Day 10 - Kyoto Arrival

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

A much more peaceful area than Yokohama as I sit on the tatami mats in our room here in Kyoto. It is also a long way away from the centre of the city.

We had a lot of time so mother made a call back to Canada to her husband using my rented telephone (might as well use it…). I think it was good to make sure everything was alright and it is also good to hear from someone back at home. She felt a lot better for having talked to him as well. Our bullet train was scheduled for just before 6 PM so we had pretty much the whole day in Yokohama to ourselves before we had to leave. We did have to worry about our luggage though so after checking out we left it with the concierge so we could just pick it up later rather than lugging it about the city with us.

Yokohama has a bit of an odd attraction. It is something that as soon as I found out about I knew I had to visit. It is a Ramen Museum located in Shin-Yokohama. It is a museum dedicated to the (originally Chinese) Ramen noodle. Much of what we know of ramen is the instant noodles that are so cheaply available in supermarkets the world over but this museum is dedicated not only to those but also to the noodles prepared fresh throughout Japan. Even though they are originally Chinese the Japanese have made Ramen their own with regional specialities throughout the country. The museum celebrates this. Now, aren't you interested? Ok, maybe if I tell you what we saw…

Ramen Museum

We had to take a few trains to get to Shin-Yokohama then we had to walk a few blocks to the museum. None of this was sign-posted so it was just as well I had a map and guide for the museum. The rather plane exterior is nothing compared to what we found inside. Paying our entrance we first entered (10:00) into the shop (not a very promising start but interesting nonetheless) and off to the right was a small, literal, museum about Ramen telling how it is made and where it comes from. Fine and dandy but since our Japanese is a bit non-existent it did not hold our attention for long. I wanted to go to the basement. You see, I knew what the museum was REALLY all about.

Inside the Ramen Museum

Descending the staircase the posters on the dirty walls begin the illusion as you descend from the modern into the past. Coming out on the landing you turn to your right. You are at the top of a staircase and spread out around you is a re-creation of an early 20th century Japanese street scene with small shops all around, a painted ceiling and small stalls on the street below. To our left and right is a path leading in a circular path through the alleys around some more shops up here on the first floor. I was anxious to get started (we were also starving having not eaten yet) so we ducked into the first shop on our right (Shinasobaya). How this works is that outside each shop there is a machine from which you can buy tickets. There are buttons with descriptions (in Japanese) of what is on offer along with pictures. Each of these shops (small restaurants) have a small half-sized portion of ramen you can order (a “sampler” if you like) or you can order the full size portion. I knew I wanted to try a few of the 8 different restaurants represented here so we ordered the sample size. Each of the 8 are small versions of restaurants of the same name scattered throughout Japan. In this first case this restaurant is actually from this central part of Japan.

Back "Streets" of Museum (SW)

The small room had tables on either side. Sitting in a small booth on the left we had a look around. There is a small kitchen towards the back that we can see into that is making an awful racket. Opposite there are some Japanese people already eating but other than that we are alone. The waitress comes over to take our tickets – She had been helpful in our figuring out how the ticket machines worked outside. On the walls there are pictures of the area, particularly, it seems, Yokohama. The large wood beams across the ceiling add to the atmosphere. The ramen is fantastic. So much different than the stuff we have to suffer that comes out of the instant packets. Really good.

Posters in Ramen Museum (SW)

Hunger temporarily satiated we left the small shop and headed around the corner on our left passing by another small shop. The small alley has fake shops on either side but the experience is actually quite authentic giving you an idea of what it must have been like (and perhaps still is, in areas). There were the obligatory souvenirs on offer but we continued around until we arrived where we had started at the top of the staircase looking out over the central atrium. Descending we were in a small courtyard. I had to try a dried ramen-coated deep fried snack that had a tasty filling (don't know what it really was, a savoury bean centre or something). The guy selling them was quite persuasive…

Down here was the one shop I really wanted to go into and had read about before our visit – Hachiya (from Ashikawa City on the northernmost island of Japan) – Off to the left. This is an unusual ramen (well all of these shops offer unusual dishes but this was more unusual than the others) – grilled lard in the broth and noodles themselves make the ramen taste quite rich and smoky. Mother, being a bit of a vegetarian, gave this one a miss but did have a bit of ice cream. I added a bit of the garlic paste present on each table to my noodles and continued savouring the experience. Ok, perhaps it does not sound appealing (“LARD????” I hear you saying) but it was actually very tasty. Filling as well.

Lard Ramen! (SW)

I did manage, on mother's suggestion (my excuse), to visit one last restaurant on the upper level – Keyaki (from Sapporo on the northernmost island of Japan). This was a pleasant dish with very fresh ingredients in a small restaurant a bit of a departure from the others here – Very modern interior with counter-style seating along the narrow interior.

Ok, now I was full. But before we left we picked up a few very tasty sugar-coated donuts (evidently a specialty) for sale in the small bakery in the main courtyard. Wandering around the souvenir shop before we left there were a few more things to pick up…

The rest of the day was really spent in getting around. I was looking for an electronics shop just to explore wandering around the Yokohama station area we could not find the one that mother had heard about in her panel about Yokohama (and what to see here). We did manage to visit a rather large department store right close to the station. Japanese department stores are quite amazing. In the west there really aren't that many examples still around of the concept: Floors specialising in particular goods and VERY good (and respectful) customer service. They are not cheap but very interesting. Of particular interest to me is the basement of these stores which is where the food is sold (why is it always food with me?). There is a large amount of prepared food of every kind including baked goods, meats, fish (including sushi), confectionery, etc but also an area where you can buy fresh produce (but not as big). It was amazing to walk around in this area with so much to see, smell and taste. We spent the time just looking at what was on offer and figuring out what it was. Most of what we saw looked very good indeed. We did stop at a small juice bar at one end and had a drink and seat for a few minutes (very tasty).

Onboard a Shinkansen

Hard to believe that the day passed so quickly but we wanted to be a bit early for the train. This is our first bullet train (Shinkansen) so we are also quite excited. Returning to the hotel by subway we returned to Shin-Yokohama to catch the train to Kyoto. We were quite early but that is alright as there were a few stairs to climb up with the luggage so we needed a bit of time. On the very modern platform there are stainless steel railings to prevent passengers from falling on the track with gates that open in these railings to let you onto the train. The train doors open at very specific places on the platform that are clearly marked on the ground with the electronic signs above clearly indicating (in both English and Japanese) where the train is going and when it will arrive (yes, down to the second). Absolutely amazing.

Our train eventually arrived and I was surprised at how comfortable it was. It was like getting on board an aircraft with the same types of doors and rounded walls. Through the automatic doors we were warned we would have no space for luggage at the seats so found the area at the end of the car where we could leave it (behind the last row of seats – Incidentally personal security is not really an issue here – petty crime is practically non-existent so we really did not have to worry about our luggage being taken from us). Our seats were on the left side of the train – the two seats to the right of the aisle but the other side has 3 seats and is much wider. The seats appear to be able to rotate so all of them can face forwards in whatever direction the train goes…Much better than traveling backwards which makes me sick. The car is very wide and spacious. The trip to Kyoto is only 2 ½ hours and was extremely quiet. The motion of the train is almost hard to make out as we quickly went through the countryside. Unfortunately for much of the journey it was dark so we could not really see what we were passing but did make out mountains in the distance on occasion.

They came through the train selling food. A very pleasant young lady wheeling a cart piled high with various edibles (including the popular and ubiquitous – but not terribly tasty – plastic bottles of cold tea) quietly asks if anyone wants anything to eat as she passes through the car. Opening the door at the end she politely bows to the people in the car as the door shuts in front of her. Customer service, must look that up…

We are not eligible to catch the fastest of the Shinkansen trains. The JR Rail pass is only good on the more common commuter and long-distance trains but that does not mean the trains are any less impressive. Ok, perhaps looking a bit more Buck Rogers than Star Trek they are still quite interesting looking.

20:20. We arrive in Kyoto station. Travel always tires so we just head out to get to the hotel. Here in Kyoto I chose more of a local-style hotel. It is not a Ryokan but sort of an easier form of a Ryokan: Not a full-on Japanese Inn (with no en suite facilities and shared baths) but rather a more western-friendly place (en suite – but no beds and tatami floors). Mother had expressed concerns (and I had as well) regarding the use of a shared bath facility – I guess we are both chickens at heart (but I do wish, in a way, that we had given it a try…). We had to take two subway trains to get to our hotel. The subways here are just as convenient as we have experienced elsewhere in Japan with the guide to the system above the ticket machines – each station indicating how much it costs to get there from where you are. We plugged in our coins and made our way through the barriers to the trains below. The whole subway system here in Kyoto is actually quite small consisting of only two lines – one going north and south and the other intersecting it going east and west. After travelling north on the clean (very welcome) air-conditioned train for a few stops we transferred to the other line and headed east two stops. Ascending from the final station we had to walk about a quarter mile through an underground shopping complex before finally climbing up the 60-some odd steps back to the street. It is raining and has been for a while now. Looking at our hotel map I headed off (quickly) down a side alley immediately to our right that had the right name on it…Our luggage hummed on it's wheels behind us as we wondered where we were: A dark narrow alley with not a lot of people in it heading down into an even darker area – Were we lost? Checking the map we soldiered on. The hotel is a small place on the left that has the traditional cloth hanging down above the sliding door. Pushing the door apart we entered into the main foyer which is quite spacious with a seating area off to the far left where some tourists were using the complimentary laptops to access the Internet. I could see a small garden in a courtyard through the windows. To the right we checked in. Thankfully all was in order as we were guided to our room on the 2nd floor. The room is quite nice.

Entering through the door there is a small landing where you remove your shoes and put them onto the small set of shelves to the right of the door. There is also a small sink and mirror here as well. To the right there is a door leading to the very small bathroom with a normal (no electronic gimmickry) toilet, sink and a small “bath” (a traditional bath in that it is enough room for you to crouch down and wash yourself but not enough to lay in). From the front door heading straight you slide open another door to enter the main room. It is a large room with tatami throughout. There is a small table you can sit at (kneeling or sitting with your feet underneath) to the right and a television on top of a small low bookcase on the wall on the far right that also has a small fridge and (thankfully) safe (we have been using the safe in our room at every hotel – can't be too conscious about security, even here!). If you pass through this room there is a small sleeping area at the front of the suite that looks out onto the street (again, tatami mats) with cupboards to the left and right. Mother decided she wanted this area, which can be closed off from the main area with a sliding screen, to herself. I got the corner of the main room that was fine with me as it meant I would not get the early morning sun waking me. The air-conditioning in the room is VERY welcome though as it is so hot and humid outside in the rain.

The basement of the hotel houses a (public) bath but we have not looked at it. We are happy enough with our room.

Dropping our bags we did head off in search of somewhere to eat. The last time we had eaten was at the Ramen museum and that was HOW MANY hours ago???? Anyway, on the recommendation of the people at the front desk (very helpful, by the way) we headed out into the night. The rain has pretty much stopped now which made getting around a bit easier. We headed off in the direction they indicated which turned out to be a street with covered pavement on either side and a lot of people. Much busier than where our hotel is located in the back alleys of Kyoto. Much more colourful too with bright lights everywhere and shops selling all sorts of things.

We were very satisfied, after a bit of debate, to eat at a small sushi shop. It had a conveyor belt and was very busy. The dishes on the conveyor actually had small signs indicating what they were (in Japanese AND English) – the price was VERY reasonable at something like 120 yen per dish! There were a few westerners in the far corner but they looked to be local people as they appeared to be speaking Japanese. The meal was delicious though we did not really try anything I have never had before (though I suppose the raw scallops were a bit unusual).

Heading back out onto the noisy street we made our way back to the hotel passing through the same shopping centre that we had visited after the subway (it is the best way to get around the busy street above): Tired but satisfied with the day.

Now, where can I get some Ramen…?

Day 11 - Kyoto Day 1

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