Where to stay: Cheap & cozy in Kyoto

Around this time last year, we were looking for accommodations in Kyoto and Tokyo. Since we were on a budget, P and I had accepted the fact that we would be staying in a mixed dormitory or at least be sharing toilet/bath facilities with other travelers in a hostel or inn.

We found IchiEnSou in Hostelworld.com. It was (still is) highly rated, looked like a cozy Japanese home (which it was originally back in 1920), cheaper compared to ryokans and other inns in the area, and supposedly had an “idyllic location, one street off the main street in the most famous Geisha district in Kyoto, called Gion.” All the previous guests that booked through the website had left positive reviews–confirming that it had a great location, that it had a warm and cozy atmosphere, and special mention to the owners who took their guests on walking tours around the neighborhood. That did it. I booked two beds in the mixed dorm.

Watch out for the small IchiEnSou sign by the bottom of the door

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Planning your trip to Japan (tiny quarters, free stuff, and why climate change is a b*tch)

A friend is heading to Japan on holiday for a few days in November and December and we’ve been e-mailing each other for the past few weeks. She’s been asking about money-changers, hostel accommodations, sights to see in such a tight schedule, etc. I have only been to Japan once, but there were a few things I did pick up that might help other people planning a trip there for the first time. (Some tips I have already buried, er, included, at the end of my past, long Japan entries, but it might be easier for new readers to see them in one entry.)

Dreaming of cherry blossoms before the trip

BEFORE YOU LEAVE
For me, the second best thing to actually being in Japan is planning your trip to Japan. Or planning a trip anywhere. You just get this wonderful high from the anticipation the trip brings. (My favorite quote from travel writer/editor Don George: Anticipation is one of travel’s great gifts. If you’re still not convinced, check out this NY Times article on a study from the Netherlands, which showed that “the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation.”) So, what’s included in the planning?

Getting your visa then your plane ticket: When it comes to heading off to a country where I need to acquire a visa, I try not to succumb to the temptation of buying those non-refundable promo fares. What I do is I get in touch with a travel agency, give them my budget for the ticket (that is after looking through websites of different airlines to have an idea on the average cost) and ask how long they can hold it for me. Usually they can reserve it for two weeks, so I then go about acquiring the requirements I need for the tourist visa within that time frame. In Manila, a Japanese visa is acquired through accredited travel agencies. We got ours through Reli Tours and after we submitted everything, we got our visa after 2-3 days. Only then do I give my travel agent the go to buy the tickets.

Getting a Japan Rail (JR) Pass: It can be a real travel bargain for foreign tourists planning to explore the different cities of Japan within seven, 14 or 21 days (the different types of passes), but it can only be acquired outside Japan.
1) You buy the JR Pass exchange order in authorized travel agencies in your country. (Here’s a list from the JR Pass website. We bought ours at Universal Holidays, Inc. in Makati. Credit card is accepted.)
2) When you get to Japan, take your exchange order, along with your passport, to a JR Station Information Center to get your pass. ONLY do this if you already need to use the train or shinkansen to travel between cities. At around ¥28,000 for a mere seven-day pass, it is not a bargain if you’re simply staying within the same city. (If that’s the case you’re better off purchasing one of the many day passes or prepaid cards for the local trains.) It comes close to paying off if you, for example, have to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and back (roundtrip fare is around ¥26,000). Taking the shinkansen to nearby Nara, Osaka, Kobe or Himeji once in Kyoto makes it a real bargain.
3) Assuming you acquired your JR Pass to ride the shinkansen, make sure you reserve a seat. There’s no additional payment and you can make the reservation at the Information Center as well. You will receive a reserved-seat ticket (left), which you need to show the train inspector once you’ve boarded the train. If you don’t reserve a seat, you might end up standing during the entire ride. (We got our exchange orders exchanged for the actual pass and reservations at the JR Information Center in Shibuya station)
* For an even cheaper transportation alternative between cities, check out the Japan Bus Pass by Willer Express.

Finding cheap and (with a semblance of) cozy digs. Accommodations in Tokyo (and sometimes even Kyoto) can be costly compared to other Asian cities–heck, compared to other Japanese cities. Even among typically affordable hostels, inns and guesthouses, what’s cheap in Tokyo (1 night at a basic twin private hostel room in Khaosan Tokyo Samurai with a shared bathroom is around PHP3,368) will get you a better looking and much more spacious hostel/business hotel/boutique hotel room with its own private bathroom in Saigon, Siem Reap or Kuala Lumpur. (I’ve been checking at Hostelworld.com for a trip next year, fingers crossed!) But then again, real estate in Tokyo is one of the most expensive in the world, so it’s not really a big surprise. Hostelworld is a good source of affordable accommodations. Just start booking as soon as you get your visa and tickets, because the higher rated hostels, inns, and hotels get full pretty fast. If you can’t get the ones you like and only the average- or low-rated accommodations have rooms or beds, check the hostel reviews of other travelers–particularly their “lowest rated” reviews and see if what they’re griping about is something you’ll have an issue with as well. For me, complaints about “not having a common area to meet fellow travelers,” “being hard to find,” “tiny rooms” or “far from the party scene” were things I could easily overlook. Bed bugs, security lapses and just plain bad service were not. (But in our 10-day stay in Japan, I have to say I did not encounter any sort of bad customer service even with the language barrier.)

Japanese culture-tripping: Tea ceremonies, ikebana, sake tasting, calligraphy, sushi making–there are many activities that can immerse you into Japanese culture. Most tours and services though are expensive, but if you’re heading to Kyoto, WAK Japan has a range of short programs for those on a limited time and budget. But if you want an introduction to Japanese culture for free…

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Kyoto to Tokyo, Day 8: A few days before going home

Waiting for our bullet train back to Tokyo

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.

P's bento lunch in the shinkansen

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.

Sumida Park

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.

Kaminarimon, entrance gate to 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).

Nakamise Shopping Street—so this is where all the Tokyo tourists are

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.)

Want some rice crackers?

Homemade fried bean-jam bun

Japanese sweets such as ningyoyaki, which is pancake or waffle batter filled with red bean paste and cooked in a mold

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.

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When you want some company (our last supper in Kyoto)

For our last dinner in Kyoto, P wanted to go back to this restaurant, which we saw the night before when we walked around Gion with Yashi and the other IchiEnSou guests. It was a restaurant serving a variation of okonomiyaki that had a humorous statue of a boy running with a bag of the restaurant’s specialty, while a dog chases him and tugs down his pants (see photo below).

An okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake that roughly translates to “what you like” (okonomi) and “grilled” or “cooked”(yaki ). As such, it can contain a variety of seafood, meat, and different vegetables and cooked in a teppan or hot plate. In the Gion restaurant, the okonomiyaki it serves is called Issen Yoshoku (which is also the name of the restaurant)—yoshoku for ‘Western food’ (Western because the batter used is made of wheat flour) and sen because it used to cost about 1 US cent.

The eye-catching facade of Issen Yoshoku

The cooks hard at work. (See the mannequin on the left, it's a clue on what awaited us inside)

The cooks preparing the mounds of Issen Yoshoku face the street, which attracts many onlookers, most if not all of whom were tourists who had whipped out their cameras (just like us). The dish is more crepe than pancake and thinly sliced pork, tiny shrimps, a lot of chopped scallions, and egg are among the ingredients that get tossed in before it’s folded in half and served.

Intrigued, we went inside and were taken to a table where a female mannequin in a kimono was seated. Oh-kay. Looking around, most tables had kimono-clad female mannequins accompanying the diners. I had seen this type of restaurant (or it could have been this very restaurant) in a news segment on Japan years back. Seated mannequins on every table to keep diners company. (I researched about it later on in Kyotofoodie.com and found out it’s the humorous ploy of the owner to lure drunken men to the restaurant when they see the seeming abundance of attractive single women seated inside from the street.) Oh, Japan. How do you think of these things (and go about actually doing them)? 🙂

Issen Yoshoku's funny menu: Ta-daah! It only serves one dish! (Catch a glimpse of our lady companion at the top-left corner of the photo)

The crepe-like creation is served with lots of sweet okonomiyaki sauce and strips of nori

We ordered two beers and two Issen Yoshoku, one for me and P. (Our lady companion was not having anything. Cheap date.) I wasn’t too crazy about this okonomiyaki (just too many scallions for my taste), but my husband liked it and even finished my share. Still, it was a fun dining experience and if you’re in the Gion area, do go inside and buy your lady friend a drink.

Kyoto, Day 7: In its kitchen, alleys, and castle (and another temple)

Take me to a place once and I usually know how to get there again. I make a mental map in my head and I’m good. But apparently I cannot read an actual map. That morning, we had more than an hour before we were to meet our guide Atsuko from VisitKansai.com, who was going to accompany us around Nishiki Market, and I thought it was a good idea to look for the streets of Ishibei-koji, Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. They were part of the Lonely Planet guide book’s Southern Higashiyama Walking Tour that we wanted to follow on our first afternoon in Kyoto, but couldn’t because it was so freaking cold—which was, by then, taking its toll on me. So even though I woke up with a headache, a stuffy nose, and a sore throat, I insisted to my husband that I was fine. I was determined to find those streets. Or at least one of them.

How can you not go inside?

After we went inside Yasaka Shrine, I tried to make sense of where we were in the map. We were not on a main road and there wasn’t a street sign I could understand. I thought maybe I was looking at the map in the wrong way. Minutes of standing in the cold wasn’t helping my map-reading skills, so we decided to simply walk down the street to the right of Yasaka Shrine, because it seemed like it was the right direction. We kept walking until we saw a quaint, little alley with a short covered walkway. It piqued our interest. We saw three elderly folks enter. It didn’t look like a private property so we followed them. We figured if they lived there they would have turned us away. But they ignored us. So we kept walking along that almost empty, narrow cobbled street lined with shrubbery over a long concrete wall.

Ishibei-koji

P and I didn’t know where in the map we were or where we were going, but it didn’t really matter at that point. Aside from the fact that we could easily retrace our steps, for the first time, we felt like we were exploring Kyoto on our own. Searching for a place and anticipating what we would actually find. Then we saw two girls dressed up as geishas turn to another alley. We followed them and there it was Ishibei-koji. Though there was no street sign, I knew it was the street Lonely Planet calls, “perhaps the most beautiful street in Kyoto,” because (1) it was indeed beautiful (though not sure of being ‘the most’) and (2) because I had been watching this video on Kyoto hundreds of times before flying to Japan and for a few seconds it shows Ishibei-koji—an immaculate cobbled alley lined with traditional Japanese inns and restaurants. Sometimes, even without a map, you end up where you’re supposed to be, anyway.

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Four-hundred meter heaven: Nishiki Market

I was going to write a part of the trip for my editor in a food magazine so I wanted to explore Kyoto’s famous Nishiki Market with a guide/translator. We met our guide Atsuko at a train station along Shijo-dori before walking to the centuries-old marketplace dubbed as the Kitchen of Kyoto. Atsuko, who lives in Osaka is a licensed guide who teaches English. The tours are a way for her to practice her English and she was very patient answering our questions, such as: What were those pasty or powdery concoctions covering the vegetables and the fish? (Answer: nuka, which is rice bran, or miso) What were the tasty black beans called? (Answer: Kuromame. You can eat it as a snack or cook it with rice for flavoring) What did you call those gelatinous, salty-sweet preserves of seaweed, fish, or meat served as a side dish to many Japanese meals? (Answer: Tsukudani).

We explored the 400-meter long marketplace lined with around 140 stores. It was a food (and kitchen) paradise; I would be happy going there every single day. We tasted some kuromame and tsukudani. Checked out the knife shop dating back to 1560 that sold a variety of hand-crafted knives. Saw how bonito flakes looked like before they were, well, flaked. Found our mouths watering at the sight of mochi, onigiri, fish cakes, sashimi tuna on a stick, and the one I looked forward to the most after months of stalking Kyoto-based food blogs, the tofu doughnuts.

One of the shops I love since it sold those sweet-salty Japanese side dishes called tsukudani. Feel free to sample each one.

At the Aritsugu knife shop, where you can find all sorts of knives—for meat, fish (even for a particular fish), sushi rolls, noodles, vegetables, etc.

Nishiki has several shops selling Japanese sweets like mochi and daifuku

Pickled vegetables covered in nuka or rice bran

All sorts of seafood--from fresh to pickled to ready-to-eat

Throughout our Japan trip, P saw a number of small dolls left on the doorways and gates. This one was outside a shop in Nishiki. Anyone know what it's about? (Update: Blogger Tokyobling gave me this explanation: "I think it is meant to be a frog, and as we all know, frog in Japanese is “kaeru” or カエル, which happens to be the same as come back, return, 帰る. So a lot of Japanese stores, cities, temples, stations have some sort of frog symbol near their exit to welcome visitors back.)

Yolk and bean jam buns. I didn't enjoy this one so much.

Onigiri happiness!

Want tuna sashimi on the go? Have it on a stick!

The best Nishiki Market snack for me: Konnamonja’s tofu doughnuts 🙂

After ogling at so much food (even though we bought and snacked on some octopus on a stick, kuromame, bean jam buns and tofu doughnuts), by the time we had walked from one end of Nishiki Market (Teramachi) to the other (Takakura) we were hungry for lunch. Atsuko recommended her favorite sushi-ya in Kyoto—at the basement food hall of the Daimaru Department Store. (Now, a basement food hall or depachika is another food/consumerist phenomenon in Japan altogether. Check this article from Food & Wine.) We walked past shiny stalls of every Japanese food and western delicacies packaged and presented so elaborately, and found the corner sushi-ya Atsuko was talking about.

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