We left Tokyo on Friday morning, catching the shinkansen (“The Bullet Train”) from Shinagawa Station. With our Japan Rail passes, the shinkansen (and other JR trains) are free – we just had to go to the station beforehand to reserve seats. (This isn’t wholly necessary either – the first few carriages on a shinkansen are designated “unreserved” seating, but it’s a free-for-all and we didn’t want the hassle, nor the risk of not sitting together.)
The Bullet Train is a marvel – particularly coming from British trains. It’s on-time, clean, incredibly fast (we topped out at 271kph but on a good day it will reach 300kph!) and spacious. The interior almost feels like an aircraft cabin rather than a train (although the seat pitch on the shinkansen is far more generous than most airlines!) and the ride is silky smooth.
We did the done thing and bought ourselves a couple of bento boxes at the station which we ate towards the end of the journey while cruising along at 265kph. There really is no other way to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto!
Our hotel in Kyoto was functional, clean and friendly, but not a patch on the apartment we’d just left back in Tokyo sadly. It was centrally located though, and after dropping off our bags we headed straight out to see our first Kyoto sight – Nijō Castle.
Built in 1679, Nijō Castle is an impressive sight (and site) right in the middle of the city. I’ll try not to wax too lyrical about the sites in Kyoto – they’re all incredibly impressive and humbling, but gushing words don’t do anything to convey their history and there are a million pages on the Internet which would explain that better than me. In fact, if I remember, each heading will be a link to the Wikipedia article. That’s called “abdication responsibility”, folks – click and learn!
Whilst at Nijō were approached more than once by groups of Japanese high-school kids looking to test their English on us, and we have a couple of origami cranes to prove it!
We also took a look around the building itself, which is set-up for you to walk (shoeless) in the footsteps of shoguns past and experience (reproductions) of the wall-paintings and art they surrounded themselves with. Definitely worth doing, I’d say.
Kyoto eats even earlier than Tokyo, and much earlier than we’re used to in Spain – some restaurants even close by 8pm! So after Nijō we set out to find one of the restaurants we’d tagged as worthwhile to visit, a tempura restaurant somewhere in the backstreets below the town center.
Sadly, when we did find it, it was fully booked. But we had passed another tempura place on the way so we backtracked there, and boy am I glad we did! Yaoki Tempura was exactly what we were looking for, with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and great food. We picked their set menu which included not just tempura but also some ramen and sashimi too, and enjoyed every minute of if!
There are three things I’ve learned about Kyoto while being there – they still smoke in bars and restaurants; at any time while walking you may be hit by a bicycle coming from practically any direction; and if food can be magically light and fluffy, it will be! The omelette that came with the set meal was the lightest, fluffiest omelette I’ve had, ever! (I know there have been lots of superlatives in my blog posts but that’s because Japan is a superlative country – nothing is done half-heartedly, or it’s not done at all! My enthusiasm just reflects that!)
After dinner we took a long route back to the hotel through the lit grounds of Yasaka Shrine and then stumbling across the Hosokuji Yasaka Tower just outside (which isn’t hard to do in Kyoto, to be honest – shrines and temples are everywhere)! It made for an enchanting end to our first day in Kyoto.