First day in Kyoto

It took us 16.5 hours to get here, door-to-door from our friend’s Honolulu apartment to the house here in Murasakino district.

{click on images to enlarge, and mouse over for descriptions}

Our rented house

When we left Hawaii it was warm, sunny, and a bit windy; we arrived in chilly darkness with intermittent showers. Today, when the sun hasn’t been shining, there’s been snow — not much, and it melts upon touching down, but Erik and I are Californians and we are charmed. It’s so beautiful, especially amid the old buildings of this neighborhood of Kyoto.

As usual, after our time in transit, we just want to get cozy at home and not do any major exploring. But our travel experience, and I think our mellow five weeks in Hawaii, has made me less anxious over the change from USA to foreign country. As far as literacy goes, we’re almost more at sea here than we were in Istanbul. But I just don’t feel the same level of agitation as I did last year when we moved from place to place. It’s not that I’ve achieved some kind of “chill” enlightenment; it’s more that I feel I simply can’t muster up the energy to be so stressed! Why bother?! I’ll make some mistakes, but I have good skills, and it’ll be fun.

Accordingly, when we went out this morning in search of breakfast, I was disposed to enjoy myself and be interested. Our street is a tiny one — barely wide enough for cars — and short. It ends in a flight of steps leading up the mountain. It’s delightful to have this little mountain so close by. We can even see it from our bedroom window. It is Funaoka-yama, home to a shrine honoring Oda Nobunaga, one of the 16th-century unifiers of Japan.

Our street in Kyoto leading up to Kenkun (Takeisao) Shrine

Our neighborhood is in northwestern Kyoto. If you turn around at the top of the steps, you can see much of Kyoto stretching out in the distance — and clearly it’s not all as quaint-looking as where we’re staying. It’s a modern city of 1.5 million inhabitants.

View from steps at the end of our street, looking toward our house and the rest of Kyoto

Up above, paths lead off to either side, and there are more steps a short distance away, leading up to the shrine.

At the top of the steps to Kenkun (Takeisao) Shrine

We saw a few other walkers (all middle-aged) on the paths, but the shrine’s grounds were nearly deserted on this Saturday morning. A young man went briskly to the main hall, stood for a moment, bowed, and then left; meanwhile, a pair of older women made a leisurely round of the entire compound, also stopping to bow at one of the buildings.

Kenkun (Takeisao) Shrine

I wish I knew what the various buildings are, but the posted map (a lovely painting!) was all in Japanese and didn’t help us much.

Part of Kenkun (Takeisao) Shrine

Part of Kenkun (Takeisao) Shrine

Map at Kenkun (Takeisao) Shrine

We didn’t spend a great deal of time at the shrine today, but I’m sure we’ll be regular visitors — seeing as it’s literally just steps away!

The opposite end of our street opens onto a slightly larger street, where we can walk comfortably alongside the houses while a car passes through next to us. There’s only room for one-way traffic, though.

Down the street with plum blossoms next to a modernish apartment building

This street runs perpendicular to another street which is about the same size, but busier. It is a curious thing about Kyoto (and I believe Japanese cities in general) that only the larger/busier streets are named; the little one we live on, for example, doesn’t have a name. It’s confusing as heck, but I rather like it: we don’t know what to call it, yet it still exists. This busier street is Kuramaguchi-dōri. And when I say “busy” I mean, well, see for yourself:

Slightly bigger street perpendicular to ours

(This was, however, around nine on a Saturday morning, and many of the shops were still closed. But later in the afternoon it was not much busier.)

Street by our house

Street corner in Murasakino, Kyoto, with traditional buildings

Guess what? Right along here, basically around the corner from us, is a bakery! Cool name, too. Hee.

Boulangerie Tom Sawyer

It smells heavenly and is, thank goodness, self-service, so language difficulty needn’t prevent us from loading up on baked goods. The same goes for the 24-hour convenience store across the street. (I’ve mentioned before how much I loved 7-11 and other convenience stores in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Japan is going to be just as good!) We came home with a nice assortment of goodies from both shops.

Random foods in Kyoto

We hadn’t eaten in about 19 hours (when they served us an evening meal on our first flight, Honolulu to Tokyo) so we were ready for a hearty spread.

Toasted sandwich with ham, cheese, pizza sauce, and a hearty dollop of mayo

Red bean bun with circle pattern of little seeds on top


After breakfast we sat around at home for awhile, but we went out again for lunch. We ventured a bit farther this time — about 1km from home — and ended up at a tiny restaurant. This is the entire seating area, besides the 4-top table where we were sitting.

Inside of tiny restaurant

The menu was entirely in Japanese, but like I said, we’re a lot more mellow this time around. I didn’t feel like bothering with my usual m.o. of walking for an hour trying to find a place with the perfect balance between non-scary and authentic local flavor. Anyway it’s hard to be intimidated about such a bitty restaurant, especially when it’s a one-woman show run by a sweet-looking middle-aged lady.

Japanese breakfast/lunch menu

Once again I am pleasantly surprised at how just a little bit of language knowledge can go a long way. Erik and I each have some tools to offer. For the past few weeks he has been working on learning hiragana and katakana, the two Japanese syllabaries; he also grew up hearing a fair bit of Japanese, as his grandparents spoke it, and his dad and middle brother both have spent time in Japan. I, on the other hand, have been trying to learn some basic phrases, and I have my meager-yet-surprisingly-helpful store of Chinese characters to draw upon. So we checked out the menu, and when I decided to go with the sandwiches on the third photo from top left, Erik was able to read the kana and order it by name.

Mixed sandwich plate with tamago and katsu ham sandwiches

Meanwhile, I informed him that I didn’t know what was in the “B” lunch option, but the top bullet point had something to do with the ocean, the second one mentioned chicken, the third said “meat”, and the last item was some kind of rice. So he ordered it, and got this:

Lunch set B: miso soup, incredible rice, beef/onion/potato, sesame chicken, sweet/spicy shrimp, salad

It was a very tasty meal, and not too expensive, and we were so proud of ourselves for trying the restaurant and managing to order successfully! After lunch we felt emboldened to do a bit more exploring, so we turned onto another street and found some more restaurants, a butcher shop, a post office, and some more gorgeous old structures.

Lovely traditional building and tree on Ōmiyadōri

Old torī with peeling paint, on Ōmiyadōri

Shrine on Ōmiyadōri

When we hit a big intersection, we turned back toward home.

Kenkun-dōri at Ōmiyadōri

On our way we stopped into some food shops to buy ingredients for dinner. There’s no stove in the house, but there is an electric kettle, a rice cooker, and an electric skillet (the same kind my parents use for hot pot). We decided to cook something inspired by hot pot and nabe, but served with rice. We passed three (!!) fishmongers, but their offerings looked so beautiful we couldn’t see ourselves wasting them on a simple boiled soup. Instead we went to a small supermarket and bought pre-packaged things. Although we didn’t buy these, I couldn’t resist a photo of these gorgeous little cephalopods:

Little squids for sale at a Kyoto supermarket

And here’s our dinner (a welcome light counterpoint to the rich meals we ate in Hawaii!):

Simple dinner

When we booked this uninsulated traditional Japanese house, I was worried that it would be freezing cold, and empty-feeling without furniture. But it is neither. Of course it’s not really that cold outside — in the 40s Fahrenheit — but at the moment I’m at the kotatsu, wearing warm clothing and with a space heater behind me, and I’m feeling extremely toasty. (The bathroom is another matter, but I try not to spend much time there!) And I don’t feel the lack of furniture at all, unless you count the soreness that comes of an unaccustomed amount of floor-sitting (but it’s good for the body, I’m sure). In fact, the change is very stimulating. The house is full of fascinating details, like mica in the walls, or branches used as ceiling beams, and the tatami floors and other traditional features give it an entirely different feel than any other place I’ve spent much time in. This is just what I hoped for when we booked this place. I’m glad we’re here.