Posted by Amanda
First of all the Japanese drive on the left! How did I not know this or even notice it until midway through the day? I think somewhere at sometime I knew that, but I definitely had forgotten.
The disembarkation process was very long, our longest yet. We had to get our temperature taken since we are arriving from China which has bird flu. This was actually fast as we all just walked by a thermal camera. Then the customs officials had to check our ship. When this was done the RDs got off the ship so we could give out passports at the terminal. All passengers had to get their passports, get finger printed, photographed, and declare anything before the ship could be cleared. Theoretically this meant no one could go back on the ship until everyone was cleared. I'm pretty sure people were allowed to get back on as Noah had to get back on for some money. What people didn't seem to get was that they had to do this now rather than waiting until it was convenient for them. Finally by 1pm we were released to do what we wanted to do. That is when the bad got great. First, I should back up. We're docked at a nice terminal with some services and a monorail to the city center. When we arrived the city fire band played for us. I love marching band music!
Noah pretty much had to scope stuff out while I was working so he figured out how to get to the train and to Kyoto. Also he figured out what we should do for the day. His plan was great. As we waited to buy a ticket for the monorail, I met the girl on the ship from York who actually went to my high school and lived on Rainbow Circle. Small world. The monorail was good to the train station. At the train station we accidentally got the local train so it took a bit longer to get to Kyoto than the express would have. We then took the subway to what is supposed to be the best place for cherry blossoms. It is the Heian-jingu shrine. The walk from the subway stop to the shrine was short, quiet, and nice. We had to pay to see the gardens, but they were well worth it. What a beautiful sight. I was near tears at how beautiful it was. Plus there were not a lot of Westerners there which was nice even though it was crowded. As we were ending the walk an orchestra began to play near the garden in a pagoda. It was really wonderful. They also have a concert and light up the trees at night but we figured we wouldn't be able to get tickets.
By this point I was starving. I had only snacks for lunch so we set out to find food. We must have turned the exact wrong direction because we had almost no choices. We stopped at a coffee shop with a picture menu. Noah got some doughy things on a stick with a sweet teriyaki sauce. I had two sticky rice balls. Both snacks came with very green frothy tea and some other drink. When I asked Noah what the unidentified drink tasted like he correctly described it as cigarette water. It was also stone cold. We drank the tea though it was hard to get down because it was so grassy. Noah's items were better than mine but overall a bit of an unsuccessful food stop.
We decided to back track and look for real dinner. We were more successful at this. We found a place with a Lonely Planet review in the window and went in. The tables were on raised platforms. You took off your shoes to step up to them and you sat on mats on the floor. We ordered the tempura set and a soba noodle soup. I would have had to dress up the noodles a bit more but Noah enjoyed them. Of course the tempura was good and apparently I really like miso soup if it is made in Japan. It was great with almost a meaty taste. Noah taste tested some fishy stuff for me that I then avoided. Overall the meal was a success.
From dinner we walked to park with food stalls and a very lit up cherry blossom tree. All day as we've walked around Kyoto, I've been struck by how much it feels like London. Not the big hustle and bustle London, but the small, quiet streets of London. It probably helped that it was cool and grey. It was so amazingly safe and quiet for a Friday night. The park was great. The center piece tree was stunning. Many people were having picnics together nearby. There were lots of food stalls all around and a sort of beer garden with platforms beneath low tables for sitting. Some areas had hibachis and groups of people were together enjoying them. There was just a wonderful sense of community and celebration of spring.
We came out of the park in Gion. This is the old area that is modern for nightlife but also preserved historically. It is home to geisha which are actually maiko here. The streets were charming. I imagine in the day light they'd have been even better as the streets were lined with blossoms. They say maiko are elusive as they are usually working in the evening and inside in the day. Apparently you need an introduction to even get into places with maiko. We did see 2 of them through a window as they were eating with clients. I didn't feel bad taking photos since many Japanese were doing it too. We saw a number of women in kimonos on the streets but these women had their faces painted and everything.
As we walked down a side street and Noah bought some Pocari Sweat (a sport drink), a Japanese man stopped to talk to us. He had lived in NYC for a job and clearly wanted to practice his English with us. He was very nice and apologized that the blossoms were so bad due to wind and rain. We still thought they were great. Both Noah and I did have a sudden worry he was going to con, swindle, pickpocket, or some other bad thing to us but we quickly got over that.
We wound our way back to the subway and train station and then to Kobe on a crowded train. This was pretty much a perfect day. Probably one of the most perfect we've had. Not only were we firing on all cylinders as independent travelers but Kyoto and the Japanese were wonderful and inviting. I may even be able to convince Noah to move here to teach English.