Kimonos in Kyoto


If you are coming to Japan to see ladies (and men) in Kimono – then let me recommend Kyoto. We’ve seen hundreds of folks wearing Kimono – not all of whom are geisha – or for that matter – normally wearing Kimono!

It turns out that there is a very large industry here in Kyoto in Kimono Rental. For anywhere from $15 to $30 a day, you too can be dressed in Kimono, complete with hair ornaments and proper sandals. They even provide tabi socks and proper hand bags. These places advertise madly – and not just in the Gion area where you might expect it. We spotted Kimono Rentals near the train station and near several of the major shrines. There was even one near Nijo Castle.

So how to tell a ‘faux’ kimono wearing young woman or man, from the real McCoy?

Dead give-always include speaking Chinese not Japanese. Or wearing sneakers. Sometimes you can spot leggings or pants under the kimono – that’s another sure sign it’s a faux Geisha.

Hairstyle is often another sign that the gal wearing a kimono is actually a tourist, although many orientals have long hair, and the kimono rental places do a good job of getting the hair up, and the hair ornaments in place. So that’s not probably the best sign.

If you spot an iphone – particularly one being used to snap ‘selfies’ – it’s a faux.

Overly bright colours are also a give-away – the gals that we’ve deemed as real tend to the more conservative styles and colours – those fluorescent reds, pinks, violets and oranges are often the choice of young ladies who want to look flashy – not necessarily like wearing a kimono is natural to them.

As for the men – we’ve spotted men in Kimono that look incredibly dapper and well dressed. They hold themselves erect, and walk with purpose. Often they are older gentleman – who we’re guessing either are extremely conservative, or feel that wearing a Kimono sets them apart. Whatever – they do look very smart!

The ‘faux’ male atire is often cotton, wrapped poorly around the guy – and almost certainly on a guy accompanied by a female faux geisha. I’m guessing there was some arm twisting involved. In any case, very few of these guys look like they are comfortable – and certainly one wouldn’t describe them as dapper. Often they look like they are wearing bathrobes – not even nice ones either.

There is another dead giveaway – but this required looking at the way the Obi is tied in the back. There is a cheap trick to getting that fancy knot on the back of the Obi – it is a separate piece of fabric, tied in a bow, and then fastened to a metal hook. The hook slides in the obi folds, creating what appears to be a bow tied in the sash. But it’s a fake. And if you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot.

The older the person wearing the kimono, the more likely it is that the kimono is real. I spotted older women gossiping on a street corner – and I’ll bet those kimono were real. On the other hand 3 young ladies giggling madly over ice cream are not serious about their kimono.

Last but not least – look for folks wearing Kimono that are doing things that a tourist wouldn’t be doing. For example, I saw one gal pushing a bicycle. I’m pretty sure her kimono was real, just because what tourist would even think of pushing a bike wearing one!

In the 6 days we’ve been in Kyoto – and the countless times we’ve ridden a bus thru the streets of Gion, I’ve only spotted one gal that I am pretty certain actually was a Geisha. Why? Because her hair was in the traditional style, her kimono was a very conservative cut and design, her posture was comfortable but not silly and she looked like she knew how to walk in her shoes.

Desperate to see more true Geisha, I went at twilight to Pontocho Alley – and found my self face to face with three different Apprentice Geisha – looking for all the world as if they had stepped out of a history book! I was so shocked – I didn’t take pictures! Silly me. But they were very cool, and very in a hurry to get where they were going.

Overall, I’ve spotted lots of woman that I’m sure were wearing Kimono because it was comfortable and attractive – some of them were attending a festival at one of the shrines we visited, and were invited into the inner sanctum, others were in the stands at the Aoi Festival, but looked comfortable, not stilly, and still others were just riding the bus or visiting a museum or a garden with us.

So while you are far more likely to spot faux kimono wearing tourist than real kimono wearing ladies and gentleman, if you know what to look for – at least you can be sure when you are lucky enough to see the real thing.

And a lovely thing it is!

Signing off the visit more temples and shrines – there appearing to be no end to these in Kyoto – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Nijo Castle – Negative Reviews aside – it’s totally worth a visit


Sometimes I wonder if folks who write those negative reviews have even been to the same places I’ve been. It’s a puzzlement, for sure.

For example – Nijo Castle, one of the most important historical buildings in Japan, got beaten up pretty badly by 2 different reviewers on Trip Advisor. And I can’t even begin to understand why.

The first reviewer belly ached about having to take off their shoes, and how horrid it was to walk barefoot where other folks have been putting their smelly feet. Hello dear reviewer – did you not read up at all about Japan before you came for a visit? Taking off your shoes is the absolutely in thing here. Everyone takes off their shoes to enter most important places – whether they are shrines, temples, historical momuments, or even folks homes. So get over it! And if you really don’t want to put your bare feet on their floors – carry socks! Seriously. How can you tell folks a place as important as Nijo Castle isn’t worth visiting because you didn’t carry socks with you.

The other complaint was about the use of restorations instead of the original painted sliding doors. Again – what was this reviewer thinking. This place is 400 years old – and it’s completely open to the environment. Why would they ever leave 400 year old painted wood sliding doors up in such a location. Be glad that they replaced them with the most gloriously painted panels – using exactly the same techniques and following the same exact patterns. You can really feel how incredible it must have been to be admitted to such a glorious room while you waited on knees and knuckles for the Shogun to hear your petition. And if you want to see the originals – they are housed in a specially designed building – temperature and humidity controlled – right on the grounds of Nijo Castle.

But my annoyance with lousy reviewers aside – Nijo Castle is well worth paying whatever it costs to visit. It’s amazing. And surprisingly open to visitors. Since it’s no longer in use by the Imperial family, except for very special occasions, tourists are allowed inside the castle itself, not just inside the gardens.

And it’s the inside of the castle that is special. From the famous Nightingale floor that sounds like a thousand birds singing as folks walk around to the marvellously painted shoji screens that divide the space into rooms, this is an amazingly beautiful space.

We particularly loved the thick (over 1 foot thick in fact) carved wooden transoms that created an early form of AC for the rooms. One side was carved with Birds, the other with flowers, and between the carvings, holes allowed air to flow from room to room.

The painted shoji screens are stunning, made even more impressive by the fact that the paintings extended above the doors, almost to the ceilings of each room. The effect was both dramatic, and intimidating. And apparently the intimidation factor was an important component. The Shogun didn’t want anyone getting uppity on him, and there were subtle, and not so subtle ways to keep the powerful lords in their place.

Like the Emperor, the Shogun always sat on a higher floor. And the ceiling above him was also raised to make sure everyone knew who was the most important person in the room. Even the paintings were done to focus eyes on him, and him alone. I loved the sheer audacity of the men who commissioned such work. No wondering about who they thought was boss.

Nijo Castle is not only beautiful, it’s of historic importance. It is here that the first Shogun of the Tokugawa family accepted his commission from the Emperor, and it is here that the 15th and last of that line announced that after 266 years of rule, he was returning authority to the Emperor. It gives me the shivers to think I walked on those same floors.

Just a heads-up on the time required to tour Nijo. It took us at least 3 hours to see the entire castle and all of the gardens. It is a vast area, and you really don’t want to rush through it. We wisely paid a bit extra for the audio tour in English, which combined with the well placed English language explanations provided an excellent and informative view of the entire place. And it’s well worth it to take your time. It’s hard to appreciate how magnificent and detailed the paintings are if you just glance into the rooms.

Folks with a different attitude towards touring rushed past us, hardly spending a moment to glance quickly into the rooms. Given the details on the paintings, birds singing, tigers glaring up and down or nursing their young, we can not fathom how they saw anything – let alone appreciated the incredibly detailed work. Well each to their own I guess.

We finished our day at The Museum of Kyoto, which was having a special exhibit on Ukiyo-e paintings of ‘Beauty’. While the collection in the regular part of the museum is nothing exceptional, the special exhibit was outstanding. We were very intrigued by the 111 painted scrolls – all dating from 1700 – 1850. It’s hard to believe that paper that old can still be in such excellent condition, the colours so vibrant, the details so intricately executed. Of particular interest was the wig collection. Over 70 wigs were used to show the different hairstyles – and labeled in both Japanese and English so that we could see what kind of women were being portrayed. Just an FYI – most of the women were Courtesans, Geisha, or similar. After all, the wife of a nobleman, or even a woman of the middle class would hardly pose for an artist.

This was a very interesting, if very long day. We finally dragged our tired feet home for a well earned dinner and relaxing evening.

Tomorrow is the Aoi Festival – a once a year event that I’m greatly looking forward to seeing.

Signing off to nurse our tired feet back into health, The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

A Find of a place to Stay in Kyoto


We are in love with our lodgings in Kyoto.

Seriously – this place is awesome. I found it on Air BnB – and my husband will be relieved to know I didn’t have to meet the owner under a bridge at midnight to get the key.

The Gottingen (strange name – I know) is really more of a very tiny hotel than a real Air BnB lodging. But despite that, it’s adorable. The host is a lovely gentleman named Peng – who while not the owner, is effectively here 24/7. I’m hoping he gets some time off, but I’ve never known him not to be either at the front desk, or available thru the intercom.

The Gottingen is located in a very residential area of Kyoto (we love being in residential areas) to the West of the Kyoto Imperial Palace and just North of Nijo Castle. Even better it’s right near 3 grocery stores – one huge, one medium sized, and the third is a more fruit based smaller store. There are restaurants within easy strolling distance, and we are right on a long thin walking pathway along what used to be a river running thru the city.

And there are 4 different bus routes that go almost past our door – so you can really get almost anywhere you want to in Kyoto without much walking. I’m a very happy camper.

Our room is on the ground floor – so no dragging our carry-on’s up a flight (or two) of stairs, and our room has 2 twin beds and a sleep sofa. It even features it’s own bathroom – no sharing.

The bathroom has actually two spaces. A toilet and sink space (yes – one of those bidet toilets that the Japanese love so much), and a ‘bath’ space.

The ‘bath’ space is actually a shower and a bath tub combined, in the old Japanese style. The shower head swivels out so you can shower standing on the self-draining floor, or swivels in so you can use it in the bath tub. The tub is one of these short deep jobs, so you can in fact get in a soak if needed.

There is a lovely kitchen area right at the front door, so while we are preparing our meals we are also greeting our fellow travellers. There have been several Chinese groups coming and going while we have been here – since we are just 2 hours from Shanghai, it’s an easy 2 day, 1 night trip. But the guests that we tend to chat up, and who are staying longer in Kyoto are the westerners. There’s a couple with their 2 year old son from Germany, two Polish Women, and a couple from Italy. I think the newest arrivals are Spanish- it’s hard to say for sure since they just nodded as they walked quickly by on the their way out for dinner.

We get fresh towels every other day (a pleasure compared to our lodging in Tokyo where we never got fresh towels during our entire 9 day stay), and the place is spotlessly clean.

So – great host, clean space, lots of room (no dresser – but I don’t think the Japanese do dressers), our own bathroom, and a lovely quiet location with folks walking by on their way home – what more could we ask for!

Oh yes – and it’s within our modest budget – just $60 a night total, or $30 per person.

We are happy campers.

Signing off – The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady

Why they do that? (Japanese Curiosities)


We’ve been in Japan for about 2 weeks and I’ve observed some very curious things. Odd enough that I wonder.. is it me, or these things just plain weird. You be the Judge!

1) There are lots of very bent over older people. I mean almost C or U shaped – not just hunched back. We’ve been asking folks and using Google to get an idea about why we see so many folks like this, and have gotten some rather curious answers. As per Google, living thru the war, living thru the hardships of after the war, and diet are all contributors. The tour guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum agreed that older folks are very hunched over, and told us her mother also suffers from this. But she thinks it’s due to the Vegan Diet that as Buddhist’s, most Japanese enjoyed. And as evidence, she pointed out that as the government put on pressure to change the diet – starting in 1869 with the Meiji Government, the number of severely hunched people decreased. But her mother continued to follow the traditional Buddhist teachings – and her daughter feels that’s why she’s now deformed.

2) Japanese toilets are amazing. Often they even offer bidet functions, and a choice of sounds to cover the sound of you doing your thing. But what they often don’t offer is a way to dry your hands. The better the store or restaurant, the more likely you are to get a hand towel or at least an electric hand dryer. But go a bit down scale, or public – no way to dry your hands. Most Japanese deal with this by carrying small towels at all times – but isn’t this curious?

3) Napkins – the kind you put in your lap when you eat – are also not often provided. And even if they are, they are tiny. Way too small to cover your lap, let alone provide any protection for your clothes. I was told that you should use the warm wet towel provided upon entering to clean your fingers before and during the meal – but how do you protect your clothes? And trust me – when eating with chopsticks – I need clothes protection. Only in one restaurant – a very fancy Teppanyaki place – were ‘Napkins’ provided – and they were in the form of full size aprons.

4) Locking Umbrella stands are the norm. If you go to a museum of any size, you’ll see locking umbrella stands. Since most umbrellas, at least in Tokyo, are similar – rounded handle, with a clear, white and black umbrella part – figuring out which one is yours is a challenge. And there is no question that locking umbrella stands solve the problem – but isn’t it curious?

5) Coloured Hair Clips so you can recognize your shoes. Japanese school kids wear very similar shoes. Black loafers being as much a part of the uniform as the uniform. And since you must take off your shoes constantly – how do you know which ones are yours. Some museums have shelves that have letter and number ids – but we watched a group of high school students solve the problem in a very cute way. They used coloured hair clips to clip their shoes together – and thus there was a rainbow of clips attached to a flood of black loafers. They still had to remember their clip colour and approximate shoe location – but in a sea of similar black shoes – those hair clips really stood out.

6) Japanese business people stand in circles when they chat in a public space. At first I thought – how odd. But when I watched carefully, I noticed that every group of business people I saw always were standing in a circle. We decided that it makes it harder for one person to ‘outrank’ another, and maybe it’s easier to hear each other. But it is curious.

7) Japanese babies are generally very quiet. We’ve seen a lot of young kids out – and I have yet to hear a tantrum. The closest we came was one child who refused her mother’s first offering of food – and the mother quickly gave the child an alternative. The result – quiet and a grateful smile. I wish my kids had been so well behaved. I wonder how they do it.

8) Here’s a real puzzler. In Tokyo, folks always stand on the left side of the escalator , letting folks that want to walk up the escalator do it on the right. I noticed because it is so unnatural to me – and the Intrepid Traveler had to constantly remind me to stand on the left. But in Osaka – and in Kyoto – everyone stands on the right side, leaving the left side to the climbers. How curious is that? Do folks from Osaka feel as awkward as I do in Tokyo? Or do they just automatically adapt?

9) Why do so many young people ‘sleep’ on the subway and buses. The Intrepid Traveler and I think it’s to avoid eye contact with seniors so they aren’t forced to be polite give up their seats. But maybe they really are exhausted.

10) Eating outside seems to be very limited. Folks don’t eat or drink on the street or while riding the subways and buses. We’ve seen folks in parks having a picnic – but there are No Starbucks Coffee Cups, no grabbing an energy bar – no eating at all in random places. And there are lots of ‘take-away’ places. So where and when are folks eating the food they buy that way? We’ve had to search long and hard for a place to sit down and eat lunch – and sometimes never found it. Definitely Curious.

11) Japanese toilet paper isn’t perforated. It took me a long time to figure out why I kept getting toilet paper shreds when ever I tried to tear off a strip – and only after a week (I’m a slow learner) did I realize why all Japanese toilet paper holders have a metal piece across the top. You just hold down the metal piece with one thumb while thought tear upward – and perfect strip of toilet paper results. Isn’t that neat..

12) Kyoto Parking lots are different. Ok – in Canada there’s a gate or an attendant, you drive in, you park, you pay – the gate or the attendant makes sure you have paid before you leave. But here in Kyoto – it’s different. Even a tiny patch of flat cement can be a parking lot – with as few as 3 spaces. So each space is guarded by a device that is sensitive to weight. You drive in to the space and the device pops up – putting a barrier under your car. To release the Barrier – you must pay at the pay station. That action makes the barrier fold back into the pavement – and you drive away. Cool, eh?

13) Last – but I’m sure I’ll think of more as soon as this blog is posted – there are very few public garage cans. Almost none in fact. And this is a society that loves to wrap things up in an extra layer of paper or plastic. You buy a sandwich from a vendor, and it comes in a plastic bag, wrapped in a paper holder – and if you aren’t fast enough – there’s an outer plastic bag as well. But when you finish lunch – where do you put all that plastic. Answer – apparently you carry it around in your purse or pocket until you find one of the extremely rare garbage containers!

Enough Curiosities – Don’t forget to share yours with me!

Signing off – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid traveler

Loving Kyoto


Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is civilized, friendly, and easy to navigate. Not that it is easy to navigate, just that its a whole lot easier than Tokyo.

And Kyoto is cheaper. We’ve been running under $10 for lunch, and under $20 for dinner – including either Saki or Wine. How are we doing this – ah ha! We cheat.

Lunch is often at a restaurant, where we’ll share one meal between us. It is just lunch after all. And our new lodgings have a lovely kitchen and dining area. Perfect for cooking in. And that’s what we’ve been doing. Putting together meals from a combination of ready to eat stuff from the grocery store, and stuff we have to microwave or the Intrepid Traveller works her magic and cooks.

Tonight we’re having Edamame for tea time, followed by a mixed Tempura Appetizer and then dinner will be Wine, Rice with a raw egg and a tempura shrimp and onion pie, and mixed cooked vegetables. We even decided on a lovely Caramel thing (we hope it’s Caramel – it’s smelled like Caramel) for dessert. Yum.

Kyoto has been an amazing city to visit. I had pre-organized trips to 3 of the restricted Imperial Palaces – only to discover that they aren’t that restricted – you just need to reserve. Good thing too because I blew it on the dates for 2 of the 3. But I digress. The 3 restricted places we are going are the Sento Imperial Palace, The Katsura Imperial Villa, and the Shugakuin Imperial Villas.

Back 25 years ago, all three of these were only available on guided tours, pre-reserved, by foreigners from outside of Japan. No Japanese was able to see them. Boy have things changed in 25 years. Today there is an office of the Imperial Household Agency located near the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and all anyone, Japanese or Foreign must do is go to the desk and ask about available spaces. If there is space available – you are in!

Because I totally mucked up the dates, this proved to be a godsend. We first toured the Sento Palace and Gardens. This palace is still in use today by the Emperor and his family when they visit Kyoto. Our audio guides explained that the palace has been completely remodeled inside – this means carpets and western furniture. I’m wondering about toilets of course – but I suspect that’s understood to have been done.

Most of the tour consider of viewing the absolutely stunning garden. I want a garden like this. Even a little bit of garden like this. Of course there were 4 gardeners in one tree alone when we were there… so maybe the labor to maintain the garden would be well out of my price range, but still. It was magnificent. And right in downtown Kyoto. I do not understand why it’s not booked solid, but I think the whole – go to the Imperial Household Agency requirement puts people off. In any case – you are alone in the garden, you can pause to reflect and take pictures… it’s wonderful.

Our second tour was the Shugakuin Imperial Villas – and I think they were my favourites. Again – no lines, no crowds, no rushing you thru. And the tickets are free – my kind of price point.

There are actually 3 villas included on the tour – and to me the highlight was how close we could get to the villas. And all the shoji screens were open – so you could see thru to the magnificent views that they were created to showcase. Wandering paths, tinkling water falls, random bridges, glorious plantings, and magnificent moss gardens were there to be savoured. I loved it.

The bad news about the Shugakuin, ignoring my mixup of the dates, is its distance from Kyoto. We had to take a subway and a bus – and then walk. Naturally we got lost on the walk, so a 15 minute walk took 30 minutes – but we did eventually arrive at the Villas. Totally worth it. And the way back to Kyoto proper was much much faster – one bus ride and we were downtown enjoying ‘Kid’s Day’ at one of the major parks.

What a hoot and a half that was. The theme of the ‘fair’ was kid safety – and they had police cars for kids to climb in, big construction equipment that they could push buttons on, a Virtual Reality game that taught you to stop before you hit pedestrians, and a series of the most adorable bike riding courses.

For older kids, there was a biking maze set out with safety cones and policeman signalling directions. For younger kids unable to actually ride a bike, they had those push bikes. Kids mounted them, then either went around in a circle collecting rings from organizers standing on the outside of the circle, or – this was the best part – on a signal they got off the bikes and used special gloves to pop bubbles that the organizers were creating in the zillions.

We loved it and so did the kids.

Today we tried for the Katsura Imperial Villa – but again a date mix-up happened and we discovered it was closed. But all was not lost – we ended up at the Kyoto Aquarium. This is a completely marvellous aquarium, complete with a dolphin show, a seal show that had the young trainers bringing the seals out among the crowd, and a Penguin show. The stunner of the place was right at the entrance. You walk across a virtual tide-pool that ripples under your feet – revealing Giant Japanese Salamanders. These are roughly the size of a 4 year old child – and they are meat eaters. And they are native to the Kamo river that runs thru Kyoto.

I’m so not swimming in that river.

These things are huge – with enormous teeth and extremely ugly. Yuk!

Another highlight was the jellyfish exhibit – all black light and glowing jellyfish floating around in huge tanks.

Speaking of huge tanks – there is a ‘Sea of Kyoto’ Tank that contains Manta Rays, Sharks, and a school of small fish that numbered in the several hundreds. I’m thinking these fish might be the dinner for the seals – but as a school, they created wonderful balls and funnels and odd shapes.

We watched as one of the organizers suited up and dove into the tank – and fed both the fish and the manta rays. I’ve never seen a manta ray eat before – so this was very cool. They have mouths on the bottom, and create a vacuum that sucks any food that passes by into their jaws. So the diver just released the tidbit, and the manta did the rest. It was very cool to watch.

On the way back home, we decided to visit one of Kyoto’s most famous Temples – the Golden Pavilion (also known as Kinkaku-Ji). We’d been warned that it was a mob scene – and figured that hitting the place in the late afternoon might have thinned out the crowds a bit. I think it did to be honest – we were able to get photographs of the Pavilion without having to wait our turn. But compared to the serenity of the other gardens – this place was decidedly unpleasant. I got hit a few times by other tourists trying to get past me in a hurry – one wonders what was the rush, and the number of souvenir stands made it feel tawdry. Worse – we had to pay for the privilege of going in.

Well – I suppose it’s one of the must do things here in Kyoto – but I’m basically glad we crossed it off our list.

We still have a lot more to see and do here in Kyoto – including seeing the Aoi Matsuri Parade, so I’ll be reporting on Kyoto again in a few days.

Meanwhile – I’m the Soup Lady – signing off to help the Intrepid Traveller prepare our dinner. (That means I pour the wine and set the table – she cleverly does the rest).

I’m definitely too noisy for the Japanese


I even got shushed in a museum – and I was talking to myself!

Clearly I am way out of line in the noise continuum.

But in my defence – the Japanese are very very quiet. We took an English tour in the Edo-Tokyo Museum (outstanding) and the tour guide was audible only if you were standing directly in front of her. If you stood even slightly off center – you couldn’t hear her at all. I tried.

And in the subways – as cautious as the Japanese are not to insult foreigners – we’ve been insulted. How do I know? People sitting next to the Intrepid Traveler and I, who think nothing of having a conversation while sitting on the subway, move away the minute another seat opens. This has happened at least 5 times already, and I suspect will continue – since we are unlikely to stop talking just because we’re on the subway.

Speaking of quiet – the subway cars – even if mobbed, are silent. Folks either just stand quietly, or they put their faces very close to those of their infants and whisper to them. There is lot of use of iPhones and like – but always on silent mode. I’ve never heard anyone talking on the phone here in Japan – something that I see and hear all the time in Montreal. And while I have seen (and barely heard) Japanese business people gather in a circle on the station platform to have a conversation, once on the subway – they too fall completely silent.

Even in restaurants – you’ll see a table with folks all using their phones – but you won’t hear any noise. This is less true here in Koyasan, where using phones at the group dinners and breakfast is viewed very negatively by the monks. So folks have no option other than to be silent (impossible for me) or to chat with other’s. Interestingly – we’re seated across from our companions, but closer to the strangers on the right and left. Naturally, the Intrepid Traveler and I have struck up conversations with French, Dutch, Italian and Australian fellow travellers. But I’m definitely the noisiest.

This general sense of quiet makes the occasional noise seem even more startling. I was stunned once when I entered a toilet to the sounds of a Beetle Song, and in the Ginza a police car went by making an announcement that over the general quiet was extremely loud. Today the ringing of bells at noon and 2:00 PM were clearly audible for several kilometres – and the occasionally noisy fellow tourist was disorienting, and frankly annoying. It turns out that even the Japanese get noisy in a cemetery – care to wonder why? We think it’s to scare away evil spirits.

And the rules about being quiet – something we Westerners have never learned – aren’t written down. You have to observe others to understand what being quiet is all about.

But quiet or not – we’re having a wonderful time. And I’ll survive insulting a few Japanese. They probably think I’m just an awkward American anyway.

Signing off – The Soup Lady (with the Intrepid Traveler shaking her head over my shoulder)

The road to Koyasan is long – but the Journey is worth it!


I first visited Koyasan (Mt. Koya) with my husband at least 20 years ago, and fell in love with it, so I dearly wanted to show it off to the Intrepid Traveler.

She kindly agreed – so I booked us a Monastery stay for 2 nights and off we went.

The trip from Tokyo to Koyasan is not an easy one – there are subways to take, trains to catch, more subways to use, more trains to catch, and finally a funicular, a bus, and a walk. But in this case, the destination is worth the travel headaches to get there.

Koyasan was established as a place of Buddhist teaching and worship back in 816. Yes – well over 1200 years ago. And it’s been going strong ever since. Everyone in Japan wants to be buried there – and if they can’t – to at least have a monument erected in their honour. It is a place of pilgrimage and for many – a place of power. Certainly it is difficult to describe how unique the feeling of being in Koyasan is – even to the totally uninitiated

Our Monastery – the Yochi-in – was probably the least expensive place to stay in Koyasan – mostly because there were no private toilets. All the washing and bathing areas are still shared, and this keeps the prices low. But that said, we absolutely loved it. The facility is huge, and only a small part of it is devoted to paying guests. We dined on special vegetarian meals in a communal dining area, and prayed together every morning at 6:30. There were sutra copying exercises on offer, and you could pay a bit more and have all the facilities of a proper ryokan – in-room massages, wine or saki with dinner, etc. Being budget travellers – we took the simplest options – but they were wonderful.

Our room was huge, and lovely – yes our beds were futons on the floor, but we had a private balcony with western chairs and a small table overlooking a lovely garden. Quite a change from our lodging in Tokyo. And we loved meeting all the other guests at dinner and breakfast. There were folks from Italy, Holland, Australia, Spain, and France, along with Japanese pilgrims as well.

We had all come for the same reasons – to walk the absolutely stunning graveyard, to pay our respects at the Temple where the founder of Koyasan, the Buddhist Monk Kodo Dashi, is lying in eternal meditation, and to feel the power of what is a completely marvellous place.

In addition to the main highlights, the Intrepid Traveler and I found time to tour the World Headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. This is home to the largest Rock Garden in Japan, and a set of sliding doors used to separate the various rooms from each other that were painted by a master in and around 1000 years ago. They are stunning – and worth contemplating for hours – which of course is what they were designed for.

One of our highlights however was a very small temple off the Main Street that told the story of a man and his son who spent 40 years as monks in this very temple, without the father ever letting the son know of their relationship. He did this to demonstrate his belief in Buddhism – in the denial of self. The story – one of infidelity and the results of that action – was told in a series of wood carvings. Our favourite was the one that shows the wife and the mistress playing an innocent board game while their long black hair has become fighting snakes. Naturally the husband is looking on – and decides it would be best for all if he left to become a Monk.

Eventually, his son by the mistress comes looking for him, but at that point, he’s been a Buddhist for so long, he refuses to identify with his former self, and tells the child that his father had died. When the son returns to Koyasan having discovered his mother has also died and he is now an orphan, it’s too late to undo the white lie, and thus father and son spend 40 years together, without the son ever knowing that his mentor is his actual father.

I know – weird story. But very Japanese I think. And the wood carvings were magnificent.

We loved this visit to Koyasan as much as I loved my last visit – and I will try to return once more. It is a very special kind of place.

Signing off on their way to Kyoto – and a much less relaxed pace – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Tokyo Subway Primer – It’s not as hard as it looks


A city of 10 Million (1/4 of the entire population of Canada) like Tokyo needs a proper subway system. And boy, does Tokyo have subways.

In fact – there are 3 major companies that run subways under, around, and in some cases above the city. So getting from point A to point B can generally be done several ways – and making a decision about which line, and what route is often a question of price vs speed.

I’ve been using the iphone app maps.me to help me get around – although to be honest, it’s more useful if I’m walking than if I’m on the subway. To use the subway, I must rely on quick reading, and slow walking!

To avoid feeling like a salmon swimming up stream among the bears – walk on the left! And that goes double for riding an escalator. This is not something I’m good at either. My natural tendency is to walk on the right – and I get bumped a lot. No wonder the Japanese think we’re awkward. We keep getting in their way because we walk on the wrong side of – well – everything.

But back to subways – The least expensive in general is the ‘Tokyo Metro System” There’s English on the signs at all the stations, and many of the stations are new. The Ginza line is currently undergoing renovation – so it has the most stations that are a challenge to navigate. The other lines are in much better condition. There are public toilets at all stations (so clean you could eat off the floors), there are well indicated elevators, and most staircases also have an escalator if not two. Clearly this is my favorite system. I particularly like their 24 hour pass – at 600 Yen, it makes sense if you are taking 3 trips or more in the next 24 hours – and that’s pretty easy to do.

The next more expensive is the Toei System – which has 4 lines. This system duplicates a lot of the Tokyo Metro System, and you can buy tickets that allow you to change from one to the other – for a price. We were standing at a station in the Toei System – and the price to go to Ikebukuro was 400 Yen. But if we walked to the nearby station that was part of the Tokyo Metro system, the price to Ikebukuro dropped to 170 Yen. A significant difference. But effectively, unless you realize you are using the subway lines of a different company, you can’t tell when switching from Toei system to Tokyo Metro system.

A note on switching lines. Even within one system – say the Tokyo Metro System – the distances from one line to the other line, officially in the same station, can easily be 250 m or more – that’s pretty far to navigate in a crowded environment. So the better if more time consuming plan is to try not to change lines if possible.

The third system, and my least favourite by far, is the JR Line. Yes – that’s the same company that runs the long distance travel and sells those rail passes. They run a subway system within the city that makes a giant circle with one line that goes out into the islands nearby. It’s not the cheap option, but if you want to go to Tokyo Disneyland, or even out to the Sea Life Park – you will find yourself on these lines. The lines are old, the elevators tiny, and there seemed to only be escalators on rare occasions, and always going the wrong way. Not a winner.

Given this complexity – it shouldn’t be a surprise that each line sells it’s own tickets. And each line sells tickets that will work on the competitors lines (no idea how that works financially), but they won’t sell the discount ticket options that include the competitors.

Now, the nice thing about the ticket machines is that they all have a language button that allows you to pick English. Some just offer English or Japanese – others offer several languages – I’m thinking one might be Chinese. Whatever – English is always an option.

Once in the English option, it’s of course easier to use the machine. And all the machines I saw offered a search by destination station name and often by destination station number. And I have to say – knowing your destination station number is a huge advantage! It’s just one letter for the line, followed by a station number. So rather than remember Ikebukuro- you can remember Y09, F09, or M25. Since you can reach Ikebukuro by 3 different Tokyo Metro lines (Y, F, or M) , as well as it being a stop on the JR line it can be confusing. But still, if you know your station name, and it’s number – that’s a huge help.

Another help when getting around by subway is to realize that most stations have signs every few feet, visible from the metro car, that give you the station name (in English and Japanese), the name of the next station in either direction (both languages) and the station numbers. This make it easy to track your progress thru the system when traveling. And there are announcements – again in both languages giving the next station name and connecting information. The problem is that the way Japanese say the names, even in English, isn’t the way we’d phonetically pronounce them. So it’s a better idea to watch the monitors! Much less confusing.

As for navigating the stations – that can be a nightmare. If you hit a station during rush hour, or even just during a busy time (lunch say), the rapidly moving crowds are daunting, truly daunting. And it is easy to get really confused and turned around. In a station like Ikebukuro there are probably several hundred different stores, not to mention 3 huge department stores and cute pop-up shops as well. Signs are everywhere – pointing you correctly to the destinations, and even giving the distances to the destination, but still – I’ve gotten really lost.

One time I ended up in what can only be called ‘Shopping Hell’. It was a sub-basement of a department store with no apparent way out and the only clothes on sale were size 0 to 3. It was mobbed with young Japanese women, and between the throngs, the garish displays, the flashing signs, and the bowing sales people – it was seriously overwhelming. I think they were as confused as why we were there as we were to be there.

My next piece of advice – learn to hug walls. The Japanese have learned this, and know that putting your back to a wall is the safest option when in a crowded environment. Near the toilets it’s not unusual to see 10 to 15 men all lined up along the wall – waiting we assume for their sig other to exit the ladies room. We learned the hard way that stopping in your tracks in the middle of a passage is a recipe for disaster. At tbe least you are going to get bumped – and I’m not so sure that you wouldn’t get trampled!

And my last piece of advice, and one I gave earlier – walk slowly. If you keep moving, even slowly, the crowds will part around you. And by walking slowly you have the time to visually identify and read the signs. They are extremely well written – giving not only the line, but often several key destinations, so if you are moving slowly, and know where you want to go, you can get there.

Bottom line – the Tokyo Metro System, in all it’s complexity, is a thing of beauty. Use it – Enjoy it – but do it slowly and on the left. Let the folks that know where they are headed flow by – take your time and you too can enjoy the voyage.

Signing off to do more traveling on the Subways of Tokyo – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Edo-Tokyo Museum – A Must See!


We’ve seen hundreds of Museums – seriously – hundreds. So if we love a museum – you have to realize we’re comparing it to some of the best in the world.

And the Edo-Tokyo Museum literally blew our socks off. This is an amazing museum, no matter what your age, your language, your interest level. It is simply stunning.

From the outside, you are already impressed. The first two floors of the massive structure are just the ticket hall, an auditorium, the shops, restaurants, and a special exhibit space. You take an elevator to the 3rd floor – and you are on a massive open air terrace – with the rest of the museum hanging 3 floors above you, supported by just 3 massive pillars.

Stunning.

To reach the permanent exhibit space, you can either take the boring elevator up, or ride an open air escalator up 3 floors to the beginning of the museum proper on the 6th floor.

The interior is simply breath-taking. Directly ahead of you is a vast open space – crossed by a massive wooden bridge 25 meters long. This is a full size model of the original Nipponbashi bridge, but 1/2 the original length. The bridge crosses over the open space – over a full size Noh Theatre on one side and a scaled version of Tokyo from about the thirties to fifties on the other. There are full size rickshaws, bicycles, and similar objects for kids to climb on and be photographed on.

Once across the bridge, there are 3 scale miniatures of sections of Tokyo during the Edo Period. All are done in absolute detail, with incredible precision. Impressive without the explanation, but we had asked for one of the Free (our favourite price point) English guides, and she walked us thru the most interesting parts of the models. I’ve already mentioned the detail – but with her explanation, it was easy to see even more. The rocks holding the roofs down for example, or the tenement housing hidden off the main streets and paid for as an act of charity by the wealthy were just two of the interesting sites to see.

They provide binoculars to help kids (or adults with fading vision) get a closer look at the going ons. The section highlighted is near the famous bridge – which during the Edo Period was a fish market.

Drawings from the period – of which there are lots and lots – spend oodles of time detailing the life of the commoner folk since drawing pictures of the higher court officials including the Shogun and the Imperial Princesses was a crime ending in beheading. So there is ample source material to choose from when doing detailed studies of common life, and the designers of the museum have gone to great lengths to be as accurate as possible.

Another section of the museum is devoted to life in the aforementioned tenements – fascinating. There’s information on the omnipresent fire-brigades – a necessity in Tokyo of the period. The fireman were all tattooed- done so that they could be identified if they were killed in the line of duty. And they carried tall poles with horse hide strips that could be spun to keep sparks off the head fire fighters. They had small water buckets – but the primary way of fighting fires was simply to pull down the houses – carefully in the direction that would not incite more flames.

Another section was full of period correct street vendors. That was where we learned that sushi was 5 times larger in those days – and that 2 pieces of sushi was an entire meal. We also learned that almost all Japanese in those days were Buddhist’s – and thus vegan with the exception of fish. The lack of calcium in the diet for over 250 years goes a long way towards explaining the small size and the hunched backs we’ve seen here in Tokyo. Our guide explained that the Meiji Government recognized the problem, and changing the average diet was for them and the Governments after them an important priority.

A small section was devoted to the Noh Theatre – where our guide explained the logic behind the white painted faces. In the days of candle light, it was hard to see faces distinctly – and the Geisha relied on their faces to entertain. So painting them white made them stand out in a room – and the white faces of the actors performed a similar function on the stages of the time.

One more tidbit I want to share before signing off. There was an interactive display with a pole and two buckets for kids and adults to try lifting. Our guide asked us what we thought was inside the buckets. We suggested water – but she said – no – something much much more valuable – human waste. Yup, it turns out that in Edo times, human waste – particularly the waste from wealthy people was used as top quality fertilizer, and the farmers paid dearly for the privilege of taking your waste from your home. So folks would race home if they had to go – keeping the streets clean and putting money in their pockets. Who knew?

So – if you take a day off from shopping in Tokyo and want to do something really informative and interesting – check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I think you’ll thank me for the suggestion.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

The Art of Taking a Bath


Somethings just aren’t quite as simple as one would hope – and taking a bath in Japan is clearly one of those strangely complex things.

I’m used to the etiquette of taking a public bath in Japan – there’s is a space allocated to ‘washing’, and a completely different area used for soaking in the hot water bath. The trick is not to get the soap inside the bath tub. That ruins it for other guests.

But does the same etiquette apply to using a shared bath in an Air BnB?

From the layout of the ‘bathing’ room at Yuuto Village – I’m guessing yes.

The large soaking bathtub is located to the far right of the part of the shower with the hose and the faucets, with it’s own set of faucets. In addition, there is the traditional stool provided – a seat made of plastic intended to be used to sit on while soaping one’s body and eventually rinsing off – before going into the tub. There is even the traditional low mirror, hung carefully so you can see yourself bathing.

This is very nice – but since the guests for the most part are Australians, Europeans and Canadians – I seem to be the only one who realizes that there is a reason for the odd position of the faucet with the hose. All the other guests are trying to stand in the tub to wash…

Maybe this is too much information.

Signing off – The Soup Lady