> Travel > Japan Part 3

Japan, December 18, 2003 - December 30, 2003
Part 3, Days 9-10, Kyoto, Hiiragiya Ryokan

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On day 9 we checked out of our hotel in Tokyo and took a cab to Tokyo Station to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. We had originally planned to take the subway but when we saw the amount of luggage we would be lugging, we decided a cab was a better idea.

The Shinkansen trains, in fact all trains in Japan, never disappoint. They are always right on time, fast and efficient. We settled in for our two hour ride to Kyoto. The Shinkansen trains ride very smoothly. We loooove the Shinkansen.

We used Japan Rail Passes to get around. These passes allow unlimited travel on virtually all JR (Japan Rail) trains, including almost all Shinkansen. These passes are only sold outside of Japan (we purchased them in advance at a Japanese travel agency near LAX airport) and they seem expensive, until you start adding up the price of rail travel in Japan. We paid $418/person for 14-day passes.

The Shinkansen trains are expensive. A roundtrip from Tokyo to Kyoto is over $200/person. We estimate that we got close to $800/person in value from our passes, coming close to doubling our investment. We certainly wouldn't have gone nearly as far without the passes so we were very glad to have them.

OK, back to the trip. Upon arrival in Kyoto Station, Teri went off the find the tourist information center, which was very hard to find. We then took a cab to Hiiragiya Ryokan where we would be spending one night. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and Hiiragiya is supposed to be one of the most famous and authentic in Japan.

Teri's account of the ryokan experience:

26 December 2003, friday - ryokan

on friday we travelled from tokyo to kyoto. by this time allyn was a complete pro at reading train schedules and departure sign boards in japanese and deciphering extremely complex train diagrams showing trains decoupling and re-coupling depending on the time of day. so the ride to kyoto was pleasant. mt fuji was clearly visible, in fact at one point the tracks are actually on fuji-san's flank. south of mt. fuji is nagoya; allyn read that the track between nagoya and kyoto is the part where the bullet trains go the fastest.

today, the little girl across the aisle was eating a tiny bento that was simply a half cup of huge orange fish roe (salmon roe?) over rice.

we could tell when mt fuji was visible because we could hear the pre-recorded shutter sounds that modern japanese cell phones make when pictures are taken. this would be our cue to look out the window.

in kyoto we landed in a space-age hollowed-out 12-floor steel structure called Kyoto Station that houses the train and subway stations, 2 12-floor malls, an underground mall that extends under about 10 intersections, a huge theater showing disney's beauty & the beast stage show, and the kyoto granvia hotel, at which we were staying. we could walk thru the train wickets, take 30 steps, turn R, go up the escalators, and into the elevator that took us to our room. from the hotel lobby we could see the train arrival boards for the trains. so convenient! when allyn went to get the ice for our room, he could see the bullet trains come and go, as the windows on the 10th floor looked out over the station.

but I'm getting ahead of myself. first we had to get to the hiiragiya ryokan where we were going to spend friday night. this ryokan has been around since the 1800's and is probably the most famous ryokan in kyoto. it also happened to be one of the few that took reservations over the internet in english, and happened to have rooms available. well, first we had to find the TIC and get our tourist information. the TIC (tourist information center) was located across the street from the station and altho was listed as being inside the building, could only be entered from the outside. so I wandered around the 100-Yen store for quite a while feeling lost. (never did make it back there!! 100Yen is ~ $1 US.) after procuring every bit of info written in english about kyoto (including an incredibly detailed and scary bus map) we got a taxi to the ryokan. the taxi driver had a hard time fitting our luggage in his trunk because it was already full of other items. clearly he wasn't counting on having to shuttle big huge american luggage around. the taxi driver drove us thru very heavy traffic for a while then turned off into some alleyways that were only big enough for one car to pass. after about 20 minutes he finally pulled up at a beautiful old wooden doorway with a sign that read "hiiragiya ryokan." The taxi driver stopped right in front of the door and as we were getting out the money to pay him, he had already unlatched the trunk. a little old man, smiling hugely, had scuttled out and was already shuttling our luggage inside. my one large piece of luggage alone must have outweighed him. by the time we paid off the cab, our luggage had vanished and the young man who was the "greeter" had led us to the steps where the mistress of the ryokan greeted us also and asked our name. "Fratkin - oh, OK" and she nodded, clearly expecting us. she gestured to a chair on the first step and said, please take off your shoes. we slipped off our shoes and the elderly manservant whisked them off to the cupboard. we wouldn't see them again until we left the grounds of the inn.

the entrance of the ryokan was paved in stone with a beautiful stone lantern in the corner. the mistress checked us in and gave us the key. our original reservation had stated that the room had to be paid for in cash - over $700 - but a second reservation email had stated credit cards were OK so I tried to confirm this. she asked who we had made a reservation with, and when I pulled out the email to show her, she asked, is it OK if you pay in cash. we said OK. the mistress showed us to our room. we shuffled down the carpeted corridor and the wood floor creaked beneath our feet. the key unlocked a door and we stepped into another small vestibule where we slipped off our slippers and stepped up to a small wooden platform. on the R was a toilet room with a moden japanese toilet (electronic bidet with heated seat, and the smallest sink I'd ever seen, the size of a large soup bowl). on the L was a small sink and very small wooden tub with wooden planks over it. It was already full of hot water. (by this time we had fallen in love with heated toilet seats. We are now researching how to buy Japanese toilets in the U.S.)

sliding back the shoji screen, the room beyond was covered in tatami mats (8 of them) and we could see a garden beyond with more lanterns. it was the ryokan room of my dreams.

allyn was put off by the tv and phone (albeit covered in linen cloth) and mini-bar, but the self-serve sake would come in handy later- we arranged for dinner at 7 pm with a bath for afterwards.

our luggage was already parked in a corner of the room, on a extra piece of tatami matting. we sat down at 2 western chairs by the window and after a few minutes a maid came in, an older lady in her 70's wearing a kimono. she kneeled near me with the tea tray and bowed to the ground. it made me very uncomfortable for someone to prostrate themselves so subserviently, even tho she was paid to do it. she served us green tea, and a sweet packaged in a paper wrapping printed with a holly leaf. the holly leaf is the symbol of the hiiragiya ryokan and the leaf is found everywhere - on the yukata, the rugs, the trays, towels, etc. the effect is really a little too much. allyn was very taken with the sweet, a sugary cookie wrapped around some bean paste. I even liked it and I don't care for bean paste at all. we sipped the bitter green tea while we counted our yen. by our calculations, we had enough to pay the inn in cash, plus about ¥120 (US$1.00) left over. we'd need at least ¥40,000 for the weekend, and we'd forgotten to ask the TIC where to get cash. I'd already found out that japan has very, very few atms that can take foreign cards, in fact there is usually only one per subway station area. and that was in tokyo. at this point it was 3:30pm on a friday and it seemed obvious that we needed to get cash ASAP. remember, banks (including ATMs) are generally open m-f 9-3 only. so altho we would have dearly liked to have stayed and enjoyed a bath before dinner, we knew we had to get some $$. or I should say YY. I had already concluded that it was already too late to get more cash, as even ATMS close between 4 and 6pm. No 24hr ATMs in japan!! but allyn wanted to go and look. I was feeling very nervous and stressed out at the thought of giving all our cash to the inn.

we were given instructions on how to find a nearby ATM but the first ATM had no english on it whatsoever, altho the signs seemed to indicate it would take american express. the "promise cashing corner" ATM at asakusa station in tokyo had had "withdrawal" and "balance inquiry" buttons in english but not this one. we tried every button and every card but no card was accepted. by this time allyn and I had split up, allyn trying to change US dollars (we had about $100US on us) before the banks closed, at banks where the tellers spoke no english, and me looking for an open ATM that took foreign cards. the streets were very crowded, it took forever for the lights to change as we crossed a dozen streets, and it was getting very, very cold and the sun had gone down. panic city. by now we'd walked about 20 min from the inn, along way on foot.

finally we ran into a Promise Cashing Corner and altho one ATM did state foreign cards accepted, none of our cards were accepted. we were panicking and the secure feeling had vanished again. I tried the local ATM next to it and on the 2nd try with my AmEx, the machine made a funny sound that sounded like it had swallowed my card, displayed a screen I'd never seen before, and sat silently. with my card still in it. "it ate my card. it took my card," I said to allyn. my card was gone. well, it was my HP-issued AmEx, not my ATM card, and I could do without it, but I did want it back. there was a phone next to the booth and I picked it up and a recording in japanese spoke in my ear. "it's after hours and they're not answering the phone," I said to allyn. allyn pushed a button below the phone, and someone answered on the other end. "sumimasen," (excuse me) "I don't speak any japanese. the machine took my card." "[unintelligible japanese]" "sumimasen, I don't speak japanese. the machine took my card. the machine won't give my card back." more unintelligible japanese, and the sound of someone covering the mouthpiece. she came back on and said what seemed to be the same thing. it occurred to me she was saying the same thing over and over to me. "the machine took my card-" I said weakly. I heard the unmistakable sound of someone hanging up on me. great. I was not going to get my card back, and we had no more cash than when we started.

at this point I knew that if we could not get any cash then we would have to survive the rest of the weekend on the cash we had, and we would not be able to spare any for the inn otherwise it would jeopardize our basic survival. at this point we knew for a fact that no restaurants or shops in japan took cash. we needed cash for food, and with palatable lunches and dinners running us $65 and up, we knew we had to hang on to all the cash we had, or risk going without food. another family, possibly italian, walked in and were obviously looking for a working ATM as well. on our advice that this ATM wasn't working, they just turned around and left without even trying it. while we were standing there gathering our wits, a promise bank girl came out and retrieved my card. she made the obvious hand signals indicating "use the FOREIGN atm only." I smiled at her sheepishly and we left.

allyn and started to talk about options. I said, "we have to get them to accept a credit card." allyn said, maybe we can offer them ¥35,000 and the rest on credit, or we could try the ATM again in the morning. I said "you know, if we can't pay them, they have every right to put us out in the street." I thought maybe we could check in early to the granvia, but when I had searched on the internet a week ago for exactly this (so we could arrive in kyoto early), there were no hotel rooms available in kyoto on the 26th. so I thought the chance that we could rebook into another hotel was slim. we hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was 5pm. we ducked into a small cafe and sacrificed some of our cash to eat a bun and a roll while we discussed the situation. it's amazing the basic decisions one has to make. save the cash for the inn - or put some food in our stomachs. food wins. at some point I stopped free-falling into panic and realized that somehow, something would work out, that we weren't going to die or anything. we just had to go back and explain the situation, maybe someone there could help us work the nearby ATM. it was a long, quiet 20 min walk back to the ryokan. we put allyn in charge of talking to the front desk. allyn explained that we had walked all around the city and no ATM had taken our card and would it be possible for them to accept our credit card. they said "yes, OK, please bring your card tomorrow morning." we thanked him profusely and walked back to our room, feeling a bit guilty but also extremely relieved after our ordeal. a cold sake put us more at ease as we started to finally enjoy our room. we changed into our yukatas and discussed the days events. I found the email from jeff asgaard stating clearly that credit cards were acceptable. we figured we'd use that in the morning if more ammunition was needed.

it occurred to me that the banks in japan must have piles and piles of foreign ATM/credit cards left by unlucky tourists. but at least no one in japan could have used them to take any money out. :-)

slowly we recovered our mood and by 7pm we were ready for dinner. noriko brought in tray after tray of tiny dishes filled with the strangest food I've ever eaten. yes, I really didn't enjoy the tastes. I ate what I'm sure was raw fish brains; oysters (for the first time); raw snapper (which I couldn't swallow). I spit out the snapper into my wet towel and later was embarassed by the maid who used it to wipe up a spill and took it away. if they unrolled the towel in the kitchen, it must have been obvious to the staff what had transpired at my tray-

this is most I'd ever spent, to eat food I disliked so much. while in japan, we had made a genuine effort to try japanese food. but the scrambled eggs at breakfast in the new otani were mostly raw; my pork katsu turned out to be chicken cutlet over rice with a raw egg cracked over it; we'd eaten raw horse and now raw fish brains-we'd wanted to be adventurous about japanese food but had experienced great culture shock. we didn't want "new experiences" and to be "immersed in the culture" any more. we just wanted to eat and feel full. there'd been days where I knew we were not eating enough, and not enough protein, and that was the sure way to get sick. we were substisting by eating cold bentos, soggy sandwiches, and mini cakes at the train stations and food kiosks, microwaved beef & rice bowls from the AM/PM, and endless bottled teas, coffees, and waters from vending machines. once we found a fantastic teriyaki beef bento. (it turns out that until about 100 years ago, japanese people did not even eat beef or pork or other meat besides fish.) by now allyn's favorite vending machine drink is suntory brown iced tea and I like the tiny nuclear-hot cans of sweet milk-coffee that keep your hands warm on cold mornings while you wait for the train. did I mention the "pizza bun" at the train station. it looked like a "char siu bao" but when I asked "pork? chicken?" she shook her head and said "pizza!".

I'd already eaten at the hard rock cafe once, and a few days ago we'd eaten at TGIFs in roppongi, one of the trendiest japanese neighborhoods, and we were so relieved to hear english spoken and to eat french fries and ketchup and diet coke (no diet coke in japan). we kept a stash of junk food in the hotel room and took some with us every day as an emergency backup. train travel took up a great deal of time and we often found ourselves hungry in train stations. we finally consoled ourselves with the thought that we had come to see the sights, not eat the food. and now we were presented with what was probably a $100+ a head, formal "kaiseki" dinner and we were asking each other if we thought mcdonalds would still be open after dinner.

(as a matter of fact, a few days later we found ourselves at mosburger having a "spicy mos cheeseburger" and "cheeseburger" with onion rings and french fries. the "spicy" was curry sauce plus sliced jalapenos. allyn was still hungry so we went next door to mcdonalds and had cheeseburgers and fries. yes, it tasted exactly the same as in the u.s.)

back to dinner - we enjoyed the beautiful room and took a closer look at the tatamis. they were very smooth to the touch and very tightly woven and dense. we had been given socks to wear but walking on the tatami with bare feet was very pleasant. it was hard to get up and down from the backrests on the floor, but the armrests were invaluable during dinner to lean on. we took pictures of every dish and every course. after the kaiseki dinner it was time for our bath. they scheduled us for 9:30pm and also had us fill out a sheet of paper with our request for breakfast (japanese or western) and the time. allyn chose japanese breakfast.

in the meantime, another maid came in and the two maids removed the low table and got out the 2 futons and covers. the futons were covered with a thin pad and sheet. the thick patterned coverlet (4" thick) was covered in a fitted white sheet. they put out the buckwheat pillow and a western pillow. we were too embarassed to videotape the making of the beds but it was really something to watch 2 kimono'd women setting up the room and chattering softly in japanese.

at 9:30 allyn said, are they going to come get us for the bath? as we were leaving, the phone tinkled. "the bath-yes-please-the bath." I replied "ok, thank you". the upper level of the bath was the changing area with hooks and baskets and a large mirror. I wasn't sure whether this would be the right time to wash my hair but I changed my mind when I saw the hairdryer. we could lock the door and share the bath just between the two of us. in the lower section of the bath was the tub and the washing area. the washing area held 3 tiny stools and buckets with their own hand held sprayer. the floor was polished granite with wood slats to drain away the water. we washed and surprisingly it was not too cold in the room. the bathtub was wood (cedar?) and the water not too hot. sitting on the bottom of the tub, the water came up to our necks. the tub was full when we got in; the water that we displaced had splashed noisily over the side of the tub and into the floor. allyn said to me "I see now why you like to take baths."

after our bath we were ready to sleep. a small lamp in the room was such a low light we decided to just leave it on as a night light. the futon was very comfortable and we were nice and warm. the room had a heater if it proved necessary. we looked up in the tourbook if it was ok to sleep in our yukatas and we decided that it was.

in the morning we could see snow was falling in the garden. at 8 it was time for breakfast. tofu from a hot water bath, heated by coals set in the top of a wooden bucket, with a shoyu sauce also warmed in the same bucket. dried? fish, an egg coddled in my favorite slimy goo, some bits of teriyaki beef, a bowl of rice.

allyn commented that my many years of training him to eat fish had culminated in this overnight stay where everything he ate was either seafood, raw, very-strange-tasting, or some combination of the three.

after checking out (with credit card), the front desk called for a taxi, and two tiny japanese people helped us drag our huge luggage to the front door. I felt guilty about making them handle it. we changed back into our street shoes with about 7 of the staff hovering about. in the rush I gave noriko our tip of 1500 yen. she immediately gave it to the head maid and the head maid returned immediately with a small package saying thank you for the tip for noriko, here is a a small gift. our luggage magically disappeared into the taxi's trunk and as the taxi drove away, 3 kimono'd women bowed low in the wooden doorway of the hiiragiya. unforgettable.

the gift was 2 sets of hashi (chopsticks) with the hiiragiya logo. interestingly, one set was about 10mm longer than the other. I suppose that pair is allyn's.

wish we could have stayed longer -- would have enjoyed coming home to that tub again!!

turns out we paid ¥73,500 per night for what will cost ~¥100,000 in 2004, so we got a real bargain. Altho that's a lot to pay for raw fish brains.

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Copyright © 2003 Teri & Allyn Fratkin, All Rights Reserved.