Whistle stop Kyoto

With only two days in Kyoto before the family caught a train a six o’clock back to Haneda Airport for an early flight on Wednesday there was no chance of doing the city justice or visiting more than a couple of it’s more than 2000 temples and shrines. Maybe one year I’ll come back with a clean hon (or several) and try to do a shrine crawl around them all.

We decided to start with the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is the famous one with the lines of red (actually vermillion) torii gates stretching way up the mountainside, It’s spectacular and the train stops right outside which is convenient. They’ve even given the station a shrine-look makeover.

We did our purification in accordance with the helpful sign: rinse right hand, rinse left hand, take a sip of water from right hand, hold dipper up to let water run off and replace. Slick by now these fast-learning children. So too are the colourful strings of crane origami figures strung into long skeins.

We walk up through several layers of torii until we think if we don’t head off back down this is all we’ll do today. Chris bought a fine yukata from one of the stalls and repeated attempts on messaging devices failed to get us all to meet up but then Helen, Martin and Alex bumped into us as we were sampling our first taco yaki stall. Octopus balls had been consumed in Trafalgar Square last year at the Matsuri, but piping hot in the street in south Kyoto was a different matter. We all took the train back to Gion-Shinjō in order to walk along Shinjō dori the street of department and high end stores On the way we passed a cat and owl cafe another of the children’s tick lists so we all spent half an hour stroking owls except for those with labels “I’m taking a break”.

It was then on to Nishiki market which I confess Dee and I had missed on our last trip. It’s a busy narrow street thronged with tourists and locals buying food from stalls, fresh produce – fish, meat and vegetables that make you wish you were self-catering. Total, glorious mayhem – a treat for eyes, ears and especially for the nose. We had lunch, wandered more and went back to the hotel for a break. The children were desperate to do karaoke and Jo found a place not far from Gion where we were planning to eat. Finding. Space for 8 was going to be a challenge but Helen was up to it. I declined to join the rest of the family at the song fest, arranging to meet by the Gion Bridge at 7. Karaoke ran late and my phone was still not roaming properly – it had made the journey from Nagoya for the princely sum of 907 yen, about five pounds or so. I also spent my “free” time on the phone to Virgin to try to sort out a data roaming package but my credit limit was breached while on the phone and so I had to make a very expensive call from the hotel landline to restore my credit. But still the roaming is not working properly – I might be asking for a refund.

I was at the bridge at seven and at seven fifteen and it had cooled down a bit so I popped in to a bar Dee and I had visited before: The HighBall Bar where you pay 500 yen and help yourself to whisky and snacks from bottles and jars on the counter. Just got settled when Chris responded to a voicemail message – the only communication I could pathetically achieve – so I supped up and went to join them. Helen had found a tonkatsu restaurant where we could all eat round a big table. Restaurants tend to be quite small and on many occasions we have found ourselves sitting on stools arranged near the entrance while waiting for a table to clear and in some places you put your name and number of guests on a sheet at the entrance. We waited about half an hour but were then shown downstairs and given a crib sheet on how to eat. You started by grinding sesame seeds with your personal pestle and mortar and then adding one or more of a variety of sauces provided. Food was enjoyed by all including my granddaughter who in a moment of tired relaxation wanted a cuddle and started stroking my hair. She said how soft it was and then spoilt the moment with the acute perception of the child; “You don’t need much shampoo do you Grandad?” A great evening and we travelled back on the subway hatching a plan for the morrow.

Monday had been a bit grey but Tuesday gave us full sun. It was already warm as we walked to the Higashi Hongo shrine we’d seen on Sunday. Compared with many it was very quiet and quite amazing in scale having rooms with over 200 tatami mats (geeks feel free to estimate square metrage – the mat is a standard of measurement at 1.91 x 0.955 m in Kyoto although I learned to my surprise that mats are slightly different in other regions). There were several stamps to collect for our hons and quite a trek to find them all. This is a massive monastery with private monks’ quarters all round it and incredibly impressive public areas. It was great to visit it early although there was a feeling that despite its proximity to Kyoto Station it is not on the big tourist tick lists – it certainly won’t be in the top ten, and given the choice maybe not even the top fifty. It had in a museum and auditorium are a great model showing shrine construction and some ceremonial leaves that are carried in processions.

After a leisurely and fascinating visit we walked to the subway en route for the kids’ first Japanese castle.

It was right across from the subway exit and had an impressive watch tower facing us. The entrance was a short walk away and the heat of the sun was increasing – 22 degrees were indicated on a signpost display. There was little in the way of a queue and we went through a brightly coloured main gate into the palace proper. It came as no surprise to that our friend from Nikko Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had played a major part in its establishment. What was more surprising was that his descendant Togawa Zzzzzzz should have summoned all the shoguns here to persuade them to give up their power and restore it to the Emperor. The voluntary yielding of power? Now that is a departure from normal power politics. The journey round the palace was interesting as it took place along the so-called nightingale passage. This is a floor that squeaks melodically due to the method by which the huge floorboards were fixed with nails and brackets that allowed noise-emitting movement. Rather hoarse nightingales methinks. At first the rooms were impressive and highly decorated designed to shock and awe visitors but these gradually gave way to more modest private rooms where no one but the shogun went.

We then sauntered through the garden where we again wondered if the rich and powerful had a special long flowering species of cherry tree as the castle hanami was still resplendent. We got lucky with lunch in a restaurant right by the castle. It was not busy today but to reach the loo you passed through a room with enough tables to cater for the coach parties that will arrive in greater numbers come summer.and then took the subway to Gion which we’d really only seen a glimpse of and which is the famous old geisha quarter. It’s filled with narrow streets of wooden houses and gives a real impression of how Kyoto used to be. Today the only geisha visible were tourists who had rented kimonos from the many outlets available. As we came to the stream I mentioned that last time we were here I’d photographed a heron. A look the other side of the bridge and there it was – could well have been the same one, just like me a bit older and greyer.

Across the bridge we found fish-shaped doriaki another tick list item and ice creams and then sadly itàtime to return to the hotel and for the family to head for the shinkansen back to Haneda Airport to a hotel before their early flight back on Wednesday. I had a room change as I was renting a car in the morning. It had a great view to Kyoto Station with next morning abseiling window cleaners.

I googled craft beer as we’d passed an interesting place in our perambulations yesterday but to get to that one meant the subway again and I opted for the Yebisu Bar four minutes walk away. Given that you can easily walk for ten minutes underground to reach the actual train it seemed the sensible choice. The name should have warned me as Yebisu is one of Sapporo’s brands. As in the UK big breweries also own coffee shop chains and lots of fast food outlets as well a beer, spirits and sake brands and probably lots more I haven’t encountered. The bar did have three draft and eight bottled beers on the menu but they were scarcely craft beers in the way we know them. Should have made the extra effort – must be getting old.

Confirmation came from the family that they were safely in their hotel at Haneda and it was time for me to retire ahead of a promising day of driving tomorrow.

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