Sunday, 2 December 2012

It goes on and on and on and on and on...

Finally, we are getting to the actual trip...not just my nonsensical rambling over oddly stocked airports!  Enjoy!

Part 1: Kyoto
Right, now that I have a couple of hours downtime (I'm sitting on the Nozomi Shinkansen i.e. the bullet train which requires you to have your phone on silent.  This makes for a hugely peaceful journey.  I may suggest this to First), I can write the first section of my Japan trip, Kyoto.  So far, Japan has been even better than my expectations in several way.  Not only is the food amazingly delicious and consistently well done (I've not been to the same place twice) but it's affordable and well-priced for what you are getting.  Everyone says that it is hugely expensive, and it can be, but if you have a look around, you can find great value meals.  

The people here are friendly and courteous but are also well dressed and very proper when dealing with other people.  I’m talking bowing, greetings, the whole nine yards!  It also helps that Kyoto is the cleanest city I have ever seen: no rubbish anywhere and very little graffiti.  Hell, I even saw people picking up leaves that had fell in front of their shop.  And the sights...oh the sights!  These have been some of the most beautiful places I have visited; a soothing balm to weary eyes and a tired body (I think he might break into song soon - Ed).

However, you haven't clicked my whored out link from facebook (or elsewhere) for me to wax (not so) lyrical about Japan: you want the details and you shall have them!  Let's start off with the hotel.  Now then, I stayed at the Citadines Kyoto Karasuma-Gojo near the city centre and I could not recommend it enough.  Although it is a 3.5* hotel, I genuinely felt like I was in a 4 or 5 star hotel from the moment I entered into the lobby.

Beautifully decorated and pleasant to walk through, it was a great sight to me after around 14 hours of travelling plus a near 2 hour bus journey.  Handily, the hotel was well situated: near the train station plus close to some major attractions as well at supermarkets and places to eat!  The room itself was high quality and incredibly functional, if a little sterile.  It really makes a difference when your room has an equipped kitchenette: ours had a fridge, toaster, kettle, hob and cutlery/crockery.  Hell, it was probably better equipped than my kitchen in the flat!  This meant that we didn’t have to worry about breakfast and could save money: we just bought breakfast stuff that we could have in our room.  The beds were comfortable, the room had heating (dear god Japan can get cold) and there was two desk like areas for working/eating which was a pleasant bonus.

*I am very sorry for this interruption to your regular blogcast.  I now have a Yebisu beer from the cart which was cheaper than a coffee.  Please prepare for imminent typos.  We will now return to your regular bloggram*

However, you don't really care about my hotel room, do you?  That's not why you clicked that cheap and dirty link, is it?  I know what you want.  You want to know about my toilet, don't you?  Well, I'm sorry to say it was just a regular toilet.  Nothing exciting at all.  So anyways, my first day was... nah, screw it.  MY TOILET WAS AWESOME.  Who cares about sightseeing when you have a heated toilet seat, a built-in bidet and spray plus water running sounds?  I could have stayed in there all day!  IT HAD A REMOTE.  Everywhere should have one of these: it was pure, unadulterated joy.  My phone is less advanced.  Hell, I'm pretty sure with a little rewiring that you could launch a cyber-attack from one of these bad boys. 

Ahem, with that little tirade over, I will actually discuss the trip.  So, after arrival, I met my mum at the hotel, had a cup of tea (Britishness at its finest plus I had had nothing but coffee and alcohol for the last 16 hours or so) and went for a wander around the area.  The first thing that struck me was how clean the streets rubbish in sight at all.  The second was the number of cycling pavements and bikes everywhere: it seems like Kyoto is a very bike friendly city.  So, after a quick walk, we stopped and had some dinner at a local eatery where I had some Ramen with beef (what else?) which was delicious and came with the usual: miso soup, rice and pickles.  Despite hearing how expensive Japan is, this only cost me about £6.50 and was a high quality meal that was tasty and filling.  Afterwards, we bought some stuff for breakfast, some drinks and eventually, I went to bed,

So, my first full day in Kyoto and what did it do?  It rained.  Heavily.  ALL DAY.  Having lived in Scotland my whole life (well most of it), I did not let this deter me.  Hell, the apocalypse probably wouldn't stop me during this holiday.  So, we walked in the rain to an undercover (thankfully) market called Nishiki market which is one very long street with over 100 stalls in it.  Affectionately known as 'Kyoto Kitchen', the market sells food stuffs and cooking items as far as the eye can see and it is nothing less than an orgy for the donuts (delicious) are sold next to pickled vegetables.  Giant legged crab is sold next to Japanese cooking knives.  Sake is sold next to dried fruit.  Japanese omelette next to chopsticks.  It was a pleasure to walk through and amazing fun as you got to sample almost everything from the stalls.  This was a great addition to the market: letting you see what you liked so you could try it in restaurants or buy some.  If you worked it just right, you could easily have a free lunch.  For me however, the biggest selling point of the market was that it was used by locals as their everyday could see the happily collecting their groceries, oblivious to the tourists.

After reaching the end of the market and having been compelled to buy an umbrella, we then headed to Nijo Castle: an amazing example of Japanese architecture and a world heritage site.  As you enter, you cross over the moat before making your way through the first garden section which was laid out in the traditional Zen style.  Rounding the corner, you then lay eyes on the main castle building: a large wooden and ornate building that used to house the Shogun.  Here you could enter (shoes off, of course) and see the beautifully designed sliding doors that were scattered about the building.  These were several hundred years old but had been kept in amazing shape.  You also find out about Nightingale floorboards (they squeak) and hidden trapdoors which were installed: highlighting the bloodied history of the place and perhaps, the paranoia that comes with being an official.  After the actual castle, you get to wander throughout the grounds which are still incredibly well-tended and an amazing sight in Autumn: a splendour of colour and falling leaves that makes you forget you are in the middle of a city.

After a quick lunch of cold green tea (not the best choice for cold weather), fried chicken and gyoza (dumplings), we then hurried to the Imperial Park as it was on our route to the Japanese cooking class I had booked.  After a quick glance at the park (I was really worried about getting lost as we were running out of time) and one subway journey and a taxi, we then arrived in the general area of the cooking class...but couldn't find the exact house.  In the pouring rain, and having received the help of an incredibly helpful gentleman (he actually had his driver waiting for him as he ran around in the rain trying to help us), we eventually split up and I found the chef who was looking for us whilst my mum met his wife.

So, onto the Haru cooking class.  As we walked into Taru's, Yoshiko and Haruko's home, soaking wet, they immediately made us feel at home, giving us towels and green tea whilst commiserating with us about the rain.  But wait!  There was something amiss!  A quick glance about the house told me that weren't enough cooking stations for all four of us!  Thankfully, my concerns were soon alleviated.  Although we weren't cooking constantly, it was a good mix of Taru talking through the ingredients and techniques plus showing us what needed to be done and us actually taking part.  This really took some pressure off you, as you didn’t have to worry about messing up all the time. 

Here we made stock for miso soup (Dashi), miso soup, Japanese omelette (which was a cuboid shape and is made by rolling the omelette in layers using a special pan.  This ended up being really juicy), burdock and carrot in a sesame sauce plus some cucumber and mountain potato in a dressing.  And the main dish?  Kobe beef.  Dear god, it is deliciously tender and moist.  The fat starts to melt at room temperature and is marbled throughout the steak, which gives it an amazing flavour and texture.  He offered us the chance to try cooking it but we all decided to let him do it: the steak he used (we split it in three) cost around £40 for one. 

If you're ever in Kyoto, I would take time for Haru's cooking class at it was enjoyable and homely: teaching you different cooking techniques that you can utilise for all forms of cooking, as well as Japanese recipes.  Not only this but even after the class, he even emailed us with pictures of ingredients to help us buy them in the supermarket.  This was a clear highlight of Kyoto.  Finally, we also were given a gift…an oil dispenser with a brush that means you can spread oil evenly over your pan.

Finally, to end day 1 (Jesus, this is only day 1? - Ed) we had a wander through the Gion district but it was mostly closed up by now.  Despite this, it was still fun to see the lanterns and traditional building in the area.

Thankfully, day 2 was dry, especially useful as it was another day of walking (day 1, we had been out from about 9am until about 10pm).  Heading to Kyoto station, we then hopped onto a bus that took us to Ginkakuji temple or the Silver Pavilion which was a temple with another Zen garden.  There is something really inspiring about how these gardens are created: despite being man-made, they reflect the natural beauty that surrounds them.

After walking round the temple, we then walked along the philosophers path, a pleasant walk along a canal with various little shops and cafes: one of which we stopped for a delicious BLT with a homemade roll, coffee and yoghurt with homemade jam.  Continuing along the path, we had a quick pitstop for icecream (turns out green tea icecream is actually really good) before we arrive at the next destination: Nanzenji Temple.

Now, this temple was actually made up of three different exhibits.  First of all, there was the Saimon Gate: a 400 year, 22 metre high wooden gate that you could walk up to the top of for a view over the city and forests.  Not only was there the view but you could also see a shrine with a golden buddha and the memorial slates of ancient officials who had been entombed there.  Next, we headed to Hojo Gardens, a dry stone zen garden made from selected rocks and sweeping gravel lawns.  I am not even going to try and describe these to you, I will let the pictures do the talking (1 picture, 1000 words etc) and even so, I am not sure that they will do the gardens justice.  Wandering through them, you get a sense of peace and calm; that everything is going to be ok.  This was actually a particular highlight of the temple, just being able to enjoy the gardens and the surrounding walkways.  Finally, you actually get to the Nanzenji Temple area which was a little bit of a disappointment as you couldn't enter the temple: you can just enter the gardens, which whilst pleasant to look at, were quite small and similar to Ginkakuji Temples Garden.

*Interruption no. 2: turns out this train has a urinal: which is good.  It also has a clear window into the aforementioned urinal: which is bad*

Once we arrived back to Kyoto Station, we then visited the stations sky garden for a view of the city and then Isetan, one of the fabled Japanese Department Stores.  Spanning 13 floors and covering everything from supermarket items to clothing to art, it was both impressive and classy...people welcoming you as you entered their area, even more samples being given out and some of the fanciest gift wrapping I have ever seen.  Price tags were pretty horrific though...over £1000 for a jacket? Pretty sure that's worth a lot more than my entire wardrobe!  After this, we headed to a restaurant for dinner: my first lot of Tempura since arriving.  This was an event in itself, as we sat at the counter and watched them cook the meal.  Flour, batter, flour, batter, fry.  Rinse and repeat.

Now, the third day, I am going to gloss over.  Why?  Because this was the day of our Kaiseki meal (a traditional multicourse meal that serves the season) and I will talk about that later, as it was one of the most interesting (if not the most interesting) dining experience.  However, the rest of the day was fairly uneventful as in the morning we headed back to Nishiki market to pick up some items we wanted (soya beans for me).  After dinner, feeling slightly stuffed, my mum headed to another department store for some browsing and I decided to head to the International Manga Museum.  Dear god, it was my Otaku dream...rooms and rooms of manga that you can sit and read...they even had plenty of English titles as well!  Alas, I only had a couple of hours so I didn't spend much time looking at Manga, deciding to view the exhibits instead.  And I'm glad I did...I got to see a lot of sketches and designs from the makers of Tengen Toppen Gurenn amazing anime that I spoke about before.  If I lived in Kyoto, I could easily see myself spending many a pleasant rainy afternoon there.

Day 4 arrives and it was time to venture out the city, heading to Arishiyama, a pleasant riverside tourist spot. 

After finding our way down to the river, our first stop was to the Monkey Park.  Heading up the hill, we could easily hear them before we saw them.  Slowly but surely, we walked up the path before slowly climbing over the peak and suddenly, monkeys,

Macaques to be precise, the only monkey in the whole of Japan.  Amazingly, we timed it just right, so that we were able to watch the feeding of these frolicking animals as they feasted.  What was especially pleasing was that they roamed free, presumably only coming to the area for the free food (who wouldn't? - Ed) and you could see them playing all around the area; both the old and young.  A particular highlight was seeing a group of three babies playing together in the trees, wrestling each other in the branches and, periodically, falling out as well (it was a low tree).

Heading back to the river, we stopped in a market for a look around and to eat some sort of starchy ball covered in soy sauce before heading to the next stop: Tenryuji Temple and its gardens which were spectacular.  The temple itself was beautiful, done in the traditional style with the tiled roof, verandas and sliding paper doors.  I've said it before but it really transports you back to the past and makes me wonder how it must have been to live there...also, whether or not it was freezing in the winter.  Paper doors look nice but I don't see them keeping in the heat...maybe I should wear a paper t-shirt someday.  The temple gardens were also stunning, creating a natural looking environment that accentuates the temple itself.  It really was a joy to spend time wandering through the trees and past the ornate ponds.

As it had started to pour again, we decided to head back to the city itself, picking up a quick coffee and sandwich before moving to Higashi Hongan-Ji: a temple of a buddhist sect and also the largest wooden building in the world.  Even more interestingly and slightly more disgusting is that the temple is home to a very thick rope made from human hair.  This was donated by Japanese women during a time of need...I guess it's the thought that counts!  For dinner, was another interesting experience.  I had found a place in my guide book that was recommended for its pork cutlets (big in Japan) so we went there.  Not only was the pork cutlet and accompanying cabbage with sauce delicious but you get given a bowl of sesame seeds which you grind yourself and mix with a dipping sauce for the cutlet: delicious when topped off with some chilled sake

Day 5 and it is time to leave Kyoto.  Other than a lazy morning and a failed attempt to find a theatre that showed anime, it was a fairly uneventful morning before heading for the bullet train...which was were I started the section.  Next stop, Tokyo!

Music of the week

Ok, I discovered this a few days ago and I've listened to it quite a bit, so it's my music of the week!  It seems to be part of an ongoing story which really caught my attention.  I give you: The Jokerr - Ever Before

Ok, this took me a stupidly long time to upload all the photographs for this (a mere fraction of what io took) and it's the longest entry I've had to why make it longer?  Part 2 (or maybe part 1.5) next week!

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