Thursday 9th July, Kanazawa to Kyoto

I awoke to a day with no rain and since for whatever reason I hadn’t selected a breakfast option and didn’t fancy the hotel buffet so headed out. My breakfast in the end was a couple of bread rolls from a chain of bakeries called Donq, it seems they’ve been around in Japan for quite a while since my Japanese friends all knew it whenever I mentioned it. I found it amusing that in Japan that I should end up with a plastic carrier bag adorned with a map of Paris on it. I suppose I take it for granted but the Japanese do do very good artisan bread.

My plan was to take the 1519h train from Kanazawa to Kyoto. This would give me time to explore Kanazawa a little more. After asking for opinions on where to go with a limited time to the tourist office, the consensus seemed to be to head for the Higashi Chaya District.

The buildings there are an opportunity to see authentic buildings from the Edo period and something which many people expect to be found  all over Japan having seen those style buildings in films but in fact are not so frequent anymore. Kanazawa has three, well preserved chaya (lit. teahouse) districts, Higashi Chayagai (Eastern Chaya District), Nishi Chayagai (Western Chaya District) and Kazuemachi. A chaya was where guests were entertained by geisha, I will not be going into detail about geisha, since I cannot afford to be entertained by or have never been invited to any function where one or more have been present. For what a geisha is and does, please click on the blue link for the wikipedia page, thank you.

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One of the tea houses there has been preserved and is now a museum, another is open to the public, for the most part the other buildings now house shops and cafes. There are also many shops selling the crafts of which Kanazawa is famous for and some have what are either called “traditional” or “cultural” experiences that let you get a very quick and easy feel for a craft or art. For the most part the difficult parts are done by the master craftsmen but nonetheless it can be a worthwhile experience and you get the satisfaction of having made something. One of which as well as selling gold leafed items has a tearoom entirely covered with gold leaf interior and exterior.

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It seemed I was a little enthusiastic with my sightseeing as I arrived in the district with many places still closed, on the plus side that meant it hadn’t been swarmed upon yet and so I could wander back and forth a couple of times. There was plenty to see and it was strange stepping off a busy road and ending up on a street lined with wooden buildings.

Under the eaves of the buildings was also quite a treat…

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Packed into the nests sometimes up to six chicks at a time were swallow chicks, their parents flitting back and forth but never dangerously close enough to the abundant people walking by. The adult swallows make their presence known enough to let you know that they are there. I didn’t see anybody behaving irresponsibly towards the birds and I think much like myself for the most part, people were just astonished to be able to see the chicks up close.

In retrospect it seems I haven’t actually taken a picture looking down the street with the preserved tea houses for which I apologize and find very strange that I didn’t take a picture of!

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These girls are wearing yukata, lightweight summer kimonos.

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Not the main street but one of the smaller streets off from the main one but gives a good feel of the architecture there.

I decided to try one of the traditional experiences and chose the Sakuda Gold Leaf Shop, from the street it’s dominated by their showroom/shop which has plenty of examples of gold leafed objects for sale. The experience is advertised as a do-it-yourself gold leaf application and takes around an hour to an hour and a half.

You are shown various items that can have gold leaf applied to them from boxes to plates, the price is different according to the size. I chose a small lidded box, then you’re taken into a small space with tables to work on, since I was an early bird I was able to walk in and have a go without a reservation but it might be better to reserve ahead depending on when you go and if you want to do it.

The first thing to do was to choose a design, in the top right of the picture you can see the corners of various metal stencil sheets, I chose this rabbit and moon design which you then draw onto a masking tape square. Then you cut the design out, so far easy enough. Then you need to apply the tape to the lid of the box, all of this is done under the watchful eye of an old gentleman who is leafing items to sold in the shop. Once you’ve completed the stencil cutting, he takes your item from you and applies the gold leaf, I had wondered how that would actually work since it needs some dexterity and I could imagine the delicate sheets going all over the place in the hands of clumsy tourists like myself. With leaf applied, you’re then asked to wait half an hour, I wonder if this is a ploy to make you go back in the shop. 😉

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Here’s the finished box with the rabbit and moon design I selected, they pack it up for you and instruct you to leave it for 2 weeks before applying nail varnish topcoat. (It took me a bit of time finding top coat in the supermarket, I now have a small bottle of topcoat that I don’t use!) Not bad and a nice memento to have of my brief visit…

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That said I did actually buy a couple of items while waiting though fully aware that due to trying to very limited luggage space for the next 3 weeks that I would have to limit my purchases to small items only. This was actually a good thing in the end because it meant I had to be very selective in what I did buy.

This small Daruma that I bought, came in various sizes, this being the smallest. While I waited for my daruma to be boxed and up and until my box was ready, I was served some cold summer tea which also contained tiny bits of gold leaf!

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This is the small daruma that I bought.

(The following text is from Wikipedia: The Daruma doll (達磨 daruma?), also known as a Dharma doll, is a hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. These dolls, though typically red and depicting a bearded man (Dharma), vary greatly in color and design depending on region and artist. Though considered an omocha, meaning toy, Daruma has a design that is rich in symbolism and is regarded more as a talisman of good luck to the Japanese. Daruma dolls are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragement) came in various sizes, this being the smallest.

I made my way from Higashi Chaya with the intention of having a leisurely lunch but for some reason due to impatience on my part for a bus that wouldn’t arrive, I decided to try to get one more attraction in even if it was briefly. Rolling up my shirt sleeves I walked on, hen the sights are new, I find myself able to walk relatively grumble free because natural curiosity will distract me from the heat or the strain.

A few people and not just those at the tourist office in Kanazawa had recommended or at least told me to try to see Kenrokuen Garden. The garden originated more than 300 years ago and is one of the most famous gardens in Japan, originally the garden of the secondary residence of the feudal lord, it attracts visitors year round. I have a feeling that my speedy tour of the most photographed section did not do it justice. The rain also started to fall again calling time on my visit as well as my stomach starting to grumble at not having had any lunch.

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Detail of the moss found in the grounds of the garden, the star like pattern is something I found to be pleasing when seen in multiplied repetition.

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The Kotoji Toro, a two-legged stone lantern than is emblematic of not only the garden but of the city itself. (You can see the rain was back if you look at the surface of the water!)

I made my way back to the station and the hotel and had a late lunch in the shopping centre next door to the station. I chose a restaurant called Keisuke Ramen which was located in the Forus Shopping mall. My choice was a Shio (Salt Broth) Ramen set which came with fried rice and 3 gyoza,  which cost 1180 Yen which is just under $10 or £6.50! Puts the eating ramen in London for £11 a bowl into perspective!

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Satisfied with my lunch and since I was next door to the station, I collected my luggage and set about finding my train, platform and carriage with time to spare. I would be taking the:

Kanazawa to Kyoto Limited Express Thunderbird 32 (Yes, really, Thunderbird!)

Departure: 1519h

Duration: 140 minutes

Distance: 224.8 km

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image257 (2)Please click on the map to see it in detail, Kyoto is central section of the map below the bold type that reads Kansai.

No need for a bullet train this time but even this time the train the still huge compared to what I was used to in England, again I wish I could tell you about the scenery but it happened again and I slept for almost an hour and a half!

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I have a feeling that is Lake Biwa which is some 30 minutes outside of Kyoto and somewhere perhaps I might explore and visit sometime in the future.

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I arrived at Kyoto Station and despite a little recognition at being there before still felt somewhat surprised at the level of activity there. Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and today retains a strong identity for its temples, shrines, wooden houses and gardens as well as other traditional arts and crafts.

There are so many things to see and do in Kyoto that despite several visits there remain many places that I intended to to see but was not able to on this visit or on previous visits. Some of the more iconic images of Kyoto that you might know or might have seen will not be seen here since I had been to them previously in 2012. These would include places like Fushimi Inari, with their seemingly endless red torii gates which I would recommend going to and did consider going to again but didn’t this time round.

I booked into the Hotel Unizo Kyoto Shijo Karasuma which was a short subway ride from Kyoto Station, thankfully Kyoto’s subway system is nothing like Tokyo’s spaghetti consisting of only two lines! The hotel is from what I gather a new build so everything was very clean, I didn’t specify where I would like my room though and the frosted window opened partially to reveal an apartment block next door, the room was quite cramped and if anything had too much furniture in it. There was no wardrobe to speak of just some hangers extending out from a couple of poles, I used a small round table for my suitcase and headed out. The location of the hotel is minutes away from the main shopping streets where there plenty of restaurants and branching off more streets with restaurants and shops, it was all somewhat familiar and I even found the branch of Loft that I had mistaken to be in Tokyo, in anticipation of the hot weather to come and with the added bonus of a sale I bought myself a cap.

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What I hadn’t realized when making my itinerary was that the Gion Matsuri was coming up in Kyoto, of which I will go into in further detail in upcoming posts. It was both strange and familiar being back in Kyoto, the air was humid, the voices a mixture of American English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and Spanish in and around the streets.

I chose to eat Okonomiyaki that evening, which is a savoury type of pancake which is made with various ingredients and cooked on a hot plate, in some places it’s cooked for you, in others you cook it yourself. The batter is made mainly from water, flour, eggs and cabbage. To this then different ingredients like pork, squid, spring onions can be added in any combination, yakisoba (fried noodles) can also be incorporated.

I went to a restaurant called Hana Tanuki.

I ordered the Special Tanuki Okonomiyaki although first things first I did have this… 😉 🙂

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I can’t remember which mix I had with my okonomiyaki and I suspect I might have eaten something else as well…

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With my belly full and buoyed with a nice cold beer or was it two, I ambled back to my hotel and picked up a couple of bread rolls from the nearby convenience store for breakfast and slept well.

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Wednesday July 8th Tokyo to Kanazawa

So this was to be the first day of my train pass becoming active, I woke at 800 and to my relief it wasn’t actually raining that morning.

I would be heading to Kanazawa, which is 450.5km from Tokyo on the Shinkansen Kagayaki 509 with a journey time of 148 minutes. Departure time 1032 and Arrival at 1300h.

If you’re not familiar with the geography of Japan, the section in the top left corner, Hokkaido, is in reality at the top right of Japan.

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My Car(-riage) number 8 and my seat 16E, if possible it’s always best to reserve your seat at no extra cost prior to traveling, there are unreserved carriages but I never found myself in that position, for me stressing over a possible seat seems like an unnecessary aggravation and not one that would make  a trip more of an adventure. Armed with my carriage number it was a matter of finding the right platform then looking for the corresponding number on the platform and wait for the train.

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Since Tokyo station is the major teminus, the trains are brought in from either direction and so ill prepared I failed miserably to get a shot of the train pulling in since I hadn’t figured out which direction it was coming. I can’t remember if these then uncoupled or not but I took the shot anyway…I think I made up my mind then to not worry about trying to shoot pictures of the trains arriving though in retrospect perhaps I could have made more effort, my only defence was that it was enough just worrying about luggage, myself and getting on the right train ant the right times.

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It had been a few years since I’d been on a Shinkansen and I’d actually forgotten how roomy and comfortable it was, more airliner than train in my mind, in fact the seats were roomier than those on the plane over to be honest.

Out beyond Tokyo, past Omiya towards Nagano, the view changed as forest covered mountains could be seen from the window. It seems I made intermittent notes in my notebook during the journey and some read as follows:

1221 I wish I could tell you about scenic Japan but truth be told, I dozed, I slept…so far at least it hasn’t rained.

1235 F*** me! That hurt, hit my head trying to sit back down.

(This I remember, I had a neighbour who didn’t move his legs as I came back from the toliet, so I probably swore loudly in English.)

1243 Arriving at Toyama, I have found the rain, the view of the streets from the train reveal wet streets…

The rain was back with a vengeance on arrival at Kanazawa, first things first after trying to get my bearings was to head straight into the tourist office for a map or two and advice on getting around.

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Also in the other window was a large version of Hyakuman-San, the mascot for Ishikawa Prefecture. There is a character for everything in Japan and cities and prefectures are no different. Here it seems the designers have put Ishikawa traditional crafts on the body, there is “Kagayuzen ( Kimono pattern )”, the gold colour from the gold leafing in the area  and “Wajimanuri (Lacquer ware ).

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A relative newcomer to the scene as a mascot, it seems he debuted in 2013, more here.

I booked my hotel through Booking.com and I am not affiliated or employed by them in any way, shape or form but will say that it proved to be an easy way to look up potential accommodation and reserve it without committing financially straight away.

I stayed at the Kanazawa Manten Hotel Ekimae, which is in fact very close to the station except if you get confused by the heavy rain and take a strange turn that ends up with you somehow getting wet and annoyed as you negotiate wet streets in a strange land. I remember the lobby as being dark marble however I have absolutely no recollection of my room or which floor I was on. Although having said that, I did discover a picture of my room…not much to remember there!

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Free of my luggage and despite the rain, I headed back to the station, taking the correct turn and yes, the station was incredibly near to the hotel. The clue is in the word Ekimae, which literally translates as “In front of the station” so that’s a little travel tip for making your stays convenient but that doesn’t always mean the city centre is that close so bear in mind what you’ll want to be doing.

The best way around is by bus which I somehow negotiated although in a tourist heavy city like Kanazawa, it’s actually not too difficult though I don’t like to get complacent and stay as alert as possible for my stops.

My first port of call was to be the 21st Century Museum of Modern Art.

The walk from the bus stop to the museum was wet…

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I want to say I was impressed by the concept of the museum and the building and on a sunny dry day, I might have been but to be honest, I was close to slipping and just wanted to go inside despite there being some outdoor work.

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Perhaps in retrospect I should have gone and had a closer look but I can’t turn the clock back, inside the museum was at least dry and the building is circular in shape and the majority of the work was a mixture of Japanese contemporary artists none of whom I was familiar with and a few permanent pieces by western artists like James Turrell and Anish Kapoor. Although the weather was not one for viewing a James Turrell piece, basically a hole cut into the ceiling of a space which changes the perception of the space as the light changes alas when it rains like the pictures attest, you get a very wet floor. Still I’m glad that I did go and there were some interesting works and approaches to art there.

Of course there was tea and cake since I’d somehow only managed to eat a sandwich on the train in…

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Of course it would have been nice to have had some company to have my tea and cake with maybe another time…

Despite the weather I decided that I would try and explore a little bit since it was my first time in a new city after a half English, half bad Japanese conversation with the cashier I headed out, nearly slipping again on the slick pavement!

I remember wandering around looking for somewhere to eat and trying to ask people where there was an area with lots of restaurants but seemed to struggle that day to get anybody to really help me. I’m not sure if the streets were less crowded because of the weather or if it was just a typical quiet Tuesday night. At one point I found myself in an “English Pub” where the bartender spoke no English and couldn’t help me locate a street with restaurants.

Actually, I was starting to get a bit fed up by this point…I stumbled across a half dead shopping street with a couple of shops that I recognized from Tokyo and browsed if only to try to dry off a little. I figured in one of the shops the young cashier might be able to clue me in on somewhere good to eat, however this proved to be a bust since my simple question then became a conference between her and her colleague and the suggestion was a gourmet burger restaurant.

Trudging on I got to a crossroad and ultimately tired, wet and hungry I pretty much chose the first thing that looked easy enough. I chose a yakitori restaurant somewhere high up, I had to take a lift to get there. Ordering was meant to be on a touchscreen but after explaining that my reading wasn’t great to the waiter I somehow got round to ordering by pointing to the menu.

When in doubt, find a restaurant with a giant menu full of pictures! 😉

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First things first…

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Then I had all sorts…chicken on skewers, rice ball, noodles…more beer.

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It wasn’t until I was up there and looking out the window that I could see what looked like the more lively street with bars and restaurants on, oh well, I’d eaten too much and didn’t want to stay out late.

I took the bus back to the station, now I’m not sure which is the front of the station since my hotel technically called itself Ekimae when the more spectacular side is considered really to be the front where you find this:

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While it now seems a little fuzzy, I think I may have used the onsen since I found this in my papers…which I’m pretty sure I got when I checked in. More to come on onsen in later posts…instructions are written in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. If you have any tattoos you will need to cover them up otherwise you won’t be experiencing onsen or even swimming. Why? You can read more here in this Japan Times article.

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