Lost in Trans-Osaka Station

24 02 2011

There were still plenty of temples for me to see in Kyoto – there are so many I think you could take a whole week and not have seen every temple and shrine – but I decided to mix things up a bit and got the train to the nearby city of Osaka. This was only an hour away so it made it good day trip with Kyoto as my base. Upon arrival, however, I couldn’t find the tourist information office so I wandered around aimlessly for a while before finding somewhere for a late breakfast. This proved to be the undoing of any power-sightseeing of Osaka that I might have had in mind; I ended up staying in the restaurant for more than an hour and a half until I’d finished reading the compelling The Girl Who Played With Fire. After buying a copy of the final installment of the trilogy from a nearby book store I was still at a loss as to where the tourist office might be. After asking directions I finally found it and then asked for some advice of what to see.

Aside from the Universal Studios Japan and the local aquarium most of the attractions were, of course, more temples and shrines. I decided to visit the Osaka Castle Museum to begin with. Much like castles anywhere the tall outer walls were surrounded by a wide moat but the actual castle building was much more ornate than the Tokyo one – with gold gilt adorning the roofs. The whole building was given over to the museum where I read lots of unmemorable facts about the shoguns that had lived there. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon but I was hardly writhing in paroxysms of enthusiasm as I went around.

Osaka Castle

That most common malady of my travels – temple fatigue – hit me afterwards so, after a brief visit to the Shitennoji temple, I decided to wander to the Tsutenkaku Tower and ascend that. A lot of the Japanese cities seem to have a big Eiffel tower-esque structures in them and Osaka has one of the first (although this is now the second on the site). Obviously it offered great panoramas of the Osaka skyline from the top although without any extremely famous buildings it didn’t really give me a lasting impression.

Osaka skyline

After descending, a friendly street vendor shouted out to me and offered me a gaijin special of 8 takoyaki for his normal price for 6. I’d seen the strange balls of batter for sale all over Japan and had no idea what they actually were. Despite the obvious language barrier the street-seller was extremely affable so, in a fit of daring, I decided to take him up on the offer. The dumplings were like a cross between two of my favourite Dutch foods (I never ever thought I’d juxtapose those words together): poffertjes and garnalenkroketten. The batter was filled with a creamy savoury goo containing pieces of octopus and the whole thing is topped with a brown takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and shavings of katsuobushi (smoked and dried tuna). It was delicious – although I scalded my mouth painfully with the first one; they were molten-hot inside.



It was now time for me to head back to the hostel in Kyoto. My 8-bed dorm was now empty – the other 2 guys having vacated that day – and the hostel was very quiet. I decided to do my laundry which, for the first time on my travels, I actually had to do myself instead of putting it in a service wash. I was, after all, in a much more expensive country than those I’d visited in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. Fortunately the laundry room was located next to the TV room so I was able to hang out there whilst I waited for it to finish. In the TV room I chatted to a couple of strange German guys that I’d met the night before and a really young Norwegian couple who I’d arranged to go to karaoke with in Tokyo on Saturday.

I heard an Australian couple in the corridor asking if anyone knew a good place to go out. Had I not been waiting on my laundry, I think I’d have forced myself on their company, but I still had some time to wait and I didn’t manage to hear their recommendations either. It was clear that no-one else in the lounge was heading out so after I’d finished my laundry I decided to head to that mainstay of solo travellers everywhere: the local Irish pub. It wasn’t exactly busy but eventually struck up a conversation with a friendly old Scottish expat. His friendliness was probably due in some part to alcohol but, as a professor of philosophy he was very interesting enough although most of our exchanges (wherein I must have told my whole life story) ended with his sage advice of “F**k them”. He was keen to understand my views of Japan and Japanese culture and I mentioned how often as a gaijin, Japanese people wouldn’t sit next to you on the subway – I’d interpreted this as possible rudeness or fear of strange foreigners – but he informed me that this was them being polite. Eventually, of course, the conversation covered Japanese women: how beautiful they were, and how I should definitely make sure I slept with one before I left. I am also now blessed with the indispensable knowledge that apparently geishas don’t wear knickers. I think he may even have been trying to set me up with the barmaid, who was half-Korean and half-Japanese (the most beautiful combination my sage companion informed me), but I think she was just being friendly and ensuring good tips by flirting with the clientèle. In any case, I ended up with an extremely small bar tab by the time I left, my new Scottish friend having bought most my drinks for me.


"Tourist" geisha

The next morning I wandered around a few more temples in Kyoto and tried to find some real geisha near the tea houses but, although there were some that weren’t obviously tourists dressed up as geisha for the day, I’m not sure if I actually saw any real geisha. I also revisited a snack stand that I’d seen with Alex when we first arrived in Kyoto because I really wanted to try the Japanese equivalent of bapao (as I knew them in Holland) or steamed buns. Whilst the Dutch versions have an innocuous mush of minced meat more akin to something you might feed your cat, these contained delicious chunks of steak in a juicy, oozing gravy. Once again I was rapt in my appreciation of Japanese cuisine. In the early afternoon I got the bullet train back to Tokyo where I was due to meet up with Lisa, a travelling friend I knew from Colombia, who was now living and working in Japan. It promised to be a good start to the weekend.

Beef buns

Taking a Bullet For a Geisha

23 02 2011

Alex and I had arranged to meet at 7:30 in the hostel but, after scarcely being ready on time myself, there was no sign of Alex. After waiting for 10 minutes I ran up to his dorm room which was fortunately unlocked and whispered “Alex” into the gloom. I wasn’t sure which bed he was in and it was still early in the morning so I didn’t want to raise my voice too high. There was no response and we’d already eaten into our contingency time so I had to leave – I just hoped that Alex had already decided to leave without me.

I bundled quickly down the road, weighed down by my full rucksack, and got the metro to Ueno. From there I jumped on the JR line which would take me to the main Tokyo station. It was the middle of rush hour so it was extremely busy and it was hard work moving through the masses with my heavy burden. Like the tube in London, Japanese people are very good at standing on one side of the escalator so that people in a rush can pass them by. Of course, the one time you actually need this to happen, the crowds hog both sides of the escalator.

I arrived at the bullet train with minutes to spare and discovered that our carriage was at the opposite end of the platform. I strode quickly down the platform and finally found our seats. There was no sign of Alex and I doubted I’d see him now. It looked like I’d be visiting Kyoto on my own – I hoped he’d at least be able to get some of his money back towards a later train. Just as the train was readying to pull out of the station, a flustered looking Alex appeared at the end of the car – he’d made it after all!

The train journey was incredibly smooth and there was no way of telling how fast we were actually going. I’d hoped that there would be a digital speedometer in the carriage telling us how fast we were going but no such luck – so I have absolutely no idea how fast we were going as the Japanese countryside hurtled past us. At one point a huge snowcapped mountain crowded the view – perhaps this was Mount Fuji – my Japanese geography is still not very good.

After a couple of hours we arrived in Kyoto station and a short metro journey later we were at the Kyoto Backpackers hostel. This had proven to be an absolute nightmare for me to book. Even though it was a sister hostel of the one in Tokyo (hence the equally inventive name) I couldn’t pay for it there and they insisted on having a credit card to guarantee the room. Since I’d lost my only debit card in Vang Vieng I didn’t have any valid cards to guarantee my reservation with. “Well Alex is coming with me. Can we use his card to guarantee my bed?” “No, it must be your card.” “Well since it’s just to guarantee the room, can I leave the money here in an envelope as a guarantee for the reservation?” “No, it’s a separate hostel.” Despite all my inventive workarounds the receptionist was complete intractable and offered no solution of her own. Then I thought of one. “Wait. Do you take Amex?” And so I handed over my American Express card as a guarantee for the room. The fact that the card had been cancelled two months beforehand and could never have been charged if they’d tried didn’t seem to matter – foolishly they did no pre-authorisation – and I managed to book okay.

I dropped off my pack at the Kyoto hostel and we asked where we should go if we only had a day to see the highlights of Kyoto. The receptionist underlined a few highlights and pointed us in the right direction for the bus and then our whistle-stop tour of Kyoto began.

I really liked Kyoto from the get-go. It is an incredibly picturesque city filled with temples, canals and traditional buildings. It is also the home of the geisha and it really brought home parts of the book and film Memoirs of a Geisha as I walked around. Parts of Kyoto are also incredibly touristy (both international and Japanese tourists) but the marauding hordes don’t take much away from its inherent charm. Our first stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji – the temple of the golden pavilion – a gorgeous shariden (containing relics of Buddha) covered in gold-leaf and set amongst beautiful Japanese gardens overlooking a mirror pond. The golden pavilion was located quite a way outside of town to the Northwest but it was mercifully small so after a quick march around there we jumped back into the bus.

The golden pavilion

Our next destination was Nijō Castle, home of the Tonkugawa shoguns from the 17th century. This was a large compound surrounded by sturdy walls, moats and ornate Japanese gardens. The centrepiece was the Ninomaru palace where the shogun received his guests in different rooms dependent on their status. The corridors were laid with “nightingale” floors which squeaked whenever you walked on them. This was to protect the feudal lords from unexpected visitors and potential assassins – Alex and I tried our best to walk along them without the tell-tale squeak and almost succeeded but it was impossible to walk on them without any noise.


Inside Nijo Castle


After exploring the grounds there for quite a while it was back on a bus (the tourist information girl didn’t quite point us in the right direction) and we headed to our last destination of the day: Kiyomizu-dera temple. The approach to the temple was up a long hilly road. Tourists thronged the path and, on either side, souvenir shops and cafes vied for attention. There were uniformed guides pulling tourists along on wheeled carriages and a lot of shop staff in traditional costumes. Nearly all the tourist shops sold ornate chopsticks: Alex should have saved his shopping mission which had taken us all across Tokyo for Kyoto instead. At the top of the hill we entered the main temple complex: inside it seemed to be like a Japanese Blackpool. Little booths along the way were selling good luck charms and prophesies and inside the complex we found the Jishu-jinja shrine which is dedicated to Okuninushino-Mikoto, the Japanese god of love and match-making. There were two “love stones” there about 20 metres apart – legend has it that if you can walk between them with your eyes closed you will find true love; Alex gave it a go and arrived safely at the second stone, although I think I was supposed to tell him before he crashed into it.


Me and Alex in front of the temple


Throughout the temple there was lots of geisha wandering around. They weren’t really working geisha – these are now a rarity in Kyoto – but rather tourists who had got dressed up as geisha for the day. Alex managed to find two particularly attractive tourists and get his photo taken with them; I think he was hoping that his true love prophecy might already come true. After the shrine we went to the Otowa waterfalls to catch and drink some of the sacred waters; supposed to give the visitor wisdom, health and longevity – although the Japanese believe that you may only choose two. We just thought they granted you a wish.


Catching the sacred waters at the entrance to the temple


We were now pretty exhausted with the whole tourist trail and had a couple of hours before Alex got his train back to Tokyo. So after some aimless wandering around through the restaurant area of town (most of them seemed to expensive for our backpacker budgets) we found an eat and drink as much as you like place where we did our best in our 90 minutes there to do just that. We ordered plate after plate of meats (not necessarily the choicest cuts) and cooked them on our little grill in the table. After dinner it was time for Alex to head back to Tokyo – this time he allowed plenty of time to catch the bullet train – and I headed back to the hostel lounge, where I chatted to a few people there before calling it a night.