Japan Trip 2015 (Part 4)
Kyoto was our base of operations for the first half of the trip, but we only spent a single day exploring the city. Looking back at our time in Kyoto, I have to say it was a pleasant surprise. Kyoto is a historic city that has kept up with Japan's modernization while not losing its past, and we found it to be the perfect place to collect ourselves at the end of each day.
It was overcast while we walked around Kyoto. Grey skies hovered above the clusters of green trees, ancient buildings, and new construction in a multi-layers contrast that made it easy to appreciate even the simplest of the city's details.
Our first stop was at Nijo Castle, an imperial palace built over three centuries ago. It's a major tourist destination, but the crowds were sparse. I'm sure it was due to it being a rainy Monday morning, and we didn't mind at all.
The compound as a whole is perfectly preserved and maintained, but the palace itself is honestly a bit dull. The rooms are mostly empty, so there's little to see once you've absorbed the architecture and design of the building.
The real treat is the garden. It's easy to forget that you're in a city as you tour the palace grounds outside. Kyoto isn't as busy as Osaka or Tokyo, but it's still a major city. In the gardens, however, you'll completely forget where you are. It's tranquil. It's serene. It's wonderfully peaceful and relaxing. Granted, a heavier dose of tourists would likely have taken that away from it. But on that wet weekday, it was perfect.
Our day in Kyoto was without schedule. There are plenty of things to see and do, but we wanted a day that was empty of requirements. We didn't want to have to do anything. It was a day to unwind and meander aimlessly without having to check where we were or where we were supposed to be.
We decided to continue with the palace theme and headed east toward the Kyoto Imperial Palace. About halfway there we stopped into a little soba shop for a bite to eat.
The palace grounds are massive, and the incredibly wide gravel pathways accentuate the dimensions by making you feel small by scale. When we finally reached the gates of the inner wall to access the palace, it was closed. This isn't uncommon in Japan, so we weren't upset by it. A little disappointed that we'd be unable to see the palace itself, but the nice thing about having a day with no actual plans is that it's hard to be disappointed if something doesn't work out.
Back to our hotel we went. After a bit of rest to recover from all the walking we'd done that day, we headed back out to do some more walking. This time, we'd be taking Teramachi-dori, which was right next to our hotel.
Teramachi Street is a pedestrian-only, covered shopping arcade. It's lined with shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The mix and variety of traditional and modern wares make it somewhat famous, so expect a lot of people to be there. It's a great place to pick up souvenirs, and you're sure to find something for everyone on your list, no matter their taste. Don't be shy about exploring, either. Pretty much every shop owner we encountered was happy to show us what they had for sale. Not in a pushy way, either.
At one point we came across a larger store with a very well behaved corgi in the doorway. As a dog lover, I'm fairly certain I audibly squealed when I saw him sitting there. The corgi noticed me staring, as did the lady arranging garments on a rack inside. The dog looked at her and waited until the old lady gave him permission before he approached us. Talk about a well-trained pup! We gave him some belly rubs, waved to the lady inside, and then continued along the street.
Our favorite place in Kyoto was a place called Ternura Spanish bar, which we went to a couple nights in a row. It had great, reasonably-priced wine, just the right music at just the right volume, and chill people that you could tell were just happy. Everything about the bar was just right, and ending our day there put us in a copacetic mood that prepared us for a sound sleep that night.
Osaka had so much to do that more time is needed in a return trip in order to experience it all. But Kyoto deserves a return trip simply because it was so relaxing to be there. As hectic as travel often is - not just the travel itself but also the stress of knowing how much work is being missed and how much will be waiting after the trip - a place like Kyoto is invaluable for making a long vacation actually enjoyable.
We took the shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, which is where we'd be based for the second half of the trip. I love riding the bullet trains in Japan. They're always on time, comfortable, and you can eat delicious foods and drink delicious beer while watching the countryside pass by at a leisurely 180 mph (290 kph).
All This for a Good Drink
I chose The Park Hotel Tokyo because of its stunning views and convenient location, but mostly because of a bartender whose drinks are the most perfect blended concoctions I've ever had. When I planned out our time in Tokyo, I knew that regardless of what we did I'd want to end the day sitting at the bar with a drink or seven from Koji. And that's what we did.
Koji Nammoku is an expert of his craft. He blends his drinks by smell, not taste. He's a master at combining subtle flavors into a taste so unique and beautiful that I have yet to find their equal. He came up with his own cocktail and had us try it. It was and still is the best drink to ever touch my lips, but he hadn't even named it. I insisted he called it the Koji. It was his masterpiece, and the self-attribution was fitting such a thing.
The hotel itself wasn't as good as my last trip to Tokyo several years prior, and honestly the room looked a bit worn and weary. But I'll happily stay there again if Koji is tending bar.
On the southwest side of Tokyo is Yokohama. We went there to check out a few things: a view, a museum, and a game.
The Yokohama Landmark Tower was the tallest building in Japan until surpassed by the Abeno Harukas skyscraper in Osaka in 2014. It also boasted the world's fastest elevator until it lost that title to Taipei 101 in 2004. The super-fast elevator takes to you the observation deck, the Sky Garden, on the 69th floor of the building. You can see Mount Fuji from the Sky Garden when the skies are clear. Even though it was a remarkably beautiful day, the haze prevented us from seeing the mountain.
Far below the Sky Garden sits a building with a much less lofty purpose: the Cup Noodles museum. Despite its focus on a famously inexpensive product, the museum is actually quite nice and has exhibits of ramen and cup noodles spanning the last several decades. It also has art installations, a gift shop, and an area where you can make your very own Cup Noodles. It probably isn't a high profile stop for most people, but it's a quirky fun thing to do if you're in the area.
Our main reason for being in Yokohama was a baseball game. Baseball in the United States isn't nearly as fun as it is in Japan. In the US, it's mostly just people hanging out and occasionally watching the game. There's some heckling, some shouting, and people get excited when something special or important happens. But it's largely a passive affair.
In Japan, baseball is far more interesting. Each player has a song that fan sing when the player goes up to bat. The teams are far more strategic in their approach to the game, and the fans are all the more intrigued by it. That keeps them watching the game and interested in what is going on nearly the entire time.
The game we went to was Yokohama DeNA Baystars hosting the Tokyo Yumiuri Giants. The two teams have a longstanding rivalry, so think of this as the Yankees playing the Red Sox in Boston. There were a trio of salarymen sitting on my left, and we ended up sharing a few drinks and cheering with them throughout the game. The booze was cheap, the fans were fun, and the game was one of if not the best baseball game I've ever seen in my life - it literally came down to the last pitch - but alas, the Giants beat out the home team.
Click the button below for Part 5 of this feature, or the Gallery link to see more pictures from this part of the trip.