Seoul, Kyoto, Tokyo
In October 2013, we embarked on our first transpacific flight to Asia from California. Our first stop was Seoul, South Korea to visit Erin's sister Aubrey. Once together, we traveled to Kyoto and Tokyo. We departed from SFO at 11 am and arrived in Seoul 12 hours later. We dropped our bags off at the Designers' hotel, which featured Banksy-like graffiti in each room. Although our body clocks were 12 hours off, we couldn't wait to explore Seoul's contrasting Eastern culture.
We met up with Aubrey and checked out her apartment. She led us to Gwangjgang market for street food. The challenge of deciphering the various food items at the market was our first wave of culture shock. Next, we hiked up a giant hill to Namsam tower and its surrounding park. Acrobatic actors performed a traditional Korean show. Later we strolled around Bukenon village and Insadong. Then we joined Michelle and rode the subway to Hongdae for lunch and shopping.
Early next morning we circled Bonguensa Temple and were inspired by the colorful temple decorations and artwork. We bowed before the giant Buddha and remarked at the contrast between ancient temples and modern skyscrapers.
We departed Seoul on a Kansai Air flight at 10am and arrived in Osaka two hours later. At the airport gate, we immediately noticed the Japanese people were more fashion-forward and aesthetically interesting. While our plan was to train from Osaka to Kyoto, we learned at the train station that a typhoon made that impossible. So we embarked on a long, circuitous route via local subway lines. Purchasing tickets proved to be a huge obstacle, as we couldn't read any of the symbols on the ticket machines. And when we asked for help, none of the subway employees spoke english. Through perseverance, we managed to find our way to Kyoto. Upon entering Kyoto, the first thing we noticed was the impressive, yet controversial, steel beam train station. Kyoto tower is the tallest structure in the city and its observation deck is filled with giggling visitors because the binoculars allow you to peer into nearby hotels.
Instead of a hotel, we chose to stay at a traditional Japanese Ryokan called Hokkaikan Hottanabo. Our room featured tattami mats, traditional screen doors, and roll-out duvet beds on the floor. The staff encouraged us to take a dip in the gender-segregated on-site onsen baths while they prepared our dinner - the most delicious and intricate meal of our lives. We reveled in course after course of specially prepared Japanese delicacies prepared with artistic presentation. Each vegetatble was carved to resemble a flower. Thinly sliced Kobe beef, the main course, was mouth-watering.
We took a local train out to the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine and hiked through more than 10,000 orange Torii gates, dating back to 711 A.D., up to the top of the mountain. Because we arrived so early, we were the only ones there, aside from a few local cats who appeared to be imbued with powerful spirits as they lounged on the shrines.
We returned to the Ryokan for breakfast which was almost as spectacular as our dinner. After exploring the local temple across the street from our Ryokan, we ventured out by local bus to Chion-in Temple. From there we hoofed it to Ginkaku-Ji Temple, with its manicured stone zen gardens. For lunch, we chose Hoake Owariya, a local establishment that has been serving noodles since 1465. After that, we selected traditional kimonos for a non-touristy, custom kimono shop.
On the way to the Golden Pavillion in the north of the city, we observed the effects of the typhoon, as the banks of the river continued to flood. After looping the Golden Pavillion several times, we used what energy we had left to explore the Arashiyama bamboo gardens. That night we joined a walking tour of the Gion district and managed to spot a few beautiful geishas on their way to host dinner parties.
We took a high-speed train 2.5 hours from Kyoto to Tokyo. The train was immaculate and efficient. All the patrons waited patiently, quietly and courteously in line. Although the speeds can reach 200 mph, Dave managed to snap a photo of Mount Fuji as we zipped past it.
We anxiously woke up early in the morning to train to Tsukiji Fish market to take advantage of the fresh catches brought in by the fisherman. As we strolled through the hectic market with racing forklifts and dock workers yelling at each other, and the smell of fresh fish was pervasive. Although it was way earlier than our normal breakfast time, we sat down at one of the sushi bars and enjoyed a beer while watching the sushi chef hoist a giant tuna onto his cutting board, slice it open with a machette, then blow-torch the choicest pieces. Needless to say, it was the freshest sushi we'd ever tasted.
After the market, we returned to Shibuya and navigated the street signs in all Japanese to Tifana Tattoo shop. Dave was paired with a female artist who spoke minimal English. We collaborated with her on a traditional Japanese style design and watched in awe as she drew a beautiful peony flower by hand. That night we celebrated Aubrey and Dave's birthday at the Hyatt Hotel, famously portrayed in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.
The next morning we explored Harajuku, an area known for shopping and fashionable patrons. It was almost like a Halloween parade, with people dressed like schoolgirls, dolls and goth zombies. It's located on the unfortunately named "Takeshita" Street.
We also toured the fancy Ginza area. We arrived at 9am and as we entered the grand department store, all of its employees were lined up to bow to us.
Dave photographed the sunrise somewhere over the Pacific as we flew back to California, which, after visiting Japan, seemed oddly different, strange and weird.
Click here for our adventures in Southeast Asia.
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