Our third day in Japan marked my first encounter with Japan’s shinkansen, or bullet train system. After making our reservations on the Tokaido line, Melody and I navigated our way to Shinjuku Station’s shinkansen platform and awaited our train which was to take us south to Kyoto at a whopping 280 kilometers per hour.
For a journey that spans almost a third of Honshu, the ride was surprisingly quick. We enjoyed our bento lunches and admired the view of Mount Fuji and the Japanese countryside as we whizzed by, and arrived at Kyoto Station just two hours and forty-five minutes later. Kyoto Station is a breathtaking building (and Japan’s second-largest station), and we made a note to come back and explore after we’d settled in.
Our hotel, the Rihga Royal Hotel Kyoto, was a five minute bus ride away from the station. After checking in, we left our bags at the hotel and returned to Kyoto Station to catch the subway train to Gion. Famous for being one of the most exclusive geisha districts in Japan, the area houses a wealth of traditional architecture and entertainment. The first thing we saw when we stepped out of the subway station was Minami-za, a grandiose kabuki theater founded in 1610.
We were getting hungry as we walked along Shijo Dori, the primary street running through Gion, so we stopped at a takoyaki stand and bought a box of made-to-order takoyaki.
Takoyaki are battered octopus balls, an Osaka region specialty. Topped with pickled ginger, green onion, okonomiyaki sauce, ponzu, mayonnaise, nori, and katsuobushi (fish shavings), they’re one of my favorite Japanese snacks. I was first introduced to them back in college, when I had the good fortune to have a roommate from Osaka and a roommate from Tokyo (boy, did I eat some good Japanese food that year). I’d since tried to find good ones in California, but to no avail. These takoyaki in Gion satisfied the craving I’d been having for years.
Melody and I finished our snack before heading into the Yasaka Shrine, which sits at the end of Shijo Dori.
Built in 656, this Shinto shrine was mostly deserted when we visited, but it was nighttime and I imagine the crowds flock here during the day. After exploring, we headed back towards Shijo Dori in search of dinner. I was in search of an okonomiyaki restaurant, and we found what we were looking for at Issen Yoshoku. This restaurant serves okonomiyaki and only okonomiyaki.
Meaning “as you like it,” okonomiyaki is my other favorite Osaka region specialty food. This savory pancake is made up of made of flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage, and usually contains other ingredients such as green onion, octopus, squid, meat and shrimp. The final product is generally served topped with okonomiyaki sauce, nori flakes, katsuobushi, Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger.
The version at Issen Yoshoku was slightly different than traditional okonomiyaki; it was more like an omelet, but tasty nonetheless. Service was pretty curt at Issen Yoshoku, but it was totally worth it for the restaurant’s kitsch: wooden blocks depicting explicit scenes of people in compromising positions adorn the walls, and life-size mannequins of geishas are seated at every table.
Our first evening in Kyoto lived up to everything I’d hoped it would and I was excited to explore the city during the daytime. We headed back to our hotel to map out the next day’s excursions and get some much-needed rest.