The Gion district minus geisha

June 10th, 2008

I’m writing about the trip I took to Japan in March. I’m gradually finding time to write about three days we spent in Kyoto and the Himeji Castle.

You can read about the other areas of Japan that I visited, including Tokyo and Hakone, in the posts below. It reads from the last day to the first, and you will have to click on “Previous Entries” at the end of this page to read them all.


We found our way across town on the bus to the next ryokan, the Noki Nashi Inn. This place was more centrally located and had more guests, so it was livelier, and we could easily hear through the thin walls the presence of people in the other rooms. We stashed our bags at the inn and headed out to visit the Gion district, where the geishas can be found.

We did some shopping, then looked for a place to eat. I was hoping to see some geisha, but they never materialized. It was quite cool that evening, so fewer people were out and about. Jesse bought us a nice dinner at a small restaurant, then we visited the Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park, where there was a festival of lights going on, with light sculptures placed throughout the park.

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Below is the entrance to the Yasaka Shrine, which also serves as an entrance to the park. The shrine itself is further inside the park.

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The park is Kyoto’s most famous cherry blossom viewing site, and this tree in particular is spectacular when covered with flowers. Instead, we had this ghostly view of it.

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We had a great time walking around the park and enjoying the festivities. We were fortunate enough to unexpectedly stumble upon this special event that served to deepen our enjoyment of Kyoto. Here are a few of the light sculptures that we saw.

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Once again, the family who ran the inn were very kind to us, and the morning meals they served were huge and scrumptious. Our room and access to the bath were similar to the previous ryokan. The owner’s daughter, who now lives in Atlanta, married someone who had been a guest at the ryokan…proving that you just never know what might happen on your travels.

Misty temple-viewing in Kyoto

June 9th, 2008

The family at the Yamazaki Inn were very good to us. We were the only people staying on the second floor, so it seemed as if we had the place to ourselves. There was an ofuro (Japanese bath) we could use, but there was only one small bath at the inn, so we had to schedule the times we wanted to use it. We had a great meal in their restaurant our first night in Kyoto, and when it was raining the next morning, they gave us umbrellas to use while we visited several temples. We found it quite pleasant to be out in the light rain, as the crowds were smaller and it somehow seemed fitting to be visiting temples in the mist.

We visited Ryoan-ji Temple, with its famous rock garden.

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While there, we also visited a cemetery. This is a typical gravesite.

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We also saw Ninna-ji Temple, with its famous five-story pagoda, dating from the 1630’s.

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Then we went to the Myoshin-ji Temple complex. One of its 47 subtemples, Taizo-in, has this fabulous garden.

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Here are some other photos of that day.

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Jesse viewing one of the temples.

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Jesse viewing a map of the complex.

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Another temple.

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Yet another temple.

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Another garden.


Me with the garden as a backdrop.

When we returned to the inn for our luggage, the Yamazakis presented us with gifts, and told us to take the umbrellas with us to the next place. This is a common custom in Japan…so there seems to be a continual communal exchange of umbrellas going on.

Kyoto 1

April 24th, 2008

First, to get to Kyoto, we traveled from Tokyo to Odawara, where we caught the bullet train, the Shinkansen. While waiting for our connection to Kyoto, we visited Odawara Castle.

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Here’s a view of the Shinkansen as it pulled into the station.

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And a view of the comfy interior.

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Once in Kyoto, we took a bus across town to a smaller family-run ryokan and left our luggage, then took off to see some of the sights. Here’s a view of our room at the Yamazaki Inn…not as elegant as the one in Hakone, but quite comfortable and one-tenth of the cost! We only stayed here one day, but were treated well by the family/owners, who even gave us gifts when we departed!

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Kyoto is a city of some 1,000 temples and shrines…too many to see in a lifetime, much less three days, but we made it to quite a few.

Our first trek was to visit the Golden Pavilion, serene and lovely, situated in one of the most beautiful parks in Kyoto.

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Japanese baths and bathrooms

April 13th, 2008

Communal baths are a custom in Japan, but I don’t think Westerners really “get” what that means. I certainly didn’t. But then, Japan itself has a different mindset than we have in the U.S., a mindset oriented more towards the community than the individual.

I found this description on a website explaining Japanese customs:

“Taking a bath has always been an integral part of Japanese life. In the past, Japanese people enjoyed the daily ritual with their friends and neighbors in a public bath (the sento) or in a hot spring bath (the onsen). It was not until the middle of this century that the provision of a water supply made it possible for most people to have a private ofuro (Japanese bath), although the onsen and the sento remain popular for many Japanese people.

The Japanese bath means much more that just getting oneself clean. Having shed one’s clothes and daily concerns, then lathered, scrubbed and rinsed oneself thoroughly, one steps into the ofuro and sinks slowly into the deep, pure and clean hot water. Soaking, submerged to the chin, it is a time for relaxation and contemplation, a sensual pleasure and a feeling of well-being and harmony with the natural surroundings, perhaps the garden or landscape beyond.”

We had access to Japanese baths at every place we stayed, and Jesse has one in his apartment in Tokyo. Often, the personal-sized baths are made of stainless steel and look like this one, from our suite at the Hakone ryokan.


You wash yourself before entering, so you are already clean when you get in. In this way, the water can be reused or shared with others. There is a thermostat connected to the bath to keep the water at a certain temperature while the bath is in use.

The communal baths often have separate areas for men and women, and I tried both the indoor and outdoor women’s baths in Hakone. The indoor one was more popular, perhaps because of the cold weather, but I preferred the outdoor bath, and had it all to myself most of the time that I used it.

This photo shows the path leading to the outdoor bath. All the baths in Hakone used water from the hot springs, so that was an added feature to staying at this ryokan.


The view along the way


This is the women’s bath, an attractive pool next to a stream and a few of the hills. I came here once at night, and again the next morning, and it was only as I was leaving in the morning that other women guests arrived to use it.


The view from the bath


In Kyoto, we also had access to baths, but they were smaller, and we had to make an appointment to use them, as there was only one bath in use at the smaller family-run ryokan we stayed at.

Before I move on to Kyoto, I wanted to mention another bathroom item, the toilet. This was one aspect of Japanese life that was often a quandary for me. At one end of the spectrum, there is the squat toilet, still prevalent in public restrooms in Japan. As the name suggests, one must squat over a porcelain “hole in the ground.” Try as I might, I just didn’t get the hang of doing this right. They say it’s more hygienic than the western version, but not by me. At many older restrooms, there were no western toilets available, and when they were, there was usually only one.

A contemporary Japanese squat toilet including toilet slippers.


At the other end of the spectrum, hotels and restaurants often have western-style toilets with heated seats. This was more to my liking, and quite a contrast to the squatting option. I would love having one of these!


Okay, enough on that subject. Next I’ll be sharing some highlights of our three days in Kyoto.

Japanese food

April 9th, 2008

The verdict is in: I LOVE Japanese food, and it seems to suit my body, as I lost five pounds on this trip. There are all kinds of fattening things I could have eaten, but since most things served to us were fish, vegetables and rice, I stuck with these basics and enjoyed all of it. Though Jesse is a vegan, he went off his diet a bit to accommodate the food that came with our rooms at the ryokans.

Here’s a photo of Jesse at the table with our first evening meal in Hakone. Notice the number and variety of dishes. Obviously there is an art to serving Japanese food, as each small portion had its own distinctive serving dish.


A view of the complete meal and all the dishes. Rice, green tea and miso soup are served at every meal.


And now, even closer:


For this meal, we were served pheasant….yep, I said pheasant. There were two forms of it. This first dish was arranged with slices of halfway-cooked pheasant arranged like a flower.


Later we were provided with a small grill and more pheasant, along with onions and peppers to cook on the grill. Here’s a closer look at some other dishes. This next one is a small salad.


Then we have another vegetable in a kind of soup:


A selection of fish, which are often raw, but quite tasty:

And finally the dessert, which is usually fruit or something made from fruit, like sorbet or ice cream.

Next is a photo of the breakfast meal, with fish as the main entry, along with miso soup, rice, and various vegetables.

This is just to give you and idea of the style of food that is often served in Japan. Sushi, one of the most well-known Japanese dishes, was something I ate nearly every day. I could easily find it in grocery stores, even in 7-11 stores, for much cheaper than in the U.S. I could get 8 pieces of sushi for 400 yen, about $4. It might cost three times as much in the U.S.
Another thing that we often ate while traveling were rice “sandwiches.” I’m not sure what they’re really called, but they were about a cup of rice, formed into a triangle and then wrapped in nori, or sea weed. At the center of the rice there was usually some kind of fish or chicken. Really tasty, nourishing and inexpensive.
There were many local food specialties that we didn’t eat, though some of them looked pretty yummy. One place was known for a certain kind of eel, and I wish I had tried it.
In Kyoto, the ryokans we stayed in also had great food. The first one had its own restaurant attached to the inn, and the second one served us breakfast in a separate room with other guests. In both places the food was excellent. It didn’t take me any time to get used to the idea of eating fish (salmon or mackeral) and vegetables (often raw or pickled, and served in an artistic, often beautiful fashion.)
Next I’ll talk about Japanese baths.