Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Japan 2023 - Part 2 - Kyoto & Nikko

The Shinkansen ride was fine; we always get Green car tickets. The Green car is like business class.  But even standard class has good leg room.  Green cars are much less crowded (although now with all the tourists back, it seemed much more crowded on the Kyoto-Osaka-Tokyo corridor). Quieter too in part because it's less crowded plus it's carpeted. It is said that seat reservations sometimes are hard to get on standard class cars during heavy traffic seasons (Golden Week, Obon, just before New Year), and Green cars are one way to assure yourself a seat. But our car was as crowded as I've ever seen a Shinkansen Green car.

One piece of bad news that we got during our trip, coincidentally, was that the cost of a JR pass will nearly double come October of this year. The standard rule of thumb used to be that if you were traveling Tokyo-Kyoto round trip, a 7 day JR pass was worth it.  Now, we'll have to refigure our rules...  I've read that a Tokyo round trip to Hiroshima is necessary to make it worthwhile.

The other bad thing that happened since our last trip was that Hyperdia.com stopped loading timetables into their searches.  For you Japan rail nubes, Hyperdia was the best way to plan long distance rail travel.  It was even great to plan local subway trips. 

When trying to get train reservations, it's really important to get accurate times. You now have to use one of the following: Navitime, Jorudan, or ekispert.  None of these have the user interface that Hyperdia had...  I used to get really tight schedules into our itinerary (like 8 minutes between train connections at strange stations), and it's really hard now.  One can make these tight connections because trains in Japan are extremely punctual. Fortunately, those times of squeezing every sight into our time in Japan are, for the most part, a thing of the past. I plan longer "layovers," in between train legs. Must be getting old.

We arrive and it's no time before I get my bearings at Kyoto Station.  This is like our second home base, behind Tokyo Station. It was raining quite heavily, so after we check into the Royal Daiwa just across the street from the station, we decide to just go to Kyoto Station and amuse ourselves.  We could spend days just roaming around train stations. We had trouble deciding on dinner, so we just ended up getting substandard (by our standards) ramen at the Kyoto Station Ramen Street on 10F. This floor used to be crazy crowded but it was practically empty that Friday night.  I'm not certain why.

I had not planned any Kyoto activities beforehand. We agree that we must go to Nishiki Market, and many stores are closed on Sundays, so Saturday has to have Nishiki as our main activity. Subway to Nishiki after breakfast.

No, we're not in Paris.  There are sooo many really nice bakeries in Japan.  You really cannot go wrong purchasing baked goods for a quick breakfast.

The other thing that Japan has is great coffee.  However, they don't have decaf.  Nowhere is decaf found.  I often have trouble sleeping if I drink coffee too late in the day, but somehow, in Japan, I can have coffee in the late afternoon, and still sleep soundly.

One of my absolute favorite things to have in Japan is Ice Coffee from a 7-Eleven.  It tastes sooo good! This is the procedure.  You go into the combini (it's basically the same procedure at Family Mart, Lawson, or any combini), go to the frozen food area, and purchase a plastic cup of ice that is labelled アイスコーヒー.  That says Aisu Kohi.  Sometimes, it says カフェラテ along with アイスコーヒー.   That's Cafe Latte. It's a multipurpose cup of ice. In that case, you have to tell the cashier you want ice coffee, which is a bit cheaper.  It should run you about ¥150 to ¥200 for a "large." Then you take the cup to the front of the store, open the cup, add sugar and cream, and put it in the multi function coffee machine.  Nowadays, there are English instructions in most combinis.  Just press a button, the machine freshly grinds coffee beans and brews/dispenses the coffee. You have a delicious ice coffee!  I haven't looked but I'm willing to bet money that there is a detailed youtube video outlining the steps.

At Nishiki Market, it used to be uncool to eat "on the street." However, I believe that those "in control" have given up, since there are so many tourists eating while walking.  We add to the problem, by getting a bunch of foods, though we eat in an upstairs sitting area.

Tempura scallops and prawn

Grilled scallops and baby octopus

Unagi (fresh water eel)

I think that if we had only one dish, we would have just walked along with the crowd.

Nishiki Market has been around for centuries. There is even evidence that fresh fish was sold in that area as early as the 8th century!  It's had ups and downs but at the present time, there is a certain charm that isn't to be missed.  There's so much variety of food available there.  Crowds too, though!

Warabi matcha mochi (it's a more delicate mochi than sweet glutinous rice mochi).  It's a fern (fiddlehead) root starch, sweetened and flavored with matcha.  

Ice cream everywhere!

Sammie spies a 10 yen cheese pancake snack place (she actually thought these really cost ¥10) that is popular on social media.

We're stuffed with snacks for now so we are ok until dinner. Our group decided we wanted yakitori, so I eventually found a tablet yakitori place very close to Kyoto Station.  I finally have figured out Tabelog, Japan's Yelp.  There is an english web version, which I use on my phone.  There is a mobile version of Tabelog, but I use the standard view (I'm nearsighted anyway).  As I always do, I digress, but Tabelog is something useful to know.  Tori Kizoku is a bargain Yakitori joint, and the chicken is quite high quality.  And it's a chain, with a branch near Tokyo Station, which we go to later in the trip!  Crowded, so we know that the chicken is fresh.  

Oh, the mega beer is the same price as the regular, which I found out a bit too late!

The next day, Sunday, we decide to go to Kiyomizudera.  Actually, just the area around it, because it was so crowded...  We've been inside Kiyomizu several times already, so we really only wanted to stroll the streets around there. Kiyomizu is a must go to place in Kyoto, along with Kinkakuji. So many "must see's" in Kyoto.

First Chawan zaka, one of the streets leading to Kiyomizudera. Snacks!

Then to Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka.  We found a place with Mont Blanc desserts (it has ground chestnut puree extruded onto frozen matcha soft serve ice cream).

Walked to Asaka Shrine, and then through Gion to Choice, a vegan place that the others wanted to go to.  They were all disappointed; I think it was because they were just tired of the place, after having eaten there so many times before.  Disappointed, we walk all the way to Premarche Gelateria to get our fill of frozen dessert!  Many say it's the best Gelato in the world!

We have kaitenzushi at a familiar place in Asty in Kyoto Station.  Reliably excellent, and at a bargain price too!  We always say that the worst xyz-food in Japan is better than the best xyz-food in the USA (not that this is the worst kaitenzushi in Japan!).

Monday, we have a moderately long travel day, though we've had many longer days in the past.  Kyoto to Nikko, about 5 hours rail time.  

On all our previous trips, we'd never seen Mt Fuji, except from a plane going to Miyakojima. but the weather is clear this day, and I thought that this might be the day.  Mt Fuji is in between Kyoto and Tokyo. There are numerous tunnels through which our Shinkansen travels. Once in the target area (use your map app), I keep my eyes peeled.  All of a sudden we emerge from a tunnel and I see a huge imposing sight!  Remember that the seats on the West side of the train have the Fuji view (left side on the Kyoto to Tokyo ride, right side on the Tokyo to Kyoto ride).

A beautiful sight! Connie, Sam and Em are all amazed at how clearly we can see Fuji-san!

We get to Nikko early afternoon, and a short taxi ride gets us to our ryokan, the Okunoin Tokugawa Hotel. Our taxi driver was a talkative chap.  He was born in Nikko 72 years prior.  He hates living there, because it's boring.  I get it.  It's rural area. 

Our ryokan is pretty small, and off the beaten path.  I had reserved one of the larger rooms with a private bath and its own little pool (for visual only, it was about 6 inches deep). Nice and roomy.  Having a private outdoor bath is pure luxury, even if it is just "tap water."

I really enjoy the public bath, which has true hot spring water.  And the food at the ryokan is great.  We get two dinners and two breakfasts in our own little private dining room, which is ours for the duration of our stay. 

This ranks up there as one of the best Onsen Ryokans that we've stayed at, with great food, great service, great Onsen, and really nice atmosphere!

Good night!

Tuesday, we go to the touristy areas of Nikko.  Nikko is all about the Tokugawa clan.  Tokugawa Ieyasu is credited with unifying Japan after centuries of factious, and often violent, existence. This was in the early 1600's.  His son and grandson built the structures in Nikko 400 years ago in tribute to Ieyasu, who is entombed there. His family (the Tokugawa Shogunate) was in power until the mid 1800's. 

This is the Yomeimon, the most famous part of the Nikko complex. Intricate carvings covered with gold leaf and special mineral based paints.

The gate to Ieyasu's tomb is "guarded" by the sleeping cat

Famous monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil)

Shinkyo Bridge, said to have been built by two snakes for a Buddhist monk who wanted to cross the river.

We do see a fair amount of Cherry Blossoms in Nikko.  Nikko is at a higher elevation and latitude than Tokyo, so there are still blossoms to be seen.

Next post is part 3!

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