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Retrospect Travel Log: Japan Part 2 - Iiyama and Kyoto

Updated: 1 day ago

Welcome back to the Retrospective Travel Log for our Japan trip. If you missed the first part, here it is. We left our intrepid explorers on the bullet train on their way to Iiyama.


Western Mountains of Japan, just outside Iiyama

Iiyama is a ski town (population 20,000) in the Western mountains of Japan. When we arrived, the cherries were in full bloom. We slept in a gorgeous 300-year-old Minka house. Maiky-san, whom we met at the house, refurbishes Minka houses in the area. Her husband, Rich, hosted us generously throughout our two-day stay. 


On Tuesday, Rich took us to see other Minka homes. In one of those homes, we met Kenta-san. He refurbished two homes, one as his family home and the other he made into a restaurant where he cooks. He also plays the Shamisen, and he played the Island song for us, and we had a bit of a jam session. It was absolutely lovely. We went to visit Jean-Paul and Kauri-san, who also live in a refurbished Minka home. Jean-Paul is a carpenter and showed us around his workshop, which was very cool. Then we ate lunch at a place that was also in a refurbished Minka home. Not really a restaurant, basically just Tama-san and Ritsuko-san hosting us for lunch at their place. The Minka homes all reminded me of My Neighbour Totoro–that house they move into in the village, where there are little friendly ghosts in the attic. They felt active somehow. 

The restored Minka house we stayed in had original drawings

After lunch, we met with Peter, who took us to see snow monkeys. The monkeys live on the mountain, and there’s a guest house with hot springs where the tourists bathe outside. This intrigued the monkeys, who ventured one day into the pool and became an instant tourist attraction. Now the monkeys have their own pool, but they also come to the tourists’ pool sometimes. They were exceptionally human, these monkeys. It was fascinating. 

Snow Monkey checking out its reflection in the hot spring pool

From there, we continued to the Kokugonji temple, where there were incredible cherry blossoms. We learned that classic cherries are cultivated to have a five-petal flower that lasts only a short time, reminding us of the fragility and ephemerality of life. We also saw several Buddhist sculptures and talked about theology and the history of religions with Peter. 

I mean, aren't they just gorgeous?

After a quick stop at the house to freshen up, Rich took us to a Karaoke bar, where we met Kenta-san, his wife Yuumi, their four young kiddos, and a few more locals. We had a memorable evening, with everyone singing in English and Japanese, dancing, and generally goofing around. It was the best.


We packed some food for the road and got on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, and from there, we changed trains to another Shinkansen to bring us to Kyoto. When we got to the station we met Isao-san, who was our driver for the next couple of days and regaled us with stories about his family and life. He showed us where everything was and took us to our activities. We split up: the boys went to a Taiko drumming class, and us girls went to the Women's Association of Kyoto Centre to learn calligraphy and Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. We both enjoyed the flower arranging tremendously and plan to take it up at home. There’s a whole thing with the three-dimensionality of the arrangement, and we both found it much more interesting than just putting flowers in a jar. Calligraphy is really like drawing. The Japanese use three different kinds of characters: Hiragana (the alphabet used for Japanese words), Katakana (the alphabet used for foreign words) and Kanji (based on Chinese characters, each character has a meaning). In the calligraphy lesson, we practised some of all three. Children in Japan learn all three before they finish primary school–there are over four thousand Kanji characters. The three types of characters are used interchangeably and mixed together in Japanese signs and written language. On Wednesday night we stayed in a Riocan that we hoped would be like the Minka houses but was much too modern to get a proper experience. We switched hotels the next day, as planned.

My Ikebana creation


We met up with our guide, Ikuko-san, and she took us first to the Honen-In temple, which is beautiful and quiet. The garden is almost entirely moss-covered, and there’s a serene atmosphere that was very much appreciated. From there, we went to see a traditional tea ceremony. There are specific ways to make and serve the tea, but at the heart of it, the lady was making tea. It was interesting to see as a ritual, though. 

A Japanese Lady making tea

From there, we went to see the Kiyomizu temple, a huge temple built around a freshwater spring. There were lots of tourists in Kyoto, much more than in Tokyo, or perhaps Tokyo is a much bigger city than Kyoto and therefore the tourists disappear. In the evening, the adults went to a nightlife tour of Osaka, and the young people stayed in the hotel and ordered room service. We toured Osaka’s centre zones, dropping into random Izakayas and bars. We tried some takoyaki again, but Osaka is a hub for random food experiments, so we also had tempura everything (really the most random things, battered and deep fried on a stick) as well as chargrilled avocado, which sounds weird but was actually tasty. We drank quite a bit and returned to the hotel late.

Everything deep fried on a stick in Osaka


We went to see the Golden Pavilion, a Zen temple and the retirement villa of some shogun. The thing about many of the houses and temples is that they’re built with wood, which is better for withstanding earthquakes. But that means that none of these buildings are the originals. Invariably, there was a fire that burnt the whole thing down and they had to rebuild it. After that, we went to see the rock garden at Ryōan-ji, another Zen temple. The Zen atmosphere was marred by large groups of tourists, but that comes with the territory I guess.

Rock Garden Panorama attempt

From there, we drove to Arashiyama, Kyoto’s Western mountains area. We went to visit Ōkōchi Sansō, a villa built by the actor Ōkōchi Denjirō after he retired. Funnily enough, he would play shōguns and samurais in old Japanese movies. The garden of the villa is gorgeous though, and well worth the visit.

The garden of the actor

We continued to the nearby bamboo forest and concluded the tour with another temple. At this point, we were temple-wary and uninterested. We looked but didn’t really see the Tenryuji Temple, except to note that there are frog statues in the little entrance fountain and that the pond is quite impressive.

The Impressive Pond

After a quick stop to freshen up, we went to dinner at Kyo Yamato, a geisha house that supposedly hosted secret meetings to topple the government at some point. We met two geikos and a maiko, which is a geiko in training. They performed traditional Japanese dances and songs for us. Then they hosted us which was incredibly awkward. We learned that maikos train for years before they become fully-fledged geikos, and that their lives very much revolve around their work. They live at the house and train all day, practising for the evening show. I would assume just putting on the makeup everyday is at least a part-time job. 


We went to Fushimi, an area known for good underground water, which breeds lots of sake breweries, obviously. We visited a temple to drink from this underground water, then learned about the process of making sake and tasted some in several places. None left a big mark, I must say. I mean, they were nice sakes. I don’t know if I can tell the difference, but it definitely grew on me, the sake. On the way back, we stopped for a quick tour of the Imperial Palace’s grounds and then went to a ramen-making class. It was lots of fun, actually, and it turns out we all like ramen.

We made Ramen

After that, we went back to the hotel, packed up, and, as a last hurrah, went to Don Quijote. It’s basically the Japanese Asda/Walmart, but like everywhere in Japan, the space is small. The store we went to boasted six storeys of claustrophobic aisles packed to the ceiling with everything from matcha latte KitKat to toys for adults, going through coloured contact lenses and anything Hello Kitty. It was an experience. 

The Wall of KitKat in Don Quijote

I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of Japan. Of course, you can’t really scratch the surface of any culture with a 10-day whirlwind trip. But in this case, I feel like I wanted to stay much longer. I want to learn Japanese and live in Tokyo for a few months. Travel around the country and meet people. That’s maybe a plan for when the young people leave home. In any case, it had been an amazing trip.

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