Return From Down Under, part 2 concluded

Back up to Monday

Tuesday November 25, 2014

Between the inclement-looking weather and a general feeling of lethargy, I took my sweet time the next morning. After getting caught up with Facebook, I realized the best idea was to get an early seat at Katsukura, the tonkatsu (fried crumbed pork fillet) restaurant in The Cube that I missed on an earlier night. I got there close to opening time at 11:00, by which time there was already a queue of customers. But it was only a few minutes before the restaurant opened and we were seated. I ordered the most expensive item on the menu, pork loin tonkatsu, and waited for it to be served. This was the first tonkatsu I’d had in Japan, and it was very nicely done, moist but not dripping with oil.

 

Nijo Castle from the Nijo subway station exit.

Nijo Castle’s main gate.

After the meal I headed to the subway station and my only sightseeing destination for the day:Nijo Castle. After riding three stops north on the Karasuma line, I swapped over to the Tozai line for the trip to Nijo. The subway exit is right across the road from the castle at Nijo Station, so it’s easy to reach.

I entered the main gates and saw that electronic English guides were available for hire. I snapped one up and followed the course on the map while listening to the guide as I walked around the courtyard, explaining the history of the castle.

Nijo Castle was commissioned in 1601 by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, but was not completed until 1626, a decade after his death. While the Tokugawa Shoguns used Edo (now Tokyo) as their capital, this was their stronghold in Kyoto, which would remain the Imperial capital until 1869 when it was moved to Tokyo.

 

The gate to the Ninomaru Palace courtyard.

Ninomaru Palace’s courtyard and entrance.

After following the guide into the courtyard for Ninomaru Palace, it was time to put the camera away (photography is not allowed inside), take the shoes off, and tag and bag the umbrella. A lot of the doors and their exquisite artwork are restored originals, and a number of others were out for restoration. As I followed the path around the inside of the palace, the display showed the rooms with statues as they would have looked in the day of the Tokugawa Shogun. The guides explained the protocols and the purposes for each room and pointed out aspects of the architecture. After a leisurely walk around all the rooms, I headed back out to the gardens.

 

Ninomaru Palace Gardens.

Not sure what this is… maybe something from Gamilas?

The inner gardens adjacent to Ninomaru Palace are a wonderful, evergreen rock pond garden. The trees around the pond are kept in all manner of grooming, like a giant bonsai garden, and a moss-covered island in the middle of the large pond is also covered in bonsai-style trees, bridged to the shores of the pond by natural-looking arch stones.

From there it was across a bridge over a moat into the inner palace, Honmaru. The Honmaru gardens had a number of deciduous trees putting on a color show. From the viewing platform on the southwest wall, where a five-story keep stood until destroyed in a fire in 1750, I could see over the inner walls surrounding Honmaru Palace. Colorful trees lined the gardens inside the walls on the western side, and there were great views of the Honmaru Palace grounds.


Honmaru Palace Gardens from the southwest viewing platform.

Exiting through the western gates to the outer part of the castle grounds, I made my way around to the northern gardens, which had a much greater amount of color. Toward the end of this walk, a temporary kiosk was in operation while the kiosk in the main building was being renovated. Inside, there was a gift shop, an information center, and a snack bar which featured something I’d heard of but never seen: the legendary glass milk bottles seen in manga where baths or onsen are concerned. It had been a long time since I’d drunk milk from a glass bottle, so I bought some. The kind old lady running the kiosk was surprised that I’d asked for it in Japanese and corrected me on my counter usage. Like so many who see a foreigner, she asked me where I’m from (rather than assuming I was American like a lot of others have in the past).

After a short rest, I headed toward the exit and stopped by a stand where they took public donations to support restoration work on the palace. I would be a rude guest not to contribute, and considering the importance of such a site, I made a sizable donation. Of course, they refused to accept the donation without commensurate souvenirs in return, so I found myself leaving with a sizable number of pens, buttons and postcards. It had taken a couple of hours, but was definitely worth seeing important remnants of Japanese feudal history. I returned to the Nijo subway station and to whence I came.

After a shower I was hungry again. A short walk east of Kyoto Station are two Ramen restaurants, Shinpuku Saiken and Takabashi Honke Daiichiasahi. I would visit both during this trip, but on this occasion I went with the first. This restaurant is tiny with a small number of tables, so sharing tables with other customers is common. This time I shared with a couple in their late thirties/early forties. We went about our own business, but there was one wordless interaction; I could not help but smirk when their food arrived and the wife promptly dumped all the bamboo shoots from her ramen bowl into her husband’s. Then she started giggling like a schoolgirl.

It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one in the world who hasn’t grown up (at least outside of work). The ramen was quite tasty and a soy sauce-based soup is an interesting thing to try, but overall the saltiness is quite high and it’s not a variety I could eat regularly. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the meal and resolved to try the other restaurant before leaving.

Wednesday November 26, 2014

The next morning, I was looking at the weather and wondering what would be the best thing to do on a cold, wet day. Since I still had Tsuruga and Nara as options for day trips, I wanted to at least do one of them, but then I remembered that Otsuka, a highly-rated wagyu steak restaurant in Arashiyama was closed on Thursdays, and I was overdue for some high quality beef.

I got on a train that would get me to Arashiyama around 11:00, just before the restaurant opened. I was determined to beat any lunch rush this time. Good thing I got there when I did, because despite only having been there a few days earlier, I zigged when I should have zagged, and went way too far in the wrong direction to get to Otsuka. Eventually, I managed to re-orientate myself and find the restaurant. A little surprised that nobody else was dining yet, I went in, sat down, and ordered the top dish on the menu, wagyu sirloin with beer. It was not exactly cheap at 3800 yen for 125 grams of steak, but all of the “high quality” steak restaurants in Kyoto were asking more without indicating how much steak you’d get for the price. After a short wait, there it was before me with some sides and a small bowl of steak sauce.


Wagyu Sirloin at Otsuka restaurant in Arashiyama. Expensive but oh so worth it.

For me though, the first bite is always without sauce. I love sampling the unadulterated flavor and texture of the meat. I was not in the least bit disappointed. This steak melted on the tongue with a flavor I’ve not had very often. After finishing my meal and my beer, I paid my bill and they gave me a small scarf as a gift. For any non-vegetarian who visits Kyoto, I wholeheartedly recommend Otsuka. The food is worth the expense, plus you can spend some time in a wonderful part of Kyoto.

From there, I headed back toward the main street of the Arashiyama area. It wasn’t closed to traffic as it had been on Sunday, but it was still quite busy. While the steak was tasty, I was still hungry since I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning. A caramel soft ice-cream from the eatery district still wasn’t enough. Then I found a choco-banana crepe that was absolutely superb, and finally satiated my hunger.

 
Riverside views in Arashiyama.

From there I headed down to the Togetsukyo Bridge to see the view around the river and the leaves adorning the mountains. What a sight it was to behold, a far cry from my first day in Kyoto fifteen months prior. The mountainside was a patchwork of reds, golds, yellows, browns, and oranges. With a number of red maples along the riverside walkways, it painted a fantastic picture. For the next couple of hours, I walked around various parts of the river I hadn’t seen on my first visit and just enjoyed the scenery. The views of valleys from the top of the walks were superb and offered many a photo opportunity. You could even see a temple nestled into the mountain on one side of the valley.


Valley views from an Arashiyama walking path lookout.

Instead of taking the bus this time, I chose to head back to Saga-Arashiyama station and return to Kyoto Station by train. A good choice, despite the train being like a peak hour subway in Tokyo. Barely 20 minutes later, I was back in my hotel room resting my weary bones, taking a much-needed bath and contemplating what to have for dinner. I decided this time I’d explore the Porta Mall beneath the bus station.

Shortly, I found the no-brainer: a restaurant called KYK which specializes in Kurobuta (Black Pig) tonkatsu – the very thing I’d missed out on during my visit to Kagoshima the previous week. Ordering a pork filet tonkatsu and a Yebisu to accompany it, I found it exceptionally tasty. But it would still not be the best tonkatsu I’d have on this trip, despite the reputation of the kurobuta pork.


KYK’s Kurobuta Tonkatsu. Itadakimasu!

After dinner, it was back to my hotel room for some well-earned sleep.

Thursday November 27, 2014

After breakfast, I decided today I would finally visit Tsuruga, home of the Leiji Matsumoto Walk. I’d originally planned to go on the earliest Limited Express Thunderbird train in the morning, just so I could say I’d been on “Thunderbird 01” (its designation in the train timetables). However, I was feeling the effects of a head cold and decided to wait until later in the morning. After grabbing supplies for the trip, I got to the platform and waited for the Thunderbird to arrive. Of course, stupid me thought the Green Car was at the wrong end of the platform, so as the train arrived I had to rush to the other end, eventually jumping aboard one of the nearest cars and proceeding to my seat from inside.

The train journey was quite nice. After you leave Kyoto Station, it takes you along the banks of the giant Lake Biwa, on which the neighboring town of Otsu sits. For the next 45 minutes I simply enjoyed the view while occasionally chatting with Tim and Luis via Facebook when a signal was available.


Uh-oh. No Maetel and Tetsuro – did I get off at the wrong station like Tim did?


Queen Emeraldas. The pirate, not the ship.

When I reached Tsuruga Station, I exited to find that Tetsuro and Maetel were not out on the station concourse to welcome me. In fact, there was no station concourse. Completely fenced off for reconstruction work, their bronze statues were nowhere to be seen. After a quick consultation with Tim on Facebook, I found that the start of the walk was only the other side of the street running alongside the station. While I could recognize many a Yamato character on the other side of the street, my side focused on Galaxy Express and Captain Harlock.

As I made my way up the street, keeping my eyes peeled for the next statue, I noticed something rather odd about Tsuruga compared to my other experiences in Japan – a lack of people. While Tsuruga is a much smaller city than most I’d been to, the complete lack of busy footpaths still surprised me. Aside from schoolchildren on bicycles, the streets were practically empty.

I took my time doing the first half of the walk, stopping to photograph the various pieces at my leisure before heading down the other side, which was all about Yamato. I took photos all the way back, and realized that if I ran I could make the next train back to Kyoto instead of having to wait at least another hour. So run I did.

(For those who want extensive commentary and photos of this tribute to Leiji Matsumoto’s works, check out Tim’s comprehensive coverage from 2009.)

 

The Yamato side started with Analyzer…

… and finished with Sado-sensei.


Yebisu Bar ho!

After getting back to Kyoto, I looked around for a light meal but wasn’t in the mood for anything specific… and for the second time on this trip I wound up at McDonald’s near Kyoto Tower. Of course, right after finishing my meal there, I step outside and what do I find? A Yebisu Bar, which generally does quite good food, and also serves my favorite beer in the world.

If only I’d noticed this earlier (it’s in the Kyoto Yodabashi building, so I should really have). After another short visit to Yodabashi Camera, I went back to Kyoto Station via the underground walkway and exited near my hotel.

After resting for awhile and figuring out how to spend my last day in Kyoto, I felt hungry enough for dinner at the Yebisu Bar. Yebisu Bars offer a variety of western pub-style food, as well as Japanese style snacks like gyoza and karaage. I settled on a sirloin steak to accompany my Kohaku Yebisu, and following that returned to the hotel. The next day in Kyoto was to be my last on this trip, and there were at least two more sights I had to see.

Friday November 28, 2014

 

One of the maples on the way to Tofukuji

One of Tofukuji’s outer gates.

First stop on Friday was Tofukuji Temple, a large Buddhist complex one stop away from Kyoto Station on the Nara Line, famous for its leaf-viewing. The temple complex was about a 10-15 minute walk from the station along narrow streets lined with souvenir stores, food carts, and red-leaved Japanese Maples.


Tsuten-Kyo Bridge, Tofukuji’s famed leaf-viewing platform.

Crossing a covered bridge across a gully to get into the grounds was a challenge, since everyone was stopping to photograph the famous viewing platform directly opposite. With the huge numbers that were there, this was not easy.


Tsuten-Kyo Bridge framed by red maple leaves.

Only that part of the complex which includes the viewing platform (the Tsuten-Kyo bridge) charges admission. If you prefer to avoid that particularly crowded part, you’re free to enjoy the rest of the complex without paying. This also means you miss out on the magnificent inner shrine, Kaizando, and its magnificent Zen garden. Needless to say, I paid for entry and headed through the premium area to view and photograph the leaves from Tsuten-Kyo and visit Kaizando.

 

Some of the bright foliage at Tofukuji.

Another day, another crowded temple.

I’m always in awe of the effort the Japanese put into the gardens in temples and shrines, and this one was no exception. The Zen garden in the inner shrine building was beautiful, and all the trees mixed in with the Japanese Maples are kept immaculately trimmed. The level of pride they take in their work is nothing short of remarkable.

 

People line up to pray at Kaizando’s shrine.

Kaizando’s entryway and patterned Zen garden.

After resting my feet, I made my way back out to the main complex and snapped colorful leaves like they were going out of fashion. Despite being several days past their peak, with thousands of leaves scattered on the grounds, the visual spectacle was still amazing with no shortage of color left to view.

 

Tofukuji’s main hall…

…and main gate.

Making my way back out to the exit after an hour or so, I meandered back to the station, stopping to buy some souvenirs along the way. From there it was a crowded but short train ride back to Kyoto Station.

Since I’d made a late start to avoid the morning rain, I arrived back at Kyoto Station around 1pm, and then returned to Takabashi Ramen, where I’d been a couple of days earlier to find it closed (surprising, because it appeared to operate from 5am to 2am). I knew the place must be good, because despite the hour there were still more than a dozen people lined up outside; that and the waft of the exhaust fan delivering a mouthwatering aroma of their charsiu pork to those in line.

A staff member was coming out periodically with menus for the next couple of customers to peruse and order. When it eventually became my turn, my hunger got the better of me and I ordered both a serve of their charsiu ramen and a plate of the charsiu pork. The wait was worth it when I finally got inside to sample the food. The restaurant comes highly recommended on Trip Advisor, and with good reason; the food is cheap (600 yen for a large bowl of ramen, and 800 yen for a very generous helping of charsiu pork) and very, very tasty. I think they were impressed that a foreigner would go farther than Kyoto Station’s eateries, and that I would finish the entire serving. Next time I go back to Kyoto, I’ll have to try their gyoza.

For the afternoon, I’d decided to see one of Kyoto’s biggest attractions. After a rest (my cold was sapping me of energy rather quickly), I headed to the subway station for Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion.


Kinkaku-ji, the famed Golden Pavilion.

Kinkaku-ji is in the far north-northwest of Kyoto, near the northernmost of the Daimonji bonfire symbols (pretty sure it’s the one we saw on Daimonji night in 2013 from Hotel Granvia). Getting there involves taking a subway train most of the way north, then changing to a bus for a 10-15 minute ride west. It was very late in the afternoon by the time I arrived, around 3:30-4pm (the sun was setting around 4:45 at that time of year). The snack bar across from the entrance enticed me to get something tasty. I believe it was a maple crepe, but now I can’t remember.


A wider shot of Kinkaku-ji and the nearby lake.

I quickly paid my admission so I could get in while there was still some daylight. In retrospect, I needn’t have hurried so much; the time of day was perfect for viewing the gilded building. Any brighter and it would be too brilliant. The pavilion lies on a pond and is painted in real gold, surrounded by a very nicely-designed and maintained garden. After getting many photos of the Pavilion, I made my way along the path and noticed a number of souvenir shops, one of which sold sake with gold flakes in it! I wasn’t game to ask, but chances are it was actually edible gold!

After snapping the pavilion again from a distance, I made my way to the exit and took a taxi back to the subway station before riding the train back to Kyoto Station. After an hour of wondering which restaurant I’d visit for my last night in Kyoto, I ended up back at the Yebisu Bar, just in case I couldn’t get Kohaku Yebisu again on this trip. They only had outdoor seats available, so I sat outside and enjoyed my meal and beer before going back to pack for Hokkaido the next day (my main suitcase had already gone ahead via Kuroneko [Black Cat] Yamato shipping service).

I’d had an early start and my cold was starting to worsen, so I called it a night as soon as I’d packed up and touched base with home.

Saturday November 29, 2014

Come Saturday morning, I was ready to go for my 7:42 Shinkansen to Tokyo, from which I’d catch a plane for Sapporo. I was really starting to feel the effects of my cold, so my appetite wasn’t there. After checking out of the hotel and grabbing breakfast from a bakery, I headed to the Shinkansen platform and ate while waiting for the train. It was a miserable day already, looking like it wasn’t going to stop raining any time soon, so it was a good time to move on. Why take a Shinkansen to Tokyo and then fly to Sapporo, rather than fly direct from Osaka? Simple, really – this was possibly my only chance to see Mt. Fuji up close. I would not miss it this time, hopefully. Assuming my wi-fi connection was in signal, it would allow me to pinpoint when I’d be passing Fuji-san.


I’m pretty sure Mount Fuji is hiding behind those clouds.

Unfortunately, the landscape was punctuated by rain and clouds for the entire journey. I’m pretty sure I knew when I passed Fuji-san, but it decided to hide behind a wall of clouds.

In order to travel the shortest time to Haneda Airport, I had to leave the Shinkansen at Shinagawa Station and find the Keikyu line for the airport. The weather in Tokyo was no better than Kyoto that morning, but fortunately I wouldn’t be exposed to it. It took a bit of looking around, but soon enough I was on the right train. A short while later, I was back at Haneda Airport.

With considerable time to spare, I got the opportunity to explore some of the upper levels of the terminal building, which were full of restaurants and an aircraft observation deck on the very top floor. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain so I didn’t dare head outside. I was still feeling unwell, so I passed on dining at any of the restaurants.


The view from the First Class Lounge in Haneda Airport Terminal 2 for northbound flights.
A far cry from the picture outside the southbound flights’ lounge two weeks earlier.

I proceeded to the first class check-in, this time from the opposite end of the terminal, and then proceeded to the first class lounge. Taking a seat at the window, I was amazed by the contrast compared to the day I flew to Fukuoka. Unlike that sunny day two weeks ago, the rain was so heavy you could barely see the International Terminal on the other side of the arrivals runway.

After a half hour or so, I headed down to the gate. Before I knew it, I was again seated in the unfamiliar luxury of first class, although not in any mood to enjoy it. I was soon airborne again, this time bound for the far north of Hokkaido. After declining lunch, I tried my best to sleep during the short hop to New Chitose Airport. As I entered the last week and a half of the trip, I was only an hour or so from another piece of uncharted territory.

Click here to continue onto Sapporo!

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