Friday, December 21, 2012

Exploring Rome

View of Saint Peter's Square from the top of Saint Peter's Basilica.Getting there was pretty uneventful. Our flight departed from JFK at 10 o’clock in the evening. We were flying Alitalia directly to Rome and with my inability to sleep on the planes I ended up watching a bunch of movies on the built in TVs for the most part of the night.

One of typical buildings in Rome.When we landed in Rome it was right in the middle of the day — 12pm. After being awake for such a long time the first day is a bit hazy in my head. We quickly went through the customs and passport control and were out into the wild with our bags in hand in a very short amount of time. As we exited the airport doors we ran into a driver holding a card with our name — we pre-arranged a car to take us to our hotel through the hotel itself before our departure. The airport is well outside the city and happened to be located on the opposite side of Rome from our hotel on top of that. Knowing that we will be quite tired from the flight we figured that it would be worth to pay €55 to avoid fumbling around with public transportation with luggage at that moment.

At Vatican Museums.This time around, having learned our lesson from Japan, we opted not to exchange currency at the airport, but instead pre-ordered €300 from our bank to be delivered to our home before our trip. That combined with credit cards ended up being enough money to last us through the rest of our trip.

Our hotel — our Hilton Garden Inn.Even the ride to hotel itself has proven to be an interesting experience. Our driver was doing a pretty good job cursing at people who were getting in his way. The funniest moment was when he ended up stopping right in the middle of an intersection, thus blocking the way for cars on a perpendicular to us street. The guy in the first car on the said street proceed to roll down his window, stick his head out and send a very passionate stream of words towards our guy. Not to be left out our guy rolled down his window and replied in kind. After the exchange of what I’m sure was nothing but pleasantries was completed, we were ready to move forward.

Streets of Rome.The ride ended up being quite long which made me even more grateful for getting a ride on car. On our way to the hotel we drove through the middle of the city and I was able to follow the whole trip through my phone’s GPS with pre-downloaded maps. We kept looking out of the window and going — wow, there are some nice ruins there, and then some more there and there. And what is that weird ruin there? Oh, wait — that’s a Colosseum!

Streets of Rome.The city itself was nothing like a typical U.S. city. There were no 1-2 story private houses, but mostly buildings. A lot of windows had shutters on them and what looked very nostalgic to us were strings with drying laundry on them everywhere. Out of all the cities that I have visited in the past 20 years I would say that Rome looked very much like Odessa to me for some reason and that somehow created a nice warm nostalgic feeling towards Rome for me even though I’ve only been to Odessa 3 times in my life.

European type elevator of our hotel.Our first hotel was Hilton Garden Inn. Our other option in the city was Waldorf Astoria, but it was quite a bit more expensive and since the reviews were very mixed we decided that it wasn’t worth it. Hilton Garden Inn turned out to be very nice and clean with a good sized room that we could expect from such a hotel in U.S. The only thing that gave it away as European was a tiny elevator that barely fit both of us along with our suitcases inside.

Rome.What turned out to be a nice convenience was the fact that there were 2 trams running by our hotel. Tram number 3 would take us directly to Vatican and tram number 19 would take us directly to Colosseum — our 2 main objectives to visit in Rome.

Park near the gallery.On our first day we decided to take a walk to famous Galleria Borghese that was about a kilometer away — a rather short walk at that. Gallery itself was located in the park, so we figured that even if we decide not to get inside we’ll walk around the park itself. On our way there we passed by a number of embassies including ours. Ours of course looked like a fortress with a huge wall around it and armed people guarding the entrance.

Vatican Museums.When we got to the gallery we realized that we had to turn in our bags and cameras in and we didn’t want to do that yet. On top of it it was pretty crowded, but most of all we were feeling like a pair of zombies falling asleep on our way. We figured it wouldn’t be money well spent, although I’m sure the gallery itself had a lot to offer. We decided to start walking back towards the hotel and grab some dinner on our way before we completely turn off.

Here we had our first dinner.We found a pretty cozy place very close to the hotel — our first Italian dinner. The food was not bad, as was the wine. From this moment on we haven’t had a single dinner without wine. In most places wine would end up costing us no more than bottled water. Thus concludes our celebration of Alena’s birthday. On our way back to our hotel we bought ourselves a pair of all day tickets for Rome for the next day which covered all trams, subway and bus rides for that day. At €6 per person it was well worth it.

Waiting for our first tram to Vatican in front of our hotel.Our original plan was to try to last until at least 6pm, but we ended up falling completely asleep at 4pm. Then we woke up around midnight and watched some TV (our strategy for not waking up at 3am). I feared that now that I woke up I won’t fall asleep again. I was wrong. I did fall asleep again and the next time I woke up I was quite shocked to find out that it was 7am already. Now that was some power way to get over our jet-lag.

On our way to Vatican.In the morning we woke up completely refreshed and full of energy, ready to explore the famous city of Rome. Rome has a lot of things to offer and since we were here for only one full day we had to set realistic objectives. Our plan was simple — see Vatican City with its main basilica and see Vatican Museums along with Sistine Chapel during the first part of the day. The second part of the day we wanted to spent around Coliseum. So we proceeded to do exactly that. After we ate our breakfast at our hotel we hopped on tram number 3 towards Vatican.

Alena on Saint Peter's Square.Now having seen what I’ve seen I can say that I was expecting to be impressed the most by Coliseum, but turned out that Vatican was the most memorable part of the day. We had reservations (to avoid lines) for Sistine Chapel, but we had no idea where to look for what. So we went for the place that seemed the most obvious — a large circular “square” in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica. At that time we didn’t know the name of this large church and assumed that it was Sistine Chapel. We went through a short security line and ended up inside. The place was unexpectedly huge.

Inside the basilica.One of my main objectives was to get on top of the cupola for some bird-view shots. We had no problems finding the place where one can get to the cupola as there were signs pointing us in the right direction. There were two options — either take the stairs all the way up or buy an elevator ticket and ride half the way up and climb the rest. We decided, that since we had a lot to see and weren’t too sure of our climbing abilities, to spend the money. The elevator took us to the room right at the base of the cupola. We went inside and were able to look down. People looked like ants down on the floor.

Looking down from inside the cupola.We started the climb to the top. The staircase was very narrow and was laid between two walls of the cupola — the outer and inner shells. It wasn’t too hard to deal with, but people with claustrophobia probably shouldn’t get in there. I was full of anticipation and when we finally got out on the top it was totally worth it. The views were amazing. Sun was shining us right in the face which is not great for photographs, but I still managed to take a couple of great shots that I’m very happy with.

View from the top. Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums are on the left.Afterwards we walked around the roof for a bit and went down into the basilica itself. As I said before the building was immensely huge. According to Wikipedia it indeed is the biggest church in the world. At this point we were already full of impressions, but we still didn’t find one of our main objectives. We asked a guard on how to find Sistine Chapel and it turned out that we had to walk out of Saint Peter’s area and go all the way around Vatican City and enter the museums from an opposite side. And that’s what we did.

Another direction from the top.Now if we were rather well prepared for Japan trip here we were mostly winging it. We knew the places that we wanted to see — like Sistine Chapel — but in this case we weren’t 100% sure why. Alena mentioned that it was famous for the fact that it had been painted by Michelangelo. But more on that later. Once we figured out that the museums and Sistine Chapel was not Saint Peter’s Basilica we had no problem finding it. On our way though we were pestered by numerous tour guides offering to take us in the museum and avoid the lines. It was actually quite annoying, since we had to say “No!” every 30 seconds while we were walking there.

Inside the basilica.When we got in we quickly exchanged our reservation vouchers for tickets, but were even more amazed to see that even to buy a ticket there simply were no lines! That’s the beauty of traveling in the off-season. There was still a lot of people, but not to the point where things would get uncomfortable. Now the collection of various forms of art at Vatican Museum is vast. This place is probably heaven for art lovers and students of art. Since we were less informed we tried to make the most of it and try to simply appreciate all the history that this place contained.

Hall full of sculptures.It was an interesting experience, but I want to share a thought that I kept catching running through my mind. All this is great and dandy, but how many countless lives had to be taken over the centuries to amass such riches. I really didn’t want and don’t want to get into politics of things, but somehow you can’t help but wonder about that. Now being there I just wanted to enjoy the place and that fact that I’m there, so I tried to push those thoughts away.

Geographic maps.There are two ways to get to Sistine Chapel — the short way and the long way. The short way is just a shortcut to get to the most famous place in the museum and the long way is to go through what seemed to be miles of hallways filled statues, paintings, rugs and other pieces of art. Since it was pretty early in the day we decided to walk through all of it. One place that stands out the most in my mind is the hall filled with a big collection of ancient geographical maps. Also in a lot of cases the halls themselves were art — the paintings on the ceilings, the decoration of the walls.

Maps.So by the time we got to Sistine Chapel we had a bit of an information overload happening in our system. For some reason we expected to see “The Creation of Man” by Michelangelo spanning the whole ceiling here. When we didn’t see that and saw several smaller paintings instead we shrugged it off and moved on. However 5 minutes later while we were waling by souvenir shop we saw books about Vatican Museums and a lot of them did have “The Creation of Man” on their covers. So we started thinking that this being by far the most famous painting — at least to us — and Sistine Chapel being the most famous place in the museums, something was amiss.

Raphael's frescoes.We decided to backtrack through the crowd of people going in the opposite direction and get inside Sistine Chapel yet again. And sure enough when we got there right in the center of the ceiling was “The Creation of Man” — the very famous painting know practically to anyone. This time we decided to pay attention and spend more time there. We looked at all the paintings on the ceiling and the walls and I’m glad we did. There is just something about seeing such a famous thing with your eyes in its original form. Photography here was not permitted, so you’ll have to go and see this place with your own eyes.

Long halls of Vatican Museums.At this point we felt a certain sense of accomplishment, but we had seen enough art for one day. We decided to make our way towards the exit, but I wanted to see one more famous thing I was aware of — a large circular stair case located somewhere in the museum. But when were right at the exist I started to think that maybe I made a mistake and it wasn’t in this place or we missed it somehow. I asked a person in the information booth at the exit about it and she said — turn this corner at the exit. And sure enough — there it was. The very last thing in the museum leading people out back into the street.

Spiral staircase.Thus we were done with our first part of the day and our next objective was the Coliseum itself. In order to get there we planned to take subway. Rome only has two lines, so after dealing with subway in NYC there is nothing to it. The maps were quite clear and it was an easy thing. There was a station near Vatican and one near Coliseum. But we had to change the lines and that station was located right on the central train station in Rome — Roma Termini. We decided to get out there and buy ourselves a pair of tickets for our bullet train ride to Florence the next day.

Raphael's frescoes.Here I want to take a small detour and say a couple of words about my worries about the high crime level and our actual experience. Before the trip I read a lot of posts from various people around the internet of how the crime was very high in Italy. I read that you can not have anything in your pockets, that you will get tricked, things will get ripped off, bags that are left at your feet during lunch will get snatched and the car that you rent will be stolen — hence the mandatory theft insurance on rentals. Needless to say all this was quite worrisome.

Saint Peter's cupola from inside.Of course now in retrospect I imagine that if people who are planning a trip to New York will do the same “research” I did will walk away with an “unmistakable” conclusion that they will most defiantly get shot while here. Now having lived in New York for almost 20 years and being able to avoid getting shot to this day I had a pretty similar experience in Italy. Everything was overblown. The only two moments where my anxiety kicked in (and probably rightly so) happened on this day in Rome. First one was at the train station while we were buying tickets.

Inside Saint Peter's Basilica.The easiest way to buy a ticket is to use one of the vending machines that are located all throughout the station. We found one that wasn’t being used and within 3 seconds of me touching the screen there was a shady looking young guy practically hugging me offering me his assistance. This being our first day in Italy and me being all on edge from the supposed crime that was about to happen I kind of flew off the handle a bit and started yelling at the guy and demanding that he moves at least 5 meters away from me and doesn’t get any closer. Seeing this somewhat unbalanced reaction he decided not to argue and did exactly what I asked. He also put his hands inside his pockets.

Streets of Rome.We decided not take our chances anyhow and decide to just move to a different location of the station. We saw that the next couple — another pair of tourists — who came after us got the same treatment from this character. Only they didn’t send him away. I wonder if they walked away with the contents of their pockets or not. Anyhow, at the next machine I was taking my time, reading through all the instructions and yet another guy tried to help me. Only this time it was an impatient Italian guy who was in line after us — but I wasn’t aware of that yet. I yelled a bit at him too and proceeded to buy our tickets at my own pace. Only when we were walking away I realized what was going on and got an earful in Italian. I’m sure he was wishing us to have a pleasant day.

On the tram.What gave us a great peace of mind was the fact that before our trip we bought Alena a travel messenger bag. The bag had steel cables in the shoulder strap, steel mesh embedded in the fabric to prevent it from being cut open and a locking zipper that clips onto a ring attached to the shoulder strap. It also has an RF signal blocking pouch inside. We kept our money and our passport in this bag all the time. The bag is made by PacSafe and was well worth the purchase. It was convenient and we didn’t worry about any of our stuff.

Inside of Saint Peter's Basilica.The second incident happened within 30 minutes when we were walking around Coliseum. Some guy started talking Russian to me in broken Russian and trying to tie some string around my finger. That unnerved me a bit as well and I yelled a bit at this guy too. And that was it. Like a lot of people told me before the trip — just use your common sense and you’ll be fine. And they were right. There a lot of beggars, but just get away from them. People will try to give you flowers and then demand money — don’t take the flowers. They will try to tie strings on your wrist for luck and demand money — don’t let them.

Roma Termini.I carried my iPhone in my front pocket all the time — like I always do. I had my big and expensive camera with a big lens on me all the time. And nothing happened. When we moved from city to city we used locks on our luggage. With a little bit of common sense everything is indeed easily avoidable and nobody got even close to being confrontational with us. I gave myself stress for no reason. At least that was our experience. I’m sure the fact that we were there in the off-season and crowds weren’t huge probably helped as well. This concludes my detour and brings me back to Rome.

Coliseum itself.After buying our tickets to Florence we went back into the subway and in 10-15 minutes walked out right in front of the Coliseum itself. Coliseum as it stands today has two distinct sides — the more impressive side where the outer wall still stands and an opposite side where that outer wall came down during an earthquake some 800 years ago — we basically barely missed it. Sadly for us the sun was shining directly into the camera for me to take a well lit picture of the exterior wall, but we still tried. We walked up some steps which gave us a good vintage point. I did a couple of HDR bursts which still resulted in a somewhat mediocre photograph, but that’s the best we could do.

Arch of Constantine.Next thing we tried to do was to go inside the structure. Funnily enough an elderly French couple gave us a pair of tickets for the entrance — they were done and were heading back to Paris. We thanked them, but as we expected the bar code on the tickets showed them as used up already. There was a decently sized line at the ticket office and we decided not to stand in it and instead explore the area while the sun didn’t set yet. We proceed to Arch of Constantine which is located very close to Coliseum. It’s quite big and looked interesting. From what I read it was built in 315 and served as an entrance for triumphant emperors returning to Rome.

Forum.After that we went around the other side in search of the entrance to Forum. On our way there we started feeling thirsty and tried to buy a couple of bottles of Fanta from a street vendor. When he told us that each was going to cost us €4.50 we told him to keep them. Anyhow, at the entrance to Forum we encountered a much smaller line for the same ticket that gives access to all the area attractions. Each ticket was about €12. We bought them at about 3:20pm. What nobody bothered to mention to us though was the fact that all the entrances close at 3:30pm. We only realized that much later once we tried to return to Coliseum again — hence we didn’t see the inside of it after all. Of course the ticket was valid for the next day as well, but that wasn’t helpful to us at all.

Forum area.We wondered around Forum for about 30 minutes, took a couple of pictures, looked at what was left and went back to Coliseum to take a couple more pictures from the other sun-lit side.

Raphael's frescoes.By now we were feeling pretty tired and we were starting to get hungry. But instead of eating around this massive tourist trap we decided to take advantage of our unlimited travel passes and hopped on a tram 19 towards our hotel. When we got far enough from the center we started looking for a hole in the wall type of pizzeria. When we stopped new one such place we jumped off the tram and that’s where we had our dinner.

Leaving Coliseum.Pizzeria there worked differently from what we were used to. The owner had a bunch of different pizza pies of rectangular shape. We pointed out the ones that we wanted, he cut off the piece of our preferred sizes and weighted them. We were also surprised to see that this tiny place had a nice selection of wine, including the kind of wine that could be served in a vending machine — nothing like that in NYC. So we had our nice pizza dinner with red wine. At the end of the evening I managed to knock over some wine left overs and painted my jeans dark red, thus taking them out of commission.

Pizzeria selection.We arrived back to our hotel fairly early by Italian time and went to bed. However for some reason I couldn’t fall asleep for a good number of hours because of anxiety — completely pointless one at that — about our move to the next city. I was worrying about “thief filled” train station and us being there with our luggage. But as I said earlier nothing bad happened at all and I gave myself stress for no reason.

Our dinner.In the morning we jumped on a bus and were at the train station in 15 minutes the most. Soon after we figured out how to find our train — the line number appears only about 15 minutes before departure. Then before boarding a train we asked a young guy if we were about to climb into the right car. He confirmed it. We found our seats. At first we left our luggage near the doors, but then we realized that there is plenty of space between the car seats — they were with their backs to each other. We moved our luggage there, close to us. And as we sat down the guy who we talked to before getting into the car came in and sat down right across from us at the same table.

Streets of Rome.We ended up talking to him all the way to Florence. His name is Lorenzo and he lives somewhere in the vicinity of Venice. His English wasn’t perfect, but he was able to keep a conversation going for almost two hours. He kept insisting that he is horrible and can’t speak — if only my Italian was even 1/10th of his English I’d be grateful. He works as a baker. We asked him what he would recommend to try food-wise and drink wise among other things. He mentioned that Prosecco wine was well known. Turns out it is well known in US as well, but we never heard of it before.

Waiting for our train to Florence.And thus our visit to Rome has ended. Now thinking back I already have plenty of warm memories about the city that we only caught a slight glimpse of. I would love to suddenly turn out in front of our hotel on the street that was full of big green trees — like in Tashkent and old buildings with laundry drying — another nostalgic memento of Soviet childhood. It was a great start of a great vacation.
1
1
2
2
3
3

Leave a comment

O.o teeth mrgreen neutral -) roll twisted evil crycry cry oops razz mad lol cool -? shock eek sad smile grin

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. Alena 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. Alena 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.
1
1

Leave a comment

O.o teeth mrgreen neutral -) roll twisted evil crycry cry oops razz mad lol cool -? shock eek sad smile grin