Japan |3|: Kyoto and the Kiso Valley

October 3, 2014 0 comment
This is the second part of our Japanese trilogy. We went from Hiroshima to Kyoto by train where we stayed 3 nights, and then went up north to the Japanese Alps by train again, to a tiny village called Magome.

A typical and perfect way to arrive into the city is by train. Such a surprise! The station is an ultra busy and modern structure, huge, with a hotel inside (The Gran Via, a bland yet comfortable place where we spent our first night as the rest of the city seemed fully booked due to the sakura season) and 11 floors of department stores and restaurants above. We probably spent 30′ on the 11th floor trying to choose which restaurant to eat at for lunch.
Designed by architect Hiroshi Hara and opened in 1997, the station provides a spectacular arrival, symbolising the many surprises that the city holds. We felt that Kyoto was a good expression of how Japan oscillates between uber modernity and ancient traditions. A delicate balance not easy to understand for us foreigners.
In no particular order, these are some of the places we loved visiting in Kyoto. There are over 2,000 temples with some more famous than others, so it was about choosing a few that would suit the whole family, a logical itinerary for the day and places that would give us a good feel of the city. If we had all the time in the world, I would have spent a week in Kyoto (a year!) as we did feel a bit rushed with just 3 days there. And with 3 young children everything takes triple the time..
The philosopher’s path is a very atmospheric walk along the river. Amalya stared at the women dressed in their traditional kimonos, all of them taking multitudes of photos of the cherry blossom with their smartphones. We had a memorable lunch at Okutan, a restaurant that has been serving tofu cuisine for over 300 years. Even Ceki who is a reluctant tofu eater will tell you how much he loved it. We were given a little private room by the garden, seated on the floor, cross legged. The children escaped a few times to go play by the pond in places they were probably not supposed to, but it all seemed fine and the entire staff played with them while we relaxed. At the end, our waitress posed for a photo, it was a special moment in time full of smiles and appreciation.
Ps: As you enter the gates of Nanzen-ji with the temple in front of you, take the road left around the edge of the temple grounds towards Eian-do temple. Okutan is on the left (075-771 8709 – last order 16h30).
The supremely serene Ryoanji Temple with its zen garden composed of fifteen rocks, which the children counted and re-counted a few times. The trick is that you cannot see all the rocks at once: perfection and imperfection. It was ideal to visit it at the end of the day, when the crowds had left and the gardens were just for ourselves, allowing Marcelo and Amalya to practice the art of running around in silence.  And Lior following behind, not so much in silence.
The machi-ya where we slept the other 2 nights, right on the edge of the old neighbourhood called Gion (a must visit, especially at night for a meal). Machi-yas are traditional houses that have been meticulously restored around the city. Ours was very spacious with a little kitchenette (although just a micro wave and a fridge so not enough to cook our own meals) and a typical wooden bathtub where the children enjoyed themselves a lot. If it were not for the smell of sushis in the bedroom (there must have been a restaurant somewhere nearby), I would have said it was just perfect!
The Golden Pavilion inside Kinkaku-ji, and its beautiful gardens. Again, we visited this one at the end of our 2nd day to avoid the crowds and it was just right.
The shop of Japanese fashion designer Mina Perhonen, spread over 3 floors not far from Gion. A temple of its own. I was drooling over everything: the dresses, the scarves, the purses, the floor, the wooden counter, the children’s clothes… The staff recommended a special place for ceramics, and I was determined to find it. So we walked and walked, with Lior sleeping in the stroller, the children bribed for a moment with green tea ice creams and a promise to Ceki that it was just around the corner. Finally, we found the place, on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building on a big busy road. Who would have known I would find the teapot of my dreams there, the very one I am drinking from as I type those words now. Jimukinoueda bldg 3F-301 (tel: 075-741 8114  [email protected]).
The shop of Kira Karasho where they sell very special papers using block printing traditions that date back to 1624. I brought back a few delicate cards home.
And the bamboo groves of Sagano Chikurin. There is a 7km train track along the river in a very retro ride. We were not able to do it because it was the end of the day and we only had time to go see the place by taxi, Lior sleeping in my arms. But I am glad we went even for a short time. It was majestic and very calming all at once. If you have time, there is apparently a boat ride that departs from Kameoka Station all the way to Togetsukyo Bridge.
The Sanjusangendo temple, which features 1,001 gold statues, is a stunning place as well, which we visited the first afternoon when we arrived. It’s located in the East of the city, and is particularly impressive for the scale of the work.
The origami workshop arranged by WAK Japan was a real treat. We spent a couple hours in the modest home of an older lady who taught Marcelo and Amalya how to make origamis (while I worriedly looked after Lior who craved to play with her teapot collection). The children loved it, and I thought it was really nice to spend time inside a local’s home, sharing a piece of her life.
Marcelo somewhat enjoyed the Nijo Castle for the display of ninja scenes although I am not sure it would be top of my list. Similarly, we were told we were lucky to visit the Imperial Palace, open to the public only a few days a year to enjoy the sakura, but the (albeit) very organised queues made it a rather unpleasant visit. We had booked a guide for one of our days there, thinking we would learn a good amount by spending time with her, but in retrospect she was more helpful in coordinating our visits with a logical itinerary than teaching us beyond the books.
The Kiso Valley in the Japanese Alps / Magome –
This was going to be our off-the-beaten-track leg of the trip…well, I can now say that we were overly ambitious with our planning! How on earth could we have hiked an 8-km trail from Magome to Tsumago with a baby and 2 young children, our backpacks, the stroller and all the snacks accumulated along the trip straight off the train, with the aim of arriving before sundown!! So we abandoned the plan, took the hotel minibus from the train station and we retreated in our hilariously typical Japanese hotel where no-one spoke English, where foreign tourists probably never ventured, where Japanese men smoked all around and where miso soup was served for breakfast. We felt lost in translation, we had fun, we thought we were in the middle of nowhere, and that in itself was a comforting feeling.
Ps: above, in Magome, our bedroom-turned seating room – turned changing room, with a view over the valley.
The village of Magome was indeed very charming, an old place with wooden houses and electricity produced thru the water generators. We might have been better off staying in a traditional guest house such as this one but they were all full. It’s really important to book places well in advance in Japan during spring time. We ate some good noodles for lunch, read that brown bears like to roam along the trail and we did not regret skipping it (especially given the number of snacks in our backpacks).  We went for an early sleep that night, back in our hotel where probably a number of guests where enjoying themselves with some karaoke night.
And then we took the train again, direction Nagano. We wanted to spend time with the snow monkeys and taste some sakes, before heading to Tokyo.
More on all of this in a third and last post about our adventures in Japan…

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