Before and during Jack’s and my journey through Asia, we’d been doing our best to cajole friends to come and join us. For a couple months we dangled the offer of delicious food, affordably priced experiences, and a hangout session with two well-rounded guys.
It took some time but eventually two friends, Becca and Stella, joined us in Bali. Seeing familiar faces in a faraway place was a pleasant refreshment. We became a small travel posse and shared some memorable experiences together, then Jack and I found ourselves wandering solo again.
We hoped that there’d be further gatherings of friends and by fate our wishes came true.
Welcome to Kyoto
On March 25th, 2019 we started a tour of Japan.
Jack used Air Miles and we couldn’t reserve a seat on the same flight. In what was arguably the most turbulent airplane ride of my life, I thankfully landed at the Kansai Airport in Osaka. Jack would promptly follow. Lastly, Kristen, arriving from San Francisco, joined us at the international terminal. She’s another friend from home and wanted to use up some saved vacation days to explore Japan with us.
Once we said our emotional hellos we did our best to get to Kyoto as quickly as possible. We purchased SIM cards then found the Japan Rail station which was connected to the terminal.
For folks doing an extensive tour of Japan, the most affordable transportation option to buy a Japan Rail pass. As didn’t know how frequently we’d be using the rail system in Kyoto, we opted for a one-way ticket. Ninety minutes later we successfully checked-in to our Kyoto Airbnb.
Having Kristen to hang out with us was awesome. This would soon become the tip of the friendship iceberg. Stella, our friend from Bali, made an appearance in Kyoto a couple days later with our other friend Rich. On top of that, within twenty-four hours of us being in Kyoto we received surprising news that another friend was coming. At the very last minute, our buddy Jimmy decided to fly in from London.
A handful of days before, we were just a couple of fellas with a desire for dumplings in Shanghai. Now we were six. In some places this constitutes a government in exile, a folk band, or at the very least a lawless gang.
With a troop of good people, we opted for Kyoto as our starting point in Japan for various reasons:
Between late March to early April there is a wonderful natural phenomenon that takes places in Japan: Sakura. Sakura is Japanese for cherry blossom bloom. The act of enjoying flowers has a term in Japanese: Hamani. We did our best to have numerous hamani sessions in Kyoto, as it’s world-renowned. Each year, droves of visitors come to feed their hungry Instagram accounts and hamani like it’s trending on blogs.
Cherry blossom trees weren’t just in parks, they were everywhere: Main streets, parks, walking paths, wherever. We were slightly ahead of the flowering schedule as only some of the trees showcased their full radiance of colors. Even so, we were able to enjoy its beauty at various locations like the Imperial Gardens and along the Philosopher’s Path.
Japan is a destination for culinary treasure hunters and two dishes that draw immediate attention are sushi and ramen. Within an hour of dropping off our bags in the Airbnb, Kristen, Jack and I sought out a conveyer belt sushi establishment located just down the street.
If you aren’t familiar with conveyer belt sushi, here’s a quick lowdown: You sit at a bar and in front of you is a slow moving conveyer belt with sushi passing by on different colored plates. Each color represents a different price and you pay for the total of plates you collect. Sometimes in a corner but usually in the center of the bar is one or a few sushi chefs preparing each dish then adding them to the belt. It’s a wonderful way to eat and not strikingly expensive. A different sushi restaurant we also visited on multiple occasions was Musashi.
Kristen, Jack, and I also took part in something that the Japanese seem to love to do: wait in line. What were we waiting in for? The answer is what everyone in Japan usually waits in line for, and that’s food. We learned quickly that locals enjoy eating at establishments with high quality and they’re patient enough to wait for a long time. Our first taste of line life happened in front of a ramen place called Ippudo.
Everyone in Kyoto was overly polite. People said thank you, were quick to give a bow in greeting and didn’t shove past you at train stations. Even at 7-11 we were acknowledged in unison by each employee. I had no idea what they were saying but it sounded like they were singing to us.
A very common sight in Kyoto is seeing women walking around in kimonos. We witnessed so many kimonos that we weren’t sure if they were tourists or locals. Historically the kimono was daily attire for both men and women throughout the whole country; nowadays it’s a thriving rental industry for visitors in Kyoto to gain a further sense of cultural immersion. The most famous characters in Japan who don a kimono are geishas, however, spotting them on the street is quite rare.
Kyoto was once the imperial capital of Japan and we were told that the city also is home to over two thousand shrines and historical landmarks. There wasn’t enough time to fully explore this aspect of the city, although we did visit the Nijo Castle and survive a trek up to the Fushimi Inari Taisha.
At the base of the Inari mountain, this is a Shinto shrine that consists of a pathway up to the top. The interesting part of this walk is that the path was covered by a thousand orange torii gates. A torii is a traditional Japanese gate that belongs to a Shinto shrine. Shinto is a traditional Japanese religion that dates back over a thousand years.
Before the arrival of the rest of the crew, Jack, Kristen, and I were crossing a bridge at the Kamo River when suddenly on the street corner a man wearing an earpiece politely commanded us to stop. Crowds were congregating at the intersection and police were pausing traffic. Overhead was a black helicopter hovering in place, it’s propellers spinning silently.
We had no idea what was transpiring but had no other option so we stood and waited.
Moments later a caravan of black Mercedes paraded along the street, and shortly afterward people started to clamor in soft excitement suitable for a golf tournament.
Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko were in the backseat of one of the cars and waving to the onlookers.
In what was a fleeting five seconds, I felt like we had tapped into the life energy of this still very unknown country. The feeling evaporated almost as quickly as cherry blossom petals into the Spring sky and after security granted us permission to continue with our lives.
By the time you read this post, the Emperor will have already abdicated. On April 30th he stepped down.
Jimmy made a great observation about Kyoto:
“It’s like the future is the 1980’s.”
Kyoto felt like we’d stepped back in time, into an alternate universe where the 7-11’s had deli-style food and taxi drivers wore suits with white gloves. Vending machines and pay phones were still popular and situated on nearly every street corner. Cars were mostly compact and each building boasted beautifully conservative color combinations. Edifices were perfectly placed next to one another in what felt like a serious case of feng shui.
A major storm system swept through the region, flushing us out during our last days in the city. With rain in the forecast, it was perfect timing for a change of scenery.
Our mobile United Stated Embassy continued our Japan tour northbound to Tokyo.
Thanks for reading, if you have any questions about Kyoto feel free to ask.
Have a wonderful day and brush your teeth before bedtime!