Woke up this morning after a good night’s rest. It rained all night and was still raining at dawn. We had a train to catch around 2pm so had the morning to explore Kyoto a bit more. As it was raining, we wanted something that wasn’t too much outside walking. We decided on visiting the old Nijō Castle and grounds.
We wandered out of our hotel about 9am with our backpacks on, went across the street to the train station, locked them up in pay lockers, and headed off in search of breakfast. Shannon and I chose a couple of $3 bagels from a small bakery in Kyoto station while Dakota had another of the ham, cheese, and wasabi kolache thingys. Delicious.
We walked down to the bus station and bought a day pass for the Kyoto bus system. It’s a good deal at 500Yen for all you can ride for the day. Three bus rides and you’re ahead of the game. I studied the map and found there was an express bus to Nijō. Kyoto is less English friendly than Tokyo as it seems less overseas tourists make it down here. This makes navigating the city a bit more challenging, but not impossible.
We arrived at Nijō about 9:30. I figured we’d spend an hour or so here. Once we actually got a look at the grounds, I knew we’d spend a lot longer time. Nijō Castle was established originally in 1601. Actually, it is quite young compared to many of the temples and shrines we visited in this ancient capital. It’s had several fires raze sections of it to the ground and it’s been rebuilt. The current buldings date to the late 19th century. There were many tour groups on the grounds today but not as many as a weekday because there were less schoolkids. It seems counter-intuitive but all the major sights are less crowded on weekends because on weekdays is when the schools do their field trips it seems.
We saw you could take a tour inside the old shogun’s quarters and this was something I was keen to do. Before entering you were required to remove your shoes. You tour the buildings in your stocking or bare feet. The interior was very dimly lit to protect the several hundred year old paintings, some dating to the late 1600′s. Being able to get up close and see the individual brush strokes of some of the masterpieces was quite neat. It’s amazing how from a distance they look extremely detailed but when you are up close you can see that they accomplish this with very few actual brush strokes. I was in awe of the construction of the building. The floors were made from boards of Japanese Cypress over 2 feet wide. You don’t see trees that big around any longer. My favorite part of the building was those same floors. I’d heard about ‘Nightingale Floors or uguisubari‘ before and now got to hear them in person. These floors are designed to squeak when walked upon to prevent assassins or ninjas sneaking around the palace. When you hear ‘squeaking floors’ you think about what you’ve always heard in an old house. These sound nothing like that. They really do sound like a bird chirping or squeaking. It’s actually quite beautiful to hear. It’s an architectural marvel. I’d stop and wait for a room to clear out of tourists just so I could walk across in my socks and hear it without distraction. It’s not a sound that could easily be captured with a video due to background noises. edit: I found a video on youtube of the floor. It’s a bad recording but you get the idea. Sounds much clearer and more bird-like in person.
After touring the buildings, we climbed onto the walls of the inner keep and could get a good view of the palace and grounds. With rain always a threat, we didn’t stay long after taking some pictures. On our way out we found they were having a small ‘Autumn Festa’ as they called it. It was many booths filled with, unidentifiable to us at least, foods, both hot and pre-made. As we were leaving the festival area, I was approached by a grade school boy. He first asked me my name and I realized he was looking at a cheat sheet. I was being used for English practice. Pretty cool. He asked some basic questions like where I was from, if I liked Japan, and if I spoke Japanese. At the end of my little interview he asked me to sign his little logbook. I guess to prove to his teacher he talked to a native English speaker. Shannon got the same interview from a different kid. In Kyoto they really seemed to like interacting with Americans. I guess they see less tall, white people there so we’re an oddity to them. The night before I got stopped in the street by an older gentleman who wanted to find if I liked Japan and Kyoto. It’s odd being treated like a celeb.
Once we were done touring the Castle grounds it was nearing noon. We had a Shinkansen to catch at 2 so we had time for a quick lunch. I really wanted to try takoyaki so we headed back to Nishiki Market. If you don’t know what takoyaki is, it is fried octopus balls(no, not those balls). It’s really more like a dumpling fried on a special grill. It takes a master to cook them correctly as they require constant turning to make sure they cook evenly and are shaped round. The entire menu was in Japanese so I took a guess as to which ones to order. We gave our order to the chef and he started cooking them up. About 5 minutes later they were ready. I apparently choose ones with cheese and some sort of sweet sauce on them. Good choice. I thought they were delicious. Shannon ate one and Dakota a couple of the 6 in the order. If you looked closely you could see the small octopus arms with the suckers attached in the ball. I’d eat them again but it’s something you’ll never find in the US. It’s a uniquely Japanese food.
After lunch we made our way back to the train station to catch the bullet train back to Tokyo. Before boarding we grabbed an order of the Chinese dumplings the Shannon liked so much from the evening before. We talked about the dumplings and decided that a small shop or trailer selling them in Austin near campus would make a killing. They are delicious and easy to eat on the run. Maybe we’ll open our own store.
The ride back to Tokyo was faster than the ride down. just after we boarded we all popped some Excedrin the deal with headaches. Still had a bit of jet lag. We learned that Dakota couldn’t handle the caffeine in a couple of pills. He looked very flush for most of the ride home. I fired up the GPS and clocked our top speed around 165MPH on the ride back.
We arrived in Tokyo right at rush hour. this makes navigating the train stations very fun as they are packed with commuters. We got back to the hotel around 6:30 and were bushed. We got a drink or two at the hotel’s Executive Lounge and called it an early night.