Monday, 22 November 2010

Day 4: Stairway to Inari

Before starting this entry, I have just realised that I've omitted giving credit where it is due for the photographs. So, thank you very much to Henry and Yingke for such excellent photography - this account would be much less colourful without them. I will be using exactly one of my own pictures on a later entry, but apart from that, every photo is credit either to Henry or Yingke.

Japanese food, which consists for the most part of noodle and rice dishes, tends to have much less fibre than we are used to in the British staple of bread. The obvious problem this causes is exacerbated by the fact that their shops stock less fruit, and that which they do have is often quite expensive. Henry and I remained unaffected, but Mark and Yingke were to suffer on and off for most of the trip. Yingke was the unfortunate victim on the morning of our trip to Kyoto; I woke at around 6:30 to find that Yingke had woken at around 2:00, and had been unable to get back to sleep.

Mark woke shortly after me to find that his leg had made a complete recovery overnight. Very fortunately, it wasn't a problem that troubled him again. Heading out into open air to find the sky overcast but the day still pleasantly warm (an unfamiliar concept for my fellow UK residents who I'm sure, like me, associate an overcast sky with freezing winds and drizzling rain). We walked the short distance to Kinshichou station and then took a train to Tokyo, from where the Shinkansen to Kyoto would depart.

Finding a restaurant willing to serve us breakfast for less than ¥1000 was tricky, even Tokyo Station's extensive 'Restaurant Town'. We managed to find a place serving traditional English type breakfasts at reasonable prices after a bit of wandering around, however. Feeling full, we headed off to the Shinkansen tracks.

The Shinkansen
Finding the one that would take us to Kyoto was fairly easy, and we boarded it after pausing briefly to admire how sleek and aerodynamic it looked. Understandably, Yingke slept for most of the journey, while Henry, Mark and I played Bamboo, a variant of Mahjong for two players using only the Sou tiles. The Shinkansen travels at top speeds of around 300km/h, but the journey was amazingly smooth and quiet. When you can play Mahjong on the fold-down seat tables of transport moving at 300km/h without the tiles falling over, you know it's well designed.

The view from the inside
After about an hour and a half of travel, we reached Kyoto station. The plan was to store our bags in station lockers, buy ICOCA cards (the Kansai equivalent of PASMO cards), travel to the Inari shrine, then head back to Kyoto station, pick up our bags, and go on to our hostel. It sounds like a rather convoluted plan, but our JR passes meant that it didn't cost us anything extra to do it this way, and the Inari shrine was an essential part of our trip to Kyoto (its southern position made it infeasible to combine it with any of the following day's activities). We were helped by a Japanese man to find the station lockers, and another guy gave us a hand in finding the 'English' button on the station machines as we were trying and failing to buy our ICOCA cards. Marvelling once again at the kindness of the Japanese to complete strangers, we boarded the train for the Inari shrine. As it happened, it was a fast train that wasn't stopping at the Inari shrine, but we only rode it one stop extra before we realised this, and so it was a fairly simple business to catch another train going in the opposite direction.

Inari is one of the more important deities associated with Shinto, and is responsible for farming and for fertility. Inari was also supposed to have fairly strong ties with foxes, and as such, a number of fox statues guard the entrance to the long trail up to the shrine, which is located on the peak of a mountain. The route up is one of the most impressive displays of Torii gates in Japan. The gates line the path up to the shrine, often so thickly that they only just let daylight through.

The amazing path up to the Inari Shrine
We stopped about an hour into our climb at one of the few udon restaurants on the trail, and ate kitsune udon (or literally, 'fox udon'), which is a noodle dish served in a soup with fried tofu. The restaurant was fairly empty, and eating while kneeling over a low table overlooking the mountain scenery was a wonderfully serene experience, and almost certainly my favourite of the lunches we had over the course of the trip. After having finished we sat in the restaurant for a while before standing up to brave the long flights of steps that would lead to the top.

The stairs seemed to go on forever, but the Torii gate patterns and smaller shrines dotted around the path were always interesting to look at. Many of the shrines were decorated with miniature wooden Torii gates that people had bought from the bottom of the shrine, written messages on and carried up. Presumably they had some kind of prayer or wish associated with them, although none of us could read what was written on them. It was also mildly amusing to see the vending machines dotted along the path slowly go up in price - bottles of water that had been ¥150 at the bottom would cost closer to ¥300 as one neared the top. About an hour and a half after we had set off from the restaurant, a few rest breaks and a great many more flights of stone steps later, we reached the top.
The Inari Shrine - notice some examples of miniature
Torii gates on the left
The shrine that awaited us at the top was not very much more impressive than the smaller ones we had passed on our way up, and certainly not magnificent in the way that the golden temple we would visit the next day was. It had its own splendour, however, and in many ways, the sight of the shrine that we had worked so hard to see was by far the more rewarding of the two experiences. I won't jump ahead, however. After a short rest, we all climbed the final set of steps into the shrine proper. We threw money into the donation box, rang the bell that hung over our heads, and put our hands together to ask Inari to grant us a wish. Given what he/she is deity of, my wish that the rest of our holiday would be as wonderful as the start was perhaps not the most appropriate, but it certainly came true, so perhaps Inari has some powers that even the Japanese don't know about.
Inari Shrine cat is displeased
The trek down the mountain seemed to go by much faster than the trek up. We stopped only briefly at the rest area half way down before continuing on to the bottom. We boarded the train back to Kyoto station at around 16:20, which seemed to be just as school was finishing. A large number of sixth-formers ('highschoolers' to Americans) boarded the train with us, and I had fun watching their interactions on the train back to Kyoto station, and then on the trains over to Gion, where our hostel was located. In truth, they didn't act very much differently from how one would expect English sixth-formers to act, but strange people in a strange place will invariably be infinitely more interesting than normal people in a normal place, and I spent large parts of my life in the company of English sixth-formers back when I was one.

Fortunately, the Kyoto hostel was much easier to find than the Tokyo hostel. The exit we needed was clearly marked down a long tunnel from the main part of the station, and the hostel was in clear sight as we emerged into the city. We checked in, deposited our bags, rested for a short time to recover from our long walk, and then headed out for supper.
The view from the bridge over the river near our appartment
Where we ate was to be the only real point of contention in our trip. I have always been an experimental eater, and felt that eating exotic and unusual Japanese foods was an important part of the holiday experience. Henry wanted to eat Chinese food every night. Meanwhile, Mark and Yingke fell at intermediate points between these two extremes depending on desires and how their digestive systems were coping on any given night. More often than not, we ended up at a restaurant that served either udon or some Japanese interpretation of a European dish, both of which fell in that unhappy middle ground where everyone was just about satisfied but nobody was truly happy. Restaurants are my only regret of the trip and, were I to plan it again, I would make sure to ask everyone exactly what they wanted to eat before picking out recommendations, as only two of the restaurants I found for our trip ended up actually being used.

My recommendation for the evening had been a restaurant that serves unagi, which is a form of grilled eel. After this was thoroughly vetoed, I suggested we head along Pontocho, which is a narrow alley host to a number of restaurants with terraces overlooking the river. I had been meaning for us to eat there the next day, but there was no reason as far as I could see that we shouldn't eat there both nights. It wasn't long before I saw how unfortunately short-sighted I was on that count. We found Pontocho easily enough, and the alley was beautifully lit and enjoyable just to walk along. The prices were almost invariably extortionate, however, and we passed a large number of restaurants offering us such delicacies as ¥3,000 sushi dishes as we walked down the alley. Once we had reached the end and thus seen all of our options, we walked back along the alley to the restaurant that had been our favourite and asked for a seat out on the terrace. Once happily seated on the terrace overlooking the river, we were handed a couple of set menus and told that people seated on the terrace could only order from the set menus.
Pontocho Alley was rather atmospheric
We could immediately see that this restriction would result in a much more serious blow to our finances than we had been planning on. There may have been some indication on the menu outside that the ¥1,000 noodle dishes could only be ordered as supplements to the ¥3,000 set menu, but we certainly hadn't read it. Lacking in other options, we all ordered the cheapest set menu (¥2,600). I did at least get my wish of eating unusual foods: the appetiser was a wide range of small portions of exotic seafood (including octopus, which was rather delicious) and a huge green chilli that actually had quite a subtle taste. The starter consisted of lettuce in an unusually sweet dressing which I really liked, Yingke found acceptable, and Mark and Henry couldn't eat. Finally, the main course was a beef hamburger steak. The food was, as I say, all delicious, but none of it was terribly filling, and even I, as the one who had enjoyed and been able to eat everything I was given, still felt hungry after finishing. The full set menu would perhaps have been more filling, but it was closer to ¥4,000 and therefore far outside what we felt we could spend (especially so early on in the trip, when we didn't know how easy it would be to find cheap restaurants). Henry and Yingke decided to order more rice and some more experimental drinks based on their names (an 'Imo' and a 'Mugi') while Mark and I discussed the role of characters with healing magic in fantasy literature. Then, feeling a bit dejected about the fact that we had each paid more than four times as much as we had at lunch for a meal we hadn't enjoyed as much, we headed back to the hostel and slept.

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