Two Weeks in Japan – Part Two

14 Aug

In Part One, I described our itinerary and how I came up with a schedule for our trip. I also described our first few days in Tokyo and Takayama.

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An afternoon and morning in Takayama were enough to see most of the old town, visit an Edo-style palace (Takayama Jinya) and start a walk into the mountains…until we saw the signs warning of bears and I chickened out of going any further. It was soon time to get back on the train and make our way down to Kyoto for the next leg of our holiday.

Kyoto

Kyoto was the place I most wanted to visit. My interest in Japan had been sparked by Memoirs of a Geisha, after all, and I went on to read a few books set in the city, including Liza Dalby’s non-fictional account of becoming a Geisha of Gion. Kyoto definitely lived up to my expectations.

Dave and I stayed in Guesthouse Soi, which was a delight. We chose a traditional tatami room and slept on futons on the floor – which was surprisingly comfy. The owners of the guesthouse were extremely helpful and friendly and it was one of the rare places we ate breakfast, alternating between a Western and Japanese meal (if you’d told me I’d enjoy grilled fish, miso soup and rice for breakfast, I’d have never believed you).

There is so much to see and do in Kyoto we struggled to fit it all in, which is why I would have liked an extra day. Because of the heat, we couldn’t cram in as much as I would have liked. We therefore missed some of the big sights like the Golden Temple.

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That’s not to say we didn’t temple-and-shrine ourselves silly, as they’re pretty much everywhere around the city. You couldn’t go far without stumbling across an ancient site. There were many Japanese visitors, too, many wearing the traditional yukata, a summer kimono that you could hire in many places around the city.

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We ate a couple of our meals on Pontocho, a narrow alleyway at the heart of the old city. At peak times, it was incredibly busy and the restaurants seemed to range from touristy to gourmet, so it was hard to choose between them.

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However, one lunchtime, we entered beneath the draped curtains of one randomly picked place to find one of the best places I’ve ever eaten. We were the only customers, seated at a bar in front of the chef’s preparation area. At a cost of only ten pounds (one of the more expensive meals we ate), he made me a beautiful selection of hand-prepared veg and a set of sesame dipping noodles. If only I knew the name of this hidden gem!

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Another great place to eat was the Nishiki Market, where stalls sell a range of intriguing Japanese street foods.

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Kyoto was also where we had our first okonomi-yaki – a Japanese pancake that comes in several varieties and is basically the food of the gods.

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Did I see any geisha in Kyoto? I think so! Normally, we associate geisha with the heavy make-up and bright accessories of the maiko, a trainee. I didn’t see any of those, I don’t think, but I did see a couple of very elegant women in traditional dress hurrying along the streets.

Our most special experience in Kyoto was attending the Manto Ku-yoe lantern festival – thanks to the recommendation of the guesthouse owners. We had to travel some way out of the city and were helped onto the right train by some very kind Japanese ladies!

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Although there weren’t many foreigners, we were made to feel totally welcome and even got some free tea and noodles. Small stalls sold sweets and drinks and there were lots of children enjoying the atmosphere.

Nara

Nara is a common day-trip from Kyoto as it’s not very far away and can be done with an easy train ride. It’s famous for its impressive temples and the deer that come down into the town to be fed every day.

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If you go to Nara you will take about five thousand pictures of the deer, so make sure you have a big memory card! The deer eat senbei crackers that you can buy all over town, but we quickly realised that one sniff of senbei made the deer follow you round and headbutt you until you fed them, so we just watched everyone else get harrassed and enjoyed the show.

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Nara has some very impressive temples and is particularly good if you are interested in Buddhist sculpture.

 

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Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari is another great excursion from Kyoto, and another fascinating sacred place. Its long, winding pathways are framed by thousands of orange gates.

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Dave and I attempted this in the early evening, which was a good idea – the trek up the mountain is quite long and you don’t want to be doing this in the heat of the day! It made for a beautiful if eerie experience as we descended at sunset to a soundtrack of cicadas. As a bonus, the paths were almost empty of people.

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This magical experience was a real highlight of the trip.

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