day, we both decided to try new flavors. An ice cream cone filled with a combo of green tea and roasted green tea. Teo ice cream cones later, we were both very happy tourists. We headed back to the train and just as I thought things couldn’t get any better, I was wrong. We stumbled upon a bunny. It was someone’s pet bunny that they brought outside for a bit. The great thing was that the bunny was wearing a sweater. Not just any old sweater but a sweater with a bunny on it. A bunny, in a bunny sweater, in the middle of Kyoto. It was perfect. THEN, about 10 minutes later we saw a cat on a leash! Which, of course, I had to sit down and play with until it was no longer interested (which was about 15 seconds. Typical cat.)
We took the train back to central Kyoto and headed to the Gion district. We had read this was supposed to be he “geisha district” so we decided to check it out. We walked along water for awhile and much to our delight saw a few cherry blossom trees already beginning to bloom. There were so many empty cherry blossom trees that I can’t even begin to fathom how gorgeous that town would be in a couple of weeks when they are in full bloom. We took no particular route through the Gion district and we were rewarded for it. Everywhere we looked there were parks, streams filled with koi fish, temples and shrines. We found a traditional healing oxen statue along with a massive Buddha and countless girls dressed as geishas. It was so picturesque and exactly what I had been hoping for when we decided to visit Kyoto. We ended our perfect day with some tempura and sake.Our last day in Kyoto was spent on a bit of a wild goose chase. A friend had told us about a pug cafe where you can drink coffee and play with about 11 pugs at once. Knowing my extreme love of pugs, Tim and I decided that this a must do and set out on our trek. We were flying out that day so we had to carry our 18lb packs around with us. We walked for about an hour through side streets and finally found it! Or so we thought. We approached the door only to find a sign that said “pug cafe has relocated to a new address.” Noooooooo. We didn’t have wifi so we jotted down the address and decided to take a break in a Starbucks to get some wifi and a drink. I only justified this American stop because they were serving a mandarin orange tea that they don’t serve in the States. During our break we looked up directions and decided to try to find the cafe again. About another hour of walking later we finally found it! It had ceramic pugs out front so we knew we were in the right spot. The owner answered the door and asked for a reservation. What?? Of course we didn’t have one. He told us there was no space that day and we were turned away. Noooo! Duped again! No pug cafe for us. Hmph. Despite the pug cafe fail, we still thought Kyoto was amazing. I hope I can go back some day for longer in the spring or summer and truly enjoy the zen-like atmosphere that Kyoto had to offer. We left Kyoto to spend our last evening in Japan in the city of Osaka. We had been pretty busy the last 2ish weeks and had an international flight the next day so we decided to just have dinner and hang at the hotel. We walked around with no direction and randomly picked out a restaurant. We were delighted when we walked in to find that we would be sitting on the floor! We had been wanting as many traditional Japanese experiences as we could get so this seemed to be a good way to end our time in Japan. We had a lovely dinner sitting Indian style on cushions. Tim tried sweet potato vodka and we shared a variety of Japanese dishes. It was great. After dinner we headed back to our hotel to get ready to leave for Bali the next day. Our hotel had free ramen in the evening so of course, even though we had just eaten dinner, we had to partake. It was ramen, our new favorite food, and it was free. After that Tim decided to try a Japanese onsen. We had heard a lot about onsens (Japanese hot springs) during our trip and had been wanting to try one but hadn’t had a chance. I wasn’t able to go since tattoos were forbidden so Tim was on his own. They were divided by sexes so we wouldn’t have been able to go together anyway.
This next part is written by Tim. It details his experience with a Japanese onsen. Many seek onsens for a spiritual experience and to relax the soul. For him, it was more of a series of awkward and slightly uncomfortable events…
We decided to stay at this hotel partially because it had the onsens (natural hot springs) so I figured I had to check them out. As I looked into the rules more, it turned out it was more than a casual hot tub and sauna room like I’m used to in the States. People with tattoos aren’t allowed in because the onsens are very pure and apparently tattoos aren’t. Sorry, Megs, you’re not invited anymore. That’s ok. She was tired anyway plus there were separate ones for men and women. Why? Because you aren’t allowed to wear clothes in them. I thought for a while about whether or not this would deter me from going in. Then I finished off the rest of the bottle of sake we had, plus a couple beers (we were flying the next day and we don’t check bags when we fly, and you KNOW I’m not going to waste any alcohol), and I threw caution to the wind. I put the robe on, slipped on the slippers that were four sizes too small, and headed for the elevator.
I walked in the door and was met by shelving where you’re supposed to leave your slippers. The “no clothes” thing was already starting and I had barely taken a step in the door. Moving more inside, it looked like a normal locker room. A few people had just left and I could hear a few people in the onsen (through one more set of doors), but there was nobody in the locker room. I didn’t have anyone to follow their lead, so now things would get interesting. Do I take everything off here and leave it in the locker? Do I keep a towel around me as I walk through the doors and into the onsen? How many people are in the onsen now? Are they all going to turn around and look at me when I walk through the door? These are the questions that should have been posted on the walls along with the other rules.
As I was having this internal dilemma, the door opened. I didn’t turn my head to attract any extra attention but I got the answer I needed. The towel stays in the locker room.
I left the towel in my locker and went for it. I opened the door and walked through. First, I see about 8 shower stalls, each equipped with shower gels, shampoo and conditioner, and a hand held showerhead. The big difference between this and a shower I’m used to is that it was all about a foot and a half off the floor. Also, there was a bucket on the ground to sit on. There was one person cleaning off in a shower stall. Otherwise, it looked like there were only about two others in the onsen. Whew! This might not be as awkward as I anticipated (in writing, this is called foreshadowing).
The onsen was broken up into five parts with a small, central walking area in the middle to connect each of the areas. Directly in front of me was a pool that was long length-wise but narrow width-wise. It started in front of me and disappeared around the corner to the left. Clockwise from there, there was another small pool surrounded by some rocks, a sauna room directly to my right, the shower stalls to my left, and another small room to the left but I couldn’t tell what was in there. I could hear two guys in the sauna room so rather than peeking my head in and waving hello, I decided to go straight for the pool in front of me.
I walked in, made my way to the left side which was hidden from visibility from anywhere else in the onsen, and sat on the bench that was about a eight inches under water. I made it. But now what? I have this whole 30-foot by 8-foot pool. There’s only a bench on this side. The rest of the pool is about two or two-and-a-half feet deep. Do I wade and swim through the non-bench part? Or just sit here? For the second time in the last few minutes, I almost wished there was someone else there so I could follow their lead. My wish would come quicker than I anticipated when I heard the door swing open and the voice of a dad and two small children filling my ears.
It was like I was the chum and they were the sharks; they sensed my fear and came straight for me. I had been unintentionally been facing straight ahead while sitting in the pool, even though I was alone. I kept that mentality but it really didn’t matter since the kids jumped in and started swimming all over the pool. This included directly in front of me as I sat there with my legs apart. I quickly shifted the way I was sitting and tried to ignore the kids but it didn’t work. Time for me to go elsewhere. The other guys had left the sauna room so I carefully got up, made my way over there, and found another safe corner where I could somewhat hide in that room.
The sauna was really hot with two old-school fireplaces that had scorching rocks inside them producing the steam. I sat there and tried to focus on the zen music that was playing, and on the plants that were scattered about in my view. I was even able to drown out the sound of the kids for a while. It really was peaceful and exactly what I anticipated.
It got too hot and I had to move on again. I moved to the pool to my right, which was much smaller but also didn’t have any children, or people, for that matter, in it. It was a much colder pool. It felt good after being in the sauna but I didn’t feel the need to be there long. From this pool, I caught a glimpse of the one remaining room that I hadn’t been in yet. I decided to venture across the onsen to it to check it out. Once I got through the door, I noticed a few items in the room… two, let’s call them tubs. They each had a small spout spilling water into them and it kind of reminded me of a pond in someone’s yard that has a fountain-feature spilling water from a higher elevation. As I later described it to Megs, though, these weren’t so much tubs. They were more like oversized flower pots. When I got in them, water spilled over the edges and onto the floor. I don’t think they were made for someone who is 6’3″. I shrugged my shoulders and tried to relax as the water from the spout poured over the back of my neck, as I sat with my knees against my chest in this oversized bucket.
I called it quits in the onsen after a few more minutes. I showered, got dressed, and headed back up to the room feeling oddly satisfied and relaxed. I slept well that night.
Next up, Bali! But we’re supposed to land on one of their holy days where the entire island shuts down, including restaurants, taxis, hotels, and everything else. This should be interesting…