Blossoms, canals and shabu-shabu in Kyoto

There is so much to see in Kyoto. Unfortunately, the sights are spread out across the city, the rail network inconveniently structured and the bus system so slow that you might as well walk.

When we made the decision to visit Kyoto the question was how we could fit in all that we wanted to see. I wanted to catch the Sagano tourist train in the beautiful Arashiyama area and walk the Path of Philosophy under the cherry trees in Higashiyama, stopping at the little shops along the way. In the end we saw nothing planned and discovered places new instead.

Part of the reason that we lacked time was a shopping detour in the Isetan department store of the huge Kyoto station. Up at the children’s level there was a slide for children and Alex joined in the other kids in climbing up and sliding down while B went looking for clothes. At least it was better than him playing with all the toys.

We got him out with a promise of the use of a lift, then caught a subway up to the Karasuma Shijo stop. There are expensive luxury goods and department stores along Shijo-dori, along with others selling a variety of products. Hungry, we walked past them all until we reached Kiyamachi street, which runs parallel to the river.

Along there lies Fufutei, an all you can eat shabu-shabu restaurant where we have been twice before. Unfortunately it only opens for dinner, but at least we had the pleasure of walking along the shallow canal lined with flowering cherry blossom trees.

Just across from Kiyamachi is the more famous Pontocho, a narrow laneway of expensive restaurants overlooking the Kamo River. You may often see a Maiko (apprentice geisha) in evenings along there. Right then very little was open. Near the end, past an interesting looking playground, was a noodle house that had a lunch selection at reasonable prices.

Alex fell asleep on the bench next to me soon after we sat down. It was a good thing, because the food was approaching inedible for our palates. We just ordered from photos and B chose cold soba noodles served in an egg foam, while my warm soba noodles were served in a tasteless broth. The pickles and tofu were similarly difficult to eat, the only saving grace was the beautiful tempura.

Just before we left Alex woke up, very hungry. Fortunately, to the left of the end of Pontocho was a Presto cafe serving reasonably priced pastas. Alex devoured a fair amount of spaghetti bolognese.

It was getting rather late now, but I felt that we couldn’t leave Kyoto without seeing something. So we crossed the river in the chilly air and walked east along the Niomon, a narrow street with old houses and small shops. Alex was wearing a jumper and down jacket, B had to add a layer with a just-purchased cardigan and I was in a t-shirt, cold, but not unbearably so.

Our path opened up when we reached the the sakura lined canal around the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. A tourist passenger boat chugged up the canal, locals rode bikes and walked dogs, some gaijin was sitting on the bench smoking a joint.

The canal broadened near the zoo, with a fountain, locks and the Lake Biwa Canal Museum tempting a visit. A bit further on was Nanzen-ji, a large temple complex that I’d never visited before, and to the north of it the start of the Tetsugaku-no-michi, the Path of Philosophy.

To the right as we entered the Nanzen-ji complex was Tenjuan, a temple with a beautiful garden dating back to the 14th century. While B basked in the sun near the main temple gates Alex and I paid the admission fee and took a walk through the quiet garden, full of moss, ponds and running water.

I think Alex remembered the playground along the Pontocho, seen just before we ate and he fell asleep. He needed a playground. We promised to find him one, but of course there were none in the temple grounds. If he behaved and let us explore another sight spotted to the right of us we promised him again that we would find one for him. I was sure there was one at the beginning of the Path of Philosophy.

What we had seen were the big red brick arches of a canal aqueduct. We climbed up to take a better look and there was a pagoda/bell tower hidden away in the corner. The aqueduct was impressive and well worth a closer view. This canal network was intriguing!

As we walked out of Nanzen-ji it was after 5pm and all the sights and shops were closing. Having seen something new and interesting I decided to forgo the Path of Philosophy and make our way to Keage station, after which we would attempt again to eat at Fufutei and then catch a private raiway down to Yodoyabashi in Osaka for night shopping.

As we had walked in towards Nanzen-ji we had seen some very wide gauge railway lines along what appeared to be a canal area. It so happened that I had seen some photos of this the night before when looking at the Japan Guide’s Kyoto Cherry Blossom report. Now, on the way out, it appeared to run towards Keage station and was lined with cherry blossoms. I just had to explore further!

Alex insisted on walking along the paving stones places between the tracks and ballast. Sitting on one track was a railcar holding a boat. The Keage or Biwako incline was used to transport boats and their goods between two sections of the canal that were obviously unable to be navigated directly.

Two thirds of the way along it seemed like there would be no easy access to Keage station, but I saw something interesting at the end of the path, so we kept going.

Lucky we did. For there at the top of the incline was a playground! It was old and rusted, but a playground nonetheless. While Alex and B played there I explored further, finding some still working locks and machinery, along with a statue of the designer Sakuro Tanabe. Apparently, the canal, which flows down alongside the beautiful Path of Philosophy, was not only used to transport goods to Kyoto from the Lake Biwa region but was also the first hydroelectric generator in Japan, and one of the first in the world.

It’s awesome engineering in action, and also very beautiful. Seeing the canal system really made my trip to Kyoto worthwhile, despite not seeing any of the other planned sights.

Nestled behind the incline was a shrine of some sort, but there was no time to investigate further, as I would like to do someday. It was getting late and dark. Fortunately, the entrance to Keage station was closer that I thought. Alex delighted in buying the tickets and placing them into the ticket gates. We descended to the platform, before returning up again to take him to the toilet. He was disappointed to find no hand dryer.

Finally, we managed to catch the train, stopping a couple of stations away at Sanjo-Keihan. From there it was a quick walk across the river and down to Fufutei, which were now definitely open.

The food is not cheap as meals go, but good value for Japan. With shabu-shabu you are given thin slices of meat and chopped vegetables to be cooked in broth right at your table. They are then dipped in a sesame or citrus sauce (ponzu) before eating.

Alex devoured a fair quantity of mushrooms and vegetables, keeping himself busy without much assistance, while we ate so much we called for seconds. There were unlimited soft drinks and ice cream and sorbet to end it off. It remains one of our favourite Japanese meals and places to eat it.

It was now too late to return to Osaka for shopping, so we instead shopped at Gap in Kyoto before it, and the surrounding shops shut down for the night. Then we caught walked along Shijo again and caught the subway back to Kyoto station. By now I was really feeling the cold.

Thankfully, the train to Shin-Osaka was well heated. Being a local service it stopped at every station, but we couldn’t be bothered to catch a Shinkansen or wait for a rapid service. Besides which, the lack of automatic doors and toilets meant Alex stayed seated on my lap.

With all the neon lights Japan is very pretty at night. But by the time we reached Shin-Osaka station most of the station shops and restaurants were closed for the night. The area around the station is pretty dead, but I rather like it for that. At least there is a 24 hour convenience store just opposite the hotel.

What I find difficult to imagine is Tokyo without its neon canyons. And of course all those cities suffering in the north. There are collection boxes everywhere, but I think we are helping just by visited and spending our money here. There were far fewer foreigners around in Kyoto this time and I wonder if many have been put off by the devastating earthquake, tsunami and radiation fears.

Down here there is no obvious sign of the events up north, bar the donation boxes and exhortations to “Pray for Japan.” Maybe if my reading skills were better then I would see more. What was amazing was the level of feeling and fund raising efforts in Thailand, earlier in the trip, especially when you consider the comparative states of their economies and standards of living (though I guess Japan has invested a lot in Thailand). It’s impossible not to be touched by the devastation when you view the pictures on television. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the areas themselves. Had we travelled here a bit earlier we could have been there ourselves. It’s a scary thought.

But for those westerners reconsidering their travel to Japan, think again. Change your plans, see somewhere else in this magnificent country. There is so much to see.

We leave Japan tomorrow night. Not enough time here, there never is. There are so many experiences that I love about Japan, too many for a single trip. And always more to explore or to see again.

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