Kyoto, Day 2

Kyoto, Day 2

After a quick and over priced breakfast of weird ham, egg, and lettuce finger sandwiches, we all met at 9 AM for our full Kyoto day tour. Unfortunately, our guide Mika had gone to the wrong hotel, so we had a bit of a wait before she came running into the lobby. Mika was very friendly and bubbly as she walked us down to the subway stations for our connections to our first stop, the Palace gardens.

IMG_4613

We wanted to see cherry blossoms and Mika said there was a part of the garden with quite a few in bloom. She was so right! They were beautiful and my mom was super happy that we got to see some. We are right on the brink of all of them flowering so, every day, more and more are popping out.

The Emperor and Empress were actually residing in the palace we were at so we could not go look at the place itself. Instead, we walked to hop on a bus to get to the Golden Temple, Kinkakuji. There were tons of people but seeing the gold leaf temple reflecting in the pond below was so worth it. The gardens were also beautiful but the gold building stole the show.

IMG_4640

We enjoyed the gardens as much as we could while staying in line with the flow of tourists. Mika told us that this was a light day for traffic too since we hadn’t yet entered the peak season yet! I couldn’t even imagine how crowded that would be! At least Ryan, being 6’2, could see over everyone to find me when I got sidetracked.

After the Golden Pavilion, we stopped for lunch at a very traditional soba house. We had to take our shoes off downstairs and had a short table on the second floor to enjoy our food. I had tempura soba and it was quite good but a little over priced. Everyone else felt the same about their meal and we had to pay for our guides food and transport during the tour. I get paying for our own food and transport but you would think the tour cost would at least cover the guide.

After lunch we had a 30 minute bus ride to get to Kyoto station. Lunch must have had sleeping pills in it because I zonked out on Ryans shoulder. I kept waking up thinking we had missed our exit but all was good. We took a few subway connections and would up at the entrance to the famous Tori Gate shrine (Fushimi Inari Shrine). There are over one thousand gates of all heights within the property. It was also very crowded at the start and there were so many girls dressed in their kimonos and taking photos. It made it hard to navigate. We all decided to make a few poses of his own haha!

The crowds did open up eventually and the walk through the forrest because much more enjoyable. Japan is, overall, just so crowded it takes away from the magic a little bit.

IMG_4649

After the Tori Gates, it was back on the public transit and to Gion. We walked through some more temples and were getting pretty burnt out. We ended back at the main temple in Gion to check on the massive cherry tree and see if it has bloomed more before saying goodbye to Mika.

IMG_4646

My parents took off in one direction and Ryan, Julia and I decided to check out Nana’s Café for a drink and to relax. I had this AMAZING drink with sweet black bean at the bottom. It was by far the best latte of any kind I’ve ever had! It felt so good to just sit and reflect after so much go, go, go!

IMG_4674

Post-latte, we went back to the hotel to freshen up and meet my parents for a drink at the bar. Ryan needed some serious calories so he went to McDonalds for dinner and we took off to this famous gyoza place down the street. We waited about 20 minutes but it was so worth it! My sister and I tried an assortment of gyoza flavors from veggie to pork, curry, and shrimp.

IMG_4682

Post gyoza, Ryan met us up for another ice-cream crepe before heading back to the hotel for bed.

Kyoto, Day 1

Kyoto, Day 1

To ensure we got to the train station on time, we had breakfast at the Hiroshima Washington Hotel. It was a mix of both Japanese and Western style dishes. I tried a whole host of dishes and was quickly filled up and ready for the day. We grabbed our luggage and were off to wait on our bus to the Hiroshima Station. We were waiting about 10 minutes before my sister and I realized that the bus didn’t start until 9:33 and it was only 8:55. We needed a different route so we quickly changed course to hop on the green line trolly. We had some difficulty figuring out how Pasmo cards, the preloaded public transit payment cards, worked to check in but figured it out after watching others for about 4 stops. I got stuck on the way out because I didn’t have enough money left! Oops!

I loaded up my card and we were off to JR line 13 to wait on our train. We got there about 20 minutes early to ensure Ryan, Julia, and I had seats in the unreserved section. My mom went to the bathroom as we were heading up to the platform and she came running back to us exclaiming she had lost dad! Oh no! I took her to the numbered area on the platform for her train car and told her to wait while I went to find my dad. After running around for 5 minutes, I found him patiently waiting right where she left him originally. When I told him we were all waiting for him he said “I thought she was taking a little longer in the loo than usual!”Phew! I brought dad back to the platform and told them to make sure to get off at the Shin-Osaka station for our train transfer to Kyoto. About 5 minutes later, we saw my parents attempt to get on the wrong train headed for Tokyo! Thankfully, they saw our panicked signals to abort and we all ended up getting on the right train. It is never easy!

IMG_4558

It took us about 2 hours to get to Kyoto by train. The station was only a quick subway ride away from the main area where the Cross Hotel was located. Our hotel was situated right in the main shopping district and only a few blocks from the Gion district. We were not able to fully check in so we dropped off our bags and took off to explore the shopping area.

There were two main streets parallel to one another that were lined with shops and restaurants. The streets were pretty packed but we made our way around. I found a cute skirt at a boutique and my sister found a few items at a thrift store. We were getting pretty peckish but, with our impending late-night food tour in a few hours, we opted for something a little lighter. We found a fried chicken place and had that with some pork and gyoza.

After lunch, we checked into our hotel. It was so luxurious and our rooms were much bigger than our other hotels. My sister and I decided to continue exploring the shops for another hour before we met up with everyone for a drink. There are not a lot of wine / sports / regular bars or just places to just have a drink in Japan. Even our hotel’s bar closed around 3 PM and didn’t open back up until 6 PM for dinner service. We were lucky to find this “Liquor Museum” right around the corner. It was a small bar with tons of old, cool looking alcohol bottles. When we walked in, one of the patrons looked at me surprised and told me, jokingly, that I did not look old enough to drink! I will take that as a complement!

We had a few gin and tonics before it was time to walk to a designated subway station exit by the Gion district to meet our guide, Mardi, for our night food tour. Mardi was actually from the Dallas area and extended her year long study abroad into 5+ years in Kyoto! She started the tour talking about how the Gion area was for entertaining and had us try some delicious rice cakes with a soy glaze as she talked about the Kabuki theater across the street.

We kept walking up the main road until we got to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine Nishiromon Gate. The main hall is over 360 years old! Interestingly enough, Mardi told us a myth about a god who had 3 children. The first two, the goddess of the sun and god of thunder, were born from the god’s tears. The third and more meddlesome child was shot out of the god’s nose as a booger! No wonder that god felt he drew the short stick in life! Such a funny story.

We rang the bells of the shine for luck and to make a wish and then continued on through the grounds to a massive cherry tree almost in full blossom. It was beautiful in the evening light and there were a bunch of 20-something year olds picnicking around it and enjoying the evening.

IMG_4591

We left the Shrine grounds and continued through the narrow streets of Gion. In earlier parts of our trip, especially in Tokyo, we kept seeing these weird posters of very feminine looking men. Mardi explained and pointed out these high rises with floors and floors of for mainly men, but also women, where hostesses worked and served drinks. There is not supposed to be anything sexual going on at these clubs, more like the hostesses incessantly complement and listen to all of the woes of the patrons. The hostesses also make themselves look nothing like their patron’s spouses in real life, thus the male hostesses look super feminine and made up and the females wear prom-fancy level dresses with full hair and makeup. The patrons do not tip the hostesses in cash, but they do buy them very expensive luxury goods, so there are tons of thriving pawn shops close to the clubs filled with designer shoes, bags, and clothes that the hostesses sell for cash and the patrons buy to give away. Such a strange and unique way of doing things. Apparently this is the equivalent to doing business on golf courses in the US.

We continued to wind down the narrow passages and Mardi also explained that every house / restaurant has to have a bucket of water out front incase of fire. Considering many of the houses had paper walls, I don’t think those small buckets would help too much but it doesn’t hut to be prepared?

Eventually, we got back to the main area and walked to our first, tiny restaurant on the river side for tapas! We were the only people in the restaurant and we tried a whole bunch of seasonally delicious dishes and drank some beer.

After we had our fill, Mardi took us to more of a bar styled restaurant for tempura fries, fried chicken, and sashimi, again all totally delicious.

We were stuffed by the end of dinner and thanked Mardi for such a great welcome to Kyoto. Even though we were so full, we somehow found room for ice cream filled crepes before heading back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.

IMG_4610

Miyajima Island, Japan

Miyajima Island, Japan

We met around 8:15 AM for our morning breakfast hunt. Since the tea at the café the night before was so good, we went back for some ham and egg sandwiches and coffee. It was so yummy!

My parents wanted to go back to the hotel and brush their teeth so Ryan and I split to go find some Advil and decongestant since my mom and Ryan were feeling under the weather. Ryan downloaded this insanely great app called Payke to help ID products at the drug store. He just scanned the bar code of each box and the app gave him a detailed description in English of the uses of the product and reviews from people who tired it. SO HELPFUL! We were able to find just what we needed outside of cough drops. I typed “do you have cough candies for sore throats” into my Google translate app and showed the Japanese text to the shop clerk. She quickly nodded and brought me to the cough drop area! It was so easy to communicate! With our meds in hand, we walked back to the hotel, met up with my family, and headed off to the ferry for Miyajama island.


We got a bit of a late start to the island and it took about an hour to get there via train and then ferry. Thankfully, all of that transport was covered by our JR Pass. While the 14 day pass cost us roughly $450 each, it was totally worth it. We were able to travel so easily and so far!

Miyajama Island is known for its giant Torii gate in the middle of the ocean. At high tide, it floats above the water. At low tide, you can walk out to it on the sand and get a full view of how massive it is. The locals believe that God resides in the island itself.

There is also a floating temple to walk through on the island. While slightly crowded with tourists, it was all very beautiful and serene. There were even a bunch of deer walking around and unabashedly taking food from all of the tourists – even digging through their bags when unsupervised!

It was pretty cold and about time for lunch so we found a little spot up on a side street and devoured some very tasty food. There are a ton of oyster farms all around the island so mom and Ryan both tired fried oysters in various forms that were scrumptious! I had beef udon with eel rice – again, so good and warming.

After lunch, it was time to hike up to the top peek. There was a 2 hour each way hike to the top of the mountain, but we opted to take the cable car up and then do the 30 minute hike from there. The views from the cable car were great…But just a preview of the views from the top!

The hike was pretty strenuous, especially since were were moving at a fast pace to ensure we made the last cable car back down the mountain.

About half way up, there are a few shines. One that had a flame, called the “Eternal Flame”, that has been going for over 1,200 years! It also used to light the Flame of Peace in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima City. There were also some very cute little figures around the temple.

We continued upwards and got to this amazing rocky area. The views of Hiroshima from the peak were just unbelievable. The city is so huge!

The decent back down was much easier than up and we were back in 15 minutes. It took some time to get through the lines for the cable car since the number of people that can ride at a time is somewhat limited.

We finally got back down the mountain, walked to the ferry, got across the channel and to the train station, rode back to Hiroshima and then had to wait 20 minutes for the bus back to our hotel area. We finally arrived around 6:30 PM! What a long, but totally worth it, journey!

IMG_4497

Since it was relatively cold and only going to get colder throughout the rest of this trip, Ryan wanted to grab a matching puffer jacket to the one I got from Uniqlo in Tokyo. My mom had been wanting to shop for the past 1.5 days in Hiroshima and wasn’t too impressed that Ryan got to shop first! Ha!

After grabbing a jacket, we met my parents and sister at a sushi place for dinner. My parents had discovered it the night before and couldn’t stop raving about how delicious it was. We waited about 30 minutes (just enough time to run to Starbucks for a potty break) before being seated.

We tried somewhat successfully to order a bunch of sushi and tempura and boy, were my parents right about how good it was! The Unagi just melted in our mouths and the raw crab and tuna was the freshest I have ever had. It was the best sushi of my life and we just kept ordering more and more! What a dinner for the books.

Our waiter was in his early 20s and studying English. He was so helpful and nice! I tried to thank him by writing “thank you so much” on my napkin in Japanese letters based on Google’s translation. He said I did a pretty good job!

After dinner, Ryan and Julia wanted another crepe but, since it was a Sunday night and past 9PM, everything was closed. Instead, we opted to go to Don Quijote, the most overwhelming store I’ve ever been in, and get a bunch of snacks. There were some really odd snacks in there too, (like dried bugs and sea creatures), but we kept it safe with chocolates and gummy candy.

We went back to the hotel and enjoyed our haul while getting ready for bed.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima

We had a 5:45 AM wake up time this morning to go watch the monks during their morning prayer at Koyasan Onsen Fuchin. We were taken into the main hall and sat Indian style in lines behind this very ornate, golden wall. We faced the central area where the monks worked. There were 4 of them that vocalized a mix of chant-singing for about 50 minutes. It was so cold in the temple that we could see our breath as we sat and watched, but it was immensely tranquil. I tried to meditate a little as I listened to their soothing voices. Again, our stay in Mt. Koya was very unique and special experience that won’t be found anywhere else.

After the prayer, we went back to our meal room for our vegetarian, monk-style breakfast. It was… different. Again, we were not a big fan of the gelatin like consistency of some of the food, but the flavors were well put together and it felt good to eat veggies after so many carbs.

IMG_4412-2

Once we finished up breakfast, grabbed our bags, and headed down the street to hop on the bus, then the rail car, then to the train, pit stopped for lunch in one of the interim stations. We tried to book seat reservations on the next JR train but it was sold out so, instead of trying to rush to the unreserved section and pray for a seat on the 1.5 hour trip, we opted for the later train and took a longer lunch in between to relax. It gave us all a sense of relief since we had plenty of time to enjoy and then get to the front of the unreserved line.

Overall, Ryan, my sister, and I have had plenty of luck getting 3 seats together in the unreserved areas, but my parents bought the upgraded passes and their cars have been harder to get seats together in advance. If you get to the train station 15 to 20 minutes prior to the train, you should not have a problem getting an unreserved seat on the JR lines. Just book in advance if you have the priority train car tickets.

Finally, we arrived at Hiroshima station. Hiroshima was bustling but not nearly as crowded as the other cities we visited. Our JR passes covered the quick bus ride to our hotel stop and we were checked into the Hiroshima Washington Hotel quickly and easily. The hotel was quite nice and my sister Julia had her own room this time since I couldn’t find a 3 person room. Ryan and I got some much needed alone time. It is amazing how valuable alone time gets for decompression when you are traveling in a group for a long period of time!

We decided to spend the day at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. We walked through a very cool shopping area and into the Memorial park. Being in Hiroshima brought on some weird feelings, especially as the sky was full of sunlight but it was raining lightly.

We found our way to the entrance of the Museum and headed in. Watching videos of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing survivors talk about that day and the impacts of the radiation on their bodies or those of their friends was so incredibly sad. For context, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 5th 1945 and then another one on Nagasaki three days later in the hopes of ending the war. Japan did surrender, but the impact of those bombs lasted long after the war was over. The bombs wiped out both cities with only a few buildings remaining. One of those buildings is called the Atomic Bomb Dome, and you can see it within the park.

IMG_4447

Outside of the building destruction, the bombs killed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. Entire family lineages were gone in an instant. Those who survives were badly hurt and the radiation from the bombs had a whole host of terrible side effects including cancer later on in life. Overall, it was a very humbling museum and greatly reinforced that nuclear war cannot occur moving forward.

Our moods were solemn as we exited the museum and walked through the rest of the park to the Children’s Memorial. While the bombings were done in the name of war to end even more potential loss of life, it was hard to rationalize why two bombs were needed and how they was justified.

It was getting late, so we opted to find some food through the long streets of the shopping area. My sister, Ryan, and I split off from my parents and got Okonomiyaki seafood pancakes. After enjoying them so much in Tokyo with our guide Misa, we wanted to have them one more time before the end of the trip. They were OK at the place we chose but helped us end our craving for them in future.

After dinner, we walked through some shops and then got some crapes for desert. Mine was strawberry ice cream with bananas and strawberries. Sooo good!

Ice cream crepe in Hiroshima, Japan

We met some Marines from the US while we were eating the crapes and they told us they had been turned away from some restaurants that were pretty empty. After seeing what we did at the museums, it makes sense that there would still be some animosity towards Americans in Hiroshima. You really can’t blame them for it.

It was pretty cold out so we found a café over looking the street and had some tea to wind down the night. I got traditional tea, but Julia and Ryan opted for this orange marmalade tea which was scrumptious!

After our tea, it was back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.

Mt. Koya

Mt. Koya

Today marked our travel day from Osaka to Mt. Koya to stay in a Buddhist temple. We decided to visit Mt. Koya at the recommendation of one of my dearest, Japanese culture-loving friends, Lauren. Boy was she spot on with this recommendation!

We met my parents in the hotel lobby for breakfast and walked about a mile to find a place suitable for my mom for breakfast. After poo-pooing on 3 options, she finally settled on Tullys – again. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Tully’s is good, but we need to add some diversity to our breakfast routine. We told my mom it was the last “Tully’s breakfast” of the trip and she said “we will see”. Of course, that means “no”. Haha! If mom’s not happy, no one is happy, right?

We grabbed some snacks for the 2 hour train ride to Mt. Koya and hit the train station. We ended up missing the express train but the extra 30-minutes on the regular train was not bad. We had great views, some snacks, and all got time to decompress.

Once we arrived at the station, we hopped onto the cable car which took us up this insanely steep slope to the top of the mountain. It was packed with people and I cannot even begin to fathom how they installed the cable car on just a steep incline.

It took about 10 minutes to get to the top and then we hopped on a short bus ride which dropped us off right in front of the Koyasan Onsen Fuchin. The lodging was part temple, part onsen (Japanese baths), with Japanese style rooms. We were not able to check in yet so layered up in jackets and scarves before heading out to explore. It was pretty darn cold in comparison to the 60 degree weather in Osaka!

We decided to find a spot for lunch and ended up at this little place at a traditional style table where you sit on a high platform, on a pillow, around a short table. Ryan almost wouldn’t fit!

My sister and I split some sushi and I had a delicious tempura udon. The food was so filling and warm on such a cold day!

After paying, we took off to find the temples and renowned cemetery. There is a grouping of temples on one side of town which were all different styles and pretty amazing to look at and explore.

IMG_4352

Photos are not allowed inside the temples but there are a ton of gold ornaments and sculptures very similar to those in Thailand. They were quite stunning.

IMG_4359

We then took off to the other side of the town for the Okunoin Cemetery. You can do cemetery tours at night but we opted to walk it during the day so we could see it more clearly, not freeze completely, and be back to the onsen in time for our 5:30 dinner.

The cemetery was awe inspiring. The faded light coming through the trees, slight fog in the air, moss that covered the monoliths and huge trees that went up 100’s of feet in the air gave the whole place such and ancient, eerie and sacred feeling.

I could have stayed in there taking it all in for hours but my mom was on a mission. She was speed walking ahead of us so fast that we lost her for a good 20 minutes! When we finally caught up, we had arrived at the Okunoin temple. It has over ten thousand lanterns inside and is absolutely magical. We were able to go inside and take it all in and then we went to a side building that had even more yellow lit, golden lanterns. It was well worth taking our shoes on and off to go inside.

The whole walk was well worth the hour or so trek. We spotted a sweets shop on the way back and grabbed a few to sample. A lot of the sweets in Japan have red bean inside and have a gluggy consistency with pastry on the outside. Super good and filling though.

IMG_4380

We got back to the Fuchin and checked in. We had to leave our shoes at the door and wear special red shoes within the buildings. We were brought up to our small room that kind of smelt like straw. There was a small table in the middle and we settled in with some tea. We also had to wear robes around the building and to our meals!

Once 5:30 hit, we went to room 23 for our multi-course Royal dinner. The dinner we had was monks’ cuisine (shojin ryori) and completely vegetarian!

There were so many things to try and they kept bringing in more dishes. Quite a bit of the food had a gelatin consistency which we weren’t too keen on but, overall, the food was delicious. Ryan tried this one piece of spongy white tofu (or something related to it) and , when he bit into it, all of this liquid came out. He flipped and couldn’t stop laughing at how strangely foreign it was! The rest of us tried it but didn’t get very far into it… It barely touched my lips before going straight back into the bowl. Amazing how new food textures can create such a different dining experience.

IMG_4403

After dinner, my sister and I decided to try out the onsen. Japanese baths are separated by men and women because you get completely naked and are not allowed to wear swim suits. We walked down in our robes and took our shoes off to be pleasantly surprised that the floors were heated! Thank goodness because it was only 30 degrees or so in the temple’s halls!

Once disrobed, we had to wash ourselves off in a shower station in the central bath room. There was a big shallow bath pool inside, which was too hot for us, and then a outdoor rock pool. We were the only ones there and chatted for a good 30 minutes before anyone else joined. It seemed like everyone finished their dinner around 7 and had the same idea as us because a huge group came and it was far too crowded to stay in the onsen so we headed back to the room. Totally refreshed, we hopped in our Japanese style beds and passed out.

IMG_4419