Monday, August 24, 2015

Japanland: Kyoto

Almost a year later, it's about damn time I finished the posts about when Hannes and I went to Kyoto and Osaka for a combined birthday trip and visa run last year!

It was shortly after Hannes decided to move in with me and stay in Korea for another three months after his internship was over. We had to go to Japan and come back either way, so we decided to make it a birthday thing, even though that weekend was a holiday in Korea and the tickets ended up being twice as much as they normally are >_<

We spent the whole day traveling on my birthday, and after dropping our stuff at our hostel in Gion, we went out and found a quaint bar that served a lovely variety of fried junk food to celebrate.

Ah, the days when I could eat cheese. And egg. And soy. And get away with eating some panko. This is exactly the glorious junk food people are supposed to have while vacationing here.

The back alleys surrounding the Nishiki Market, on the other side of the river 
from where we were staying, are immaculate and charming.

Rabbits pounding mochi! Aww.

The privacy curtains for the bunks in the hostel kiiiiind of looked like a hospital or mental ward.
But it was also nice. Having a completely curtained-off bunk bed is like having a private room. Kind of.

The little kitchen/living room was nice, and had a computer.

Oh, right: this was the A-yado Hostel, and I'd recommend it.

You know what I'd also recommend? Having cash on you before getting to Kyoto.
I told Hannes to pull money out of the ATM before we left a number of times, and could not figure out for the life of me why he was like, "Naww, I'll just do it when we get there,"
I was like, but you can just do it right now and we have no idea what the international ATM situation will be like. It's so easy to just do it right now.

And he should have done it right then.

The first night was fine, but we spent the next day and a half arguing about money, because I was on a tight budget and had to pay for everything, because there are simply no international ATM's in Kyoto. You can only find them in post offices. Who does that? Like, seriously, what other city in the word says "fuck you" to its hordes of foreign visitors that unabashedly?

It might not seem like a big deal, but now that I've finally gotten to writing this, I have the bonus jaded perspective of someone who's been going nuts trying to figure out how the fuck one lives in Tokyo for the last 6 months. There are tons of subtle everyday things like this that make you realise pretty quickly how closed-off and unwelcoming Japan is.


Obligatory spotted-a-geisha-walking-around-in-the-morning-picture

The next day we set out to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, because going to breweries - or distilleries? - is probably Hannes' favourite Japan activity (see the Part 2 of this post for the Asahi Brewery), and because we were trying to keep our subway and bus routes simple and time-efficient.

There are literally thousands of shrines, temples, mountains, museums, and other really nice historical and scenic thises-and-thats to see in this city, so we kept to one strip of town that basically went from the Yasaka shrine at the end of the main shopping street in Gion (or, actually, a little further north to Kyoto University) down to this here semi-ancient booze house. 

And there's so much to do and see within that little strip alone that, in two days, we didn't even see Kiyomizu-dera, which is almost certainly Kyoto's most popular and famous temple, and which my lovely Kyoto-native former coworker specifically told me to visit. 
Thusly, my return brought great shame to our once-noble office.

(I think there are too many people here who actually say shit like that for it to be funny, actually..)

Picturesque as fuck, right?

The year! What YEAR is it?!

We also found this really nice little temple while walking. It's called Chokeiji, apparently like very many other temples in Japan, but at least you know where to find this one!

Autumn was just setting in, but because typhoons were still whipping bands of muggy miserableness up from the south, it was still very hot. And sunny. 
What? I can't hear you! It's too bright!

It actually took a while because these buildings are so nondescript, but we eventually found it.

We only got to taste one or two varieties of saké each, I think, but they also gave us these cute mini barrel-shaped plastic bottles of saké that had little white plastic cups for lids. I still have one of them, and both the little cups. Free sightseeing and souvenirs for the win!

Next: Fushimi Inari.
The train station is entirely vermillion-and-fox-themed, like the amazing mountain shrine.

"So I guess this is kind of, like, the Disneyland of shrines?"

Okay, so, backstory: this is the head shrine of the Japanese fox god Inari, one of the main Shinto deities. This guy or gal (no one really knows, but usually depicted as a young woman, not an actual fox) is also the god of sake, agriculture, and a bunch of other stuff, and as Fox Boss, (s)he has a lot of foxes in his/her employ, white ones, that (s)he sends out as messengers. 
This deity has been worshipped at the foot of this mountain - which also bears its name - since the early 700's, but the main shrine structures supposedly date back to about 1499. There's one text that says the main gate was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

"Look up at the sky wistfully."

There are other shrines to Inari all over Japan, and Fox Boss is even an official corporate deity believed to bring success in business to companies like Shiseido, which apparently has an Inari shrine on the roof of its headquarters. And people wonder why the Japanese corporate world is so closed off and even hostile to foreigners.. How do you even explain something like that to Canadian or German businessmen when they ask about it?

"Oh, this? This is our official corporate shrine to the fox and fertility maiden, who ensures the continued success of our large, high-end, multi-national cosmetics business."

... "I'm sorry, what?"

We didn't walk the entire mountain because it was absolutely ungodly outside, but we did walk through all of the main torii gates.

See? Look at this. This is the actual fucking jungle.

This collection of stone and concrete shrines near the top of the torii gate circuit was really interesting, cluttered, and dotted with the occasional lit candle.

I spent so long trying to get the camera to focus on this damn mushroom that other people noticed it and unabashadly horned right in next to me/in front of me to get in their own shots. And it's still not in focus!

A pond-lake lake-pond thingy at the top, past the cluttered stone shrines. We didn't want to be anywhere near the water because of the humidity and insects and didn't linger.

Aaaand back down..

I can't even imagine how blindingly red-orange this place is when all of these maple trees turn.

The chirimen Halloween goodies I kept seeing were so adorable!

This is yatsuhashi, a traditional Japanese sweet that's Kyoto's specialty, and also comes in baked, crunchy cookie-form. The raw ones basically have the consistency of dough, and are usually either cinnamon or green tea flavoured. That stuff in the middle is red bean, because what else would it be. To this day I feel bad about how many free samples we stood there and grazed on, but after that trek I guess we were pretty hungry..

Ahhh, more cute Halloween goodies! I loved this packaging.

And then we grabbed tofu ice cream!

Those there doughnuts behind me are also tofu, but the ice cream was plenty for us. 

It was very dense and a lot more tofu-y than we would've expected. Hannes couldn't eat any more and I had a hard time finishing it, even though we both love tofu. 

We walked up to the next landmark, Tofukuji, and stopped at a supermarket for some cheap but real food along the way. There was also this weird episode where we wanted to grab a big bottle of water and somehow grabbed a 2-litre of Mitsuya Cider (kind of like less-sugary Sprite) even though their label says "Mitsuya Cider" on it in big, bold English. lol wtf.

It's one of the great Zen temples of Kyoto, and takes its name from two other famous ones I had seen the year before in Nara.

I was joking about ruining this shot because Hannes always intentionally wanders through mine, but succeeded. Felt bad about it when we looked through them later, but at least it's kind of funny.

I actually don't know what this small hilltop temple we found is called, but walking to it was fairly whimsical.

Tofukuji is mostly famous for its autumn colours, and as you can see, we only got there just as some of the trees started to turn. But it was still very scenic.

This was just down the road from our hostel. It's crazy to think about how old most of the buildings in this famed historical district are.

After taking a break, showering, and changing, BOOM, fresh dango from a street vendor!

We went to a restaurant I'd bookmarked with vegetarian options, Sunshine Café. We were really happy to see that they were still serving food at, like, 9 PM. 

"Can you see me? I'm camouflaged, right?"

... That's... probably not good

I wrote a really positive review of this place on HappyCow, because it was absolutely delicious. 
The chef was also the owner, and was super concerned about serving us this smaller-than-normal portion of ratatouille (because they were closing soon), even though he gave us a discount and complimentary tiny scoops of homemade mango ice cream at the end!

And then there was this. This. Fucking. Tofu steak.

Assuming this is still on the menu a year later, you need to clarify that you want it "vegan", if that be the case, or he'll add oyster sauce to it. Though I can't imagine why, because this man has created perfection on a plate. Kyoto is famous for its many varieties of fresh, locally-made tofu, but there's no reason it should be this good, lightly fried, topped with mushrooms, avocado and seaweed, and swimming in a soy-based sauce. I think we ended up sharing 3 portions of it.

Sunshine Café is on Sanjo Meitengai, a super busy shopping area of the type you'd probably imagine or have seen on Japan travel documentaries, with shops housing everything from cute gothic lolita accessories to forests of UFO claw machines. We walked around a little but most everything else was closed, and then we decided we were still hungry. We ended up going to a really cool, cheap little place that was the Japanese version of an all-night diner.

I'd been really excited about having zaru soba, not realising that even most Japanese buckwheat noodles have ended up with wheat in them at some point. But whatever. It was delicious.

Moar saké because moar

We rounded out this absolutely perfect and exhausting day in Kyoto by parking our butts on the river bank right across from Sanjo station, where a shamisen player was busking, and drinking our complimentary mini saké bottles with some convenience store sweets. At the time I thought everyone was staring at us because we were foreign, by my coworker later told me you're not supposed to drink at the Kamogawa, and that the police will stop you if they see you. Oops. I guess you have to have rules like that if you want to keep a city so densely-packed with relevant historical thises-and-thats so impeccably clean.

I wanted to take a video of the shamisen player, who had also been there the night before, but by the time I had run to the hostel and gotten my camcorder, the pigs had removed him. After that I learned to just stay put and enjoy what I could while I could. If only I could show you how perfect the whole scene was, though, with the people in the wooden buildings above us laughing and drinking, the cool river rushing by, our local saké, and the shamisen guy lit by the subway exit.

Gion gives you very much the same feeling that Spirited Away does, I'll just be honest about that.


The shops lining the main street leading up to the Yasaka shine were selling the most adorable shit, and all I bought were a couple of very inexpensive souvenirs for my aforementioned coworker, and a postcard for my collection. No tiny jars of sprinkles.. ;_;

Since we were staying right down the street from it, I figured we should walk up to one last shrine (Yasaka) before were were all shrined- and templed-out.

Red maple leaves spotted

Also we spied on these ladies because they were all ornately clad in kimono and sitting at a random table in the park surrounding the shrine eating ice cream. -slinks back into the shrubbery-

Yeah, I don't know why he wore his denim shirt. It was so fucking hot. We felt like we'd accidentally turned out clothes to some previously-unknown sauna setting. Like, thereby creating saunas inside our pants and underwear and shoes. Terrible.


Geisha being guided around and taking pics with tourists, which I thought was pretty unusual and frowned-upon for them. ... -slinks back into shrubbery-

What is this even.

We actually had an appointment that day, with one Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scholar and dissident Hannes met on workshops in Cambodia and Myanmar while he was interning in Singapore. 
We were trying to figure out a way to move to Japan, because neither of us had a job lead of any kind, and Hannes was entertaining the vague hope that he could find something in socio-political academia by means of this connection.

Pavin seems like one of those rare people who is intellectual, relevant, and also awesome. He's not old, stuffy, or pretentious. If you read that Time article I linked in his name, you'll find that he called bullshit on Thailand's most recent military takeover government right off the bat (as I guess a Thai person would have to, given that there have been so many), and offered to send his fabulous, beloved pet chihuahua - for which he has many outfits - in his place when they ordered him to come back to the country, presumably for dubious questioning. They were like, "Stop fucking around," and he was like, "Okay, well, if you let me know which 5-star hotel I'll be staying in and what the itinerary is.." and so on. He back-sassed them and jerked them around until they revoked his passport, along with those of a number of other scholars and intellectuals who were already based abroad or who had fled.

Now he's stateless and still in the process of appealing to the Japanese government for asylum, but Japan only takes in a shamefully tiny handful of asylum seekers every year. The fact that he has a history at Kyoto University and is a respected lecturer, New York Times contributer, etc. should really help his case, and yet it shouldn't, because he's not utterly destitute and in immediate need of help, you know? He told us about the elaborate chain of bribery he attempted to get some crucial documents using people he knew in Thailand, but government officials found out, and didn't like that he was trying to pull sneaky shit.

Anyway, we had coffee with him at a lovely café in the Southeast Asian Studies wing of the university, and I didn't take any photos or anything, but I hope his situation is more stable now. Hannes has an upcoming business trip to Kyoto, and I hope they have time to meet again.

Oh, and, appropriately enough, we had some really good Thai food for lunch before meeting Pavin.

Now, back in Gion..

I knew I'd get him to like dango. He didn't like it at first. Haha. Sucker.

Look at this black cat-themed franchise bakery! Awww.

This is that same spot by our hostel.

We went out again one more time, to the same area just on the other side of the Kamo River.

We managed to catch a rare glimpse of a geisha and bar matron escorting an absolutely sloshed old businessman to a taxi and helping him in. The geisha was so tiny, and her many-layered garments to thick. It was a rare sight, to catch one working like this!

Ah yes, the infamous and yet absurdly cute post office where we finally ended up being able to get cash..

These are the aforementioned souvenirs for my coworker: apple tea and yatsuhashi!

... and one more quick shot of these even more absurdly cute chirimen Halloween decorations! And there are wedding cake toppers! And they even got a jump start on Christmas! Awww! I need to go back for a few of these one day...

But, now we're off to Osaka.

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