The day we went to Kyoto, September 23rd, was the Autum Equinox holiday. All of the shrines, temples, castles and attractions were open even though it was a Monday to allow locals to enjoy the sites. This was good news for W who feared our already action packed schedule would get delayed thanks to not being aware that the equinox was a big deal in Japan. Luckily, his pneumonia was starting to slooooowly turn a corner and we could spend less time worrying about having to add a stop at a Kansai region hospital.
We had breakfast at the hotel to very little pomp and circumstance. The Hilton’s menu was very americanized with a few local traditional alternatives, unlike the Mitsui Garden’s offerings which gave us the ability to taste foods outside of our comfort zone. Properly fueled for the day ahead, we departed around 10:00something in the Shinkansen. Twenty minutes later we were in the Imperial City, waiting to trek up the Kyoto Tower. One of three important Japanese landmarks W wanted to visit during this journey.
As enginerds, the Tokyo Skytree, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, and the Tokyo Tower were modern marvels we wanted to explore firsthand in Nippon. They were unequivocal highlights in our unorthodox vacation through the country.
Tired of trains and walks, I convinced W to use the Sky Hop Bus tour available to schelp us to the tourist attractions. The only catch was that it didn’t get us close to any of the stops needed to get to the Arashimaya Bamboo Forest, which was highly recommended by my manager. The tower experience has set us back an hour, and with lunch included and the late start – everything had opened at 0900 and would close by 18:00 -, we’d have less than 4 hours to enjoy 8-9 possible points of interest. We didn’t realize we were at Japan’s tourism capital. 🤦♀️ Since the forest was a 24 hr affair we decided to leave it for last but, to our chagrin, we hadn’t factored sunset times into the equation. Add to this underestimated transfer, traffic, and entry times and you’ll quickly reach the conclusion that the plan was hosed from the start.
Sunset was at 18:00 and not at 20:00 as in WA.
The tour guide suggested Ippudo as our lunch spot while we waited for the 12:30 bus to start its rounds. Tucked deep in the belly of Porta, the food court underneath Kyoto Station, the noodle restaurant caters to groups and individuals in a 30-40 patron establishment. These stores are small, neatly decorated, and served by fast and efficient staff that understand enough English to cater to tourists. You can find Ippudo branded joints all around Japan as it is one of their most prominent chains. We ordered the original and an Akamaru, which made my inner Naruto groupie giggle, and slurped to our hearts content.
The menu allows you to order more ramen if you still have some soup left, a nice feature that went unused thanks to the hearty western breakfast. Near by, a pastry shop sold us on trying cheese tarts. The plain version was more appetizing than the green tea and marron variants. Minutes later, the store was sold out of marrons (chestnut) for the day. Boy, were we lucky!
A jug and a half of oolong tea later, we hit the bathrooms and got on the bus to decide where we wanted to go first.
W wanted to go around once before making any decisions. I welcomed the sitting time after all the walking we had done and obliged. After 1.5 hrs taking in the city, the people, the rented kimono wearing tourists, and the views from the second story of the bus the tour guide warned us that we wouldn’t make it into any of the cool places if we didn’t choose quickly. It was 2 pm or 14:00 and we had less than three hours to tour. Knowing we had blown it, we asked for advice on which choice to make. She pointed to our next stop, the Nijo-jo Castle and we hopped off hoping we could still make it back in time to reach the 17:30 deadline for the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the epitome of the Edo period and the end of the Shogunate.
There’s one thing I must stress about Japan: They will kick you out minutes before closing to lock the doors as scheduled. Entrance is denied 30 mins to an hour before closing time to ensure the mandate is met. When we got through the gates it was already 2:35 pm leaving us with aboit 2 hrs minutes of touring time; the bus would pick us back up at 4:35 pm which meant that we’d have less than 25 minutes to arrive at and enter Kyoto’s royal palace. Challenge accepted!
The Nijo-jo Castle is on a huge 68 acre estate! We’d have to be strategic and tactical with our time to be able to meet our targets.
W and I raced through the Kara-mon gate and into the Ninomaru Palace, a 36,000 sq ft building, taking our shoes off as requested to enter the sublime and beautifully hand crafted wooden structure. The floorboards sung like nightingales thanks to friction and the decay of centuries of hosting guests and armies. Loose nails made the wood pliable under our weight, sturdy but fragile, resulting in the constant admonishment of rambunctious children or adults by the guards. Unfortunately, taking pictures was not allowed inside the facility to preserve its artifacts from exposure to light, and to keep a sense of reverence and peace inside one of the most powerful remnants of traditional Japanese architecture.
The wall carvings and paintings were astounding, showcasing a workmanship that rival anything that could be made with modern laser precision and materials. The four rooms of the shogun, all of the Tokugawa family from 1603 through 1867, had decor related to its use; symbols of prosperity, power and feudalism permeated its dark hinoki cypress timber, with Kano school art all over the walls and ceilings to match the intent of the gathering place. Its hollyhock crests had been changed to the imperial chrysanthemum when it was handed over to the government and used as the Imperial Castle until the capital moved to Tokyo, and the property was awarded to the city in 1939 to be opened to the public. In 1994 it became a UNESCO Heritage site, and let me tell you, it was worth the time, effort and modest entrance fee.
The grounds are lovely! Surrounded by a moat, now full of carp (which can be fed) for a fee, beautiful plum trees provide shade and privacy from the busy streets outside the castle. We couldn’t just rush through the bucolic scenery. The walk to the bus stop was full of afternoon doggy walks and kids making it back home from school. My Fitbit Charge 2 congratulated me on blasting through 7500 steps while inside the structure. Now it read 10,000 and climbing.
Missing Kyoto’s entry time limit by 5 minutes didn’t phase us. W was ready to go back to Osaka.
The 6:40 pm train took us back in a jiff. A nap and a quick shower later we were hunting for food in the underground eating pavillion at the Hilton West Tower. W had spotted a Brazilian rodizio place that turned out to be closed so we had to scroll through the information center list to find and alternate. The people at the shabu shabu – or cook your own meal at the table – sounded like they were having a nice time but W had sworn off the gimmicky proposition of paying to BBQ your own food. We ended up at ChoJiro instead.
The restaurant was empty except for an occupied booth near the entrance. At about 800 sq ft, or less, the place was small but inviting. The chef made the sushi behind a counter with a belt run, a position from which he could talk to patrons and say hi to them as they were seated. The specials and recommendations menu was already on the table when we got seated. An iPad sized tablet contained the rest of the fare and served as an electronic attendant. After selecting tuna and salmon rolls, a soup, some sashimi, and drinks, hitting the order button resulted in waves of food and faster than light service. Every meal was spread apart so we didn’t feel rushed. When we were done, the wait staff swung by a check payable at the cashier. It was a very nice, tasty, relaxing dinner.
W’s medicine alarm would go off soon, this time the 10-11pm antibiotics, so we went back to the hotel and called it a night. Kobe was in line for Tuesday, as well as the Nara Uneme festival of lanterns, a full day itinerary that would be easier to keep of we were well rested. The vacation was almost halfway done and we had saved the best for the week in Osaka. So far, it didn’t disappoint!
What could possibly go wrong?