Monday, July 18, 2016

Winter 2015 Japan trip, day 2: Christmas in Kyoto

Kyoto was by far my favorite city during this trip.  This wasn't surprising to me, given what I had read about it before our trip, and how Andrew had fondly described it, but I was still struck by the city's sheer loveliness.  Known for its cultural and historical value as a former imperial capital, Kyoto survived the fire bombings that flattened many other cities during World War II, including Tokyo and Osaka.  (In fact, Kyoto had been on the shortlist of targets for atomic bombings, but Nagasaki was substituted).  As a result, the city is a blend of well-preserved traditional architecture and landscape design with modern Japanse efficiency.

Friday, December 25: Tokyo to Kyoto via bullet train

The train ride on the JR Central Shinkansen Nozomi was about three hours.  The Nozomi Superexpress is the fastest option between the two cities and has an appropriately impressive name, announced mellifluously in the onboard welcome message.  We chose regular-class tickets (not the first-class "green car" service) and had clean, comfortable reclining seats with plenty of legroom, handy purse hooks next to the large picture windows, overhead luggage racks, space for larger luggage at the end of the car, and an adorable refreshments trolley (pushed by a very nice lady) that comes by every 45 minutes or so.  You can have ice cream on the train!  Needless to say, JR Shinkansen has Amtrak beat.

Our hotel in Kyoto was the Hotel Gimmond, a Western-style hotel with an elegant (if dated) lobby.  After dropping our bags and eating a quick onigiri lunch from the adjacent Lawson's, we took a taxi to the Higashiyama district.  This is arguably the most famous sightseeing district in Kyoto, filled with beautiful temples, shrines, and a blend of residential and ryokan/hotel buildings.

Christmas ice creams!

Kiyomizu-dera is a beautiful Buddhist temple with massive wooden buildings, constructed in the 17th century, and an important religious site.  Its wood-beamed construction has zero nails!

(by Andrew)
(by Andrew)

After walking back down the hill slightly and purchasing some shichimi togarashi - a commonly used seven-spice blend - we turned north and stopped in at Inoda Coffee.  This is an old-school establishment with a dark wood-beamed interior. high ceiling, and enormous charm.  White-gloved servers and staff prepare drink orders and precisely de-crust sandwiches in an open kitchen with stainless steel kettles and implements.  Drinks are served in porcelain cups and tall glasses, with a proprietary sugar cube placed on the saucer.  The cafe has a huge window overlooking a small garden.  The one downside is that smoking is allowed inside, but even so, I loved this place.

We continued north and happened upon Kodai-ji temple, which was nearly devoid of other visitors after we walked past the staircase entrance.

The large Zen garden and hillside paths were focal points of the landscaping.

There are many unexpectedly stunning spots in this district.  I could easily have spent more days here.

Other tourists with holiday cheer

Eventually we ended up at the Philosopher’s Path, so named for some (20th century) philosophy professor who would walk along the little canal every day.   Kaze-no-yakata is an old shop located right on the Philosopher's Path and specializes in beautiful round ornaments made of colored thread.  Andrew bought a small trio of these ornaments on one of his previous trips and was pleased to see that the shop was still there this time.

Another shop we particularly liked was Dot Dot Kyoto, which is set out of the way of most tourist traffic and has a slight hipster vibe.

Eventually we got tired of walking, caught a taxi back to our hotel, and walked five minutes to Ippudo Ramen for dinner.  This was so, so good, and made even the "best" ramen in LA seem vastly inferior.  The broth was deliciously but not cloyingly rich, and the perfect balance of savory without being too salty (my primary complaint with ramen in the U.S.).  The restaurant was very busy, but seats opened up quickly, ramen being a high-turnover service.  Our party of four had only a short wait for counter seats.