Rise and shine! We woke up to the sound of our 5.30am alarms and started the day by testing out our newly purchased pre-travel impulse buy – a clothes steamer – on our highly crumpled but summer friendly viscose shirts. Verdict – meh…
In the light of the day, we were truly able to appreciate just how spacious our room was, far more spacious than our double room at Kyoto or Tokyo during our last trip had been with enough room for 3 people to get ready without getting in each others’ way. By 6.30am, we were ready to descend on our breakfast buffet. There was plenty of bakery goodness to go around, so we filled up on an assortment of breads, croissants and waffles topped with a variety of jams and sugary sweet maple syrup to get us through the day – until we met our next halal meal.
But why waste time with mundane things like breakfast when there’s an entire city waiting at your doorstep to be explored? (Okay. Scratch that. If halal food isn’t easy to come by, please don’t skip breakfast- eat like the world can wait at your doorstep). We left breakfast and headed straight downstairs to explore the streets of Osaka before our Kyoto adventure began. The weather, as it had been the previous night, was divine, with a slight spattering of rain which was enough to prompt us to duck into the nearest 7/11 and arm ourselves with umbrellas. Z was already well-supplied thanks toオサマさん’s generosity from the last trip. Even his umbrella seems to have received army training, as we discovered when Z finally got an opportunity to use it – it’s enough to maim anyone who gets in the way. ^^
Umbrellas in hand, we walked down the street lined with trees coming to life after spring, watching the brick pavement turn a dark red with the soft drizzle. There were of course, the obligatory vending machines and Pachinko Parlour across the street, but more remarkably, a solitary tree reaching for the sky in the centre of a mini green haven squeezed between the mass of buildings across from Tully’s Coffee. A sudden reminder that is there more to life beyond the concrete jungle.
We walked back to the hotel, enjoying our umbrellas and the rather empty streets at that time of day, to rendezvous with the group for a headcount before we boarded the bus to Kyoto. It was an hour long ride at best, but was enough to give some of us some much needed shut-eye, others the opportunity to take in the fleeting scenery trapped outside our windows and others some background about our first stop – the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, courtesy Kaoru せんせい who was our bona fide tour guide / source of historical information, myths and legends this time around. (Our guides from the last trip were apparently too unnecessarily verbose to handle a second time.) The last time we were here, I feel like I didn’t really understand the purpose of the shrine but this time we were treated to not just the history of the shrine, but the legend behind it.
An archer seeks to shoot a mochi which transforms into a beautiful swan and lands at a place where rice begins to grow in abundance. A sign from the gods to the archer, a shrine is erected dedicated to Inari, the god of rice.
The shrine grew further in popularity when Toyotomi’s Hideyoshi’s (the first general to unite Japan) mother’s prayers for his success at this shrine were answered, as he went from peasant to ruler. More the sincerity of the person praying than the location of the prayer, I would think. The popularity of the shrine soared still when his mother fell ill and Hideyoshi prayed at the same place for his mother to recover, which she did, upon which he donated a large torii seen still at the entrance to the shrine. For every prayer answered, it seems a torii is donated, costing upwards of a million yen, and a winding path of bright orange toriis numbering in the thousands now lines the way up the mountain.
While we didn’t make the long trek all the way up the mountain, we went through the first set of vermillion gates, each engraved with the name of the person who had donated it, along with the date of donation. Coming from a culture where giving is done in such a way that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand has given, I wondered then, for whose benefit the engraving was- the already all-knowing gods, strangers or a self-serving ego?
We managed to make our way up without a lot of rush, and were able to take some time to see the votive tablets with a variety of faces drawn on, most notably the one with the dollar symbol for eyes. Our path down was also nice and empty, which meant we had a lot of time to browse the souvenir stores at the base, something we’d missed before. I picked up some bookmarks, Z his staple crushed ice which he was loth to share with ma, and as they both got shoo’d out of the store for eating at the entrance where I was buying magnets, we concluded that we didn’t have much else to buy, apart from corn on the cob for ma ^^ We left everyone up near the shops and decided to make better use of our time by walking back down to the main torii, which was a long walk, and waiting for everyone at the base from where we could go together to the bus.
We caught sight of some of the group shopping for drinks at the store opposite us, but there was no one else around. Z went back up to where we’d left everyone to investigate only to find no one there either. Not one to panic, he decided we’d just wait some more and he’d go check again. That too was to no avail. By this time ma was feeling unexpectedly unwell and we sat down at the base of a stone lantern next to some Japanese American tourists who’d brought their kids to experience Japan. We decided to callせんせい only to realize that we didn’t have a calling plan and she didn’t have a data plan. My data was switched off (force of habit thanks to exorbitant rates back home if you’re not on a plan like moi) and as soon as I switched it on, I got a message from せんせい’s daughter asking where we were. We came to realize that everyone had already headed back to the bus, without either of us realizing that we’d passed each other on the way. We quickly retraced our steps to the train line, which is where we met せんせいand her friend, a elderly student from university helping us out on Day 2, who were out looking for us. The bus was not too far away, thankfully, and we made it at last. One good thing that came out of the experience was that it prompted us to form a Whatsapp group, since most of us had gone for the data plan, where everyone could keep track of each other. ^^
The next familiar stop was the Golden Temple, Kinkakuji. If there’s one place I wouldn’t mind visiting again and again on any possible future trips to Japan, it would be the Golden Temple, in all its seasons. Luckily for us again, there wasn’t much rush, so we were able to not just enjoy the breathtaking golden temple sitting atop a lake, reflecting the grey overcast sky and the bright green foliage not yet back into its full summer swing, but also didn’t have to spend any effort in vying for precious photo space in the hope of catching a picture without random strangers in it.
The beauty of the temple, having now become a tourist attraction, is marred by the mindless babble of tourists and yet, there is still serenity to be found in the immaculately maintained gardens with their pristine landscaping. To me, the temple is simply the delicate finishing touch added to an incredible feat of landscaping that completes the picture of tranquility.
As we moved to leave, our attention was drawn to a rather secluded area with a relatively less worn pathway that led to a 600 yr old pine tree, being painstakingly shaped over time. It is a labour of love, knowing the tree will outlive all your plans for it and you will never know what it will look like when it’s ready to let go.
It’s always to soon to say goodbye to this place and as we walked past the soothing sound of water breaking on rocks and a single maple with its leaves already rushing to turn red as though beckoning the autumn, I’m resolved to go back. We took a not-so-quick bathroom break, because this apparently is where all the tourists disappeared, and were finally ready to satisfy our bellies as much as we had our eyes, with a Persian/Asian lunch at a halal restaurant which ambiguously hosts belly dancing shows at night. As some of our group mentioned, the food’s halal and everything else is just iffy.
The kebab and rice were just right and ma was happy to be having non-sticky rice, like she’s used to and we managed to nearly polish off both plates cue applause, only to find out that there was pizza next. Oops. Our tour guide stepped in to speed up the slow service by serving us herself, despite our many protestations to leave waitressing to the waiters and join us instead for lunch. A lively discussion ensued over lunch, with the two elderly gentleman from university who were accompanying us for the day, regarding the demographic diversity of the UAE. It seemed difficult for them to grasp the fact that despite 5/6 people in the UAE being foreigners from all corners of the world, we all get along rather well and our circle of friends is not limited to our own compatriots, but is as diverse as a rainbow. The discussion was then cut short as we began introductions. It turned out that the overwhelming majority of people were looking forward to going to Mt. Fuji the most. For me, however, the allure of this trip lay in visiting Hiroshima. For all the things I’d read and watched about the devastating impact of the bombs, I needed to see for myself the miraculous recovery of a city which stands as a reminder that while wounds may heal and scars may fade, the lessons learnt must never be allowed to fade from living memory.
Our next stop, after a filling lunch, was Nijo Castle, home of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who laid siege to Osaka Castle and was responsible for the death of Hideyoshi’s son who he had once been asked to protect. The castle is famous for its Nightingale floors which creak and sing at the slightest step, a primitive and rather annoying, though highly effective, security system. As we walked to the castle gate, we crossed the water filled moat, where bright green algae had started to deceptively cover the water surface, making it look more like a lawn than a deep moat.
The walk to the castle entrance is short and we had to take off our shoes before we began roaming the corridors filled with musty smell of wood I love so much. An audio guide is available, but we were pressed for time, so we just walked through the halls, reading the descriptions about each room we came across. Despite our softest footsteps, the floorboards were not to be deceived, and after a while we got used to the chirping at our feet. The castle and its nearby buildings were under renovation, and a much needed renovation it is. The murals on the wall were visibly water-damaged, which is probably why photography has been prohibited- in an attempt to prevent further deterioration from flash photography. It was interesting to stare up at the ceiling as we walked, and we noticed that the ceiling in each hall and corridor was unique – carved in a different pattern, and painted in different colours.
While the paint has begun to fade, restoration efforts should be able to restore the castle to its former glory. On that positive note, we went to the souvenir shop and rest area to hunt down our commemorative coin and with that mission accomplished, we resisted the temptation of absolutely delicious looking ice-creams, and headed back to the bus.
We were scheduled for a quick one hour shopping stop at Hanamikoji, before returning to Kyoto. Too much to see, too much to buy and too little time was the presiding sentiment, so we set off like runners on a hundred meter sprint to take in all there was to see. From confectionary stores with sweets so cute you can hardly bring yourself to eat them, to stores dedicated to hair accessories in a dazzling rainbow of colours to match your kimono or yukata, everything was super kawaii. Somehow I even managed to stumble upon the Papernano samurai model kit that was on my list of must-bring-back-from-Japan-or-else list, along with the tools. With that happy haul, we were all set to head back to Kyoto for dinner.
Dinner was Okinomiyaki – quite a mouthful, both the name and the food itself. We all settled in, already excited at the sight of the large metal hot plate embedded in our tables, a collection of sauces waiting to be tried and the prospect of cooking our own dinner. Our excitement was suddenly dampened, when we discovered that the waitress had come out with the bowl for the okinomikyaki with pork strips on the side. Serious consultations ensued between both Kaoru and Kishida せんせい and the restaurant owner to establish if our meal was actually going to be halal or not. Dinner there looked like it was going to be off the cards, but after much discussion, to our relief, dinner was back on after assurances that that specific meal was meant for someone else, and that our meals would be completely halal.
We were now ready for some fun. Our bowls came out, filled with something white and shredded, a prawn (or was it shrimp? This is going to take me much longer to figure out than my childhood confusion of chicken and meat) and raw egg as a topping.
I realized that I shouldn’t be having any egg and with the help of Kaoru せんせい managed to get another bowl, sans egg. The white shredded “something else” in the bowl turned out to be cabbage, enemy of my fragile fidgety colon. Sigh. With that, it meant dinner had turned from a foodie adventure into a cooking experience for me, which I didn’t really mind seeing as how we had sandwiches left over from last night, with plenty of cheddar cheese. The waitress came and with Kaoru せんせい began to demonstrate how to make our exotic looking dish. It turns out, there’s a right way to make this- remove prawn/shrimp who is just getting in the way, stir ingredients in bowl exactly 10 times before scooping half the mixture on the hot plate and flattening into a nice round pancake, add pesky prawn/shrimp with his tail sticking out only to bury him under the remaining half of the mixture so you don’t dwell (rather I don’t dwell) on how many legs he has, then flip 3 times to ensure everything is cooked through and through before lathering the top with an exciting assortment of sauces, mayonnaise and optional dried fish flakes for maximum yumminess.
We had a lot of fun making our okinomiyaki pancakes, and even though our eggless cabbage batter failed to rise into a fluffy omelette like pancake we made it nonetheless, flipping et al, which was probably the trickiest part of the whole business, with pancakes falling apart and others falling on other people’s culinary works of art. Ma and I ended up just sampling the taste, ordered coke and were pleasantly surprised when the noodles came out. Now the noodles, we could eat, which was a welcome change for me since during my last trip I couldn’t even have that! Even though I’m not a seafood person, something I’m actively trying to change in our cat, I had the noodles carefully removing any suspicious seafood-y bits. Having filled up on the tasty noodles, we were presented with transparent jelly-like mochi dessert topped with some soy powder that mum loved and I found to taste again- suspiciously like seafood.
Despite the way dinner had started out, it ended on a high note, not just because of the experience, but just as we were winding down, we were offered complimentary orange juice to make up for it. Not just that, but the restaurant owner herself came out to apologize and even offered us complimentary bottles of tea to take home with us. I passed, because I felt so bad that she felt so bad.
Back at the hotel, ma and I had our sandwiches with cheese and the remainder of the night was spent unpacking for the big day – Hiroshima, another futile attempt at steaming out those stubborn wrinkles and much needed showers before we finally hit the sack at 11pm.
I’m beginning to miss Aegi and Haya ❤
Missed out on Day 1?
Check out Day 3 in Hiroshima