The rain stopped last night, and the weather was much improved for wandering through temples. We took the train to Arashiyama and the foot of the mountains west of Kyoto. Ate a delicious lunch overlooking the Togetsukyō bridge, and then walked up through the beautiful bamboo grove. I guess the paved trail through the grove is technically a road, because we saw taxis driving through it. Didn’t diminish the Crouching Tiger feeling of the place, with bamboo swaying gently in the breeze.
At the top of the grove, we entered the Okochi Sanso villa, the former home of a silent samurai film star, and now a beautifully manicured garden that shows off views of the mountains and city below. It was snowing lightly, which delighted Ruth and made it all the more scenic.
With the light fading, we took the train and a bus to the Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavillion). This is one of the more famous sights of Japan, and it had the crowds to go along with it. But it was lit perfectly in the afternoon light, and was a must-see according to both the book and John who had come here before. I had fun finding less crowded views of the temple and grounds to photograph, including the absolutely huge koi.
For New Year’s evening we walked to the Kiyomizu-dera temple to hear them ring the big bell 108 times. It’s a beautiful complex of temples, and was full of folks celebrating the occasion. We found a quiet corner under the stars, and I pulled out the ring I’d been carrying all day to ask Ruth to marry me. We’ve been trying to learn one or two Japanese phrases each day, so I used the occasion to learn “kekon shi masen ka”. She was gracious enough to say yes, and we returned to our hostel to call parents and toast Hakushu whisky, happy as gai.
Slept in and lazed around this morning getting caught up on the internets, as it’s raining today. The streets are very atmospheric, but hard to take pictures with the low light and moisture. A few selections from wandering the markets and udon restaurants.
Packed and cleaned our wonderful apartment on our last day in Tokyo. It was a great space, larger than we were expecting, very convenient to transit and in an “interesting” part of town. I felt differently about the ubiquitous massage parlors after reading Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, but they added a local character we wouldn’t have seen unless staying among them. And it was reasonably priced, a rarity in this expensive city.
John is heading back today, but we spent the morning together and headed toward the Tokyo train station as a group. Stuffed his pack into a locker and went in search of more sushi. We found a great place in Ginza, set up for office workers to get quick fresh fish. Not pretentious, but excellent and surprisingly cheap.
John also made sure we went to the famous Hidemi Sugino patisserie, whose eponymous chef was the first “oriental” to win the world cup of pastry and makes incredible mousse concoctions. With our bellies full of cheap fish and pricy pastries, we were off; John to one more afternoon in Tokyo, and us to the bullet train.
We picked up our one-week pass and made a bunch of reservations for our next legs. The day’s reserved seats to Kyoto were all sold, but we could still wait in line and get into the non-reserved cabin. With trains every 15 minutes, we didn’t have to wait long, and got to experience one more Japanese-style scrum.
We sat on the right to see Mt Fuji, but the clouds and the setting sun made that impossible. But with 7-days of unlimited train travel, we’ll try and make it back. The train is amazing, covering the 370km (230mi) between Tokyo and Kyoto in about 2:30, hitting up to 300kph (~185mph). Can’t wait until we get our act together and build these in California. It’s embarrassing it has taken us this long.
We started the day at an amazing ramen place that we ate at yesterday, but had to go back to take John. It was jut as good the second day, and we were now pro’s with the ordering machine and the garlic press.
After a hearty lunch and Starbucks, we were able to face the day’s sightseeing. We went north from ikekuro to the sunshine city mall complex to see the Toyota Amlux showroom. We had read that they have robot demonstrations as a marching band, but that appeared to have been replaced by a gigantic inflatable mech warrior (or something). We were able to try out the safe driving simulators, which were way more fun to crash than I think they intended. I got a graded a C; Ruth flipped her car, not a good sign for a transportation planner.
Back to the apartment for a power nap, and then back for one last night on the town. We went to a department store looking for discount sashimi, but it was more of a takeaway setup than a food court. We ended up at a 280-yen restaurant (about $3.25). We defeated the ordering machine, receiving a dozen semi-randomly selected dishes.
For our last night together we went to the Golden Gai district, a 6-block warren of tiny bars that represent the pre-war style of architecture. Each bar has a theme and no more than about 8 seats. We opened a door with a black cat on it, and found a lovely cat-lady bartender. We stayed for two hours, drinking Sochu, cat-nip infused rum, and hearing her stories about running a bar as a wo,an for the last 15 years. She is planning to close next year, to spend more time with her cats, and she gave us a cat manga comic as a souvenir.
We left the sweet cat-lady, and went to two more even smaller bars. One was photography themed, where a woman who had been to San Jose complemented Ruth on traveling with two handsome young men. Finally, we climbed a steep set of stairs to Hip, run by a young guy with vinyl coasters and a guitar for strumming. Argued with some Aussies about American politics, played Jenga, and then departed down the steep stairs at around 1.
The trains stop running at midnight, but we weren’t so far from our apartment that a cab would be impossibly expensive. That is, if we could get one. Despite hailing aggressively, and waving cash in the air, we couldn’t get anyone to stop. We ended up walking about half of the three miles, stopping in a 7-11 and a late night restaurant to warm up. We left the last place without ordering, after a businessman spilled an entire bento box next to John. Time to go home, dude.
John went off to Nagano to see snow monkeys, where we will going next week, so we took a slower day and tried to go museum hopping. I say tried, because it turns out that many of the big museums are closed between Christmas and New Years. So we walked through the Ueno park, which is a popular place to view cherry blossoms in the spring. It’s still quite pretty in the winter.
We ate fried squid from the street covered in kewpie mayonnaise, drank a warm soothing drink from a vending machine we are calling “honey bear lemon”, and strolled around a picturesque pond.
After the sunset, we decided we wanted a fancy drink with a view, so we went to the bar from Lost in Translation. It’s on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, and looks out over the dense skyscraper core of shinjuku and the seemingly endless city. Very pretty, and very expensive. We had one excellent drink each, a Joie de Vivre for Ruth and a Beaver Malestrom for me, and moved on.
John returned from the monkeys with great photos and a desire for a bender. We went out searching for dinner and karaoke. We ate more squid at an izakaya with a grill on our table, which was almost as good as what we had in the park. Then it was karaoke time. The machine was hard to run with our incredibly limited Japanese, so Ruth and John stood outside another booth looking sad until the friendly after work party let them in. I stayed in our booth singing made up Japanese and eating cake for awhile, until they came to get me.
We started with a rousing Hotel California, some traditional Japanese ballads, and were finally defeated by a Queen medley. We fielded questions about our age, our country, and whether my hair is real (they were all impressed to learn that it is). Throats hoarse, we said goodbye to our friends and went in search for mcdonalds and sleep.