This is Jeremy and my 3rd time in Kyoto, and the boys’ second time here. Japan is one of our favorite countries, so it made a nice endpoint to our long journey that started in New Zealand, and continued to Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Taiwan. The plan was to skip a lot of the major sites and just spend time visiting a few favorites, eat some nice food, and get ready to return home.
Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Our morning started in Taipei, where we got breakfast, then took the train to the airport. The train was super quick and easy! James was thrilled to check into Japan Airlines, or JAL, since it is the only airline that shares his initials. He has wanted to fly on this airline for quite a while, and chattered about it the entire train ride to the airport. The flight was short, the kids were excited that there were TV’s, but I only got about halfway through my movie before we were landing.
Once we got to the Osaka airport, we sped through customs. If you are traveling with kids, the airline personnel will go out of their way to bring you to the front of the line. Other countries will do that if you are traveling with infants and toddlers, but Japan is the only country we have been to that seems to do it with older kids.
At the airport train station, we bought round trip tickets to Kyoto on Japan Railways (JR West). There are a bunch of multi-day passes available at the train station, but none of them made a lot of sense for our purposes, so we just got the Haruka & Icoca package that included discount round trip train ticket to Kyoto, plus a topped off subway card. If you are going to do significant travel within Japan (i.e. even a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto is often enough to justify a week-long pass), it is worth ordering the JR Pass a month before you enter Japan.
The train ride was about 75 minutes, then we switched to the subway in Kyoto. John loves to show off how strong he is and loves carrying our 30+ pound hiking backpack for us. There were a bunch of people looking at him and giggling. I think a few people even snapped some pictures of him. This picture doesn’t quite show just how big the bag is, but it gives you an idea. Anyway, he carried it about a kilometer from the train station to our awesome apartment.
With the exception of trying to find Japanese breakfast, the location was great! Within steps of the apartment door, we were in the heart of downtown Kyoto, right next to the Nishiki Market, surrounded by amazing food and shops. It turned out that getting from the bedrooms to the front door was quite treacherous, but the risk was well worth the reward. The steps were much more like a ladder than stairs. The boys almost had to duck in one spot, so when Jeremy hit that spot, he looked like he was doing the limbo. Getting the bags up the stairs was interesting. We have 3 bedrooms, ours is on the middle floor and the boys took the top floor, which has another treacherous staircase that I had no desire to navigate many times per day. There is also a mini washing machine, but no dryer.
The shower seemed to be typical of many apartment bathrooms we have had in Japan. It is more of a capsule style room that is not quite tall enough for Jeremy to stand up straight. The bathtub felt more like a gigantic backyard party cooler with really high walls. The shower was on the outside of the tub, but shared the same pipes, so you could direct the water one way or the other. The shower top is often only about 3 feet high, but is detachable so you can raise it to head height. Fortunately the one in our apartment had both a 3 foot setting and a 5 foot setting. Here is an interesting article that shows a bit of what I am talking about.
After we dropped our stuff off, we decided to head out to a sushi boat restaurant that we had visited before, Sushi no Musashi. For less than $50, we were able to stuff ourselves on sushi. Of course, the quality wasn’t the highest, but where else can you get 30 plates of sushi without spending a fortune? If you are particularly adventurous, you can even try horse sushi, but we skipped that one.
When we went here 1.5 years ago over Thanksgiving, there was no turkey in sight. The solution was sushi boats! That time we did a record breaking 42 plates of sushi! It was a great way to introduce the kids to sushi since they could see exactly what they were going to get, and if they didn’t like it, they could feed it to me or Jeremy and try something else. John’s only disappointment this time around was that the restaurant no longer serves edamame. Not being a big fan of fish, he did enjoy his cucumber rolls and roasted corn sushi.
After dinner, we walked around in the rain a bit, but mostly stayed under the covered walkways. I am going to enjoy the next several days!
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
When researching Japan, we debated staying in Kyoto, Osaka, or splitting our time between the two. We decided it would probably be easier to base ourselves in one place and day-trip to the other. As you can see from this post, we chose Kyoto.
After waking up, we decided that it would be a good day to take the train into Osaka and visit the Osaka Aquarium to see the whale sharks. You can read the full post about what we did here. It was a really fun day, and we also managed to see some of the main shopping areas, as well as a brief stop at Osaka-jo.
Thursday, May 10, 2018
I think I overdid myself, and ended up sleeping until 9:00. If no one would have woken me up, I may have slept until lunchtime. We decided just to have a low-key day. We went out to find breakfast, but since most of the things right next to us don’t open until 11:00, we decided to go to Starbucks. Unadventurous, but everyone is missing home a little, so we enjoyed it. The baked items looked quite a bit different from home and were less sweet, but the coffee was on par to a bit better than at home.
James decided it was time for a vending machine drink, and got his favorite green tea. The vending machines are everywhere in Japan. The other 2 times we have visited Japan, the weather was colder and there was better selection of hot drinks. This time, it is mostly cold drinks, although a few machines have a few hot options. John misses his hot chocolate.
We wandered toward Gion and decided to get lunch before going into Maruyama Park. Around Gion, a lot of the restaurants only cater to Japanese speaking clients, and make their intent known by having text menus that are only written in Japanese. A few places have a couple of pictures, but most items and the prices are written in Japanese characters only. We did find a noodle house that had a picture menu with Latin numbers and decided to eat there. John and I got tempura soba. The soup was good, the tempura okay, it needed a little salt.
We continued on to Maruyama Park, picking up a mochi on the way, but it wasn’t very good. When we have been here before, it has been easy to pick them up in the convenience stores, but this trip, they are much more picked over and I can only find them occasionally.
We entered Maruyama Park through the Yasaka Shrine. The boys were thrilled when they saw the gate and started jabbering about how they remembered this place and that there should be candy apples just around the corner. We smiled, remembering their delight the last time they were here and let them have their treat. They reminisced on the same bench that they remembered eating them on before.
We walked through the park, stopping at a pond to watch the koi, turtles, and other fish.
After walking up a fairly steep path, we arrived at the Chion-In from the back entrance. The grounds were nice, but there was a bunch of construction, so we didn’t linger and walked down to the front entrance.
When we were here in the fall, there was a beautiful tree in front of the Shoren-in temple, so we decided to go see what it looked like in the spring. It was in bloom with some pink flowers, but not near as beautiful as when the entire tree is brilliant red.
Our last stop was the Heian Shrine. It is fairly easy to tell which of the temples are Shinto, since they are almost always painted a bright orange.
At this point, the kids were tired, so we headed back to our apartment. There was a nice view as we crossed the river.
Everything in Japan has a focus on being cute. The food for our meals are nicely arranged into beautiful displays, as evidenced by our breakfast on Wednesday and our lunch on Friday. This carries over into all aspects of culture: the clothes, the toys, the hairstyles, the mannerisms. Apparently it even carries over into the garbage trucks, I have never seen a bright pink one with cute animations of elephants picking up garbage cans.
We rested a bit, then decided to go to Nishiki Market, which is right around the corner from our apartment. As another example of unexpected cuteness, I decided to get an octopus on a stick. Quite delicious, but a little odd looking. The head is stuffed with a hard boiled quail egg, the body has a sweet coating, and it is cooked to perfection. Yum! James took a taste, but no one else would go near it.
We were planning on finding a nice restaurant for dinner, but the boys were tired and whiney, so we decided to get some ramen instead. We ordered 2 regular pork ramens, a spicy ramen, and a curry ramen. The spicy ramen was definitely the best. On the way back to the apartment, the kids got a carton of strawberry milk (they have a hard time with the regular milk), but this time they even had problems with the sweet milk and struggled to finish it. Maybe we should have tried the coffee flavor milk instead. Maybe not. Hopefully they are getting enough ice cream cones to keep their bones from getting squishy.
Friday, May 11, 2018
For our last full day in Kyoto, we were originally thinking about doing something new and different by going to the Bamboo Forest, but the kids really wanted to go feed the deer in Nara, so we took a day trip there instead. You can see the full post here.
Saturday, May 12, 2018
We started our morning by watching the setup of Nishiki Market while we were trying to find a Japanese breakfast. We failed to find something that everyone was happy with, so ended up at a chain coffee shop.
After checking out of our apartment, we decided not to overdo the kids with train station hikes and got a cab to the Kyoto main station. We had the oddest taxi ride of our lives. We think the taxi driver was confused about which train station we wanted to go to, even though we pointed it out on the Japanese map. His route was probably less than efficient, and he tried to communicate something to us and turned off the meter. When we got to the train station, he refused to take our money and seemed to be apologizing profusely. After a lot of back and forth, we got him to take what we were expecting the fare to be, but it was quite odd.
We found some luggage lockers and hopped on an 8-minute, $1.40 train to the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine. If you only visit one shrine in Japan, this should be it. You can hike for 2-3 hours, going through thousands of torii gates along the way.
It is really impressive and one of our favorite hikes to do in Japan. It’s easy to spend 3 hours doing it when spending time at all the points along the way, but since we had a flight to catch, we did it in a little over 1.5 hours. One thing to note is that the maps they have posted on the paths are not to scale. By the time you are at the midpoint, it appears that you have only just begun. This also helps thin out the crowds on the latter portions. Also, the downhill goes much faster than the uphill, so once you make it to the top, the rest is easy.
After the hike and a quick walk through a bunch of food stands in town, we hopped back on the train to Kyoto. The train station has a bunch of restaurants on the 10th and 11th floors, which is a really long escalator ride. We found a nice ramen house and had a quick lunch before getting back on the train to the airport.
The odd thing about flying from Japan to the United States is that with the time change; you often land before you take off (e.g. our 5:25pm flight got to LAX at noon, the same day). I think once we actually landed the day before we took off. Odd.
This ends our crazy 5 week adventure. What’s next? Well, in a week, my dad and I are planning to take the boys on a drive across the United States!
Keep reading our travel blog for more posts from our Gap Year!
Here are some more posts from this trip to Asia:
It looks like your family had a wonderful time! I laughed when you said no one else would go near the octopus on a stick. I bought some before, but was too scared to eat the head, so I just nibbled on the legs.