- NOTE: This is based on my original blog post.
With all my trips to Japan ever being awesome, and my last trip there especially being all kinds of awesome, this trip still had to live up to three prior trips of pancaking layers of awesome-ness. The trip was actually a bit last-minute. I had already taken a vacation this year to Beijing. Which was meh, but nevertheless a vacation. My cousin Cindy, who I’d kept in touch with since our trip back in 2007 and one of only a handful of cousins who was fluent in English (she was raised in New Zealand), messaged me saying that she would be studying in Kyoto for a year. And since we’d had a prior chat about how I loved Japan, she said I should come visit. I thought about this for approximately a millisecond, then said “yes” and proceeded to book tickets and hotels.
Word got around my office that I was off to (another) vacation in Japan, so the Director of Communications asked me if I wanted to do a presentation of my vacation when I got back. I figured sure, why not? A week or so before I flew out, I had a thought though. Slideshow presentations are stale and boring, and I hate making boring presentations. So I thought I’d make a time-lapse video while I was there. I’d always wanted to make one, and it seemed like a nice evolutionary step from my usual photos.
Day 1 – Kyoto
My method of getting to Kyoto, in hindsight, was stupid. Instead of landing in Tokyo and hopping a Shinkansen to Kyoto, I decided instead to take a connecting flight to Osaka, then a bus ride to Kyoto. With the layover time, bus ride, etc; not only did it cost more, but also took longer. Derp. So I arrived Christmas Day late in the evening. My cousin had been waiting for me at my hotel, the Granvia in Kyoto station. I remembered walking past it every day during our summer program in college thinking “man, that is a nice hotel.” And here I was twelve years later staying there. Progress! Speaking of which, while I’d been to Tokyo numerous times in the past years, I hadn’t actually been to Kyoto since 1999. It was late, so my cousin asked if I wanted to join her dorm’s Christmas festivities. We trekked up to her campus (way far north) and met her schoolmates from around the world. We went to karaoke nearby afterwards, and then I taxi’d it back to the hotel.
My first full day in Kyoto. It snowed in the morning as I roamed the massive Kyoto Station, taking photos and starting my little time-lapse project. It was a good thing I gave myself a small project while I was there, as my cousin still had classes during the day. I wandered about the cavernous station, looking for old and familiar sites (as many things had changed as had stayed the same), then wandering northbound into central Kyoto. Amongst the sites I took time-lapses of included Hongan-ji, Pontocho, and Teramachi near Shijo and Kawaramachi. I specifically remembered the Shijo Wawaramachi area, so that was nice. I met up with my cousin later in the evening, and we decided on Ippudo ramen for dinner. Which is hilarious because there’s an Ippudo in NYC, though you’d have to wait an hour to get in so I don’t go. We wandered about afterwards around I don’t know where, because I didn’t take any pictures.
The following day’s agenda (for me anyway) was the fan favorite Kiyomizu-dera. Seriously, that place is beautiful; the temple’s as beautiful as it was the first time I visited. I spent the better part of the day hiking around the eastern portion of Kyoto as a result, because for some reason I decided to walk there from Kyoto Station. If you bring up a map of Kyoto, you’ll see how stupid of an idea that is. Wandering back towards central Kyoto, I also paid a visit to Kenninji, and possibly a few others that I never got the names of. I met up with my cousin and her roommate in the afternoon, and we strolled around the area to the south of the station (coincidentally near the hotel we stayed at on my first trip), then I decided to treat them both to an obscenely expensive Teppanyaki dinner.
Day 4 – Uji
My cousin had planned a trip for us to the town of Uji outside of Kyoto. Uji is known, amongst other things, for the Byodo-in Temple and the Tale of Genji, a classic Japanese novel of some sort…so I’ve read. We met up with her friends at Uji station, where we then proceeded to head off in the general direction of the temple. We took in an udon lunch, then wandered about the town some more, grabbed some late evening ice cream snacks, then headed back to Kyoto. After grabbing food from the Porta underground mall, we roamed around the upper decks of the Kyoto Station taking blurry jumping photos and long exposure shots of people running up and down the stairs. Good times.
I headed out early morning on Thursday, intent on making my way to Fushimi Inari, the famous temple with the thousands of Torii gates. If you’ve seen postcards of Kyoto, you’ve probably seen Fushimi’s rows and rows of orange Torii gates. What they don’t show you in those postcards are the myriads of paths leading up the mountain. I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to hike it up, but it probably wasn’t a sound thought. On the bright side, you could see the entirety of Kyoto from the mountaintop.
Since I didn’t want to break up the flow of the intro paragraph, I’ll add down here that I made a stop at Tofuku-ji before Fushimi Inari (it’s on the way). Tofuku-ji was one of my favorite temples when I first visited, solely for the fact that it spans a valley of trees, and is all around pretty calm and soothing. Especially early morning with no one around. Back at Fushimi, they were already setting up stalls for the new years festivities. Too bad we couldn’t make it back after sunset.
I met up with my cousin for lunch near Kawaramachi with her friends, then roamed the Teramachi-dori shopping corridor. A group of us split off eventually and we went off to roam Gion after nightfall. There’s some weird stuff in those alleys…
Day 6 – Tokyo
Sayonara Kyoto, hello Tokyo. We caught a Shinkansen up to Tokyo Friday morning. My cousin hadn’t been since she was too young to appreciate it. And me, I can’t take a Japan trip without Tokyo in the mix somehow. We made the most of our first day there by roaming Shibuya (we were staying at the Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu), Tower Records Shibuya, Harajuku, and Omotesando. We met up with my friend Anna for dinner at a place of her choosing, where I was tricked into eating horse. Horse! I committed spiritual cannibalism…sadface (it was delicious).
Day 7 – New Year’s Eve
It’s already New Year’s Eve? That was fast. We started the day off with a trip to the Tokyo Forums. I’ve made a trip to the Tokyo Forums every time I’ve ever been in Tokyo; it’s like a pilgrimage for me. Though being so close to New Year’s, the entire complex was eerily empty. We continued on towards Akihabara, because Akihabara. I did show a modicum of restraint by not actually buying anything. But hoo-boy was it hard. After a nice KFC lunch, we headed towards Asakusa and Senso-ji. The area was absolutely crowded with people making their way there for the New Year’s events. Food stalls were being set up around the grounds, and a procession of people made their way into the temple to make offerings. We stayed around until after sunset, then decided to take a trip out to Odaiba. The views back towards Tokyo from Odaiba were pretty gorgeous. We grabbed some eats from the Takoyaki Museum, then headed back to the hotel.
I’d been told that there aren’t many New Year’s celebrations in Tokyo, that it was a quiet affair. Except it wasn’t, and we could hear the activity down in Shibuya Crossing from our room near midnight. So we grabbed our snacks and hung out next to the expansive window near the elevator banks looking down towards the crowds waiting for midnight. Very cool.
Day 8 – New Year’s Day
The first thing on our agenda for New Year’s Day was tracking down the life-sized Gundam on Odaiba. OK it wasn’t literally the first thing on our agenda. The literal first thing was that we hung out in the Starbucks of the Tsutaya that overlooks Shibuya crossing. Most people know it for the giant video screen facing the crossing (the one Scarlett Johanssen looked up at as a 3D dinosaur walked across it). It’s usually packed to the nines with people, but not New Year’s Day. After having our requisite morning coffee and touristy pictures, we continued onwards back to Odaiba. I wasn’t sure exactly where the Gundam was located. It was being set up in front of a new complex on the island, so I had to cross-reference some Google Maps and pictures taken of it on blogs. It took us a bit of exploration, but we managed to locate it facing the expansive central park. I have to say, no picture does the thing justice. The thing should be considered a work of art. They should’ve sent a poet. We bummed around the island a bit, took a trek over to the Tokyo Big Site (I was here once for a trade show at a prior job), then took the Yurikamome back into Tokyo.
Next up was to track down a place we only knew as “Ice Cream City”. A friend of mine didn’t believe me when I said that there existed weird ice cream flavors, like squid, durian, chicken, etc. And I was intent on proving they did. We headed to Ikebukuro to a department store complex called Sunshine City, where Ice Cream City was supposedly. It turns out it’s actually inside of a mini-amusement park inside the complex called Namja Town. Once we found Ice Cream City though…wow, jackpot. They had hundreds of weird and questionable flavors. My cousin and I decided that we’d choose one each, then a reward flavor. I went with octopus, and she went with chicken wing, with a nice tiramisu flavor to wash away the nastiness. And damn was it nasty. It started off well enough; vanilla flavored and not too bad. Then you start hitting the bits of chopped octopus; and as you make your way down the little ice cream cup, it gets smellier and smellier. The chicken was no better, as you would be chewing on bits of cartilage. Pew. The tiramisu at least was awesome.
After that we grabbed katsu for dinner, wandered about Ikebukuro, then Shinjuku, then back to Shibuya.
Last days of trips always make me sad. I still had a list of things requested of me by my sister. The day went about as follows; we traveled to numerous districts for touristy wares, but shopping was all in all a bust as all the stores I intended to hit up were closed. We took in some more sites, grabbed one last sushi dinner, then retired back to Shibuya. I was flying out the next day and my cousin stuck around Tokyo for another few days before heading back to Kyoto. This was my longest trip in Japan (not counting the summer program), and sigh…it was amazing. And the time-lapse I made for the presentation was really the only souvenir I needed.