Four days in Kyoto was just too fast. While we got to see most of the places we wanted to go to being the dutiful tourists that we were, we didn’t get to simply wander around most of the areas (downtown Kyoto, Nanzen-ji, I know you still have so many little corners to be explored). I was in love with this city and it was time to break up. (Or at least engage in a long-distance love affair, which is sort of the whole point to these blog entries, really.) The plus side to leaving Kyoto was getting to ride the shinkansen again (this time I knew how to close the lock in the toilet to avoid anymore dreadful flashing incidents), and eating the bento lunch we bought at one of the glorious food stalls at the depachika of Isetan at Kyoto Station.
I got chicken karaage with some kind of fish tempura, while P got chicken teriyaki. Both came with rice, some shredded cabbage, some tsukudani and those cute cut-up vegetables in a plastic bento. I thought, if we’re to judge a culture’s level of refinement by how it prepares take-out food, the Japanese will likely win hands down. The only downside to it—where do all those nice, little packaging go after we’re done with them. (A quick web search on Japan’s garbage situation would immediately lead to articles on its effective waste management and recycling process.)
When we got to Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, we took the JR Yamanote line to Ueno (where we could still use our JR Pass, yay!), then the Ginza line to Asakusa. Considered one of the city’s few districts that retain the supposed vibe of the old Tokyo, Asakusa is also home to a number of affordable guesthouses and hostels—in one of which we got a room for our remaining two nights in Japan. Asakusa is also where you can find the popular Buddhist temple, Senso-ji, and the popular hanami spot of Sumida Park. So after P and I checked in and got settled in our room, we headed out.
There’s always joy in trying to find your destination—unless you’re lugging a heavy baggage or your companion/the weather is miserable. That afternoon, our bags were stashed, the weather was fine, and P and I were happy to be back in Tokyo (even if it did mean saying goodbye to Kyoto) and to not have to wear four layers of clothing (only three this time). We got a bit lost on our way to Senso-ji, but ended up in Sumida Park, another popular spot for cherry blossom viewing. After a stroll in the park, we finally found Senso-ji.
If I thought the number of tourists in the temples of Kyoto were a lot, standing in front of Senso-ji, by its large entrance gates (Kaminarimon), I realized we had stumbled upon the mother lode of Tokyo tourists—bus loads and boat loads (coming from the nearby river cruise). With the free admission and located right along a busy avenue, Senso-ji attracts multitudes and is considered the most popular of Tokyo’s temples. (The fact that it houses the golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, supposedly fished out of Sumida River in year 628, might also have something to do with it.) The crowd thickens even more past the first gate and into Nakamise-dōri, a shopping street of 250 meters lined with shops selling souvenirs and local delicacies.
Even after only spending a week in Japan, a visit to its restaurants, marketplaces and shopping streets should clue you in that the country is big on rice and beans and all its byproducts. Like other Asian countries, rice figures heavily in its meals. Then there are its byproducts—sake (rice wine), mochi (rice cakes made of glutinous rice), and rice flour used to make dango, various wagashi (Japanese sweets) and crackers. And because of Japan’s rich Buddhist history, the bean or mame is also big. It’s the source of Japanese staples such as tofu, yuba (soy milk skin), miso, soy sauce and anko (sweet paste made from azuki beans).
At Nakamise Shopping Street, stalls selling snacks and boxes of local goodies seem to be only made up of those two things. There were rice crackers of different shapes and sizes and Japanese sweets (such as ningyoyaki) filled with red bean paste. (I admit, I originally thought the red-brown filling was chocolate, which prompted me to buy a bag to snack on.)
After P and I got through the crowd of Nakamise (though not without losing each other at some point), we got to the temple’s second gate, the Hozomon. The crowd had thinned considerably and only then did we realize that the main hall of the temple was already closed for the day. We contentedly took photos of the five-storied pagoda next to it (no other tourists on the background!) and the less crowded Hozomon gate. It was closing time, after all.
We then decided to explore the surrounding streets and find a restaurant where we could have an early dinner. Something familiar yet still local. Then we spotted it—Yoshinoya. This gyudon restaurant chain has found its way to Manila years ago and it has successfully lured the Philippine lunch and dining crowd looking for cheap and tasty Japanese fast-food. But compared to Matsuya and the other gyudon-ya we had tried in other parts of Tokyo days before, Yoshinoya (or this branch in particular) was a poor variation. (No wonder C had refused to take us to one, since we arrived in Japan.) A couple of forlorn-looking Japanese men sat there silently eating their bowls of gyudon in a protracted pace. The server and the cook (we sat with a partial view of the kitchen) looked as if they would rather be somewhere else. And once we started eating, that slice of salmon and beef bowl we ordered—we wanted to be somewhere else as well.
That immediate somewhere was in Harajuku. Since our JR Pass was still valid for three days, we decided to take the JR Yamanote line and go down the stations and places we hadn’t explored yet. The JR Yamanote line covers a 35-kilometer loop around the city, which includes the stations of Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Tokyo, Akihabara, Ueno, and Ikebukuro among its many stops. At Harajuku, we got out of the exit facing the crazy crowded street of Takeshita-dōri. Lined with many fashion boutiques (and an unusual number of creperies), it looked like ground zero for the young and trendy crowd. But it was the big Daiso (100 Yen store) that lured me in. By the time we reached the end of the street, however, P seemed to have developed a case of agoraphobia and strongly suggested we leave.
Meanwhile, on the train ride home, I got a sudden bout of homesickness, strangely mixed with post-vacation slump from the Kyoto trip. I was feeling nostalgic for the past few days, replaying in my head (only) the images of bliss (and pushing aside the looming deadlines for work). The train ride that used to end too soon for me a week before, seemed long and dull by then. All I could see were tired commuters and office workers, slumped in the seats in front of me, most of them asleep, who all probably wanted to get home. Just like in any other city. Just like back home. Home. I was craving for the sunny weather of Manila, for my own bed, and tapsilog. Maybe it was the weather turning cold again. Or I was finally allowing myself to feel exhausted. Maybe I just needed to get settled after the calm of Kyoto. To take it easy. We still had two more days in Japan. (Or maybe there was something in that beef bowl.)
Sumida Park Along both sides of Sumida River; free admission
Senso-ji 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taitō-ku; free admission, main building is open from 6 am to 5 pm. A few steps from Asakusa Station, served by the Ginza Subway line or Toei Asakusa line.
Nakamise-dōri The shops have different schedules, but usually from 9 am to 7 pm
Takeshita-dōri Take the JR Yamanote line to Harajuku Station