After a couple days in Hiroshima, we traveled to Kyoto.
We arrived in Kyoto on Wednesday night. Kyoto was the part of the trip that Elizabeth and I were most excited about – we’d gotten some great recommendations of things to see and a day trip to Nara on our schedule.
For our Kyoto lodging, we wanted to stay in a ‘ryokan’ which is a traditional Japanese inn. I used Agoda (hotel booking site) to look for available ryokans during our stay and since many are small with only a handful of rooms, it was a bit tricky finding one that was highly rated and had space for us! (Note to anyone using Agoda – if you find a great hotel, book it immediately! There is no cancellation fee and available rooms go very fast!)
I found Ryokan Nakajimaya - it was available, close to a subway stop and had good reviews on Agoda and Trip Advisor (not very many reviews but they were all positive). I was still feeling unsure about staying there until I found this blog post and decided we’d give it a shot – and we are so glad we did!
Nakajimaya, the owner, is such a cute older lady – she’s extremely friendly and wants to help her guests feel at home, even if we don’t speak the same language. During our stay, we asked her about figurines she had displayed but she couldn’t explain in English – that night, when we returned from sightseeing, Nakajimaya has printed off a description and the English translation of what it meant. We were touched that she took that extra time to explain the figurines to us!
The inn has only 7 rooms and a shared bathoom – 2 separate toilets, 2 separate showers, 1 shared sink space. There was never an issue with being able to use showers/bathrooms when we wanted. Elizabeth and I were given a large room with a glass door looking into the inn’s garden – so pretty in the morning!
We were welcomed to the hotel with fresh, hot tea (not my favorite flavor but it was nice to have a hot drink on a cold night!) and 2 little Japanese cakes. What was especially awesome about this inn was the location – we were in a fantastic spot! Just a few blocks from the subway, we were off a main shopping drag (we turned the corner at the Louis Vuitton store) in a cute neighborhood full of little restaurants and specialty shops. Everything had so much character!
Each night we were in Kyoto, we found a new restaurant to try and enjoyed the food and personality of each. We’d decided that Thursday would be our big ‘Explore Kyoto’ day and grabbed the Lonely Planet Kyoto book from the inn’s library and set off to Kyoto Station (short 7ish minute subway ride). This book proved to be very helpful as we had a general idea of what we wanted to see – Lonely Planet told us how to get there and what else we should see/eat while in the area. We bought a full day bus pass for 500Y (~6ish dollars) and hopped on the bus to the Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Palace.
Buses are interesting in Japan because you get on in the back but exit and pay at the front. When the bus is crowded, it’s an interesting challenge trying to get to the front of the bus to pay before the driver takes off. Thanks to Lonely Planet and the group of tourists on our bus, we were able to know which stop was our and jump off to find the palace.
We found green tea ice cream on the way in - which we came to find is not uncommon in Japan; ice cream is everywhere! – and split a twist cone. Yum! Just a few minutes past the ice cream was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
The juxtaposition of the unnatural gold in this very peaceful, natural setting was stunning. I have SO many more photos on my Flickr page. Despite running into a large group of (loud!) Corinthians soccer fans, Elizabeth and I found the palace grounds so serene. It’s hard to believe this is just up the way from a busy, main street – you’d never know once you’re inside the grounds.
Towards the end of the walk, we came across an area that offered visitors the opportunity to buy a prayer candle and add it to the group of lit candles. When in Rome, right?
Back at Kyoto Station, we hopped on a bus bound for Gion, the entertainment district of Kyoto. This is historically where the geishas lived. We got off the bus a few stops early to check out the Higashiyama District an old, traditional neighborhood (per Lonely Planet’s suggestion!) and we were not disappointed! Unfortunately, we arrived later in the evening and most shops were closing – we decided we would spend Saturday morning there and returned to our ryokan.
On Friday, we woke up and once again set out for Kyoto Station - this time, we boarded a local train to the city of Nara!
Nara is only a 45+ minute train ride (depending on the train you take) and well worth the day trip. Once upon a time (710-745), Nara used to be the capital of Japan. According to legend, a mythological god, Takemikazuchi, arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the capital – since then, deer have been protected and seen as sacred. So they roam freely throughout the city.
These deer roam freely and will come right up to you! There are many vendors who sell biscuits that you can feed them so they’ve learned people = food. They will eat anything you give them, including paper (but you should only feed them the biscuits!) and are generally very polite. If you show them your open hands, they move on to the next potential food source. We had a few brazen deer who decided we really *did* have food and nipped at Elizabeth’s coat or purse but very gently.
At first, the deer were SO EXCITING and we couldn’t wait to see them and maybe even PET! them. After about 30 seconds, the excitement wore off because they were a little bit annoying – always coming up for food, constantly in our way. I mean, there are thousands of deer in this city. Everywhere.
We made our way through the city, stopping at a 5-storied pagoda (very tall for Japan) before our main attraction: Todai-ji, the world’s largest wooden building with the largest bronze Buddha inside.
At the end, one of the supporting columns has a hole cut out – apparently the same size as the Buddha’s nostril. It said those who pass through the column will be blessed with enlightenment in their next life.
Elizabeth and I were in dresses so no future life enlightenment for us. Sorry, future selves!
We wandered around after Todai-ji with no set plan and happened upon a giant, bronze bell. In Nara, there wasn’t many descriptions in English so we had a hard time knowing what things were or why they were important.
More wandering led us to another temple (not sure the name or importance!) with stunning views of all of Nara. Unfortunately, my camera battery died shortly after we arrived.
We walked back to the train station to catch our train back to Kyoto. After a long day of walking, we were beat! I grabbed a coffee for the ride home.
Is that not the smallest medium cup you’ve ever seen?!
Serendipitously, after we returned to Kyoto and were searching for a dinner spot in our neighborhood, we happened upon this excellent washi paper store, Morita Washi. Washi paper is traditional Japanese paper. I’ve recently developed a tiny obsession with washi tape (beautiful paper tape) so I was ecstatic when we walked past this store. Thanks to Lonely Planet, I knew it was somewhere nearby our ryokan, I just didn’t realize it was a couple blocks away!
We found the store just as they were closing but the owners graciously stayed open to let us shop.
I left with a nice stock of beautiful Japanese paper, stationary and cards. If it hadn’t been closing time, I think we could have spent much longer marveling at the delicate papers.
Saturday was our last full day in Japan – we planned to spend the first part of the day in Kyoto, exploring the Higashimya district before traveling to Tokyo to spend the night before our flight on Sunday.
Kyoto was a lot busier on Saturday than it was during the week! During the week, we had no lines, anywhere but on Saturday, the bus lanes were full of people!
We shopped in the streets lined with specialty shops and bursting with people. From stores devoted only to chopsticks or intricate coin purses to thrift-store type dish retailers to souvenir shops, this place had it all and we were giddy with the possibilities. We found some gifts, paused for ice cream (again) and found the Kiyomizudera temple.
On our way out, we noticed 2 girls walking down the street in full kimono and maiko (geisha in training) paint – we weren’t sure where they came from or where they were going but they were the first and only girls we saw with the full paint/hair of a traditional geisha.
We left Higashiyma with just enough time to pick our bags up from Ryokan Nakajimaya, get on the subway for Kyoto Station, grab a sandwich and catch our Tokyo bound Shinkansen.
The train ride was just about 2.5 hours and we passed the time by journaling and reading. Before we knew it, our last Shinkansen ride was over.
If we thought Kyoto was crazy on a Saturday, Tokyo far surpassed that. The stations were packed with people going every which way. The hustle and bustle reminded me of NYC – which made it a bit difficult to navigate when we weren’t sure where we needed to go next.
We found our local train to Shinjuku station then the Keio New Line subway to Hatagaya and arrived a few blocks away from the Sakura Hotel Hatagaya, our final hotel in Japan.
I booked this hotel also through Agoda and we were not as lucky as we were with the ryokan. I knew this place was a ‘budget’ hotel but it felt more like a hostel. Nothing wrong with hostels – I used to stay in them all the time! - but I would have rather paid a few extra dollars for a hotel with a bit more space.
It’s hard to tell but the room was L shaped with the bathroom inconveniently placed in the middle. The wall that you see in the middle of the left edge of the photo? That was the end of the room – just a foot wider than the twin bed back there. We barely had enough room for our bags. I appreciated the free wi-fi in our room and the fact that there was a 24-hour cafe…but all of that was negated when I found multiple hairs on my (stained) bed comforter and in the bathroom. Thankfully, it was only for one night so we made it work.
Sunday was our long travel day to come home. We left our hotel at 9 a.m. in Tokyo, caught an express train to the airport for our flight at 3 p.m.
11 hours later, we landed in Minneapolis at 11 a.m.-ish and I said goodbye to Elizabeth. A few hours later, I got on my flight to Denver and landed at 3:30 p.m. – almost a full 24 hours since we’d woken up in Tokyo to start our journey home.
Last week in Tokyo now feels like years ago although I’ve been home for almost 5 full days. The first days after returning felt like weeks as my body readjusted to Denver time. Yesterday was the first day I felt a lot less ‘zombie’ and more me.
I am so fortunate to have spent a phenomenal week in Japan with one of my best friends – I loved (almost) every second of being in Japan and was sad that the week flew by so fast. This trip reignited that drive to travel, explore and soak up as much of this world as I can. There is so much to see and learn from the people and places around us, near and far.
These posts are the play-by-play of what we did and saw but I have a lot of intellectual and emotional findings about myself, about other people/cultures, our culture and expectations. It was a very hard and very rewarding challenge to be in a country that doesn’t speak a lot of English and to not speak any Japanese. Each time we figured out how to get where we wanted to go was a small victory. I learned a lot during our short week. I’m thankful that I had the foresight to buy a journal in the Seattle airport because I spent a lot of time writing my thoughts while we were in the moment.
So where does this leave me? Itching to get out and EXPLORE! I hope another big trip is in my future soon but until then, you can bet I’m going to keep exploring the cities I visit and in the state I live.
(You can view all Japan photos on my Flickr page)