Wednesday, 23 July 2014

First week in Japan

London was cool, beautiful, as I remember it, full of possibilities. It was good to catch up with some good old friends. Though I am still considering a masters down there, my gut feeling tells me to keep treating London as an occasional treat. If I were to live there I worry that the novelty of having the world at my feet would fade and I would be left feeling a little oppressed by the endless urban landscape.

One week on and I am here in Kyoto, escaping from the midday sun and high temperatures (currently 35 degrees celcius). My boyfriend and I stayed in Tokyo for a few days, we were hosted by a good friend who studied with me in Edinburgh and who now works in Tokyo. She lives in Sendagi near Ueno park. During our stay there we experienced one of those quintessentially Japanese temples of Kawaii, a cat cafe. We stayed for a very short period due to how expensive 15 minutes was, but got to cuddle and play with various cats. Quite a strange concept, but not really unsurprising considering the amount of cuteness in the streets of Tokyo. We had two vegetarian lunches (onigiri with miso soup and pickles, vegetable curry), ate and drank in a sake bar and tried out a Japanese karaoke booth. Site-wise we saw the Sensoji temple and the surrounding gardens, the sky tree tower, the Yoyogi park,  the super-cool Harajuku district and the mystical Meiji shrine. The climbing of Mount Fuji was cancelled due to a night of heavy monsoon rain, but we may go back towards the end. Suffering from jet lag and with little time to think and adapt always, in my experience, leads to a mini crises at the beginning of a journey in a far flung destination. Again, in my experience, these mini crises always resolve themselves and after a week or so being a nomad gets easier.

First impressions as I step off the plane and into the airport lavatory 

Welcomed to the airport by a huge crowd of adoring Japanese fan girls! Oh wait, they are waiting for a Korean pop star... 

First meal with Takeshi, onigiri with miso soup

Ueno Park, Tokyo

Heading to our first cat cafe experience

Vegan rice burger at Mos Burger, Tokyo

Sensou-ji temple, Tokyo

Daruma dolls-gifts from another Japanese friend, Nanae

Vegetarian Japanese curry at Hanada Rosso ,Tokyo

Entrance to the Meiji shrine, Tokyo

Sake bar

Tofu and green bean tofu-like "thing"


Tokyo Central Park

We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto on Sunday. It only took 2.5 hours to reach our destination, apparently about 7 hours less than by road. The views were mainly urban though there were some pretty mountain towns. Any flat land in Japan is quickly exploited for building and agriculture, due to the lack of space on this island. Upon arriving in Kyoto we were both pretty exhausted, though had to wait for the last of the monsoon rain to fall before we walked to our hostel.


After a couple of days of being in Kyoto I relaxed somewhat and started to feel more confident here in Japan... Finding animal-free food is a problem, but only due to the linguistic barrier. It is actually very common and vegan cafes and buddhist restaurants can be found in most places. In Kyoto I ate very well-from a delicious roast soya meat to a chewy tofu teriyaki burger with fries. My hostel (Khaosan Kyoto) was pretty cool; there was free internet, a great big kitchen and social lounge, the dorm beds felt very private thanks to the curtains, the bathrooms were clean and the location was very central. It was also probably the cheapest place in Kyoto. By the end of my stay in Kyoto I felt pretty fond of the place; there are so many green spaces, temples and shrines. We visited the huge temple and shrine complex in the deer park in Nara (where you can feed wild deer), Nijojo castle, the gion district and the impressive Tori gates at Fushima Inari. Walking through the Gion district at night we were lucky enough to see a curtain open on an elegant room full of sitting geishas. Later we saw one walking along the street accompanied by two business men. We were also there just in time for the Gion Matsuri festival, I managed to see the morning procession on Thursday morning. On Friday we went to Arashiyama to see the bamboo forest path, another greener part of Tokyo, and then later we headed to the Kiyomizu temple, a beautiful old wooden temple with a great view of Kyoto and the surrounding hills.

Tori gates at Fushima-inari shrine, Kyoto

The Golden Temple, Kyoto

Ryoan-ji temple, Kyoto

Zen garden at the Ryoan-ji temple

Bamboo forest in Arashiyama, Kyoto

Pausing for a quick tofu lunch

View of a pagoda from the Kizomizu temple, Kyoto

Kizomizu temple, Kyoto

Gion district, Kyoto

Late in the evening (after 11pm) we met up with my Japanese friend Maki again who accompanied us by train to her hometown in the Shiga prefecture.  Her house was typically Japanese and of course we were expected to remove our shoes upon entering and put on slippers. The first evening in Shiga we spent at her house with pretty much all of her family, all of whom seemed eager to have us there. We gave her parents the tea from Harrods and the German beer, which were both really well received, so much so that we were asked to pose for a photo with the gifts and with the hosts. Our bedroom was huge, a large Japanese style room with tatami mats and split into compartments: the largest space for sleeping, the Shinto shrine (to honour the ancestors) and the small annexed eating area which opens to the garden. Naturally, we slept on futons. In the morning we had a traditional Japanese breakfast (steamed rice, salad, tofu and miso soup, mine was dashi free, accompanied by green tea). Shortly after breakfast we headed into the countryside where we browsed a family porcelain shop and had some hot matcha with Japanese sweets. After we continued our drive into rural Shiga and arrived at Maki`s grandma`s house, which was quintessentially Japanese; a wooden house set amongst rice fields with rice paper sliding doors, tatami mats and decorated with origami. We ate cold soba noodles with cucumber and mint and a soy-lemon dipping sauce, followed by an orange sweet bread. After a sleep, a short walk and an origami lesson we indulged in homegrown rice, tempura made with vegetables from the garden and okonomiyaki. Each meal was accompanied by a cold rice tea. This was the first time that we felt full since being in Japan. That evening Maki`s mother and grandma dressed me up in a traditional yukata and we went to the Shiraraki summer festival. There was a procession of people with flaming torches who walked from one shrine up a mountain to another shrine. As the bulk of them reached the top taiko drummers began to play and a long and impressive firework display commenced. In the evening we went home for fresh watermelon from the garden and some grapes, as always accompanied by ice cold cha.

Traditional breakfast at Maki's house

Matcha and sweets

Maki's  grandma's house in rural Shiga

Mint and cucumber soba with a citron-soya dipping sauce


Rice paddy fields in Maki's grandma's garden

Fresh vegetables from the garden...

...become light and crispy homemade tempura

Okonomiyaki (contains egg so I couldn't eat it)

Wearing the yukata at a Summer festival in Shigaraki

The following day we had a similarly generous breakfast and then headed back to Maki`s house to pack our bags. On route we stopped off at one of the best preserved ninja houses in Japan and discovered that pancakes, or "hot cakes" are very popular in Japan in a trendy cafe where we also drank chocolate soya milk. Maki`s family was extremely generous with us, giving us fans, taking us to see interesting places and letting us try some delicious and authentic meals and snacks. After packing an overnight bag Maki`s family arranged for our bags to be sent on to Koyasan where we would be going the next day after a long hike, and we took a train to Osaka to experience a capsule hotel.