Innocents Abroad in Japan, Part 3

“Wearing kimono and walking in Kyoto”

Sign for a kimono rental service

From the window of a speeding Shinkansen on a sunny day, the impressions pile up quickly. There nearly always seem to be mountains in the distance. In the foreground, every bit of land seems precious. All the arable fields are under cultivation, and in settlements, the two-and-three-storey residential buildings are grouped so close together that it seems it would be difficult to drive a car among them. As for passenger cars in Japan, many are smaller and boxier that the larger, aerodynamic styling we associate with the Toyotas and Nissans in North America.


Kyoto is a big city but much smaller than Tokyo. We spent more days there than in any of our other destinations.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine

There are many sites of cultural and historical interest to see, and with fine weather everyday except one, we made the most of them. The modern Gracery Hotel, where we stayed for eight nights, is in the center of downtown Kyoto, within walking distance of the covered Nishiki Market and Gion, Kyoto’s traditional entertainment district.

Downtown is also a great place to shop. Some of the stores have more cultural appeal than a museum. Beauty in Japan takes many forms: There is natural beauty, of course, in the countryside and in the country’s many beautiful gardens. Japanese design is famous throughout the world, and it is present everywhere: in the shops, on the walls, and on the bodies of the Japanese themselves.


One of pleasures of walking the streets and waiting in railway stations is noticing how people are dressed. This is especially true of women in the cities, who take great care with their appearance. Because so many are slim, the outfits they choose look especially attractive.

Speaking of Japanese beauty, I have to mention the food, not only the care with which it is prepared but also how it is presented. For example, look at the arrangement of items in even a simple bento box. To look in a bakery window or at the super realistic, plastic food models in front of restaurants is to feel your mouth begin to water.


To descend the steps to the immense food hall of the great Takashimaya department store is to enter culinary heaven. It is a place to find the choicest and most beautiful arrangements of prepared and package food items we’d ever seen. And we were waited on by the politest and most helpful staff imaginable.

There was even a food concierge on duty to steer us to the areas we desired.

With a full Japanese meal, you are not served with a single plate overloaded with large portions. Instead, there will be several attractive little dishes with small portions of colorful items meant to contrast and compliment each other. The largest single thing in front of you will be a bowl of sticky, white rice. Often, you won’t recognize the food you are tasting. There are vegetable and tofu preparations we don’t have in the West.

For us, dining in a Japanese restaurant back home usually means sushi, while on this trip, we ate it only three or four times. There are so many other choices. Many restaurants tend to be intimate and specialize in one kind of cuisine: yakitori, tempura, or beef. I’m partial to eel (anagi or anago) and in one eel restaurant I was served a goodly portion over rice and also a bowl of eel-liver soup. The broth wasn’t bad, but when I grabbed what I thought was a mushroom with my chopsticks and put it in my mouth, I realized it was the eel liver itself.

Tohka Saikan

The Japanese are not overly chauvinistic when it comes to dining. There are many international restaurants in Japan. One evening we went to Tohka Saikena, a venerable Chinese restaurant located in its own historic building near the river. As an aside, it boasts of having the oldest elevator in the country, one made by the Otis Company in the 1920s. I ordered sweet and sour shrimp, which came not swimming in gloppy red sauce as I’m accustomed to, but, having been lightly sauced in the kitchen, was delicious, nevertheless.

On another night, as a fallback from a popular ramen restaurant we couldn’t get into, Kay and I ate superb Italian dishes in an upstairs room named Daniel’s. My homemade salsiccia and sweet-potato gnocchi was superb as was Kay’s spaghetti with sun-dried tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella.

Right near our hotel was a restaurant called Red Rock that served tasty, thin slices of grilled beef over rice. What was interesting about the place was its simplicity.

Before entering, we selected and paid for our dishes from a vending machine in front. The machine gave us meal tickets corresponding to what we had ordered. Entering, we simply gave our tickets to a waitress and sat down. Our meal finished, we got up and left.

The Japanese have come up with numerous innovative solutions to everyday problems. How many times have we entered a crowded restaurant encumbered with jackets, hats, shoulder bags, etc., and wondered where to put them? Many restaurants in Japan have baskets on the floor under and to one side of the table that are large enough to accommodate personal items without having them out of sight.

As travelers, another feature we love has to do with laundry. On long trips we have learned to pack more clothes due to the difficulty of getting them laundered easily. In Japan, we’re pleasantly surprised to discover that at least some Japanese hotels have washers and dryers whose cost in nearly free. Had we known this before we came, we would have packed less.

Sending part of our luggage ahead easily is a service provided by Japanese hotels that we wish were more widespread around the world. All we have had to do was give reception the luggage we wished sent, the name and address of the hotel of where to send it, and pay a reasonable fee. We did this twice, and it worked beautifully. It saved us the strain of having to pull our heavy bags through crowded stations, onto platforms, and into train cars where storing them was difficult.

Tofuku-ji Temple’s Sammon (Main Gate)

Japan has an unusual architectural profile. Classical architecture with its swallow-tail roofs and cypress timbers that makes up many of the medieval temple buildings is beautiful and historically significant.

In the last seventy years, architects have designed large, distinctive modernist buildings, many in Tokyo, that we mostly didn’t have the opportunity to view. Then, there is the everyday architecture that lines the streets of the country’s cities and towns. Much of this is nondescript. Japan seems to have few of the wide, iconic avenues that we associate with Western capitals.

One big blot on Japan’s cityscapes are the messes of utility cables and wires strung on poles that detract from the appearance of many streets and buildings. That said, as in other aspects of Japanese design, its architects continue to experiment with strange and unusual forms and structures.

One day at Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art, Kay and I took in a temporary exhibit entitled The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945. I found one exhibit in particular, the Capsule House, especially interesting. The capsule was an idea from the 1970s realized by a single tower in the Ginza district. Designed for temporary habitation, each capsule contains only one small room with several built-ins, including a stereo system with a reel-to-reel tape player. The capsules were built by a factory that makes shipping containers. Once fabricated and finished, capsules were trucked to their site where they were lifted by crane and attached to a high-rise core that provides elevators and mechanical systems. Though probably not the most practical solution to the housing crisis, it is original. Probably, only the Japanese would actually build it.

Our time in Kyoto coincided with Culture Day, a national three-day holiday. It was on the Friday that we decided to walk to Gion and look for wandering geishas. We don’t know if we saw any . . .

but the sight of many young women wearing kimonos was very pleasant.

After walking around for most of the morning, we had a quick bite at a Tully’s coffee shop and ventured into Yasaka-jinja, a Shinto Shrine, where we watched the preparations for a ritual event unfold.

Under an awning, protecting them from the sun, sat about thirty middle-aged men and women in matching robes and wearing black, peaked head pieces.

Each held an instrument that looked like a small bundle of hollow bamboo sticks of different lengths with a mouthpiece at one end. Subsequently, we learned that the instrument is a sho or free-reed mouth organ. In front of this group stood two large, colorful drums, each on its own dais. Between them, a man sat close to the ground with a smaller drum.  After a while, the group of musicians began to blow into their instruments, producing a high-pitched, wailing sound. At the same time the man with the small drum tapped it repeatedly. This introduced a procession of several priests dressed in robes with long trains who ascended the steps of the main shrine that stood beyond the drums. Crowds had gathered all the way around the spectacle, making it impossible to change our position and get a more complete view of what was happening. As a woman began to strike one of the large drums, we withdrew and headed back to the hotel.

You can’t walk on big-city streets in Japan for long without seeing the two-men teams of guardians. They are usually older men, and they wear blue uniforms, white gloves, and carry batons that glow when it gets dark. They stand posted on either side of car-park exits and by construction sites, anywhere, in fact, where cars and trucks have to cross pedestrian traffic. They stop vehicles momentarily to let people pass or prevent people from walking in front of moving vehicles they might not see. Written or unwritten, there are safety codes in Japan, and the Japanese obey them. We hardly ever saw anyone jaywalk, and, even with no vehicle traffic present, pedestrians wait for a green walk signal to cross a street. How different is that from Turkey where, even before crossing a one-way street, we look both ways.

Bamboo Forest

On Saturday of the holiday weekend I went alone to the Arishiyama district on the edge of the city to walk through the famous Bamboo Forest and relax in a nearby onsen the hotel had recommended. I don’t know if the fact that it was a holiday increased the traffic or if the crowds would have been as great on any ordinary day, but on my walk through the Forest I was shoulder-to-shoulder and close behind the people in front of me. All around, people were taking pictures of themselves, each other, and the bamboo that made an eerie, clacking sound when the wind ruffled the tops of the plants. I’d not seen such a concentration of bamboo before.

Tenryu-ji Garden

I paid 500 yen ($4.50) to enter the garden of the famous Tenryu-ji temple in the Forest where I climbed to a high spot and took photos over the treetops and temple roofs to see the mountains in the distance. Kyoto is ringed with mountains, as are Hiroshima and Uno Port. According to our guidebook, this temple’s garden is one of the most famous in Japan for it fall colors.


Exiting the forest, I made my way by chance back to the train station, looking for someone who could tell me how to get to the Fufunoyu Onsen. It was fortunate for me to approach a rickshaw puller named Yoshi, who spoke English and knew exactly where I wanted to go. We made a deal, and I was happy to pay since I was very tired of walking and riding in the rickshaw as the sun set was pleasant.

As he pulled me along, Yoshi provided some historical notes about my surroundings. In centuries past, when Kyoto was the capital, aristocrats and even the emperor had villas near the river at Arishiyama and on the adjacent mountainside. It was a place of quiet beauty. We passed over a bridge crowded with pedestrians and vehicles, and Yoshi guided his rickshaw skillfully among them. He is one of more than seventy local rickshaw pullers, who all work for the same company.

The onsen was great once I figured out how to buy my entrance ticket from a machine and store my belongings in a locker. In the men’s changing room I, along with other men and boys, stripped to our birthday suits, washed, and went into the shallow indoor pool filled with hot spring water. After soaking for fifteen or twenty minutes, I went outside and soaked some more in a second pool. I only wished the weather could have been cooler. Relaxing in an onsen is a great Japanese pastime, one I’ll miss when I’m back in Turkey.


We took a day-trip to the city of Nara that had been Japan’s original permanent capital before that honor passed in AD 785 to Kyoto where it remained for the next 1,000 years. A short, forty-minute train ride brought us to Nara Station from where we took a pokey bus a few minutes more to Nara-koen, the city’s huge park on its eastern side where most of the temples and other monuments are located.

In the park, we dodged a multitude of begging deer (considered a national treasure) and headed immediately for Todai-ji Temple in order to see Daibutsuden, Nara’s star attraction. It is an enormous bronze statue of Buddha, cast during the Edo period, and housed along with other larger-than-life statues in the world’s largest wooden building.


Approaching it directly along a wide walkway, the hall is impressive. Its roof is embellished with two golden horns.


Inside, in center stage, as it were, sits the enormous Buddha, said to contain 437 tons of bronze and 135 kilograms of gold in the giant lotus leaf that backs it, (How those figures have been arrived at is anyone’s guess.)

Needless to say, the place was swarming with people, many of them school children. Apparently, Daibutsuden is a popular destination for field trips. I did my best to photograph the Buddha and the other sculptures in the hall. Finally, Kay and I were happy to escape the crowds and the noise and look for somewhere to eat lunch.

In the Nara section of our guidebook, I read about a particular garden, the Isui-en, that sounded appealing. It took some effort to find, and the effort was worth it.

Isui-en Garden

Quiet and gorgeous at this time of year with the maple leaves turning red, we walked along paths made of stepping-stones among various small buildings.

Isui-en Garden

One of these had been constructed as a tea house by a wealthy owner during the Meiji era. If we had known, we could have eaten lunch there; that is, if we had wanted or been able to sit on our haunches on tatami mats.

Some of the paths crossed tiny bridges over shallow streams. These made Kay nervous, as she is phobic about bridges in general. At one point we rested on a bench and simply took in the beauty of our surroundings.

We like being able to invent each day as it comes. Kyoto is said to have some of the most beautiful temples and gardens in Japan.

Golden Pavilion

The day after Nara was another fine weather day so we took advantage and grabbed a taxi to Kinkakuji, the temple of the Golden Pavilion, a very special place. We timed our arrival for just before the site opened, thinking there would be fewer people if we went early. Perhaps it’s true, but there was a crowd already.

Our efforts were worth it, though. The view of the sunlit pavilion, shining against the green mountain background splashed with fall color was a sight I’ll never forget. My photos don’t really capture the spectacle. The air was cool and fresh. The reflection of the temple on the water in front of it was everything we could have hoped for.

The pavilion was built at the end of the 14th century by the third Ashikaga shogun. He used it as a villa, but after his death, it became a Zen temple. To quote our guru, Professor Ravina, “. . . the changing perspectives of Kinkakuji point to the Zen notion of extreme subjectivity: How we see the world can change radically based on our state of mind. This idea is reflected in the fact that at some points, the Golden Pavilion dominates the landscape, and elsewhere, it almost disappears in favor of small, rocky islands or a wooded grove.”

On our last day in Kyoto it rained lightly, but, despite the weather, we went for some final sightseeing. Kyoto’s Imperial Palace is located within an enormous walled enclosure, seemingly as large as New York’s Central Park. We arrived just in time to join an English-language tour that led us around the exteriors of the various wooden buildings that comprise the palace. Due to a devastating fire long ago, none of these is more than 160 years old.

It was fortunate that our female guide had a winning and enthusiastic personality because the buildings didn’t seem interesting or grand enough for their imperial roles. The imperial government was hierarchical. Officials could meet and debate only in such rooms as their status allowed. The emperor’s daily task was to pray, in order to interface with the Shinto gods. Because he was considered to be a demi-god, his feet were never supposed to touch the bare ground. When he walked out of a building, female attendants rolled out straw mats ahead of him. Otherwise, he would be carried in a palanquin. I don’t think it could have been much fun to be the emperor.

Our tour ended at a large, open space that had once contained the palace kitchens. We were told that they had been purposely destroyed toward the end of the Second World War, along with servants’ quarters, and many other minor buildings, and the corridors that connected them. This was to protect the principal structures from fire caused by the threat of allied bombing. Ironically, this destruction was undertaken only one month before Japan surrendered.

Before leaving Kyoto, I wanted to try the dish known as sukiyaki. Curiosity was behind this: sukiyaki was featured in my life’s first Japanese meal. I had eaten it in Chicago’s only Japanese restaurant when I was sixteen and not tasted it since. Sukiyaki’s main ingredient is thinly sliced beef, which, in our case, was cooked on a table-top grill in front of us by a kimono-clad matron. We were told to dip the cooked beef in a bowl of raw egg and eat it along with noodles, leeks, etc. cooked on the same grill. The meal was expensive and underwhelming, good reasons, I suspect, why the dish is not found on the menus of most contemporary Japanese restaurants.

We were already growing nostalgic on our final Shinkansen that took us from Kyoto to Tokyo Station. From there, we boarded the Narita Express for the hour-long trip to the airport and then a taxi to a comfortable hotel in the adjacent city of Narita. We both felt we needed a good night’s sleep to gird ourselves for the twelve-and-a-half-hour flight to Istanbul.


We had no high expectations of Narita city, but with a few hours to spare before our next day’s flight, we explored it. Imagine our surprise when the main street called Omote-sando turned out to be one of the most interesting we had walked along in Japan. It held a variety of restaurants and shops. In one, everything was priced the same, 1080 yen ($9.60). It reminded us of the Dollar stores in the U.S.

Naritasan Temple

Omote-sando ended at a great temple complex, the Naritasan that belongs to the Chisan Sect of Shingon Buddhism. Its structures occupy different levels on a mountainside and there is an enormous park with paths and steps that lead to pools, a stream fed by a small waterfall, and various monuments, including an impressive Great Pagoda of Peace.

Great Pagoda of Peace

We walked and climbed a lot to take in these sights. The area was so large that, even though there were many people present, where we walked didn’t seem particularly crowded. The fact that the weather was excellent added to our enjoyment on this, our last day in Japan.

Japan was one of our “trips of a lifetime,” twenty-six days of surprise, puzzlement, and delight. It’s remarkable how many experiences we packed into less than a single month. I only wish there was time and space to tell you more.