Day 1 started off dark and early for us with a 5:30 wake up call. The first flight from Chicago to Dallas was easy, but the 13-hour flight out of Dallas had me worried. I knew it was going to suck having no leg room and being in the window seat. I knew it would be a production just to get up for the bathroom. The first hour or so was easy but then the couple in front of us decided that they wanted to lean their seats back. I feel like there is an unwritten rule that you don’t lean back in your seat if there is a full-grown, 6 foot human behind you. These people did not adhere to that, so for the next 11 hours, I had about negative 2 inches of leg room. Luckily I could angle myself a little in Haley’s 5’5″ direction which made it bearable. After catching up on several months worth of movies, 3 inflight meals, and several naps, we landed in Tokyo! The first challenge was navigating our way to the train station. For some reason, we thought that it would be a good idea to go to the automated machine for our first try. After 10 minutes of attempting to pay and failing, we headed over to the ticket office where a woman had us on our way in seconds (in hindsight, I think we were trying to put our credit cards into the slot that is for the train pass. oops haha). The challenges with the train were not over, we had an hour train ride into the city where we only had 8 minutes to find our bullet train to Kyoto, which the ticket woman claimed was more than enough time. It was hectic, but she was right. We got to the platform with 4 minutes to spare and then we where on our way to Kyoto. We arrived in Kyoto, took a cab to the hostel and finally got to our home for the next five days at 9 P.M. officially ending out 26 hour travel day.
Day 2 started off earlier than expected. I’m not sure if it was the jet lag or the excitement but we couldn’t sleep past 7. This wouldn’t have been a big deal but most places around us don’t open until 9, including our front desk, which we needed in order to rent towels. I don’t know why we didn’t think to rent them last night when we checked in, but I’m gonna blame our tired minds that had one goal, sleep. So, we laid around in our bunk, I wrote the blog from yesterday and Haley planned out our day. Before we knew 9 o’clock rolled around and we could get the first day started. The first stop on our list was the Nijo-jo castle, a beautiful 7 part structure with brilliant murals adorned in gold leaf. The murals consisted of pine trees and tigers and cranes (oh my). Fun fact, at the time these murals were painted, the Japanese artists had never seen a living tiger. All the paintings were based on pelts and the artist’s imagination. Surrounding the castle are cherry tree orchards and rose bush fields in full bloom, as well as ponds and several moats. All in all the castle is an amazing structure but, for me, the highlight was the surrounding gardens and orchards.
Next up was lunch so we headed towards the Nishiki Market. It was bursting with the smell of hundreds of food stalls all selling something unique, and the dozens of tiny shops specializing in specific items such as fans, chopsticks, or knives. The compact market went on for what felt like a mile with a new shop appearing every few steps. When the market ended, an outdoor mall started that seemed to stretch just as far with modern shops and international brands. One thing that I’ve noticed here is that Japan is really good at integrating the modern and the ancient. Within the outdoor mall, there were two temples that seemed to pop out of nowhere but also felt right at home. Lunch was a tasty combo of yakisoba (noodles with meat and veggies) and okonomiyaki (grilled potato pancake with beef and green onions) right at the entrance of the market. After walking the market and the mall we headed to our last stop for the day, the Imperial Palace.
The Palace was a 45-minute walk but we figured we could see some of the city and work off our lunch. On the walk, we passed countless shops and bakeries all selling a few perfected items. One thing that boggles my mind is how all of these shops stay open. We must have passed well over two hundred shops on the walk from the market to the Palace and did not see one empty lot or shop space for lease. I do not understand how it works, but I love how many specialized shops you can find. If you did not take the time to look you wouldn’t know that the rare book store is in the basement of the bakery that shares a door with the makeup brush store. After a pleasant stroll, we found ourselves at the wall of the Palace grounds. The grounds surrounding the Palace have been converted into a gorgeous park with trails to bike/walk on, open fields to play soccer in, and plenty of benches to sit and enjoy the perfectly manicured lawns and trees. The Palace itself is stunning with several ornately decorated buildings each having a specific purpose for ceremonies or living. Surrounding the living quarters are picturesque gardens with moss-covered bridges stretching over the ponds. After wandering the grounds for a while our feet were telling us it was time to go back to the hostel to rest for a bit before dinner. We didn’t really feel like trekking far out into the city again for dinner so we found a tiny 10 seat ramen restaurant just 5 doors down from our hostel. Haley got miso ramen and I got the pork and chicken. It was delicious and felt like a truly local spot. We were the only English speakers in the place and I feel like that is a good way to judge if it’s a tourist trap or local food. After dinner, we walked to the liquor store that is right next to our hostel and got some beer and strawberry kit-kats for dessert and called it a night. Full disclosure we were too tired to drink the beer and just went straight to bed at 8 PM.
Can’t wait to see what we find tomorrow! Until next time,
Justin & Haley
All photos taken by: Justin Ruck