Sunday, September 20, 2015

Japan - the best laid plans

Chris and I - last day in Japan, in Nara - more photos here

Tues 1 Sept: Sydney – Kyoto

It seemed for several days last week that we might be unable to travel. The shock of Chris’s recurring cancer was overlaid with weariness at the idea of having to cancel everything. But at last the surgeon approved scheduling the operation following our return, so at 4am this morning, off we went.

4.15am – The taxi arrived promptly at S&M’s where we stayed overnight, and we arrived at the airport with time to spare.
9am – arrived in Cairns and had to retrieve our bags to transfer to the Osaka flight. Waited for 30 minutes in a queue at Departures only to find that there is a separate International terminal for our departure – poor signage! A few moments of panic before finding that we still had time to check-in for the flight.
11am – 5pm – Flight to Osaka. Reading, crosswords and sudoku (we didn’t purchase the entertainment pack!).

Kyoto neighbourhood
5pm-7pm – Kansai Airport Immigration Control has the longest queue I can remember. EVER! 90 minutes, then Customs, withdraw cash, buy rail tickets, exchange rail passes, board the Kansei to Kyoto Express (Hanuka) at 7.15pm – Phew!!
8.30pm – Kyoto at night is bright, warm and crowded. I think that we can walk to the guesthouse so we set off. The streets become progressively less crowded and no-one recognises the address … We admit that we are lost and find a taxi that seems to have arrived from the 1960s and after some head-scratching and GPS wrangling we find ‘Fujitaya’.

9.15pm – Fujitaya is tiny, in a neighbourhood of tiny wooden cottages. Koho welcomes us and we find our tiny room next to the tiny bathrooms ($104). Check-in, then head out to local (tiny) restaurant – Okonomiyaki Miki - which does traditional vegetable pancakes and other BBQ dishes (we have scallops with spinach), washed down with cold beer as we sit at the counter and watch the cooks do their stuff – aaaah …
10.30pm - Tiny room has futons, aircon and no sheets, but is comfortable enough. A long day …

Wed 2 Sept – Kyoto II

Rustic shopfront
Whatever you think Japan is going to be, seems that it’s different. Not so modern – more retro. Not so robotic – more rustic. At least in this town ... Unmistakably an Asian city, but without the chaos. It seems so civilized. Everyone is so polite. Not much English spoken, but Western influences everywhere.

The first thing that happened today, when I finally got online, was finding out that our AirBnb apartment was cancelled - all apologies but no reason given. Damn! We are supposed to check in today! The guesthouse we are staying in has no vacancy, so I trawl AirBnb and find an apartment near the river in South Higashiyama, a few km south of the previous booking ($140/night). OK! It’s booked!

Kyoto Museum
We walk over to the station area to do some shopping – a SIM for my phone, a HDD for video files, toiletries, reading glasses. We get everything at BIC Camera – a veritable superstore (it also has a great liquor section)! Then pick up our bags and hail one of the retro taxis for a lift to the new flat. Same routine of scratching head and driving in decreasing circles. We have the Japanese address this time so it’s not a language thing – it’s a Japanese address thing! Finally find the flat and check-in – it’s smaller than we thought, and the tiny ‘balcony’ is crammed with washing machine and aircon unit. But the location is good, between Kyoto station and Gion, close to the Kyoto Museum.

Maiko makeovers - and selfie stick
In the afternoon we walk via the museum (amazing new building, fabulous room of Buddhist statuary, no photos!) up to Gion (busy! Hundreds of fake-Geisha-Maiko makeovers!), over to Minami-za Theatre to pick up our booked tickets for the Kabuki (box office closed! Damn!) and back down the river to our apartment.
Tenryu-ji garden with umbrellas
In avoiding the restaurants of touristy-Gion we seem to avoid all of them – it’s certainly slim pickings in our local neighbourhood (seems that many are closed on Wednesdays). We pick up supplies to cook at home at the local ‘Family Mart’ and then spot a tiny eatery near the flat – two tables and ½ dozen menu items, mainly okonomiyaki (again). We try tempura (deep fried gristly bits of meat – a far cry from real tempura) and a noodle/pork pancake (ok, but not a patch on last night). Oh well, it’s local and inexpensive, but mediocre food (2 out of 3).

Thu Sept 3 – Kyoto III

Bamboo grove tourists
Out of the city to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. A gloomy day, I finally buy an umbrella, and then get maps and directions from the tourist office at amazing Kyoto station. Just a 15 minute train ride, than 15 minute walk via Tenryu-ji temple (lovely garden!). It starts to rain. There are a thousand tourists! And tourist shops! The little girls (and sometimes their boyfriends too) dressed up as Maiko are a little pathetic in the rain, but seem to be having fun anyway. We find a reasonable noodle restaurant for lunch (udon with duck) and wait for the rain to stop. It doesn’t. Squelch our way with new umbrella to the bamboo forest. It’s lovely in the misty drizzle, or would be if not packed with tourists in raincoats and umbrellas. It’s a laugh really. The minute we get back to the train station the rain stops!

Kyoto tower from the station
Back in Kyoto, we spend time checking out the impressive modern station building, with 15 floors, restaurants and skywalk. Kyoto is a funny mix of old and quaint, modern and ugly, super-modern and monumental. Much of the modern architecture is 1960-s to 80s – Japan’s economic heyday – and has a shabby Jetson’s feel.

Kyoto station
Tonight we cook the supermarket food we bought – noodles, steak, spinach, mushrooms and eggs. With a little sweet teriyaki sauce it is yummy.

Fri 4 Sept – Kyoto IV

Our last day in Kyoto and time to bite the bullet for some temple visits. The south Higashiyama route:

  • Sanjusangen-do, just around the corner. It’s early when we get there so not crowded. The garden is somewhat unkempt, but the drawcard is the enormous hall with 1001 statues of the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Like many other locations – no photos!
    View from Kyomizura-dera
  • Kiyomizura-dera – the tourist shops lining the pathway up to the temple warn of its popularity. It is crawling, teeming, with visitors of all and every kind. We look briefly around and check out the view, but are not enticed inside.
  • The quaint laneways of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka are pretty but likewise infested, lined with ice cream shops, teahouses and gift shops. We stop for a green tea ice, then into the less populated detour of Ishibei-koji. From there to Kodai-ji temple – surprisingly quiet and with a lovely garden and bamboo grove.
  • Chion-in is apparently the temple that attracts more pilgrims than any other, and certainly the ranked tour buses don’t inspire. The complex is dominated by what looks like a giant warehouse or hangar – turns out that it houses the main hall in the process of reconstruction. The gateway is certainly grand. We have a look around, but don’t pay to enter the temple buildings.
  • Just a few minutes north is Shoren-in. It is a modest temple with a gorgeous garden, and just a handful of visitors. We love this place and spend quite a while exploring.

Shoren-in temple garden
We run out of time to visit Ginkaku-ji, Nanzen-ji and the Path of Philosophy in north Higashiyama, let alone Fushimi-Inari, because we have to be at Minami-za for Kabuki!

Gion laneway
Retrieving our tickets from the machine without problems (so civilized!), we head into the historic theatre. It’s delightfully retro, like so much else in Kyoto, laid out in steep tiers as a traditional opera theatre. The play is ‘Arashi no Yoru ni (One Stormy Night)’ based on a well-known children’s story of a friendship between a wolf and a goat. It’s marvellously done, although of course we understand nothing. And again – no photos allowed. All parts including female are played by males (reminiscent of the gender swapping in traditional English pantomime).

After 2 hours there is a third interval, and we feel we have had enough, and head out to find Kisui bar, recommended in LP. After walking in circles for some time we find a handwritten note pinned to a door to say that it closed earlier in the year.
Agedashi tofu
But there is a restaurant upstairs where we have lovely agedashi tofu, and prawn cutlets accompanied by the ubiquitous mayonnaise (this time on a coleslaw-style salad).

Sat 5 Sept – Kyoto – Hiroshima

Chris is anxious about his cancer and wants to go home. We try to call the hospital, but it is Saturday. I try to check flight availability but the website isn’t working. We decide to leave it for the weekend and try again on Monday.

Exhibit at the Peace museum, Hiroshima
Heading for Hiroshima, we buy sandwiches and snacks for lunch at a bakery in the station. The branding suggests a whole grain, healthy vibe, but the products are pure white bread and sugar. The train is super fast and comfortable, but our allocated seats are right at the front of the carriage with limited view, so we spend the time seat hopping, to the consternation of the conscientious conductor.

After checking in at K’s House hostel (tiny room + ensuite, $90), we take the tram to the Peace park and Peace museum. The museum is old-fashioned in presentation, but it is an effective mix of factual history, science and human stories. Harrowing. And a reminder that such experiences (albeit non-nuclear) continue in the world today. There are several other memorials, notable the A-Bomb Dome, the dramatic remains of an early C20th industrial building that is now the icon of the city and its history.

Peace dome, Hiroshima
For dinner, we had thought of checking out an oyster restaurant on the river, but concerned that it may be expensive, we look up nearby Tempura Tenkou, that has great reviews. If I read the reviews more closely I would have realised that it, too, is quite pricy. Still, it looks elegantly authentic so we decide to treat ourselves. It’s excellent, fresh tempura (the prawns are swimming in a tank in the kitchen), and the final rice/soup course is also delicious. With 2 beers, it’s almost Y10,000, more than double the price of any other meal. It’s a pity the service doesn’t quite match the quality of the food (and the price).

Sunday 6 Sept – Naoshima

Sushi bento!
The more I thought about it, the more worried I was about going to Miyajima on a Sunday – surely it would be packed with tourists? So changed the plan to Naoshima- the ‘art island’, of interest to the artistically inclined rather than the regular herd. Also quite a bit harder to get to: train to Okayama, two local trains, then ferry. It takes half the day, but we are there in the early afternoon, after eating our sushi ‘bento’ boxes on the ferry.

The Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin at Naoshima
Wow, the cottage on the beach (at Tsutsuji-so Lodge) is lovely – a simple but classy (and large!) Japanese room with paper screens, tatami and futons. The ensuite has the biggest bath I’ve seen! ($120 with bf).

We hit the museums – Chichu, Lee Ufan and Benesse House, all designed by architect Tadao Ando. The buildings are certainly amazing, much more than bland art houses – they are the art and the artistic contents are their complement. The art itself is of high quality although spread somewhat thin (when compared to European museums). But the buildings themselves - in combination with nature, weather and art – are the point. The tour of the museums is certainly interesting, as is the price tag – around $100 for the two of us to visit 3 museums over 3 hours. Feeling rather like poor rellos come to take a glimpse of how the cultural elite live. Unfortunately, the other face of art in Naoshima – the Art House Project – we are not able to visit (time, weather, closed Mondays). That project sounds more accessible to mere mortals.

Our beachfront cottage at Tsutsuji-so Lodge
Back at our lovely cottage we find that we cannot eat dinner at Tsutsuji-so without booking 2 days ahead, but we are given directions to Umikko restaurant in nearby Honmura village, More onomiyaki pancakes! In fact the signature pancake with seafood and noodles is fine – sweet and smoky – although the accompanying grilled garfish is (unexpectedly) made from dried fish, so very chewy. It’s a ten minute walk back on a balmy evening. I try for a bath but can’t get the hot water working (doh! there's a switch to turn on the heater!), so after a cool splash we sit on the deck and drink sake, watching the myriad ships on the Inland Sea.

Mon 7 September: Naoshima – Nara

Me! at Guesthouse Sakuraya, Nara
After an early breakfast (in the boarding school-style café) we call Chris’s surgeon. They agree to try and reschedule his operation and we will call later to confirm. But first – to Nara: 1. Ferry, 2. Train to Chayamachi, 3. Train to Okayama, 4. Train to Shin-Osaka, 5. Train to Tennoji, 6. Train to Nara. Thank goodness for the Hyperdia website, and the efficiency of JR!

Chris in Nara, with the essentials - vidcam and umbrella!
From Nara JR it’s a 20 minute walk to the tiny and charming Guesthouse Sakuraya in Naramachi district ($120 with bf). Our hostess Kayoko is bubbly and welcoming. But our first task is to sort out Chris’s surgery and our return trip. The op is scheduled for Friday 11th, we fly back on Tues 8th. Tomorrow! Amazingly easy via Skype and wi-fi to arrange everything.

Nara pagoda and lake by night
Our fate is arranged, and we go for a walk around the district, which is somewhat Paddington-esque with funky shops and cafés. The nearby temple complex is closed, but we can walk around the area, see pagodas and the lake (turtles!). We check out some recommended local restaurants. One is closed, one looks a bit touristy, the last is a local izakaya with no English sign – perfect! Izakaya is a Japanese 'bar and tapas', and in fact we have probably the best meal of our trip – sashimi, tempura, endmame, skewers of veg and meat, green tea soup with rice, and a weird marinated squid dish with tiny raw squid. The total cost, including 3 beers, is around $20 each – one of our cheapest meals as well as the best!

Deer and tourists at Todai-ji temple
Back at the guest house we drink sake and chat to a young Parisian couple who are keen to visit Australia – “but it is so far away!” Yes, we know. Our futon beds have been made and we settle down for a final night.

Tuesday 8 Sept – Nara

Best. breakfast. ever.
So, we will miss out tonight on the laboriously organized Shojoshin-in temple stay at Koyasan. And will have to pay 100% cancellation. But other bookings (Takayama, Tokyo) have been more easily cancelled and will be refunded. Now my consolation is a whole day to explore Nara. (And, incidentally, have the best breakfast ever at Sakuraya!)

Giant Buddha at Todai-ji
We head off in the rain to see Nara Park, where the main temple sites are – Todai-ji Buddhist temple, and Kasuga Taisha Shinto shrine. But it is the walk through Nara Park that is truly stunning – tame deer, prehistoric trees, avenues of stone lanterns …
Forest of lanterns at Kasuga
Todai-ji temple is enormous and the huge bronze Buddha inside genuinely awe-inspiring. The forest of lanterns surrounding Kasuga Shrine is unbelievable picturesque. Isuien Garden is closed, so we explore nearby Yoshikien, which is lovely (and free for foreign visitors!). Nara Park is an amazing place that we can’t really do justice to in half a day.

Chris in the Yoshikien Garden
Rather damp, we head back to the malls for food and some last minute shopping. After some hunting we find a cheap ramen bar – great! But … you get what you pay for and the soups are not impressive.
Yum! plastic food in Nara shopping mall
Quick supermarket dash for some Japanese whisky (Nikka Yoshi and Miyagikyo, Suntory Chita – all single malt), but can’t in our rush find any nice (affordable) ceramics. There is no time to browse, or check out the funky, vintage shops that look so cool. Grab our bags, then another wet walk to the station to connect to the airport express. Fortuitously, we find some small rustic dishes with stoneware glaze at a street stall on the way – my one souvenir.

The trip to the airport and checking in all goes smoothly – we have plenty of time. It’s a long overnight flight (we get the entertainment pack this time!), and a five hour wait in Cairns for the Sydney flight. Then, at last we are home – one week ahead of schedule, and with a gruelling period of surgery and recovery ahead of us. I so hope that we can return another time.
View from RPA hospital at dawn - before Chris's surgery
See more photos on my Flickr page

No comments: