Day three started somewhat early for us because the temple we wanted to go to gets crowded during mid-day, so we set off from our hostel at 8 AM. After a 20 minute taxi, we got off at the entrance of the Tenryuji Temple and Sogenchi Garden in the town of Arashiyama. Our understanding was that they were two separate sites but once we arrived we realized that they were basically one, with the garden surrounding the temple and the temple’s veranda offering amazing views of the garden. We happily paid 500 yen a person to get access to both. The temple didn’t take long to walk around and the inside rooms were rather plain, but looking over the garden made the fee worth it. The garden itself was gorgeous with raked rock gardens and a pond stocked to the brim with coy fish ranging from ghostly white to sunset orange and everything in between. Past the pond was a wishing shrine guarded by 3 bullfrog statues. All around the garden were countless types of native plants with ID cards. You would not find these names at your local botanical garden, such as “Calan the Discolored,” because of its purple and white flowers, and “Purple Beautyberry,” that looks vaguely like a blackberry. Surrounding the backside of the Garden was our next stop, the bamboo forest.
After exiting the back of the Garden, we were in the middle of the bamboo forest with stalks at least 100 feet high. The stalks were so dense you couldn’t see when they ended. We walked along the path for a few hundred yards and then turned to head towards the Katsura River which would lead us back to town and to the ultimate goal of the day, the monkey park! The monkey park was the sort of thing where you get there and you aren’t sure if you are walking into a total tourist trap or it is about to be super cool. Luckily this park was amazing. We took a 20-30 minute hike up a mountain with warning signs all the way up saying “be careful the monkeys will steal food” or “don’t put your smartphone in the monkeys face.” They warned you what the monkey’s facial expressions mean when they are angry versus scared, mostly so you know when to back the hell up. After the hike, we were met by at least a dozen monkeys cleaning each other and wandering around the summit picking grubs. The coolest thing about this whole experience was being able to feed them. In order to do that you had to go inside a building to buy a bag of either dried apples, dried pears, or peanuts, we decided to go with the apples and the peanuts. After we got the food, we walked to the far end of the building where the walls looked like a cage and you could feed the monkeys through the bars. It was a strange feeling to be in a cage and the monkeys free to roam the mountain, but it is how it should be if they want to preserve some of the natural instincts of the monkeys. Trying to feed the monkeys was a blast because some of them did not like peanuts so I had to go searching for the ones that did. We watched them take the peanut from our hand into theirs, crack the shell with their teeth, and get the nuts out. It was very entertaining and interestingly human-like. Haley had it easy because everyone liked her apples, except when she tried to feed a baby monkey and the mom stopped her and snatched the apple way. After feeding the monkeys and taking in the great panoramic view of the city we started our descent back into town for lunch.
We had no lunch plans and we didn’t really want to google a place to eat so we just walked around in search of street food. Our first course was the fried food. We got a fried steak and potato patty (they looked like hashbrowns!), a potato and sweet soy patty, and fried prawns, all of which were amazing. The second course was a sweets course, we stumbled upon a bakery that made everything in the shape of a bunny or had a bunny somewhere on the sweet. Here we got a strawberry jelly filled bunny head, a custard filled danish with a red bean paste bunny on top, and a perfectly square pastry filled with cherry cream stamped with a bunny’s face. The last course on our street food lunch was takoyaki (pan-fried balls filled with octopus and veggies). Haley had gotten these several times back in Champaign when she worked for a sushi restaurant so she was very excited to try the real thing. When we got to the stall they had just made a fresh pan and we got the first balls. We were so excited to get super fresh takoyaki, little did we know that meant that the octopus was practically raw and the center of the ball was uncooked molten batter. Haley took a big bite, burning the entirety of her mouth. That was not the experience we were looking for, but luckily we still had a delicious pastry from earlier to wash down that disappointing mouthful. Needless to say, our street food lunch was over after that and we decided to make our way back towards home. We wandered towards the train station passing artisan cotton candy shops and a few more fried beef and potato stalls until we caught the 10-minute train back to our hostel.
Once back at the hostel we laid down for a bit trying to recover from our takoyaki experience and planned what to do with our evening. After some searching, we decided to head over to the Gion district where they are famous for geishas and traditional buildings. For dinner, we found a pot sticker, or gyoza as they are called here, restaurant that everyone was raving about. So we set off on our 50-minute walk to Gion super excited to eat some gyoza (something that we know we will like). We had heard online that this place gets crowded and you can sometimes wait in line for over an hour! We thought we left in plenty of time since the restaurant doesn’t open until 6 and we left just after 5, but by the time we arrived at 6:15 there was already 37 tables in front of us. For reference, this place only has 17 seats (two four-seat tables and nine barstools facing the kitchen). We were one of two names not written in characters, so that is already a really good sign that this place is going to be delicious. Another sign that this was going to be the best gyoza that we had ever had was there were only 5 things on the menu, two types of gyoza and 3 sides (pickled cucumber, potato salad, and cabbage slaw). We stood around outside for 30 minutes and no one had come out of the restaurant yet so we figured we had some time to kill.
First, we wandered around taking pictured of Gion at night. There was a stream close by that was begging to be photographed, and the traditional buildings and back alleys were also stunning at night with paper lanterns hanging outside almost every door. After about 40 minutes of that, we walked back over to check on the progress of the list and they were only up to number 19. So, we decided that we had enough time to go have a couple drinks somewhere. We wandered to the main street and picked a bar at random. We walked into a place called Bar Indigo. It was a tiny 10 bar seat place that had one bartender/owner named Nabe. He spoke just enough English to have a charades-like conversation with us and made some of the best drinks we have ever had. First, we ordered a Makers and Coke and Nabe hand carved some ice to perfectly fit into our glasses and then preceded to take great care in chilling the whiskey before he added the real cane sugar Coke. Bam! That’s how you make the best whiskey Coke ever. While we were sitting there he had 3 other local customers and each of them bought him a drink as well. He said because tipping is not a thing in Japan, it is tradition to buy your bartender one drink. We felt like we should do the same, so we bought him a whiskey Coke and answered his questions (for a change) about Bourbon in Kentucky. Next, we asked him to recommend a drink for us but he thought we asked him to recommend a bar, so he got out a pen and paper and drew a very accurate map to a bar just down the street (which we ended up going to the next night). After he drew the map, we tried again to get him to make us a drink of his choice. This time he thought we wanted dinner recommendations, so he gets out his pen and paper again, draws another accurate and detailed map and hands it over. Now for a third time, we try to get our question across correctly and this time he got us. He pulls out this golden colored Gin with Juniper berries soaking in the bottom that he says he makes himself. He then makes us what he called the “golden gin” which was lemon peel, his gin, and what we think was flavored tonic water or could have been a fancy sprite, either way, that was also amazing. By now it was about 8 o’clock and we figured our table should be close, so we thanked Nabe for the hospitality and the recommendations and left. The line at the restaurant had moved along nicely while we were gone and by the time we got back they were on number 35, perfect timing. We waited for probably 15 minutes and then we were in, we ordered 32 gyoza (16 of each type) and a side of potato salad. They were definitely worth the wait, and I would definitely go back. We spent 2 hours waiting and only spent 20 minutes inside the restaurant, but those 20 minutes were heavenly! After dinner, we walked the 50 minutes back home and went straight to bed.
photo by: Justin Ruck
Until next time,
Justin and Haley