Day 12, 12JAN21017
This morning Josh and I departed Tokyo and made our way to Kyoto via the Hikari Shinkansen. Our bullet train departed Tokyo at the reasonable hour of 1030 and while waiting on the platform Josh procured coffees, orange juice, and pastries for the ride.
The ride to Kyoto is a measly two and a half hours compared to the eight hour day our travels to Hokkaido required. The ride however was far more beautiful. We skimmed south past Mt Fuji and were blessed with images of rolling hills, tree covered expanses and eventually snow topped mountains as we pulled into the former capital of Japan.
The Kyoto Train Station is overwhelming. I thought Tokyo and its largest city in the world status would terrify my senses, but the crush of thousands of people, several rushing tourists oblivious to other people around them, the numerous languages, people standing in the way of the flow of traffic, lights flashing, announcements continuously circulating on the overhead speaker, and generally just far too much sensory overload made this gargantuan of an architectural masterpiece too much for me to enjoy.
The station is several floors, many of them dug deep underground, and like an onion, as you peel back these layers you find more and more beneath. There are hotels, numerous hotels, there are department stores, several malls, food courts, the JR train station lines, Kyoto City bus station then local and long distance bus stations, there is the subway line, and then local city train lines, there are taxis and storage lockers, water fountains putting on colorful shows, there are sections caught in the blister-forming cold wind of Kyoto winter, and then there are sections of this huge station that are sweltering hot.
There are bathrooms with one stall, bathrooms with rooms of stalls upon stalls, there are bathrooms with only holes in the ground to squat on, then there are ones with the fancy Japanese toilets, there are bathrooms with showers, and some with separate makeup rooms where plants grow and the music is piped in to hype you up.
This place is huge and chaotic, the lines are long and the people aren’t nearly as orderly or helpful as those in Tokyo. But we made our way through nonetheless, navigating from the JR train station to the long distance bus station and on we hopped Bus 17 to Ohara.
Ohara is located just over an hour north of Kyoto by bus. The quaint town is composed of natural springs, temples, windy roads, farmland, and a single bus stop.
Josh and I disembarked at this bus stop and with screenshots I’d saved from googlemaps before we left Tokyo we made our way through harvested rice and vegetable fields, over trickling creeks, past several Buddhists in pilgrimage to the local temples, and likewise, past several temples.
Our destination was Yumoto Onsen Ohara Sansou. A long name, simply put, tonight we are staying at a traditional Ryokan, or Japanese Inn.
The black and white two story building rises from a bend in the forest-lined road en-route to Jakko-in Temple and it was a beacon of relaxation.
I entered the place, swapping my shoes for indoor slippers, and was taught the ropes by the very helpful staff. This experience was about to be very, very, Japanese.
For starters, every door in this Ryokan was just tall enough for me to walk through.
Next we had to change into slippers to walk into the Ryokan, but we could not wear our slippers in our room – we had to wear socks or be barefoot.
The rooms themselves were a departure from the normal. The walls were paper walls, the floors tatami mats, the table in the center of the room was about a foot off the floor with a large thick blanket wrapped around it. We could turn a heater on under the table, and sit around it, on floor cushions.
We had to make our own beds from futons and down blankets, and we were treated to a hot pot of water and tea for the afternoon to “settle in.”
We jumped at the silence and the complete relaxation. Two hours of absolutely nothing to do but watch maple leaves fall from the forest trees outside, lay around drinking tea, and watching a bout or two of sumo on the TV was magnificent.
Dinner service was conducted in a shared dining room at 1700. As part of the Ryokan experience we were provided with brightly colored robes and heavy outer jackets to wear throughout the house, both inside our rooms and to dinner.
We arrived at 1700 on the dot and were seated at a foot-tall table. Josh struggled with this reality since flexibility escapes him and being as tall as he is, it’s incredibly uncomfortable to shove oneself under these short tables.
Dinner was an adventure. A huge pot was lit in the center of the table and a homemade, three-year brewed miso soup broth was brought to boil. Once boiling Josh and I were instructed to toss meat into the pot – we had chicken and pork.
While the meat cooked, our server provided us with shots of plum wine paired with cold soba noodles prepared with herbs and a pink broth. Both were delicious.
About five minutes after the meat was added to the broth, we jammed enough local, fresh winter vegetables, tofu and udon noodles to stuff a turkey at Thanksgiving into the boiling pot.
This was then left to stew for minutes while we tasted the remainder of our meal and sipped sake.
Included in this hot pot meal were various side dish accouterments. I’ll begin with what I recognized: dried mackerel, pickled root vegetables, and rice. What I did not recognize included red pickled herbs, thin green bean or river grass with sesame seeds, and then a tiny parcel wrapped like a Greek dolmas.
We each tried everything in front of us, although we definitely did not finish everything.
Once the stew was complete we chomped, slurped, and drank away until nearly 90 minutes had passed and we felt as though we needed to be rolled back to our rooms.
An hour later, our stomachs somewhat relaxed, we headed to the onsite onsen.
This onsen experience was perfect. For starters, we both were the only people in our gender respective onsen and had the place entirely to ourselves for nearly an hour. The onsen had two hot spring baths and then a third stone bath set to 27.9’c. It was remarkably peaceful and yet at the same time somewhat eerie in the onsen at night, alone. The moon was also a full moon tonight, so I believe that added to the strangeness. I tried all three baths and found that no matter which one I sat in I was relaxed and engulfed in the sound of running water and wind through the forest. It was absolute perfection.
Needless to say, after an relaxing afternoon, gigantic hot pot dinner and glorious onsen experience, Josh and I were ready for bed.