|Old houses still survive in Kyoto despite encroaching development|
Anyone traveling to Japan has plenty of choices to stay in, from Western-style hotels and hostels to unique lodgings like the capsule hotels (which are really cramp) and some temples (very spartan). And then there are traditional Japanese-style accommodations, starting from the cheaper minshuku (bed-and-breakfast) to the more expensive ryokan. Kyoto, my next destination, has plenty of ryokan so I decided on staying in one, at Ryokan Hifumi.
Ryokan vary in size and cost anywhere in Japan, from small family-run operations to big establishments with prices ranging from 5,000 to a shocking 25,000 yen - but the core of experience remains rooted in traditional style. Sliding doors lead to the room with a floor covered in tatami. Instead of mattresses, there are futons to sleep on. Traditional Japanese baths (very common in hot spring areas) and local cuisine add to that experience. Guests are provided with yukata and geta (if venturing outside). Some modernity can't be avoided: TV, small refrigerators, telephone, airconditioning, even Western-style toilets.
Using my Japan Rail Pass, I took a 2-hour trip on the Shinkansen Hikari train from Hiroshima to Kyoto, a distance of 380 kilometers. I arrived into a very sleek and modern Kyoto Station almost at noon time. The station is very busy, bustling with energy one usually sees on a morning rush hour. I dropped by the Kyoto Tourist Information Center and grabbed some maps. But the moment I stepped out of the station, I felt the heat of the noon-day sun bearing down heavily on me. I know I should have eaten lunch first but I was more excited to set foot on my lodging.
Armed with a map while nearby Kyoto Tower served as my landmark, I went searching for the ryokan. I've chosen Ryokan Hifumi precisely due its proximity to the station and its reasonable price at 5,500 yen per night for a single room. In about 5 minutes, I found it, instantly remembering the facade after a previous check on Google Map's street view. It's on a nice little street, almost like an alley hemmed in by tall buildings and one adjacent ancient-looking house that harks back to the days of Old Kyoto.
A blast of cool airconditioning greeted me as I entered the ryokan. Summer in Kyoto can be unforgiving and I was sweating buckets just taking that short walk from the rail station! Plenty of slippers by the door reminded me of one ryokan etiquette - never bring one's shoes inside. I put on a pair of slippers and left my sandals outside which were swiftly removed by a ryokan staff for storage. A female receptionist checked me in, escorted me to my room on the second floor and explained to me its features. A simple bow with "arigato" and she was gone.
|Ryokan amenity: yukata, towel, shaving kit|
|Japanese green tea and sweets|
I was impressed with the room; it's just exactly what I have imagined it to be. Since there's barely any furniture except for a low table, the whole room looks very spacious. My room rate doesn't include breakfast but that's OK with me. The breakfast they serve is rather costly at 1,500 yen! WiFi is free and fast anyway so that's more comforting. And at least, they do have some tea and Japanese sweets on the table.
I took a shower and changed into another shirt. Lunch can not wait any longer. I went back to the rail station where at the basement is a long corridor of restaurants and shops. Like most restaurants in Japan, they have plastic replicas of what they serve which really makes it less of a headache for a foreigner deciding on what to eat. I went into one that's obviously busy with diners (a good sign) and was immediately seated after a chorus of "irrasshaimase" from waiters.
Since there was no English menu, I decided to point at a noodle display - which I came to know later as cold soba (good for the summer heat!). I never had this dish before so I was excited ordering this. It came served with tempura and some pickled 'something' but my ignorance really showed when I began eating the noodles as is - and of course it was so bland. Then I did another embarrassment by slurping what I thought was soup only to find out this was the dipping sauce or soba tsuyu! I wanted to knock myself in the head. Somebody else with similar order was eating it correctly!
It was almost 3 PM when I finished lunch. To cover as much sightseeing as I can, I have planned on doing the well-recommended walk in Higashiyama, just east of Kyoto where plenty of temples are located. To get there, I boarded Bus No. 100 from the rail station and stopped at Gojozaka where it was an uphill walk towards Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple constructed in 1633. This is one of Kyoto's historic monuments that made it to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. Entrance fee is 300 yen.
From the temple, I walked downhill at Sannenzaka slope where I almost bumped into a lady wearing her Geisha finery even in stifling heat. The houses in this part of the city are old and charming, slowly being eaten up by developments all around them. Many have shops selling touristy stuff but I wasn't in the mood to buy anything. Further on was Kodaiji Temple but paying a 600-yen entrance fee discouraged me so I just lingered outside for a bit. From here, it was a short walk to Maruyama Park, the city's main attraction for cherry blossom viewing during spring.
|Ringing the bell at Yasaka Shrine|
My last temple for the day was the Shinto shrine of Yasaka, formerly called Gion Shrine. The shrine was even busier at the time of my visit since it traditionally hosts Gion Matsuri, a very popular Japanese summer festival held in Kyoto in July. Just like any Shinto temple anywhere in Japan, the faithful here do their ritual prayers of double-bowing, double-clapping, throwing coins as offerings and ringing the bell. It's a very solemn sight and I felt blessed already just watching what's going on around me.
There were two more temples on my way to the bus stop - Chion-in Temple and Shoren-in Temple - but they were already closed after 5 PM. Besides, I really don't want to be temple-fatigued on my first day in Kyoto. Instead, I hopped on another bus, went back to the rail station and walked the length of Karasuma-dori to see the start of yoiyoiyoiyama, part of the festivities for the Gion Festival. By the time I got back to the ryokan, I was so dead on my feet but pleasantly surprised to find my futon already laid out... ready for sleeping.