Saturday, January 4, 2014

Japan 2013 Travel Log Part 2: Day 1 in Kyoto

And now more of my travel log from last year's Japan trip.

My buddy Kyle on the train from Osaka to Kyoto.
After we woke up in Osaka, Kyle was itching to get out of the big city and see some nature, and I had heard that Kyoto was more relaxed than Osaka (in the off-season, anyway), and so we decided to head out there via the Hankyu line, which our Korean acquaintance from the airport bus had told us cost a mere 380 yen (about $4). It was exactly that price, and the trip was only 30 to 40 minutes. We didn't have a proper guidebook and my knowledge of Japanese geography was woefully lacking. I knew Kyoto was not too far from Osaka but I had no idea how to get there, so it was a good thing that we had asked someone and that getting there was so easy. We left for Kyoto after breakfast.           

The video I took really shows how little I knew about Kyoto and the whole Kansai region at the time, as I make a number of erroneous statements pertaining to the local geography (I have since learned a lot more). This shows the importance of researching the places you visit before you go. Always do your research, my friends; don't be ignorant like old Alex and sound like an idiot when you talk about things (for the record, I knew Orangina wasn't Japanese -- I was trying to be funny). Moving on . . .

The previous evening we had booked a single night at a hostel called Haruya. Initially I thought it was in Gion, which is why I say so in the video, but our hostel was actually down the street from the Kyoto Aquarium, in a wonderfully low-key part of the city (apparently it's a sister hostel called Haruya Aqua). The hostel operates out of a 200-year-old house and has traditional tatami rooms and sliding doors -- very charming indeed. Because the hostel was virtually empty that particular evening, we were upgraded to the main tatami room, which was very spacious and visually splendid. I'd always wanted to stay at a place like this and I finally got my wish.

The main tatami room at Haruya Aqua.
We split the cost of the room and it came to about $26 a person, though we were paying for the room we'd booked initially, which was smaller and cheaper and not a tatami room. The hostel offers bike rentals that are normally 500 yen (about $5) a day, but we were given them free on account of the lack of other visitors that evening, so we took them out for a spin. The hostel also gave us a free map, which was very detailed and in English, so it was extremely helpful. Kyle has a tonne of experience with backpacking and the like, so he was our navigator and performed admirably. Our first mission was looking for food, as we were starving. So we stopped at an izakaya, a kind of Japanese pub, for some refreshments to fuel us for our bike ride.

This izakaya was located at a quiet intersection in a residential area near our hostel. It was too charming to pass up. 
The izakaya was tiny, and as we slid the door open we were greeted by the chef, presumably the owner, and two customers who seemed to be regulars, watching TV and talking energetically to the owner in Kansai dialect. The situation was initially like a puzzle to us, as both Kyle and I had only the most rudimentary Japanese language capabilities, which did not include reading or writing; the entire menu was in Japanese; and it was evident that the staff didn't speak a lick of English.

Here's me posing with our hard-won Asahi. I was trying to look like one of those foreigners who occasionally appear in Japanese advertisements.
At first we just chose a few things at random, but when that yielded interesting though somewhat lacklustre results, we devised a way around our predicament. One of the regulars was ordering some really tasty-looking stuff, and fortunately I had a phrasebook on my phone that I had downloaded prior to the trip. I looked up "What do you call that?" and politely said to him, "Excuse me," and started pointing to all the food he had ordered, asking him, "What do you call that?" for each one. I wrote down the answers he gave me on a piece of paper, thanked him, and apologized for bothering him. He was pretty friendly, though, and didn't seem to mind at all. I read off all the things he had told me and also ordered some Kirin, my favourite Japanese beer; they didn't have it, so we got Asahi instead. Pleased with our ingenuity, Kyle and I proceeded to drink our beer and eat our snacks, which ended up being quite delicious indeed. After sitting around for a bit, we continued our evening bike trip to Gion -- the traditional geisha district of Kyoto.

This is the path leading to Yasaka Shrine in Gion. It was practically empty when we got there.
As we cycled into Gion, at a large intersection we spied the entrance to Yasaka Shrine, a handsome, traditionally built orange gate. It was open and looked much too interesting to pass up, so before we went into Gion proper we took a walk around the grounds. There were lanterns everywhere, which gave a unique warmth to the place. The grounds were practically deserted save for a few people who had stopped by to offer some prayers or stroll around. I saw a man who looked as if he might be a Shinto priest enter one of the buildings and not come out, so I suppose he lived there. The path I walk down in the video, with its lanterns on each side, was wonderfully mysterious and romantic. If I end up going to Kyoto with a future girlfriend, we'll definitely visit Yasaka Shrine in the evening -- it's too romantic not to. After taking a thorough tour of the grounds, we entered Gion.

Our first mission was to find a restaurant that was not too expensive (the area is quite popular among tourists and prices there seemed to be higher than elsewhere). Eventually we found a ramen shop that was part of a popular chain and ate there. Not exactly glamorous, but we were poor students who still had six days in Japan and were heading to the Philippines afterwards, so we couldn't exactly splurge. After that we wandered around the main street of Gion, looking at shops and things. Having heard that Gion was a historical geisha district, we hoped we might spy one of the modern equivalents of geisha.

We did actually see one walking along; she was decked out in a pretty kimono with the traditional wig, powdered face, and red lips -- quite a sight indeed! We also noticed a lot of rather attractive, somewhat heavily made-up women (think gyaru style -- *look it up here) wandering the streets, calling out to men as they walked by. Some seemed to be soliciting and others were handing out flyers for what I can only guess were hostess bars. I'm not sure if any of them were actual prostitutes or whether they were strictly hostesses, but I was certainly not used to "ladies of the night" being so forthcoming. We got a few calls ourselves, and then we turned a corner and ended up in hostess-bar-land! There were hostesses, escorts, mama-sans, and patrons all over the place! I'd never seen such a sight!

The winding backstreets of Gion are full of restaurants and attractive bars. This area was just beyond the Kamo River.
Though calling it a red light district, as I do in the video, may not be entirely accurate, it seems that Gion's tradition of being a "pleasure zone" is still being upheld, with little sign of slowing down. I wanted to video the scene, but when we returned to the area after dinner, it seemed that everyone had left. The place was practically deserted save for a few gyaru types who tried to get our attention and a mama-san leading a rather drunk patron to a taxi. It was the strangest thing, considering that it was so full of people just an hour or so before. Suffice it to say, Kyle and I were not looking for "that sort" of entertainment (probably couldn't have afforded it even if we wanted to -- hostess bars are supposedly quite expensive, and I can imagine that any "services" beyond that would be even more so) and decided to head to a "normal" old bar down one of the picturesque side streets that run parallel with the Kamo River.

The bar we eventually chose (at random) was rather pricey but not lacking in character in the least! It was a tiny little place full of middle-aged Japanese men and women singing karaoke. The bartender was transgendered and sang duet songs doing both the male and female parts very convincingly . . . seriously, I'm not making this up. It was yet another charming place, and the customers seemed quite amused that two young foreign guys had randomly wandered into their bar. Still, it wasn't the least bit shady and the customers seemed like artist types and regulars. We had some Suntory whisky and I sang a few songs. After some time we decided to head back to the hostel and catch some shuteye to prepare for the all-day biking trip we had planned for the next day. We'd had our first taste of Kyoto and we were liking it, but it wasn't until the next day that I really started falling in love with the place.

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