Tag Archives: Kyoto

Faster than a speeding bullet (train)

Saturday 22nd November
Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan

Shinkansen journey, Kyoto to Tokyo
We’ve been on quite a few train journeys, both during this trip and on previous ones. Not that we’re particularly train geeks. We just think it’s an easy, enjoyable way to get around. However, in many countries (including the USA and New Zealand) the experience might politely be described as…’leisurely’.

But the shinkansen, otherwise known as the bullet train, is a very different matter. These trains reach speeds of up to 320 kilometres (nearly 200 miles) per hour. They are also very frequent – around every ten minutes between Kyoto and Tokyo when we were travelling (on a Saturday lunchtime). This was definitely the way we wanted to travel between Japan’s old and new capitals.

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When we returned to Kyoto station to catch the train, we found ourselves in a completely different part of the station that we hadn’t seen when we arrived. It was already the biggest station we’d ever seen and it turned out we’d only experienced part of it! The main corridor is filled with restaurants and shops, some selling very tasty looking treats. The versions in this photo are actually plastic models, showing what the shop sells. This is very common in Japan – the majority of restaurants have fake food on display outside, presumably because Japan is very much a country where presentation of meals is taken seriously. In fact, plastic food is one of the major souvenirs that tourists like to take home from Japan!

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You then go through the ticket gates to find yourself in….another huge corridor filled with shops! This time the focus is on food to take on your journey with you, so we took the opportunity to grab a couple of bento boxes to take with us, before heading to the platform.

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The 2 1/4 hour journey itself was great. The ride is smooth but definitely quick, and the scenery races by: we saw a couple of cities and plenty of urbanised areas, but also the Japanese countryside, including fantastic views of Mount Fuji.

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On arrival at Tokyo station, our first challenge was navigating the Tokyo subway system….

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However, despite it looking immensely complicated, the system is actually fairly easy to navigate, thanks to fantastic signage and a free smartphone app for tourists. It’s also cheap, clean and incredibly pleasant to travel on (apparently talking on your phone is considered very rude, particularly close to the ‘courtesy seats’ reserved for the elderly, so it’s very quiet!).

Shibuya
Having checked into our hotel (definitely the biggest we’ve ever stayed in – 844 rooms, a mini shopping mall, several restaurants and bars, all spread over 37 floors), we agreed there was only one place to start our visit to Tokyo.

Shibuya is probably what you think of when you think of Tokyo, with neon and people everywhere you look. Music is being played in many of the streets (One Direction’s ‘Steal My Girl’ on a loop, when we were there). Shibuya scramble crossing is the point where Shibuya station intersects with the area’s shops, restaurants and neon. At peak times they reckon that over 1,000 people cross here every time the pedestrian light turns to green. Quite an introduction to this huge city.

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Shaky Isle of the day
Japan, like New Zealand, has its fair share of earthquakes (in fact, it apparently accounts for around 20% of the world’s ‘quakes!). This is something we got first-hand experience of on Saturday evening, when the walls of our hotel room started creaking and the blinds swaying from side to side.

It turns out that what we had felt was actually a magnitude-6.7 earthquake centred in Nagano, about 200 km away. It’s a very strange experience to feel the floor moving, especially when you’re on the 23rd storey! However, we’re told that the building we are in, like all buildings in the city, is designed to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake here in Tokyo, so they’re definitely prepared. Some of those closer to the epicentre on this occasion were less lucky.

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Kyoto’s temples and shrines

Thursday 20th November – Friday 21st November
Kyoto, Japan

‘Path of Philosophy’ walking tour, east Kyoto
Kyoto is absolutely packed with beautiful and historic Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. As well as being beautiful themselves, many of their gardens are a big draw in November for their autumnal colour, so it was difficult to know where to start.

Fortunately our guidebook included a range of ideas for self-guided walking tours, so we decided to kick things off on Thursday with a walk around the east of the city.

[photos, from the top: walking through Konchi-in temple grounds; the crane and turtle garden, Konchi-in; walking into Nanzen-ji temple; visitors burning incense (osenko) at Nanzen-ji; leaves and roof at Nanzen-ji temple; walking along the Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku-no-michi); Hoshokan Gate at Ginkaku-ji; view of Ginkaku-ji (the ‘Silver Pavilion’)]

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We finished the day off at Ippudo, and possibly the best bowl of ramen (noodle soup) I’ve ever had – delicious!

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Kinkakuji Temple, West Kyoto
On Friday we decided to focus on seeing the Kinkakuji Temple (otherwise known as the ‘Golden Pavilion’) which is located on the other side of town. The temple itself is eye-poppingly beautiful.

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We then headed back into the city centre for some time in the lovely shopping arcades.

Friday was our last evening in Kyoto, so we took ourselves to the Gion District and Southern Higashiyama, with beautiful streets, plenty of places for eating and entertainment and even a nighttime view of the Yasaka Shrine.

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We went to a soba restaurant called Omen Kodai-ji (it seems very common that a restaurant will focus on doing just one type of food and doing it well!). We again needed some instruction when the meal arrived in a variety of bowls and plates, but we soon got the hang of it (dip the noodles and other accompaniments in the broth little by little, slurp the noodles a lot!).

Advert of the day
Spotted outside a shopping mall near our hotel. We’re not sure if this poster is some kind of a translation mistake, or if the advertisers are already predicting a difficult Christmas….

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Arriving in Japan

Monday 17th November – Wednesday 19th November
Kyoto, Japan

On Monday morning we checked out of our hotel in Auckland and took the bus to the airport. After two flights and a stopover of a few hours in Singapore airport, we finally arrived in Kansai airport, Japan, early on Tuesday morning.

The train journey from Kansai airport to Kyoto took 1 1/4 hours, dropping us in Kyoto station. The station is huge, and incorporates a department store and two floors of restaurants.

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We took the opportunity to get our first taste of food in Japan by visiting one of the restaurants. Tonkatsu Wako (on the 11th floor in the station!) specialises in tonkatsu, a breaded port cutlet that is deep fried and served with shredded cabbage, pickles, miso soup and green tea. The waitress very kindly tried to explain which of the range of sauces on the table went with which component of the meal, but we still seemed to be causing some amusement to the older men on the neighbouring table as we tried to work it all out!

Shijo Dori Street
After checking into our hotel, we went to explore the main shopping area. Shijo Dori Street has a very wide range of shops, from designer brands to tourist shops and department stores.

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Our guidebook recommended a look in the department stores, particularly the basement food emporiums, which sell everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to sweets and takeaway food. We also took a look at the department selling kimonos, which are incredibly beautiful (and extremely expensive). It’s apparently quite complicated to get dressed in a kimono (usually needing specialist assistance!) and when you see them displayed in the shop you can see just how much material goes into making them.

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After a dinner of soba noodles in a broth, plus tempura vegetables (vegetables deep fried in a light batter), we put on the TV in our room to find…baseball! Some of the biggest baseball players from the USA are currently here, touring around the country and playing a number of games against some of the best Japanese players. Baseball is absolutely huge in Japan (some Japanese players also play in the USA’s major league). The crowd sound great – more like a football crowd at home, with lots of organised songs and chants. I’d love to tell you the final score, but I’m afraid the jet lag got the better of us before we made it to the end!

Kyoto Imperial Park
On Wednesday we got up, grabbed some breakfast in a nearby cafe and decided to take the subway to visit Kyoto Imperial Park. The first challenge was buying our tickets….

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The Imperial Park is the home of the Kyoto Imperial Palace; Kyoto was formerly the imperial capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, from 794 to 1869. The Palace itself is unfortunately quite hidden behind high walls and can only be visited by guided tour, but the star of the show in the autumn is the park. We didn’t know this when we planned our trip, but it turns out that Japanese people flock to Kyoto in the spring for the cherry blossoms, and in November for the beautiful autumnal colours. This inspired us both to get a bit arty with our photography!

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Nishiki Market
We then walked back to the central shopping area, and to Nishiki Market – a long, covered market. It specialises mainly in food – locals call it Kyoto no daidokoro (Kyoto’s kitchen) – though there are also other types of shops there. For example, one shop specialises in knives and you can watch them sharpen the knife once you’ve chosen it. You can also see them hand-engraving people’s names into them – quite a skill.

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We finished the day with dinner at Musashi Sushi, a restaurant that had been recommended by my colleague Jenny. The sushi is crammed onto a belt and is both cheap and very tasty!

Food of the day
Spotted in Nishiki Market – octopus, on a stick, with a quail’s egg in its head. We didn’t try it, but we liked their encouraging sign!

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