I think I will travel to Kyoto

After accommodation and airfares, the single most expensive part of our trip was the train to Kyoto. Grade 6 social studies taught us all about the wonder of the Bullet Train, shooting down the tracks picturesquely – Mt Fuji in the background and rice fields in the fore. The reality of the Shinkansen is surprisingly similar, although I was a little disappointed with the absolute lack of rice paddies as promised by my school books. We had determined to  catch a level 3 Bullet, known as Kodama, which stops at every station and was considerably cheaper than the Hikari or the top-notch Nozomi versions. It was all to do with number of stops and travel time…

Our research told us to book the train at least a day before we travelled so we had gone to the Shinjuku station a couple of days earlier and discovered that due to public holidays and huge numbers travelling, we had a choice of only 4 trains for our return and only 1 that fitted with our timeline for returning from Kyoto  then making it to the airport for our flight. Sadly this was at 6:42am. Our second discovery was that the Kodama and the Hikare were the same price – about $330 each return.

Tatami time…
So we had the tickets and we had a normal departure time from Tokyo. Our trial run to Tokyo Station proved mighty canny and we managed to pack our luggage, check-out of the Hilton and be in the subway to the Metro well on time. January 2 is a day on which the Japanese choose to travel on mass. The Tokyo Station was jam-packed. Queues for toilets (even the mens!), queues for food of any description, queues for information, queues for ticket vending machines, and people as far as you could see in every direction. We needed to follow the the signs to the Tokaido line and eventually found ourselves on an extremely long platform surrounded by extremely long, extremely aerodynamic, white trains. We watched our train arrive and who’d have thought there’d be a show! These trains are 16 cars long, each car with two doors, so right along the platform, at the door points were pink suited cleaners standing at attention, all facing the oncoming train. As the train approached they all bowed. As the train stopped, they all turned and moved to their doors and waited for the passengers to alight. Once the train was empty they all rushed in and raced through the carriages turning the seats and changing the antimacassars. All the seats are brushed; all the bins are emptied; all the ledges are wiped; all done a running speed till the train is ready again in about 4 minutes. 

We managed to purchase a few food items for the trip, most notably a box of cakes delightfully named, Tokyo Banana. These are immaculately packaged sponge cakes filled with a banana-ey custardy creamy muck. Americans would prob’ly call it a twinky. I say one is enough. Our journey was also blighted. Blighted by the presence in our carriage of a pair of Australian families en-route to the ski fields with their 4 loud, spoiled children and too much luggage. We did a majestic sweep past Mt Fuji and a rush through some quite snowy areas before we arrived at Kyoto.

I had written down directions to our ryokan last night, and we found our way from the Shinkansen to the subway easily enough. Getting off at the correct stop was also easy, but I’m sharp enough to have realised after about 15 minutes that turning left or right was entirely dependant upon which exit you take. Our instructions nominated a seemingly non-existent exit and we were lead by a lovely woman with some english to another exit notionally in the right direction. Still not really sure about the street naming and numbering system and a half hour’s walk revealed nothing of any help, so against everything I hold to be male, I was forced to ask directions. The first shop girl pointed me in a vague direction and to a street that had a similar name to the one we were looking for, but the second shop girl, in a very flash suit shop, raced off and photocopied a page from the Kyoto UBD and marked a couple of X’s on it. Now these X’s roughly coincided with my re-interpretation of the directions I had, so we set off down a footpathless streets into the heart of Kyoto. About 20 minutes and we were really ‘warm’ (in the sense of close). We had lost count of the number of blocks traversed and were debating the merits of 5 or 6 when another kindly Kyotian stopped to help, and another. After a few minutes discussion, I thought I’ll just put the name of the ryokan out there – Watazen? Oh, Watazen they said – that’s just there (all pointing to a sign that said ‘Watazen‘ about 10 metres down the street.

Nishiki Market
This was to be our traditional Japanese experience – tourist style. The nice man at the desk greeted us with a buddhist lucky numbers game – Pip and Eamon won biros and I won some face-blotting paper. We arrived at 2:30 but couldn’t check in till 4 so they kindly looked after our luggage while we headed off to explore the local area. Didn’t take long to reach one of OMG, Japanese moments we’ve been experiencing. Our street crossed a covered market street, lined with shops selling food restaurants, which led to another covered street selling everything else which led to another covered street which sold everything else and led to the main streets which were filled with restaurants and stores again stretching off for a couple of kilometres. And people, teeming. About every third restaurant was closed – being the holiday season, and about every fifth shop. We roamed through these market streets, munching on street food (we found a woman selling pieces of fried chicken who I think had cracked the 11 secret herbs and spices of the Colonel) for a couple of hours before heading back to check-in and have a rest before heading out to dinner. We were shown to our room by kimono-ed serbian girl named Angelique, whose job it seemed was to explain the rules (in a very nice and smiley way) while she prepared us some tea. No shoes on the tatami. The provided white lady sandals for the foyer or around the hotel. The green lady slippers for the public bath. Use the gender appropriate public bath. Wash and clean yourself before the public bath. No heads under the water in the public bath. No clothes left on for modesty in the public bath. Internet only available in the foyer. Beds will be laid out late in the evening. Charming and Japanesey I’m sure.

Hit the futon
We sat around in the chairs with no legs and watched a bit of Jap television which really just appears to be a never ending panel show based on the Funniest Home Videos format, except they never claim the ‘accidents’ aren’t set-up, until we had recuperated enough to walk out again. We had a tip off from nice hotel guy to head down toward the river for the restaurant precinct and that would have been fine except that the restaurants that were open seemed to be booked out. We eventually found a 5th floor place that said we could wait if we wanted. We wanted. We’d spent about 2 hours looking for dinner. 40 minutes later – bingo. Three older gents rolled out of an unseen room, paid their huge sake-based bill and disappeared down the lift. We were shortly ushered in and invited to remove our shoes and enter one of those tatami rooms with the table on the floor and a shallow pit underneath for legs. The waitress left the room and shut the door behind her leaving us to press the buzzer for drinks and food. Twas a Shabu Shabu joint and Pip and I chose accordingly. Eams chose some dumplings and tempura.

A lovely meal and a lovely walk home past some beautiful buildings and by a Cafe Lucca which had an espresso machine. We took note of this baby for tomorrow.

Our beds had indeed been laid out when we got home and not much cajoling was required to get us all into futon mode and out to it.

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