Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Japan - Day 7

     Today we need to pack up all our stuff nice and tight because we're off to ride the bullet train!  The bags are getting a bit tighter with all the little souvenirs we are acquiring- hope the zippers hold!  We take the monorail one last time to the Miahama station, then we catch a train to Tokyo (James is navigating here, I am standing around saying helpful things like, "Is this the one?" and "Oooh, look at that  bakery!" or, "Tell me when you see another restroom.")
     Once we get to Tokyo Station,  it takes a while to find the office where we turn in our Japan Rail Pass vouchers that my amazing and too-wonderful-for-words Craig had to FedEx to us.  Then we find a different office to buy the tickets. Then James has to figure the system out again since there are different gates and different signs for the shinkansen (bullet trains.)  James misses having Katsuo there to show him the ropes as he did for the local trains, but we finally manage it.  (Mind you, being male, he still doesn't ask for directions nearly enough, if you ask me....)
     We go up and down a lot of stairs but make it at 11:00 for our 11:03 train to Kyoto.  My guide book advised that we buy First Class rail passes (Green Car) as they have wider seats, are less crowded, and only about 20% more expensive.  I did and the car is certainly uncrowded. We have reserved seats but there are only 2 other people in the whole car.  The seats recline (and, since there's nobody behind me, I don't feel guilty about doing that) and have nice foot rests.  The whole trip takes about 2 hours.  We bought some food to go at a deli in Tokyo and have our breakfast on the train.  The train is FAST.  The record speed for one of these trains is supposed to be 361 miles per hour, but this is one of the slower ones- only 200 mph or so.  It doesn't really go that fast most of the time- only when there's enough time between stops to build up speed, but when it does- oooooh- James and I both felt a little ill and I quickly learned I wouldn't be typing on the train.
     At Kyoto we grab a bun for lunch- the bakeries here are really good with rolls filled with cheese, or ham, or custard or chocolate and everything super fresh and warm. I hit the McDonalds for a drink and somewhere to sit.  The Japanese seem to do a lot of standing and eating, but I want to rest my feet.
    From there we take a taxi to the Shiraume- our Ryokan for the night. This is our big splurge- our one really expensive night on the trip.  The driver's eyes widen slightly as we tell him our destination.  He drives us about 15 minutes (1300 yen- or about  $16) to a river canal lined by mostly restaurants and a few houses.  A fabric drape stamped with their symbol is the only sign.  We step through the curtain into a world of bamboo and aromatic woods and soft voices.  There is a rock garden, then the entrance where we are welcomed.  We remove our shoes and are led to our pretty room with tatami mats and a low table. The room opens on a pretty garden and has a private sink and toilet.  There are bamboo screens which slide, rather than doors, and the floor in the wash area is some sort of carved dark wood that is soft and wavy.  I love the smell of the wood- sandalwood? a type of cedar?
     We are invited to refresh ourselves with a gelatin type sweet and fruit juice.  We have already told them we are Mormon in our communications, so they don't offer us tea or sake. We schedule a time for our baths, dinner, and a massage afterward, then go for a walk around the Gion district.  We stumble into at least one "red light" district with ladies beckoning in doorways but mostly look at the river and historical plaques.  Then it is time to return for our baths.  We take our yukata (cotton dressing gowns) with us to the bath area.  James goes down the hall to a different bath.  I leave my clothes in a basket in an area with a sink and grooming products and step over the threshold onto the stone floor of the bath room.  There are small stools where one is to shower and wash oneself.  You are supposed to be completely clean and soap-free when you actually get into the bath.  The tap is running with hot water and the huge tub is overflowing on to the floor, which drains the water away.  After I wash and rinse, I climb into the huge stone tub- big enough for two and - for me- just the right muscle relaxing steaming hotness.  I turn off the tap and float happily for 15 minutes or so- I know we're supposed to have the bath reserved for 30 minutes- so I reluctantly climb bonelessly out and dry off on the thick brown towels waiting nearby. The sink room has a fan to cool you as you dry off, but I leave the door open to enjoy the sauna warmth.  Even with a brush and blow dryer, my hair reacts to this warm heat by curling Medusa-like into kinky strands.  I'm on vacation, I don't care.  There are all kinds of lotions and cremes, so I try a few.  I hope James notices that there is shaving stuff as well ( he doesn't.)  I put on my yukata, heave a sigh, and head to our room.
     I am quickly informed that my yukata is backwards, and I am shown the correct way to wear it.  Still feeling a Western need for a little more clothing, I decide that underwear will make me feel a bit more comfortable and won't really show...  The low table in our room has been raised to accommodate James'  height and now we have low chairs on which to sit instead of trying our best to kneel or sit cross-legged- much more comfortable for the barbarians.  James' yukata is too small, so he is in his polo shirt and shorts.  We rest for a while, then dinner begins.  The proprietress of the ryokan introduces herself.  She speaks excellent English and says the 160 year old house has always been in her family.  It can only be run by a woman, as is their tradition.  She has a 16 year old son who likes the same manga James likes, so they chat about that off and on.  Each course is described in detail.  James is very brave and eats most things.  I hear things like "octopus eggs with sea cucumber" and my stomach does a back flip.
     One dish has a filamentous layer on top which is actually waving gently in the air.  This is too much even for James, who has heard the tales of live octopus being served.  He pushes back his chair a little and says, in a tremulous voice, "It's moving!"  It turns out this is only dried strips of fish which are waving as they rehydrate, so he relaxes and eats it happily.
     There was choice of Traditional or Kobe beef, so I ordered the beef, but there are still many fishy courses before and after.  The beef course is quite small- 4 squares each about the size of 2 bites ( and James steals one!) but it is fabulous! (Of course, this might be partially because I'm so thrilled to see something recognizable.)  Our hostess says the cattle used for Kobe beef are very specially cared for.  They listen to classical music, are fed beer every day, and massaged every afternoon.  These stressless cows are supposed to produce the most tender beef in the world.  All in all, it is a memorable meal and I took many pictures.
     Now we are invited to rest in the library, where there is sake and internet access, while our room is prepared for sleep.  When we return, there are 2 comfortable futons and soft pink and blue pajamas laid out.  I like my pink ones, and also the flowered socks with a separate place for the big toe. (James is out of luck again.)
     Then it is time for the massage.  There is a big strong-looking man for James (wearing a mask- wouldn't want to get any barbarian germs) and a little old lady for me.  I think to myself, "Oh, give me the man, I don't want a wimpy massage," but this woman has thumbs of steel.  She does a great job- getting into the sore muscles but never quite so deep as to make me scream and unsettle the calm of the ryokan.  James is utterly silent as he receives his first massage.  When I asked how it was, he is noncommital- "Umm, OK, I guess.  It's weird being touched by a dude."  Then we are off to sleep in our nice thick futons.   It has certainly been a memorable day!
Picking out lunch at one of the many Tokyo Station delis.

Comfy seats on the bullet train.

Our pretty room at the Shiraume.

Garden view out of our room.

Pretty private wash area.

Outside the Shiraume

All sugar should come like this...

Futons never looked so comfortable!

Bathed, fed, and massaged, (like the cows) I am ready for sleep.

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