I woke up smelling the scent of the tatami mats intermingled with the clean cotton of my futon. My jet lag was gone and I had slept comfortably through the night. I could already hear sounds of the shopkeepers opening up their stalls and setting up for the day's business in the shopping arcade below. Today was going to be a busy day for Sarah and I. We were planning on meeting up with my brother Jun, who was coming from Osaka. Kyoto called out to us, just begging to be explored.
The Kyoto Station puts every American airport to shame. It a modern colossal station spaceship, complete with it's own ramen floor, multiple shopping malls, vast ranges of dining, and meticulously clean, of course. We purchased a Kyoto day bus and subway pass for 1200 yen, which would allow us to travel throughout the city to see every attraction that piqued our interests. Sarah and I wandered through the station and settled down for breakfast in a cozy cafe. Literally cozy-- they had baskets with a throw blankets underneath every chair. I had a Kujo green onion and chicken sandwich, which was a regional special. The kujo negi is a traditional Kyoto vegetable, known for its soft texture, slightly sweet, and mild flavor.
We made a sad attempt at trying to meet Jun at the platform as nice Japanese friends might do, but failed epically. In hindsight, the enormous Kyoto station wasn't the best place for us to try this. Nevertheless, we had our passes in hand and plotted our path to the ever-famous Kinkaku-ji, or the "Golden Pavillion". You must know there is also the Ginkaku-ji, the "Silver Pavillion" that is nowhere near as impressive as it's golden counterpart. With limited time in Kyoto, I would recommend the kinkaku-ji for it's stunning photo opportunities and uniqueness. Brace yourself for hoards of people taking pictures as soon as you enter the property. We asked a delightful elderly gentleman to take a picture of our little group. He had never used an iphone before, and after our request, I came away with ten photo bursts of our feet, torsos, and our smiling faces.
Our next destination was Arashiyama Park on the northwest border of Kyoto. We were lured by the promise of lovely bamboo forests, and especially the Iwatayama Monkey Park. I am something of an animal-encounter-fanatic, and I never turn down the opportunity to get close to a wild mammal. The Arashiyama area seemed to have a different vibe of it's own. Restaurants and souvenir shops were lined along the Hozu River, packed with tourists looking for a place to rest or re-group. We breezed through the Tenryu-ji temple to get to the bamboo forest on the outer border. It wasn't necessary to go through the temple to get to the forest, but it was a nice walk that I highly recommend. The bamboo forest walk itself was a short windy path surrounded by vibrant stalks shooting up into the sky. This was a popular destination, so beware that it's exceedingly difficult to snap pictures without getting another person in it.
By this time, it was late afternoon and sunset was imminent. A small panic started to build inside my stomach... we hadn't gone to the Iwatayama Monkey Park yet. Our leisurely pace quickened to a determined stride, because we still had a bit of ground to cover. We went over the Togetsukyo bridge onto the other side, and located the unassuming monkey park entrance ticket booth. By this time, we were practically running. The hike to the summit of monkeys was no joke, it was a grueling 30 minutes of steep switchback trails. We were peeling off our scarves, coats, sweaters, and I sincerely broke a sweat along that hike. There were a few encouraging facts along the way, but no monkey sightings unless you got to the very top. It all happened very quickly-- we went from seeing no monkeys to many shrieking monkeys swiping snacks from each other and demanding treats from the humans. I found a comfortable spot on the ground next to a fire the groundskeeper had outside to keep the monkeys warm. It was an ideal spot, as I found myself within 3 feet of monkeys the entire time. Particularly one, that I affectionately called Momo.
We stayed for as long as we could, but the light of day had diminished and we needed to make our way back down the mountain. Sight-seeing was temporarily over, so the pursuit of ramen naturally transcended the agenda. Jun's mom recommended a ramen-ya known for it's exceptionally clear, yet flavorful broth. Ino-Ichi ramen was located several streets off the bustle of Gion on the lower level of a commercial building. It only had a handful of small tables inside with a small bar, and a line had already begun building outside. The wait was well worth it, and we got a seat at the bar with a full view into the kitchen. I couldn't take my eyes off of the cook as he labored over the assembly of toppings, even using tiny tongs to gently place the Wagyu beef on the surface. God, it was good.
Jun jokes that Japanese girls have expanded stomachs because they are constantly eating. I believe this is a true condition, as I too gain a Japanese girl sized stomach by my third day in Japan. There is always room to eat more delicious food. We walked back into Gion to introduce Sarah to Tsujiri Honten, famous for it's green tea concoctions of sips and sweets. Last year, Jun and I had to wait in line for an hour to get a table. For some reason on this evening, the gates of heaven opened up and there was no wait. We enjoyed two parfaits and basked in the warmth of the restaurant, letting moments of weariness seep in. Gion is a wonderful place to buy souvenirs, and I made sure to pick up several boxes of tea from the tsujiri honten store on my way out. I still enjoy my genmaicha tea on the occasional Saturday morning when my heart yearns for Japan. The night was rounded out with a visit to the Jam Hostel Sake Bar, where I had stayed the previous year. They had an impressive collection of curated Sake from each region of Japan, and the owner dutifully explained the origin of each drink. I mulled over my yuzu sake and gave in to the beckoning of sleep.
It was another beautiful morning in Kyoto. The sound coming from the shopping arcade was already familiar to my ears. We set out to explore new territory and temper the grumble of my Japanese girl stomach in the Nishiki Ichiba market. This was not just an ordinary shopping arcade, this was a mecca of ingredients, supplies, and street food. This was a place that made you wish you had eyes in the back of your head, just so you could take in all of the sights around you. Come hungry with an open mind and you will not be disappointed. Follow the local eating etiquette-- pull off to the side to snack, do not eat while walking. Only misinformed foreigners do that. I may or may not have been guilty of this act.
We got sidetracked for a moment by a large crowd outside of a pub and got reigned into watching a New Year's mochi pounding ritual. Lucky Jun got to take part in it while I snapped an obscene amount of pictures. Our next stop was Fushimi Inari, known to many foreigners as the "red gate shrine". Photo opportunities are fantastic here (if you can get an angle without people). Note the many guardian foxes here that don red scarves. Most excellent.
I have mixed feelings about Kobe. It feels juxtaposed between times and cultures, not quite Japanese but you can't place a finger on it. It's a hodge-podge kind of place-- strong Chinese influence, modern structures, and quite frankly, not a lot to do. We explored around the Sannomiya area, which had "China Town" area, high rise buildings, and Harborland all within a reasonable walking distance. I had visited a friend in Kobe last year and I felt that I had already seen almost everything the city had to offer. Sarah and I got in late evening, so we went to China Town to see what delectable snacks awaited us. Street food vendors called out to us, each one claiming their pork belly bun was better than the rest. It felt like deja vu walking down this little street-- almost everyone was selling the same thing. We had a few small items, but I was discontent with my meal. Make a note: stick to Japanese food in Japan.
The next hour and half spent at this arcade ranks at the top of my fondest trip memories. 4 words: Mermaid Coin Pushing Game. 1500 yen at this arcade bought us two hefty baskets of game coins...and our choice of a cutesy anime character folder as a bonus. I'd never had so many coins in my possession... it was sheer madness. The mass felt like 7 pounds. We were drawn into like moths to a light bulb by an enormous, brilliantly blue, shiny, noisy mermaid machine belting exciting phrases and high-pitched melodies. Like a toddler tasting pop rocks for the first time, the experience was truly invigorating. We plopped down on the bench and didn't move for the next hour and half until the coins were depleted. Magical treasure chests opened up, rubber gems swirled around and dished out bonus coins. Elderly locals came and went all around us like a time-lapse montage in a movie.
I could have stayed on that bench pushing coins until the cows came home.