Japan Part 3 – Kyoto and Onomichi

Our first day in Kyoto was a blast! This historic city is much smaller than Tokyo; 1.5 million compared to 13.4 million! While space is still a premium, the skyscrapers don’t block the light in the same way and you don’t feel as cramped on the sidewalk and inside buildings. We rented an Airbnb apartment, which has its own (very small) kitchen, bathtub with TV, and living room! Even if all the hotels hadn’t been booked already because of peak tourist/cherry blossom season, Airbnb is usually cheaper, and you get to experience the culture by living in somebody’s house or apartment! (Although the owner doesn’t live in this particular apartment-just rents it out.)

The perfect day: We slept well despite the thin foam “mattress”, made some eggs on toast, talked to our parents, then found the bike rental place on the first try! The 80 degree weather made for some perfect pictures of ancient temples juxtaposed behind beautiful new blossoms. On our way to our first destination, we just happened to stumble upon a place very dear to Broc’s heart…Nintendo’s world headquarters! Unfortunately, they don’t allow visitors of any kind, but it was still cool to think that all of Broc’s favorite childhood games were developed in this building!

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Attempts to call Shigeru Miyamoto down for an interview were unsuccessful

The bike shop gave us a great map, and we headed for the shrine featured in “Memoirs of a Geisha”, famous for its orange gateways. This tourist attraction was the first time we were in Japan where we felt overwhelmed by the amount of tourists. How inconsiderate of everyone coming at once to ruin our time! Once we passed the initial horde, we were able to get some decent pictures that weren’t completely packed with other people.

Our next stop was Rokuonji Temple, the “Golden Temple” of Kyoto. It was originally an aristocrat’s country home, built in the late 12th century and improved into an elegant estate with water gardens in 1397. It was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple in 1442.

Ryoanji Temple is most famous for its Zen rock garden, which is simply 15 polished rocks in a garden of raked smaller rocks. It is considered one of the finest surviving examples of “dry landscape”. There is also a small lake with bridges, which is so colorful this time of year. Around the lake were blossoming  wisteria, azalea, and plum trees. In the water, purple irises were at their peak and water lilies were just starting to come up. In the 11th century, the site was originally a country estate. It was converted to a Zen training temple in 1450, which is when the original rock garden was probably built. There was a war in 1499, and a large fire in 1779, so most of the temple buildings we see today were rebuilt several times. The tea house painted screens are from the 17th century, for example, and the current rock garden was built on top of the rubble from the fire. The unusual pattern on the garden walls results from the method of boiling the clay in oil, plus a few centuries of age and weather.

Our second day in Kyoto had a forecast for rain and wind, but we had the bikes for another day and we resolved to use them! We planned to cycle to the bamboo forest of Kyoto, which was about ten miles away. Half that distance was riding through the city, but the rest was a lovely cycling path that ran alongside a river. Because of the poor weather, we had the trail basically to ourselves! We had some great sights to see on the way to the forest.

The bamboo forest was very peaceful to walk through. Just being in this place felt so majestic and unique – it was well worth the long and wet bike ride.

We headed back into town, returned our bikes, and made a simple dinner in our apartment kitchen. Our next day was another travel day, this time to the island town of Onomichi! After three months of having most of our possessions in our condo in Chiang Mai, we’ve really gotten used to being nomadic in Japan! It’s exciting waking up in one city, traveling for a few hours, finding our new place, and exploring what we can of another town before falling asleep in a different city!

We got into Onomichi in the early afternoon, and it was just starting to rain lightly. Our guesthouse was just a bit too far to walk, and since we didn’t know exactly how to get there we opted for a taxi. We talked to a taxi driver and showed him the address and a screenshot of where it is on a map, but he seemed to not know where it was. After talking to another taxi driver, he beckoned for us to put our bags in his trunk and head over. After only a few minutes of driving, he pulled over on the side of the road. Confused, we got out of the car and he pointed straight up a hill saying “up there”. Carrying all of our heavy bags up all those steps, and not knowing exactly where the guesthouse was, seemed pretty daunting – but we didn’t have much of a choice! We hauled our heavy bags up the hundred or so steps and surveyed the scene.

With only an address and a vague sense of which direction to go, we came to a path that went three different directions. There was a map nearby, but only in Japanese. Some local women came up to us; they didn’t speak English but clearly wanted to help us. We showed them the address of the guesthouse and they pointed a direction, but couldn’t seem to decide which path to take. The rain was starting to come down a little harder, so Julia guarded our bags while I searched for the guesthouse. After a bit of trial and error, I was able to find the place – but nobody was there! I came back down to Julia, and we decided to try to find a phone to call our host, Aloe. There was a cafe right next to us, and they were gracious enough to let us use their phone. It turns out that Aloe was actually waiting for us at the train station! She never communicated this to us, but we were just glad that we wouldn’t have to wait too much longer. She met us at the cafe and actually bought us a cup of tea! We sat and chatted with her for a little while in simple English before heading up to the guesthouse.

The guesthouse was very simple, basically just one large room with an attached bathroom. We had the room to ourselves that night, but the next day was the first day of Golden week, and there would be nine total people sleeping there that night! After dropping off our bags, we asked Aloe for a recommendation of what to do that afternoon, and she told us that we could hike the rest of the way up the hill and see all of the surrounding temples, plus a great view of the city. With no other plans, it sounded like a great idea!

Onomichi is a very interesting city. There is one main boulevard that runs parallel to the train tracks, near the water, and there are plenty of houses and shops along that boulevard. However, the charm of the city lies on the hillside of Mount Senkoji. There are no roads that go up this hill, only footpaths – either steps or a simple slope – though we did see some mopeds parked outside houses. After being in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, it’s hard to imagine living such a simple life in Japan. Walking up and down an entire mountain just to go to the grocery store? Crazy!

After eventually making it up to the top of the mountain, there was a lot to see. The view of the beautiful port town was amazing, even though the weather was a little poor. Even if we didn’t always know exactly what it is we were looking at (90% of the signs were only in Japanese), we had a lot of fun!

We hiked back down the mountain and walked to the main shopping street, only to find that almost all of the shops were closed! It was too late for lunch, too early for dinner, and the non-food shops seemed to be taking a break before Golden Week started. We wandered around a bit to kill time before eating dinner at a delicious Italian pizza place, then headed back to the guesthouse to rest for our early morning.

The thing that attracted us to Onomichi in the first place was the Shimanami Kaido, a bicycle path that stretches seventy-five kilomters between Onomichi and the town of Imabari. The path goes over six different bridges connecting seven different islands! The main bike rental agency along the bike path has many different terminals, so you can rent from one location and return it at another. Our goal was to go the entire way in one day (almost fifty miles!) and take a bus back. The rental terminal at Onomichi opened at 7am, so we planned to get there early to make sure we got good bikes. We got there a full fifteen minutes before opening and found ourselves in a line behind fifty people already! Luckily, we were both able to get great bikes, and we were soon on our way! The very first part of our journey was to get on a ferry that took us across the waterway to the official start of Shimanami Kaido, and then we were off!

Armed with just our camera, water bottles, and some snacks, we followed the blue line that marks every meter of the path. Most of the path actually goes on the road alongside cars, but there were plenty of opportunities to ride on sidewalks or trails that run alongside the road, as well. The weather was a bit cloudy and windy, and I found myself regretting not bringing a coat – though cycling kept me warm enough! Our first several kilometers had us at a easy but steady pace of around six minutes per mile (I wore a GPS watch for the ride), which meant that riding the entire length at that pace would take about five hours (not including breaks, of course).

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View of the first bridge of the path, from Mukaishima to Innoshima

As we approached our first bridge, we also approached our first real test on the path: a long, steady hill. A sign at the base of the hill told us that it was an average five percent grade for about one and a half kilometers, so we downshifted and started pedaling up the hill! We got to the top without too much difficulty (it was still early in the day, after all), and found that the bike path was actually a level below where the cars drive across!

Please excuse the shakiness of this video – I was pedaling uphill with one hand at the time!

We biked back down to sea level (quite a nice reward after climbing the steep hill up to the bridge!), and headed back on the path. It was never hard to figure out where to go – even if the blue line wasn’t there, we were rarely far from other bikers making the same journey as us. There were plenty of bathrooms and convenience stores along the way, even though the full path from Onomichi to Imabari was not possible until the last bridge was completed in 1999! Our first extended stop was on the third of seven islands, at a restaurant that served gelato. But it was only 10:30 and we were still a little cold, so we got steamed dumplings instead!

The sun started coming out, Julia’s layers starting coming off, and our breaks started to get a little more frequent. We love to bike recreationally, but neither of us have ever biked close to this distance in a single day! Thankfully, there were still plenty of beautiful things to see to keep our minds occupied. We started seeing lots of large vegetable gardens, and lots of citrus plants! Many different kinds of lemon trees dotted the rest of our journey, and they created a heavenly smell in the air as we rode past them!

We finally approached the last bridge, which meant the end of our journey was near. But not as near as we thought – the last bridge was a whopping 6.4 kilometers long! This bridge was certainly the most magnificent of the six we crossed, though, with bicycle ramps leading up to it reminiscent of a Hot Wheels track.

We pedaled downhill into Imabari and the path ended somewhat anticlimactically, but we were done! Besides the feeling of accomplishment for conquering the trail, we loved all of the beautiful sights and riding along with fellow travelers! Even without considering the beautiful and unique city of Onomichi, the Shimanami Kaido is well worth a visit.

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Our final stats (and proof that we did it!)

Our bus back to Onomichi was completely full with other bikers, and it was nice and quiet since nearly everyone was asleep for most of the journey! We got back to town and went to dinner at a local place that served a dish called Okonomiyaki, which is basically stir fried cabbage, pork, and noodles served on top of a thin pancake and covered in sauce. It sounds weird, but it is amazing. The chef cooked it on a giant griddle in front of us (not unlike a Japanese Steakhouse in the States) and served it on a plate – the lucky couple to our left actually ate their meal with spatulas, straight off the griddle!

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Sounds so weird but tastes so good!

Our short time in Onomichi came to an end the next morning, and it was time for our next adventure. Next stop, Hiroshima!

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