Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/28 - Day 12 - In Shinkansen and Onsen

The Nozomi line is the fastest of the Shinkansen,
for the time being...
Today we left the comfort of our Tokyo home away from home and headed off to Kyoto via the Shinkansen bullet train. We used the Nozomi line, the fastest of the three Shinkansen varieties, which had us to Kyoto in about two hours of zooming through the Kansai landscape, which shifted from city to hills, to mountains, and then eventually back to city.
Kyoto is tiny compared to Tokyo; there are only about 1.5 million people in the city, but the fun part about Kyoto is the juxtaposition of old and new that you see everywhere. I'll elucidate more tomorrow, when we actually tour the city more thoroughly.
For now, we exited Kyoto station and stored our bags in lockers outside the station, then proceeded to Kyoto Tower to get a bird's eye view of the area and get our bearings. Kyoto Tower is a very 1960's spaceship-like structure atop the Kyoto Hotel. It was designed for the 1964 Summer Olympics, though didn't actually complete construction until late that year, and has been a controversial point in modern Kyoto history ever since. It certainly feels out of place in the city of shrines, but it does provide a nice view, and one can even see the city of Osaka in the southwestern distance from the top.
We had lunch at one of the restaurants in Osaka station, part of the restaurant section called "EAT PARADISE." The actual restaurant we ate at was called 'Sarai' and it served varieties of Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a dish made popular in the Osaka area and its name translates to "grilled whatever you want." It's like a giant pancake made with rice flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs and lots of cabbage, then topped with bacon or squid or "whatever you want." Different varieties top that off with different types of sauces.
I had a Kyotenyaki, which is a variety topped with mayonnaise and radish sprouts - the salad pizza of Okonomiyaki, and Sean had a Negiyaki, which was more omelette style with lots of fried leeks. We also had some thin friend tofu pieces. The tofu in Kyoto is very renowned. They attribute its quality to the water in the area, which is very rich in minerals, hence all the onsens.
Room in Ryokan Seikoro in Kyoto
Speaking of onsens, the main attraction of the day was that we stayed in a ryokan! A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inns that became popular in the Edo period. Ryokans feature tatami-mat rooms, public, a usually gender separated ofuro (bath) and all the sliding rice paper doors and yukatas one could ever wish for. You go to a ryokan for service, which is top notch. Meals are served to you privately in your rooms, and at least once dinner consists of the famous kaiseki dining experience.
Before we settled into our elaborate dinner, we had a few hours to burn, so we decided to take a night stroll around the Gion neighborhood. Gion is the old entertainment district, and it is where the geisha tradition is still at its strongest. Geisha are female performers, they are artists and dancers and entertainers formost, and they are very respected in the area. Kyoto is the only area of Japan where Geisha training is allowed to begin before the age of eighteen, and some geisha begin their training as early as 15.
We walked around Gion, taking in the architecture, the lighting, the mix of locals and vacationers, then we took a shortcut through the Kenin-ji temple grounds to get home. Walking through the grounds at night was pretty cool. It was very satisfying seeing the old temple roofs illuminated by moonlight. On our way back we also discovered a museum dedicated to Ukiyo, or "floating world" paintings. We didn't go in, but the sign on the door said something like "Opens when I wake up, closes when I have to sleep. Sometimes I shut the doors when I've had enough." Charming.
After we returned to the ryokan we gave the baths our first go. Like I said, the baths at an onsen are communal, and any kind of bathing suit is strictly forbidden as the Japanese people consider this to be dirtying the purity of the water. The process is to shower before getting in, soak for a while, shower again, resoak, and then dry off. The water is usually wicked hot, around 110-115 degrees, though this particular one wasn't too bad. We had a nice soak, then returned to our rooms for the main event of the evening - kaiseki.
Kaiseki with nine courses at Ryokan Seikoro
Are you comfortable? I'm going to talk a little bit about kaiseki. Modern kaiseki is a fusion of four Japanese cuisine traditions: imperial court cuisine, Buddhist temple cuisine samurai cuisine and the tea ceremony, which originates in the 15th century. It is a style of serving small individual dishes over several courses, each carefully balanced and seasonally sourced. The kaiseki provided by our Ryokan, Seikoro, was ten dishes (plus lots of little pickled things all over the place. I won't describe each course here, but there was a salad, a sort of...antipasto, a sashimi plate, a soup, a grilled fish course, a consumme, a sweet and sour seafood dish, a tempura set, a third soup, and a dessert. The collage of all the courses (not including the comsumme, which I ate without remember to take a picture), is around here somewhere. Everything was wonderful, and its been the highlight of the trip for me so far.
After dinner, it is appropriate to have a second soak in the baths which the staff prepare your room for the evening, by removing the table and placing out the futons. I had never slept in a true ground-level futon before, certainly not on a tatami mat floor. I was expecting to be quite uncomfortable, but aside from the temperature of the room being a little cold (our fault really, the heaters were very strong and we didn't want to run them), it was actually a pretty comfortable night's sleep.
Tomorrow is our first walking day in Kyoto, and it's going to be a long one. We're planning on checking in at our airBnB around 11:00, then doing as much of sight-seeing of the southern part of town as we can. Stay tuned.

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