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A Little Kyoto

Kyoto is a very big city, with very bad traffic. Getting around takes time, unless you can use one of the two subway lines, which doesn’t happen very often. My hotel was on the older north-south line, but north of the station. The lone elevator was at the south end, which gave me a choice of a long limp or nearly 60 stairs.

The entrance to Nijo Castle

In fact, the Palace Side’s location turned out a lot worse than I expected, at least for someone with mobility problems. The nearest main bus line was down by the subway station, and the whole neighborhood shut down mid-afternoon, leaving few eating options.

The neighborhood did have a hospital, the Daini Nisseki, but they wanted a 5,250 yen new patient exam before they’d look at my ankle, and warned me of a long wait. Kind posters on Fodors.com tried to help me with other suggestions, but nothing worked out. And then my medical insurance would only cover me for a visit to an emergency room. Except they don’t have emergency rooms in Japanese hospitals…

A kimono model

I also spent a fair amount of time at the station. None of the three ticket offices I tried wanted to sell me tickets for other parts of Japan, and none would sell me the 115 yen Seishun Juhachi Kippu, good for five days of rail travel, available in Tokyo, claiming it had been discontinued several days earlier. I guess no one told Shinagawa station in Tokyo. I managed to buy the tickets from the Nippon Travel Agency instead.

The station was a good place for lunch – one tempura set on the department store side, and one Chinese fried rice on the “Cube” side. The second meal came with a great view north over the city.

I did manage some sightseeing, starting with Nijo Castle, which was so different from the English castles I grew up visiting I had a hard time registering it as a military site – until I took a good look at the massive stone walls. I was less impressed with the nearby Nishijin Textile Center. The kimono parade was interesting, but the demonstrations I tracked down on the third floor were winding down, and it mostly seemed to be a shopping op.

A glimpse of Koto-In

I visited just a handful of Kyoto’s many temples, unfortunately in the wrong order, with the best first. That was Koto-In, in the Daitokuji temple complex. Koto-In was founded by Hosokawa Tadaoki, and he and his wife, Lady Gracia  (both the basis for characters in Clavell’s “Shogun”) are buried at the temple, which is approached down a long, shaded avenue.  I thoroughly enjoyed the serenity I had been missing in modern Kyoto, sitting on the verandah and admiring the mossy ground, the feathery bamboo, and the trees showing the first hints of fall color.

More of Koto-In

Another peaceful place I’d be happy to revisit, Eikan-do, even had a brand-new elevator to get me up to the most important building. The elevstor was housed in its own raw-wood tower, with sprays of delicate maple leaves etched on the metal doors.  The main building housed an unusual Buddha Glancing Backward statue.

Nice and peaceful

My visit to the famed Ginkaku-ji was much less successful. To start with, it was a long trek from the bus stop, uphill, and through a gauntlet of souvenir shops and cafes (luckily I found a more peaceful route back, through residential streets). Second, the place was overrun by hordes of fellow-tourists. Finally, the buildings and grounds just didn’t seem that exciting. I should have gone back to Daitokuji instead.

Typical sight on the approach to Ginkaku-ji

The pavilion and "mountain" at Ginkaku-ji

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Limping to Kyoto

After a bizarre breakfast – tasteless pasta with a few canned mushroom pieces and tomato dice, wth fruit and ice cream – we landed at Narita airport in a driving rainstorm. Not a problem for people – we used the jetway. But after having my fingerprints and photo taken by the immigration officer, and answering several questions, I retrieved my big pack from the carousel to find it soaking wet! Is it really too much to expect Japan Airlines to put a tarp over the bags in a rainstorm?

My pack does have a built-in cover I use when I travel in the rain, but it’s not suitable for flights, and only covers the side that stayed dry. That, of course, is the side with the plastic I put between the clothes and the toiletries. Fortunately, I also bag the books and papers, and footwear, in plastic, but quite a few of my clothes were wet, and my silk sleep sack was totally soaked. My room at the Toyoko Inn Shinagawa would have been plenty big enough under normal circumstances, but with the entire contents of my pack spread around, in various stages of drying, it was decidedly cramped.

Getting to Shinagawa was pretty straightforward: free trolleys in the airport, a Citibank ATM for cash (after I figured out the exchange rate and asked for a reasonable amount), my Visa card bought me a ticket on the N’EX airport express, and I spotted a sign for the Prince Hotel, next door to the Toyoko, in the station. Dinner, back at the station, was easy too. I picked a restaurant based on the pictures outside, and enjoyed remarkably tender and tasty pork slices fried in ginger, with miso soup, rice and pickles. I was no better or worse with the chopsticks than on previous trips – adequate but not expert.

Central hall in Kyoto station

My original plan had been to take advantage of jet lag and visit the fish market, but with a bad ankle it seemed more sensible to go straight on to Kyoto. The Toyoko put on a  better breakfast than JAL, with unlimited orange juice and coffee, and so-so croissants, but I was puzzled by what appeared to be tuna fish sandwiches, and potato salad, which had also appeared the night before. Again, I had no trouble using a credit card (although I hear that MasterCard might be a different matter) to buy a ticket on the shinkansen to Kyoto.

The bullet train proved a bit disappointing – not as blindingly fast as I had expected – not noticeably faster than a French ICE. And on a hazy day, with an aisle seat, I didn’t get much of a view. What countryside I did see attracted me – lots of steep, shaggy hills – and contrasted strongly with the crowded cities. My room at the Palace Side in Kyoto was bigger but shabbier than the one in the Toyoko in Tokyo, and the garden view not worth the extra I was paying – all I could see were the trees along the outer wall. The location proved poor too – the area shut down almost completely late afternoon, and it wasn’t on a main bus route.

I spent the afternoon asleep, hoping to cure jet lag and my bad ankle at the same time. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for my ankle, and as I limped slowly to a nearby izakaya for an informal dinner of things (mostly chicken livers) on sticks I started feeling really worried.

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Planning in Circles

Once I decided against visiting Central Asia this year  (a decision sadly reinforced by the recent violence in southern Kyrgyzstan), the planning for my upcoming round the world trip seemed to get off to a good start. I put together a reasonable outline, booked my award plane tickets, and reserved hotels in New York (the Jane, again) and Vancouver (the YWCA). I even put together detailed itineraries for Japan and South Korea.

But then I stalled. True, I took care of some business – getting my house painted, for instance. And I planned a long weekend in Washington (June) and a long week in Canada (July). But six and a half months requires a fair amount of planning, at least on my end of the planning-winging it continuum.  Rather than two steps forward and one step back it felt like I was going in circles. Or, worse, that I had embarked on a downward spiral.

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City, by Bernard Gagnon, Creative Commons license

Trying to arrange hotels in Japan, I got especially frustrated. Too many web sites with no English. A chain with an English-language web site that wouldn’t let me book more than three months ahead, and then confirmed my reservation with the right name and phone number, but an address in a different town altogether. A consolidator web site that persistently rejected my credit cards. And prices that had noticeably risen over the last few years.

One shining exception involved the only visa I needed ahead of time. I Fed Ex’ed the lengthy (and expensive) application for my 10 year Indian visa to Travisa in Washington on a Monday, and come Friday my passport was back with me, complete with visa. And then I started making progress with Japan, even arranging a stay at one of the temples on Mt. Koya.

Dodam Sambong, Danyang by Steve46814, Creative Commons license

Time to move on to Korea. I already had that itinerary down, right? Well, no. Between the brochures the well-organized Korean Tourist Office mailed to me, a new, updated Lonely Planet, and some time at the bookstore with Moon and Rough Guide, I wound up with a new plan:

Oct 10 – 11: Seoul.

Oct 12 – 13: Bus to Danyang, afternoon visit to Guinsa temple, next day in Sobaeksan National Park.

Oct 14 – 16: Bus(es) to Gyeongju. Possible visits to Hahoe Folk Village in Andong and/or the Herbal Medicine Market in Daegu on the way. Gyeongju seems to be the rare Korean town to have escaped major desctruction of its historic sites.

Oct 17-18: Bus to Jeonju. I have hopes of staying in a hanok, a traditional Korean house. No English language web sites, though, I’ll have to try by phone.

Oct 19 – 20: Back to Seoul, with a possible stop at Suwon (historic fortress) or Icheon (pottery).

Now I’m trying to sort out transport in Taiwan, and am missing the excellent English-language transport web sites I used for Japan and Korea.

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Planning for Japan

With the structure of the trip sorted, and the long haul flights booked, I was ready to move on to detailed planning. While I’ve done a few trips where I mostly made things up as I went along (in Asia – I always book ahead for Europe), I tend to the “more planning” end of the wing-it – plan-every-meal continuum.  I figure I get to enjoy the trip three times – planning, traveling, and sorting through the photos.

I started with Japan, and after reading several guidebooks, and chatting with some helpful people on the Fodors’ forum, I came up with this:

Sep 20 -21: Tokyo – I’ll arrive at Narita at 14:35, with jet lag, so I figure I’ll be up early enough next morning  to get to Tsukiji fish market for the auction. I’ll be in town for one of the  Sumo tournaments, so although wrestling is hardly my thing, I’m thinking of getting tickets.

Sumo Wrestler Roho (left) versus Miyabiyama in Tokyo, 2007: by Eckhard Pecher (Arcimboldo): Creative Commons

Sep 22: Hakone – I haven’t decided whether to do this as a day trip, or overnight – I might make this my one splurge in a ryokan. The next day is a holiday, so lots of people are likely to be visiting the Hakone area.

Sep 23-26: Kyoto – I’m pretty sure I’m going to be a Kyoto person rather than a Tokyo person. I may wind up staying in Osaka and day tripping to Kyoto, depending on hotel prices. I’ll include a day trip to Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital and now home to major Buddhist temples and a lot of hungry deer.

Street in Gion, Kyoto by Andreas Tack: Creative Commons

Sep 27: Koya-San – this will be my temple night. This forested upland south of Kyoto has been a religious center since Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was buried there in 816 C.E. Although the number of temples, and the power of their monks, has waxed and waned over the years, there are currently over 100 temples, and a huge, historic cemetery. I plan to stay in one of the temples, eating vegetarian food and getting up early for morning prayers.

Sep 28-30: Shikoku – I’m veering a little off the main tourist trail and taking a ferry to Tokushima where I plan see the Naruto whirlpools. Then I’ll move on to Takamatsu for Ritsurin Garden and either the sacred mountain at Kotohira or Yashima-ji, number 84 of the 88 temples that form Shikoku’s pilgrimage circuit.

Matsue Castle by Bernard Gagnon - Creative Commons license

Oct 1-2: Then I’ll take the train to Matsue on the north coast of Honshu, which sounds like a great place to rest up and eat some seafood. This will also be my castle visit – Matsue’s dates from 1611, and, unlike many Japanese castles, hasn’t been destroyed and rebuilt.

Oct 3-5: Kanazawa – it takes a long day on three trains to get to Kanazawa but I think its samurai and geisha districts, its Kenroku and Gyokusen gardens, and its crafts will be worth it.

Farmhouse, Ogimachi by Bernard Gagnon: Creative Commons

Oct 6-7: – Japan Alps. I may get lucky and arrive in the mountains during the autumn color period. Even if I don’t, I’m looking forward to seeing the thatched farmhouses (gassho-zukuri) in Ogimachi and staying in Takayama. I’ll take a bus through the mountains to Matsumoto and maybe I’ll stop off on the way and stay in a ryokan in Kamikochi and enjoy the onsen.

Oct 8-9: – Back to Tokyo. After a discussion on Fodors, I’ve decided to day trip to Nikko rather than Kamakura. I fly out of Haneda airport on the 10th.

I still have to figure out where to stay…

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