Our shinkansen ride to Kyoto was scheduled a few minutes past noon, but we left C’s apartment early. From Sangen-jaya, we had to go to the Shibuya train station to take the Yamanote line to Shinagawa station, where we would take the shinkansen. We wanted to have more than enough time to find Shinagawa and we also thought it would be a good idea to kill some time exploring Shibuya. After stashing our luggage in one of the lockers in the station by eight am, we headed out. (There are only a few station lockers for big pieces of luggage so if you want to grab a hold of one, be there early.)
There was the statue of Hachiko outside the Shibuya station exit named after the loyal Akita dog, all by its lonesome, minus the constant hordes of people who have made it a popular meeting spot. The Shibuya Crossing on that cold, rainy Monday morning seemed reluctant to come to life without the multitude of pedestrians. Its blinking video screens and neon lights still in slumber. It was like our first glimpse of Tokyo from the airport. As we walked the streets of Shibuya, the entire district, which is crammed with many department stores and little boutiques, seemed to be in no hurry to wake up. There was not much activity save for a camera crew shooting a group of dancing girls for what looked like a commercial. When we spotted an open gyudon restaurant an hour later, we ducked into it for some breakfast.
One of the reliable eateries for thrifty travelers in Japan are the gyudon-ya, which serves the popular donburi dish of gyudon (rice topped with beef and onion), along with some pork variations (butadon and tondon) and salmon for around ¥500. You either pay for it at the counter or via vending machine by the restaurant’s entrance. The vending machines often don’t have an English menu so you have to rely on the photos (though it’s sometimes hard to tell the beef and pork bowls apart). The gyudon typically comes with the Japanese set meal staples of miso soup, pickled vegetables, and hot tea.
In our entire trip to Japan, the gyudon has always been a dependable and satisfying meal, so we were surprised when less than three hours later, we were seated in one of the restaurants inside Shinagawa station having another meal. We still had an hour before our train arrived so we decided to explore the station. It was filled with stalls selling bento boxes, an udon place filled with salarymen hunched over their bowls of noodles, a restaurant serving “homemade curry” as it claimed on its doorway, and a bunch of other eateries that made us crave to have an early lunch.
At 12:10 pm, the shinkansen Hikari line we were to board for Kyoto pulled up in front of the platform in all its sleek, steel gorgeousness…as much as a train can be gorgeous. (Or, judging from my past entries, I could be biased for everything Japanese.) Via the shinkansen, the 460-plus kilometer distance between two cities is covered in a little over two hours. (Taking the bus would have taken it around eight hours.) I felt like I was going on vacation from a vacation—from the rapid pace of Tokyo that can leave anyone breathless (I’m sure my itinerary didn’t help) to a slower and historically-rich Japan of surreal golden temples, well-preserved castles, and Zen gardens. I was going to get a taste of traditional Japan and my mouth was watering.
I wish I could say that the most eventful part of the train ride was when it pulled up to Kyoto station. Unfortunately, it was when I had to go to the bathroom. I love Japanese toilets. And you can tell that the Japanese, they love it too. You get warm toilet seats (and not because of the previous occupant), a bidet (depending on how opulent your toilet is, there are many settings to how strong or soft you want the water to be), a sensory-sensitive toilet cover that opens up and welcomes you once it senses your presence, a dryer (really, you don’t have to do anything), and even music (you don’t want the person next door hearing your business). Of course, not all toilets in Japan are these snazzy.
Older establishments still have the squatting toilets and having traveled a bit in South East Asia and in remote, long-distance bus stops here in the Philippines, I know I can rough it when needed. Apparently, what I didn’t know was how to properly close the door of the comfort room in the bullet train. And I had to get the squatting toilet. And it had to slide open just when I was pulling my pants down. Flashing my behind to the father and child next to me in the queue and god-knows who else. I closed that door shut quickly, not wanting to find out.
For the rest of the two-hour-plus train ride I kept my eyes on the rushing scenery outside and not on any of the passengers who might have seen more than what they bargained for on a shinkansen ride. Once we reached Kyoto station, my brain had thankfully pushed the incident down my memory bank to make room for what awaited us. (Though not too deep, just so I can easily access it again should I see a bullet train, a Japanese toilet, or get too excited over anything that I forget to check the locks.) The guide books will warn you that once you arrive in Kyoto station you might feel a bit disappointed, finding yourself in a place that looks like any other modern city. Be patient. That golden temple, the impressive castles, the mystical shrines, they are all spread out in Kyoto, some resting on the foot of mountains, others in the middle of a busy road. First, we had to find our inn.
Being on a budget, we booked two beds in the dormitory room of a recently renovated 1920’s Japanese house-turned-guesthouse called IchiEnSou. It was highly rated in Hostelworld.com that it was no surprise its 11 beds get booked quickly. Another thing going for it was its location—in Southern Higashiyama, particularly near Gion. An area known for geisha sighting and near a number of parks and shrines, it sounded like the perfect little guesthouse.
From Kyoto station, we had to take the JR Nara line to Tofukuji. We were so focused on finding the JR Nara line platform that we forgot to explore the station and get the necessary maps from its Information Center (something every tourist must do). Once at Tofukuji, we had to look for the Keihan line and take the train bound for Demachiyanagi, get off at Gion Shijo then walk out of Exit #6. When you’re in a new place and you mostly have to rely on yourself to find your way around (I was the designated navigator of the trip), being able to find the place where you’re supposed to go after following somebody else’s directions always brings a small sense of victory—not to mention relief. But when we got to the exit, I was stumped. The directions said, walk one block to the east. Where was my east? It also said walk away from the river. Where was the river? P was getting anxious and impatient. We were both cold and wanted to get to the guesthouse.
You know what they say about travel teaching you more about yourself? How you handle new experiences, how you handle stress, interact with different people, et cetera. Apparently, it also teaches you a lot about your travel companion. It was the first out-of-the-country trip my husband and I had taken together, the first time we’d gotten lost together, and the first time we were subjected to a 3-degree Celsius temperature. He wasn’t a happy camper. He was getting impatient. I was getting impatient that he was getting impatient. The scenes of fighting couples from Amazing Race came rushing back. We were giving each other the evil eye like kids; we were not going to go anywhere. So, I approached another Asian couple who turned out to be lost tourists as well and didn’t speak a word of English. I needed to find that river and P wasn’t moving from his position. I walked to the left of the Minamiza theater, the exit where we came out, and after a few meters I saw a bridge. The river! We had to head over in the opposite direction. P and I walked in silence and followed the rest of the instructions–turn right at the first traffic light, turn left past the white lantern–then a few meters later we were at the gate of IchiEnSou. P and I smiled at each other. We were both relieved. He apologized. I gave him an I-can’t-believe-you’d-ever-doubt-your-wife look and laughed. Apparently, this would be our-travel-fight-and-makeup mode for the rest of the trip.
Once we got inside IchiEnSou, its charm as an old Japanese home was not lost when it was restored. The common room had a few wooden tables and chairs, a sitting room with just a tatami mat and a low table, and a homey little bar and kitchen. We were staying in the mixed dormitory room with seven bunk beds, and the other room was a girls-only four-bed dormitory with more traditional beddings. For first-time-dormitory-room dwellers such as ourselves, IchiEnSou is an ideal lodging. Eleven guests meant little foot traffic, a bit of privacy or at least some personal space, and cleaner shared facilities.
After we got settled and were ready to take on Kyoto (or at least walk around the Southern Higashiyama area and meet our two friends from Manila), it started snowing. Snowing! In spring! Even Yashi, the owner of IchiEnSou was surprised. “That’s why it’s been so cold today,” he said. You can imagine how a girl from the Philippines, who has always wanted to see the cherry blossoms and has also never seen snow would react to seeing both at the same time. It was freaking awesome. P said, “Freak of nature, meet freak from the Philippines!”
So in spite of the fact that I could no longer feel my fingers from the chilly weather (forgot to pack some gloves), that my teeth started chattering, and my face was becoming numbingly cold, we eagerly explored Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park with our friends. We walked, took pictures, smiled under the weeping cherry tree and the snow. We were supposed to walk farther down the park and look for the nearby streets of Ishibei-koji, Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, all the way down to Kiyomizu-dera, a beautiful temple especially during spring and fall, but after an hour P no longer found amusement in the snow. I couldn’t blame him; the cold had gone from uncomfortable to painful. The over-zealous tourist in me (and in my friend Pierra) was just trying to ignore it since there was still so much to see in the area. But only a few seemed to share our resolve, since much of the park and the shrine were deserted. Even many of the food stalls and the hanami-ready locals with their tables and blue tarps had called it a day.
From Yasaka Shrine, we walked along Shijo-dori to find a place to eat. When we reached Hanami-koji, a popular street in the Gion district lined with some of Kyoto’s most exclusive ocha-ya (teahouses) and expensive restaurants, we saw a geisha crossing the street. She stopped in front of what looked like a theater or teahouse when another geisha appeared out of a cab. They were beautiful and doll-like, wrapped in their elegant kimono and white as snow. And before a swarm of tourists could descend upon them and raise their cameras, they quickly disappeared inside the establishment. It didn’t feel real. An only-in-Japan moment. And just like that, the unexpected (and embarrassing) inconveniences of the day were quickly forgotten with a gentle snowfall and the vision of a geisha—and a stop at another gyudon-ya for dinner.
Take note! Grab a hold of the Kyoto City Bus Sightseeing Map available at the Tourist Information Center at Kyoto Station. You can download a copy here
IchiEnSou Guesthouse 4-2 Komatsu-Chou Sijousagaru 4 Choume Yamatoōji-dori Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Yasaka Shrine or Yasaka-jinja at Higashiyama-ku Gion, free admission. From Shijo-dori and Yamatoōji-dori you can walk toward the east (away from the river); Yasaka is at the end of Shijo-dori
Maruyama Park or Maruyama-kōen at Maruyama-chō Higashiyama-ku, beside Yasaka Shrine, free admission