21.11.2011 24 °C
Our first impression of Kyoto was “oh wow, it’s all modern and city like, thought it was going to be all old temples and stuff”. Once we got hold of a map, had a chat to the hostel staff and did a couple of days of exploring, we realised there were more Temples and Shrines than we could possibly see (or needed to see).
The first day we saw a beautiful Japanese and bamboo garden in Arashiyama (and Temples), the gardens were busy with tourists, so we decided to hire bikes and ride along the river before stopping for beer and going for a row down the river. Luke was stoked to row past a boat selling more beer, which meant Mel had to row the rest of the way while Luke kicked back! The second day we went on an unofficial, unadvertised, you just gotta know, where and when to meet, guided tour with Johnny Hillwalker. This little old Japanese man takes you on a 5 hour walking tour of Kyoto after you pay ¥2000. He has been doing this tour for 16 years, so his knowledge is invaluable, he explains about each Buddha and God and who belongs to each respective Shrine, and the rituals that take place when approaching the Shrine - bow/clean their hands/ring bells/clap hands etc.
At the end of the tour Johnny strongly advises that you continue exploring at your leisure, an area he claims is the best of Japan which was conveniently not that far from our hostel. It ended up being quite touristy and very busy but we did manage to eat some phenomenally delicious curry puff thing before promising ourselves we will return that night and see what else the place has to offer and eat 10 or so more curry puffs.
We returned that night and the place was a ghost town and we weren’t even sure where the curry puff store once was. Instead we walked a few km’s and found what we believe was the red light district of Kyoto. The strange thing was – usually you would get hustled and approached and convinced to enter every “shop” in such a place, but in this instance we felt like outcasts. Nobody wanted a bar of us or wanted us in their bar. We left there with a sense of “is it cos I’s blek?”
Possibly the best part of our Kyoto trip was the hiking in Mt Kurama. The track, the bush, the scenery and the temples were amazing. It was also quite the hike and thankfully it ended (if you choose) at an outdoor Onsen. This was a real Onsen that used natural spring water from the ground but was heated from a large boiler.
We attempted to communicate with the lady behind the counter who was trying to explain what the go was. It appeared there were two deals on offer – you could just go in the outside bath or pay a bit extra and go in the inside also. At some point, she did point and verbalise something about eating in the restaurant.
We ended up choosing the inside/outside deal but would have just chosen the outside in hindsight. At some point during the outside men’s bath, Luke overheard an English speaker mention he was finishing up as he had paid for the package deal which included a meal. After the bath we met each other (still in our robes) near the restaurant and were about to enquire with the staff if a meal was included, when one of the waitresses started ushering us into the restaurant and repeating “the noodle” with the accompanying hand gesture. We nodded and the next thing you know we were sat down at a pre-arranged, authentic Japanese style setting with numerous bowls of who knows what. The waitress then ignited the candles for the dishes which required cooking in place whilst Mel looked at Luke in amazement and Luke looked at Mel with a smug “I told you so” look on his face. It took us a good minute of lifting lids and exploring through what we had and attempting to figure out exactly how we were supposed to go about eating it before we started digging in.
As we were discussing what an amazing deal this was, there was a loud commotion from the kitchen – much like the Simpsons episode when Homer ate the poisonous fish. A short time after, one of the waitresses bustled up to our table with a frightened and confused look on her face and started taking components of our meal away. We looked at each other equally frightened and confused (well Mel did, Luke started eating quicker knowing it was all about to quickly come to an end).
The waitress left one of the three trays in front of us which was mostly sashimi then proceeded to try and explain that there had been a mistake. We spent what seemed like the next two whole minutes bowing with hands together and apologising to each other - us with extremely awkward smiles on our faces and the waitress with a genuine look of regret - like she had just run over our dog.
The empty table next to ours was then arranged in a panic with our uneaten trays and a new sashimi tray. Five seconds later a nicely dressed couple walked into the restaurant and sat down at the table next to us. Luke quickly recognised it was the guy he overheard in the outside bath who was now complaining to the waitress that he was missing chopsticks (that’s all they managed to get wrong!!)
We managed to negotiate a price for what we ate and the waitress asked us to choose two noodle dishes that she was prepared to throw in. We chose our dishes and waited for about 10mins when the waitress came back over and started to repeat the bowing process. We joined in, only this time she included the cut-throat motion and crossed her two index fingers. She left and we looked at each other and hoped that that didn’t mean she was going to be fired. We shrugged our shoulders and continued to wait for our noodles, when realistically we just wanted to get the hell out of there!
We waited more and started regretting the fact that we still had to go and get changed and that we were the only ones in the restaurant in only our robes. The minutes went buy and we started whispering abuse to each other like “how long does it take to cook noodles?” After too long we noticed there was no action in the kitchen so we decided we would take turns at getting changed. We ended up just paying (way too much) for some sashimi and tea, before exchanging another minute of head bowing before finally leaving. On the way home we figured out that the cut throat motion must have meant she can’t throw in the noodles so we actually could have left ages ago!
The next day we set off for Hiroshima.
We stepped of the Shinkansen (bullet train) excited that Lukes phone GPS just recorded us exceeding 300km/h and the fact we were in Hiroshima. No time was wasted checking in and hiring bicycles before setting off to grab some lunch and explore the town. We got as far as the A-bomb peace museum where we spent the next 4hrs learning and swearing under our breath.
The next day we decided to take the ferry over to Miyajima Island which was full of very friendly deer (that ate our map), interesting shops and Temples, scenic hikes and spectacular views. It was a warm sunny day and we left there feeling like we had a good productive day so we decided to end it with a night out in Hiroshima town.
We got the tram into town, started having a look around and realised we were in another red light district when we were actually after a meal. Luke realised he was getting to a point of busting for a pee and Mel realised she was starving (as per usual). So at this point any restaurant, English menu or not, was a high candidate and before we knew it we were following a waiter to our seats down the back of a place that fit this description.
The back of the restaurant was small and we had three moderately druken Japanese men on a nearby table. These men were clearly quite shocked to see westerners in this place but were also clearly excited at the possibility of the surprise entertainment. They managed to gather enough English words to ask where we were from – probably just to test whether or not we could speak or therefore read any Japanese. The following next few minutes involved the waiter awkwardly attempting to ask if we had chosen from a %100 Japanese menu while the Japanese men laugh in hysterics as Luke points to a random sign - perhaps a “special” on the wall.
A short time later, as the waiter delivers our dish, we realised what all the fuss was about... the rawest possible fish you could ever imagine... the chopped in half shrimp was literally still limping on the plate!! We all sat there for about a good minute and laughed before we got the courage to dig in to what turned out to be very delicious Sushimi!
Our last 24hrs in Japan in Nara – a small, scenic town situated about 40km south of Kyoto. Here we took a leisurely stroll and admired the greenery and more tame deer after checking out a huge statue Budda who lives in a soaring temple. We decided to stay in a traditional Japanese Ryokan rather than a Hostel (hmm..ok more like we left booking accommodation to the very last minute and a Ryokan was all that was available but it was on the to-do list anyway!) Ryokans are beautiful but also a little scary because some of them are so traditional they don’t even let westerners in the door. You are constantly questioning your moves in fear of offending or breaking rules. Luckily ours was owned by a couple that spoke English well so there were only a few awkward moments.
Next stop Helsinki, London, Malta...