Day 8–The Light

Today’s thought for the day will take the form of this YouTube video. Because sometimes that’s exactly how it feels trying to get around here. =)

Woke up this morning to beautiful sunshine… followed by snow. Right in the middle of the city. Had breakfast in the meeting room for a change, since it’s open to eat breakfast in. It’s got big comfy boardroom-style chairs.

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It suddenly occurred to me over breakfast that I’d intended to spend the hour between my arrival the other day and the time I could check in visiting Yamagata Castle, which was not too far from the hotel. Also, there is a Seven-Eleven that’s closer than the one I walked to. Too late for that now, I suppose.

So I checked out and headed for the station. On the way, I popped into the observation deck on the twenty-fourth floor of the Kajo Tower, which I’ve been passing every time I went to the station. Not too bad a view, though the observation “deck” was literally just a single smallish corner room. Found them setting up for some kind of event in the shopping centre at its base. Still wonder what it was.

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Today I headed for my next destination – Kyoto. To get there, though, I’d have to get the Yamagata Shinkansen back to Tokyo Station, and change there for the Tokaido Shinaknsen. While I could get there on regular trains without going near Tokyo again, that would require nine changes of trains, and take so long that I’d have to stop somewhere for the night (as the trains don’t run all night). So back to Tokyo is is.

Trouble is, when I went to reserve a seat, it turned out the next train was full, so I’d have to get the one after, close to an hour later. Suddenly I did have the time to visit Yamagata Castle, at least briefly. Stashed my luggage in a locker and headed off. It was a little bit annoying having to spend 600 yen on a locker for just a single hour, but it was that or lug it with me.

Yamagata Castle had never had a donjon, just a pile of gates and baileys. It was never really attacked, but just fell into disrepair over time, until eventually being used as an army base during WWII. Recently, they’ve been performing restoration works, and hope to eventually restore the whole castle. I arrived and took some photos, but it turns out it’s closed for the winter, so I couldn’t get in – which turned out to be ok, because it was basically already time to turn around and head straight back to the station.

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Made it onto the train in time, and we set off. Once we were outside of Yamagata city, it started snowing in earnest, and snow was blanketing the ground everywhere. It was still quite cloudy, so there wasn’t any sun to melt the snow. Such fun. Or to be more precise, such fun to watch from inside a warm train.

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In an amusing reversal of what happened the other day, we passed from a snowy landscape, through a tunnel, and arrived in Fukushima to no snow on the ground at all. It was still trying to fall from the sky a bit, but once south of Fukushima, it stopped, and the clouds cleared. Lovely.

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Had another bento box from the trolley for lunch – beef sukiyaki. Again, it had the pull-string to heat it up. This came with a soft-boiled egg to mix into it (I think), but I had the most frightful trouble cracking it. I wasn’t sure if it was soft- or hard-boiled, so I didn’t want to whack it on things too hard just in case, but I couldn’t make the slightest dent with my chopsticks or the plastic spoon that came with it. Eventually I decided to just bite the bullet and cracked it on the edge of the seat-back table.

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Back in sunny warm Tokyo (… relatively warm), it was time to change trains – as in, I had about a quarter hour to find my next train and get to it. Fortunately, it turned out to be literally on the adjacent platform.

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I was on a Hikari Shinkansen, the second-fastest shinkansen type on the Tokaido shinkansen (the fastest, of course, is the Nozomi, which I can’t use my pass for). I’d previously booked a seat on the right side of the train, and I asked an attendant for a timetable so I could figure out exactly where we were. (it kinda looked like she gave me her personal one, which I felt a tiny bit guilty about – wish I’d remembered to pick one up in the station as I’d intended). Why did I go through all these preparations, you ask?

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Fuji-san! My first time in all my Japan travels to actually see it from a distance, aside from a pretty hazy triangle visible from Tokyo Tower. Lovely.

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With that bit of excitement over, it was back to the regular old excitement of zipping through the countryside at 280 km/hr. That equates to only a little over twelve seconds per kilometre, whew. Grabbed some prawn-flavoured chips for a snack from the trolley lady.

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Eventually, we arrived in Kyoto. I made sure to have a look around the station this time before heading to the subway line to catch a train to my hotel.

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As with my first Saturday in Tokyo, none of the four Toyoko Inns in Kyoto had availabilities tonight when I tried to book (has it only been a week? It feels so much longer). I originally thought I’d try a different type of accommodation for the Saturday night and stay in a Toyoko Inn the rest of the time, same as Tokyo – in this case, I’d try a shukubo, or temple lodging. As in, you stay in an actual temple. Trouble is, the only one I found in Kyoto that actually looked interesting was also booked out, so I went with a new plan: I’m staying in the Kawashima Ryokan, the same place that James and I stayed in on our last trip. One of my regrets was that with only two nights here, I never really got the chance to actually relax here and enjoy the place – it’s so cosy and homey. I did, however, book a breakfast-only plan, so I didn’t have to worry about getting back in time for dinner.

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And speaking of dinner, I already had a reservation made at a tiny place called Kichi Kichi. It seats literally sixteen at a time – eight at the counter and eight on a table. They’re known for their omurice (rice and sauces and assorted veggies in an omelette), and you need to book in advance – but bookings are so popular that you pretty much need to snap them up the moment they become available, six weeks in advance. I had to place this booking right in the middle of doing the Seven Bridges Walk back in October, because that’s when the bookings for my time here were released. To give an idea of the popularity, I got a look at their bookings list, and it seems like every single sitting has several foreigners present, often Australians – I ate with three people from Hong Kong.

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But this is seriously fancy omurice, though. Not just rice and a bit of tomato sauce or whatever – this guy uses actual demi glace sauce. And he puts on a real show for everyone. I’ve posted a bunch of photos here, but if you want to actually see him in motion, just search YouTube for “world’s best omurice”, and pretty much every single search result is him. He’ll also come out and pose for photos if you ask, and he gives everyone a handshake and a hug before you leave. It was quite a bit of fun. Not to mention tasty.

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I also absolutely love the area that it’s in – the Pontocho district near the Kamo River. Actually, it was a lovely walk the entire way there – I started by walking along the Nishiki Market, a covered market place just a few blocks from my ryokan, and I hadn’t even realised it was there on our last trip. At the end of the street is Nishiki Tenman-gu shrine, which has lanterns all over it. The most interesting (and weirdest) thing is that the buildings outside the shrine were (for some reason) built too close to the tori gate, so the ends of the gate literally protrude into the interiors of the buildings.

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Crossing Nishiki Market at the shrine end are Teramachi Dori and Shinkyogoku, two more covered shopping streets. I had a bit of a glance up and down those, but I was starting to run out of time and had to head for my dinner booking.

Pontocho itself is a network of tiny alleys, filled with all kinds of old shops and eateries. I took photos as best I could, but sadly it was simply too dark – I may simply have to return in daylight. If I can find the time.

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Gotta say, Hello Kitty looks a little sinister when underlit…

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Anyway, dinner done, I headed back to the ryokan. It’s time for bed now. I accidentally asked to be served breakfast way too early – as the innkeeper was checking me in, he asked when I’d like breakfast, and with a sudden deer-in-the-headlights moment, I hastily said “seven”… then pause, and then added, belatedly, “thirty”, so it wouldn’t be too early. Mind you, since there’s an upper window here with no curtains, it shouldn’t be too hard to wake up… with the sunrise. It’s… a little cold in here, so I’m hoping I sleep ok.

Today’s photo count: Seven hundred and thirty-four, and 8 videos, to see if I could capture the speed of the shinkansen. Almost exactly a hundred of those photos are from dinner.

Today’s pedometer count: 12,890 steps, or 9.6km.

Today’s goshuin count: Zip. There was an attendant at Nishiki Tenman-gu, but she was just going to sell me a pre-written one on a piece of paper.

Today’s stamp count: One, Kyoto Station. Seems like the subway stations here don’t have them.

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