10th – 17th October 2019
Kyoto, Osaka & Himeji.
9th October 2019
Our plane sat on the tarmac for an hour. We finally left Lombok at 1400 and landed in Bali at 1500 with 9 hours of transit time to kill. While waiting for our luggages, my slipper broke. Thankfully, there was a Havaianas store after baggage claim. We got in some spa time, stuffed our faces with Yoshinoya for dinner and I watched anime on my phone. How’s that for our Dai Nihon 大日本 warmup? LOL.
10th October 2019
Garuda (International) was alright, although the flight information on the screen ought to be updated real soon. On both our flights to and from Osaka, 00:07 was displayed as the aircraft’s time to destination. The damn screen made me doubt my ability to read time. Oh yes, I had a hilariously (only on hindsight) blonde moment:
Having been intermittently awoken by a toddler who seemed to be practising for a screamathon, I poked around to find out how long more I had to endure this aural workout; despite having Japanese rock blasting through my earpiece. Still sleepy-eyed, for a good minute, I was squinting at 00:07 and wondering what it meant. “Was I reading time right?! I definitely could not have slept through the whole flight because, well, its still dark out!?” I actually peered out of my window to ascertain the sun had not risen; woke Kenny to verify that Garuda had its info wrong, that I was reading it correctly as 7secs and even made him show me his phone’s clock to corroborate mine. -FACEPALM-
Now that you have had a good WTF laugh, I want to bring your attention to the screamathoner. With 8 hours of steady noise, that toddler still could not make MVP. Her grandmother, on the other hand, was the superstar. Parents and older brother were completely deaf to her whines and cries. Grandma cradled the little girl in all sorts of angles, falling asleep hunched over the tot and catching winks only for as long as the kid was out cold; exhausted by her own bawling. G-mas are truly the real OGs. I hope the old lady does not have a bad back though.
(lucked out sitting on the correct side of the plane and watched the sunrise as we made our way to the Land of the Rising Sun >D)
(music: exceed by miyuu)
0830 – Two and a half hours later, we were finally here in Japan!
As first-timers in Kansai International Airport (KIX), it was essential that we did not get lost nor delayed by crowds as I had booked us on the 1016 Haruka Airport Express train to Kyoto and we absolutely could not be late for it. Japanese trains are punctual as fuck.
We located the sim card vending machines effortlessly. Met an older Turk who would be travelling in the Kansai-Hiroshima area across 15 days. Our encounter was totally meant to be – Kenny could not get the machine to accept his note and Uncle Turk could not read the minuscule instructions for installing the data sim. Fortunately, he was using an iPhone. I am completely android-illiterate. Once we were all back online, we bade farewell and wished each other happy travels. A pleasant start to both of our journeys!
Went up to 2F. Made a beeline for FamilyMart, grabbed our first bottles of convenience store coffee, BOSS & GEORGIA, which tasted oh-so-fucking-heavenly! And headed towards the JR Ticket Office. As the doors slid open to Kansai Airport Station, the rush of crisp autumn air against our travel-weary skin instantly invigorated us. Nothing like a cold kiss good morning to welcome you to this land of wonder.
Soaking up the weather, we strolled towards the office and were relieved to see only a handful of tourists. While waiting for the staff to print all of our Shinkansen tickets for the entire trip, including the Sagano Scenic Railway ones, as well as process our ICOCAs, I turned around and saw a queue starting to form, snaking its way out and around the ticket office. WOAH and PHEW.
I had studied both airport and station maps prior to our arrival and it paid off extremely well. The airport had directional signs but knowing how and where to go beforehand saved us that crucial 5 minutes. Bear in mind, it was the beginning of the Autumn high season for Japan’s tourism. We were so glad we got ahead of the crowd. Looking at the line, we were cocksure that if we got caught in that human jam, we would have definitely missed our Hello Kitty ride to Kyoto!
It is not guaranteed that you will get to board the Hello Kitty! Haruka nor can you choose the train when making advanced reservations online. We lucked out again. Cool!
(sumo kitty fits, sumo kitty sits)
While Sumo Kitty napped, I scrutinised our A3 printed map of Kyoto’s subways. The physical map turned out to be awfully handy as we didn’t have to waste any time searching for map boards at train stations nor figure out which routes/lines to take on the spot/under pressure.
1134 – Reached Kyoto Station
Boy, was it a busy one. There were steady streams of human traffic scurrying in every possible direction on, what seemed to be, a designated course. Our map certainly saved us from being a hindrance – standing in the middle of the concourse, browsing signboards and obstructing flow. Despite the bustle, Kyoto station was easy to find one’s way around.
1215 – Arrived at Kiyomizu-Gojo station. Hauled our luggages up 3 flights of stairs, crossed Gojo-dori bridge / Kamogawa River (what a pretty view):
And, found our Airbnb, Gojo Takasean, by a stream. How quaint!
All in all, it took us about 7mins to walk from the train station to our Airbnb with 2 large suitcases. In spite of the walk, the location was excellent. We checked in with our host, took a shower and made our way to South Kyoto!
SOUTH KYOTO – UJI & FUSHIMI
(map from japan-guide.com)
Hopped on the JR Nara line to Uji (red) and mapped our route in reverse so that we would finish at the Keihan Uji station (orange). Using google maps, we took a shortcut through small lanes of houses, glimpsed at modernized Japanese architecture and speculated how Uji residents lived. As if travelling back in time, we emerged at Byōdō-in.
But, for the sake of storytelling, I shall start at the end.
This is Uji Bridge. In 1180, a battle occurred here which led to a 5 year war that ended with the establishment of Japan’s first shogunate, officially marking the country’s transition from Classical to Medieval age.
And, that was the abridged version. Hahaha!
*Note: Unless you are a history geek, best you scroll past the purple bits to the next photo.
I have tried my best to summarise and simplify:
Heian-kyō (aka Kyōto) was Japan’s capital for about 1000 years (794-1869) and its namesake, the Heian Period (794-1185), was an era of peace which saw the growth of Japanese culture sans Chinese influence, the rise of the Samurai class and nationwide poverty. More notably, the city was mainly under the influence of 4 powerful clans descended from the imperial family – Fujiwara, Minamoto, Taira & Tachibana. The imperial court, however, was dominated by the Fujiwara, who maintained control over emperors by marrying their daughters to them, both current and future kings. They were what historian George B. Sansom called “hereditary dictators.”
Between mid-10th to 11th century, the lack of food and resources caused a clash of the clans. They fought over land and set up rival regimes, essentially putting an end to 150 years of peace. This was also the beginning of the end of Fujiwara power. In 1068, Emperor Go-Sanjō ascended the throne. He was the first emperor, in 170 years, who was not born to a Fujiwara mother. Unbounded by loyalty, he sought to restore imperial sovereignty by implementing reforms that severely restricted Fujiwara authority. Emperor Go-Sanjō’s reign effectively loosened the Fujiwara chokehold on future emperors.
Fast forward to 1156 Hōgen Rebellion:
The Fujiwara thought they could exploit a succession dispute to regain their former glory. Instead, the clan was nearly destroyed, all imperial administration overthrown and the Samurai took over court affairs. On top of the pivotal change in the nature of Japanese politics to a military-dominant one, this incident also established the Minamoto and Taira rival clans as Kyoto’s new political powers.
1160 Heiji Rebellion:
Basically, the Minamoto did not plan their coup d’etat properly and were badly defeated. Taira Kiyomori, head of his clan, spared the lives of the Minamoto leader’s 3 young sons and banished them from Kyoto. Seizing all Minamoto lands and wealth, he consolidated power and established the Taira as the new ruling clan in Japan for the next 20 years.
Kiyomori safeguarded his power by installing his relatives in government posts, exiling disloyal officials and of course, marrying his daughter off to then Emperor Takakura. Over the course of two decades, the Taira revelled in luxurious court life and turned a blind eye on the provinces, where the Minamoto clan had been slowly rebuilding their forces.
In 1180, Kiyomori forced his son-in-law to abdicate and placed his 2 year old grandson on the throne. Emperor Takakura’s brother and a Minamoto-backed candidate, Prince Mochihito, felt denied of his rightful place and issued a call to arms to which the Minamoto clan answered. Upon hearing this, Kiyomori demanded his arrest.
20 June 1180 – Battle of Uji
Taira forces chased Prince Mochihito and Minamoto Yorimasa to Uji Bridge, where the battle first started, and continued south towards Byōdō-in. This opened the 1180-1185 Genpei War, which culminated in the annihilation of the Taira clan and the creation of Japan’s first military government (bakufu), the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333), by the very boy whose life Taira Kiyomori spared in the 1160 Heiji Rebellion – Minamoto Yoritomo; Japan’s very first shōgun.
The fight continued at Byōdō-in, in front of Phoenix Hall.
In the face of defeat and failure to help Prince Mochihito escape, Minamoto Yorimasa went in and committed seppuku while his sons, on the verge of death, fended off enemies hungry for their father’s head.
Pity we could not check out Phoenix Hall as it was closed for restoration work. Built in 1053, it is the only remaining original building in the temple and considered an epitome of Fujiwara halls.
Behind the temple lies the grave of Minamoto Yorimasa, a famous poet who opposed his clan in the 1160 Heiji Rebellion and helped Taira Kiyomori overthrow them. However, in 1180, he changed his mind and appealed to his clan to rise up against the Taira and answer Prince Mochihito’s call to arms.
Yorimasa’s harakiri might have been the earliest recorded samurai’s suicide in defeat. After his death, a loyal retainer took his head, tied it to a rock and threw it into the Uji River to prevent it from falling into Taira hands.
©Photo: Uji River, japan-guide.com
Besides an important battle ground, Uji is also famous for its matcha!
Imported from China during the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333), Japan first started cultivating green tea leaves in Uji. Today, matcha is grown in many areas across the country however, due to its ideal topography and soil condition, the most superior quality still comes from Uji.
*Note: Skip the purple bit if you are not crazed about matcha
Uji produces the best matcha because it has rich, acidic soil and is located in a lowland near rivers and sea. The area also gets sufficient rain, has the right amount of humidity during summer and does not frost during winter. This means Uji has a subtropical climate and since tea is a subtropical plant, it is no wonder Uji produces the best green tea leaves and have been so for centuries.
On the way out towards Keihan Uji station, we walked through Omotesando. It is a long row of shops selling all kinds of matcha products and souvenirs, which starts/ends outside Byōdō-in. We tried matcha gyoza and it tasted surprisingly good! Naturally, it goes without saying, having a cold dessert (matcha & vanilla ice cream) in cold weather totally rocks.
(map from japan-guide.com)
From Uji, we took the Keihan line (brown) to Chushojima station and made our way to Teradaya (aka Terada Inn). We arrived just as the museum was closing up but it was no biggie. Standing outside and in the courtyard of a Bakumatsu brawl scene was awe-inspiring enough.
The inn bore witness to 2 skirmishes, one in 1862 and another in 1866. The latter was more well-known as the incident was the attempted assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma, a revolutionary hero of the Bakumatsu period.
*Note: Unless you are a history geek, best you scroll past the purple bits. I have tried my best to summarise and simplify:
The last 100 years of the second bakufu, the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336-1573), was pure anarchy. A quarrel over shogun succession resulted in the Onin War (1467-1477), which was a decade long conflict in and around the capital. By 1477, Kyoto had been reduced to ruins and the fight had spread to other parts of the country. This power vacuum initiated the Sengoku Period (1467-1603) during which, the 3 unifiers of Japan – Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu rose to prominence.
Picking up after Oda Nobunaga’s political consolidation of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi continued his predecessor’s work and militarily unified the country by 1590. Their reign also marked an architectural shift from temples to castles and hence, it was named after both of their castles – Azuchi (built by Nobunaga) & Momoyama (built by Hideyoshi). The most distinguishing feature of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period is the castle with a surrounding wide moat (e.g Osaka Castle). These stone structures not only functioned as fortresses and residences but also nurtured castle towns.
In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi began building Fushimi Castle (aka Momoyama / Fushimi-Momoyama Castle). Strategically located between Kyoto and Osaka, the castle was meant to protect the capital from the south; the only side not bordered by mountains. He also widened and diverted Uji River towards it, which subsequently opened Fushimi town to trade between the two major cities. Fushimi’s boat transportation industry boosted its economy with daily traffic of commuters and commodity deliveries of rice, sake and lumber. The flourishing town also saw a development of many “boat inns” along the canal. If you scroll back up to the map, you will see Teradaya’s location along the blue line.
(a simple timeline of medieval to early modern japan; made on canva)
1600 Battle of Sekigahara:
Hideyoshi’s death led to a power struggle between Toyotomi loyalists and Tokugawa forces which ended in the bloodiest and greatest battle of Medieval Japan (aka the last battle of the Sengoku Period). A decisive victory for Tokugawa Ieyasu, he eliminated all who opposed him and spent the next 3 years consolidating his leadership by removing and reducing the power of enemy clans; redistributing wealth and lands to Tokugawa house and its allies. This sowed seeds of dissent in 3 disfavoured clans, Shimazu (Satsuma domain), Mōri (Chōshū domain) & Chōsōkabe (Tosa domain), whose descendants would come together 250 years later to topple the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868).
Fast forward to 1853 Arrival of US Navy:
By this time, Japan had been isolated for 220 years after the enactment of sakoku (isolationist foreign policy). The arrival of the American fleet threw the bakufu into disarray. For the first time in centuries, the aristocracy, daimyōs and the Emperor had a say in the governance of the country. This public consultation made the shogunate appear weak and indecisive. In 1854, under the duress of gunboat diplomacy, the bakufu signed the Kanagawa Treaty, ceding to almost all of Perry’s demands. The shogunate’s continual appeasement of the foreign powers in the subsequent treaties (1854 UK, 1855 Russia, 1858 France) became the catalyst for the sonnō jōi movement, the driving force of the Bakumatsu period:
sonnō = “Revere the Emperor”
• Given that the imperial court was also against the opening of Japan’s ports, all the more, the signing was perceived as the shogunate’s powerlessness against the foreigners. Hence, the revolutionaries felt the bakufu should be replaced by a more steadfast government who would enforce the Emperor’s will.
• Two schools of thought emerged. The first being strictly anti-Tokugawa (imperial loyalist) and the second, kōbu gattai, advocated a political union of the imperial court and the shogunate to strengthen Japan against the threat of Western Imperialism (unionist).
jōi = “Expel the barbarians”
• The swift opening of Japan to unchecked foreign trade led to massive economic instability (business bankruptcy, unemployment & inflation), major famines and increased food prices. On top of this, the sudden influx of foreign traders also brought cholera into the country. Clearly, the locals blamed the outsiders for their newfound hardships.
1853-1868 Bakumatsu Era:
During this revolutionary period, Teradaya was a known gathering place for pro-Imperial samurai. These rōnin would sail up/down the river and meet at the inn to discuss next steps for their cause. Inevitably, Teradaya would play host to dangerous encounters.
(teradaya courtyard filled with memorials and ema, wooden prayer tablets)
1862 Teradaya Incident:
Shimazu Hisamitsu, daimyō of the Satsuma domain, was a Unionist. Although he supported the jōi spirit, he was not a fan of the increasingly violent extremism shown by the rōnin of Kyoto. Unlike the Satsuma imperial loyalists, Hisamitsu intended to reform the bakufu instead of overthrowing them. The daimyō increased his influence over the imperial court by marching into Kyoto with a thousand-strong army and in doing so, he broke the Tokugawa law which prohibited feudal lords from entering the imperial capital. Hisamitsu’s unprecedented show of military might gained him the trust of the court which then authorised him to bring order back to the city.
Simultaneously, rōnin Loyalists were planning to assassinate two high-ranking officials. Seeing Hisamitsu’s defiance against shogunate law, the group thought they could count on his support. However, upon realising that they had misjudged his political inclinations, they retreated and regrouped at Teradaya to finalise their plans. Among the 60-70 Loyalists present, 20 were Hisamitsu’s vassals. Furious at their blatant disregard of his strict orders, which forbid Satsuma samurai from associating with rōnin even for the sake of the cause, the daimyō sent 9 master swordsmen to bring them back into the fold.
Some of Hisamitsu’s 9 were friends with the 20 Satsuma rebels. They pleaded with their comrades to return with them to Kyoto. Alas, harsh words were exchanged and a Satsuma-on-Satsuma bloodshed ensued. Within five minutes, 8 Satsuma rebels and 1 of the daimyō’s enforcers laid dead. Resolved to prevent further killing, the leader of Hisamitsu’s squad appealed to their clansmen again. The rebels yielded and the first armed anti-bakufu plot was thwarted.
(memorial to the fallen 9 Satsuma samurai and a statue of Sakamoto Ryoma)
1866 Teradaya Incident:
By this time, the shogunate had already begun cracking down on anti-bakufu activists. The night before, Sakamoto Ryoma of Tosa had just concluded the negotiations between Satsuma and Chōshū, officially bringing together the 2 most powerful anti-Tokugawa domains in a military alliance (aka the Sat-Chō Alliance) that would be the downfall of the last shogunate of Japan. Despite keeping a low profile, Tokugawa agents got wind of a renowned revolutionary staying at the Teradaya. Unbeknownst to them, it was Ryoma. 20 bakufu samurai raided the inn. Ryoma and a Chōshū ally fought their way out of the ambush to safety in one of the storehouses along the canal where they were later rescued by Satsuma samurai. Sakamoto Ryoma had narrowly escaped the first attempted assassination on his life.
This ryokan of today is not the original building. Reconstructed in the Meiji era, the first Teradaya burned down during the 1868 Battle of Toba-Fushimi, which opened the
1868-1869 Boshin War. The 1.5 year civil war fully concluded the Meiji Restoration with the final destruction of the Tokugawa military.
As we made our way back to Chushojima station, we walked through a lane of small bars and sake shops. Decided not to visit the commercialised sake breweries and museums as we preferred the local experience. Popped into this local pop-and-son store, Aratama Sake, and came out with a pretty awesome bottle:
After greeting hello konnichiwa, the only other word I could utter was “amai?” (sweet). Stoically, Oji-san walked to the fridge and brought this bottle to the counter. Emulating a drinking gesture, he asked if we would like to have a taste. The eager beavers we were nodded our heads profusely, hai hai! Arigatōgozaimashita! As soon as the wine brushed my lips, I knew it was going to be a good one. It did not have that initial piercing touch, a sensation I do not really care for when it comes to alcohol. And then, it went down smooth as silk. It was soft, feminine, slightly sweet and mildly fragrant, hitting every note of a Fushimi sake.
Kenny and I looked at each other with joy in our eyes – THIS IS THE ONE! Containing our excitement, because well you know, decorum, and you don’t want to be the loud motherfuckers in a quiet shop, I recomposed myself, saved for my beaming face, asked how much “ikura?” and fumbled with the clean, pristine Japanese notes. We thanked them and burst out of the store like happy kids getting out of school, raving about the sheer ridiculousness of stumbling upon a shop in an alley and finding the exact kind of sake we wanted!
Fushimi district (Kyoto) is home to the second largest sake brewer in Japan; the first being Nada district (Kobe). Fushimi’s groundwater contains well-balanced minerals, making it ideal to produce such delectable rice wine. If you prefer a dryer, more even-keeled, not so aromatic and masculine taste, Nada sake is what you want.
Happy with our first sake purchase, we continued towards the train station but these super-early halloween decorations caught Kenny’s eye so we checked out this cute corner bar:
The bar’s instagram is @meitei_biyori
This is Akira-san, who opened his own bar in July. He made crazy yummy cocktails for us, we communicated via translation apps and Kenny dominated the flick game machine. After 3-4 rounds of drinks, Akira-san introduced us to a sake cafe down the lane:
(left) akira-san’s meitei biyori is just two blocks away from rie-san’s sake cafe (right)
That’s right. We got totally sidetracked. What train station? SAKKEEEEEE!!!
After 24hrs of travel, a quick shower, 1 onigiri, matcha gyoza and ice cream, and 5 hours of exploring southern Kyoto, we were having sake for pre-dinner appetizers. No better way to whet our appetite for yakiniku later!
As expected, the rich and aged sake were not for me but Kenny drank them all like the champ he was. LOL! In between glasses, the cafe owner, Rie-san, brought out some cold bites for us. The pickles did not appeal to me but the mushroom was surprisingly delicious. What captured my attention were the chopstick holders. Rie-san had taken the liberty of designating the dog one on my tray and sumo on Kenny’s. This lady certainly had an eye for people, I’d say!
Over sake tasting, we chatted with Rie-san and her other patron. Kenny’s Hokkaido baseball jersey had caught the latter’s eye as she herself was a Fighters fan and hailed from the northern island! Upon noticing my dog tattoo, the conversation segued to pets and I gushed over her chopstick holders again. Before we left, Rie-san wrapped the inu chopstick holder and gifted it to me. She was simply too generous!
We left around 1700. Took the direct Keihan line up north towards Central Kyoto. Since there was time to spare before meeting my parents, we decided to hop off midway and take a little detour to get a cake from Lawson convenience store. It had to be from Lawson because Kenny had eaten this round cake before and it was uber delicious. Not entirely a shabby idea.
So, we followed google maps and it brought us to the nearest Lawson which turned out to be inside a local hospital! LOLOL!! The security guard gave a weird look while directing us. I could see the gears spinning in his head, probably tossing between “lost tourists” and “foreign friends of a patient”. As we made our way up a level and across a concourse, despite its cleanliness and modern facilities, it reminded us of old Tan Tock Seng hospital. Do not misread this. It was not run-down at all but it felt secondary to our hospitals in Singapore. After our free tour, we finally located the convenience store. Lo and behold! The cake was sold out. Hahahaha! Nonetheless, it was a bonus detour.
Got back to our airbnb. Jumped into the shower and out we went again for my dad’s 60th birthday dinner.
CENTRAL KYOTO – KARASUMA NISHIKI
(map from japan-guide.com)
Relishing the 20degree weather, we took the 20min walk from our airbnb to Shijo station. After meeting up with my parents, we followed google maps towards Motohonenjicho, which was 5mins away, and finally arrived at Yakiniku Hiro!
For the Karasuma-Nishiki outlet, it is situated on the ground floor.
The atmosphere felt really homey. The fact that only locals frequented this BBQ spot and the staff did not speak much English plus hearing lively Japanese conversations only amped up the coziness of this popular wagyu joint.
Dad, the cardiac patient, blissfully enjoyed his birthday meal, finally getting a night off from Mom, the diet police. The meat was so tender and juicy that it literally disintegrated in the mouth. Needless to say, Kenny the meat tooth was in his element. As for yours truly, I am not usually hot about red meat but these ones. were. exquisite. Thanks Rina for recommending this place and helping us make reservations. 100% worthy of the calories!
We got a twin cheesecake instead from Lawson and it tasted pretty good. Too bad the restaurant did not have any candles. After dessert, we took a walk past Nishiki Market towards Pontocho. We strolled through Kyoto’s famous nightspot which was teeming with caucasian tourists and expats and of course, locals. The sight of Irish pubs and footballs bars prompted a comparison to Clarke Quay and Boat Quay but Singapore’s “river-holes” certainly do not match up to Pontocho’s ambience.
Made our last stop at Lawson (I know again), got our breakfast sorted and called it an early night to rest up for tomorrow’s morning hike in the outskirts of West Kyoto.