Thursday, June 7, 2012

Kyoto, the second time.

Day 4 - Monday (cont'd)

Upon our arrival we headed to Hotel Kanra, which is a boutique hotel, very design-focused but also very Japanese. I loved it, so much so I didn't want to leave, but they only had space for us on one night - I guess I'm not the only one who loves it!

That night we went out for Okonomiyaki. It was better than last time, and I liked the yakisoba. After dinner, we walked around the futuristic-looking Kyoto station for a bit, cruising the Isetan department store, which made me realize how far, as a genre, such things have fallen state-side. The grand staircase of the station was impressive, but the fact that there's a Cafe Du Monde there that !does not serve beignets! was not.

Day 5 - Tuesday
We started with a very nicely presented, but slightly-too-foreign breakfast at our hotel.  It turns out that as interested in food as I am, and as open to new items as I try to be, it's a big challenge to adapt my breakfast preferences.  I remember this from my visit to Brazil back in 2000, when I encountered strongly garlic-flavored meaty black beans for breakfast.  I wound up loving those beans at other meals, but in the morning, it was just too much.  Likewise, whole fish (their eyes seem to follow you), mysterious pickled vegetables, and uber-runny eggs are not for me at 7 am, not matter how much my fellow dinners enjoy it.  I do love the rice though, which is flavorful enough to eat on its own.

The first sight we headed for in Kyoto was Fushimi Inari, which I'd loved so much on my last trip.  This time around I still found it a fantastic place to visit, but we quickly discovered that on a weekday morning it's also a favorite among school groups, and the tranquility of the shrine is rather marred by the hordes of thundering pre-teens racing through the lanes of torii gates at top speed.  We gave it a shot, hiking up the mountain in the hopes of outdistancing them.  I had ambitions of making the top, until as we were all out of breath we passed a sign that told us we had another 4km to go.  Since by this point in the trip I already had a serious case of tired feet, I quickly gave up on that project.

Just like last time I visited, right as we were leaving, the skies opened up and it started to pour.  We returned to Kyoto station in a heavy cloudburst, and decided we'd check out "ramen alley" before going anywhere else.  Bowl 2 of ramen for the trip was much better than bowl 1, not least because we had the novelty of paying at the vending machine outside the restaurant.  I ordered the shoyu broth instead of the miso the way I usually do, and I was very pleased with my choice.  Just don't ask me the name of the restaurant we chose - it was whichever one looked like it had the biggest crowd at that particular moment.

After lunch we changed hotels, then went in search of an ice cream parlor that Doug had read about that makes their own ice cream, fresh.  Contrary to my experience on my last trip when I could never find the things I was looking for, after a short walk through the picturesque streets of the Gion neighborhood, we made our way upstairs in a very nicely restored old-style building and sat down to a lovely treat of brown rice, green tea, black sesame and red bean ice cream, with mochi and raspberries.  In addition to the delicious ice cream, I loved the atmosphere - this was clearly a spot where people came for a "treat", so I felt like we'd sniffed out something extra special about Kyoto.

We left the shop in another cloudburst, but that matters less when you're a tourist, and we wandered along through Gion, to the well-preserved but even more touristy pedestrian streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka.  Along the way we stopped in a spot that had a plaque about geisha, and somehow wound up as part of a school group's vacation photos.

Eventually, we made our way all the way up to Kiomizu-dera, which unfortunately was still largely under construction, just as it had been two years ago.  But this time it provided a great spot to stay in out of the rain, and I was actually brave enough to drink the waters that draw such a crowd.  I later read that they're supposed to provide success in study, which perhaps explains why the cute little pudgy Chinese kid in front of me in line was gulping the stuff as fast as he could!

That night, after a brief rest in the hotel and a change out of our soggy shoes, we wandered out in search of dinner.  We walked along Pontocho, aiming for the next canal over with the thought that one might have cheaper, but still picturesque restaurants.  Quite the opposite it turns out, so we kept wandering, until eventually we wound up in what was clearly the red light district.  Not that there were prostitutes, but there were plenty of strip clubs, which is when I figured out it doesn't matter what language the signs are printed in, the indications for a strip club are probably the same the world over.  The funny thing was, the street we were on looked oddly familiar, and after a bit of wandering back and forth, sure enough we stumbled on Sen Mon Ten - the delicious gyoza restaurant I'd found on my last visit.  Many gyoza later, we stumbled around the corner and also found Pooh's - the cafe I'd loved so much last time too.  Even though we didn't get to try their egg salad sandwiches, it's still wonderful to know the business is alive and well.

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