Thursday, May 29, 2014

Chasing Cherry Blossoms in Japan - Kyoto

After Osaka, we moved to Kyoto. It takes about thirty minutes by train. This was the day we started using the JR Pass. We missed out on getting the pass stamped at the Kansai airport, so had to run around a bit for it. For ignoramus, the rail pass needs to be stamped before you start travel and that can be done only at select locations in Japan. So, we reached Kyoto in the afternoon sometime and checked in to the Khao San hostel, very close to the Gion area. All the hostels we stayed in Japan were awesome. Extremely well equipped, comfy and warmth inducing. Almost at par, if not better, than European hostels.
Awesome hostel!
Oh S read the first post and quoting her in as many words - 'Your post sucked. No wit.' :D So, now there is an added pressure to be witty while writing about a city, which is kinda difficult. While the first para is clearly bordering on boring, I hope to throw in a joke or two somewhere down the line. Bear with me please.


So, the first evening, we thought we will go for a stroll on the Philosopher's Path. The starting point is somewhere near the Ginkakuji temple. By the way, the temple was famed to be ultra pretty and if I remember correctly, reviews said this was one of the best places to go to in Japan. Maybe not in March last week. I mean it is pretty, alright. There is a pagoda in the centre and a well- landscaped garden around it, but then that's all there is. We saw a pathway leading up where everyone seemed to be going. We too followed hopefully, just to find out that you climb all the stairs to see the garden from top. It was a bit of a let down. Maybe, in autumn or in peak cherry blossom season, it's a different story altogether.

Ginkakuji Temple
Walking through the Philosopher's Walk was our moment of regret. It probably would have been the prettiest thing we had ever set our eyes on, if we had gone there after the cherry blossoms were out. Right before the cherry blossom starts, these trees look really barren. Almost as if there has been a dry spell for years. We walked through the path nonetheless. Stopped for awful Japanese green tea at this quaint cafe by the road side. The smarter ones sipped on beer, because no matter how hard you try, you cannot go wrong with beer! (Unless you are buying Knockout 10000 from Chennai local liquor shops.)
Philosopher's Walk

The awful green tea!



One rare tree which was in bloom :)
We spent a couple of hours in the evening walking on the streets of Gion. For the uninitiated, Gion is the geisha district. The most famous ochayas (tea houses) are present here, where the geishas and maikos (trainee geishas) entertain guests. It is an extremely expensive and niche affair, where apparently you can get in only if introduced by an existing customer. Needless to say, we (and our pockets) did not qualify for such entertainment. People like us just walk around in the Gion area with cameras and the hope that a geisha will walk down the street. We did get a fleeting glimpse of one in a taxi.
Gion Area





Two days down the trip and some serious amount of drinking was required. I mean how else do you kickstart a trip! You know and I know that the travel stories of the best kind are created only after a couple of tequila shots at the least!  Our night of drinking started at the hostel bar. Small crammed up place in the basement with good cheap alcohol.  Quite a few hours of inebriation later, some of us went to get food, since the bar didn't have any. By the time food was in sight, the bar closed and the entire bunch drinking at that place came up with a random plan to go clubbing. Now, I am not just talking about our group of four. Suddenly, we were a group of more than 10 people marching away with a mission - find a place which plays music. This was 1 in the morning I think. We did find a club (in the basement again!) with a center stage for the women and a DJ dishing out Gangnam style. No, it was not THAT kind of a club. People had clothes on and the music was good old Pitbull most of the time. Thank god I was wearing my fat UGG boots, which still bears ugly shoe marks from that night. It was a very fun night overall. We did lose all our food though, since we stashed it not inside the security lockers, but on top of it. We were sane enough to walk back to the hostel. At one point, S and I were learning a dance step on the road from a random woman! :D Oh we met Robert (also referred to as the teen hottie, for good reason) this evening. My birthday was a day away and I didn't feel so old afterall. :)
A good evening!

At the hostel bar
Hiroshima was on the cards the next day. That place requires a separate post altogether. So, more on that later. Skipping to the night. The clock struck 12, and I cut a slice of cheesecake at the hostel common room. Hiroshima had hit us hard and none of us wanted to do much that day. It was nice that way. Sitting in a completely new city and country, with some old friends and some new ones, cutting minuscule pieces off that one slice of cheesecake amidst 9 odd people and then, there was champagne too. It all added up quite well. Probably  this is the only way I'd look forward to starting a new year, no matter how big the age number. Quite a few hours were spent that night thrashing Robert's idea of opening an India curry restaurant in US. I sincerely hope he opens one though! :D He had already thought of the name of the restaurant - Teen Haathi. Which he kept pronouncing as teen hottie till we gave up and started calling him that!

Next day, our plan was to go see the Kinkakuji temple and then the Arashiyama bamboo forest. You know those links about fifty places to see before you die and 100 places you won't believe they exist which have been doing the rounds of late? I had seen pics of Arashiyama bamboo forest in one such link and could not take it out of my head! Kinkakuji to Arashiyama is a fairly easy cycle route but absolutely avoidable on any sort of wheels during peak travel season. So, we took the bus. Kinkakuji temple, like the previous temple, was pretty but not stunning. Plus the crowd was getting the better of us. We walked around quickly and left for Arashiyama. Now, that place was  a stunner with or without the crowd. As you enter, you get a precursor of the bamboo forest. And you start thinking, is this it?! And then you walk some more and see the actual bamboo forest. It is beautiful! The bridge over the Hozu river in Arashiyama is also supposed to be quite a sight, but during cherry blossom season and autumn. We were a tad early and it looked barren. Oh one of the temples at Arashiyama had a few trees in bloom. It wasn't much, but it was a start! :)
Kinkakuji Temple

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

One of the trees in blossom

This guy was playing something called as nose flute




Oh before I forget, that evening we went to the Japanese cultural show at Gion corner. Heed my word and avoid it like the plague. Single most boring thing I have seen in a while, that too for 3150 yen! The only saving grace in the entire evening was S and her sheer distress while sitting through that program for an hour. We had a fit laughing. S pretended to stay awake the first ten minutes, but the Japanese harp really did her in! Robert left for Tokyo that evening. Our plan for the evening was to celebrate my birthday. :) Also, alcohol was required to get over that mind numbing show. It was a long long night. Started with this one secluded bar where there was really good wine up for happy hours. Needless to say, we made good use of it. We had thirty minutes of happy hours left, and S saw to it that no one talked (or breathed). Focus was on being Indian and making the most of our money. From there, we went to a couple of other places and then this one hole of a place which was serving really good kebabs. That night too was a 4 am one and I seriously don't remember how we got back.
Robert's last evening in Kyoto

Japanese harp at Gion Corner

Maiko

All the good wine and happy hours :)



The next day was a rainy one. Not that, it was a deterrent. Picked up umbrellas and left for the Fushimi Inari shrine. The high point of this place is thousands of orange tori gates lined up one after another leading up a hill to the shrine. Getting a pic without random tourists in it is quite an achievement here. You won't believe the number of people who had turned up inspite of the rain!



Next was a long long journey to the base of Mt. Fuji, a small sleepy town called Kawaguchiko

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