Kyoto and Nara












The air tickets that Frank had arranged included a free stopover in Japan, although in reality no stop in Japan was likely to be "free".  We all decided to take advantage of this opportunity.  We weren't going to be together as I was leaving Korea four days ahead of the boys, but Frank had a bird watching itinerary for Japan which he suggested that I might like to try:  Arrive in Tokyo at 1:30 pm, take train to Omigawa marsh three hours east of airport, find rare Marsh Grassbird and Ochre-rumped Bunting, return to Tokyo by train, catch 10 pm ferry to Miyakejima (8 hours overnight), arrive in Miyakajima at 6 am, birding all morning to find two rare endemic birds, return on 2 pm ferry allowing pelagic birding from the ferry (during daylight) to find endemic oceanic shearwater, arrive back in Tokyo at 10 pm, transfer to train and go into the mountains at Karuizawa, overnight at train station, begin birding at dawn for mountain species that we may have missed in Korea, …  I smiled politely and said that I would consider it.  I then arranged with the travel agent to get a Japan Rail Pass and set up reservations at a ryokan (traditional hotel) in Kyoto for all four nights.  I can be a more normal tourist and explore temples, shrines, castles, palaces and gardens in Kyoto and Nara.  Of course, I would carry my binoculars and watch for birds as the opportunity arose.  In fact, Frank's plan was ruined when we learned that the volcano on Miyakejima had recently erupted and the island had had to be evacuated. [Frank and the Greenes did go to Karuizawa.  The Michaels headed home a day early, while Frank went to Omigawa Marsh and ended up sleeping under a highway bridge so that he could be out and birding at dawn.  He found those marsh birds.]

Mt Fuji made a brief appearance from the Shinkansen train


My arrival in Tokyo was early.  I activated my Japan Rail Pass, made reservations on the fast train, known as Shinkansen, to Kyoto and was on my way.  I had to change trains at the Tokyo Station and I was glad that I could roll my bags, as I had to hike from the bottom of Tokyo Station to the top (big station).  My reserved seat on the Shinkansen was an aisle seat, but I asked the passenger with the window if he would trade seats with me and he agreed to do so.  I watched out the window as the Japanese urban landscape whistled by.  According to my GPS receiver, our maximum speed was 235 km/hr.  [On the way back, I clocked the train at 260 km/hr.]  The ride was very smooth and there was no sensation of great speed.  The weather was overcast and even rainy.  I didn't expect to see Mt Fuji, but it did make a brief appearance.   I wanted to sense a contrast between Korean and Japanese urbanscapes, although I'm sure that my exposure was very limited.  Most of the Japanese houses appeared to be two story, single-family houses, whereas in Korea the cities were dominated by 15-20 story apartment buildings.  On the other hand, the Kyoto Train Station is one of the biggest buildings I've ever been in, and the temples are also huge.  In contrast, the temples of Korea were smaller, but with more intricate painting and design.  I took a taxi from Kyoto Station to my hotel, Ryokan Seiki, and was able to check in by 7 pm.  My room was very plain, a futon on tatami mats with a TV.  The bathroom was down the hall.  The family that ran the hotel lived on the first floor.  The kitchen and a small, cluttered dining area, adjacent to the reception desk, were shared by all.  A rack of house slippers was next to the outside door.  The staff was not very interactive.  After resting a while, I went out and found a noodle shop and had a bowl of udon (noodles) with a glass of beer.



Kiyomizu Temple

Kyoto, Japan




May 9th, Thursday



Japan is the "land of the rising sun", and it rose early, about 4:30 am.  Japan is the same time zone as Korea, only much further east.  I was up and ready to go by 6 am, but I had arranged to have breakfast at the ryokan at 7 am.  It was fairly expensive, 1000 yen for rice, fish, soup, tea and an omelet-type item, but quite good.  While I was eating, Dave Shaw, from Salt Lake City, appeared, introduced himself and joined me.  He was the only other guest that I noticed at the ryokan, and in fact, his room was next to mine.  He was on a ten-day trip to Japan, and was planning to spend the entire time in Kyoto, exploring mostly on foot, as he was worried about how to use public transit.  He had been in town one day, and didn't have a good map.  I offered him one of mine and told him that I would test the public transit system.  We decided to meet back at the hotel for dinner and to compare notes.  In fact, both of us were planning to walk through the Higashiyama district of eastern Kyoto, and we did see each other several times as we worked our way north.  There are really too many temples to visit in just this part of Kyoto.  I had a list of "you should see this one …" from friends in Seattle.  I tried to emphasize that list, while Dave was trying to visit all of them.  Some of these temples are really quite huge, and they seem to appear suddenly as one walks between mostly 2-3 story buildings.  Most of Kyoto is on a flat plain, but it is surrounding by hills which are heavily forested and where most of the temples and shrines are built.

I started near the ryokan and proceeded to an intersection where I noticed a series of buses turning onto one of the streets.  I assumed that this was the main road shown on the map, and besides, who wants to walk up a road with a lot of buses.  I took the road to the right and ended up in a huge cemetery, complete with tombstone/memorial shops.  Rather than backtrack, I worked my way up through the cemetery and eventually ended up at the entrance to Kiyomizu Temple.  I wasn't alone.  Those buses had been carrying hundreds of school kids, now in large organized, color-coordinated groups.  The cacophony was remarkable.  I slipped ahead and walked to the forested edge of the temple grounds.  The birds were mostly the same as in Korea.  I'm hoping for a new one in Kyoto, but it didn't happen here – Tree Sparrows and Rufous Turtle Doves.  The main temple is a huge wooden structure built on an even bigger wooden tressel.  It is mostly unpainted wood, probably cedar.  In contrast, the temples of Korea are smaller, but more intricately painted. 


Details of the eaves on Chion Temple.  These temples were mostly unpainted wood or black and white, in contrast to the Korean temples which were brightly painted.


I left Kiyomizu Temple via the regular entrance street and walked a gauntlet of curio shops with food, fans, ceramics, etc…  and headed north.  I saw the top of a big pagoda (Yasaka), but didn't find the entrance – not on my list anyway.  Next was a big carved stone Buddha, also not on the list and I didn't want to pay the entrance fee.  Each temple charged an entrance fee of about 600 yen (~$5), and so paying at each one could get expensive.  The next feature was a huge gate, which I couldn't find in the guidebook.  I finally decided that if I went through the gate and climbed the steps beyond that I would find the Chion-in Temple (on the list).  Indeed, I found Chion-in, another absolutely huge wooden building.  I took off my shoes and entered the main hall.  It felt illegal to take flash photos and indeed, a monk motioned "no" when I gestured.  There was tour of some unoccupied living quarters behind the main hall.  Dave had appeared and we explored together.  I stopped for postcards and an ice cream, while he headed uphill.  We saw each other again briefly as we left the temple grounds, but then our paths diverged and we didn't meet again until dinner.


Wooden panel painting in the Chion Temple living quarters




I headed onto the flat land of the main part of the city and towards the Imperial Palace, where the Imperial Household Agency is located, and where one must make reservations in person to see several sites including Katsura Imperial Villa (high on my list).  Okazaki Park, where various city museums, the zoo and Heian Temple are located, was on the way.  I stopped to see the Heian Temple.  Some schoolgirls asked to take their picture with me.  They waved their fingers in a V motion (peace symbol, I think) during the photo.  Heian Temple isn't that large, but it is nicely painted and there is a nice garden behind it (another 600 yen to enter).  I was hoping for a wild Mandarin Duck, but got a few Mallards instead.  Lots of older women were touring the garden; roughly 5% of them were wearing kimonos.







Moss garden at Chion Temple.  Mom thinks that I should grow a moss garden in Seattle.


Now after 2 pm, my feet were getting tired.  I had to get to the Imperial Household Agency before it closed in order to make my reservations to see the Katsura Imperial Villa.  I headed for the Imperial Palace grounds through back city streets.  Kyoto is big and spread out.  The hike was longer than expected.  At the river, I saw Black Kites soaring overhead and had to stop and sit for a while.  The Imperial Palace is set in a huge city park.  It is walled in and one can only visit as part of a tour.  But the park grounds were open and I entered from the east side into a forested area.  There was a Japanese man birding!  I joined him and found Great Tits nesting and a couple of Japanese White-eyes.  I got my Imperial Permission to visit Katsura Imperial Villa and then, after a few minutes of thought, got a permission to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace as well.  With my tours for the next day set, I bought another ice cream bar and then headed for Nijo Castle.












Nijo Castle palace










I got there at 3:50 pm.  The castle grounds closes at 5 pm, but the main building, a wooden palace, closes at 4 pm.  I rushed there first.  The reception/administration rooms were huge.  The floorboards are deliberately designed to squeak, so that intruders are detected.  This was the Shogun's castle, and the Shoguns were totally paranoid.  The castle has a wide moat and high walls.  The grounds were very nice, but had no benches to sit down.  My feet were aching. I left about 5 pm and decided to try the public transit system.  I carefully plotted to take the #9 bus to Goji-dori and then to "transfer" to a #80.  This didn't work.  I found a #9, but decided that I should get off at a marked "transfer" station.  This was only 5 blocks from the castle, and as I paid on the way off the bus I asked for a "transfer".  The driver didn't offer anything and indicated that I should drop my 220 yen into the meter.  I had just paid $2 for a 5-block ride and still had 2 miles to walk.  Dinner was arranged for 6 pm, and so, annoyed, I walked, on tired feet, steadily through urban Kyoto back to the ryokan.  I got there almost exactly at 6 pm and asked for a dinner delay.  I joined Dave at 6:15 pm, and we discussed the day over dinner.  It was a set menu – miso soup with a large clam, tempura, tofu served cold in water, rice, an "egg salad", a bowl of rice noodles with clams.  Dessert was a commercially prepared vanilla custard cup.



Gardens at Nijo Castle



Friday, May 10th



            I was going to get up early and see a temple before breakfast, but steady rain damped my energy.  Instead, Dave and I met over breakfast at 7:30 am.  I was planning to buy a day pass for the buses, and use it to get to my imperial appointments.  Dave was curious and so we walked to Kyoto Station together.  The day pass was 500 yen, and is activated for the day when you first use it that day.  It doesn't need to be used on the day that you buy it, and so one could buy several at a time.  But I only needed one.  Katsura Imperial Villa is just outside of the central bus zone and so I had to pay a little extra to get to that bus stop.  Entrance to the grounds is strictly controlled and they don't allow pictures.  I had my binoculars with me, but no camera.  Besides, the rain had not ceased.  The tour starts on time, and is only in Japanese.  The villa was the family estate of a princely line, but not the Emperor.  It is a classical Japanese garden, with various buildings.  There were not too many birds to be seen.  The tour was serene and wet.

            To get back to Kyoto Station, I walked across the bridge to the first bus stop within the central bus zone, allowing my bus pass to work for free.  At Kyoto Station, I went into the post office to mail cards.  Unlike in Korea, the clerk gave me attractive stamps.  And then I decided to have an Italian lunch – linguine with octopus.  It wasn't very good, and left me pressed for time.  As I approached the bus stop, roughly dozens of school kids appeared and formed a line ahead of me.  I thought I'd have to wait for 3 or 4 buses, and so I decided to walk towards Sanjusangen Temple, home of 1001 Kannon statues, and one of my "target" temples.  About half way there, I decided to try the bus again.  It stopped, and was packed with school kids, but I squeezed on.  I got off on the wrong side of the block and walked a long way to the entrance of the temple.  As I approached, 5 buses full of school kids rolled in.  Faced with a huge crowd, the entrance fee, and the need to get to the Imperial Palace for my 2 pm tour, I decided to skip it.  The next public bus was also full of school kids.  I squeezed on anyway.  When we reached the bus stop nearest Kiyomizu Temple, all of the school kids exited.  I guess that Kiyomizu Temple hosts LOTS of school kids.  After a successful transfer to another bus – the day pass allows one to transfer buses without additional cost – I arrived at the north wall of the Imperial Palace grounds.  From there I had to walk another half mile to the Imperial Palace's commoners gate.  I had 15 minutes to spare.  Dave was there.  He had been able to sign up for the tour without much advance notice.  This time, the tour was in English.  The Kyoto Imperial Palace has not been occupied for over 100 years.  It has no plumbing or electricity.  Nevertheless, tourists are not allowed in most of the buildings.  We are allowed to take pictures, but I didn't have my cameras with me.  The buildings are grand, and we were shown the Emperor's gate, and the Empress's gate.  The rain never stopped.

            After the tour, Dave and I decided to head for Ginkakuji – the Silver Pavilion, and then to do the Philosopher's Walk.  Since I had a bus pass, I announced that I would take a bus.  Dave decided to do so as well, and so we bussed most of the way, but we still had to walk up the hill to get to the temple.  Ginkakuji is an old wooden "retirement home" that was converted into a Zen temple.  The structure is several stories tall, but one is not allowed inside.  The gardens were nice, but the rain continued.  We headed south along the Philosopher's Walk, adjacent to a small canal, and kept a steady pace despite a couple of minor detours.  As we approached the southern end of the walk, and the Nanzen Temple, I began to look for the special "tofu" restaurant Otukan, highly praised by my Seattle friends.  Initially we walked past it, but I suspected the error and we backtracked, found it and went in.  It closes at 5 pm, and we were soon the only guests present.  The meal was excellent, featuring tofu prepared in several different modes.  I preferred the skewered tofu to the boiled tofu squares served in a heated ceramic crock pot. 








Jeff enjoying dinner at Otukan Restaurant












Higashiyama district



            By the time we finished, it was getting dark.  We decided to skip Nanzen Temple.  It had been the northern-most temple of Dave's explorations the previous day.  Dave had heard that there was an "in place" for meeting other tourists – the Pig & Whistle Pub – near the river, not too far from the restaurant.  He had rough directions and so we headed to the general location and finally spotted a promising sign with a pig on it.  It was the place, but on a rainy night the week after a major national holiday, there was no action.  Nevertheless, it was satisfying to strip off my dripping rain jacket and have a beer.  The hotel was still a long walk.  My bus pass was still active, and so I took the bus home while Dave decided to walk.  We had tea in the hotel room.








Todai Temple, Nara





Saturday, the 11th


            Dave and I will try for Nara, an old capital of Japan.  We hadn't bothered to order breakfast from the hotel.  It was rather expensive anyway.  And without our order, there was no sign of life at 7:15 am.  We walked to the Kyoto Station, although I was distracted at the Kamogawa (Kamo River) where I spotted a high-flying plover with a single neckband.  I didn't have my bird book with me, and so I took notes.  This is my normal mode for birding in a foreign land.  There isn't time to study the birdbook during the moment, and it forces good observation skills.  Of course, I'm not sure about this sighting.  It seemed Killdeer-sized and was calling "chut chut chut".  The face was white, but I didn't notice a forked tail.  I'm guessing "Oriental Plover", but I'm not confident. 





The pagoda at the entrance to Nara Park


            We got onto the train to Nara without trouble.  The ride was through mostly urban landscape, which seems to be two-story single family houses.  The flat lands are heavily developed, and the surrounding hills are mostly undeveloped.  Ring-necked Pheasants and Japanese Lapwings were seen from the train.  Nara is a smaller city.  The street leading from the train station to Nara Park, Sanjo-dori, is pedestrian only.  A fine 5-story pagoda is at the entrance to the park.  The Nara Park is known for tame Spotted Deer, and they were present.  Dave and I arranged a meeting place and time, and then split up.  The main temple, Todai-ji, is huge.  It was originally build in 752 A.D., but has been burned, shaken (earthquakes), and rebuilt numerous times.  The great hall claims to be the largest wooden structure in the world.  A huge bronze Buddha occupies the center of the hall.  A healing ceremony was in progress as I absorbed the scene.  The South Gate was also impressive, occupied by two huge guardians (carved statues).  The park itself was of interest.  There were a good variety of woodland birds present, including Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker and Long-tailed Tits.









Virocana Buddha,

Todai Temple



            Dave and I met at our meeting point, and we drifted back to Sanjo-dori and began searching for a restaurant as rain began to fall.  Fortunately, there are covered malls with restaurants.  However, we couldn't decipher the menus, despite Dave rudimentary knowledge of Japanese.  I sensed that Dave wanted something simple, quick and cheap.  We decided on a restaurant with a picture menu, and had bowls of noodle soup (udon), which were pretty good. 

            Satisfied with our visit to Nara, we headed back to Kyoto.  I decided to try again to visit the Sanjusangen Temple.  This required fast walking, as the temple closes at 5 pm.  I made it to the temple before 5 pm, but the ticket office closes at 4:30 pm.  I was too late, and headed on to the ryokan.  Dave was going to spend the evening resting, however I headed out again almost as soon as I got in.  I decided to return to the bridge over the river where I had seen the plover.  Just before reaching the river, I spied a geisha in full costume coming down a side street.  I turned up that street and saw about half a dozen geishas heading for appointments.  They were fully dressed, with white face paint, kimonos and tall wooden sandals.  After several blocks, I cut over to the river and began birding in earnest.  The evening was cool, but not raining.  People were out.  There is a nice promenade along the east bank of the Kamo-gawa (river), below the traffic noise.  I spied herons, kites, ducks and wagtails – very satisfying.  On the opposite shore couples sat 20-30 feet apart, and groups of young peoples gathered at a couple of spots.  And another thing that I noticed were people eating in restaurants and on decks overlooking the river.  How could I do the same?  I could see that some of the restaurants were very fancy formal places, while others were less so.  I birded until dark and then crossed to the western side to explore the restaurants.  The entrances were on the first street away from the river – beyond the buildings – and so I could no longer see the patrons.  The signs were entirely in Japanese.  I couldn't decipher anything – foods, menus, prices, etc.  How do I pick one?  I went into a pastry shop, ordered dessert and considered the problem over a pastry and coffee. 

            Fortified, I scanned my choices.  I almost went into one restaurant, but then chickened out.  Finally, I marched into another, where I could see a bar in front of the cook.  I was ushered in and sat down.  The menu was in Japanese.  I couldn't read a thing – menu items, costs, etc. – nothing.  One of the waitresses knew a bit of English – beer? (500 yen) – sashimi? ok, - tempura?, yes.  How much did I want to spend?  I suggested 2000 yen (I'm cheap and I wasn't too hungary.)  That wasn't very much.  She consulted the cook.  They would bring something.  Ok.  The cook was working furiously.  What a job!  He chopped, cooked and decorated plates with food nonstop.  My food tidbits appeared now and then, and were absolutely excellent!  I thoroughly enjoyed the meal.  The cost was too low, but we had made a deal.  Next visit I'll return and spend a lot – 4000-5000 yen.  The restaurant was called Kamogawa Hanabi, near the Hotel Urban, on the sw corner of the bridge over the Kamo-gawa River.  I had sashimi (raw fish & roe – tuna and two other fishes), sushi with rice, vegetable tempura, miso soup, bamboo shoots with tofu and beer.

            I returned to the hotel and knocked on Dave's door.  We had tea while I described my experiences and then said our goodbyes.


Sunday, the 12th, travel day.


            I was ready to go at 6:45am.  The taxi was 5 minutes early, and I got to Kyoto Station with time to spare.  I found the platform for the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) and then checked out the food stalls and bought a rice dish with seafood using my last yen.  My reserved seat was the first seat behind the bulkhead in the front of the train car, and next to the only other passenger on the car.  I took the seat behind him, until more passengers boarded at later stations.  Eventually, the train was mostly full.  The maximum speed was 260 km/hr.  At Tokyo Station I had to go from the uppermost platform to the lowest – a long way.  I'm glad for rollers on my bags.  The train to Narita was straightforward, and I got to the airport with lots of time to spare.   I used most of my last yen to buy one last Japanese lunch.