Reinvigorated from the fresh sea air of the Shōnan coast I find myself scrambling around the apartment on the morning of our third full day in Japan, worriedly tidying our possessions away into the single large suitcase we brought with us.
The only recurring nightmare I have had as an adult is playing out in my waking life. A sock under the bed, a charging cable that slipped down behind some furniture. I catch them all but none of these things really matter. We’ll be returning to this same apartment four days from now after we spend the rest of our week in Kyoto.
Before I lock the door I peek back through into the room and smile a goodbye. Should probably bring that suitcase I just packed though, yeah?
Time to depart.
Perhaps there is a reason I dream of being late for check-out but thankfully I don’t have to face that possibility today. We sail out of the building and into another gloriously clear day in Tokyo.
Under the beautifully restored 1914 octagonal ceiling of the air-conditioned Marunouchi North Gate within Tokyo Station, we make use of the baggage storage facilities and queue to trade our Exchange Order for a Japan Rail Pass.
Getting our passes is a breeze and the staff – as is everywhere in Japan – are super friendly, directing us to the office across the hall where we can use our passes to make free seat reservations on the Shinkansen (aka Bullet Train) to Kyoto.
We do so and, since we skipped breakfast, give ourselves a couple of hours so we have time to explore the area briefly and grab a bite to eat.
Tokyo Station is in the Chiyoda district which is home to some notable sights. However, the station itself is quite an attraction and the entrances on the Marunouchi side are walled with some excellent architecture that matches its grand scale.
The temperature is rising as we find shelter between the Marunouchi and Shin-Marunouchi buildings, which have a rather confused history. Their imposing figures are challenged by the equally tall and impressive neighbours.
We’re looking for that perfect food opportunity but get sidetracked as we begin touristing-out, giving the lenses on our Pixel 2‘s a morning workout.
People shopping for expensive fashion in boutique clothing stores. Lane after lane of traffic filters out across the searing tarmac at the busy crossings.
The city is awake.
Surprisingly, the Marunouchi twins reveal an abrupt end to the high-rise buildings. Like some kind of stage set we walk behind their curtain of shade and into a sprawling wide open space.
The road crosses the moated perimeter that separates the busy city from the relatively calm outer grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace. My son became fixated on the shimmering image of the flora and the city skyline that coexisted on the surface of the emerald waters reflection. He didn’t want to leave, but the day was getting hotter and we were on the clock.
I hoisted him atop my shoulders and we marched on.
As we snap some more pictures we also start snapping at each other. Much like our phones, we’ve begun to overheat and become dysfunctional.
Hungry and thirsty we begin walking back towards the station feeling slightly defeated. One day we shall return!
While it was a shame that we didn’t get to visit the attractions or to explore the large park-like surrounding the castle, I did notice that for the first time since our initial red-eyed landing in I had the chance to appreciate the immense space that even just the core of the city covers.
Nowhere in this urban jungle had our view of the horizon been blocked by something as natural as a mass of humble trees. Usually, we could always see further off into the distance. There was always something in the foreground, middle ground and background. Even in a cluster of high rises, you could see down the street and spot a building of notable design, a train crossing a railway bridge, a tower that stood out. But in one direction we could see nothing, as though we had reached the edge of the city. A relatively serene escape in what is, in every sense of the word, a metropolis.
We walk back along on the opposite side of the road and stop by Wadakura Fountain Park. Just standing near it helped cool our tempers a few degrees, enough to see us all the way back to the station.
As we approach we can hear the crowds of school children who have formed outside of the southern entrance.
We re-enter through the north to collect our luggage and then it’s a simple one-time stamp of our newly minted JR Passes to get us back through into the station.
I know my partner has one destination in mind, a vegan food place called T’s Tantan.
Unfortunately for her, the store is closed for renovations for the two weeks we’re in Japan.
In an effort to cheer up her hungry saddened soul I nudge her towards a man who’s offering what turned out to be samples of the most delicious little cloud biscuits. Her eyes light up immediately and for a moment she forgets her misfortune and she’s encouraging me to try – and then buy – the treats.
We grab ourselves a bento and some other little goodies for before heading up to the gate leading to the Shinkansen platform.
As we are whisked along the Tokaido Shinkansen rail line towards Kyoto aboard this sleek and high-speed marvel we are treated to a constantly changing view from our window.
As the Hikari leaves the city stops behind it zips through rural farmlands, alongside ocean towns and through tunnels that are bored right through the mountainous terrain of Honshu, which is the largest of Japan’s four main islands.
How good is the experience?
So good that:
- You can rest a coin on the window ledge, it’s that smooth of a ride.
- Carriage service across the 16 car length is frequent and they bow to the passengers between cars.
- We never lost the 4G signal on our wi-fi device once during the entire 476.3km trip, including – the sometimes minutes long – tunnel sections.
- They can clean the whole train ready for reuse in just 7 minutes!
- Strangers fall asleep on your shoulder for two hours and become such a part of your family that you feel sad when they leave.
- Thoughts seemed loud, it was just so quiet – “Jesus, did I say that or just think it? Was I talking? Did they hear me?!”
*ding* “The next stop is Kyoto. Ky-oto.”
Once we reach Kyoto Station we realise that one of the wheels on our suitcase is missing. Great!
It’s mid-afternoon and the temperature in Kyoto is not apparent until we hit street level. However, we put that discomfort in the backs of our minds as we breathed in the culture-soaked streets that ran off from around the station.
We took only a few initial pictures around the outside of the station before the precariousness of our situation returned to us like a boomerang to the face.
The pavement radiated a wicked heat as we tried to juggle two tired children, two overfull backpacks and a suitcase that had started to split in half. The excitement had dulled our senses as parents but our kids let us know we were about to be involved in an episode if we didn’t fix their situation soon.
I activate dad mode and manage to rally us on towards the Japaning Hotel Briller on Wakamiya Dori where we would be staying. It’s only a ten to fifteen-minute walk from the station but we look a state by the time we arrived. Thankfully there was nobody there to see our melting faces, as the hotel was completely self-service and check-in was handled through an iPad at the front desk.
After a short rest, it was time to find food.
Our itinerary plan had us heading towards the evening lights of the Gion district. However, it was getting late in the day now and we wanted to make sure we had the children fed and in bed for a long trip out the following day.
As we ventured out we saw some really cool looking sights: local food places shrouded behind a veil of bamboo; smoking dens with well-to-do gentlemen encircling a table of whiskey glasses; a large temple grounds surrounded by a lush green moat that called back to our experiences earlier in the day.
We made it about halfway to the edge of Gion and past some wonderful looking eateries before we saw it and caved in. It’s stylish black form and non-English menu won out over the foreigner-friendly white and red decor of the Washoku Sato restaurant that stands beside it.
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Knowing all to well from our daily research on Japanese cuisine we knew that we didn’t want any English descriptions of the food we were about to gorge on. Our weak foreign minds wouldn’t be able to cope with knowing that the delicious thin cuts of meat we were ingesting were tounges (gyutan), chicken cartilage (nankotsu), mysterious guts (harumon) and other various cuts that we couldn’t discern from horse meat (basashi).
We opted for one of the all-you-can-eat options, which gave us a good two hours to eat through a menu that was ordered through a tablet device. There was so much to choose from that after countless plates we didn’t get near to trying everything.
The video above will give you an idea if you’re not familiar. See, we’re not ones to take lots of food photos. Usually, its because we’re really hungry but mainly out of respect for the experience and the good service we’re receiving.
Yeah, respect…that makes us sound good.
After fending off a barrage of ‘kawaii’ screaming pre-teens I manage to lace up my shoes (tip: high-top Converse are a bad idea) and went barrelling out the entrance after my son who had decided he would follow five half-cut Japanese businessmen out into the city night.
I’m surprised to see he is entertaining these friendly locals as they break for cigarettes and chat away with him in a warmingly sincere broken English. My relief was as large as my smile at that point. It made me realise that while everyone was polite, patient and smiling in Tokyo we really didn’t get any down-to-earth interactions like we did right there in Kyoto.
Kyoto got heart.
Walking back to the Japaning we get a chance to feel the vibes of the area and get to see the same sights in their electric-lit glory. It’s past 10 PM on a weekday but there are still suits beavering away in offices, fervourous laughter coming from the izakayas, locals on bikes running errands to the store and the lackadaisical hum of motor engines staggering between traffic lights.
As we entered the quieter residential side streets you could hear televisions droning, shower heads fizzing and the clatter of dishes and recycling being sorted through the seemingly paper thin Shōji.
I guess that was our impression of Kyoto, in contrast with Tokyo, is that it’s more personable and – as we would find out in the coming days – has a relaxing charm about it.
With everyone sleeping tight my dreary stare whites-out from the crisp white background of Trip Advisors best Kyoto restaurants, as I slip into a misty bamboo mountain dream that foreshadows tomorrows excursion to Arashiyama and Sagano.