17.12.2014 - 22.12.2014
We arrived late to Kyoto, and the sudden cold temperature was a major shock to our systems! In just a four-hour flight, we had gone from a humid 30 degree Celsius temperature, to a freezing 1 degree Celsius... we were really not ready for that at all. We left Switzerland when it was still fairly warm, and then spending 11 weeks in hot, humid weather, we basically have had the longest summer ever. We knew that it would be cold coming to Japan in December, but you cannot imagine how unprepared we were with only our light-weight backpacker clothing. All we had were fleeces and windbreakers, but that's really about it. The next day, we had to buy gloves and thicker socks (and leggings for me)... these helped, but wow, was it cold!
Despite the cold, Kyoto is a beautiful city! Our first day, we saw so many temples in the South Higashiyama area (Kiyomizu-dera, Chion-in, and Shoren-in, to name a few), as well as Maruyama Park, which houses the Yazaka Shrine and Kyoto's oldest cherry tree. We later watched the sunset from the top of Kyoto Tower before enjoying our first (of many) sushi dinners in Japan!!
We walked outside the next day to falling snow, which continued steadily all morning long! We were still able to visit three more temples in the North Higashiyama area (Nanzen-ji, Honen-in, and Ginkaku-ji temples), and then the Gion neighborhood, where we walked around downtown. We definitely saved the best temple for last, thhough... the Fushimi Inari Shrine is a big complex with thousands of these beautiful orange gates, which lead you up steps to the mountain. It's quite unique and stunning with the bright orange color everywhere.
Here are some impressions we had from our six days in Japan... even though there are no trash bins on the streets, everything is so clean and orderly... it's like an OCD's heaven! Everyone queues in line with no questions asked, and they all bow when greeting or saying goodbye to people, whether it's a nod of the head or a full-on bend of the waist... it's really inspiring how proper and respectful they all are. And above all, the Japanese people are so polite and friendly... if we got lost and asked for directions, they would literally walk with us to our destination. Their English skills are shockingly underdeveloped, and while they do understand English, they will almost always respond to you in Japanese. We were basically reliant upon sign language, but it somehow worked out well. We also got to experience the electronic toilets that Japan is known for, with the heated seats and various cleaning functions... without over-sharing, we really got used to and enjoyed these toilets! Oh, and as for the sushi, it really is better in Japan... super fresh and simple! I think there was only one day in Japan that we did not eat sushi!
Okay, wow... we got to take the Shinkansen train from Kyoto to Tokyo! Even I have to admit that this was really cool!! While it did not reach its top possible speed, we could definitely see (and feel) that we were going pretty darn fast! And we were even able to see a snow covered Mt. Fuji in the near distance... such an incredible sight as we were entering Tokyo!
As we emerged from the tunnels of the subway, we had to stop and appreciate the beautifully neon-lit buildings and the hustle and bustle of the people flowing past us... we were so excited to be there and we realized that we were having a moment... a Tokyo moment! That first night, we headed straight to the Roppongi neighborhood to meet my old boss from Zurich for dinner. It was so great to see him again and also to hear his perspective as a new Tokyo resident. We all had such a fun evening, and it only made us even more excited for what was to come in the next days!
There is really so much to see and do over such a large and varied urban spread... it's "sensory overload" everywhere you turn. We started our tour at the Skytree Tower where we happened to come across a German-style Christmas market... this was really nice and it made us look forward to what was to come when we flew back just a couple days later. Since it was overcast and drizzling out, we opted out of going up the tower... instead we made our way towards the Shibuya neighborhood with a quick walk-through on Harajuku Street. In the midst of all the high-end brands and department stores in Tokyo, this street is lined with smaller vintage boutiques, which made me feel like we were walking down Haight Street in San Francisco. It started raining a bit harder by the time we arrived at the famous Shibuya Crossing, so we took cover on the second floor of a Starbucks and watched the magic from the best seat in the house. In Tokyo, you can stand on a packed sidewalk and the mass of fast-walking commuters will simply stream around you like a river flowing past a stone. And Shibuya Crossing is the prime example of this... the green "Walk" signal sends swarms of people across the intersection from all points of the compass. It was a bit overwhelming when it was our turn to make our through the madness, but we managed to succeed without getting separated.
We had planned to make our way to the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world, before daybreak to experience the famed tuna auction, but sadly we just could not get up at 4 am. We did, however, still arrive early enough to witness the organized chaos fish cutting and selling. It was a bit stressful at times jumping out of the way of someone running or nasty fish water splashing everywhere, but it was all very interesting... and surprisingly there is no fishy smell because it is all so fresh!
Afterwards, we visited the Akihabara Electronic Town... everything electronic you could possibly imagine and Japanese anime everywhere you look! Later, we window-shopped in the Ginza neighborhood, which is basically the 5th Avenue of Tokyo. We then continued on to stroll through the Shinjuku neighborhood, where we had our last dinner of sushi and sake... so perfect! We could not have picked a better way to end the trip!!!