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Kyoto, Japan

Dec 1 – Dec 3

In the morning I made it to Kyoto, which is only about a 30 minute train ride from Osaka.

Chika and Akemi, two amazing Japanese girls I met in Austin, had both been sending me emails saying they were very worried about me. Apparently they thought I was going to call them the second I arrived, but I didn’t realize that and so I didn’t call them until three days later. It made me happy to feel like I have friends in Japan who are looking out for me. I called Akemi the night before arriving in Kyoto and we made plans to meet the following evening. I arrived in Kyoto in the morning, but since I had my big backpack with me, I wasn’t feeling all that adventurous. I just spent my time slowly walking to the subway station where we planned to meet.

I visited one shrine and then bought a few small gifts to give Akemi’s family.

Then I made a few failed attempts to find a place with Internet access (I asked several shop owners only to have them stare at me blankly). Some of them even walked over and pushed some buttons on my computer just to make it look like they were trying to help, but they didn’t seem to know what I wanted. I saw other people on their computers, and it looked like they were getting web access, but no luck for me. Not wanting to drink coffee from a vending machine, and not finding any cute little local place that served coffee, I settled for Starbucks and spent a few hours there reading and organizing myself. In Starbucks, I saw more gaijin (foreigners) than I had seen my entire trip in Japan so far. It felt a bit odd to be joining the masses, but I was tired and just needed to sit for a while and not be bothered. This was a good place to do that.

At 7:30, I went to the train station to meet Akemi. It was a big relief to see her!! I only met Akemi once in Austin for a few hours at a Thai restaurant. She was in Austin for the summer to study English and she said “When you get to Japan, you will stay at my house. Thank you!” It seemed funny for her to thank me for staying at her house (shouldn’t I be thanking her for offering to host me?!?) But I’ve learned that in Japan this is very normal. People here are so sweet and welcoming and accommodating. Even when I take someone’s picture or ask them for directions, they smile and say “thank you!” Anyway, after meeting Akemi so many months ago in Austin, it was great to now be seeing her again in Japan and getting on the bus with her to meet her family!

Before going to her house, she took me to the food market and helped me pick out some Kyoto specialties that I could eat.

I was a little bit nervous about meeting her mom because I knew she didn’t speak much English and I only know a few words in Japanese. But when I got there, I felt instantly at ease. She was so warm and friendly and made a big effort to talk to me and make me feel welcome. Through one word sentences, lots of gesturing, and pictures online, we had great conversations about traveling, family, friends, animals, and food. Her mom even let me have the first shower, she wouldn’t let me do the dishes or use my own towel, and she washed and folded my clothes for me. I really felt like a princess staying with them! I just hope they’ll be able to visit me in Austin sometime so I can show them they same hospitality that they showed me.

Akemi’s mom also made us great vegan feasts. And every morning before going to work, she set out a large collection of things to choose from for breakfast.

They also had a very cute old dog.

All my little animal friends tried to hang out with her, but she wasn’t very amused.

The first night at Akemi’s house, she took me to a public bath. I’m very glad that my first public bath experience was with her, because if I had gone there myself I would have had no clue what to do. There was definitely a system to it, so I was just copying everything Akemi did. Basically the routine is always the same. You take your shoes off (of course), then go into a dressing room where you strip off all your clothes and put them in a plastic bin, then you grab a water bucket and a little stool and go to one of the showers along the wall to wash and scrub yourself. Once you are all clean, you can hop into various baths with a bunch of nude women. Once you are finished bathing, you rinse off in the shower. We spent at least an hour there hopping from bath to bath. Some of the baths were indoors and some were outdoors. It was really nice…and an interesting way to hang out with a person you only met once in Austin.

After the bath, it was time to go to bed. And I even got to sleep in my own room!

The next day, Akemi took me out to see Kyoto. She was a great host and she took me to all kinds of places she knew I would like.

The autumn leaves were beautiful. Lots of reds, yellows, and golds.

We visited many shrines and temples on the East side of Kyoto.

Akemi’s favorite temple is the Kiyomizu Temple. It was pretty amazing. Also amazingly crowded – even for a weekday.

Most temples provide fresh water for people to drink or wash their hands with.

And people can buy little fortunes written on slips of paper. If their fortunes are bad, they tie them to tree branches or other objects near the temple.

Or they write them on little wooden plaques.

The streets connecting the temples and shrines were pretty and the old houses were well preserved.

But some of the streets were very crowded.

After walking around for many hours, Akemi helped me find a vegan place that I had copied down the address of. It was called Cafe Proverbs and it was near Kyoto University.

I ordered a big bowl of soymilk ramen, which came with coffee and salad. It was delicious!

After lunch, we were so full we couldn’t really move, so we took the bus to Ginkakuji Temple (The “Silver Pavilion”). Unfortunately, the temple was being renovated. But they had a really pretty garden and the autumn leaves were beautiful.

And workers were meticulously cleaning the garden – perhaps to keep the moss from interrupting. But I’m not really sure what that means….

On the way back to Akemi’s house, we stopped by the Imperial Palace. You need to book a tour in advance if you actually want to see the inside, so we just walked around it. A big gravel track runs all around the outside and many people go there to run or walk their dogs.

The next day, we went to Nijo Castle.

There were lots of school girls taking photos in front of it. Some of them grabbed some random tourist to take a photo with them.

And these guys were wrapping the trees in blankets to protect them from the winter frost.

After that, we met up with Yu (a guy Akemi met in her Austin ESL class). I also met him only once at the Thai Restaurant, so it was cool to see him again. We all went to Arashiyama in northwest Kyoto.

And they chose a buffet place for lunch because it would be easy for me to find stuff to eat. The Japanese don’t use the word “buffet” though. They use the term “Viking” (like the scandinavian warriors). I’m not sure why. When I think of the term “viking,” I picture large conquerers raiding the food line and taking everything there is. I could see this as good imagery to describe buffet places in the United States. But I don’t think it really applies to these places in Japan. If you watch the Japanese people at a buffet line, they definitely don’t stuff their faces with as much food as possible. They just sample a little tiny bit of each thing. It’s more about having a nice variety and less about overeating to get your money’s worth.

After our viking food, we went to the monkey park. Wild monkeys, called Japanese Macaques, are all over Japan. You’ll see them running along the side of the road, hanging out in in an onsen near Nagano, climbing trees in the forest, and walking up to hotels at night trying to steal some food. At this area in Arashiyama, there are lots and lots of wild monkeys. The monkeys aren’t caged or anything, but they do charge admission because they are always there. And the reason they’re always there is because they have a platform up at the top where you can buy food to feed them.

The problem with the monkey feeding is that it’s teaching them to be aggressive and not afraid of humans. Signs along the path warn you not to pull out any food because they will attack you and steal it.

But it was cool to see so many monkeys up close. On the path up to the top of the hill, I saw a few different groups of monkeys fighting and yelling at each other. Apparently they are from different clans. I also saw some monkeys with babies. So cute!

From the top of the hill, you can get a really nice view of Kyoto.

The monkeys like it too.

After the monkey park, Akemi had to go to work. Yu and I spent the rest of the day viewing the temples, gardens, and narrow little side streets of Arashiyama.

We saw some guys pulling people in wheeled carts.

I really liked their shoes. Kinda like deer feet.

In the evening, Yu, his friend (also named Yu), and I went to vegan place that I had written down in my book. It was called Sunny Place and it was in a narrow little alley.

The dining area was a long bar table and you could watch the owner cook your food.

And the food was yummy. It was great to see such a cute little Japanese restaurant with an all vegan menu.

I had the tempeh vegetable cutlet. It came with green tea, miso soup, rice, and I got to choose 3 vegetable side dishes.

After dinner, Yu helped me find my way back to the bus station near Akemi’s house and her sweet mom met me there to walk me back to the house. Their house is tucked away between many different side streets, so it would have been difficult for me to find it by myself.

The next day, Akemi had a job interview. The job application process here is very formalized and each company has a set date when you must turn in your application. Here is Akemi dressed up for her interview in front of her house:

When she headed off to her interview, I said goodbye and took the train to Nara. And I made her mom a card with a collage of pictures and tickets from Kyoto. It was sad to say goodbye.


  • Everything in Japan has cute little smiley faces.

Even the bugs!

  • In a traditional Japanese restaurant, you take your shoes off outside the entrance and you sit on tatami mats or cushions.

  • Maiko are younger, apprentice Geishas. Maiko are the ones with white makeup and they usually have elaborate hairstyles.

  • Most Japanese streets don’t have names. And their addressing system, while very specific, is confusing! Here is some info about the Japanese adressing system. Japanese addresses are hierarchical – starting with the biggest entity and ending with the smallest. Even Japanese people get confused by the directions.

  • The word “Koi” is Japanese for “carp”. Many different color variations of Koi can be found in ornamental gardens throughout Japan. The gold ones are considered to be good luck.

These aren’t koi fish (they’re goldfish), but I just liked the picture.

  • These statues, which I thought were bears, are everywhere. I wasn’t sure what to think about them until I came across a page in my guidebook. And it turns out they aren’t bears at all – they’re raccoon dogs! Here’s what my guidebook says: “Raccoon dogs or tanuki with their waddling gait, come out at night to forage for food. These dogs are an integral part of Japanese folklore and are believed to have supernatural powers and cause all sorts of mischief; they are always depicted as big-bellied, with huge testicles and a bottle of sake.”

  • The little kids here are cute. They wear cute colored caps (with a different color for each grade level). And when they pass you on the street, they say “Hello!” and scream out whatever other English phrases they learned in school. When you say “Hello!” back to them, they get all giggly and run away. Sometimes they’ll come up to you and ask you a few questions in English. Then they’ll write the answers down on their papers while a teacher lurks in the background to make sure they’re actually doing their assignment (which is to find some foreigners and interrogate them).

These kids also make great pictures. You can see them hanging up outside the elementary schools.

  • It’s very common to see people spending a leisurely afternoon painting or drawing in the park.

  • Hyperdia and Jorudan are great web sites where you can just type in your starting point and ending destination and it will tell you the specific trains to take and exactly how long each trip takes. 123 Bus has Japan bus information in English. Other great sites for planning your Japan trip are Japan-guide.com and JNTO.go.jp.
  • In Japan, it is considered polite to slurp your noodles. A movie called Tampopo, described as “the first Japanese noodle western”, goes into the specifics of noodle slurping etiquette. It’s a very bizarre movie and worth watching if you get the chance. My Japanese friends have never heard of it, but you can rent it at Vulcan Video in Austin.
  • Surprisingly, people in Japan are big into Christmas. Shinto and Buddhism are Japan’s major religions and Christianity is practiced by only 1% of Japan’s population. While Christmas in the US is celebrated as a Christian religious holiday (but still largely a commercial event), Christmas in Japan is entirely a commercial ordeal. I quite like the Japanese way of celebrating Christmas. They have lots of parties, pretty decorations, bizarre Christmas costumes, and some very creative Christmas displays.

If you go to a large toy store or other popular gift shop during Christmas, you’ll probably see all the employees dressed like this:

If you don’t see actual people in Santa costumes, you’ll definitely see some mannequins.

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  1. Cristen, your blog is so much Fun! I am downloading so many great pictures for potential paintings. Some I would have never thought of doing but you are such a great photographer ( and storyteller ) that I am just enthralled by it all. I especially loved the picture of your finger puppets today with the older dog as it was so sweet.

    More safe travels and happy meetings with all good people on your journey.

  2. Stacy

     /  December 11, 2011

    Such a great blog! I accidentally stumbled on this while trying to google a bath mat. How random is that? Thank you for taking me on a photographic journey of your trip to Kyoto. The photos of things, people and food were great, and the little descriptions for each were perfectly brief,informative, and interesting. I really felt like I was there with you and seeing/feeling the same things as you.

    Domo Arrigato Mr. Roboto!

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