JAPAN: Day 4-Day 4 - when we realize how idiot-proof the bullet train is, cross paths with geishas* and experience a ryokan

JAPAN:  Day 4-Day 4 - when we realize how idiot-proof the bullet train is, cross paths with geishas* and experience a ryokan

Because all the world is a stage...

Tokyo to Kyoto

Reviewed by Jennifer Herlein

When we booked our trip, we decided to get out of Tokyo for a couple of nights to experience a different part of Japan.  Kyoto looked like the type of change we were going for - more traditional architecture and loads of temples and shrines.  I'd read that foreigners are able to buy their Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket ahead of time through a voucher available on Japanican's website, which made it ¥21,000 ($263) per person for a round-trip ticket versus the ¥26,440 ($332) it would have cost in Tokyo.  Japanican provided colorful maps and detailed insructions on how to exchange the voucher on site at Tokyo Station and although we tried to make it harder than it was, it was so idiot-proof that we were ticketed and headed to the platform within 15 minutes.  I was astounded to learn that there are trains from Tokyo to Kyoto every 5-10 minutes.  Since our tickets were for non-reserved seats, we had the flexibility to hop on any one of them.

We'd gotten a tip to do as the Japanese do and buy an ekiben, a beautifully presented bento box, from one of the kiosques at the train station to enjoy on board.  There were about 12 different components to each bento (rice, squishy bits in a variety of shapes and omelet) so trying to figure out what they were entertained us for a portion of the 2.5 hour trip.  After that, we enjoyed the calm ride and the diverse scenery.  There are mountains to the right (including Mt. Fuji) and coastline to the left so you can choose your seat according to what you want to see.

We decided to get out of our comfort zone a bit with our lodging in Kyoto and opted to go the ryokan route.   A ryokan is described as a traditional Japanese inn and I'd liken it a bit to a bed and breakfast in that the rate includes your room and at least one meal.  The rooms have tatami (straw) mats on the floor and they may or may not have a private bathroom.  There's no bed but a futon is brought in each evening to sleep on.  There is often a lovely outdoor area (a garden or pond) but most importantly, there is either a hot spring or hot bath for guest use.  I was a bit nervous about this because I really dislike the bed and breakfast concept.  In the morning (and at various other times of day), the last thing I want to do is chat with strangers.  On top of that, the dread of using a shared bathroom and shower preoccupies me to the point that I'm willing to take great measures to avoid both.

That said, we saw this as an opportunity to discover another aspect of Japan so we decided to take advantage of it.  Our ryokan, Kikokuso, was about a 10 minute walk from the train station and since check-in wasn't until 4pm, we only got a quick glance before heading out to do some sightseeing.  The proprioter greeted us warmly and the ryokan looked lovely, which eased my mind a bit.

Kyoto's public transportation system is excellent - there are buses, trains and subways.  As I've done on prior trips when I don't have a lot of time and there's a lot to see, I pick a neighborhood and do a walking tour from whichever guidebook I'm using (in this case, it was Lonely Planet Kyoto).  We chose a couple of walks with the plan of doing one today and the other tomorrow.  Today's walk was the Southern Higashiyama, which was perfect for our first foray into Kyoto - it included several temples (including the famous Kiyomizu-Dera), beautiful little winding streets and a large park that led into Gion.  It's here that we discovered my favorite little street, Ponto-cho.  It's a narrow, restaurant-lined pedestrian street that runs parallel to the Kama-gawa River.  Lanterns hang from the front of each and lit up at night, it's beautiful!  While we were resting along Ponto-cho, we saw a geisha, which was what I'd been hoping for.

Kyoto is known for its geishas and from what I could see, there are what I refer to as feishas (fake geishas) and the real deal.  Even someone like myself whose only point of reference is Memoirs of a Geisha can tell the difference.  There were feishas strolling around the big tourist sites for photo opportunities.  The geishas are seen at night when they're on their way to appointments.  While the feishas are pretty, the geishas are stunning - gorgeous color combinations, elaborate ties and hairpieces and a super classy demeanor.  Scott was almost preoccupied with figuring out what exactly they do for that kind of money and I'm still baffled as to why he doesn't get the concept of paying someone to enliven a social occasion.

After the geisha spotting, it was time for a drink and a sit.  Scott had found an app, Beer in Japan (beerinjapan.com), that's a guide to craft beer in Japan.  In Kyoto, the site recrecommends the bar Tadg.  We were literally the only ones there but the beer was very good and our server was great.  He was fun and even wrote down the name of his favorite ramen place for dinner.  After enjoying a couple of beers, we decided to look for the restaurant.  We wandered up and down Ponto-cho, cut down the side streets and yet (surprise! surprise!) couldn't find "the ramen place with the yellow neon sign".  We asked five different locals, one who had no idea and three who gave us different directions. The fifth and final person actually walked us there.  It had about 10 seats along the counter and the chef had his broth pot and his noodle pot going.  I was tired and grouchy and knew there wasn't going to be anything for my pescetarian people here so I lacked the gumption to ask.  Scott enjoyed his ramen and we made our way back to our ryokan.

This was our first time seeing our room and it's really pretty.  It's on the second floor and has a little balcony with a table and two chairs overlooking the pond and fountain.  The proprietress showed us our slippers and robes, served us tea and asked us what time we'd like breakfast and to use the shower and hot bath.  I was so tired that I didn't have the energy to worry about the shared shower.

* Contrary to popular belief, geishas are apparently not prostitutes.

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