May 23, 2017
Traveled to Kyoto. Yesterday we dropped off our luggage in the Hotel’s lobby to be shipped to our next destination. It was a relief to walk through the busy train terminals without carrying our bags. The charge for four suitcases was $50. The last five days in Tokyo have been thrilling! From strolls around Meiji Shrine where lush patches of forest break up the concrete landscape to enjoying an afternoon matinee at the dramatic and elegant Kabuki theatre at the Kabuki-za in Ginza, from visiting hipster shops in Shibuya to taking in expansive views on the 60th floor at Sunshine City, we have covered a lot of ground. It is time to get out of the city and see more of Japan!
We took the Shinkansen(Bullet Train). It was by far the preferred mode of transportation for many traveling in Japan. We had gone to the Shinjuku station the day before to secure assigned seats. The line was short at 10 am when we found the JR window. Our English-speaking attendant took our vouchers that I had purchased before arriving in Japan and processed them into round trip tickets. Without asking, she assigned seats in the nonsmoking car and placed us on the side that had a view of Mount Fuji. She seemed to be intuitively connected to our needs! I was grateful for her consideration.
Riding on the Shinkansen is an experience in itself. These sleek, futuristic trains can reach up to speeds of 200mph. We paid for economy class and I was apprehensive. Were we going to be packed in tight? Was it going to be crowded? Uncomfortable? My experience using economy class at home and abroad has developed these unpleasant views. To our surprise, the train was spacious. It is modern, sleek and clean. Recessed, low lighting runs along the ceiling and upgraded carpet on the floor. Set in rows of three and two-seat configurations, the paired seats have both legroom and elbow room. Nicely padded, the seats also have a white drop cloth on the headrests. There are electrical outlets to charge your devices located by your feet. Trays are built into the backs of the seats. An attendant came through the car, offering food and drinks off a cart. I’m not a big fan of mass transit, but I could get used to this.
Once we left the concrete environs of Tokyo and Yokohama, the landscape changed into multiple facets of green. Flat fields of rice paddies spread out along the track with homes and villages scattered near and far. Then we saw rolling hills, lush with trees and vegetation. We passed through long tunnels that cut through low mountains and finally at one point saw Mount Fuji in the distance. Its volcanic cone draped in snow stood like a guardian over the land.
Our trip took over 2 hours, so we had purchased food at one of the many food markets before boarding at Shinagawa Station, one of only two stations in Tokyo that serves the Bullet trains. Rice rolls, crepes, bento boxes and much more were displayed behind glass counters. Everything looked yummy and we had a hard time choosing. Descriptions were written in Japanese labeling the food. Unfortunately, the young lady working behind the counter didn’t know English. This made it difficult to know what we were really getting so we decided to spread our odds by buying four different items. I opt for the crepes and their creamy fillings, my husband bought a bento box whose items were beautifully displayed and the boys each bought meats covered in batter. We scored three out of our four purchases(assumptions in appearances weren’t always correct).
The Kyoto train station is smaller than those found in Tokyo. We hailed a cab and left the busy traffic around the station and headed north. As the tall commercial buildings receded in the back, we drove into a quieter part of the city. Following a wide four-lane boulevard, trees lined one side of the road while low set commercial buildings interspersed with residential flanked the other side. I noticed an aqueduct below street level marked with park benches, paths, and manicured landscape. The running, clear water looked like a nice reprieve from the busy street above. We turned onto a narrow road lined with one- and two-story homes, cars were parked in garages or behind walls. Did our driver understand me when I said, “Hotel Brighton mah deh, kudasi”? Which is “go to the Brighton Hotel, please”. We made another turn and to our left rose the six-story hotel. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Arriving in the late afternoon, we rested in our hotel room until dinner time. We enjoyed the Matcha tea set that was waiting for us. Kyoto is the Matcha tea capital of Japan and we were excited to try this unique tea. There were instructions beside the tea but they were written in Japanese. Step-by-step sketches were drawn, however, in preparing the tea. We gave it our best try. A green powder, it is poured into a bowl where it is whisked with a small amount of water. Once it has dissolved than more water is added. The taste is a bit grassy and a little on the bitter side. Hard candied sweets were paired with it. As something entirely different, I enjoyed it. For the rest of the family…not so much.
By dinner time, we were ready to explore our surroundings. Still daylight outside, we decided to walk to a restaurant I had found on TripAdvisor, Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen. We walked eight blocks, enjoying the neighborhood with its mix of homes, tiny intimate bars, a random vending machine that had beers to purchase. My boys were flabbergasted! “Wow, look at this!” They exclaimed. (Of course, they were the first to notice this). The next question was, “how do they prevent underaged kids from buying a beer?” My husband and I didn’t have an immediate answer. I finally suggested, “you know the Japanese are honorable people. May be out of honor, the kids don’t buy it.” It was hard to figure out if my sons bought that answer. There was simply silence afterward.
We crossed a busier part of town, passing over the aqueduct I had seen earlier and the wide boulevard our driver had taken. When we arrived at Menbakaichidai, we lucked out in getting the last four seats (another reason to visit Japan off-season).
Menbakaichidai prepares its Ramen in an unusual way. The cook sets the Ramen on fire as he serves it to you. They put on a great show as they prepared the Ramen. With pots flying and noodles sliding into bowls, the small restaurant lit up like a Pyrotechnics show. We didn’t know if we should laugh or run. The heat was intense as we sat in our seats! The whole experience was a delight. The staff spoke English and they enjoyed interacting with the patrons, asking where we were from, did we enjoy Kyoto and volunteering to take photos and videos of our culinary experience. The small group setting created an intimacy among strangers and the Ramen was absolutely delicious.