Japan in one sentence: “Wow, this is interesting/weird/fascinating/amazing – also, I don’t have the slightest clue what is even going on”.
I stayed at the “Gojo guesthouse” – a hostel in a traditional Ryokan style (i.e. a wooden house with floors of rice-straw tatami mats, and you roll out a futon to sleep on). An excellent choice – hostels can be hit or miss, either anonymous like a hotel but without the privacy or one’s own room, or party hostels where you can’t get any sleep. This one was great, though – maybe Japan inspires everybody to be respectful, or maybe it was the really cool people running the hostel, and providing a cozy common area.
As always, I like to start exploring a new city by just randomly walking round the neighbourhood, and seeing what I find. Like this beautiful stone inscription – no idea, what it says, though.
Or a vending machine selling very reasonably priced coffee, soft drinks and green tea. These are absolutely everywhere, by the way, on literally every street corner that sees a bit of foot traffic. Quickly became one of my favorite things about Japan – no need to carry water, and can try some new drink all the time.
Not all of the choices are identifiable, but coffee is always good (favorite ad slogan “Suntory coffee boss – boss is the boss of them all”).
Speaking of identifiable: Japan is the first country where things like ATMs or train ticket vending machines can not necessarily be switched to English. Above is an ATM, by the way – I did not manage to get any money from this one.
And for the train ticket from the airport I had to ask someone for help – turns out, the machine does not offer tickets to a certain direction, but only at certain price levels – and you have to check a route map poster to find the price for your destination beforehand.
Also on the way: A pachinko parlor. Pachinko is like a cross between gambling and pinball. It’s basically a machine that shoots metal balls to the top of the screen, that then fall down, and where they fall determines how many more balls you win to continue playing. Since gambling is illegal, you can kind of influence your winning chances a bit by controlling the timing (I think) of the way the machine shoots the balls. It seems to be played mostly by zoned-out old people. By the way, everything in the picture above is either a video screen, a bright blinking light, or makes loud noises, so I fled from the place after a few minutes.
More very Japanese things: Taxis mostly look like this – a Toyota model specific to Japan, that looks like a cross between a Mercedes from the eighties with a Soviet statesman’s car. Contrary to the cliche, my driver from Kyoto station did NOT wear white gloves – disappointing. The car did feature hand-knit white seat coverings everywhere, though, fitting in neatly with the 80s pensioner’s car theme.
Also specific to Japan: When you exit Kyoto station, there are two lines of taxis – regular taxis and “foreigner-friendly taxis”. Now when something is billed as “foreigner-friendly”, it usually means two things: a) more expensive and/or b) the regular variety will be impossible to deal with. Here it’s neither, though – the foreigner-friendly taxis charge the same rate, and just happens to be drivers that have made an effort to learn English. There were none available, though, and I was in a rush to reach my hostel before registration closed (having unexpectedly spent more than an hour and a half in the immigration line). My non-foreignerfriendly driver turned out to indeed not speak any English at all, but I came armed with directions to the hostel written in Japanese, so that worked out well.
Next to Kyoto central station: the so-called “Kyoto tower”. Very big, very pink, and very peculiar looking.
By the way, those Japanese high-tech toilets are real, and everywhere. This is one of the more basic models – more options include various kinds of ventilation, music and sounds to drown out any impolite noises, and options to control the direction and strength of various ways of applying water to your behind. Since it’s all Japanese, and not obvious which buttons does what, I had a lot of fun trying out everything…
Food stop: “takoyaki” – a.k.a. fried squid balls (not the balls of a squid (although I’m sure the Japanese would eat those, too -squid is like a major food group here), but little balls made from a moist dough with some squid meat bits inside, grilled in a special plate, and combined with lots of different toppings like onion, soy saue and other less identifiable bits. Really tasty.
For snacks, seaweed, red beans or green tea are seemingly in everything. I like to drink green tea, but in cookies? Not so much. Green tea soft ice cream is surprisingly good, though.
First sightseeing stop: Nijo-jo, a medieval castle/palace in central Kyoto.
Officials in Japan, even if it’s just a gate attendant at a tourist attractions, all wear cool snazzy uniforms. You very much feel like caring about what you do and doing it properly is really a thing in Japan.
And young Japanese people dressed in Kimonos are everywhere – although it’s probably mostly rented Kimonos (Kimono rental places are everywhere), and just to take pictures in front of something famous.
Although I did catch this picture of what seems like a real Geisha walking down a lane in the neighbourhood – Gion, the nearby old town of Kyoto, is the center of Geisha culture.
Back to Shojo castle. The palace itself is nothing special – basically empty halls where the Shogun used to receive, laid out with Tatami mats, and with some nice but unspectacular paintings on the walls.
The garden is very nice, though. I love Japanese-style gardens, both the “dry” i.e. Zen gardens, and the Chinese-inspired park-like gardens.
They seem very natural, but are actually very carefully designed, and very harmonious. I could basically take pictures of Japanese gardens all day – wait, that’s pretty much what I did…
Exit gate of Nijo-jo. I can not, for the life of me, remember Japanese names of places, have to look up the name of the place I’m going every time I’m looking for a sign, and when somebody asks me later where I’ve been, I’m like “the temple, in the north, the big one with the gates?”. Something about the Japaneses language that wants to not be remembered by my brain.
Drones seem to be enough of a thing that they are specifically worth banning.