Category: Japan

Five Memorable Experiences in Kyoto

There are many memories waiting to be made in Kyoto.

You would really have to work hard to have a bad time in the city. It is very walking friendly, and surprisingly most things are relatively close by.

You might want to hop on the subway a few times, to get to the red gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha, or the monkeys at Arashiyama, but overall you can expect to see many of the city’s iconic sights by simply walking around the main drag anywhere from Imadegawa Dori at the head of the Kamo River to Kyoto Station about six kilometres to the south.

Here are some suggestions for places to seek out in the city.

Take a Walk Along the Kamogawa

The shallow Kamo River (lit. “Duck River”) in Kyoto runs through the heart of the city’s cultural center. It’s a popular walking spot for both locals and tourists.

There are many storefronts and restaurants that run along the river, and during the warmer months many which sit on stilts above the river open their windows and doors, so that you can eat outside while sitting above the river. Doing this at night is really lovely, and you can see what it looks like from across the river in the top image for this post.

It’s incredibly beautiful, and a great way to spend the afternoon is just to roam around observing people’s habits, eating street food, buying local art, and talking to people. I spent a lot of time hanging out around here.

Kyoto Kamogawa restaurants
Restaurants along the Kamogawa light up at night. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

 

Kyoto artist kamogawa river
An artist does custom portraits along the Kamogawa in Kyoto. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-4
A buddhist monk stands on the bridge as the modern world walks by. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-7 copy

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-5

This is also where the Pontocho, one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining districts is. You’ve got these tiny corridor stone streets with the thatched roofs overhead practically touching, and each restaurant is its own unique space.

This historic street is in the Hamamachi district where geisha used to dwell, and its not hard to imagine the feet of apprentice maiko running along the tiny streets, carrying packages for their sempai. In the modern day, its kept up its reputation as an area that maintains traditional art forms.

There is even the rare chance for a foreigner to see a performance by a real geisha – twice a year at the Kaburenjo Theatre. That being said – geisha apprentices (maiko) perform kyo-mai dance almost daily at Gion Corner, and it’s still a very special thing to see.

Visit Kyoto International Manga Museum

The Manga Museum is more like a manga library, and is such a great place.

There’s almost always a special event or going on. I came on the weekend when the front lawn is surrendered to cosplayers. Tons of people show up in homemade costumes and spend the afternoon posing and taking photos of each other.

If you want to catch this, make sure to show up earlier rather than later. I’d recommend coming around lunch time; there’s also a café.  The museum itself closes at 6pm, and all the cosplayers are usually gone by then as well.

Beyond that, the museum itself houses 300,000+ items of Japanese manga historical significance. It also hosts workshops, and separate from the actual museum displays there are also shelves and shelves of manga which the public can take down and read to their heart’s content. There are also lots of seating areas.

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-22
Cosplayers take over the lawn in front of the Manga Museum on Sundays. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-10

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-11

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-23

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-13

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-24

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-9

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-15

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-16

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-17

See the Golden Pavilion Temple

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie

Here is your goal: try and get a shot of the Golden Pavillion without a bajillion people in the frame.

That may not be as hard for you as it was for me. My friends and I must have been crazy because we went during Golden Week (THE public holiday in Japan. If you can avoid it, don’t travel during this time. Lineups for everything, including shrines, are crazy).

That being said, kinkakuji was still beautiful. The sight of the glinting bright gold zen Buddhist temple seated in its Muromachi period garden is not one you’ll easily forget.

Kyoto_Experiences_Mel_Hattie-21

There’s also a lovely tea garden I’d recommend stopping at. You’ll come to it if you follow the path behind the temple.

Play With The Monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park and Walk Through The Bamboo Grove Forest in Arashiyama

Odds are high you’ve seen this bamboo grove before.

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-2

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-6

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-4There is no feeling quite like standing inside the tunnel of green bamboo: the smell of air filtered through fresh bamboo, the flute-like sound of the wind winding through the stalks and gently knocking them about.

When you exit the forest, be sure to continue along the path to check out Ōkōchi Sansō, an early 20th Century Japanese villa.

Once you’ve achieved serenity, you can plan on having it destroyed by the monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park.

To enter the monkey park, you will need to buy a ticket at the park entrance, and then hike about 30 minutes up the mountain to reach the monkeys. It’s not too steep a climb, but I wouldn’t recommend having anything too heavy with you. Save the souvenir shopping for after the monkey park.

Once inside, you can buy treats to feed the monkeys and enjoy the thrill of having bits of apple and banana snatched away from you.

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-11

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-12

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-13

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-14

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-15

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-16

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-17

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-18

The monkeys are technically wild, but as you might imagine they are very used to human contact. They run around willy-nilly once you reach the top of the mountain. They are definitely safe to photograph and hand food to, but I would always approach them with caution. Let them come to you and don’t run towards them.

Arashiyama is a small area just to the west of Kyoto. The best way to get there from Kyoto is via Japan Railways (“JR”). From Kyoto Station on the JR Sanin Main Line.

Besides the monkeys and bamboo, there’s a whole lot to check out in and around Arashiyama. If you have time, I’d recommend planning to spend the day there. Maybe grab a jinrikisha (rickshaw) as well to your around the city. Flag one down and let them know where you want to go. Use cash. A simple phrase to remember is ‘___ ni ikitai, onegaishimasu!’ (‘I want to go to ___, please!’).

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-10

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-8

Hike Through Fushimi Inari Taisha

The famous vermillion gates.

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-21

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-22

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-26

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-27

 

Kyoto_Mel_Hattie-29

I can’t wait to re-visit this city to make even more memories.

If you want to read more on it before your trip to enrich your experience, I recommend The Tea House Fire by Ellis Avery which I read as part of my One Book Per Week Challenge.

Also, if you’re in Kyoto you might want to think about doing a day trip to Nara, the famous deer-dwelling town south of Kyoto. If you’re limited by time (like I was) and want to fit as much in as you can (and you have the stamina), I would suggest leaving Kyoto in the early morning to hike up Fushimi Inari Taisha (it takes about 2 hours to get to the top), having an post-hike snack in the marketplace at the base of Fushimi Inari Taisha (you’ll see it as soon as you get off at the Inari subway stop), and then heading to Nara to spend the rest of the day.

From Inari to Nara is about one hour by car, or one and a half hours by train. Then you’ll be able to spend the day and evening in Nara, and then take the train back to Kyoto afterwards.

The World’s Biggest Fish Market: Tsukiji in Tokyo, Japan

 

The Tsukiji Fish Market was a large, wholesalers fish market that has become an unexpected tourist phenomenon over the years. While an early morning (between 5am and 6am) appearance and sign-up sheet can grant you access to the area where the fishermen conduct the business of selling huge Tuna fish, the market does open to all the public at 9am every day, except on days when it’s closed. Tsukiji is really interesting: there are tons of sushi shops everywhere, as you’d imagine, selling sushi made with fresh-caught fish sold that morning (which is what a lot of people come for) and the stalls at the very front of the market are actually more tourist goods than fish. You have to walk over a small hill and past some other vendors before you actually get to the fish part of the public market. Market stalls at Tsukiji are kind of like townhouses: narrow fronts with long, deep corridors, filled with tonnes of stuff. You’d never find what you’re looking for alone: the stall shelves are packed to the roof with goods. Living in Tokyo is probably what’s given these sellers such a good sense of how to take advantage of every free space possible.

While the market’s purview used to be more restaurant and wholesale, the influx of tourists has changed it, so now there are more offerings to family’s looking to buy fresh ingredients, or tourists just looking for the weirdest, pickled, strangely-coloured unnameable item to take home to show their families.

You can tell that not all of the fisherman and stall vendors love the tourist attention they receive. Although it has been going on for some years now, you still get salesmen who glare at anybody holding a camera. There’s no point in arguing with these guys, most of them are pretty proud, stubborn old men. I’m a pretty stubborn, young woman, so I guess I can relate.

There are lots of signs before you enter the market, geared towards tourists, telling us not to interfere with sales in any way. This includes some pretty funny cartoons of blatantly blonde, western-looking people trying to steal away a fisherman’s knife, thinking it’s a samurai sword. Didn’t see anything like that while I was there (unfortunately). The big thing I found was really just to watch out for these little zoomy-carts that the fishermen ride around on to get their proucts around the market. They’re pretty quiet so you don’t really hear them coming up behind you: best keep your eyes open and stay alert at all times.

All in all, Tsukiji was a pretty cool cultural phenomenon. And, of course, being from the Maritimes it was nice to see fishermen from another part of the world.

Watching Fireworks with A Million People

No one does crowds like the Sumida River Fireworks Festival in Tokyo

The Sumidagawa is a large river that snakes through Tokyo’s downtown. There are several bridges crossing over it downtown near the Asakusa district, which is where the fireworks festival is held every year on the last Saturday in July. This festival is one of Tokyo’s biggest annual celebrations: over ONE MILLION people attend every year. I had never been in a crowd of a million people before, so let me tell you: It is a LOT of people. There were so many small moments going on between spectators.

Sumida_River_Fireworks_Mel_Hattie Sumida_River_Fireworks_Mel_Hattie-4 Sumida_River_Fireworks_Mel_Hattie-5

You could tell I was from big ol’ Canada, with its whopping 10 people per kilometre squared (compared to Japan’s over 200) because sometimes I would stop watching the pyrotechnics just to stare at what was happening around me. I’ve lived in decent-sized cities before (Halifax, Hamburg) but I still felt like a little country mouse in the big city. The Tokyoites somehow manage to ignore each other and move as a crowd at the same time, without getting distracted by anything that’s going on around them. .

On my way back from the fireworks, walking with the huge crowd, sometimes I would just be looking around at buildings near me, checking to see if any of them had ladders so I could just scramble up above the crowd and breathe for two seconds. Alas, no. Despite the crowd, the event was pretty fun though. Lots of crazy fireworks, including a Pikachu-shaped one. Pretty amazing stuff; lots of fireworks crews from all over Japan compete to see who can produce the most impressive show. Getting close to the actual river was impossible, most people were watching from at least 3 or 4 streets back. Luckily, they shoot the fireworks pretty high up so even if you’re caught a few streets back you have a pretty good chance of seeing them from one of the two locations.

Also, amazingly, the hostel where I was staying was pretty much right around the corner from where most people were watching, so it was one of the few things I saw in Tokyo that I didn’t have to spend a half an hour on the subway to get to.

Sumida_River_Fireworks_Mel_Hattie-6

Back in Canada

One of the last photos of me in Japan. As of Monday, I have officially returned to my home country; back in good ol’ Canada. Because a cabin crew shortage delayed my plane from Toronto to Halifax for three hours, I was starving when we finally landed. The midnight drive home from the airport yielded a large, tomato and onion-covered donair. Let me check: yep, definitely back on the east coast.

Despite being back and slowly readjusting to home while fending off some potent, sleepy jetlag;  I definitely still have a lot of untold anecdotes left about Japan, and hoards of photos to sift through and edit, so I’ve decided that I might as well keep the Japan stories coming as long as there’s fuel to drive the fire. I figure: better to do it here where I actually have a platform to write them than go crazy waiting for somebody to ask, or worse: having to re-tell the same stories over and over and over again.

Some of the nice things about being home: today’s a rainy day, and there’s nothing like being able to stay at home on a rainy day while baking cookies, drinking tea, and relaxing with some candles in a freshly-vacuumed house. The baking cookies bit really rocks; in Japan most houses and apartments (including mine) don’t have convention ovens, so no baked goods or meals. Familiar things like that I ove coming home to. On the flipside, I can already tell that I’m going to start missing some of the small things about Japan (like the umbrella racks at the entrance of all the stores, and the fact if you leave your umbrella there, it will still be there when you get back); I’ve already been whining to my boyfriend about how I don’t want to take the car anywhere, and just want to bike it all like in Japan. But, since the pedals on my bike here somehow rusted and fell off while I was in Japan, it doesn’t look like this will be a reality anytime soon. 

Anyway: this photo! Here is bit of Tokyo’s infamous skyline, including the newly opened (just this year) Tokyo Skytree. The golden sculpture on top of the building to my left is an excellent directional landmark in the Asakusa area, and is affectionately referred to as ”the golden shit”, by many travellers. The hostel we were staying at is just about a 5 minute walk past the golden shit building. Charming? I know.

Fun Japanese Fact: Although Japanese has a word for tower, most newer places with ‘tower’ in their name (Tokyo Tower, Seiroka Tower, etc.). Actually use タワー (tawaa) which is the katakana phonetic spelling of the English word; something about English words being trendy and cool. It’s similar to how while driving on a highway you might pass through a トンネル (tonneru), even though Japanese also has its own word for tunnel.

Magic at the Miyazaki Museum

The quality of pollen on these stamen make it look like they’re coated in sugar. I feel sort of like an erotic botanist for noticing.

edit: I just looked in the dictionary for the correct plural of ‘stamen’… It’s stamina. The erotic botanist strikes again.

Final Days for Now – Tokyo Time

Protestors against the use of nuclear power in Japan gather peacefully every Friday near Kasumigaseki Station in Tokyo’s political district, carrying signs that state the dangers of nuclear power, in the wake of the recent Fukushima disaster. July 2012.

 

Lily pond in Tokyo’s Imperial East Garden (皇居東御苑 – kōkyo higashi gyoen). I also just uploaded this and a bunch of others as prints, here! It’s so crazy how time flies, I was just texting a friend whose birthday it is that I remembered it was this time last year that I was just getting ready to go  on my big adventure to Japan. What an amazing time.