Japan (2019)

Kyoto – a different Japan and lots of temples

After a few eventful days in Tokyo, we moved on to Kyoto. Since we had the JR Rail Pass, we could take the Shinkansen, the name of the famous Japanese express trains, and even with a seat reservation. You know you are in Japan when you take the train and cannot stop being amazed. In fact, we can confirm all of the positive things you hear about the Shinkansen. It’s a collection of little things, many of which you probably wouldn’t even miss outright if they weren’t there, but which you come to appreciate incredibly. In general, it is not difficult to find your way around Japanese train stations even without language skills. The display boards switch constantly between Japanese and English and each platform has a different color, which is already noted on the displays. On the floor there are stripes according to the color that lead you to the corresponding track as quickly as possible. It is even regulated which side you walk on, so that everything runs smoothly during the famous Japanese rush hour, where tens of thousands of people rush through the train stations. Somewhere else it would probably not work so smoothly, but Japan wouldn’t be Japan if people didn’t stick to it. Arrived at the platform, the order continues. As already mentioned, we had a seat reservation. This is also necessary when traveling with luggage. Anyone who has ever taken the German ICE knows that it is the case in Germany that you walk through the train and it is noted on the seats whether they are reserved or not. Something like that would most likely be unthinkable in Japan. There were extra cars for travelers with a reservation and cars for those without. So it cannot happen that you accidentally sit on a seat that has already been reserved without receiving a reservation and, conversely, you do not have to run through half the train even without a reservation in search of the one seat that is not yet reserved . Of course, the train had several cars. Such a Shinkansen can be really long and it would be very annoying to stand at the wrong end of the platform when the train pulls in. In Japan, of course, they thought threw this again. For example, markings were made as to where the entrance to which car will be as soon as the train arrives. So one goes to one’s marker without any stress and can line up in a queue there. Due to the de facto non-existent petty crime in Japan, there were even people who simply put their luggage in the queue to reserve a seat and then went away to stretch their legs again or to go shopping. That too would probably have been unthinkable in Germany. Here train stations are often crime hot spots where announcements are constantly being made: “Please take care of your luggage”. As soon as the train arrives at a German station, everyone rushes to the entrances and one can be happy if all the guests manage to get off beforehand. Our Shinkansen finally drove into the station punctually to the minute and one after the other boarded. The numbering of the seats was clearly visible and even if there were any problems, a conductor would be on hand immediately.

We made ourselves comfortable and the train started just as punctually as it arrived. During the journey, a train attendant, similar to a flight attendant, walked through the aisles with a sliding carriage and sold snacks and drinks. Kevin had bought a bento at the train station that we ate together. Admittedly, I didn’t expect much from a simple train station bento. However, I didn’t take into consideration that this is Japan. There were different bentos with famous trains and lanes to choose from. Kevin opted for a bento with Rilakkuma, a famous Japanese teddy bear mascot, and the Yamanote Line, which we’ve ridden so often over the past few days. The bento had a really tasty spiced rice, a fried prawn, a meat skewer, a piece of tonkatsu, noodle salad, potato salad, a fried egg, a fish cake with the face of Rilakkuma and a bit of vegetables. And what should I say? It was amazingly delicious! In fact, the station bentos became one of my favorite foods in Japan. We spent the rest of the journey watching YouTube videos on our smartphones. That is also unthinkable in Germany. On the one hand, you usually only have a limited amount of data available per month and, on the other hand, train journeys in Germany are known to bring you from one dead zone to the next. In Japan, on the other hand, we had unlimited data volume and not a single dead zone. Instead, we had a perfect LTE connection throughout the trip. This did not change with the other train journeys in Japan. And so we arrived satisfied and completely relaxed in Kyoto, where our adventure should continue.

In Kyoto we stayed in a small hostel in Fushimi-ku, a part of the city a little away from the city center. We had an incredibly small but functional room with a bunk bed. All other rooms where shared with the other guests, which is not a problem in Japan, because the entire hostel was incredibly clean.
Before we ventured into the heart of Kyoto, we wanted to take a look at the area. Therefore, our first day in Kyoto consisted of arriving and taking a closer look at the immediate vicinity of our hostel. Coming from Tokyo we really needed to come down a bit. So we explored in addition to the classic things, such as the nearest supermarket, a lot of residential areas and a small shrine. Behind the shrine, a bamboo forest with hiking trails began, but the map was in Japanese and we couldn’t quite see how adventurous these trails were, as one could apparently hire guides. Nevertheless, we went a little way into the forest, where we gained a new insight into Japan. In urban Tokyo you didn’t notice it that quickly and when you think of Japan, you don’t think of it at first, but: Japan’s climate can be very tropical in summer. In addition to the heat, there is very high humidity and the greener it gets, the more insects we encountered. After only a few meters in the forest, everything around us began to buzz and chirp. In addition, the path became more and more adventurous, so we decided to turn around.

Our stomachs slowly began to growl. It was time for our first meal in Kyoto. There was something special here again. There is a chain of restaurants all over Japan called “Coco’s Curry House”. You can find them in every major city and meanwhile there are also various offshoots, such as “Coco’s Curry House Halal”. There was a branch of the said chain near our accommodation and we were recommended to eat here in Germany. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of so-called fast food or larger restaurant chains. However, Coco’s had fully convinced us. It is a somewhat longer process to order your food here, as you not only choose the curry including topping, but also the degree of spiciness and the desired amount of rice. But the result is impressive, because you are rewarded with incredibly delicious Japanese curry, which in terms of quality and taste is far above what we know as fast food in Germany. While I had a spicy curry with chicken, Kevin had a cheese-filled bowl that he still talks about today. Strengthened we went back to our accommodation. We ended the evening in the common room, where we had a little small talk with the other guests and played a few games on a Nintendo NES mini.

At this point there is a small note about the English language. The Japanese education system is often praised and English is actually on the timetable for every school child, but hardly anyone really speaks it. You can be happy if you ask for English and the person opposite answers “a little”. During our trip there were several funny situations that I will come back to. What comes with the poor English skills is the fact of incorrect and strange translations. There was a small typo in our hostel that turned the “Bathroom for Wheelchair” into a “Bashroom for Wheelchair”. We also passed a “Life Coordinate Shop”. The Japanese still have to work on their English skills.

Lots of Toriis for Kevin’s birthday

The next day was a very special one. It was Kevin’s birthday and of all things it was his thirtieth birthday. Of course we wanted to honor this special day accordingly. We decided to take a trip to Fushimi Inari-Taisha, Kyoto’s famous fox shrine. You have to know that Kyoto is full of shrines. However, the Inari Shrine is one of the most special ones, if not the most special. The main shrine itself is a magnificent Shinto shrine with a fox theme, which is expressed through numerous fox statues. The shrine is at the foot of Inari Mountain. The specialty is not the shrine itself, but the way from the shrine to the mountain. This consists of a series of numerous toriis. Every family who wants to place themselves a memorial donates such a torii to the shrine and over time the amount of toriis has become a landmark. Kevin was initially not very impressed with the idea of ​​climbing a mountain on his birthday, but we were convinced by the signs that it was about 40 minutes’ walk to the summit. 40min? That sounded feasible, but it was a lie. Still, it was the right decision to walk the whole way.

At the beginning the shrine was absolutely overloaded with tourists. Many had borrowed kimonos from nearby shops and were now trying to get the best photos for their profiles in social networks (anyone who has read the Peru article knows that I like to call something like this “cultural prostitution”). Today, like every other day during out trip, was incredibly warm and the high humidity, which I have already reported, contributed to the fact that more and more gave up the higher they got. In addition, numerous plate-sized spiders hung from the toriis, which the locals refer to as prostitute spiders due to their prey-catching technique and which, although harmless, looked anything but harmless. We stood firm, however, and climbed one stone step after the next, passed one torii after another. The promised 40min were long over and in the back I heard Kevin shout “I hate you” at least once on every step. We were both wet from the exertion and the climate. Again and again we stopped at small “resting places” and emptied one water bottle after the other. However, our efforts were rewarded, because from the second half of the way we had entire torii passages to ourselves. Exhausted but happy and overwhelmed at the same time, we finally reached the summit. With a small shrine and another rest area, this wasn’t all that spectacular, but here the route was clearly the goal. As a reward, I bought Kevin a plush fox with a traditional mask, because he had earned since he had endured. The Inari Shrine was just the first stop of our day.

Back at the main shrine we saw several food stalls that gave off the most amazing smells. Our growling stomachs directed us almost automatically to these stands. While Kevin was getting himself a large grilled meat skewer, I saw something I had always wanted to try since watching a particular One Piece episode: Takoyaki. These are octopus balls that are fried on a special tray with a lot of fat. When serving, there are mayonnaise and bonito flakes on top. It’s an awfully hearty and filling snack, but since I find octopus incredibly tasty, they were like heaven at the same time. Kevin ate simple skewers of meat that were also available there.

Strengthened and happy, we went back to downtown Kyoto. We went on top of the Kyoto Tower to get an overview of the city. It was interesting to see that everything in Japan really had a mascot. Even the Kyoto Tower had a tower-shaped mascot that was depicted all over the top. From above we saw another large temple very close by, which was our next destination. This was Higashi Hongan-ji, which, unlike the Inari Shrine, was a Buddhist temple. It was interesting to walk across the large forecourt and explore the buildings, which fortunately were open to visitors. After so much culture, the nerd factor had to be increased again. Therefore our next and last stop for the day was the Manga Museum in Kyoto. To see more of the city, we decided to walk there. After about half an hour we arrived at our destination. Meanwhile lunch was half digested and so we went to the adjacent Manga Café. That was a really great place. Numerous manga artists have immortalized themselves on the walls of the café and so most of the time in this café was spent searching the walls for well-known characters. Here, too, there was a culinary highlight of our trip: Shaved Ice. This is frozen water, which is practically “rasped” by a machine and poured over with syrup. Since Kyoto is known for matcha, green tea powder, we opted for matcha syrup. On top, there was a paste of sweet beans, which admittedly are not for everyone’s taste. The portions were huge and, especially for Kevin, shaved ice was a very special Japanese highlight, which he kept getting from then on, albeit in more fruity flavors.

The Manga Museum seems to be a particularly beautiful place not only for the tourists, but also for the locals. In addition to smaller exhibitions, for example on the history of mangas, the entire walls were covered with bookshelves. If you wanted to, you could just take a manga, sit down somewhere and just read, which many Japanese people did. There were also two small shelves with mangas translated into foreign languages, where one or the other German-language band could be found. All in all, the museum didn’t feel like a museum at all, but much more like a large library with information stands in between. But this was also the special charm of this place, where you could not only get information, but also where you could relax.

Day trip to Osaka

From Kyoto it is almost only a stone’s throw to Osaka. The most important landmark here is Osaka Castle, which was also our first stop. It was once again an unbelievable heat when we arrived. Countless tourists cavorted in and around the castle. There is a museum located in the castle in which the truly interesting story of this building was told. There were numerous stations in which short 3D films were shown using the Pepper’s Ghost technique. This is a special projection technique using mirrors and glass. Unfortunately the films were in Japanese, but they were still fun to watch. Arrived on the top floor, one has a beautiful view of Osaka, which is an ultra-modern metropolis with its numerous skyscrapers. You can compare Osaka a bit with Frankfurt am Main, as it is also the financial center of the country. Accordingly, the compulsory cultural part was already covered by Osaka Castle. Next we went to Den-Den Town, the Akihabara of Osaka. Compared to Akihabara, Den-Den Town was actually even more bizarre. So there were again the 8-10 story buildings with different shops on each floor. However, the transition from simple anime keychains to giant strap-on dildos came in one fell swoop the higher one climbed in the buildings. After all, in the transvestite department there were actually women’s dresses in my size, as I had the stature of an average Japanese man, but Kevin dragged me straight away with a bright red head. Unfortunately, something terribly embarrassing happened to me here. I had a new pair of pants on that day, and I forgot to cut off the electronic label on the inside. Unfortunately, I noticed this much too late and so the fuses at the entrances and exits beeped every time I ran through, which each time led to an embarrassing interaction with the salespeople. I was more than relieved when our shopping tour was over. Finally we went to a smaller restaurant again, because we really wanted to eat okonomiyaki, a kind of Japanese pancake. There were two styles: Osaka style and Hiroshima style. Unfortunately, we only found seafood okonomiyaki, which Kevin is not a huge fan of. So I was the only one to order okonomiyaki while Kevin ordered a noodle dish. This ended our trip to Osaka and we took the next train back to Kyoto. All in all, one can definitely visit Osaka, especially because of the beautiful castle, but a day trip was enough here.

Gion, way too many Shrines and the tastiest desert in the world

The next day we went to one of Kyoto’s biggest tourist attractions: Gion. This is a traditional part of the city, famous for its traditional wooden houses and geishas. At the same time it is probably the most exclusive and most expensive district of Kyoto. In itself, Gion is a very beautiful district and we even saw a geisha briefly from afar, which is actually a rather rare sight. Unfortunately, Gion has lost a lot of its charm due to tourism. The shops were way too expensive anyway and the streets were almost never empty. There were countless kimono rentals around Gion, an offer far too many people accepted and now they stumbled through the streets in their traditional wooden shoes and colorful kimonos (and the term cultural prostitution comes up again). In the last few years there have been tourists who misbehaved, which is why there were even signs asking not to touch the geishas. Maybe we were just there at the wrong time of day, but we had the feeling that this place has already lost a lot of its magic. On the way to and from Gion, we stopped at several shrines. In the beginning these were still an attraction. Now we found out that Kyoto was full of shrines and at some point we have seen enough for now. As we slowly moved away from the center of Gion, we found a little treasure. It was a small traditional okonomiyaki restaurant, which was even in a normal price range again. The owner, a small middle-aged Japanese woman, greeted us at the entrance and showed us to come inside. We sat at a table in the middle of which was a large heating plate. The owner took our order and then went to her counter, where there was also such a plate. There she prepared the okonomiyaki live in front of our eyes, which, unlike Osaka, was also available in different varieties so that Kevin got his money’s worth too. It was already watering in our mouths while the small restaurant began to smell like heaven. When the okonomiyaki were finally ready, she placed them on the hot plate on our table and explained how to eat them. You cut them on the heating plate, because the thin porcelain plates that she also placed in front of us and on which we were supposed to put the cut pieces would otherwise break through while cutting. I don’t need to mention how incredibly delicious the food was. Strengthened and happy we left the shop and the owner said goodbye to us at the entrance with a typical Japanese bow. Next we wanted to have a dessert. We learned from a YouTube video that there is a small shop nearby that sells a simple, yet heavenly dessert. It is a melon pan filled with ice. Melon pan is a Japanese pastry. It is a bread roll made from yeast dough. There is a layer of cookie dough and a layer of sugar on top of this bun, which makes the whole thing incredibly sweet. The combination of airy yeast rolls with the crispy cookie dough is really extraordinary, especially with fresh melon pan. Here the still warm fresh Melon Pans were cut open and filled with vanilla ice cream. In addition to the combination of airy and crispy, there was now the contrast between warm and cold. It sounds so simple, but it caused a real explosion of the senses in the mouth. It might sound like an exaggeration to an outsider, but melon pan with ice cream is probably the best dessert in the world. Unfortunately, this is really only available in Kyoto. We looked in vain for it in other cities in Japan. So if you come to Kyoto, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to try this dessert.

A different Kyoto

For our last day in Kyoto we had thought of something special. Since our hostel was on the outskirts, we wanted to use the day to explore the immediate area. To do this, we borrowed bicycles from our hostel. In terms of size, however, these were more for the Japanese, which meant that Kevin looked as if he was riding a clown bike even with the saddle extended to the maximum. I took the fun of humming circus music loudly as I was driving behind him. Our first destination was on the bank of a small canal. We saw on a map in the hostel that you can take a boat trip called Fushimi Jikkokubune here. One passesold sake breweries in traditional wooden boats. As interesting as it sounds at first, we quickly felt out of place. Apart from us there were only Japanese pensioners in the boat and of course no one spoke English here. The boat swam through very pretty green canals until after a short time it came to a stop at a lock with a very small museum, where we had more than enough time to look around. Also in the museum we looked in vain for signs in English, not to mention English-speaking staff. We scanned the texts with translator apps and found out that the boats loaded with sake were let through the lock here in order to then deliver their sake to the rest of Japan. The lock had been out of order for a long time, but at least it was enough for a few photos before the boat went back. After all, the canals and the boats were really nice, but we were clearly not the right target group here. Back to our bikes, our next destination was Fushimi Castle, which was indeed a very imposing structure and historically probably not that unimportant. We had already found references to this place on some signs in the castle in Osaka. Unfortunately, Fushimi Castle suffered under being located so far away from the city center of Kyoto, because it was unfortunately deserted. The area was overgrown by plants and the entrance area, where tickets were once sold, had long been deserted. Only the large parking lot was used for a neighboring baseball field. Back on the bike we went back towards the hostel. We discovered that the Kyoto Animation studio, a famous Japanese animation studio, was very close by. This studio gained a tragic fame after a mentally ill man had arson attacked it two months before our trip to Japan, killing 36 people. In the otherwise rather peaceful Japan, this caused a great shock and was classified as the largest mass murder in Japan since World War II. Since we are both very big anime fans and we were very shocked by the news from Japan at the time, we decided to go to the scene. You have to know that Kyoto Animations consists of different buildings, all of which were relatively widespread in a residential area. The one mentioned building was completely burned out in the middle of this residential area and even two months later people were still standing in front of it in shock, which was not surprising at the terrible sight of the burned-out ruins. You don’t even want to imagine how awful it had to be there that day, when you saw the soot around the openings and the metal structures melted by the heat. Admittedly, we just wanted to get away quickly from the sight. In silence we first drove to the nearby Coco’s Curryhouse branch to get other thoughts.

What came next was the absolute contrast program. Around the corner there were two large buildings with “Karaoke” in illuminated letters. We tried our luck in the first building, but were out of luck there. We wanted to know whether there were also songs with Latin letters. The gentleman at the reception was visibly overwhelmed, as he apparently didn’t speak a word of English and finally just answered with a “no” without really understanding the question. We were luckier in the second building. The lady at the front desk called her colleague and the two of them managed to answer our question with yes and even to explain roughly how it works. For example, a flat rate for non-alcoholic beverages was included. We were given a small room with a large TV on the wall, microphones, a sofa, and a table with two tablets. One tablet was there to order food or to extend one’s stay, while the other tablet was for selecting songs. To get straight to the point: Karaoke is a lot of fun, especially in Japan! The user interface of the tablet could easily be changed to English. In the case of Japanese songs, including a whole section only on anime songs, there was always the phonetic spelling in Latin letters. It got funny with English song titles of Japanese songs. Apparently there was a translation from English into Japanese and back again. For example, “We are” became “Wia”. and “Ready Steady Go” turned out to be “Redi Sutedi Go”. There were also numerous English songs and even “99 Luftballons” by Nena, albeit with some errors in the text. In contrast to European karaoke bars, where you often have to sing in front of an audience, here in Japan one looses inhibitions much faster, because on the one hand one is in a locked room and on the other hand one can hear the people in the other rooms loud and clear how they put one note after the other in the sand with all their heart and soul. So we adjusted quickly and yelled and laughed loudly into the microphones. We especially liked the song “Cruel Angel’s Thesis”, which is the opening song of the anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion”. We sang this song several times in a row. There are also image and sound (!) recordings, but to protect the common good, I prefer to link the original song here 😉

After a while the food tablet started beeping. This was a warning that our booked time was slowly coming to an end. As a test, we had only booked 30 minutes, but luckily the time could be extended as desired using the tablet, so that we were finally in the karaoke bar until the evening. Karaoke is a great pastime in Japan, because despite the flat rate for drinks it is really not expensive, so this was not our last karaoke evening in Japan.

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