48 Hours in Kyoto
To be really, honest I was kind of looking forward to leaving Tokyo. Not for reasons you might imagine. Yes, Tokyo is crowded and always busy but even with the tight squeeze, people don't bump into you at intersections like how people do in crowded busy Hong Kong. There is a sense of fluid efficiency. People glide ever so smoothly past you without being agressive and pushy. Crowds are actually a pleasant experience in Tokyo! How strange, right? Yet, why was I looking forward to a change of scene?
Well, capsule hotel.
I will start by saying, Shinjuku is probably not the best place to stay. If I had to do it again, I'd go somewhere else. Maybe even pay a little more. The capsule hotel at Shinjuku just wasn't very well kept. The locker area was narrow and always overcrowded with people trying to move their belongings or rummaging through their luggage. The lounge area was always smoke-filled from the small smoking cabin at the corner.
It was always busy too. Like how it would feel like, if you converted the entire Shinjuku station into a make shift backpackers. Complete with all kinds of characters. Maybe it was the lighting in the hotel. Everyone looked suss! It reminded me of my days in the military sleeping in bunks with an ever lingering smell of sweat. The whole place just felt so ghetto, a far cry from the comfortable, tranquil and quiet capsule hotel I stayed at in Fukuoka when I first landed.
Which, was somewhat of a prelude to what was to come next. I had high hopes for my next capsule hotel - Nine Hours. A concept capsule hotel that looks like the Apple Store grade of such hotels. And boy, was I ever so impressed.
Walking up from the train station, it felt like I was entering a design temple. The streets were dark by this time as it was already 10pm by the time I arrive. The glow of the white light coming from the front of the hotel reception against the silhouette of rows of traditional Kyoto houses, stood out like a prized destination.
The stay was very comfortable and definitely one of the capsule hotels I will come back to next time. I am writing a seperate in-depth review of my capsule hotel reviews in another post soon.
Day One Kyoto
After checking out the jony-ive-grade capsule hotel and stowing my backpack into the station locker, I started my day with Nishiki Market, which was just 5 minutes' walk away. Even though I was there around 10, shops were still opening. A friend told me that markets here is akin to what we know as 'rubber time', a colloquial concept Singaporeans and Malaysians created to describe people who are rarely on time. Stipulated opening hours in Nishiki Market is a mere serving suggestion. According to my friend, it literally means, it is their time to start opening. Shutters may still be down but opening is in progress behind closed doors. Yeah, it is 'opening' time! Eventually after about an hour, most shops were fully open and ready for business, albeit to some grumpy shop owners.
I was a little miffed at the curt and somewhat brash service I received. I was totally not expecting that. Especially not this early in the morning, definitely not in a market and in Japan? Maybe it was my camera incessantly pointing and shooting close-ups of food and the myriad of wonderful japanese knick knacks that drew their ire. Mine was also the smallest of pocket cameras too. Even after buying some food from their stalls, there was just no kindness to be gleaned. I wasn't expecting anything to be honest, but to get a cold, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am-next attitude was quite eye opening. The market wasn't crowded and it was also a slow morning. Perhaps they don't like people who rock up early before they can open properly? Maybe market people are just not morning people? Who knows. At one of the shops, I wrote a little haiku note on one of their customer notice boards to describe my experience after grabbing some of their delectable little hedgehog shaped white bean buns. LOL.
In spite of that, I did pick up some interesting eats. Like this deep fried hedgehog shaped white bean bun, a croquette, some oden, and some mini pancakes from a shop that looked like a small charlie chocolate factory with it's rhythmic mechanic precision churning out these cute little mini cakes. Nishiki Market also features a few pet cafes aka mini petting zoos - owls, bengal cats and shiba-inu cafes. It wasn't open when I was there, but I would have been tempted to check it out. Furthermore, I had plans to check out an owl cafe in Fukuoka the following week with the fambam.
Anyhoo... filled up on carbs, I was eager to head to my next destination. A 12,000 steps hike up Fushimi Inari.
This is the famous meandering succession of red torii gates leading from the foot to the top of Mount Inari. These tori gates span some 1000, which were each donated by Japanese business, a custom that began in the Edo period as a gesture of thanksgiving for answered wishes or for hopes of one to come true. Friends told me I had to make the full ascent to Mount Inari, which isn't difficult. The lower areas are just overrun with tourists, as is usual, but the top is a lot more pleasant. And indeed the first few elevations were just full of people and their selfies. True enough, as I got further up the mountain, it got more tranquil. It was also not a difficult hike as the path is laid with cobbled stone steps making it a really easy walk. I am thankful for the mountainous hikes in Hong Kong I took at the beginning of the year. Those difficult hikes was a prelude to set me up for this. If you have never hiked much in your life, this might be a bit of challenge. You'd need a moderate fitness level to be able to go up. But even if you don't workout regularly, if you are young with no joint problems, I say you'd do ok with this hike. The number of steps may sound daunting but there is something about reaching the top that makes it so satisfying. I also read somewhere that allowing your body to experience changes in altitudes is good for you. I am not gonna mansplain here cos I don't have the science but you know, it's good for you.
After a nice mood booster for the morning, it was time to head back down, grab some street food at the foot of the mountain and head to my next destination. Another hike, up another, Mount Kurama.
If you can't already tell, I love the outdoors and the next destination was going to tick all the boxes for me.
Mount Kurama is further up north from Kyoto and is in an area that is filled with traditional japanese style houses. The trains that serve this area has been refurbished to be tourist friendly. Yet, this is still fairly untouched. Which was a pleasant escape from crowds. Seats on the Eizan train line feature special window seats that face outwards! And for good reason, as the train passes through some really beautiful maple forests and scenery, according to travel guides. But, it wasn't the right season for that in mid-april. Maybe that's why it was quiet! Anyway, it was still a nice pause for me to catch my breath to prepare for the next part of my adventure.
Arriving at Kurama Station, a short 10 minute walk later, I was at the entrance to Kurama Temple, the start of the trail up to Mount Kurama. I got a special train ticket came with complimentary entry into a few sights, including free entry into Kurama Temple at Mount Kurama, which usually goes for around ¥300. I had no idea what I was in for, but since it was on the ticket and since I am still psyched from the morning hike, I was ready to scale another mountain.
Although, halfway through a few flight of stairs, I decided to take the cable car to get up the mountain. yeah I cheated. But it was an option that would save me 45 minutes or so of hiking. For only ¥200. There was another destination on my itinerary, so anytime saved would mean more time to relax later. And boy was I glad I did.
Turns out, the cable car ascended what felt like 300 metres. It was also a very steep ascent, so perhaps it really would have taken an extra hour to get up to the next part. Which, after the fact, there were still more stairs and ascending slopes to climb. Yet, it was worth every drop of sweat. The temple on the mountain top is home to great views and I was lucky to catch the outer courts of the temple with sakura trees in full bloom!
My first ever sighting of sakura flowers in bloom too!
There were also very few souls around. It was such a treat to be surrounded by the lush pink and white colours of sakura autumn watching bees buzz about from flower to flower while breathing in the fresh and crisp afternoon air.
The day was only going to get better. As my next stop was towards my first japanese outdoor spa - Kurama Onsen. I had come across this on Only In Japan youtube channel. An outdoor spa surrounded by tall trees and greenery perched on a mountain side. What better way to experience japanese onsen than this!
It normally costs around ¥1000 for single entry into Kurama Onsen, but my train ticket included free entry as well.
Kurama Onsen is also tattoo friendly. Japanese culture frowns upon tattoos as they are historically associated with the yakuza, japanese street gangs. Over the years, most onsens would deny entry to anyone with a body tattoo. Fortunately, attitudes across Japan are slowly changing and more and more onsens allow tattoos. It's different from establishment to establishment, each with their own tolerant level. Word on the street seems to suggest that if the onsen does not have signs stating explicitly that tatoos are not allowed, it means tattoos are ok. And some will explicitly say no to tattoos, while some require you to cover up with a tattoo skin cover, which can be purchased at the door. The hotel I was at in Okinawa had such a requirement. There is actually a website that lists tattoo friendly onsens. But best way to go about this if you are unsure, is to email the onsen ahead of time. I could not find Kurama Onsen listed on the tattoo friendly website, so I emailed them. Turns out, that rule applies only to Japanese locals. Foreigners are exempted from that rule! At the onsen, almost every other person, mostly foreigners, had tattoos on them.
This was a wonderful day trip made possible by the Kurama, Kibune Sansaku Ticket which costs ¥1800 which includes round trip train rides, entry into Kurama Temple and Kurama Onsen. Purchased separately, it would normally cost ¥2300. You can buy this ticket at the start of the Eizan Railway line at Demachiyanagi Station. There is also a lot along the Eizan line to explore with an unlimited day pass for that too. Because I didn't have the time, this part will have to happen in my next trip.
After a refreshing soak and loaded up on skin nourishing natural sulphur, it was time to head back into town and pick up some well deserved dinner.
The famous Hakata ramen that is famous for its individual booth seating, much like a voting booth. I first had this in Hong Kong a few years ago and it was amazing. Thick hearty broth, tasty noodles with a thin slice of soft tender pork.
This is how you order and eat at Ichiran Ramen.
Ordering is a pre-order, pre-paid affair with a vending machine out the front. Here you can select all the additional items you want to add to your ramen bowl if you already know how much you can eat. If you are stuck, the staff is always on hand to help. Menu is in English too. Once you made and paid for your selections at the vending machine, you'll get a ticket (additional tickets for any extras you've pre-ordered) and the staff will bring you to your booth. Each booth has dedicated serving window, much like a dumb waiter. Usually the blinds are drawn. Once seated, you will need to fill out a sheet to customize your bowl - down to how thick you want your broth to be, spicy level, tenderness of the noodle and such. There is no extra cost to customization, except addition of noodles, eggs and such. The order sheets come in English as well, so you won't really be lost. Once you are ready, push the call button that is in your booth. It could be embedded on the table or a button attached to the side of the booth. Once the staff picks up your order sheet, they will draw the blinds to your booth window and start preparing your ramen bowl. This takes no more than 5 minutes. Ramen is after all considered fast-food in Japan. Once the bowl is served, the blinds will be drawn so you can enjoy your meal in perfect privacy. When you are done with your meal, if you are still in the mood, you can ask for more noodles and soup for round two by filling up extras order sheet and hitting the call button. For this, you would pay after, I believe. I usually don't order more because I tend to go for maximum broth thickness, maximum spicy level and maximum garlic and shallots! And I finish every last drop!
One peculiar thing is the way they serve their ramen eggs. It is served on the side in a small bowl with the shell intact. This has got to be a first. Honestly wasn't expecting to peel my own eggs. Now, don't get me wrong, it is not beneath me to peel my own eggs. I mean, if I knew, I'd have washed my hands first. Like you would if you knew you were going to eat KFC. Fortunately this only happened in the Kyoto store. The Ichiran in Hakata served their eggs peeled, together with the noodles, in the bowl, like most ramen shops.
The ordering system is pretty much the same in most Japanese ramen and fast food stores. Overseas Ichiran stores may not come with a vending machine. The Hong Kong ones are the typical pay-after your meal.
After filling up, it was time to move capsule hotels and do some logistical repacking and luggage reshuffle. Picking up my backpack from the luggage locker, I made my way to Kyoto Station to leave my luggage at the station lockers. Packed a change of clothes for the next day in my small bag and made my way to Arashiyama, First Cabin, another space-grade capsule. Again, this is pretty sleek and modern. What I love about this capsule hotel is, instead of sleeping pods, you get your own 'room' that is akin to a first class seat on a plane, like your very own cabin, hence the name. For the price you pay, tho a little bit more than your typical capsule hotel, you get plenty more space without the feeling claustrophobia. More in-depth review to come but suffice to say, it's definitely one of my top choices.
Day Two Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
There was good reason to pick First Cabin for the night, as it is just a short walk to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. I had already left my luggage at Kyoto Station, so I had very little with me, ready to go right after checking out. By 9am I was on my way to the forest, after grabbing a quick onigiri for breakfast at 7-Eleven. I wanted to beat the crowd, as friends had warned that it will be full of people, as well as advising against renting a bike to cycle through. Cycling through sounds like a good idea, but because of the sheet number of people, you'd just be pushing your bike through the crowded forests. I had no idea what I was in for. It turned out to be choke full of people. Just human, mountain, human, sea (人山人海), a chinese idiom perfectly describing it. Considering I was 'early', I still failed to beat the crowd. Apparently you have to be as early as 6am to beat the crowd.
I think that was because I spent way too much time at this plot of bamboo garden that I thought, was the actual forest. Part of me was like, oh wow this is really small, I wonder what the fuss is about. I had made the wrong turn. When you are coming in from the main road, you would come towards a big painting sitting right at the corner where the road forks. There will be a small souvenir hut to the right. Take the left fork at this intersection. This will lead you to the main forest. I mistakenly took the right fork and ended up in the wrong part of the forest. Spent a good 45 minutes taking pictures and videos, only to walk back to realise I almost missed the main course! Good thing I walked back and decided to explore the left side of the fork and oh man, am I glad I did. At one point, I almost thought I was done and wanted to head off to my next destination. But my gut told me to follow the crowd, cos it felt like there was something further down that road. And oh my. By the time I got to the main forest, it was 人山人海!
I did manage to take some good photos. This is the one time I am grateful to follow the crowd.
Exploring Kyoto & Gion on a bike
Next part of the plan was to do some cycling through parts of Kyoto and Gion area. After a quick bite at the nearby Lawsons, I made my way to Kyoto Cycling Tour Project, a bike rental company right next to Kyoto Station. Bike rentals are a flat rate for the day. Usually goes for around ¥1000, but by the time I got there, they had limited bikes left and the only option was to take a city bike for ¥1300. The quality of the bike was pretty good, although the design wasn't the best for uphill and difficult terrain. Still, it did the job pretty well and it was in a nice olive green. Every bike comes with a bike lock and a front basket to put your belongings, so that's pretty handy.
If you prefer, you can also pay for a cycling tour where a guide will take you through key landmarks and shrines along the way. Also, there are smaller and cheaper bike rental companies. As low as ¥500 for a day. But what you pay is what you get. At that rate, you would be looking at a much older bike. Also, there are no rules to wear a bike helmet. It's a pretty relaxed biking culture here.
I will say, if you do plan on riding on your own, make sure you are either familiar with the route or have a phone clamp attachment so you can use google maps on your smartphone to direct you. Like you would if you were to drive with GPS turn by turn instructions. I did bring my attachment, in fact, also brought a bike attachment to mount my video camera, only to forget them and left them in the luggage locker!
Well, Plan B. Time to get creative. The bike came with a front basket, so I thought, well, that should work if I place my bag strategically to prop up my phone while running Google Maps and use my tripod to clip onto the metal bars of the basket to hold up my camera. And you can imagine how bad an idea that is already. The phone kept sliding off every strategic spot. The vibration of the bike from the undulating road tiles created enough micro-earthquakes to shake everything off to my exasperating chagrin. I totally do not recommend doing what I did because I had a few near accidents. One involving almost crashing into a taxi at an intersection because I was so distracted. Another was dropping my camera when it slid off the metal bars of the basket. Fortunately everything, including this silly hooman, came away intact. Lesson learnt, pack what you need the night before!
I had initially planned on visiting Kiyomizu Shrine, as recommended by some friends. But when I arrived at the road leading into the shrine, the entire small street was bumper to bumper full of cars, bikes, other assortment of humans and oversized coaches full of tourists! After a good 5 minutes trying to navigate through whatever crevice I could find in the pile up, I gave up.
To be honest, by this time, I was all shrined out. Even though I came from an asian buddhist background growing up, I don't really get shrines. I visit for the design, landscape and naive hope of tranquility. The reality of overcrowded shrines, as most free entry ones are, just takes away the joy of being in one. A mall would have been better.
A friend had suggested checking out Kisshokaryo Kyoto in the area, a boutique little dessert and lunch spot famous for their Warabi-mochi. To be honest, I totally missed out on having the mochi and somehow opted for coffee and cake. I guess I just I felt like having something sweet, victorious tasting with a side of caffeine after a lot of cycling detours and stop starts. If you are visiting Kisshokaryo, I'd pass it along that you should have the lunch along with some warabi-mochi. If you know what mochi is, this is the bracken starch jelly like confection covered in kinako, a sweet toasted soybean powder. Every table even has a 'sugar' bowl of kinako for those who like more toppings. I did eventually have some from a convenient store when I was in Osaka. It is quite a delightful dessert!
So, back to the bike saga. A little tip here. You can't just leave and lock your bike just about anywhere. Not even at a lampost or fence even if you have your own chain and lock. You have to park your bike in a designated bike park. Usually cost about ¥100 for a single park. Kyoto has many bike parks but because I wasn't familiar, I thought I had to forgo KissoKaryo Kyoto because there weren't any bike parks in the vicinity. After giving up and riding further down 200 metres I came across one! The staff at Kisso Karyo had told me there isn't a bike park in the area. Could have been because of the language barrier. Or maybe they don't ride bikes. But I was glad I found one.
The bike park system is rather peculiar and it would stump tourists. There are these mini ramps that you put your front wheel onto and the mechanism looks like it will lock it in place. It was rather straightforward as I can see all the other bikes parked in similar fashion. But when I placed my front wheel onto the ramp, nothing happened. Was something supposed to happen? I went to the payment machine, thinking, perhaps I needed to pre-pay so that the ramp will lock my bike? I entered my bike lot number, second guessed the Japanese voice instructions and put in the payment amount... only for... nothing to happen. But the machine accepted my money?! Fortunately a few tourists were around to pick up their bikes and they told me it was a pay-after affair. Oh, so there goes my ¥100. That's ok, I guess. Maybe I paid for someone else's lot?
Turns out, once you leave the front wheel on the bike ramp, the mechanism will lock after a few minutes. All you need to do is to lock your bike with your own lock. In case someone pays for your bike and unlocks it and like takes it, you know.
So, after a bit of figuring out, I did finally park my bike. Like after waiting for a few minutes watching the mechanism move into place to lock my bike. I am a tad OCD, so I needed to be sure. I had to watch it happen!
After the little coffee and dessert pit stop, I headed out to the river side for some afternoon bike ride before returning the bike back to the rental. This was already evening and time for me to head off to Osaka, my next destination.