We had the wonderful opportunity of joining some dear Japanese friends, Kayoko and Takashi, on a quick vacation to beautiful and historic Kyoto and Nara. We visited Kyoto once before, but this time took the shinkansen, high speed bullet train. I was also so excited to return to Kyoto with Kayoko and Takashi as our tour guides, since they make this trip several times every year. I should also add that this was an adults only trip. Can it get any better?
Matt loved that the man behind us was working on a fifth of whiskey (on the window ledge), at seven in the morning! Let's get this party started!
The train was pretty incredible. We covered almost 300 miles in about two hours.
In lieu of the whiskey, we opted for egg salad sandwiches for breakfast. I will actually really miss convenience store food in Japan. It's fabulous!
There was also a very nice and extra roomy bathroom, of course.
I really loved how there was a button to raise and lower the seat. It's the little things!
Since we got such an early start, I really wanted to take a nap but just felt an urge to soak in all of the scenery of this country that I love so much. I loved the rice fields,
and the city views, equally.
A quick transfer in Kyoto, and we were off to Nara.
Takashi and Kayoko reserved a booth on the train. It was a fun way to visit!
The plan for the day was to see Nara by bike and we rented Japanese electric bikes for the day.
Kayoko left us all in the dust! And believe it or not, this beautiful lady will be 60 this month! I hope I fare as well! (Coincidentally, Kayoko is also my ballet teacher on base, which is how we met three years ago.)
The first stop was the impressive Toshodai-ji Temple.
And the grounds were stunning, as usual.
I had been using the term shrine and temple interchangeably, for the past three years, but Kayoko let me know that a temple is Buddhist and a shrine is Shinto. Ooops!
The bike ride was equal parts joy and terror for me. I absolutely loved the countryside bike trails,
but riding through the busy city streets was terrifying! Mind you, I probably have not been on a bike since grade school, and it took some getting used to. I may have taken out some traffic cones and came close to taking out an elderly lady, but I finished strong.
I definitely have a new respect for the moms who ride with a kid on front AND back and are loaded with groceries! Amazing!
The electric bike sure made the hills easy, I couldn't have survived the day with out that extra push.
Another stop was this amazing old rock wall that was the foundation for a castle. The building of these walls was quite an art form, and every rock is shaped to fit to perfection.
The actual castle was closed for renovations.
Kayoko and Takashi had been planning our trip for about a year, and Takashi even gave us a printed up itinerary for the trip. I was very intrigued when I saw kingyosukui. Gold fish scooping?
Apparently, gold fish scooping is a traditional Japanese game, where you see how many fish you can scoop in a specified time.
You have a thin paper paddle and have to scoop very slowly because the paper will break if you move too quickly. Kayoko was good!
I caught two fish. Trust me, it was harder than it looked! Matt broke his first paddle immediately, but ended up catching one. There is even a national championship in goldfish scooping! Who knew? The most recent winner scooped 61 fish in 3 minutes.
Exit through the gift shop.
Such a cute little establishment.
After all that fishing we were hungry. Back on the bikes to a famous Nara noodle shop, Mentouan.
Talk about cute! The noodles were wrapped up in a tofu package.
I ordered the cold udon with tempura shrimp, which was fabulous.
And Matt ordered the hot udon with a 'deer stamped' tofu covering. Deer are a city theme for Nara and are depicted everywhere, you'll see why shortly. Presentation in Japan is absolutely unmatched.
Right around the corner was this famous mochi shop. The guys put on quite a production pounding the mochi. (Mochi is rice that has been pounded into a chewy paste.) Matt doesn't really care for the texture, but Kayoko said that it is thought to bring wealth and riches. Maybe he will change his mind!
A beautiful manhole cover in Nara, with a deer of course!
Nara Park is a huge city park that covers 1,240 acres. (I was glad we had the bikes!)
There are many temples, but the main attraction are the deer.
At one time the deer were thought to be sacred, but now they wander around hoping for cookies.
Special cookies were available for purchase, and they must've been really good!
The deer absolutely went crazy for them. Matt is good with animals from his days on the farm as a kid, but I kept my distance. The deer were too riled up wanting the goodies!
Yes, you can pet them too. The girls did this when we went to Miyajima Island, but I passed. Too stinky!
Another beautiful temple, Todai-ji, which houses the world's largest bronze statue of Buddha.
And large he was! This was a replica of the size of his hand.
Can you spot a handsome photo bomb?
We stayed at a very cute and tiny boutique hotel in Kyoto, I love how Japanese hotel rooms always come with pajamas and slippers.
Bathing is such an important part of Japanese culture, and since the small hotel only had showers in the rooms, no tub, there was a sento offered, or in other words, a public bath. There were separate rooms for men and women, and they basically consisted of a row of small shower stalls and then a communal hot tub, of sorts. You shower off and clean your body first, then soak in the tub. After a long day on the bike, (with the resulting sore bottom!) the bath felt so nice. We joke that "getting naked with your friends" is a Japanese must. When in Japan!
Coincidentally, we learned that we biked a total of 13 miles and walked for five miles that day. Not bad for a girl who hasn't been on a bike since grade school. A busy day it was!
Kyoto is one of the most picturesque city's I've ever seen and it is quintessentially Japanese. Love it!
Takashi had made reservations for dinner at Torisee, an awesome yakitori joint.
They specialize in skewers of chicken, cooked different ways. Matt loved the chicken skin. Yes, just the skin only. Fried. (Japanese portions are super small, and both Kayoko and Takashi were in awe when hearing that Matt could eat a 12 oz. steak. When asked how he could possibly do that, Matt emphatically replied, "Practice!")
It was all wonderful, but my favorite was the fried chicken katsu, with melted cheese in the middle. Yum!
Japanese sake is traditionally poured to overflowing. This is to be taken as a sign of generosity from the proprietor. Then you can pour the excess back into the glass and enjoy!
And for a night cap, what would any authentic Japanese experience be without karaoke?! A karaoke establishment in Japan is almost always separate, private rooms you can rent.
Matt even surprised me with a few numbers. A first!
We sang the night away until we had no voices left, then called it a night.
The hotel breakfast in the morning was amazing! There were two sets to choose from, Matt ordered the Japanese set,
and I got a lovely Western style set. The Eggs Benedict had a layer of salsa, which was unexpected, but fabulous!
We only had time for a few stops in the morning before catching our train. This is the famous Tatsumi-bashi Bridge over the Kamo River, that crosses into Gion, the Geisha district.
Our final stop of the day was to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine to look at the beautiful gardens.
The gardens at this particular shrine are only open for two months every year, when they are at their most beautiful. Once in the summer for the "green" display, and once in the fall for the "red" fall foliage display. The walk through the trees was so relaxing and I always love the sound of a rustling river.
And it was breathtaking!
Nothing in the world rivals the beauty of a Japanese garden.
The popular Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto, was the perfect way to spend our last few hours and a great spot for lunch.
I ordered the pork and squid soba, which was a little sweeter than Tokyo soba. Kayoko said that was a regional difference, it was good!
And everyone else got some sort of stuffed omelet dish, but I forgot the name. Matt really liked it!
It is very acceptable to hold your rice bowl right up to your mouth while eating in Japan. And ALWAYS slurp your noodles!
Back at the train station...I always love seeing the students in their sharp uniforms. I very rarely see the kids messing around, too.
I had never seen a drink case with hot AND cold drinks. Brilliant!
And with that, it was back on the shinkansen to head for home.
What a wonderful trip full of food, fun and great friends! I realized that it was the first trip ever, where I didn't have to navigate, try to communicate, or even choose a restaurant. I was just able to sit back and enjoy. Kayoko and Takashi were wonderful and gracious hosts and we will forever cherish their friendship and these memories!
And back at home, the girls don't look like they missed us too terribly either!
I'm so thankful the Lord has surrounded me with these amazing friends to do life with, even on the other side of the world!