Friday, April 13, 2012

Anniversary in Kyoto

One of the wooden wall at Nijo Castle.It has been almost 4 months now since our trip to Japan and yet I keep coming back to it, trying to write more and more about it. As I’ve said many many times before, this vacation of ours was amazing. And even the smallest references to Japan in our everyday lives fill up my heart with warmth. We’ve been to many places there that became special to us and one such place was Kyoto.

Planning


Originally we planned to stay in Osaka and make a couple of day visits to Kyoto. The express train ride was from 15 to 30 minutes long which is much shorter than our ride to Manhattan is. But later on we thought that Kyoto would be a great and very romantic place to spend our anniversary day and night at.

To make it even more special we made a reservation for a stay in Nishiyama Ryokan — a traditional Japanese inn — for the night of November 23rd. The stay also included a traditional Japanese dinner on the eve of 23rd and a breakfast on the morning of 24th. It also happened so that our anniversary of November 23rd fell on the same day as a national holiday in Japan.

Subway station.Our plan was simple — take a bullet train to Kyoto in the morning of the 23rd, buy the daily passes for Kyoto subway and buses and spend 2 days exploring the city with a stay and celebration in the above mentioned ryokan. We had the luxury of leaving all our bags in Osaka at our Hilton hotel, since we had a room there booked and paid for anyhow. And that’s exactly what we did.

Morning


On the early morning of our anniversary day we ate breakfast at our hotel buffet and soon after got on the train the schedule of which we confirmed via Hyperdia website — our JR station in Osaka was right across the street from our hotel.

Nijo Castle grounds.We got slightly confused by the signs at the station, since they were not specifying Kyoto on the train that we were supposed to take. When we asked for confirmation at the entrance booth we were told to take some other train which would get us to Kyoto later than the one we were thinking of taking.

It turned out that the sign at the station was actually specifying the last stop of the train (which makes sense) and Kyoto was one of the stops before that. So we did hop on the train that we planned to take and it worked out just right. In a little more than 20 minutes we were standing at the main Kyoto JR station right in the heart of Kyoto itself.

Inside Kyoto JR station.Our first order of business was to buy our passes for the local trains and buses — JR basically doesn’t have any lines to any of the places that we wanted to visit and we thought that instead of making it hard on ourselves by trying to calculate the cheapest and the correct fare to all the places we wanted to visit we would rather spend a little bit more money and just buy a pair of unlimited passes.

Inside Kyoto JR station.The option that we chose was a 2-day pass covering two main subway lines and most of the city buses for ¥2,000 per person. That came out to about $50 for both of us and gave us the freedom of hopping on as many buses and trains as we wanted.

After spending ¥4,000 on the passes we came to a sad realization that we had about ¥1,000 left. To put that into perspective a can of soda or tea typically costs ¥150. We had dollars, but when in Japan dollars are only good to purchase yen. So we needed to find an exchange place. And from what we read the best place to exchange money was a post office. And to our surprise there was one right outside the station.

Staircase at one of the subway stations.We walked into the post office and asked a man at the counter if they do currency exchanges. He confirmed that typically they do, but today being a holiday the bank portion of the post office was closed. We went back into the station which had a large underground mall inside and tried to find another currency exchange place. It was too early in the morning and all of them were closed. In addition to that at the information desk we were told that chances are that they are closed for the day because of the holiday.

We found an ATM machine and tried using our ATM card, but the machine told us that our bank declined the transaction. We found a couple more — some were in Japanese and we could not use, and the ones that were in English kept saying the same thing as the first one did. It was becoming obvious that we had no way to get money, the entrances to all the places that we wanted to visit are not free and that this “little” debacle might just ruin our day.

Golden Pavilion


Bus to Kinkakuji.We still decided to take our chances that we’ll have enough money and go to Kinkakuji — Golden Pavilion. We needed to go to the northern end of Karasuma subway line which goes right through Kyoto JR station and from there get on the right bus — no direct subway service, hence the need for bus pass. Luckily for us we had it all planned in advance and had detailed directions on how to get there.

On the bus.We went to Kitaoji Station (15 minute ride) and there we asked for direction on how to find the buses. Turned out that there was a bus terminal right at that station and each bus stop had a list of bus numbers and places that the bus stops at — this made things very easy. Soon after we were on a bus where we were pleasantly surprised to learn that each bus stop also has an English name on the sign. Plus it appeared that a most people were going to the same place as we were, so we had no problem getting off at the right stop.

Temple map.And from the stop we just followed all the people to the temple. Funnily enough a number of locals, when spotting us, were instantly pointing out the direction to go to for us even though we weren’t asking. Also there were maps on the way on which the temple was marked by a swastika symbol. In Japan swastika is an ancient sign of the sun and even though there is a lot of bad stigma associated with the symbol in the west it is still widely used in Japan.

Near the entrance to Kinkakuji.When we got to the entrance to the temple grounds we were relieved to find out that the entrance would cost us ¥400 per person or in other words pretty much as much money as we had in our pockets. Also upon getting inside we were surprised by how crowded the place was — tourists from Japan and all over the world. We were having a hard time getting to the fence to see the temple.

Crowd at Kinkakuji.Forget about taking a good photo. Matters were further complicated by all the dark clouds covering the sky which meant that in order for me to take a beautiful photograph I had to rest my camera on something for an HDR burst. However I was lucky enough to find a good place on the wooden fence and as a result I managed to capture the Golden Pavilion and an illusion of tranquility that this place would project if all the people would suddenly disappear.

Golden Pavilion — Kinkakuji.We started walking along the path that would take us through the territory and were soon stopped by a shy Japanese girl (15 years old maybe?) apologizing and asking if she could talk to us. We noticed her nervous classmates nearby and her teacher encouraging her to be brave. Turns out she had a school project where she needed to find foreign tourists and ask them (us) several questions in English.

Kinkakuji.She had a hard time writing down our names, but was happy to find out that we were from New York — a familiar word that she knew how to write. She asked us several more questions and asked to take a photograph with us. We should have asked the same in return, but it didn’t occur to us at the moment.

Here we are.She was very happy and quite relieved that she has completed her project. It seemed that she was the first and the bravest out of her class. I think in their culture it’s a hard barrier to cross — to “bother” somebody. But it was no bother for us and we were glad we could help.

Kinkakuji.After that we covered the whole path rather quickly and decided to leave the temple grounds. If the place would be serene and quite we would probably spend much more time here, but since it was so crowded we decided to get out of the mob of tourists and just walk around city street. Plus there was nothing else we could do since we had no money to get into the next place we wanted to visit anyhow.

Hotel


Russian cartoon character — Cheburashka — seem to have taken over Japan.We spent over an hour walking through the streets. On our way we discovered several small temples, a whole bunch of closed banks, a number of restaurants for which we had no money and even got rejected at a local McDonald’s — they do not take credit cards.

Hirano Shrine.We were getting somewhat tired and hungry, so we decided to get back on the bus and go to our hotel. Remembering how there should be Wi-Fi available I thought that maybe we’ll try to call our bank and ask them to unblock our debit card for us in Japan. The bus took us to the same subway station that we were at when we got here. There we took a train back to the center of the city — the central station called Karasuma Oike. Here we jumped onto another train line called Tozai and went one stop to the east. Our hotel was located two blocks away. Very convenient and right in the center of the city.

Typical Kyoto street. This one leads to our hotel.To get to our hotel we had to walk along a tiny street. There was enough space for a single car to fit and there was no sidewalk — we just had to walk along the road itself. Our hotel was easy to find and even though its entrance had a historically old look the building was quite modern. It was just decorated as an older structure. When inside we were greeted by friendly staff, but we were told that they can keep our bags (we had none), yet check in only happens later in the day — it was still too early.

We asked them about currency exchanges and they gave us map which was listing all the banks in the area, but as with other ones — they were all closed. I got on their Wi-Fi network and tried to dial 1-800 number on the back of my debit card via Skype. That didn’t work. So I called my sister, explained the situation, gave them all my information and asked her fiance to call the bank and to pretend to be me. They were keeping him on hold for a long time and we decided not to wait for it to work out and just went out to explore the area.

Street mall.On the map here we saw a long long street that was covered with a roof and littered with all kinds of shops, restaurants and temples. These malls seems to be a popular type of thing in Japan as we saw these kinds of places in several other cities. We walked there, but our mood was pretty sour by now. We wanted to drink, but couldn’t buy anything, we want to eat, but all the places only took cash and no credit cards. After walking through this mall for some time we were starting to feel down right depressed.

Then we saw a 7-11 with an ATM inside. We decided to try our luck again and see what happens. We were hoping that maybe Lenny was successful by now and managed to get our card unlocked. I inserted my card, entered my pin and requested a withdrawal of ¥10,000. The machine started thinking, dialing and then we heard a magical whirling sound lighting up a feeling of hope in us and then it spit out the money! We were ecstatic. Never before we loved 7-11 as we did at that moment.

Entrance to our ryokan.We took our new found fortune and proceeded to buy some food. Alёna got herself some red bean ice-cream which she keeps cursing to this day and I got myself some cross of a bun with meat and a wanton. It was the most delicious wanton-bun thing I ever ate. We got ourselves some juice and tea and were on our way back to the subway station to proceed with our plan. Lenny has saved our day and our anniversary.

Nijo Castle


Gates to the castle. Palace is inside.Nijo Castle was located only 2 subway stops away from ours. It was the first thing that we put on our list of things to see when we were planning our trip since it was so close to our hotel. The hunger was gone, we were “rich” and an ancient castle was awaiting us. We were in a great mood.

Nijo Castle.Nijo Castle itself was built somewhere in early 1600s and is currently designated a UNESCO world heritage site. The castle has several high walls surrounded by moats, multiple ponds and gardens and a large palace which served as the residence and office of the shogun. And visitors were allowed inside the palace.

On one of the guard towers.We were asked to give up our shoes at the entrance and were welcomed inside. There was no photography allowed in there, but it was a very interesting self-guided tour. First thing that we noticed was the sound that the floors make — nightingale floors. When people walk on them they make a high pitched melodic squeaking sound. If we didn’t read about this before we would think that the floors were simply old, but in reality they were specifically designed this way so nobody would be able to approach the shogun without being noticed.

View from the tower.Inside there was a large number of different rooms and each one had its purpose. They had mannequins dressed in kimonos in most of them displaying what normally would be happening — a dinner, a meeting and so on. Shogun was always protected by body guards that were hidden from view behind different kinds of doors and closets. The place was quite huge inside. It took us at least 20 minutes to walk through it.

One of the paths inside the castle grounds.Afterwards we walked around the territory of the castle looking at the gardens, ancient buildings and taking photographs. It was all so interesting and unusual. So many great moments and memories — I can’t say this enough.

Ryokan


The sun was starting to set, we were tired and we were getting ready for our special anniversary dinner — we had to get back to hotel by 7pm — the dinner takes a very long time to prepare and has to be served at a precise time. We got back to subway and soon after we were at our hotel. We were warmly greeted, they showed us around, made some green tea for us and we had our dinner.

Our room at Nishiyama Ryokan.For dinner there were only 2 of us there, we tried a lot of different and unknown things for us, drank some sake and had a great time. The room was very cozy, the breakfast in the morning was equally great and a tea ceremony that they performed for us was very special too. Alёna claims that it was the best tea she has ever had a chance to drink, although I myself didn’t like the taste — it was too bitter for me.

I’m running through this part because I’ve already written about the hotel and our dinner in much more detail earlier. I’m really glad that we decided to spend some extra money and book a room here. Maybe it’s not a 100% authentic ancient place, but it was a perfect place for beginners like us.

Tea ceremony.It’s a great tradition that we have — to do something special on each one of our anniversaries and this day is definitely one of the most memorable and unusual days to date.
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Japan: Hotels

Why is it so hard to completely enjoy the moment when you’re in it and why do you only fully realize how great it was when it is behind you? I would love to turn up at one of JR stations right now, going to some new unexplored place.

I was planning to make this post ahead of my food post, but since Alёna did hers we wanted them to be out at about the same time. So now — a couple of words about the places we stayed in.

Hilton HHonors & Planning


As we have said before our hotels were covered by Hilton HHonor points, which made this vacations much cheaper for us than it otherwise would’ve been. We also didn’t have to shop around for bargain hotels and had a peace of mind going there knowing that Hilton is Hilton.

Tokyo Bay view from Conrad Tokyo.Hilton points are more efficiently spent if you can stay at a single place for 6 or more days. Therefore we originally booked our hotel in Osaka (no Hiltons in Kyoto) and figured that it will be our main hub of visiting everything around it and I think it worked out quite well for many reasons.

From Osaka we made trips to Nara, Kyoto and Hiroshima. On the last day we were so tired that we didn’t want to make any more trips, so we spent it checking out Osaka itself. If we were staying in Kyoto all this time we probably wouldn’t even come to Osaka at all.

Conrad Tokyo. One of Hilton properties.After making our Osaka reservation we had more than a 100,000 points left. So when looking for hotels in Tokyo we went with the most expensive one they had — Conrad Tokyo for 2 nights.

Since we didn’t really know which location would be good, the hotel choice was pretty much random. Otherwise we just have one rule — no airport locations. Those seem to often be in shady areas and far from anything interesting.

Subway line. View from our room in Conrad Tokyo.In addition to the fact that our hotels were free we happen to have Hilton Diamond VIP status. What that practically means is that we can book the cheapest room and get upgraded to an executive floor and an executive room, get free access to executive lounge (food and alcohol for free), get complimentary breakfast and free internet. In one word — NICE!

As we kept doing our research it became apparent that we would like to spend at least one night in a traditional hotel — ryokan. Since we definitely wanted to dedicate more than one day to Kyoto — Kyoto was our choice. We decided to book one night at Nishiyama Ryokan. We figured we’ll just leave our things in Osaka in our Hilton and just go explore Kyoto without having to worry about carrying bags with us.

Conrad Tokyo


Our room in Conrad Tokyo.This was our first stop in Japan. We got here from the airport on a rainy night and were helped up to the hotel registration on 28th floor. At first this appeared strange to us, but only later on we realized that most of the building is actually an office tower and the hotel itself is located on the top floors. The check-in was quick. We were upgraded to the 37th floor which was an executive floor and a top floor of the building. I always ask for the highest floor possible for a better picture taking opportunities out of the windows.

A couple of the words about the room itself — it probably was the most impressive one we have stayed at yet. If we were to book this very room for money it would’ve cost us $1,000 per night — we did the math while we were booking.

Tokyo from our window. Twin government building towers are visible on the left.The ceilings were very high — at least 2 of my heights if not more. There was a large glass separating the bathroom and the bedroom. That wall had a motorized blinds as did the main window — the outer wall was all glass. Everything in the room could be operated by a multitude of control panels filled with buttons. The toilet itself had at least 5 buttons (which by the way is the case with pretty much every toilet in Japan) — sit warmer, auto-flusher, bidet and who knows what else.

Another thing that we enjoyed quite a bit was the shower system, strangely enough. It had a regular shower on the wall, but it also had a huge shower head sticking out from the ceiling itself. And what made it so great was that when you stand under it you feel like you are standing in a very strong rain, not shower. Big water drops are just going all over you. When we get our own house we are definitely going to look into getting one of these installed.

Other direction. JR tracks are visible on the ground.The views from the windows were quite spectacular as well. In one direction we could see all the way to government towers located in Shinjuku. From the windows in the lobby (on 28th floor) we could see Tokyo Bay and a big green park in front of the hotel which we didn’t get to.

But what turned out to be even better than the hotel itself was its location. Hotel was located in Shiodome neighborhood of Tokyo. Shiodome subway station on one of Tokyo subway lines was right downstairs. JR Shimbashi station on Yamanote Line (that loop line that goes around the city that I wrote about before) was a 5-10 minute walk away. And the famous Tsukiji Fish Market was a 10-15 minute walk away. I couldn’t have planned it better if I wanted to.

Alёna. Conrad Tokyo.Anyhow, we really enjoyed staying at this hotel. Superb service that can be expected from any Hilton in the world.

Hilton Osaka


Hilton Osaka was a bit simpler than Conrad, but it was still a high-end luxury hotel that we expected. We got upgraded to the 30th executive floor and had a nice view of Osaka out of our window. We also had access to the executive lounge which we would visit every night. However we were so tired that we didn’t get to use the pools a single time.

Osaka from our window in Hilton Osaka.Every morning we would start by going downstairs for a complimentary breakfast which had a large selection of hot food. It was not a typical continental breakfast, but a full buffet filled with western and Japanese food. One morning we met that same couple that we stayed in line with to Sushi Dai in Tokyo — that was a strange coincidence.

Hilton hotel building is on the right. View from Osaka JR Station.And by a pure accident we again ended up in a great location. Osaka seems to have two “downtown” areas. One is Namba and another is Umeda. Our hotel was located in Umeda right across the street from a huge Osaka JR Station which was just rebuilt and reopened this year. It includes in itself a huge shopping mall with all kinds of restaurants and department stores. It also has a rapid service to Kyoto which takes 24 or so minutes and it was 1 stop way from Shin-Osaka station — where all the bullet trains go through.

Same scene as above, different time.The hotel also ended up being right near Airport Bus stop which was extremely convenient on our last day.

Nishiyama Ryokan


This was definitely the most unusual one of our stops. It ended up costing us $385 for one night, but it included traditional breakfast and a dinner which we talked about in our food posts. We stayed in a traditional Japanese room with 8 tatami mats.

Nishiyama Ryokan. Entrance.It turned out that November 23rd (our anniversary) is a national holiday in Japan. But luckily increased rates for hotels apply for the night of 22nd to 23rd. We wanted to spend our anniversary night in this location, so we paid the usual rate. The stay sure ended up being special.

Our room and Alёna in her kimono.When we got to the ryokan we were greeted by a very friendly staff who checked us in and led us to our room. A woman dressed in traditional Japanese clothing explained to us a number of details about our room and Japanese traditions, showed us how to wear kimonos, made green tea for us and showed us how to sit properly at a Japanese table. She also insisted that we should try wearing the kimonos to dinner, even though we obviously could wear whatever we pleased. But we’re glad that we listened to her and it made the whole experience even more special.

Our host at Nishiyama Ryokan.We had a great dinner. We slept on the floor on special futons, which was also very comfortable. The personnel at the hotel was very helpful and friendly. The breakfast was not any less interesting and when we were about to leave they gave us a traditional tea ceremony.

One thing that seemed interesting to me was the fact that paper can provide very good heat insulation. Our room had a central bedroom and a separate smaller room which had windows. There was a traditional door between the two which mainly consisted out of paper. While it was very warm inside our sleeping room the outside room was very very cold. That was unexpected.

Nishiyama Ryokan. Lobby.We didn’t really know what to expect from this place, but we were so glad that we decided to spend one night here.

Conclusion


Overall the whole trip was great. We lucked out with our hotel selections, which aided us in our explorations of Japan. They were also a good part of our adventures, especially our ryokan stay. Oh so many many great memories already. What a week it was.

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