Starting the Day Right...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Last Day in Kyoto: Visit to the Cat Cafe


We had a late start to the day.  All the walking is getting to us sedentary office workers and our feet are quite worn out.  The novelty of sleeping on the futon is also beginning to wear out.  We made a late departure from the hotel and went to the Cat Cafe Nekokaigi!.

At the cat cafe
The cafe is not that easy to find- it is located on the second floor of the building, and we walked past it and had to retrace our steps.  But once we get there, the place is obvious as there are many cat-themed decorations around the front entrance.  Payment is by the hour - and you have to order a drink as well.  But it was well worth it!  The cats are normal street cats - gingers, tabbies, calicos and the like.  They are mostly quite friendly and take to being stroked by strangers quite well.  In fact, one of the cats is rather friendly and will climb on to your lap for more strokes if you pet her.  A few of them were sleeping, snoozing on top of the cat tree, or on the long low counter running along the window of the cafe.  One of the rules of the cafe - don't wake the sleeping cats!

There were two staff in the cafe - a younger man, and an older cat aunty.  The cats know them very well, and run to them demanding to be petted.  And they always oblige!  They even have a special way of patting them - more like gentle whacks on the bum, which the cats seem to appreciate.  I tried it out on the cats and this was also well-received (in fact I have now occasionally done this to my own cats at home and they too seem to like it).  

Anyway, the hour went all too fast and we proceeded on our way.  It was an enjoyable visit, but made me homesick for my own pussies.  Indeed, it is a good thing that we only did this on our last day in Kyoto.

Temple in Teramachi Arcade
We walked next to Teramachi Arcade, a few blocks away.  The Arcade is mainly shops, but interspersed with a number of temples.  Apparently the temples were relocated here many years ago, in line with the urban planning intent of the times. The shopping centre came later, but it is a trifle incongruous to see these temples amongst the food and clothes shops, not to mention the 100 yen shop.As 100 yen is about $1.20, it is cheaper than the Singapore S$2 shop equivalent.   I bought a bamboo steamer, cos you certainly can't get one for $1.20 in Singapore.  


Nishiki Market
We ended our day walking through Nishiki market.  It is most definitely THE most convenient place to buy Japanese snacks and titbits.  Happily munching and packing our purchases in our shopping bags, we made our way through the market.  There were stalls selling pickles, fish, the seasoned toppings for rice, tea (bought some), takoyaki (grilled octopus balls), sashimi skewers (I had one), fishballs, soy milk ice cream and donuts (we tried some of these too).  

Ours was a night flight, but by the time we finished with the market we had only enough time to get back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and make our way to the airport.

All in all, it was a wonderfully sakura-filled visit to Kyoto.  And since many sights remain unvisited, many temples unseen, I have every excuse to go again....

To end off, here's my Flickr page to visit for more photos (including, when I get round to uploading them, videos of my visit to the Cat Cafe!

Going Local: The Foodie Post

I have been fairly restrained thus far, as I have not been plastering pictures of Japanese food all over this blog
(except for one photo of our kaiseki dinner).  So now is the time to cast all restraint to the wind, and cover some of my foodie highlights from our Kyoto trip.  I have to admit, however, that I forgot to note down a number of restaurants' names (and there was one which didn't seem to have an English name) so I will have to just go by location.

The single most convenient foodie place in Kyoto: gotta be Kyoto station.  So many restaurants, so many kiosks, so many little bakeries, supermarkets and the like.   Except for one day, we ate there everyday (some times twice a day).  Many famous restaurants have a branch there - and we went to a few of them.  So for anyone considering a visit to Kyoto, I strongly recommend staying at or near Kyoto station - convenient for day trips, convenient for food, convenient transport node, convenient all round.


Tonkatsu at Katsukura, Kyoto Station
 We went to the well known tonkatsu restaurant Katsukura here.  The pork fillet is covered with crisp panko, but still soft and juicy on the inside.  We get a choice of dipping sauces on the side, and get to grind our own sesame seeds to sprinkle on our sauce.  There's also free flow chopped cabbage (I actually did ask for more) and soft barley rice.  Go there later in the evening, because by then the queues have shrunk and the food comes quickly.  

At Ten-ichi, Kyoto Station
Another notable restaurant here in Kyoto Station is Ten-ichi, a branch of a famous tempura restaurant (US President Bill Clinton was taken here by his hosts on an official visit to Japan).  Not the cheapest place but it was truly excellent.  The tempura is served in courses, so that you get just a few pieces at a time and can eat them when it is still crispy, hot and fresh.  The tempura set includes prawns, with their heads cooked separately (so crispy and crunchy); delicate, moist fish; vegetables, etc. The batter is light and coats rather than smothers the food within.  I can see why this dish was selected to tempt the Presidential taste buds.  The lucky ones get to sit at the counter - there you can watch the chefs at work. We were at a nearby table - good enough, we felt lucky to have a view of the chefs in the first place..   

Tofu steak and skewers, salad and miso soup
Beyond Kyoto station, one of my other favourite meals was at the tofu restaurant on Hanami-Koji street, which we came across when we visited Gion (tofu is a specialty of the region).  It  was at the beginning of the street, on the right hand side near the junction with Shijo Dori.  It serves a wide range of tofu products - I ate a wide range of tofu products, starting with the little tofu skewers and also the yummy grilled tofu.  Unfortunately, this is one place without an English name so I'm unable to give any more details.

We made it a point to try and eat our way across the range of Japanese food. So we had ramen (meal number one in Kyoto, in the Kyoto Station Ramen Alley); shabu-shabu in a restaurant overlooking the Kamo River; okonomiyaki, and of course our conveyor belt sushi lunch.

But Japanese food is not only found in the restaurants - there's lots of convenient bento lunches available at the departmental store food courts and little minimarts.  We had a simple bento lunch on a hill in Arashiyama; and a simple cup of instant noodles one morning for breakfast.  Convenience food indeed.

I'll end off this post, as I would a meal: with dessert.  The Japanese also do great desserts.  We had a rather boring matcha ice cream in the Imperial Garden park but we had great sakura ice cream half way down Mt Yoshino and soy ice cream at the Nishiki market.  My favourite -still the sakura ice cream, with the little bits of what could be petals inside.....  Sakura-themed mochi is also very much de rigeur for hanami parties.  Which is what we did, sitting on Mt Yoshino under the cherry trees, watching the petals fall from the trees, twirling in the wind.  A sweet treat indeed.

Mochi, to eat sitting beneath a cherry tree

Sakura Ice Cream

More food photos will be put up on the Flickr set, over time.  Good food sites include Bento.com.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Gion: A Glimpse of Old Kyoto

You haven't visited Kyoto if you haven't visited Gion.  The most famous geisha district in Kyoto, possibly even Japan.  But there is more to Gion than just hoping to get a glimpse of a geisha or a maiko.  Here in Gion, the traditions of Japan live on - the old-style townhouses, or machiya, the tea houses or ochaya where the geisha still entertain, the old theatres which continue to hold performances to mark the turn of the seasons.

Hanami-Koji
So, today was our day to visit Gion.  Taking the subway to Shijo station, we walked down Shijo Dori (Shijo street) and turned into Hanami-Koji Street, or the "flower viewing" road.  Old buildings line each side of the road, many hung with paper lanterns.  Each geisha district (or "hanamachi"), apparently, has its own symbol (or"kamon") and this symbol marks the lanterns in each district.  Our intent was to attend the tea ceremony followed by the annual spring dance or the Miyako-Odori at the Gion Kobu Kaburen-jo theatre   Translated as "Dances of the Old Capital", the dance was instituted soon after the Imperial capital shifted from Kyoto to Edo (today's Tokyo) to demonstrate that despite losing its capital city status, Kyoto was still the cultural and historical hub of Japan.  

Maiko at the tea ceremony
It is very clear that the Japanese hold this classic dance performance very dear.  When we arrived at the theatre, we realised that actually the majority of the audience appeared to be the Japanese themselves, many wearing their own kimono. There were some tourists, but not many.  We went first for the tea ceremony.  We were required to queue in a waiting area first before being brought up group by group to view the ceremony.  To be honest, it was highly regimented - due to the large numbers, we were literally being processed like products on a factory line.  From the first waiting area, we were brought to a second room and asked to sit down.  I suspect, to count the number of people there were so that everyone would have a seat and a drink in the next room, the hall where the tea ceremony was to take place.  Here, everyone was seated at the tables and stools facing the two maiko present for the occasion.  One of the maiko started making the tea.  Not that I could see what she was doing from my seat in the back of the room.  Efforts to take photos were also difficult due to the crowd.  The second maiko began moving around, taking tea from the table and giving it to a few people sitting in front.  The rest of us got served tea (made offline) and a little sweet by the attendants.  We had to drink up fast as the next group was coming in. At least, I managed to get a few shots in during this transition period.

Headgear used by Maiko - at little exhibition area in Gion Corner
The next stop - the dance itself (no photos allowed) There were eight scenes, some celebrating the seasons, and some based on old Japanese folk tales.  We went through all the seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter before ending up in spring again.  I enjoyed the gorgeous kimonos  and sets especially the spring and autumn sets which had lots of beautiful cherry blossom and autumn leaves respectively.  I also enjoyed the group dances, but the slow, graceful movements of the individual solos were somewhat..... lulling to me.  

After the dance we had a late lunch in a charming little restaurant on Hanami-Koji street. It was a small little restaurant with just 17 seats.  This place featured mainly tofu dishes.  I had a tofu steak - very nice in a clay pot over a flame.  

Ninenzaka Old District
After lunch, we walked around Gion, going through the old streets, making pit stops at the Yasaka shrine, the Yasaka Pagoda (located some way away from the shrine), old buildings at Ninenzaka to see the old street.  Many charming old buildings, little temples tucked away here and there, the odd cherry blossom tree.  Little statues dotted the route. 



Shirakawa canal at night
We paid a visit to Takashimaya and bought some breakfast for the next morning.  Then, it was time for our night walk of the area (it was a day full of walking). We went through Pontocho Alley - sadly no geisha in sight but tourists aplenty hoping to catch sight of one.  Little restaurants, bars, ochaya line both sides of this narrow road.  We walked by the Shirakawa canal too - the night lights on the cherry blossom trees were indeed a lovely sight.  

There are a number of restaurants on the little strip between the Kamo River and Pontocho Alley, and we had dinner at one of them - wagyu shabu shabu.  Another "must do", it turns out, although we did not know it at the time.  In summertime, the restaurants will put out their tables and chairs on the river bank.  In springtime, we were content to just sit in our nice warm room (on the third floor of the restaurant) to watch the scene below.  

More photos on Flickr. If any one is interested, here are a few more links dealing with Gion and the geisha: article from the Japan Times, on the geisha of Japan, and on the tea ceremony.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Going local : our Ryokan Experience

Today we climbed the Fushimi Inari shrine and shifted to our new Ryokan

Fox statue and Tori gate
at the Fushimi Inari shrine
The Fushimi Inari shrine is reputed to be one of the top rated attractions in Kyoto.  It is a shrine to Inari, the Japanese god of rice and of business  - in other words, built to honour the gods of good fortune.  Its characteristic is the tori gate, that classic symbol of Japan depicted as red in most guidebooks but turned out to be vermillion/ bright orange in reality.  The shrine has thousands of tori gates creating a corridor up the mountain, to the main shrine right at the top.  It's apparently a 2-3 hour trek to the top of the mountain.  We climbed up until we reached this little pond with some mini-shrines along side.  After that, we looked at the endless stairs going up we asked someone how much further and discovered that we were still not even one quarter of the way up.  So obviously we went down again and spent some time in the little souvenir shops near the entrance of the shrine.  I bought some nice little purses for family members.

We had a quick lunch subsequently in our favourite place, JR station.  At the conveyor belt sushi restaurant.  That was when I realised the incredible variety of sushi available in Japan.  Shellfish which I've never head of before.  A wide range of fish.  Uni (sea urchin), crab miso, crab roe, etc etc.  It was a pleasure also watching the sushi chefs at work.  Quick and deft, they prepared the sushi and put the little plates on the conveyor belt, with a little sign in front indicating what the topping was. We must have had around 15 plates between the two of us - substantial for the two of us but not much compared to some of the other patrons around the counter.

Our room in Yachiyo Garden Ryokan
After lunch,  we checked in at our new hotel - the Yachiyo Garden Ryokan.  Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns and I liked the comfortable, homey feel of the place.  We had booked a 12.5 tatami mat room, which was surprising spacious especially compared to our previous hotel room.  Of course, this was partly because the futons had not been put out for the night as yet.  A low table, with two seats alongside was in the middle of the room instead.  A simple alcove was in one corner of the room, with a scroll and a flower arrangement (ikebana) within.  The room has its own bathroom, and a little entry area where our slippers are kept.  Non-traditional items however included the television in one corner of the room.  

We took a short walk around the ryokan, to the Kyoto Handicraft Centre but thanks to all the purchases at
Doggies like hanami too!
the Fushimi Inari shrine, I only bought some food items for the office.  We found a little park serendipitously along the way back with a beautiful weeping cherry tree in bloom right in the centre. We spent some happy minutes taking photos, alongside a few others. One lady was taking photos of her two dogs under the blooms.  We took photos of them, too.

We got back to the ryokan in time for dinner.  We had ordered a traditional kaiseki meal and faced the eternal question - what to wear, what to wear, what to wear.  There was a simple cotton yukata and a sort of shorter robe (rather like a vest) over the yukata - a yukata jacket.  Since I was not too sure whether I would be able to sit decorously on the floor for an entire meal in the yukata, I opted to wear the jacket over my blouse and jeans.  At least from the waist up, I was very Japanese :-) 

At 7.30pm (our appointed dinner hour) there was a knock on the door - our hostess, here to escort us to dinner.  Whilst in most ryokan dinner is served in the room, here we go down to the dining area, which overlooks a serene Japanese garden, complete with cherry tree (no longer in bloom), pond, koi and moss covered stones.  Our hostess brought us some warm sake and some Japanese tea, then brought us our dishes, course by course.

A kaiseki meal is essentially the chef's degustation menu for the day.  Our ryokan is famed for its restaurant, which specialised in "washoku", the traditional Kyoto style of cooking and which in itself is on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (what a mouthful).  From my online research, I had earlier learnt that the typical kaiseki meal would typically comprise the following courses:

Our Kaiseki dinner
- appetiser selection
- sashimi (tuna, squid)
- nimono or simmered dish (we had octopus, very tender and yummy) 
- agemono or deep fried dish (tempura with green tea salt)
- yakimono or grilled dish (fish with pickled radish - the acidity of the radish went well with the richness of the grilled fish)
- sunomono or vinegared dish (baby squid with seaweed - I really enjoyed this too) 
- fish soup with rice and pickles (shokuji)
- fresh fruit with orange jelly 

Overall, a most enjoyable meal.  

We went back to our room and found out that our beds had been laid out.  Surprisingly comfortable, considering that we were on the floor.  It was a good night's sleep.

Photos of my Kyoto trip are here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Poetry Exercise No. 18: Haiku

A rather late revert to my attempt to complete the poetry exercises in "The Ode Less Travelled" by Stephen Fry.  Inspired by my visit to Japan.

According to what I learnt reading "Miss Happiness and Miss Flower" as a child, haikus have 17 syllables
On Mount Yoshino
altogether, and are arranged in three lines, of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively.  However, according to Stephen Fry, it appears that this strict adherence to the Japanese syllabic form is not quite right.  Obviously Japanese words have fewer syllables than English words.  They say more with these 17 syllables then English speakers.  Rather the haiku is supposed to be the distillation of a moment of inspiration or imagination, the "haiku moment".  Stephen Fry also instructs that there must be a "seasonal word", or "kigo" in each haiku, to tell the reader what season this haiku is meant for, and should preferrably refer to the natural world.

The poetry exercise requires us to write four haiku, one for each season of the year.  But I don't really want to as my photos are all of spring and cherry blossoms.  So, I will just write three haiku, to celebrate the beautiful sakura flower.

Grounds of the Imperial Palace, Kyoto

Dreaming of the spring
Cherry trees begin to bloom
Buds await their turn

Sitting by the tree 
Pale pink petals float and sway
Blossoms on the wind

Silver on the ground
Above, fresh green leaves unfurl
Life begins anew


Mount Yoshino: Cherry Blossom Central


We went today to Mt Yoshino, Japan's no. 1 cherry blossom viewing spot.  We decided to go on a weekday in order to beat the weekend crowds, but there were many people nonetheless.  

We took the train from Kyoto station (2 hour journey, one change) to Yoshino.  This was on Kintetsu Railway, one of the private railways serving the Kansai region.  I must say that in general, I have found the Japanese transport system reasonably cheap, and fairly extensive.  And of course, everything runs on time!  

The Rojin-hiroba, or Senior Citizens' Corner!
We reached Yoshino station and then had to queue for the shuttle bus up the mountain (a rather long queue).  But it was worth it, as the bus took us for quite a winding trip up the mountain.  We walked up a little way and since by this time it was already noon, found a nice flat area for our lunch, filled with groups and surrounded by a number of flowering cherry trees.  I did notice that the groups seemed to be made of older people but did not think anything of it until later when I saw an English sign indicating that it was the "Rojin-hiroba" or "Senior Citizens' Corner"!  Silly me, I thought that the Japanese kids were in school and the younger Japanese were working.  Anyway, we ignorant tourists had a pleasant time sitting on our mat under the tree, looking at the beautiful blossoms on the tree beside us and going "wow!" with the rest of the groups whenever a wind blew the petals off the blossoms, sending them swirling around us, like snow falling and flying on the ground.  In keeping with the spirit of the hanami-parties, we ate sakura-inspired mochi (actually mostly full of red beans, or akuzi beans), as well as little arrowroot biscuits which reminded me of kueh bangkit.  

After lunch, we climbed to the top of the little hill behind us and there, before us, was a beautiful view of the
Somei Yoshino, I presume
trees around us and the distant slopes and hills.  Walking around, I also learnt that the area we were in was actually the Sakura Tenjji-En Cherry Tree Exhibition Field, where a variety species of cherry trees had been planted as an exhibition area.  Further research indicated that there were over one hundred varieties of cherry trees, of which one of the most popular was the somei yoshino!

So just from the name alone, you can see that Yoshino is really closely associated with cherry blossoms.  But the reason why Yoshino is Japan's No. 1 cherry blossom viewing spot is that the cherry blossom season lasts for most of a month, rather than just over a few days.  The trees at the bottom of the mountain (the Shimo Senbon or lower 1000 trees) start blooming first, then as you go up the mountain where temperatures are lower, the trees (first the Naka Senbon or middle 1000 trees, then the Kami Senbon or upper 1000 trees) will bloom later until you reach the Oku Senbon (or inner 1000 trees) at the top of the mountain.  In case you are wondering, the answer is no, we did not go to the top of the mountain.  From what I can guess (the map's not that clear to me) we were around the Naka Senbon and Kami Senbon strata to start with.  In addition, the different varieties have different blooming times.  So everywhere you go, even though there are trees which have already finished blooming and have shed all their petals, there are others in full bloom and others still about to bloom.

Sakuramotobou
In addition to cherry trees everywhere, there are also a few temples and shrines on Mt Yoshino but we didn't really have the time to visit them. We did enter one temple compound, drawn by the beautiful weeping cherry tree there.  The temple was called Sakuramotobou and was apparently built by Emperor Tenmu who had a dream about the cherry blossoms on the mountain. As an aside, we also made another stop to buy sakura ice cream :-) 

We took so long to get down the mountain that the crowds started thinning out and the sun began to set.  But it was truly fortuitous that we took our time because the glow of the setting sun on the cherry trees was really beautiful to see and experience without the crowds around us.
Sunset on Mount Yoshino
Eventually, we got to the base of the mountain and took our train back to Kyoto.  When we changed trains, a group of schoolchildren dashed in too and some got off only a few stations out from Kyoto.  Makes me wonder how far Japanese kids have to travel to school....

Got back into Kyoto around 8.40pm.   Fortunately for us, some of the restaurants in good old Kyoto station were still open and I had a quick dinner there, washed down with a little sake.  Then, back to the hotel- I am so glad we are at a convenient walking distance to Kyoto station!

More pictures on Flickr, as and when I upload them.  But let me share some favourites here:

In full bloom, from the top of the hill next to the senior citizen's corner
Shidarezakura, or the weeping cherry tree - seen at Sakuramotobou
Walking down the mountain
Quiet beauty


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Arashiyama: Temples and Gardens

Today, we took the JR Train to Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto.  Arashiyama is a quiet town, except for the many tourists who visit it! 

Cherry Blossoms at Tenryu-Ji Temple
We went first to the famous Togetsukyo bridge.   Not great for blossoms as the season is past for the trees beside the river but they must hv been wonderful in their prime, just one week before our visit.  There were kimono-clad visitors and young Japanese girls everywhere.  The Japanese girls were typically accompanied by their family members - we didn't come across any mention of a "Girl's Festival" taking place that day,  so it could perhaps be some local  event.  The kimono-clad visitors were tourists pretending to be geisha.  But their languages and accents give them away - they were speaking in Mandarin, Cantonese and the like!  


Minimalism at Tenry-Ji Temple
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Anyway, we knew we were a little late for the cherry blossoms, so we were here in Arashiyama to visit temples and the famed bamboo grove.  First, the famous Tenryu-ji temple - one of the best-known zen temples in Kyoto (and another UNESCO World Heritage Site).  As can be expected of a zen temple, all the interiors were very minimalist :-)  Not so, however, its beautiful gardens, in particular the bountiful "Garden of Hundred Flowers" at the back of the temple.  Azaleas, camellias, and cherry blossoms were all out in force.

Thereafter, we went through the famous bamboo grove  - full of people taking photos!  Indeed, the tall bamboo trees were quite impressive, towering over the pathway.  The bamboo grove connects the back exit of the Tenryu-Ji temple to the famous Okochi Sanso Villa - the home of a Japanese silent movie star, Okochi Denjiro.  There was a little exhibition of him - his most famous role was obviously one of this gangster (yazuka member?) who has lost an eye.  So he looks most menacing in his photos.

The Villa itself was a small structure on the grounds of the property, and visitors were not allowed within.  The gardens, however, were a different story.  This is one of the famous "strolling gardens" of Kyoto with its extensive grounds, spreading across the entire hillside.   Indeed, we were presented with a different
garden and a different view at every turn, particularly of the surrounding areas.  Unfortunately, the cherry trees had already bloomed or we would have seen the far away mountains resting on "an ocean of cherry blossoms" as one little sign in the garden put it.  The visit ended with a little sweet and a bowlful of excellent matcha (we would learn, that there were many types of Japanese teas, of which the powdered green tea, or "matcha", was the most expensive).

Panorama - the view from the Villa

Maiko
As we left the villa to get to our next destination, we bumped into two maiko (apprentice geisha), who were attending a ceremony at one of the temples in the area!  They were impassive and ignored the tourists who were flocking around them (one tried to tap them on their shoulder to take a picture).  I got a photo - of their backs.  But that allowed me to capture the beautiful obi (sashes) they were wearing, their intricate hairdos and the characteristic white make-up on the back of their necks.

Our next stop was the Daikakuji temple - quite a walk (about 1.2 km) away. It is a very different temple from the "zen experience" we had at Tenryu-Ji.  It is very much a working temple, with its resident Ikebana Club putting up a small exhibition over the period (we saw their kimono clad members in the  grounds).  The temple has a few great prayer halls, all connected by a series of wooden corridors, many with creaking or "nightingale floors", designed to give
Osawa Pond
warning that an intruder was on his way.  A legacy from the temple's origins, as it used to be a palace, before being converted to a temple.  The Osawa Pond next to the temple was another scenic spot, with a long necked dragon boat ride available for visitors.  .

We took the bus back to Kyoto station, our home away from home, considering the many meals we had here!  We had dinner at a famous tempura restaurant, Ten-ichi.  It is a branch of a famous Tokyo restaurant and can count US President Bill Clinton as a patron.  The batter is thin and crispy, the food perfectly cooked within - still juicy and moist.  Yummy crunchy prawn heads :-)  Perfectly cooked fish which I ate with salt and lemon juice.

We walked back downstairs through Isetan and that was when we realised.... Isetan closes at 8pm and we were just in time to see all the salesgirls lining the corridor, each standing next to their stations.  As we walked past they gave a little bow to wish us goodbye.   

We went next to Daiso - it was one place which had not closed. Yeah!  Daiso here is a 100 yen shop, everything is 100 yen or rather 100 yen plus the 8% sales tax ie everything is 108 yen.  Unfortunately for us the sales tax had just risen from 5% to 8%, or everything would have been 105 yen.  But given 105 yen is about S$1.20 or so, it is, incredibly, still cheaper than Daiso Singapore which is a S$2 shop.  Bought some drip coffee - 4 sachets per pack, so it was about 30cents per sachet.  Not too bad for a cup of ground coffee.

After all this temple visiting, shopping, etc, we were quite tired out at the end of the day. More photos will be put up in batches on my Flickr page.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hanami time: Viewing flowers in Kyoto

Day 2 in Japan.  It was a good day for viewing blossoms!
Cherry Blossoms at the Imperial Palace

Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan for many years, until the capital shifted to Kyoto.  But as a result, Kyoto has many historical buildings, mystical gardens and peaceful temples. We visited only a small fraction of the many beautiful buildings but the Imperial Palace was a must-see on our list.

Serenity of a Japanese Garden
Access to the Imperial Palace is normally restricted - visitors to the Palace must sign up for a guided tour.  But twice a year, the Palace is open to the public - one week in spring, and the other in the fall.  We were lucky enough that our visit coincided with the spring "Open House" for the palace.  So there we went, ourselves and thousands of other visitors, Japanese and tourists alike.  There were special performances scheduled for the morning in the palace grounds.  So we went to watch, us and probably half the visitors in the palace.  We lined up around the performance dais and found that we still could not see the performers with ease.  After a while, we gave up and decided to explore the beauties palace and its grounds instead.

 The Palace is a collection of sprawling buildings, including an imposing Imperial throne hall in a gigantic
The Imperial Throne Hall
courtyard surrounded by brightly coloured orange pillars.  Smaller halls surround this main hall, and there is a small, exquisite little garden alongside - the Emperor's private garden.There were mannikins arramged in one of the halls, to illustrate how the members of the Imperial court would have lived. The bustle in the Palace was probably quite similar to what the place must have been like when Kyoto was the capital city of Japan. But I would like to come back, another time, when there are fewer people and the Palace is restored to its normal state of peace and tranquility.

We wandered outside, through the park surrounding the Palace, to the small little food fair which was set up just beside the exit. It was selling mainly snacks - sweets, pickles, cakes, nuts and many other things including sake.  Bought a green tea ice cream :-)

Artists and the Cherry Tree
But what was really pleasant to see were the people enjoying the beautiful weather, and the holiday atmosphere of the park - small groups of friends and family were sitting in the park, on benches and the ground. People were playing with their children, or walking their dogs - and a small colony of artists were painting the cherry trees! 

We finally found a magical little dell with weeping cherry blossom trees shedding petals on the ground below.  Our little hanami viewing party of two settled beneath our own cherry tree. Unfortunately we had no food but we sat and watched the petals fall on our mat, our bags and ourselves.  Around us, people were sitting and chatting, and having a good time catching up.  It was a delightful time.

Tulips in the Kyoto Botanical Gardens
After the Palace, we went to the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, a few tube stops away.  We had a pleasant surprise - brilliant, brightly coloured tulips were on show.  But of course we were there for one thing - and we were not disappointed as we discovered the enchanted grove of weeping cherry trees (fast becoming my favourite cherry tree variety). The trees were burdened with the most beautiful pale pink flowers, with the deeper pink buds alongside, the branches falling down like a gentle little curtain around us.

Going through the cherry tree groves, it is indeed very clear why the Japanese so love the cherry blossom.  Indeed, even after a whole day looking at and photographing these fragile blooms, I too must admit to becoming a very big fan.   So, here is a little video taken in the Imperial Palace park which I think captures perfectly the atmosphere in the grounds.  And one last photo taken in the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.  More photos can also be seen on my Flickr page, as I slowly update it.  Enjoy!  


video


Kyoto Botanical Gardens

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