Sake, Castle, and Ship

We left Kyoto around 9 this morning on our way to Le Soleal, which will be our home for the next seven nights.

Our first stop was the Sawanotsuru Sake Museum and Brewery in Kobe. We watched a short video on sake-making in olden times (today, they use modern industrial techniques) and got to taste some of their sake and plum wine. Diane and I splurged 500 yen (about $3.30) to taste their premium sake (4400 yen for 720 ml); it was much nicer than the basic sake that was included in the visit.

We didn’t have time to visit their museum, but we did look around the grounds a bit and saw this Shinto shrine just outside the tasting room.

We continued on to Himeji for lunch and a visit to Himeji Castle, which is a beautiful place. We didn’t go into the castle itself (our guides said the interior was pretty bare and visitors spend most of their time trudging up and down stairs); instead, we saw lots of views of the castle. It’s the peak of peony season, so there was a special exhibition of peonies, too.

Le Soleal was waiting for us at the port of Himeji. We were met by a couple of interesting characters who were associated with a taiko drum group who serenaded us as we sailed away.

Le Soleal is a lovely ship, like all the Ponant ships we’ve been on. The food is great, the service attentive, and the Internet connectivity free and very limited. Expect short posts with just a few photos during the voyage.

We’re sailing the Inland Sea; the captain said that we should expect smooth sailing.

Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo-ji, and a couple of interesting restaurants

One of the best things about traveling with John Meffert on National Trust Tours is going on walkabouts with him; he finds interesting things to go see which wouldn’t be worth a full tour. Today, John took us through the area around the Kyoto Okura Hotel, beginning with the statues of Matakichi Maeda (founder of the hotel) and Hirobumi Ito (first Prime Minister of Japan, serving the Meiji Emperor). The Government of Japan wanted a large hotel in Kyoto to accommodate visitors to the then-capital, and Matakichi provided it. In addition to the statues, there are memorial stones to both men.

John then took us to the remains of the Takase-gawa canal, which had been used to bring goods into the area; there were nine sites on the canal where cargo was loaded or unloaded. This one was preserved as a National Historic site after canal traffic ended in 1920.

We walked a bit further and admired a defensive wall that had been erected during the feudal period to protect the property of a Very Rich Person.

And then we walked the five minutes back to the hotel to join our first official tour of the day, which brought us to Kiyomizu-dera Temple (“-dera” means temple, so the name is somewhat redundant!), which is a Buddhist temple complex dating back to 778 CE. Many of the current buildings were constructed in 1633; they were built without any nails.

The complex is dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva of peace and mercy – and this dragon is one of Kannon’s incarnations.

We took off our shoes to enter the main hall and look around.

The main pavilion includes a stage which was used for performances centuries ago; today, it’s where you stand to get a great view.

The name “Kiyomizu” means “pure clear water” and refers to the waterfall which runs through the complex; people drink from it for good fortune even today.

As is typical in Japan, there are also Shinto shrines on the grounds (and lots of shops and restaurants, too).

We left Kiyomizu-dera to return to the hotel; we had ninety minutes before our next tour, so Diane and I went to Sushino Musashi, about a seven minute walk from the hotel. It’s a conveyor sushi restaurant, with clear English and Japanese signage for the dishes on the belt. There was a wide selection, but we chose to skip the raw horsemeat sushi in favor of the tuna and salmon. Lunch was excellent, fast, and inexpensive (lunch was under $25 for the two of us), and we were back at the hotel with plenty of time before our afternoon tour.

Sushino Musashi

Nijo-ji (Nijo Castle) was built in the early 17th Century to serve as the Kyoto residence of the Shogun; in 1867, the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, declared the end of the Shogunate and the return of authority to the Emperor while in residence at Nijo-ji.

We weren’t allowed to take photos in the palace, but it was impressive. So were the rest of the grounds.

John had hoped to take some of us on a walkabout back to the hotel, but it was hot and everyone was tired, so we rode the bus back instead and went up to our room to rest for a bit.

We decided to look for a place to eat in the Teramachi Arcade. We ended up at Hyakusai Beef Noodles and had their most popular item, the Lanzhou beef noodle soup. It was quite tasty, but a little tricky to eat with chopsticks.

After dinner, we explored the arcade until the stores started closing but left without buying anything.

Beyond Kyoto Station

I’d been in Kyoto once before, in 1998 for a W3C meeting, but I mostly saw the area around Kyoto Station because the meeting was in the Granvia Hotel there, and there wasn’t much time for sightseeing. This time is different.

Our hotel made it easy to find the breakfast room they’d reserved for us.

Our first stop this morning was Ryoan-Ji Temple, which was originally an aristocrat’s country home; it was converted into a Zen temple in 1450. There were still some beautiful blossoms on the trees, and the pond on the premises was quite pleasant, too.

The rock garden is the centerpiece of the temple; it was designed so that you can’t see all 15 of its stones simultaneously if you are sitting on the veranda of the abbot’s residence. Our guide said that this was to illustrate the incompleteness of human perception.

My photo of the garden also illustrates the limits of my camera equipment.

We continued touring the grounds and enjoying their beauty.

Airpods for the win!

We left Ryoan-Ji and drove a few minutes to the Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion.

The Pavilion was originally built in the 15th Century but what we saw today only dates back to 1955, when it was rebuilt after being burnt down by a novice monk who was suffering from mental illness.

The Pavilion and its grounds are very popular – tourists have to follow a one-way path around the grounds to reduce congestion! I’m glad we were here at a relatively quiet time.

This sign prepared us to return to the real world:

We escaped the souvenir shop unscathed, but the matcha ice cream called out to be tried.

The bus took us along the Kamo River and back to the hotel.

We came back, dropped our Quietvoxes, and caught the hotel’s shuttle to their Welcome Center at Kyoto Station. I wanted to get tickets for our Shinkansen (bullet train) trip to Tokyo at the beginning of Golden Week, and I thought it would be easy to do it at the station. There was even a special ticket counter for tourists (in other words, one with English-speaking clerks), and it only took a couple of minutes to make the purchase once we reached the front of the line.

We caught the shuttle back to the hotel and set out on foot for our afternoon’s exploration. First, we had to find a place to eat lunch – the first couple of places we tried looked at our allergy card and said we needed to go elsewhere. We wound up at Taimeshyia Fukuno, a very small restaurant which has only two things on their menu: a raw egg dish, and a dish with raw sea bream (or maybe red snapper – the signs outside the restaurant said “sea bream”, but the English-language menu inside said “red snapper”). We went for the fish, and it was delicious.

I’d accidentally left the charger for my shaver at home (leaving the house at 6:30am might have played a role in that). I asked our guides where I might find a replacement, and they suggested Edion, a few blocks south of the restaurant. It’s a huge (six floors) electronics store; personal care products were on the fourth floor. But they didn’t have the replacement charger (it was “on order”), so I bought a Braun M-90 battery-operated shaver. It cost all of $23.

We took a little detour to walk back to the hotel along the Kamogawa River instead of on the busy street; it was quite pleasant, except for the bicycles zipping past (much like walking the Los Gatos Creek trail at home).

This evening, there was a reception at the hotel; I made the mistake of having Kirin Whiskey. It was tasty, but I didn’t learn that it was 100 proof until I was on my second drink.

There wasn’t much food at the reception, so we went out for dinner at Dublin, next to the hotel. It was very easy to find something safe on their menu: fish and chips. The chips were a bit on the salty side, but I enjoyed them anyway. And their Guinness was far better than any I’ve had in California – they took the time to pour it correctly.

It’s good to see a bit more of the city than my first trip here!

Konnichiwa from Kyoto!

It’s been a very long day. We booked our ride to SFO early to avoid most of the traffic, so we left the house at 6:30am and got to the airport at 7:15…a bit earlier than necessary for a 10:55am flight! We wandered around and looked at some of the art on display, then spent a couple of hours at the Polaris Lounge.

Our flight to Kansai International Airport (KIX) arrived a few minutes early; the line for immigration and was fairly short, and we’re traveling with carry-on luggage, so we were out of customs with plenty of time to meet our group transfer to Kyoto. Not everyone was as lucky, but we headed to the bus right on time at 4pm…only to be told that there were still a couple of passengers who hadn’t emerged. So we waited. 45 minutes later, we drove off, still without those passengers!

The ride from KIX to Kyoto is nearly two hours long; we stopped at a rest area along the way for a water break. There was a convenience store there, complete with vending machine.

Eventually, we got into Kyoto; it was getting dark, but we could see a few trees still in blossom along the river.

Our group is staying at the Hotel Okura Kyoto for the next three nights. Our room was ready and so were we…but we were hungry, so we asked our guides for recommendations for something simple, small, and close – and it had to be suitable for our no pork/no shellfish restrictions. They suggested Sojibo in the Zest Oike shopping mall in the basement of the hotel (well, it’s really the shopping mall attached to the subway station).

It was harder to find something we could eat than I expected (they cook their duck in lard), but with the help of our allergy cards, a very helpful waiter, and Google and Apple Translate, we succeeded; both of us had soba noodles. Diane had hers with “wild vegetables” and mine was with yam. It would have been easier going to a Western restaurant, but we probably couldn’t have gotten two meals for just over $12!

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a stop at a single Wal-Mart

Ox Ranch is not a place I’d ever have visited if it weren’t for the eclipse.

We were not the usual kind of group that comes to the ranch. Most of their visitors come armed and ready to hunt – not just for the deer and game animals that are all over the area, nor the wild boar which are real pests, but a large variety of exotic animals which the ranch imports as trophies (and which we’d enjoyed photographing).

But it didn’t matter, at least for the couple of days we were there. I had a great time there. The scenery was beautiful, the animals gorgeous, and everyone treated us well. The guides were great at showing us the animals, and the food was delicious and the cabins were comfortable. It was fun to see the equipment at DriveTanks, too.

I don’t think I’ll be back, but I’m glad I went. It was a learning experience of the best kind.

We left the ranch about 9am after one last impressive breakfast and boarded two buses. One bus took the people who were continuing on the post-tour to see the Texas Hill Country (including a visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center). We would have been among them if we weren’t planning to leave for Japan in a week, but as it was, we had to get on the bus going directly to the San Antonio Airport.

Well, almost directly; we stopped at one last Wal-Mart to use the facilities and say goodbye once more; Rick Binzel performed his role as greeter one last time, but this time he was joined by the store’s real greeter, who was amused by his antics.

Our time at the airport was not memorable, and neither was the flight – a perfect trip home!