Friday, February 6, 2009

Kyoto, Japan

I walk the streets of Japan till I get lost....

Yes, the Audioslave song was going through my head almost the entire time of our 4-day trip to Kyoto. And, for the record, it is quite easy to walk the streets of Japan until you get lost and quite fun as well.
Kyoto has been called the most 'Japanese' city in Japan. They have passed laws restricting the height on buildings and against the use of too much neon to preserve a more traditional look to the city. While some residents would prefer the city to modernize (a la Tokyo), for the tourist, we were quite grateful for Kyoto the way it is. The city is much more expensive than Korea or China and has its own distinct feel to it.
We stayed for three nights at traditional Japanese inns, called ryokans. They were pricey, clean and very Japanese. It felt right to come home and sleep on our mat, which was actually more comfortable than many hotel beds I've slept on. I would highly recommend this choice of lodging.
Public transportation in Kyoto is very convenient and easy. There are 2 subway lines and a seemingly infinite number of buses, as well as trains and taxis. Buses are the best bet and they are 220 yen per single ride (around $2.20 USD). For the hardcore day of sightseeing though, you can buy all day passes for the buses for 500 yen (around $5 USD) or all day passes for the subway and buses for 1200 yen (around $12 USD). These are a good value as there are a multitude of temples scattered about the city. There are also maps with the bus lines that link different sites to make your trip more efficient.
The food in Kyoto was very pricey but very good. You can easily find a cafe that will serve a nice filling bowl of noodles for around $5 or so. This will help stretch the travel budget. Our best meal was dinner at a pub/restaurant where you ordered 'dim sum style.' The menu just had many different small dishes for a couple of dollars each. We ordered 5 different rounds between the 2 of us and it was a great way to sample a broad spectrum of the local fare. There are also a multitude of prohibitive looking restaurants that don't even have signs, simply sounds coming from within. According to the guidebook, places like these were welcome to tourists albeit intimidating.
The sights in Kyoto are nearly endless. They include a myriad of temples and shrines, museums, a wonderful castle, and more. We were there in the off-season so many of the sights had limited access. Nijo Castle is definitely worth it. Kinkakuji (with the golden pagoda) and Toji (with the seven-story pagoda) temples are two of the must-sees as well. Wandering Gion, the district of the city most well known for geisha, at night is also necessary. Stroll the streets and follow your eyes and nose into the various shops and restaurants. Its good fun. Speaking of good fun, Arashiyama Monkey Park is definitely worth your time. You get to pay at the base of the mini mountain and hike to the top where you will find the 150 or so free roaming Japanese monkeys. They pretty much go about their business as you walk by. You rarely get a second glance from them. If you care to pay an extra dollar you can buy apples or peanuts to feed them. Allison got quite the kick out of this, buying about 3 bags of food. In addition to monkeys, the park also provides some very nice views of Kyoto, especially the Arashiyama district. When you are finished playing with the monkeys, wash your hands, hike down and grab a rickshaw ride around the picturesque bridge and river. This will work up an appetite, so go to a tofu restaurant and chow down!
All in all, Kyoto was a great trip. The canals and cafes make it much more relaxed than the typical on-the-go Asian city. There are plenty of sights and fun to be had though. However, I had the most fun walking the streets until we got lost...

Our ryokan, bedding is in the closet. Very, very comfortable.

Instead of bibles in the hotels, here we have Buddha's teachings

The entrance to Nijo Castle.

Someday I would like a moat around my house too.

Garden inside Nijo Castle.

Yep, that would be Tommy Lee Jones lending his face to sell some coffee!

The lovely golden pagoda at Kinkakuji Temple.

The scenic river in the Arashiyama district.

You guessed it. The monkey park.

Us and the monkey checking out Kyoto from above.

Dinner. Mmmm.

Pontocho, Gion District

Rickshaw ridin'

Toji temple

We caught the earliest cherry blossoms