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Kyoto with Teenagers – Part 6 of 6

(Read Part 1 through 5.)

Some of the thoughts and special moments we had during the Kyoto excursion:

My teenagers mocked me praying at every temple we visited. They had never seen me pray before. I am not sure whether they fully understood what Buddhism, Shintoism and other religions mean to typical modern Japanese including myself. For the most part, Japanese respect the presence of some sort of a higher being. The  way they interact with this higher being, however, is typically very personal and not socially organized. To me, these temples provide the opportunity for me to give thoughts to the higher being. Nothing less, and nothing more. The act of praying allows me to focus the thoughts.

My teenagers were constantly amazed by the bicyclists. The bicyclists pretty much own the streets there, and taxi cabs are constantly yielding to the bicyclists. My daughter, who wants to one day live in Japan, is now considering living in Kyoto and owning a bicycle to be one of her life’s goals. I would love for her to live there and perhaps go to school or teach English there. That would give me an excuse to visit Kyoto often.

My teenagers loved the Shinkyogoku shopping district and its vicinity. We went to UNIQLO and LOFT twice (and bought tons of reasonably priced clothes and a rather expensive suitcase). We walked up and down the Shinkyogoku mall.

My teenagers enjoyed shopping at convenience stores without me. They speak no Japanese and store keepers hardly speak any English. But since Kyoto receives so many foreign visitors, the store keepers are able to help clueless customers and my kids rather easily.

My teenagers were able to take the lead in selecting the bus routs thanks to the English bus rout map. Once we were on the bus, the multilingual announcements kept them well informed. Kyoto is absolutely the best place to visit in all of Japan for foreign tourists. The city has a very robust and extremely accomodating tourism infrastructure that is unlike any other place in Japan. I wish the city would do more to attract international conventions. Internationale convention organizers in Japan should be strongly encouraged to consider Kyoto over Tokyo or other cities.

Speaking of conventions, the ASLO meeting will be in Otsu which is just a short train ride from Kyoto next year. I am doing everything I can think of to get funds for me to go to this meeting.

Kyoto with Teenagers – Part 5 (Kinkakuji)

The next morning came, and we were starving. So we walked a block to the nearest Lawson for Karaagekun and other breakfast-appropriate items (i.e., juice, chocolate milk, pastries, rice balls). I just can’t get over how absolutely convenient these Japanese convenience stores (“konbini“) are.

After breakfast, we took the free hotel shuttle to Sanjo-Keihan, then took the #59 city bus to Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion Temple).

They were letting tourists ring the gong for 100 yen/ring just inside the temple grounds. I got my teenagers to do this.

I’d been there at least twice before for the junior high school and high school trips. But this is the first time the temple was actually golden. In the past, the temple was either just before a re-surfacing, or in the middle of a resurfacing job.

I believe the temple was built as a summer residence and place of meditation for a rich person, rather than a place of worship for general citizens. As such, unlike other temples, Kinkakuji lacks a focal point for worshiping. Instead, small offering boxes are scattered throughout the grounds. We tossed some yens into some of them, and offered some thoughts.

Kakigori was enjoyed before we left the grounds.
Then we too the #59 city bus again to Ninnaji. According to the guidebooks, this temple boasts both magnificent buildings and impressive gardens. We were not in the mood to shell out several hundred yens per person to appreciate the gardens or building interiors, so we just strolled around.

Then we hopped onto a little train to go toward downtown, had a nice little lunch at a Japanese fast food chain Sukiya, then went back to the hotel for a nap.

Kyoto with Teenagers – Part 4 (Westin Kyoto Miyako Hotel)

(Read Parts 1-3)

After touring Kiyomizu-Dera and had another round of Kakigori, we took a cab to Westin Kyoto Miyako Hotel. Our luggage, which we dropped off earlier at Kyoto Station, was waiting for us.

The hotel has everything an American traveler expect in a high-end American chain hotel. Well, almost everything. It lacks one thing that is important to me – WiFi in the rooms. As my AT&T  iPhone refusing to talk to the 3G signals in Japan (and it would have been very expensive even if it were able to talk to 3G), the lack of WiFi meant no tour-critical information was at my fingertips while I lounged in my bed. I either had to borrow my mother’s Softbank iPhone or had to go all the way to the lobby (and paid a large sum of yens for the WiFi) to get the signal. I tried both options which were both equally inconvenient.

Other than the lack of WiFi, however, the stay there was enjoyable. Our room had an excellent view of the city (the first photo). There was a convenience store, Lawson,  just down the street for inexpensive meals and snacks. My 16 year old reported that the gym was small but adequately equipped. And Nanzenji, one of the most important temples in Kyoto, is located just a few blocks away, providing a perfect excuse for a morning stroll or jog (the second photo).

The hotel has a shuttle bus that takes you to Kyoto Station. It lets you get off at the Sanjo-Keihan terminal which is a convenient stop for catching a city bus or to walk over a few blocks to the major shopping district. Some of the shops we enjoyed include LOFT (the third photo) where you can find things you didn’t know existed but are glad to have, Graniph T-shirt shop (where my 16 year old bought his Looney Tunes shirt), as well as many of the shops lining the Shinkyogoku Pedestrian mall (the fourth photo). Even with the ultra-weak dollar, we were able to find reasonably priced clothes and souvenirs.

Kyoto with Teenagers – Part 3 (Kiyomizu-Dera)

(Read Parts 1 and 2)

Kiyomizu-Dera is a Buddhist temple located in eastern Kyoto. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto.

The uphill pedestrian paths leading up to the temple are a part of the charm this temple has to offer. In fact, some of the most “quintessentially Kyoto” Kodak moments can be had on these paths. They are lined with souvenir shops selling mochi confections, Hello-Kitty key chains, traditional silk crafts and chinaware, as well as tiny cafes offering Kakigori (shaved ice) and soft serve. In fact, my teenagers were handily trapped well before they reached the temple by one of the tourist-trap cafes for some Kakigori.

The temple itself is also a huge tourist trap.

Calling this temple “a major tourist trap” does not in any way diminish its historic significance, cultural charm or religious importance. In fact, temples and shrines have always been the focus of tourism in Japan well before the modern tourism began. And as one of the most popular tourist traps in the most important tourist destination in Japan, Kiyomizu-Dera delivers – gorgeous views, spiritual routines, 100 yen fortunes, 500 yen charms, and deck-side cafes.

Many Japanese regard themselves as spiritual while not necessarily tied to any one specific religion. They simultaneously take advantage of various belief frameworks offered by different religions. The birth and healthy growth of children are often celebrated in the Shinto framework, while the majority of Japanese receive Buddhist funerals and burials. Meanwhile, the moral is taught overwhelmingly in the Buddhism-Shintoism-Confucianism hybrid context. So, in the typical Japanese manner, my teenagers and I tossed some yens into the offer box (Osaisenbako) and gave some hybrid thoughts.

Kyoto with Teenagers – Part 2 (a Quick Lunch at Kyoto Station)

(Read Part 1)

Shinkansen arrived in Kyoto in the early afternoon. The Kyoto Station itself is a magnificent piece of architecture worth some exploring if your schedule allows.

Kyoto is a MAJOR tourist destination for Japanese people as well as for overseas tourists, so there are tons of lodging options for any budget and preferences (i.e., western or Japanese styles, with or without meals). Lucky for us, my mother has some “connections” and “knows people” (aka she retired from a large life insurance company with full benefits including subsidized hotel stays) so we got to stay at the posh Westin Miyako Kyoto Hotel at a bargain price.

Westin is a 15-minute shuttle bus ride from the station. However, they have a little outpost at the station where you can remotely check in and drop off luggage. They would transfer the luggage to the hotel for you.

So we dropped off our suitcases and went to the top floor of the station building where a dozen ramen noodle shops were gathered (i.e., “Ramen Alley“). We were starving despite the sandwiches we had on Shinkansen. We settled into the first shop we came across with empty seats, and had a quick and satisfying meal.

When traveling with teenagers, spontaneity is important. I know my parents would have liked to browse around more restaurants before settling in. But my priority was to keep the teenagers’ whining to the minimum, which required us to be spontaneous and flexible.

Then we took the #206 bus for Kiyomizu-dera.

(Read Part 3)

Kyoto with Teenagers – Part 1 (Shinkansen Bullet Train to Kyoto)

Summer in Kyoto is hot. (Kyoto is located in a basin surrounded by mountains, thus the hot air pools and can’t escape even during the coolest hours of the morning.) Visiting Kyoto with two (potentially) whiny teenagers makes it seem even hotter.

My parents, kids and I took a late morning Hikari from Tokyo to Kyoto. Hikari is a “Shinkansen Super Express Bullet Train.” Another SSEBT, Nozomi, runs on the same track and is slightly faster. However, my parents wouldn’t be able to exercise their senior discount privilege on Nozomi, so we took Hikari.

I could write a whole thesis about these SSEBT’s. They may well be the world’s most pleasant mode of transportation. They are very frequent – there are at least one westbound Nozomi or Hikari every 10-15 minutes from Tokyo Station. So there is no need to worry about missing your train. They are not crowded at all – there is no need to pay extra yen for assigned seats. The seats are very spacious, with far more than enough legroom and the absolutely spotlessly clean interior and bathrooms.

There are vending machines for drinks on board. In addition, a salesperson comes around frequently with a cart full of food, candies and drinks. The prices are comparable to those found at the station kiosks.

Once on board, we settled into seats, stowed the luggage, and bought some drinks, sandwiches, bento, and ice cream from the cart. My teenagers, who watched Harry Potter 7.2 a few days prior, thought it was “just like Hogwarts Express” especially regarding the sales cart.

It’s a three-hour ride to Kyoto.

Fuji-San appears on the right side windows rather unceremoniously during this ride. As someone who was born and raised in Tokyo, I am obliged to take a picture of Fuji-San when it appears. You know, we are just supposed to. My kids could care less, however. They wouldn’t have had time for my Fuji-San shpeel that would have involved the low viscosity of basaltic lava and three tectonic plates that meet at Fuji-San. Oh, well.

(Read Part 2)

(Fast and not so Fast) Food Nation: Part 3 (Stories from our trip to Japan)

(Click here for Part 1)

(Click here for Part 2)

We had a memorable 10-course meal at a Japanese restaurant called Ganko after a temple service commemorating the one year anniversary of my uncle’s passing. The meal was primarily vegetarian with the exception of a few pieces of fish cakes on the appetizer plate (shown) and a piece of fish steamed with the bowl of rice served at the end. The main course was the make-your-own tofu pot – a tiny personal earthenware pot filled with soy milk set on a tiny burner. They provide you with the right amount of the coagulant, nigari (magnesium chloride solution), to add after the soymilk is fully heated through. The timing was important, and so was the proper stirring after adding nigari. Our tofu may not have turned out to be pretty as many of us were either too drunk or too busy talking to get the timing and stirring done right. Regardless, the tofu tasted delicious.

After the meal, my cousins and I went to my aunt’s house for more talking. Many of the kids came along. Kids were treated with these beautiful creations made of fruits and whipped cream.

Speaking of whipped cream, crepe stands are still popular after 30+ years. In the beginning, you had to go to Harajuku to find a crepe stand. Today, however, you can find crepe stands at most shopping center food courts. The one I had last week (whipped cream, ice cream, chocolate sauce and strawberries) tasted just like the ones I had in Harajuku back when I was a teenager.

On my next visit to Japan, perhaps the dollar will be stronger, or I will be wealthier. I will hopefully be able to enjoy eating out non-fast food more.

(Fast) Food Nation: Part 2 (Stories from our trip to Japan)

(Click here for Part 1)

We did a short excursion trip to Kyoto during our stay in Japan.

Summer in Kyoto is hot. Being a tourist in Kyoto means lots of walking as well as standing around waiting for a bus (the public bus system in Kyoto is absolutely wonderful and tourist-friendly, by the way). We consumed a lot of bottled waters and iced green teas from konbini, but also quite a few servings of kakigori (shave ice). Every temple’s approach path was lined with cafes offering kakigori along with souvenir shops. My kids had kakigori at every temple we visited. In the photo, my kids are about to enjoy strawberry- and blue Hawaii-flavored kakigori.

While in Kyoto, we also had okonomiyaki (savory pancakes filled with noodles, bacon and vegetables) and ramen noodles. These are all inexpensive, delicious, and very Japanese, selections.

Japanese fast food chains did not disappoint.

We had a lunch at a gyudon (beef bowl) chain Sukiya one day. We enjoyed katsu-curry (a breaded and deep-fried pork chop and curry sauce over rice), yakitori-don (teriyaki chicken over rice), and gingered pork. They were all really good, and affordable. My daughter was especially impressed by the katsu-curry.

MOS burger is the epitome of Japanese burger chains. Along with the “regular” burger (which is loaded with the signature sauce that is somewhat teriyaki-like), they serve teriyaki burgers, katsu sandwiches, and “rice burgers” (rice patties, instead of ordinary burger bun, are sandwiching the burger and sauce). There is a MOS burger outlet right by my folks’ house. My kids had burgers for breakfast twice during our stay. We went there for lunch once, also.

Mister Donut, although originally founded in the US, has become quintessentially Japanese. I enjoyed one of these bear-shaped, maccha-iced donuts at a shopping mall food court near my folks’ house one afternoon. Their coffee was excellent. It may be as good as Tim Horton’s.

Speaking of maccha, Starbuck’s in Japan sells maccha pastries. Three Frappuccino’s and a pastry cost us about $25, though. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have the “two free drinks of any value” coupon that was mailed to my mother as a stockholder perk. The pastry was pretty, but like so many Japanese pastries, it could use a lot more sugar.

(To be continued)

(Fast) Food Nation: Part 1 (Stories from our trip to Japan)

(Fast) Food Nation: Part 1 (Stories from our trip to Japan)

The yen was strong and dollar was weak while we were in Japan.

Thank goodness most of our room and board was provided by my folks. My mother fed us rice, miso soup, gyoza (pan-fried Chinese dumplings), tonkatsu (breaded fried pork chops), tempura, sashimi, stewed Japanese eggplant (mmm my fav!), salad with awesome Japanese salad dressings, and such. Thanks, mom!

But we did eat out for some of the meals. The weak dollar meant we ate quite a few meals at fast food places.

The very first morning in Japan, we were staying at Sheraton Yokohama Bay (where we had a mini family reunion later in the day), and we all woke up at around 5 AM thanks to the jet lag. By 7, we were all starving, so decided to get dressed and hunt for breakfast. There were many affordable breakfast options to choose from around the hotel, but our jet-lagged brain picked McDonald’s, comfort over adventure. The Japanese McMuffin tasted fine, but different. I think it had a significantly less grease content than the American version.

Later in the day, the family reunion was at the hotel buffet restaurant. It was very fancy, and the food was pretty good, but the buffet lacked organization. Also it lacked well-defined main courses. It had a great dessert bar complete with a chocolate fondue fountain, however.

We went to the Disney Sea at Tokyo Disney Resort one day. Manpris (capri pants for men) and black leggings for women dominate the park-going fashion in Japan despite the hot weather instead of the familiar shorts and tank tops. There are so few signs in the Japanese Disney Park you have to carry a park map in order to find a bathroom. (A side note: all of the hand dryers in the bathrooms were turned off “to conserve electricity.”) But the most striking thing about the Japanese Disney Park is its snack offerings that are overwhelmingly fat free and healthy. We could not find fat-loaded ice cream in gigantic waffle cones anywhere in the park. Here is the snack most frequently spotted in the park: a Mickey Mouse-shaped frozen apple juice bar.

Convenience stores (“konbini”) are the most important institution when it comes to inexpensive eats in japan. They are practically everywhere (there are two within a 5 minute-walk from my folks’ house) and offer a vast selection of delicious ready-to-eat items. My kids got absolutely hooked on karaagekun (teriyaki-flavored chicken nuggets) from a konbini chain called Lawson. They ate Karaagekun for breakfast, lunch and snack. I am more partial to konbini’s pastry selection, however.

(To be continued)









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