Adventures in Kyoto

Our daughter was at Kansai Gaidai University for a semester abroad, which gave us a great excuse to take a trip to Kyoto!

Adventures in Kyoto

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 4, 2003

Kyoto has so many shrines and temple to see that after awhile you can become jaded . . . oh, another one . . . but take the short train rides to Fushimi Inari and Nara to see the best.${QuickSuggestions} To find a place to stay, try the Japanese National Tourist Organization's Welcome Inns website, listing hotels and ryokans (traditional inns) comfortable with foreigners. At smaller establishments, you may run into owners and staff unprepared to deal with non-Japanese speaking foreigners (gaijin). Business hotels offer the best combination of accommodations and price.

In Kyoto, the JNTO Tourist Information Office at the base of Kyoto Tower is an outstanding resource for finding a place to stay on short notice. Give the JNTO staffer your price range and a location and they work the phone to find a spot for you. If you don't speak Japanese, they can make 5 calls in the time it would take you to make one inquiry! ${BestWay} Driving is hopeless. Many streets are unnamed, signs are often in kanji and parking is either impossible or too expensive. Taxis are good for short hops and they compare well with the subway if there are three of you in the cab. Subway and train systems are really the best way to get around once you puzzle through the schematic maps and learn the system. We found the English language Tourist Map of Kyoto-Nara, available from the JNTO office at Kyoto Tower, was invaluable! Public buses were crowded, slow and hard for us to figure out. We only took them when accompanied by a local, then agreed that we should have got a taxi instead.

Sun Hotel Kyoto

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 6, 2003

We were somewhat desperate people at the JNTO Tourist Information Office at the base of Kyoto Tower that morning. The weekend was upon us and my awkward phone efforts in fractured Japanese the night before had not turned up a hotel room. Our best hope was to arrive at the Tourist Office shortly after opening and see if they could find a low-to-mid-priced business hotel near a train or subway station in Kyoto with a double for three nights.

The JNTO staffer took my information, opened a large notebook and began calling. After at least five no-vacancies, she got us into the Sun Hotel Kyoto, a pretty good choice.

It's located on Kawaramachi-dori between Shijo-dori and Sanjo-dori, about a ten-minute walk from subway and rail stations. Kawaramachi-dori is one of the main shopping areas of Kyoto, about a 14,000-yen taxi ride from JR Kyoto Sation. Behind the hotel, running parallel to Kawaramachi-dori, is a covered pedestrian shopping arcade called Shin-kyo-goku full of small shops, geegaw stores, and restaurants that's a facinating place to walk. One guidebook describes it as being particularly beloved by Japanese schoolgirls because of its assortment of cheap trinkets. The most fascinating thing for us was discovering - tucked between the shops - assorted temples and shrines, some surprisingly large and all on the east side of the street.

The hotel is a fairly new building, although somewhat nondescript and anonymous. Rooms are small, in keeping with Japanese hotel standards, but clean and comfortable... except perhaps for the claustrophobia!

We were surprised to hear no street noise in our eighth-floor room. Closer examination revealed a double set of windows. Open one and there was a second window behind it! Very odd... why? Then we found out. Every day, in the very early morning hours, revved-up cars and motorcycles cruised down the street. We could hear them through the double windows and could only wonder (a) how loud they were out on the street and (b) how loud they'd sound with only ONE window!

The room rate for our Western-style double room was 12,500 yen, which with some help from the exchange rate, could be close to $100 per night.

Sun Hotel Kyoto
Kyoto, Japan

Hirakata Sunplaza Hotel

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 13, 2003

Why would anyone stay in the small city of Hirakata, midway between Osaka and Kyoto? Simple. Hirakata is home to Kansai Gaidai University and its active exchange student program.

We were told other people visiting the college had stayed at the Hirakata Sunplaza and found it a reasonably priced hotel in a convenient location. The price was reasonable, at 10,500 yen for a Western-style double, and the location was very convenient, less than 5 minutes from the JR Hirakatashi station on the Keihan Main line. As we were ironing out trip details, our daughter was quick to point out that Starbucks and Mister Donut were nearby for breakfast, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken were a short walk for lunch and dinner and Baskin Robbins ice cream was around the corner. Her implication was, of course, that we two hopelessly lost gaijin Americans could stay a few days in Hirakata without starving.

Our room, like all rooms in Japanese business hotels, was small by Western standards. The bathroom was tiny, smaller than those at other hotels we used, but was all we needed. Our only problem was mosquitoes.

Walking around Hirakata during the day and evening, we never encountered a mosquito. However, each night our room always had a few. We discovered when housekeeping straightened up the room, replaced the sheets and so on, part of the routine was to leave the window open for a couple of hours to air out the room. We could usually deal with the small number of mosquitoes because in this small a room there was no place for them to hide.

Unfortunately, overnight the room would sometimes get too warm and claustrophobic. We'd open the window. Later that night we'd be awakened by that annoying buzz, wake up, turn the lights on and have a bug-killing-fest.

The hotel heating-cooling system is apparently set to cool from May through September and heat from October through April. Although it was unseasonably warm during our November stay, we couldn't get anything out of the air conditioning system.

This hotel isn't recommended except for travelers who need to stay in Hirakata. Others should stay in Osaka or Kyoto.

Hirakata Sunplaza Hotel
11-11 Okahigashi-cho
Kyoto, Japan

Cafe du Monde

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 10, 2003

So we're scooting through Kyoto Station, taking the escalator down to street level, when off to the side I see a little area set aside for a fast food coffee shop. As we move down on the escalator, it dimly dawns on me that there are green street signs -'Decatur,' 'St. Charles' - and finally I see the name on the green and white awning - 'Cafe du Monde!'


All right, I had become jaded, inured to the incessant Starbucks shops in Japan, along with Starbucks' clone, Excelcior Coffee, and Starbucks' ancestor, Mister Donut. These had become as common as wallpaper. But the chicory-bitter taste of Cafe du Monde? The cafe du lait? The beignets (square, powdered donuts)? What in God's name was this doing here?

Naturally, I had to try it.

Amazingly, the coffee had the same charming, yet not-quite-right taste as Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square, New Orleans. The beignet took some time to arrive... they were clearly a special order item prepared individually on request... and they were delicious!

Ordinarily, I wouldn't want to go to Kyoto, Japan to get the same exact thing I could eat in the United States, except that I only know one place in the US where there's a Cafe du Monde - New Orleans. If they've decided to open up franchises, why here?

No matter. This is a mystery for the ages. But if you're ever in JR Kyoto Station around breakfast time, stop into Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait, beignet and a mind-bending cross-cultural Cajun-Japanese experience.

Cafe du Monde
JR Kyoto Station
Kyoto, Japan

The Cube

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 10, 2003

The Cube is a group of what appear to be independent shops and restaurants in Kyoto Station. Oddly enough, they aren't in a square or cube structure and they don't even adjoin. Most of the restaurants are on the 11th floor, while the shops are on the first and second basement floors!

There are a lot of small restaurants to choose from including: Edogawa, the eel specialist; Ninnikuya-Goemon, garlic flavored dishes; Ugetsuchaya, traditional Japanese; Viva-Viva, pasta and pizza; Hamamura, Chinese; Tagoto, tempura and sushi with soba.

We tried Kyoto-Sanjyo Katsukura, specializing in tonkatsu (pork cutlets). Basic dishes start with thick, heavily breaded deep fried pork slices with miso soup, boiled rice and a bottomless dish of shredded cabbage - all the shredded cabbage you could eat! Different 'set dinners' added such options as bigger cutlets, more cutlets, cutlets wrapped around cheese, fried prawns, steamed egg custard and green pickled celery. The menu, while not in English, had pictures of meals so you can either order in Japanese or, as we called it, simply "point and click" when the waiter arrives.

Set dinners cost from 930 yen to 1850 yen or about $9 to $18. And remember, that comes with free refills on the shredded cabbage!

The Cube
JR Kyoto Station
Kyoto, Japan

Johnnie Hillwalker's Johnnie Kyoto Walking Tour

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 6, 2003

Under the name Johnnie Hillwalker, Hajime Hirooka conducts a five hour English language walking tour of Kyoto from March through November. Our group was truly international: the US, Canada, Serbia, Korea and Singapore were represented, along with an assortment of Japanese who wanted to practice their English.

Nothing much happened during the first half hour of the tour. We met outside JR Kyoto Station across the street from Kyoto tower and got organized before crossing the street to the JNTO Tourist Information Office. We picked up a few more people and then walked to Higashi-Honganji Temple, where the tour really started. The first part emphasized the Buddhist religion and the Shinto faith as we walked through this large headquarters temple, smaller Shinto shrines and a neighborhood temple and burial ground. The second part revealed the workshops hidden in private homes and small buildings on side streets - candy, fans, tatami mats, tofu, pastry, pottery - all manufactured in small interdependent businesses.

Along the way there were a few snacking opportunities. Johnnie provided a piece of inari sushi (don't worry, it's not raw fish!) and a rest stop for Japanese pastry and tea, but there is no lunch stop. Be sure to take a bottle of water and a small snack.

Five hours, to be honest, was more than we wanted; the tour probably should be broken into two, smaller tours. Speaking of breaking down, after awhile our group broke down into those who kept up with Johnnie and those who lagged behind. I felt Johnnie could have told us much more in our stops in the last hours of the walk, but he would always wait for the stragglers to join us before speaking much. Toward the end of the walk the comments got a bit vague as he kept to schedule: "A famous pottery maker lived here. Now let's walk . . ."

A very educational tour given at a slow walking pace. It only covers 3 kilometers, but being on your feet for five hours turns it into an endurance contest. Still, highly recommended.

Johnnie Hillwalker's Kyoto Walking Tour
Outside JR Kyoto Station
Kyoto, Japan

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 11, 2003

Fushimi, a small town only a short 15-minute train ride from Kyoto station, has a fantastic shrine to Inari, the Shinto spirit guarded by fox sculptures. The fox is Inari's messenger and guardian. In fact, this is the home shrine to Inari; all smaller shrines with fox statues are subsidiary to this one.

Inari is the rice god, the spirit who insures an abundant harvest and general prosperity. Inari is particularly popular with entrepreneurs and businessmen, since the god assists in business success and accumulating wealth. In gratitude - or perhaps in anticipation of having something to be grateful for - individuals and corporations have torii gates built at the shrine. The red-orange gates, indicating the sacred ground of Shinto shrines, are one of the classic visual images of Japan: a gate framed by two columns or posts supporting two crossbars, one extending beyond the uprights.

The first gates, at the transition from the town to the shrine, are the largest. This area, just at the base of Mount Inari, is given over mostly to a Buddhist temple. As Johnnie Hillwalker explained during our walking tour of Kyoto, the Buddhas and the Shinto spirits are all very friendly. If a place is sacred to one, others will also find the same ground holy. Neither belief is upset when shrines and temples are built side-by-side, and Japanese people have no difficulty reconciling and practicing the two faiths.

Behind the temple are more torii gates and individual shrines to Inari. Further up the hillside, the torii gates suddenly come together, becoming a tunnel: each gate is built immediately adjacent to the next. At intervals, the gates thin out and there is a collection of individual shrines, some ornate, with a dozen or more small torii gate models, others simpler, all with small carved foxes. At higher levels, there are scenic lookouts over Kyoto and tea houses where a tired visitor can get a snack and a rest. The gates and shrines continue up the hillside for 4 kilometers (2.4 miles)!

I found it exotic and mysterious, but being able to read Japanese could spoil the effect. Each gate is marked with information about the donor. As we walked through, my daughter began pointing out, "This one is from an eyeglass shop and an optometrist... this one is from a department store." I had to tell her to stop because she was removing all the romance and intrigue!

In a somewhat unrelated topic, you may encounter inari sushi. There is no raw fish in inari sushi. It consists of rice and sesame seeds wrapped in fried tofu... and it's tasty!

Fushimi Inari Shrine
68 Fukakusa Yabunouchi-cho
Kyoto, Japan, 612-0882
+81 075 641 7331


Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 13, 2003

Arashiyama is a small town on the Oi River. Its moon-crossing bridge, Togetsu-kyo, is a beautiful, much-beloved wooden structure. Arishiyama also has Tenryu-ji temple, one of the 14 World Heritage Sites in Kyoto. But that's not why we were there. We came for the monkeys!

From the end of Togetsu-kyo, it's a short walk to the thickly wooded hillside of Arishiyama Wild Monkey Park. For a small fee (600 yen) you enter the park and walk up steep paths until you reach a clearing with a view of the river and town below. Here wild monkeys wait to be fed. At least that was how it was explained to us.

We got off the train at Arishiyama, and while everyone else trooped themselves off to the Togetsu-kyo, we veered off in another direction. Less than 10 minutes' walk from the station and we were at the oddly deserted Monkey Park entrance. Figuring that perhaps we were ahead of the crowds or maybe the locals were too sophisticated to feed wild monkeys (how could that be?) we were pleased. We'd have them all to ourselves!

At the entrance an older fellow shook his head "no" and pointed to a sheet of paper posted at the counter, proudly saying, English! English!? After turning the paper right-side up, we learned that in fall, food in the mountains is so plentiful the monkeys don't come down to mingle. No monkeys!

Let's see. What else didn't we see? We crossed Togetsu-kyo, where each summer people fish by torchlight using trained cormorants. Didn't see that, although there were wild comorants in the river. We saw where the narrow gauge Torroko Train starts its scenic trip into the surrounding mountains, but we didn't see the train. It's also closed for the fall and winter. And although we could visit Tenryu-ji temple, we'd seen enough temples around Kyoto that we were, frankly, templed out and passed up the opportunity.

Still, Arishiyama is a delightful little town. We walked along the riverside, enjoying the activity of sightseeing boats going up and down the river and delighted in the first traces of fall foliage. Small shops selling the same items as all the other small shops around Kyoto caught our eye, as did the four brightly clad geisha posing for a professional photographer. Most of all, we appreciated the sense of being away from a big city after only a 20-minute train ride from central Kyoto. Warning: it may be much more crowded and hectic in other seasons.

Arashiyama district
Kyoto, Japan

Shosei-en Garden

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 14, 2003

It's hard to give locations in Japan, since many streets are not named. It's a 10-minute walk to Shosei-en Garden from JR Kyoto station. Leave the station and walk up Karasuma-dori, past Kyoto Tower. Stop at the main entrance to Higashi Honganji Temple and turn right. Walk two full blocks to the garden entrance. Register - sign in - at the entrance gate.

Shosei-en Garden dates back to the ninth century, when it was built by Prince Minamoto Notooru. According to legend, he designed the pond to remind him of the seacoast of northern Honshu. To get the proper effect, he filled the pond with seawater brought from Osaka Bay. The current garden dates back to 1643, when a famed landscape artist, Ishiyama Saijo, was commissioned to create a garden. Over time, fires have occasionally destroyed the garden structures, but today's garden has been faithfully restored to the original design.

It's a strolling garden, which means that the paths and viewpoints have been designed to evoke a series of different images and different feelings. There's a graceful arched bridge at one end of the pond, while another view highlights rocks along the shore and a third reveals a cove filled with water lilies. The overall philosophy is to give as many images of nature as possible within a small space.

Shosei-en Garden is not worth seeking out unless you are a garden buff. However, it is a rewarding spot for a brief respite if you are in the area and in need of some peace and serenity.

Shosei-en Garden
near Hiagshi Honganji Temple
Kyoto, Japan

What gifts to bring back?

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on December 26, 2003

What’s a good gift to bring back from Japan? Uncle Leo wants something he can use. Aunt Bee asked for a decorative fan and the cousins think chopsticks would be nice. But what should you get for them, really? Remember that you’ve got to haul all the loot back home, so small and light things are best.

Look for a Hyaku-en (100 yen) store, great places to pick up small things for about a dollar. Possible gifts here include chopsticks, pocket notebooks with odd English expressions on the cover ("Happy zebra being with contentment!"), and small packages of Pocky – pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate or other flavors. If cost is no object, try a Three Coin (300 yen) store. Unfortunately, the choices here are mostly useful and less tacky, but we did find socks with sumo wrestlers on them.

Another possibility: check the candy section of the nearest drug store. You might want to try some of these yourself before buying for others, but consider grapefruit-flavored gum, yogurt-flavored lozenges, and caramel candy in a box labeled totally in Japanese, giving no hint of what it contains. There’s also Pinky, small plastic boxes filled with tiny mints.

Colorful posters for current attractions are usually available in hotel lobbies. These 8 by 11.5-inch prints can be matted and framed at home.

Some of the neatest little items are the omamori amulets available at many shrines and temples. They’re small bags the size of a tea bag, usually made of a rich brocade cloth. Some are embroidered with the type of good fortune they will bring, others with the name of the shrine or a scene. Inside the bag, there’s a slip of paper with a prayer written on it, but don’t open the omamori or the prayer’s power will be lost. Omamori cost from 350 to 500 yen, and can be bought to help towards good health, success in examinations, driving safety, or general good fortune.

Decorative fans are available in all kinds of shops at a wide range of prices. Mass produced printed fans sell for 500 to 1000 yen, and hand painted, one-of-a-kind fans are readily available for 50,000 yen. At either price, they do fold down nicely for packing!

Porcelain geisha masks aren’t sold for less than 20,000 yen, but assorted paper mache masks can be found for 6,000 yen and up . . . and they’re lighter!

Sake bottle and cup sets can be found in just about any color and price range from 2,500 yen and up. The higher the price, the more individual effort involved in painting or throwing the pottery.

For a lot of people, a souvenir pin or shirt from a Japanese Hard Rock Café would fit the bill. Tokyo, Osaka and Yokahama host HRCs. Unfortunately, you’re probably too late to visit the HRC in Kobe – it’s closing early in 2004.

I have a shellfish allergy! What can I do?

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Foxboro Marmot on April 5, 2004

Dipping into the Marmot's Mailbag we have this plaintive missive: Dear Marmot, I'm looking forward to my trip to Japan but am starting to worry. My problem... I'm allergic to shellfish. I guess I'll live on rice and noodles. But how to explain my problem? (signed) s-p-

Here at the Marmot International home office, we've placed our Asian Affairs staff on the problem... and we get results!

Dear s-p-, Write this stock phrase on an index card: "Sumimasen. Watashi wa koukakurui to kai no arerugi ga arimasu. Osusume wa nan desu ka?" If bold enough, you could memorize it and try to say it. "Sue-me-mah-sen. Wah-tah-shi wah koh-ooh-kah-kuh-roo-eeh toh kai no ah-ree-rooh-gi gah ah-ri-mas. Oh-sue-sue-meh wah nahn des kah?" Try to say each syllable with equal emphasis.

The first sentence explains the problem. "Sumimasen" is "Excuse me," a good all purpose word to know in any case. "Koukakurui" is "lobster, crab, etc." and "kai" is "mollusk, clam, oyster, etc." If one is a problem but the other isn't, eliminate "to" (it means "and") and the appropriate shellfish word. Believe it or not, "arerugi" means, well, allergy - say it out loud and it almost makes sense, sorta. "Osusume" is "recommendation," so the second sentence means "What do you recommend?" As a rule the Japanese try to be very accomodating to foreign visitors and hopefully you will be steered toward a safe dish.

If there is something mysterious on your plate you could say "Sumimasen. Kore ni koukakurui ka kai ga haite imasu ka?" It means, "Excuse me, is there shellfish in this?" Follow it up with: "Watashi wa koukakurui to kai no arerugi ga arimasu" to explain why you are asking. Again, you'll probably be happier having this on an index card rather than trying to remember it at the exact moment of crisis.

Noodle dishes like soba, ramen and udon should be safe, although they're sometimes topped with a funny pink wedge of imitation crab, which I'm told is miscellaneous sea creatures, so be aware. Of course, sushi and sashimi should be safe, since as long as you know what you're ordering, there's no surprise. You can't go wrong with vegetable tempura. "Katsu," like "tonkatsu" (fried pork) and other fried food should be fine. "Oyakodon" is a seafood-free chicken and eggs on rice number. Stay clear of "okonomiyaki," often translated as "Japanese pizza," but which is really more like a cabbage pancake. "Okonomi" basically means "things you like" - just about anything could be in there. Real Japanese pizza should be fine, just be prepared for lots of corn on top. The biggest problems would be various side dishes whose origins are hard to discern, in which case the phrase for "Excuse me, is there shellfish in this?" would be best.

Another good phrase: "Sumimasen. Beeru o kudasai" will get you a beer.

If all else fails, shellfish-free zones called Starbucks, Mister Donut, Wendy's, McDonalds and the Kentucky Fried Colonel can be found without too much trouble!

From Marmot Central - good luck - gambatte kudasai!

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