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Japan Christmas 2012. It’s now Easter 2014. Yes, it’s been a while. Yes, I have been lazy and unmotivated creatively. How does the saying go? Better late than never.
After a long year of all work and no play, Rebecca and I were very much looking forward to getting away. We decided to go back to Japan. This time we would spend Christmas in Kyoto and New Years with my cousin’s wife Risa and her family. We spent Christmas with them last time and missed the New Year Day celebrations, which is more important to the Japanese than Christmas.
Rebecca found cheap business class flights on Garuda Airlines. We stopped off in Indonesia for eight hours. It turned into nine. We found out why the tickets were so cheap. The lounge was small, and not well equip. Needless to say we went a little bat shit crazy sitting around for nine hours.
This time, upon arrival at Narita airport, we validated our Japan Rail pass right away. The Japan Rail office is located at the airport exit, right across from a Starbucks. Rebecca sat and had a coffee while I withdrew some cash when she spotted the office. Last visit to Japan we trundled through Tokyo’s main train station trying to find the validation office. No fun at all. So there is a big tip. Validate before you leave the airport.
The train to Kinshicho was boarded ‘with Becks crutches’ this time. We arrived to an empty apartment, had a shower and rested. We had dinner at a restaurant around the corner from the apartment. Being jetlagged and not in the mood to search for the perfect place to eat, that was English language friendly, we settled on the closest place.
We go in, sit down, and realise there is no English anywhere. Not even a menu to point at. Kindly a Japanese lady sitting next to us realised our plight and came to the rescue. We had a great authentic Japanese meal that night, not to forget the awesome sake. A great start to our second Japanese trip.
For the first time ever we did absolutely nothing on the first day. We visited Tommy’s to have his special pancake and coffee, I bought us groceries from Queen’s Isetan (or Queen Satan as I like to call it) and after a walk around with the camera I took alone, retreated to the apartment. After Tommy’s Beck did not leave the apartment until dinner that night. The Korean BBQ Ty took us to last time, did not disappoint this time either. Rebecca enjoyed it so much she gave her bib a meal of its own.
On the way home, we dropped into Yeast. It is a microbrew bar that opened just around the corner from Tyron and Risa’s apartment. It had the best English ale I have tasted outside of England.
The following day we took a short taxi trip up the road to the Edo Tokyo Museum. I enjoyed following the story of Tokyo. Rebecca especially loved all the old costumes. It is worth a visit.
Next day we bid sayonara to Tyron and Risa catching the Shinkansen to Kyoto. We stayed in the same hotel as last time, the Kyoto Royal Hotel and Spa. Rebecca found a great deal and it was around the corner from Jack’s bar, who we had promised to visit should we would return to Kyoto.
We checked in and went out for an early dinner. As we wandered past Jack’s bar (which was closed) we saw someone inside on a ladder hanging things from the ceiling. I kept walking. Rebecca stopped and stared. It was Jack. He spotted us and ran out with his trademark huge smile. I was amazed he recognised us. We made arrangements to return after dinner. They were booked out until late. It was Christmas day and the bar specialises in fried chicken wings. There is a thing with the Japanese and fried chicken on Christmas. Do not ask me why. Mainly because I do not know and have not been able to get an answer.
We wandered a fair way down the street finally deciding upon an Okonomiyaki restaurant. After a good feed, we returned to Jack’s bar to find a welcome note at our table, and a list of special beers for us to consume. Only a few drinks and pleasantries later we called it a night. We would be back. We did not want to spoil our first day in Kyoto with a hangover.
There was a flea market on the next morning at the Tenjin-san Shrine. They have many antiques and general bric-a-brac to choose from, as well as food stalls. We left with a nice little vase and soya sauce dispenser. We wandered around for quite a few hours. It was busy and there was plenty to see.
A taxi was taken to the Shimogamo Shrine after. The shrine is small and one you could pass on, but the grounds are large and lush, and open to the public. We stopped for red bean wagashi and tea. Not to mention to warm our hands up. It was getting dark and cold, and being out all day had numbed the fingers.
After hours of walking Rebecca had arrived at breaking point, and just as we asked, the universe delivered a taxi. We return to our room, freshened up and headed back to Jack’s to have dinner and drinks. This time we spent quite a few hours eating fish,Tebasaki (fried chicken wings), squid, and a variety of other Japanese dishes. I think we nearly had everything on the menu. Calm down the menu is not that large. This is not the US of A.
We were a little hung-over the next morning, but the visiting of shrines must go on. After having a breakfast of sandwiches and good coffee at a little cafe I had spotted the night before, we taxied to the Nanzen-ji Temple.
We spent most of the morning and a bit of the afternoon here. It is a large complex with gates, shrines and houses up and down the hillside. Great for a slow wander amongst the ancient trees and structures.
When you arrive and exit the taxi the Sanmon Gate greets you in all it’s enormity. You can climb up it for a price and take in the view of Kyoto. Be prepared to take off your shoes and crawl up the very steep stairs. Needless to say, Rebecca could not join me. Due to frostbitten toes my visit was short lived.
We wandered past the Hado Hall and made our way up to the Kuri building. Shoes off again, I wheeled Rebecca around to take in the splendour of the gardens and house. We wandered up the hill under the Sousi aquifer to see the one of the twelve quaint sub-temples on the complex. There was a trail you could follow up a hill to others, but after a quick run up the hill, I decided we would head back down and visit one of the other sub temples.
Next, I think it was the Nanzen-in (not 1005 on that). This has a lovely garden and pond that are reflective of a dragon (supposedly). Down the hill again and the Ten juan Temple has a nice little garden that is supposed to be spectacular at night with a light show (only in Autumn). There are little paths through the edge of the forest and stepping stones over the ponds to stroll though. It was so peaceful we decided to sit and relax.
You templed out yet? Not by a long shot. Beck and I were a little worn out, so we stopped by the gift shop and I purchased some coffee in a can, but only after Rebecca made her gift shop purchases. After some directions from the friendly staff, we made our last stop on the tour of Nanzen-ji to the Konchi-in temple. We again find a small but very beautiful and peaceful garden. All was very quiet when suddenly the peace was broken by an American family strolling into earshot. We were patient and they soon departed to let us enjoy the atmosphere.
Having finished the Nanzen-ji complex, we had enough time to have lunch and visit the Murin-an. The little restaurant had decor that had not changed since the seventies, and neither has the cook or your host I think. The old man and lady were happy to have us in even though they were just about to close, and cooked us lovely Ramen and Udon noodle soups, which really hit the spot after spending hours outside in the cold.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention I left my hat in the taxi, so I was getting frostbitten ears, at one stage wrapping my scarf around my head to keep them from freezing up and falling off.
Revived and warmed we stopped by the Murin-in. It was OK. Let me say after all the beautiful immaculately kept gardens I saw that day, it was a little disappointing.
We decided to have dinner down Pontocho lane that night. We found a place where there was no English menu displayed and took a chance. Nobody spoke any English, but they did have a make shift English menu to point at. We had some refreshing warm soups of some kind and splendid little entree’s, washing it down with a beer and sake.
Next morning we visited the Heian Shrine. You enter through a large gate into a very large courtyard, from which you can enter many gardens. The gardens were large, intricate and quite spectacular. We spent many hours wandering about snapping away.
Next temple complex on the tour was up on the hills. Kōdai-ji is made up of many small complexes. Rebecca found it a little difficult but we managed to see everything there was to see. It is a great area and very popular with the tourists, for good reason.
For lunch we took a chance and headed down a lane, and found what we were looking for, a restaurant in someone’s house. I requested to attend the little boy’s room, and passed the grandmother and mother in the kitchen cooking for us. It is always the best food, and they are ever so helpful and welcoming.
We headed back to the hotel, rested and later found that a lot of restaurants were closed. We lucked upon a restaurant where chicken was the specialty, once again hoping some English would be spoken. No such luck, but there was an English menu to point at once again. We were the only ones in the place, which felt a little odd, until another couple came in just before we left. The meal was delicious, and meticulously prepared. We sat at the bar in which our chef was behind, preparing our meal for us. There is nothing quite like watching your meal being formed in front of your eyes.
We had booked a table at Jack’s quite late. We had some spare time so headed upstairs to a bar for a cocktail, again being the sole couple in the place. That was odd also. Nice cocktail though.
We headed to Jack’s after and had a little more to eat and a lot more to drink. It was our last night in Kyoto and we were making the most of it. It was sad to say goodbye to Jack and his staff, but not before a goodbye photo.
We took the Shinkansen to Kanazawa the next day. By the time we arrived at our hotel room at the Kanazawa Excel Hotel Tokyu, Rebecca was very tired. I left her to rest and walked in the rain down to the Samurai area, dropping in to the Samurai House. Supposedly it has many nooks and crannies that you can crawl up into to escape, and there are strategically placed creaking floorboards you walk on. I only got to walk on the creaking boards.
We did not want to wander far for a meal that night, so settled on an izakaya across from the hotel. We had enough food to fill us up, and enough drink to satisfy. It was not the best meal on the trip, but good enough to recharge our batteries for the next day of wandering around the Kenrokuen Gardens.
Before the gardens we had breakfast in a little cafe. No English once again. Coffee is universal, but food is not. So while sitting there hungry drinking my coffee I had a revelation. Symbols! Symbols are universal. I brought out a pen and paper, and proceeded to draw a slice of bread, an egg, and a pig. Showing it to the owner, he proceeded to make us some of the best omelette sandwiches I have ever tasted. After a bit of creativity we were prepared for the day.
The gardens sit right up on top of the hill in Kanazawa, just across from the Kanazawa Castle. The Castle we visited after the gardens, and were a huge disappointment after the large elaborate gardens. We did spend most of that day wandering slowly through the gardens, and rushed though the castle, only stopping for a soup lunch. It is very touristy, but putting that aside, the gardens are well worth a visit.
We had a special dinner that night, in one of the many specialised restaurants in Kanazawa. I do not recall the name. We were sat at the bar, and unfortunately for Rebecca, she was sat next to a disgruntled woman, sitting alone, probably for good reason. She eventually left and Rebecca and I were left to enjoy the elaborate food and beautiful sake. The most interesting thing we had all night was a sea snail, compliments of the head chef. I think it was a test to see if we would like it. I loved it. The texture was unlike anything I had previously eaten. From that point on he loved us.
On our way back to the hotel, we ran into an American man, and his Japanese partner. We were invited for a drink at a jazz bar a few shops down, but Rebecca was tired and we headed back upstairs. I decided to go meet the man, thinking I would have some interesting conversation. I was wrong. He decided to judge me. After taking off my jacket revealing a chequered shirt, he commented upon how that was something a redneck wears, asking if I was the equivalent but of the Australian kind. I found myself trying to prove otherwise, proceeding to ask about life in Japan and his time there. Shortly after he avoided the questions and started playing some stupid game in order to help his partner learn English. They departed before I had even finished my beer. I was left at the bar feeling very angry after being judged, and hating myself for bothering to make an effort. Why ask a stranger to have a drink if you are just going to judge and be an arrogant asshole? Just because you live in a country other than your own, does not make a person a non judgmental prick. Lesson learnt.
The next day we left Kanazawa and headed back to Ty and Risa in Tokyo. If my memory serves, that night for dinner was in a little bar. After leaving, we believe was closed when we walked in. Being the stupid gaijin that we are, we just walked in and sat down. The door was open? The owner was happy enough to accommodate us. We had a few beers and he fixed us something to eat, which was very cheap and very nice. Rebecca and I had walked past this place several times but never gone in. It was always full of old Japanese men. But this time it was only us, with the old Japanese men peering in, wondering why the hell gaijin are eating and drinking in their bar, when they are outside in the cold. Rather amusing.
The next day was New Years Eve. We were to travel to the outskirts of Tokyo to spend NYE with Risa’s family. After squashing Tyron and I into the back on the smallest car I have ever had the displeasure of riding in, and after an hour of back breaking hard bench seat usually used to hold pachinko balls, we arrived.
We were shown our rooms and came down for beers, sake and plenty of food. Why do all grandmothers seem the same, no matter what nationality? Risa’s grandmother was so cute. We sat down to spend NYE in front of the television, watching a traditional Japanese NYE show. No, it’s not what you think, or maybe it is.
They have five comedians, place them in hilarious situations, and tell them they are not allowed to laugh. If they do, they have to bend over, after which a ninja will come out and bash them on the ass with a thick large rubber stick. By the reactions of the comedians, it looked like it hurt. And for extra punishment, a kick boxer would kick them in the bottom. Rather amusing, even if we could not understand a word or it.
The next day was for lounging around and eating. We had a wonderful meal and plenty of good conversation with the family. I went for a wander to take some photos at one point to get out of the house, and have a break from all the food and drink.
That night on the way home in the pachinko car, Ty insisted on stopping for McDonalds, informing us that McDonalds in Japan was better than anywhere else. He was wrong.
Next day we ventured to Akihabara Electric Town where we found all the people who are hip to be square. Beck purchased an old Nintendo Donkey Kong, and I was approached by a hostess as I stood and waited, snapping photos of the surrounding madness. We left the manic search for the future and swapped it for the peaceful surrounds of the Kiyosumi Gardens. We strolled around; Beck was pushed around, for a long time lapping up some nature in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Risa took us to a special okonomiyaki style dinner that night. You sit in front of a hot grill, where your meal is cooked. None of us were very good at it, so the lovely waitress kindly assisted us.
Next day we drove to the outskirts of Tokyo in the pachinko car to Kawagoe. A lovely little town that contains a few very old roads preserved from way back when. It is very picturesque with lots of shopping to be done. There is a street dedicated to sweets and there was a microbrewery to visit. I also purchased what is now my favourite coffee cup. We also had a wonderful traditional Japanese lunch, with a little help from Risa.
The next day Rebecca wanted to rest her leg. We slept in and I purchased lunch from Queen Satan. We did want to do one thing that day, which was to visit a cat cafe. I looked up Google maps and found one not too far from us. Luckily we ran the website past Risa, as it was actually a place for single ladies to get together. Cats Cafe. Fair enough. Lucky we checked first. She did find one for us only a few streets away. Rebecca and I spent an hour that evening with some very interesting cats. It was a lot of fun, and very relaxing. Not to mention busy.
Bar Yeast was finally open after closing for the NYE break. We got very drunk that night, on some very delicious beer. Yum.
The following day was spent wheeling around the Tokyo National Museum. The building itself was something to behold, let alone the works inside. After we went into town for a spot of shopping, and then off to meet Risa’s family for her birthday dinner. We had another wonderful meal and plenty of drinks. But no birthday is complete without a spot of karaoke. A private room was booked and the four of us belted out the tunes. I was surprised to find Iron Maidens ‘Run to the Hills’. One of only a few songs I knew the words to. We had a lot of fun, although I do not think my MC’ing between songs was appreciated by those a little more serious about their karaoke.
Our last two days not much happened. Beck was very tired and her leg was sore. The cat cafe was visited once more, and a trip to the Sky Tree that did not eventuate to anything (buy your tickets before going is a good tip) but a little bit of shopping. More of Tommy’s pancakes were eaten and some shabu shabu one night for dinner.
Another long and wonderful trip to Japan ends. Rebecca managed to tough it out, and no crutches were lost this time. Second time around it was much better than the first. That being said it was Rebecca’s first trip after the accident last time around. We have been to Macau, Hong Kong and India in the mean time. We also knew some tricks from our previous trip and learnt a few more. Should bode well for us next time we go. It will happen. Beck would live there if she could.