Photo of the day: Cheese tarts @ Bake. Photo credit: Aaron.

We’re taking a short weekend trip to Kyoto. We already purchased the Shinkansen, AKA bullet train, tickets online but needed to get to Shinagawa Station to pick it up from the travel agency and to board the train. Our host was nice enough for us to have use of the apartment for the weekend, so we left our carry on suitcases at the apartment and just brought our small backpacks with us. The travel agency wasn’t open yet when we got there but right at 11pm, the blinds were lifted, numbers start appearing on the big screens and the man kept yelling out numbers. I felt like the stock market just opened or something. It went from calm to lively in a matter of seconds. Our number was called and we were given a long English instruction sheet to read while the agent prepared our tickets. We got our tickets and it was time to find food.

Aaron found a curry place but it was in the gate of the subway station. We ended up having to pay a fee just to enter the area to eat. The restaurant is called Camp Express. There was a short line but it was fast moving. We ordered within a few minutes. I ordered the vegetables special and Aaron had the beef tendon curry. You can also select the level of spice as well as the amount of rice you wanted. Again, typical of Japan, it was all bar seating with a shelf under the table for you to put your purse. The food arrived very quickly in an small, individual-sized pan. The utensils looked like little shovels and the water is in a thermos. I love how true they stayed to their camp theme. I was a little disappointed that my curry was spicy and not sweet as I would’ve expected from a Japanese curry. Aaron’s tendon curry on the other hand, was sweet and very tasty.

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Vegetable special @ Camp Express. 
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Beef tendon curry @ Camp Express. Photo credit: Aaron.

Aaron had loaded the timetable for the trains on his phone. Although there is conveniently a train to Kyoto every 10 minutes, some had fewer stops than others, resulting in a shorter trip. Our train of choice came exactly on time, as expected of Japan. We had a ticket for the non-reserved cart and it was pretty busy. We were not able to get seats on the right side of the train as we had wanted to since we wanted to see Mount Fuji. Luckily we were still able to see the base of it as we passed by. You don’t realize how quickly you are going (approximately 300km/h) until you stand up and watch the scenery go by. There was a food cart that came by once during our 2+ hour ride to sell snacks and drinks. It was mentioned during the announcements that there is free wifi but it did not work for me. I was hoping to get a lot of reading and blogging done but the ride was so fast that we were in Kyoto in no time. At the station we exchanged our voucher for a city day pass and we were off. It was very nice that our Suica cards worked even in Kyoto, which made commuting very convenient.

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The base of Mount Fuji on the Shinkansen.

We arrived in downtown Kyoto and I can immediately sense the difference between its quiet streets compared to Tokyo. The architecture also had an older, more traditional feel compared to Tokyo. We decided to stay in a Ryokan for the days that we are here. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns, which usually have traditional rooms with tatami flooring and futons to sleep on, a public bath or onsen, as well as traditional meals served. Our Ryokan is not really traditional, as there were no public bath or traditional dinner but they do have a private bath as well as an optional traditional breakfast you can reserve. The room itself was simple with 2 leg-less chairs and one coffee table. The bedding and our Yukatas (Japanese pyjamas) where in the closet. There were cute cartoon instructions on how to make our own beds and wear our Yukatas, when we were ready to rest at night. There was a bathroom with shower in the room. This Ryokan also had western-styled rooms as well with beds.

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Day time seating in our room at the Ryokan.
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Night time sleeping arrangements at the Ryokan. Photo credit: Aaron.

After settling down, we took a little walk around the area and came across the Nishiki Market. This is a street full of food and souvenir stalls. Besides the actual market, the surrounding area has plenty of shopping and good food as well. Here, we tried the most delicious cheese tart and chicken Karaage. We also tried some black sesame balls and Natto beer nuts. Of course, it’s a great place to shop for cute clothes and little souvenir gifts as well.

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Chicken Karaage. Photo credit: Aaron.

Today was March 3rd or “Girl’s Day”, AKA Hinamatsuri. A doll’s display was set up in the lobby of the Ryokan as a way to celebrate the day. Each tier of the display had a specific arrangement of dolls. Traditionally, the display must be taken down March 4th or else the girls of the household will have difficulty getting married. We were invited to join in some festivities at the Ryokan so we headed back from our little walk. First, we assembled our own Chirashizushi. Usually, it consisted of sushi rice with raw fish on top, but here we had various pickled vegetables, shredded egg, tuna and pretty rice cakes as toppings. We were told each household has their own take on Chirashizushi and the toppings would vary. This was served with a soup, traditionally a clam soup. After eating, we enjoyed some Sakura tea and a sweet rice drink while learning to fold some origami. It was a nice way to experience and learn about the festivities around Hinamatsuri. It was too bad that not too any guests decided to participate in this.

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The dolls display for Hinamatsuri. 
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Aaron’s Chirashizushi. Photo credit: Aaron.
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Sakura tea with origami paper. Photo credit: Aaron.

After the activities, we enjoyed the a nice hot bath drawn by the staff. I’m not one to be comfortable with being naked around other people, so I actually appreciated that they offered private baths compared to the more traditional public baths. Stay tuned for more about this in a later post.

I read that there was a Sukiyaki place nearby so we went for a walk towards Gion. This area is supposed to have a very traditional vibe with some sightings of Geishas. Aaron said during the spring time, the cherry blossoms would bloom above the bridge and it would be beautiful. It was late at this time and we were getting tired, so we did not end up seeing too much of Gion. We arrived at the restaurant, Gion Gyuzen, which specialized in Shabu Shabu and Sukiyaki. We chose the American beef option, which was quite reasonably priced at 1900 Yen ($~22 CAD) per person, especially for an all you can eat menu. The service was very efficient. As soon as we sat down, our meat, eggs and vegetables were all on the table already. I immediately cracked one raw egg in my bowl, and waited for the broth in the pan to boil. They did not instruct us on how to cook here compared to the Shabu Shabu place last night but we figured it’s basically the same. We put in some vegetables first, then beef. As soon as the beef is done, we would dip it into the egg to consume. Sukiyaki is definitely more flavourful than Shabu Shabu. The broth is sweeter and this is where most of the taste comes from, whereas in Shabu Shabu, the taste is mostly from the dipping sauce. The grade of the beef is less important here because it is basically getting all its flavour from the broth, so you can taste less of the beef. Their vegetables menu is quite extensive and so I got a little excited and ordered quite a bit of vegetables. Even though I ordered many and I emphasize, MANY, different types of vegetables, each order is pretty small so it worked out in the end. I was a bit worried after ordering that we would have mounds of vegetables to finish. We ended our meal with some udon to soak up all the flavours of the broth. It was a very satisfying meal, yet I did not feel too stuffed after. We walked home, while enjoying the quiet streets of Kyoto at night.

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Sukiyaki @ Gion Gyuzen. Photo credit: Aaron.
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