Kyoto: The Gion Festival and Other Highlights

Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, Kyoto probably ranks in my top five owing to its oodles of history, culture, cuisine, and its regular juxtapositions of antiquated and modern, formal and familiar. The city somehow feels small and inviting even if it’s quite large. There’s something new to explore around every corner, and a week here would be the bare minimum to get through the major sights.

We stayed near Kyoto Station, a good home base and an ideal place for shopping and restaurants. The station’s food courts are full of displays that are so realistic they border on disconcerting.

For example, can you tell which of these photos shows the real meal, and which one is fake?

[ptcPhoto filename=”FoodDisplay1.jpg” title=”Food Display” caption=”One of these was delicious…” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FoodDisplay2.jpg” title=”Food Display” caption=”…and one of them was plastic.” position=”center”]

Outside the station is Kyoto Tower, the city’s highest building and a modern anomaly among the many ancient temples and shrines of Kyoto.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KyotoTower.jpg” title=”Kyoto Tower” caption=”Kyoto Tower at night” position=”center”]

If you watch Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows as much as we do, you may have noticed that he sometimes “happens” to be in town for a major festival or holiday – as though the producers and writers didn’t plan it that way (you aren’t fooling anyone with that, Tony!). But we really did just happen to be in Kyoto for Gion Matsuri, an annual festival that emerged in the ninth century as a purification ritual to appease the gods and persuade them to stop meting out fires, floods and earthquakes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GionMatsuri.jpg” title=”GionMatsuri” caption=”Crowds at Gion Matsuri” position=”center”]

Today celebrations last for the entire month of July and include art performances, the opening of traditional Japanese homes to the public, food, crafts, and parades with huge, elaborate floats.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Geisha.jpg” title=”Geisha” caption=”Geisha performing at the festival” position=”center”]

If you get the chance, it’s a great time to experience some of the city’s cultural ambiance – even if being there during that time means that the streets are crowded and prices are somewhat inflated. Everyone dresses up, and the whole city comes alive with celebration.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SummerKimonos.jpg” title=”Yukata” caption=”Dressed up in yukata, summer kimonos” position=”center”]

Even arcade-goers dress for the occasion.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GionArcade.jpg” title=”Gion Arcade” caption=”Don’t let the formal dress fool you, they’re still packing.” position=”center”]

The rest of Kyoto’s sights are so splendid that, well, I’ll just show you photos instead of boring you with too many details.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForest1.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest” caption=”Strolling through the Bamboo Forest” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForest2.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest” caption=”Did you know that bamboo is the tallest grass in the world?” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForestShrine.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest Shrine” caption=”Prayers at a nearby shrine” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”FushimiInari1.jpg” title=”FushimiInari” caption=”Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine near Kyoto ” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FushimiInari2.jpg” title=”FushimiInari” caption=”The first tori gates were built here in the 8th century.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”SilverPavilion1.jpg” title=”SilverPavilion” caption=”The Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) Zen temple” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”SilverPavilion2.jpg” title=”SilverPavilion” caption=”Plans to cover it in silver foil fell through, but the name stuck.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”GoldenPavilion.jpg” title=”GoldenPavilion” caption=”The Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), also a Zen temple.” position=”center”]

Oh, yeah – don’t forget about Nara, Japan’s ancient capital. It’s an easy day trip from Kyoto, but we’d recommend staying for a few days to see everything in this great little town.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Todaiji1.jpg” title=”Todai-ji” caption=”Todai-ji Buddhist Temple – the world’s largest wooden structure up until 1998.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraBuddha.jpg” title=”GoldenPavilion” caption=”It’s home to Japan’s biggest Buddha.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraDeer.jpg” title=”Nara Deer” caption=”Nara’s wild deer aren’t afraid to head-butt you for biscuits.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraLanterns.jpg” title=”Nara Lanterns” caption=”Lanterns at a Nara shrine.” position=”center”]

Thus concludes our visit to Kyoto and Nara. Not to be missed if you visit Japan!

Stories of Kindness: Finding Garrett Popcorn in Japan

Sometimes the prospect of world travel can be so overwhelming. What if we can’t understand what anyone is saying, commit some heinous cultural faux paus, or people are mean to us because we’re tourists? Landing down in a new place can certainly be daunting, but there have been so many examples of kindness that we’ve decided to start sharing our experiences in a new series. You guessed it: Stories of Kindness.

Our first story comes to you from Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities and one that can set your head a-spinnin’ with its many wards and some thirteen million people. We had just finished visiting Yoyogi Park and were on our way to our last dinner before setting out for Fuji the next day.

That’s when Eric spotted it: A Garrett Popcorn shop. We didn’t even know they had one in Tokyo! Those of you from Chicago (or who have ever tried this popcorn) will appreciate what a big deal this is. For loyal Garrett Popcorn enthusiasts, there is no better snack in the world.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FromADistance.jpg” title=”From a distance” caption=”He spotted it from this distance – can you?” position=”center”]

But it seemed we weren’t the only people in Tokyo who had caught Garrett Fever. The line to get in snaked all the way down the block, and the wait time was more than an hour.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GarretLine.jpg” title=”Line” caption=”The line to get in” position=”center”]

Feeling too hungry to wait for so long, we decided to go for dinner first and try again later. Indeed, when we returned the queue was much more manageable. But then they were closing, and the not-so-friendly Garrett representative told us that we wouldn’t make it in time. I tried to reason with him. I tried to explain that Eric is from Chicago and we’ve been away for a long time so this is a big deal, but he seemed completely immune to my beseeching.

Unwilling to give up so easily, we approached a young man at the front of the line (whose English happened to be very good) and asked him if he’d pick up a bag of cheesy popcorn for us too. He agreed, on the condition that we watch his car. Watch his car, we asked? Seems he was illegally parked across the street so that he could wait in an hour-long line for popcorn. Yes, it really is that good.

No problem, we said. If you’re getting towed we’ll let you know right away. The stars aligned, the police stayed away, and fifteen minutes later he emerged with not one – BUT TWO – bags of popcorn for us. The second one, you see, was his treat. Welcome to Tokyo, he says.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Garret.jpg” title=”Garrett” caption=”Success!” position=”center”]

Throughout our time in Japan we found that people there are consistently generous and welcoming. This particular act of kindness meant that we’d be able to enjoy Garrett Cheesy Popcorn on top of Mount Fuji. It made Eric’s day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GarretSummit.jpg” title=”Summit” caption=”Popcorn at the summit” position=”center”]

World travel is always full of eye-opening encounters, some good and some bad. But it’s experiences like this that motivate us to keep exploring and to pay it forward whenever we can. You never know – even the smallest act of kindness can make a difference.

Climbing Mount Fuji

Fuji-san. The iconic active volcano we’ve all seen in photographs and movies looming over nearby Tokyo. It’s an irresistible setting to escape the megalopolis, and a considerable goal for those aspiring to reach its summit. Rising to 3,776 meters (12,380 feet), Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan and has been a sacred site in Shintoism since at least the 7th century.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiClouds.jpg” title=”Fuji Clouds” caption=”Up in the clouds” position=”center”]

Climbing Mount Fuji was one of two activities around which we organized the beginning of our trip, along with the ill-fated Elephant Festival in India. Our friend Jelmini joined us in Tokyo and climbed it too – although he’s much faster and seems to have sprinted to the top!

[ptcPhoto filename=”Fuji5th.jpg” title=”5th Station” caption=”All together at the 5th Station” position=”center”]

With over 200,000 people scaling Mount Fuji every year, this is an extremely popular activity with locals and tourists alike. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly and a number of preparations should be made to have the best experience. Here are some things we learned.

1. Plan Ahead!

Due to its terrain and high altitude climbing Mount Fuji is only possible during the summer months of July and August. Unfortunately, most of Japan is quite hot in the summer so there’s a trade-off between being able to hike the volcano or being comfortable when exploring the Japanese cities.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiView.jpg” title=”Fuji View” caption=”There wasn’t much of a view when we set out.” position=”center”]

Traditionally hikers aim to summit Fuji just before sunrise in order to witness the spectacular view – some have said it’s the most beautiful in all of Japan. Since the hike takes anywhere from 5-7 hours, this requires either getting a late start and hiking through the night or booking a guesthouse halfway up the mountain. While guesthouses are plentiful, they fill up early in the season. When Sam and I called to book a bed about a month in advance, we were told that all beds were reserved in every guesthouse for the entire season! Our only option was to hike through the night and try to make it to the top by sunrise.

2. Pick Your Route Carefully

There are four hiking routes to the summit of Mount Fuji – each with its own advantages and disadvantages – so you need to select the one that makes the most sense for you. Each trail is divided into a number of segments with stations marking the end of each section. Stations can be anything from a single hut with restroom facilities to small villages of guesthouses complete with restaurants and warming huts. Most stations offer a service where they will brand your walking stick with a unique stamp for around $2. Collecting a stamp at every station is a fun way to turn your walking stick into a great souvenir (and walking sticks are absolutely necessary for this hike).

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiBrand.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”Branding at the 7th Station” position=”center”]

The Yoshida Trail is by far the most popular since it’s easily accessible from Tokyo and offers well equipped stations along the trail. The obvious disadvantage is that the trail can be quite crowded. The second-most popular route, and the one that we chose, is the Subashiri Trail. You can get to the 5th station (where most people begin) from Tokyo by taking two buses, but it takes some time. Most of the stations along the ascent have everything you need, and there are far fewer hikers than the Yoshida Trail. The two trails meet up at the 9th station, so you have to climb the last bit in a single-file line.

3. Come Prepared

Sam and I were woefully underprepared for our hike up Mount Fuji. We should have taken warmer clothing, and our P.O.S. headlamps gave very little light and completely died an hour into the hike. We hiked the remainder of the trail using only starlight and trail markers to guide our way. Luckily the trail is well marked with a white rope skirting the trail. Nevertheless, it was not the safest experience and Sam had difficulty even seeing the ground below her feet. This made our progress much slower than it otherwise would have been.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FurtherThanItSeems.jpg” title=”Subashiri” caption=”Further than it seems” position=”center”]

There are a few places where the trail markers disappear altogether, so at those points we had to use our intuition to decide which direction to go. This is harder than it sounds when the fog rolls in at exactly the wrong time.

Don’t be fooled by the extremely hot temperatures in Tokyo in August. The elevation and total exposure to the elements means you need to be prepared for very cold temperatures and the possibility of rain or snow as you hike the volcano.

4. Consider the Proverb

There’s an old proverb about Mount Fuji: “He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool”. The reason for this proverb is simple – this is a tough hike! With nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain and a 26% grade, it’s more challenging than most hikes back home in Colorado.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGrade.jpg” title=”Steep” caption=”Yeah, that’s steep.” position=”center”]

Being a volcano with the varied terrain of black ash and blacker ash, and considering the fact that we were climbing in almost complete darkness, there’s not a lot to see as you climb. We tried to pass the time playing “I spy..”, although everything was either black or white so the game didn’t entertain us for long.

5. You Can’t Control the Weather

Despite some brushes with exhaustion, nausea, and frozen fingers caused by the gain in altitude, we made it to the summit with time to spare. Unfortunately, by the time sunrise rolled in there was little to see from the peak other than a white abyss.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiSunrise.jpg” title=”Sunrise” caption=”Sunrise?” position=”center”]

We made the best of things by enjoying a nice bottle of sake we had brought with us to celebrate the occasion. Jelmini and I also took a stroll and peered into the crater.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiCrater.jpg” title=”Crater” caption=”But once again – not much to see!” position=”center”]

I even had the chance to enjoy some Garretts Popcorn at the peak that we had procured in Tokyo the night before.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGarretts.jpg” title=”Garrett’s Popcorn” caption=”The best popcorn in the world.” position=”center”]

6. What Goes Up Must Come Down

After more than 24 hours without sleep and an overnight hike in the dark, we were more than a little tired when we started our descent. The first hour is pretty easy and sliding down the volcanic ash on the Subashiri Trail is fun at first. But then the fun stops. Truly, this was one of the most difficult physical things I have ever done. Going up was tough and tiring, but going down was an excruciating never-ending slog.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiScree1.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”More Fuji landscape” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiScree2.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”Sliding down through the scree” position=”center”]

By the end, we all sort of felt like this:

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiAftermath.jpg” title=”Aftermath” caption=”Time for some shut-eye.” position=”center”]

Even with all the frustrations, climbing Mount Fuji was one of the more rewarding accomplishments of the trip to date.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGate.jpg” title=”Fuji gate” caption=”Tori gate at the top” position=”center”]

But unless they install a zip line down, I don’t think we’ll be doing it again any time soon!

Japan Costs: $150 a Day

Japan isn’t the best place for budget backpackers like us, but it’s such a great country we ended up spending six weeks there anyways. Cities like Kyoto and Tokyo can be prohibitively expensive, and at the one-month mark our daily average was up over $170! Strangely enough, spending a couple of weeks on a tropical island in Okinawa brought our daily average down and by the end we squeezed into our planned budget of $150.

Just want the numbers? Skip to the bottom.

[ptcPhoto filename=”IshigakiBeach.jpg” title=”IshigakiBeach” caption=”Sunset Beach in Ishigaki was all but deserted – and free to visit.” position=”center”]

Given the steep price to travel in Japan, we had to find some ways to cut back. As always, we would have done better budget-wise had we focused on cutting food and lodging costs. But who wants to eat instant noodles when there’s delicious sushi everywhere? Actually the conveyor-belt sushi restaurants are usually a great deal, with plates (two pieces of nigiri) starting at around ¥150 ($1.50) each. Malls and department stores will generally have a handful of really good, reasonably priced restaurants tucked away on the basement floors, and ramen shops like Ippudo aren’t a bad deal either.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ConveyorBelt.jpg” title=”Conveyor” caption=”A conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Kyoto” position=”center”]

Also make sure you check out local grocers. They’ll have a large selection of tasty prepared foods, and prices are marked down in the evenings around 7:00 (sometimes you’ll find items up to 75% off!). Everything is prepared fresh daily, so there’s no need to worry about spoiled meals if you eat them within a day or two. Most hotels will have a fridge you can use, either in the room or in a common area. Worst-case scenario, do try their instant noodles – they’re surprisingly good. We also got into the habit of buying frozen packs of edamame (soybeans) and letting them defrost in the fridge or our backpack for a few hours. They make for an affordable, healthy snack.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraEel.jpg” title=”Eel meal” caption=”One of our splurge meals – an eel restaurant in Nara” position=”center”]

Lodging is another thing that’s pricey in Japan. On average we spent more than $60 a night, so in retrospect it would have been a good place for couch surfing. We’ve heard that people sleep overnight in internet cafes but didn’t try it ourselves. Also, some deals can be had on capsule hotels but many of them are for men only (and none of them are quite big enough for Eric’s 6’4″ body). Like in Korea, they also have Love Motels but we didn’t get a chance to stay in one.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Tatami.jpg” title=”Tatami” caption=”Traditional tatami rooms are sometimes more affordable.” position=”center”]

To save on transportation, stay far far away from taxi cabs. The flag will drop at $6 and climb with alarming speed. Countless articles will tell you that the JR (Japan Rail) pass is a good deal, but there’s no way it would have been a bargain for us. I won’t go into too much detail, but the cheapest rail pass (good for only seven days) is ¥37,800 ($378), and we only spent $354 each over the course of six weeks. You’d have to be moving VERY quickly and take the Shinkansen (bullet trains) everywhere to get your money’s worth out of a rail pass.

If you do want to take the Shinkansen without a rail pass, look into what is called the Puratto Kodama, a discounted ticket that can be purchased at some major train stations. We bought a ticket a few days ahead of time and paid $98 each to travel on a (slightly slower) bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo – a savings of almost $40 each. Our transportation figures don’t include getting to Okinawa since we left Japan for a couple of months and then used miles to go back – flights from the mainland would have increased our in-country transportation costs considerably.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BulletTrain.jpg” title=”Bullet train” caption=”Shinkansen trains go up to 320 kilometers (almost 200 miles) per hour.” position=”center”]

It’s not hard to find free entertainment in Japan. During our time in Okinawa we borrowed snorkels from the guesthouse and hung out on the pristine beaches, which didn’t cost a thing. The cities are full of good deals too, though. For example, if you want to go to the Osaka Aquarium (highly recommended), grab a Kaiyu Pass for $26 a person. It covers entry to the aquarium and unlimited metro rides for the whole day. Tokyo in particular is packed with fun neighborhoods where you can just walk around snapping photos.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Shinjuku.jpg” title=”Shinjuku” caption=”In Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood” position=”center”]

Some attractions in Kyoto will cost more during autumn when the leaves change. I imagine it’s worth the extra cost to get up close to the Japanese maples in the traditional gardens – the rainbow of fall colors would make for some fantastic photos. Shrines are usually free, although some temples will charge a small fee to enter.

One great thing about Japan is that there’s always something to see even if you’re just wandering around.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Chest.jpg” title=”Chesty” caption=”Some things are entertaining because they’re confusing.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Escarator.jpg” title=”In Kyoto Station” caption=”This too – do you see it?” position=”center”]

The daily average cost for our visit was $149.71 (or $74.86 per person per day), so we came in just under our goal of $150 a day.

Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not include costs to enter the country, which include a $200 ferry from South Korea the first time around, and a couple months later, a $40 flight from Taipei, Taiwan (we used miles for this flight and only paid taxes).

Type of Expense Total Cost
(for 41 days)
Daily Average Notes
Lodging $2,520.86 $61.48 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $33 in Ishigaki to $86 in Kyoto.
Food $1,964.63 $47.92 We could have prepared more meals at the hotels, but Japanese food is way better than our cooking.
Transportation (within country) $708.70 $17.29 You can save a lot if you take slower trains and buses – traveling between cities can be pricey.
Entertainment $237.80 $5.80 Includes the Peace Park and Memorials in Hiroshima, the Osaka Aquarium, Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Sangusagendo Hall and the Silver and Golden Pavilions in Kyoto, karaoke in Tokyo, and bicycle rental on Taketomi Island.
Alcohol $537.25 $13.10 Large cans of beer are about $2 in convenience stores.
Incidentals $168.95 $4.12 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, clothes and donations.
Grand Total* $6,138.19 $149.71 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare).

Some Examples:

Average cost of a sit-down dinner for two – ¥2500 ($25)
Entry ticket for a traditional garden – ¥600 ($6)
Metro fare in Tokyo – ¥160-300 ($1.60-$3.00)
A good cup of matcha green tea – ¥500 ($5)

Snapshot Sunday: Ishigaki from the Air

[ptcPhoto filename=”Ishigaki640.jpg” title=”Ishigaki Island” caption=”View of Ishigaki from the plane – Ishigaki, Okinawa – Japan” position=”center”]

Late typhoons in Okinawa prevented us from scuba diving during our two weeks in Ishigaki. But as we left we saw some beautiful views of the reefs that surround the island. We’ll have to save the manta rays for next time!

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.