Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Kyoto Day Two: Kiyomizudera, Nanzenji, and the Philosopher's Path

On our second day in Kyoto we woke up bright and early thanks to Julie's jet lag. Out of the hotel by 7:20, we stopped at Lawson for a quick convenience store breakfast and then caught a bus to Kiyomizudera, one of the most famous temples in Kyoto.

From the bus stop it's still a bit of a walk up to Kiyomizudera. There were a few other early risers out with us, but it was a very quiet walk passed many closed shops. We were lucky to have arrived so early because it meant the temple was far less crowded and much more enjoyable. Part of the temple was under construction, and while it looked disappointing from the entrance it actually wasn't a big deal at all. We wound our way through the grounds, enjoying the cherry blossoms as we went. We must have been at a higher elevation because not as many were blooming, but we could tell how incredible it would look in just a couple more days.

When we left Kiyomizudera, the little shopping street was buzzing with activity, and we took our time shopping for souvenirs and snacks. If you see any cucumbers on sticks, be careful - they're delicious but super salty! We also shared some ice cream. Japanese vacation spots always seem to have lots of soft serve - I've come to really associate it with travel. We tried the black sesame, and it was very good. A little bit like peanut butter but with a more roasted flavor.

After plenty of shopping and lunch we took a cab to Nanzenji. I don't splurge on taxis very often, but it's totally worth it to save time and walking if you're going to be on your feet touristing for several days in a row. 

Nanzenji is another temple complex in Kyoto with very elaborate grounds. Our first stop was to go up into the Sanmon gate. The stairs are quite steep, and you have to pay a special admission fee, but it's worth it for the fantastic view. From there we headed on to the huge roman aquaduct. It seemed so out of place, like we had suddenly stumbled into Europe, but it's beautiful to look at. If you climb up to the top you can walk along it for a very peaceful walk along the water.

After Nanzenji we walked along the Philosopher's Path, a stone walkway along a canal that connects Nanzenji temple to Ginkakuji temple. It gets it's name from a famous philosopher who is supposed to have meditated as he walked along this path. The path is lined with cherry trees that were beautifully in bloom, and while it was more crowded than we would have liked it was very nice to walk along. There are a number of shops and cafes that make for nice stops if you're tired and need a little break.

Our last stop was a little temple just off the path that a friend had recommended - Honen-in. Honen-in is known for it's sand garden where different patterns and designs are raked into raised beds of sand. After this final temple we caught a bus back to Kyoto station, and this was by far the worst part of our trip. The bus was more crowded than any rush hour train I have ever ridden, and because of heavy tourist traffic took far longer than scheduled to return to the station. If I can offer one piece of advice for visiting Kyoto during a peak season it would be to plan an itinerary that relies on subways, walking, and taxis as much as possible, and avoid buses at peak times of day to the greatest extent possible.

That evening we were exhausted from our early start and our long day of exploring, so we ate dinner at one of the many restaurants at Kyoto Station, rather than venturing out to a more exciting neighborhood with bars, and then went to bed early.


The sakura are just a couple days from blooming

Isn't she so cute?

Seriously, so cute!
The aquaduct at Nanzenji
Walking along the aquaduct

On The Philosopher's Path 
The sand garden at Honen-in

Read about the rest of our trip:
Arashiyama and Kawaramachi
Fushimi Inari

Places we visited:
The Philosopher's Path

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Kyoto Day One: Arashiyama and Kawaramachi

One of the highlights of Julie's visit was our trip to Kyoto. Kyoto is famous for it's temples, shrines, and rich history. Being more nature lovers than history buffs Julie and I knew we wanted to take a trip somewhere, but we weren't initially sure that Kyoto was the right destination. I'm so glad we ignored our doubts, because we had a wonderful trip full filled with beautiful scenery and relaxing gardens mixed in with the rich history.

We had planned on taking a longer trip, but even booking a couple months ahead hotels were almost entirely sold out because of the increased tourism for cherry blossom season. I was only able to find a place for two nights, and we paid far more than we would have at other times of year. Our hotel was near Kyoto station which turned out to be extremely convenient for transportation, but has less nightlife, so keep that in mind if it's a priority for you.

Because we would be there during sakura season I planned our trip with crowds in mind. We tried to start early each day, and use as the trains as much as possible so that we wouldn't have to rely on overcrowded and often delayed buses. Unlike Tokyo the train stations are much farther apart in Kyoto, making them much less convenient.

We left Monday morning from Tokyo station on the bullet train. I bought our tickets a few days in advance just to be sure that we would have seats on the right hand side of the train in hopes of seeing Mt. Fuji if the weather was clear. A note about buying shinkansen tickets - if you're willing to pay cash, you can buy them directly from the green ticket machines in English. This is often much faster than buying them at the counter, but the benefit of that is that they will accept foreign credit cards.

On the ride we lucked out, and had a beautiful clear view of Mt. Fuji. We brought lunches to eat on the train, and had a great time chatting and relaxing as the country flew by. The bullet train is often more expensive than flying, but I have to admit that it is SO much more pleasant. When we reached Kyoto station we put our bags in a locker and immediately took a train out to Arashiyama, the western forested edge of Kyoto.

From the station we walked down to the Togetsukyo Bridge for the famous view of the river and the mountains, then backtracking to Tenryuji temple. It is totally worth the 600 yen to walk through both the temple and garden. We walked around for a while and then spent some time just sitting in the sun staring out at the beautiful scenery. Finally we exited out the back right of the temple into the famous bamboo forest.

The bamboo forest was fairly crowded. We had to angle our cameras up above everyone's heads to get clear photos of just the bamboo. Luckily it's very tall! We saw a few models taking pictures out in the forest, and even snapped a few of our own pictures of them. Through the forest we walked to Okochi Sanso, a private garden that used to be the property of a Japanese period actor. Admission is 1000 yen, which is high, but because so few people are willing to pay it is extremely uncrowded. This was one of our favorite experiences because of the lack of crowds. Admission also includes tickets for matcha and a small traditional sweet at the tea house at the end of your visit.

After a peaceful afternoon surrounded by nature we walked back towards the station, doing a little souvenir shopping along the away. When we got back to Kyoto we picked up our bags, and checked into our hotel.

Once we'd had some time to refresh ourselves we headed out to the Kawaramachi area (easily accessible from Kawaramachi or Gion Shijo stations). This is a fantastic place to explore, eat, and drink, and I can't say enough good things about it. The old streets and alleys are so beautiful it seemed like I was stopping every other second to take more pictures. We walked around the canal that was surrounded by beautiful weeping sakura, found a delicious yakitori place for dinner, and then continued exploring after dinner. If the weather had been warmer it would have been lovely to walk along the Kamo River, but we were too cold to give it a try. Eventually Julie's jet lag caught up with her so we caught a cab home and went to bed early.

Mt. Fuji from the train
Tenryuji Garden

Sakura at Tenruji

Arashiyama's Bamboo Forest

Okochi Sanso
Models in the Bamboo

Kawaramachi Sakura

Delicious Yakitori

You should eat here - they even have an English menu!
Places We Visited:
Arashiyama (Tenryuji and Okochi Sanso)
Yakitori Torisee

Read about the rest of our trip:
Kiyomizudera, Nanzenji, and The Philosopher's Path
Fushimi Inari

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Getting Glasses in Japan

Did you know that it's much less expensive to buy glasses in Japan than it is in the US? Even though I knew glasses were very inexpensive in Korea, I never even wondered about getting any here because I'm such a dedicated contacts wearer. 

But when my sister's glasses broke just before her visit she did a little research and discovered it would be an excellent opportunity for her to get new glasses. (She found this and this to be particularly helpful blog posts.) And it's totally doable without speaking a word of Japanese! While they prices aren't as incredible as Korea they are phenomenal compared to what we are used to paying. After considering Megane Super, Zoff, and Jins my sister decided she liked the styles at Jins best, so off we went.

Jins has many locations, but we went to the one in Harajuku because they have a large selection as well as English speakers on staff. All the frames on display have price tags, and this price includes the cost of an eye exam and regular lenses. You have the option of paying extra to upgrade to tinted lenses, PC lenses, or sunglass lenses. When I saw how much fun Julie was having and how low the prices were I decided to jump on the bandwagon, and got a pair as well. My last pair is probably ten years old, and terribly out of style.

The process is very simple. After you select a the frames you want, give them to the cashier. They will give you a slip of paper telling you your appointment time, and if you are wearing contacts a case for you to put your lenses in. Our appointments were scheduled for 20 minutes later, so we browsed in some nearby shops before returning. The eye test was surprisingly quick. First you look into a machine that tests you for astigmatism and then read an eye chart with a optician. I read from a hirigana eye chart, but if you don't read any Japanese they have another chart of circles with one side missing. You just tell them (or point to) the direction. Once they've determined your prescription they will put test lenses in a contraption for you to try out. Don't hesitate to tweak the prescription if it's not quite right. Once that is done you pay, and then they put the lenses in your frames. My appointment was at 4:40, and I was already finished paying at 4:49. They told us it would take 30 minutes to put the lenses in, but finished and brought them to us much more quickly. As I was checking out they told me that they will replace the lenses up to twice for free if the prescription isn't correct. 

In the end, my pair cost 5900 yen, or about $50. Julie got a more expensive pair and paid an additional 4000 yen (about $32) to get the special lenses for looking at computer screens.

The funniest part of this whole experience is that there was a camera crew filming inside the store while we were there, and they became very interested in us. In the end we did a little interview with Raku acting as translator and they filmed us trying on lots of frames. We have no idea if this was for a TV show, a commercial, or something else, but it was a lot of fun.

Doing the Eye Test

Plenty of Selection

Super Stylish!
We're So Famous!

Hours: 11:00-10:00 Mon-Sun
Phone: 03-6418-6212
Location: 6-12-17 Harajuku, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Monday, April 13, 2015

Spring Rain

It's been such a rainy spring so far this year! I wish that all the dreary days we've been having would cancel out the summer rains of Tsuyu, but I suppose that's not likely to happen. Most of the cherry blossoms are gone, replaced by tiny green leaves. It reminds me how beautiful the city is when everything is lush and green.

My sister is back in the US now, and of course I miss her, but I'm excited to finally have time to blog about all the great things we did while she was here. I've got a whole series of those posts coming up, so I hope you're looking forward to them.

In other exciting news John and I finally decided that after living here for more than two years, it was time to splurge and take a trip to South East Asia. We bought the tickets last week, and we'll be going to both Cambodia and Vietnam! In Cambodia we'll stay in Siem Reap and see Angkor Wat, and in Vietnam we'll be visiting Hanoi. I can't wait to share the photos and the stories of our experiences there.

Sakura in the Rain

Went to a show in Shimokitazawa over the weekend

Beautiful coffee always tastes better, doesn't it?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

It's The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

I can't believe that my sister has already been here for a week, but I love that when I look back at all the pictures we've been taking there are cherry blossoms in so many. It's such a beautiful and magical time of year, and I'm so glad she gets to be here for it.

We've been on the go non-stop, but I have all sorts of great stories and new things I've learned about to share, like visiting Kyoto, getting glasses in Japan, and staying in a capsule hotel. For now I'll just put up some photos of the cherry blossoms, but there will be more coming soon. Right now Julie is off having breakfast at the fish market and then going to a cool coffee shop with John and I'm enjoying a couple quiet hours by myself.

Picnic in Shinjuku Gyoen

The canal in Kawaramachi, Kyoto

Kiyomizudera, Kyoto

Sakura snowdrifts in Tokyo

Nakameguro at night