Good morning, friends and family!
06.05.2014 - 09.05.2014 -14 °F
It's 1:38 pm, Thursday afternoon, back home , but 5:38 am Friday morning, here in sunny Kyoto. This is Pam, awake with jet lag. We arrived yesterday afternoon, after overnighting in a hotel in Narita. Our only mistake so far was going out the front of the Narita train station instead of the back and then believing a driver in a nearby car who said we were going the right direction to get to our hotel. We didn't discover we were going the totally wrong direction until about 15 minutes later, which was a shame, because it then took us about 35 minutes total to reach the hotel instead of the 5 minutes it should have. Oh, well.
The highlight of our Narita experience was discovering that in the airport, you can take a fully loaded luggage cart on the escalators! I'm not joking!
The luggage cart, unloaded, weighs at least 100 pounds--much heavier than in US airports--and has amazing brakes. You just wheel it onto the escalator, hold it in place lightly with the brakes set, and off you go!
Nothing much to say about the Narita hotel; very nicely appointed with a postage stamp room similar to the one we had in downtown Tokyo two years ago: you have to strategize about how you're going to open your suitcase. We woke up in the wee hours of the morning and decided to head directly to Kyoto rather than wait any longer. This involved catching the train back to the airport, where we sent our big suitcase to Kyoto via courier service ($18 for next day service). We then caught an express train to Tokyo with a stop to change to the shinkansen (186 m.p.h. bullet train) for the 2.5 hour trip on to Kyoto. But only, of course, after purchasing our bento at the amazing Tokyo Station.
The bento choices are staggering. So many shops selling them. At every price point. We went into a shop that must have had at least 50 different kinds and since it was 11:30 in the morning, the place was jam packed with at least 4 cashiers to handle the crowd. We could see the back of the shop where employees were packing new boxes as fast as they could. Dick got a chirashi sushi in a fake wooden box with different types of fish roe and a few shrimp and I had a plastic lacquer bowl with a couple of generous pieces of grilled fish, chicken pieces, Japanese omelet, and a pickle. Yum. $10 apiece.
The one problem with Kyoto Station is that unless you go into a restaurant, there's no place to sit down to get your bearings and decide what to do next. Not even in the Tourist Information Office. We shared a big sugar cone filled with soft serve chocolate and green tea ice cream with sweetened azuki bean paste (my favorite part) and a couple of big white chewy balls (maybe tapioca balls?) before deciding to take the subway, not a taxi, to our house. Much cheaper, much faster, quite gratifying.
Late last year, when we started planning this trip, I tried to book the same little house we had the last time, Jizo-An, but someone else had beaten me to it, so we ended up in Shirakawa Cottage, owned by the same people, located in a slightly different part of town. Actually, the location is marvelous! The little lane we're on is close to the Shirakawa River, which is really like a small canal. We're closer to the Gion district, the hills that ring Kyoto to the east, the gravesite of Akechi Mitsuhide (no, we hadn't heard of him before either) , and most importantly, our favorite izakaya, where this time, we had our first real meal and found, much to our delight, that one of the assistant chefs (the only one there with a half way decent command of English) remembered us from two years ago. This place, Bamboo, is a restaurant where you can get chef's choice (omakase) at very reasonable prices. So we did it. We had teensy fried ice fish, which we'd never had before. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salangidae. And a couple of courses featuring Kyoto's famous tofu or yuba (tofu skin)--Japanese fresh tofu is SOOO different than what we get back home. Much creamier--like a very dense custard. We tried grilled tai (sea bream), a common fish in Japanese cooking, but we'd never had it before--kind of like a richer halibut. Accompanying it was a thin, maybe 1.5 inch long, pickled vegetable--red on one end and white. We asked what it was--a young ginger shoot! Delicious! There was vegetable tempura with vegetables we don't normally see as tempura: a leafy bitter brassica of some kind, celery (maybe), and I don't know what else. A few kinds of sashimi--maguro (tuna), saba (mackerel), among other things. And Dick got to cook a small portion of beef with assorted mushrooms over a tiny individual charcoal grill. I had lightly deep-fried chicken wings drizzled with soy sauce--best wings I've ever had. Topped off with shiso sorbet--a very refreshing ending to a great meal. But we'll definitely go simpler today--maybe noodles.
I was having my doubts whether the courier would be able to find our house today--it's up a teensy little lane in a neighborhood of teensy little lanes and we had a hard time finding it until a little old man who lives farther up the same lane recognized us as the new tenants (it must have been the luggage and the bewildered look) and took us under his wing. I was contemplating have to go out and sit at the entrance to the lane for 3 hours this morning. We rented a cell phone, and the driver could call me, but what could I possibly tell him--in Japanese????
So all of a sudden I hear luggage being wheeled up the lane, and there's Dick--he saw the driver on Sanjo Dori, the main street in our neighborhood and flagged him down! The driver was undoubtedly relieved not to have to negotiate the narrow roads in our area and to get this piece of luggage off his hands.
[Dick here: Pam stayed at our little house this morning, awaiting the Black Cat takkyubin (parcel delivery service) -- scheduled for a delivery window of 9 a.m. to noon -- while I went out on a neighborhood reconnoitering mission. Shortly after nine, as I walked down a nearby main thoroughfare, I saw Black Cat delivery truck. Hmm, thought I. It's after nine, it's a Black Cat, and it's in our neighborhood. Now, I speak about ten words of Japanese, none of which really applies to the transaction that followed, but nothing ventured . . . . As the driver prepared to close up the van and take off for his next delivery I approached, poked myself in the chest and announced, "Okano-san," followed by pointing to the rear cargo door. He reopened the door, maybe bemused but also compliant, and we peered in together. There, partially obscured by the boxes of other deliveries, was the unmistakeable grey-silver glint of a large, Costco-issue, poly-something suitcase. I pointed into his van and repeated my pantomime: "Okano-san," I said, pointing at my chest even more confidently than before. We hauled the suitcase from his van, confirmed that it was for Pamela Ann Okano; the driver grabbed his clipboard of delivery orders from the cab, found the order for Pamela Ann Okano, thrust it and a pen at me and pantomimed back that I should sign. Which I did, signing my own name. To then confirm that I was not only Pamela, but that I was also Dick, I made a show of pointing out it was my name on the luggage tag. I giggled all the way back to our little house, both at the prospect of how amused Pamela would be (and she was!), and at the contrast of this transaction with any one might imagine involving a UPS or Fedex driver in the U.S.]
Shirakawa Cottage, while in a great neighborhood (there's a neighborhood sweets shop right at the start of our lane--we started our day with warabi mochi (mochi made from flour of a bracken fern) for me and castada (like a pound/sponge cake) for Dick),--is not quite as conveniently furnished as Jizo-An was. It's smaller for one thing, so we have no sofa like we had there, and storage space is really at a premium. On the other hand, we have no steep stairs to navigate as we did the last time. We'll be fine, I'm sure. Just like last time, I'm not sure we could back up far enough across the land to take a photo of the place. We did see in the neighborhood a machiya that was not in the best of shape: the siding was falling off and what appeared to be underneath? Apparently something akin to adobe. Who knew?
We have 3 weeks here and as the above map shows, will then go to Onomichi (where my dad went to school), and then to HIroshima and back to Tokyo. When our brains clear from the jet lag, we'll hopefully be more informative.