The journey from Tokyo to Kyoto took around 3 hours with 1 change of trains at Shinagawa. We used our JR Rail Pass so the cost of the journey was quite minimal versus paying on the day, especially as we travelled Green Class (1st Class).
We checked in to our hotel, the Righa Royal Kyoto and then headed out to explore the original capital city of Japan. Our hotel was near the station, which was handy for the day trips we had planned whilst we were in Kyoto, but next time I visit, I think I’d chose to stay somewhere nearer to downtown as it was quite a walk to the main shopping streets.
Although we only had a few hours before dark, we walked to Nishiki Market, which is a covered street full of weird and wonderful food shops and local handicrafts. The street stretches for 5 blocks and feels almost endless, especially as it gets busier. Once we’d found our way out of Nishiki Market, we walked down Pontocho to suss out the almost limitless range of restaurants to see if there was somewhere “safe” to eat. After the disaster meal in Akiharbara, the other half was quite nervous of anywhere that didn’t have an English menu!
The next morning, we boarded an early train for the 30-minute journey to Osaka. Our booked tour left from Osaka JR station so we didn’t use the Shinkansen, which would have put us in to Shin-Osaka station.
The tour of Osaka, if truth be told, was a bit weird. Our guide was lovely and showed us around the city dressed in a traditional kimono but we didn’t really learn much about the city, about its history or culture. From what we saw, Osaka feels more like a theme park, especially around Dotonbori and Tsutenkaku, with its own version of Blackpool Tower and food on sticks.
Our guide took us to a tea shop with the cutest mum & son couple, with the mum well in to her 80s. We tried some different types of green tea and then they let us pick raffle tickets from a box. I won some green tea bags and the other half won a tea cup, so I had to buy the matching tea pot! As I’d bought something, I got another raffle ticket and won some green tea sweets! Not quite sure if the couple made any money from us, but they were so cute and hospitable.
After the tour had finished, we had lunch (Italian!) and wondered around Dotonbori before heading to an evening cooking class. There was the 3 of us and 2 women from Australia in the cooking class, which was a lot of fun. The other half had pre-approved the menu before we booked it so we knew he was going to like most things. The class was really difficult only because you cook with chop sticks! You really need to know how to use chop sticks if you’re going to survive in Japan, and I failed miserably at that. Some meals were so difficult to eat that I’d rather had gone hungry than continue to fight with the chop sticks. The damn things suck all the enjoyment out of eating a nice meal!
The next day we had a 5-hour walking tour of Kyoto back streets, which was one of my highlights of the trip. There was just the 3 of us on the tour and as it focused on real Kyoto life, I really felt like I learned something rather than just traipsing around big tourist sites.
Our tour started at the Higashi Honganji Temple, the 2nd biggest wooden structure in Japan. There were prayers for the anniversary of the death of Amida Buddha, which were atmospheric and a pleasure to experience. We sat for a few moments in the big hall whilst prayers and chants poured out of the congregation.
Kyoto is very famous for the sheer number of Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines dotted around the city – some 1500 of them! Our tour took us to some of the small and private ones, down quiet little side streets and only used by locals. The peace and tranquillity was one of the things that made me enjoy this tour the most. This felt like real life Japan, not touristy Japan.
Our next stop was a hand fan shop, run by the same family for 16 generations! The store was a great insight in to complex work of making fans by hand and gave you a real appreciation for the dedication that the Japanese put in to doing things well. Just across the road from the fan shop, we stopped off for some deep-fried tofu made by elderly sisters, 78 and 82 who had taken over the business from their father. Locally renowned for their tofu, many of the posh hotels and restaurants get their tofu from these little old ladies.
Japan is well known for the longevity of its population and the 2 old ladies making tofu weren’t the only stars of our tour. Our guide also took us to a potter who was 88 and still making pottery by hand and even hosting exhibitions of her work. She used to have a business partner in the workshop with her, but he died last year; his stool and work space remained untouched.
A big highlight for the other half, and completely unexpected, was seeing the original Nintendo building, where the company used to make their playing cards in the 1880s. From this very building the Game Boy was invented by an engineer turned inventor who cemented Nintendo’s success as a major global brand. The company is headquartered in a fancy modern building elsewhere in Kyoto but the family still own the original building so that they never forget their roots.
We stopped for lunch at a community centre before visiting a local sweet shop owned by the same family for 450 years! This city is so old that there are scores of family businesses with many hundreds of years of history.
Our last stop on the tour was at Kiyomizu Temple which looked amazing in the sun with orange paint matching the colours of the trees. The place was crazy with tourists, particularly Chinese girls dressed kimonos, and it was quite a shock after the quiet back streets! The views over the city were spectacular and you could see for miles around.
Another day, another Shinkansen! This time, we’re heading south to a city everyone has heard of; Hiroshima.
The journey is quick and smooth although Green Class is the busiest we’ve seen it all week. The Hop on Hop off bus around Hiroshima’s main tourist sites is free with the JR pass. On leaving the station, we get the Green bus route and head straight to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The main building is currently closed for refurbishment (it reopens in 2018) but we spend over 2 hours in the east wing.
The museum covers events leading up to the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including copies of letters from well-known scientists and experts. Further exhibits covered production and continued efforts to disarm nuclear weapons, using Hiroshima’s own story as the argument for never using nuclear weapons ever again. What is disturbing is the Peace Watch at the museum entrance which shows the number of days from the last nuclear weapons test. It’s scary to think that the activities of North Korea could reset the clock to 0 anytime soon.
Some of the images of injuries are quite upsetting and the survivor stories are particularly hard to watch, particularly as it reminds you that what happened here is still very recent history. There were a lot of elderly visiting the museum whose parents would have been in early adulthood when the bombs were dropped. It must have been quite an experience for them to see what their parents lived through. 3 little old ladies drinking tea in the cafe shared some of their sweet treats with us (like a sugary breadstick covered in sesame seeds). With no language skills between us, it was the kindest gesture.
Leaving the museum, we start to walk through the park and my brother is stopped by a group of school kids wanting to practice their English. Where are you from? Do you like Japan? Do you like Japanese food? The other half is stopped and asked some similar questions, then I’m stopped too! Each of us is given a paper crane as a thank you for helping with their project. It really was the cutest thing!
The crane has become a symbol of Hiroshima and its peace mission in memory of Sadako Sasaki whose statue stands tall in the park. After surviving the bombing when she was 2 years old, she was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of 11 from exposure to radiation. Whilst in hospital, another patient shared a story with her that anyone who folded 1000 origami cranes would be granted 1 wish. There’s still debate on whether Sadako met her 1000 target, but even after losing her battle with leukaemia, people around the world continued to make cranes in her and all the other children’s memories. President Obama left 2 cranes on a state visit to Hiroshima in 2016 and I left the 3 cranes I’d picked up from temples and the children to add to Sadako’s collection.
As we made our way through Peace Memorial Park, we came across an old guy feeding birds in the shadow of the A-Bomb Dome. The Dome is a stark reminder of what happened here and I think it was the right thing to leave the building as it stands, even though there was much debate as to whether to tear it down. 92% of original city was destroyed on that day in 1945, the Dome serves as a good reminder to continue with the peace effort.
On a much lighter note, after leaving the park, we had an amazing burger and pancakes before walking up to Hiroshima Castle. We spent so long at Peace Memorial Park that we didn’t have long before sunset but had a quick scooch around the grounds and building. The castle was totally rebuilt after the bomb but, to be honest, it’s not terribly interesting. There are many artefacts of war including armour, swords and guns. The view from the top floor is ok and the colours on the trees in the grounds were impressive. It was only Y370 to go inside, so if you have the time, its worth a visit.
For our last day in Kyoto, me and the other half had a wander around Nishiki Market and I needed to buy some pants after not packing enough for the duration of the holiday! The stomach bug had finally caught up with my brother so he stayed at the hotel where there was a familiar toilet and BBC World News on a continuous loop.
In the evening, me and the other half did a short walking tour of Kyoto’s Gion District, home to the Geisha or, as they like to be called in Kyoto, Geiko. One of my favourite parts of the city, I loved that the area wasn’t brightly lit and the street lights were low level lantern style, like they would have been for the last several hundred years.
There’s only around 300 Geiko in Kyoto nowadays, down from around 2000 in the 1920s. The way of life is still shrouded in mystery but many young women are choosing the Geiko profession and numbers are on the increase, despite the intensive 5 years training programme and only 2 days off per month!
For those that make it, it can be a very lucrative profession with attendance at a tea room costing around $500 USD per person, and by invite only. Geiko still live a very traditional life with no technology or modern food. Known for their immaculate hair and makeup, they sleep on wooden pillows to keep their hair in shape!
As most of the women are working between 6pm and 2am, its rare to see a real life Geiko but we were very lucky to see one walking down the street, it was just a shame that she was walking too fast for the camera to get a good photo in the dim light. Still, it was pretty cool and reminded me of seeing rare wildlife in Kenya!
And that was it, time to fly home. We learned a lot about Japan. How its obviously very developed but also very western; there’s a H&M and a Zara on every corner. McDonalds is really popular, much to the gratitude of the other half! There’s 1 vending machine for every 25 people in the population. We saw hardly any western tourists and people even asked us to stop for selfies because they rarely see westerners (seriously, that actually happened!).
They seem to have the best bits of western life but with spotlessly clean streets (we hardly saw any litter or graffiti), extremely polite people and next to no crime. Everything is ordered and efficient and it just works. And who doesn’t love a toilet that washes and blow dries your bum?
Date of trip: November 2017
Price paid: Kyoto Hotel was £325.00 pp RO. Tour of Osaka was £22.00 pp booked through Viator. Osaka Cooking Class was £46.00 pp booked through Expedia. Tour of Kyoto was £14.00 pp booked through Viator. Evening walking tour of Gion District Y1000 pp paid direct.
Points earned: 1740 Avios points for booking tour of Osaka and Kyoto through Viator. 1518 Virgin Flying Club points for booking Osaka cooking class through Expedia.