The last time we went abroad as a family was for our Europe trip. We were a little late leaving the house, which translates to being very late given the traffic in Manila, so we were worried about missing our flight. I remember my mother getting agitated as we got nearer to the airport. She told everyone to haul ass, get the bags, go through check-in, and get on board the plane. Well, we hauled ass so much we got down the car and shut the doors at the same time, trapping the car keys inside and activating the automatic lock. With all our luggage still inside. Balls.
We were getting desperate to the point that smashing the car window was more bearable than missing our flight. Luckily, we found a guy who jimmied the lock loose using a piece of wire. You know, no biggie, the same thing carjackers do(!). Long story short: We made our flight, had a lovely vacation, and came back to tell this story again and again and again.
Fortunately, our departure for Japan this time was very smooth. We left the house around 1:30 AM to get to the airport by 3 AM. Our Cebu Pacific flight was scheduled to leave by 5 PM. Everything went off without a hitch. Four hours later, we were in Japan. Blessed by the travel gods.
Here was the plan:
- Day 1: Land in Tokyo, but transfer to Kyoto.
- Day 2: Explore Kyoto.
- Day 3: Explore Kyoto more. At night, head to Osaka.
- Day 4: Explore Osaka.
- Day 5: Head back to Tokyo. DIY Tokyo tour.
- Day 6: Mt. Fuji-san!
- Day 7: Tokyo day tour.
- Day 8: Manila, Manila… I keep coming back to Manila…
My first experience in Japan wasn’t tasting amazing sushi, seeing a dolled-up cosplayer, or eating a life-changing bowl of ramen; it was going to the bathroom to pee. I had been hearing a lot of wonderful, strange things about Japanese toilets—how advanced they are, how intimidating for people who have only experienced pushing a lever to flush.
The first thing I did when I encountered the control board beside the toilet was look for the flush button…and I couldn’t find it. I pressed a blue button that said FLUSHING SOUND, but nope, that one was just really for a flushing sound and no actual flushing. Unable to hold back the call of nature any longer, I did the deed while the flushing sound was still playing, hoping people would ignore the noob in the first stall. I pressed the STOP button and took a minute to let myself be amazed at the heated seat, the “powerful” deodorizer, the bidet, and all the other mysterious options. Wow. I haven’t left the airport bathroom yet and I was in awe already.
From Tokyo, we needed to head to Kyoto because I wanted to spend more time there. I’ve been told by friends that Tokyo is a great city, but Kyoto is more often the reason why people go to Japan in the first place. We had to do two things in Narita Airport first: 1) Pick up the pocket WiFi device at the post office booth; and 2) claim the actual JR Pass. During the cherry blossom season, lining up to get JR Passes could easily take up an hour of your time, my friend reported. Since it was over by the time we got to Japan, we were the only ones at the JR Travel Service Center. Sweet. The people at the JR office were more than happy to get us tickets to Shinagawa Station where the shinkansen passes through and reserve seats for the next one headed to Kyoto. We rode the Narita Express, the train service that connects the city stations to Narita Airport, to Shinagawa. From there, we caught the Hikari 515 shinkansen bound for Kyoto. JR Pass holders can ride all shinkansen trains except Nozomi and Mizuho trains, the faster ones in the bunch. Sometime during this process, I got the pocket WiFi and found out Japan’s 3G speed was capable of reaching 1MBps. That’s, like, LTE in the Philippines already. On a good day. Again, more amazement.
We arrived at Kyoto Station an hour earlier than I planned, around 4 PM in the afternoon. I was hoping to catch a no-reservation, 1,000-yen 6 PM night walking tour around Gion, but my dad wanted us to eat first. The last meal we had was in Manila, and we had been in transit for over 14 hours by then. Kyoto Station is a wonder because it has department stores, convenience stores, restaurants, and other shops and services not typically found in a train station where I’m from; it was huge and a tourist spot in itself. We crossed the street from New Miyako and settled on a nice restaurant without an English menu. We pointed at ramen, fried chicken, and gyoza. Now, I don’t know if the ramen was as fantastic as I remember it because I was hungry, but still—hot, hearty soup for my first meal in Japan. Not bad.
The trip to Gion-Shijo Station was our first taste of unassisted commuting in Japan. From Kyoto Station, we took the JR Nara Line train to Tofukiji Station. From there, we had to ride a train not covered by the JR Pass, which meant we had to buy tickets. I watched a few YouTube videos on how to buy train tickets in Japan, but nothing will ever prepare you well enough for the real thing. On the way to the ticket machine, people were rushing past us to catch their own train, and these five Filipinos were just lost in the hullabaloo. I had no idea what to do until the heavens opened up and sent a young man—who shall henceforth be called Angel 1—to bring us peace and guidance. And he didn’t even speak a lick of English. He mimed/assisted me through the process of buying tickets. Press for English, indicate how many tickets, insert money, press desired ticket price (they charge by the distance), get tickets, get change, and go. Then Angel 1 flew away. Cue angel choir in his wake.
I had a plan when we got out of Gion-Shijo Station, but like I said, your plans versus the real thing don’t exactly match at the start. After a few photos with the Kamo River in the background, I was hoping we’d walk along Shirakawa Canal and find old tea houses romantically lit from the inside and a geisha here and there (but we didn’t know then that was in the opposite direction of where we went). A few meters into walking and my dad suddenly motioned for everyone to stop and pose under an arch. Shrugging it off, I stood still for a couple of shots until I noticed another sign that said we were at the mouth of Pontocho Street.
Now, I crossed out Pontocho in the earlier versions of my itinerary because I thought it was something we could miss. Boy, was I wrong.
Pontocho was positively picturesque at night, with tea houses romantically lit from the inside (check) and glowing lanterns lining this long, narrow alley. I imagined it was a nice place to have dinner with friends as you enjoy a view of the Kamo River. I’m glad we found it by surprise as it gave us our first taste of old Kyoto.
After walking the length of it, we turned around at a corner to get back to Shijo Street and found ourselves on Kiyamachi Street, where we enjoyed strolling beside the Takase River, a canal created during the Edo period to transport goods from the center of Kyoto. I couldn’t help but think that if there was a canal like this somewhere in Manila, there would be food wrappers, cigarette butts, and soiled diapers floating there. I haven’t been in Japan for twelve hours, but I was already in awe of the great pains they take to preserve parts of their culture that could have been lost to modern development and human carelessness. In the Philippines, I imagine it almost feels unnatural to put anything above subsistence if you’re living in that reality, trapped in that system. The environment and the preservation of culture take the backseat when it’s a choice between squeezing that bag of garbage beside your sleeping kids or throwing it out the winow which happened to be above a river.
We went inside a Ministop along Kiyamachi Street where I found pudding-flavored KitKat sold in individual packs. I wasn’t sure if it was polite to get the entire box, so I just grabbed 10 pieces for our enjoyment and pasalubong. In hindsight, I should have bought every piece when I had the chance because I didn’t see that flavor again. That’s lesson #1 in KitKat hunting: Buy now or forever hold your piece. Contrary to popular belief, the different KitKat flavors can’t be found everywhere in Japan. You’re pretty lucky if you find anything other than the green tea, dark chocolate, and regular chocolate flavors if you’re not being vigilant. And not all flavors are available all year-round. Some of them are only released during a particular season for a limited time in the region famous for that flavor or ingredient. For example, you probably won’t find Hokkaido red bean-flavored KitKat in Kyoto or Osaka. You’ll most likely find that at Hokkaido, or Narita Airport where everything is more expensive. So, if you see any different-flavored KitKat, buy it; buy it all for the love of God. That will be the first and last time you’ll ever see that again.
We had been walking around for quite a while now, but still no sight of the Shirakawa Canal or anything that looked remotely like the Gion I saw in pictures. We turned right when we found ourselves on Shijo Street again, towards the radiant shopping precinct lined with upscale department stores and brands such as Louis Vuitton and Armani. I don’t think we’re going the right way, guys…
We realized we had to go the opposite direction, away from the bright lights, the traffic, and the shopping stores along Shijo Street. I had a strong feeling we were going to right way then after seeing the street transformed with red lanterns, older shops, and a few ladies in kimonos. Like lights leading a plane home. Bingo.
But wait! Grilled mochi (aka my dad’s new favorite) break muna sa kanto.
Hanamikoji Street is known for its expensive restaurants that serve Japanese haute cuisine and tea houses where I’m pretty sure some geishas were in. It was beautiful, authentic, and (I’m going to use this word again) romantic. The sudden shift from the modernity of Shijo Street to Hanamikoji Street’s historic allure was a surprise I welcomed. There were a lot of cabs driving along the street, which I assumed were for the geishas who were done for the day.
We got as far as Gion Corner when we decided to turn back. My brother told us he was sure he found a shortcut. Okay? So, we pushed deeper into the neighborhood until we were the only ones walking on the roads. “Baka biglang talunan tayo ng ninja,” my mother said. A landslide win at the Awesome Things That Happen to People Awards 2014 if that really happened.
Though the “shortcut” was a little eerie because it was so quiet and we were the only ones walking along those back roads, it was nice to get a slice of local life in Gion. The houses were all well-maintained, and they adhered to the area’s aesthetic of earthy, minimalist design. I wish neighborhoods could feel this tranquil and safe in the Philippines. It didn’t even matter that we didn’t see geishas or maikos walking around. Kyoto was already so gorgeous in my eyes. It was a pretty wonderful way to end our first day in Japan.
Oh, and we stopped by McDonald’s for a midnight snack – avocado burgers. I think avocado was the season’s It ingredient. I’d like to see avocado make a splash instead of pineapple here in Manila. It’s time. Avocado for you and you and you and you and you.