It seemed like a neat idea at the time. I had a holiday to write up - Christmas 2014 in Japan - which could be broken down into three distinct sections. Each of those sections could also double up as an entry in one of my regular ongoing series. So the opening Tokyo post was also a BrewDogging bar review, while the central Sendai/Naruko Onsen piece became another one of those Christmas Day In Foreign Parts articles.
And this final one, looking at Kyoto? Well, as The Belated Birthday Girl and I had caught a couple of Japanese films during the trip, this could be the backup material for when I wrote about them for Mostly Film as part of Monoglot Movie Club. This would be a brilliant structural conceit, if it wasn't for the delay of nearly four months between All In The Game appearing on Europe's Best Website, and my finally getting around to putting this article up here. But you get the idea. Let's ignore the fact that this piece will say absolutely nothing about the movies we saw in Japan (As The Gods Command at Ikebukuro Humax, and The Vancouver Asahi at Kyoto Movix), and just get on with it. You've waited long enough.
What's Japan like in the days leading up to New Year? 2014 was the year that we found out. The biggest surprise was just how much of an event New Year is there - possibly even more so than Christmas, which is generally treated as just another working day. Everything shifts into cut-down holiday mode, starting with the regular TV scheduling. When our breakfast-time fix of morning soap Massan suddenly vanished from its usual slot, it was our first major clue that week 52 in Japan doesn't play to the same rules as weeks 1-51. You may want to bear that in mind if you visit at this time of year.
We're still worried that the snow will affect our epic three-stage rail journey, back to where we started in Kyoto. But this is Japan Rail, and all the cliches about their reliability are true. The local train to Furukawa, which we'd expected would be the bottleneck of the journey, whizzes through precisely to schedule, showing along the way how other bits of Miyagi prefecture have been hit even more heavily by the snow than we have. The big surprise comes on the Furukawa to Tokyo leg, where in the first ten minutes we suddenly change from snowdrifts to bright sunshine and totally clear ground. From then on, it's easy to forget how we were under a couple of feet of snow earlier that morning, apart from the odd frozen bit of field. The final leg is the two-and-three-quarter hour Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, which we use profitably by poring over our Kyoto travel guides. (This is the journey where we finally discover that Shinkansen do have wifi, but they require you to have a contract with a Japanese telco if you want to use them.)
It's a shortish hop on the subway from Kyoto station to Sakara, our hotel for the last four nights of our holiday. It's well-run in an entirely different way from Yusaya: the staff are largely absent from the place, but they leave out everything you need in a comfy communal area, from free tea to a spectacular array of tourist information leaflets. You could almost consider it a boutique hotel - each of the rooms is decorated in a different style, a concept that's tickled us so much that we've chosen to swap rooms halfway through the stay. We start in the Sakura Room, a charming split-level suite including a full kitchen area and a second loft bedroom that we'll never use. But after two nights there we move to the Ninja Room, because it's impossible to resist staying in something called the Ninja Room. It's another two storey affair, but this time the one bed is upstairs, at the top of a steep polished wooden staircase with no sides or handrail. Presumably you need to be some sort of ninja to navigate it successfully: it's a continual source of terror for the whole of our stay, especially when we factor in the craft beer bar located directly over the road. (More on that later, inevitably.)
Sakara's nicely positioned in Kyoto, close to Higashiyama subway station - though in practice, we find we use the buses an awful lot more to get to the interesting parts. Most of the traditional tourists in Kyoto will be looking to visit the various temples, and widely-available bus maps like this one will help you find your way to them all, from tiny unoccupied hovels to the selfie-stick infested hell of the Golden Pavilion on a Saturday afternoon. (Has anyone been murdered with one of those things yet? Because it's probably due to happen any time now.)
For me, however, Kyoto's more modern structures are a bit more interesting. 'Modern' is a relative term, of course. By purest accident, the Sunday of our stay marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Kyoto Tower, and they're celebrating by slashing the entry price from 770 yen to a ludicrous 50. We turn up early on the day assuming the queues will be epic, but - rather like our experience at Tokyo Sky Tree one week earlier - it appears that the Japanese have no appetite for tall buildings on a Sunday morning, as there are no more than a couple of dozen people ahead of us. We get to the observation deck in good time for 10am, when a delightfully ridiculous thing happens: a solemn Shinto ceremony to dedicate a new shrine for the tower, featuring a Shinto priest, two members of senior management and - the ridiculous bit - the tower's mascot Tawawachan in full foam rubber costume. It's a combination of sacred and profane that you wouldn't encounter in any other country, and it shows that arriving early at Japanese attractions really pays off: by the time we're back at ground level, the queues are up to the level we expected all along.
From there, we take a bus to the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum. As is the case with quite a few of Kyoto's museums, the building it's housed in - a former station - is as enjoyable as the stuff in it. There are lots of interactive bits and bobs demonstrating the history, theory and practice of steam locomotion: but the real money is outside, where twenty locomotives from various periods are on display, some of which you can even climb into. There are even steam train rides scheduled throughout the day, but they're a bit of a swizz - all you can do in ten minutes is back up along a bit of track out of the museum, then head forwards again. Still, it gives you an interesting low-level perspective on the real trains haring about on the nearby tracks. It's an enjoyable morning out, and some time soon it's going to be expanded into a full-blown Modern Transport Museum, adding the best of Japan's non-steam trains to the mix.
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is a similarly lovely building, converted from an old school (with a couple of the rooms still preserved). The main focus of attention is the display of thousands of manga volumes, many of them astonishingly coming from a single collector. But there's so much more. An international room contrasting Japanese translations of foreign works with foreign translations of Japanese ones: a potted history and analysis of the medium: a reading room just for the kids: a special award, confusingly called the Gai-Man, offered for the best foreign work of the year in Japanese translation (this year deservedly going to Hawkeye): a collection of 100 sketches of maiko by Japanese artists. When we visit there's also a lovely temporary exhibit dedicated to Yasuko Aoike's From Eroica With Love, a girls' comic featuring wildly androgynous men getting into criminal capers. If a copy of Eroica had been available in the shop in translation, I'd have bought it like a shot: they missed a trick there.
And then there's the Monkey Park, which I trailed as a Simian Substitute Site a couple of months ago. It's located in the small town of Arashiyama, another bus ride away from central Kyoto. (The one-day and two-day bus passes really start to earn their keep if you do a few journeys like this.) You need to be careful at the park entrance, where there's a huge set of steps leading up to the mountain path you have to take: The BBG nearly does herself a mischief trying to climb them all in one go. From there it's a pretty muddy trek to a caged enclosure which, in a neat reversal, we have to stay in while the monkeys roam around outside. There's plenty of scope for photos, but you can't help feeling uneasy about how the monkeys spend all their time putting their hands through the cage begging for food. Still, they're allowed to run free, they look healthy enough, and - heading outside just as the gates were closing - I also got to learn what Japanese people say when they get the summer and winter opening times of an attraction mixed up. Actually, it sounds a lot like the English phrase 'oh, fuck'.
So, getting back to that craft beer bar over the road from our hotel. You'll notice that we've visited quite a few similar places on this trip, which is interesting because I've always considered the Japanese bar scene to be impenetrable to outsiders (by which I mean 'foreigners', of course). So how has the introduction of craft beer changed things? Has it created a new Japanese bar culture that's a lot more friendly than the old one? Or is it just that as fully paid-up Craft Beer Wankers, The BBG and I now feel entitled to barge into any place serving fancy ales whether they want us there or not? I genuinely don't know the answer to that one. In the meantime, here's The Belated Birthday Girl herself to tell you about our further adventures in food and drink.
In Japan, many restaurants are on upper floors or in basements, which can make it tricky to get an idea of the place beforehand. Looking at the options around the Kawaramachi Sanjo-dori junction in Kyoto, the main thing which made Michikusa Genge Japanese Table stand out was piles of vegetables on display, so we descended into the basement to give it a try. The design was cool and modern, featuring an izakaya style menu of Japanese / European fusion dishes, with an emphasis on those vegetables. We chose between us black carrot tempura, cheese and white miso fondue with tasty steamed veg to dip, iberico sausages, avocado tempura, and a delicious dish of tofu with olive oil and black pepper. The food was all beautifully presented, and tasty. In the absence of anything crafty, we washed it down with Asahi beer. Michikusa Genge is somewhere I would recommend for both the food and the atmosphere - there was a definite buzz to the place.
The other Kyoto restaurant I want to highlight is one I mentioned back in 2002, although that time I got the name slightly wrong. In fact, I first visited Kashintei on my very first visit to Japan in 1999. I loved the place right from that first time, and that's why I took Spank there in 2002, and why I was so pleased to find it still there in 2014. Situated in Pontocho (still one of the loveliest parts of Kyoto), Kashintei specialises in serving traditional Kyoto cuisine in a less intimidating atmosphere. On this occasion, Spank chose the eel and rice, while I was drawn to the tofu set meal. Kyoto is famous for tofu, and the set meals at Kashintei are excellent value - this one, consisting of several different courses of tofu served in a variety of ways, and including 3 types of pudding, certainly did not disappoint. There was local beer, too, from Kyoto Craft. I am glad that Kashintei is still there and still doing what it does so well.
I want to wrap up Kyoto by talking about a local craft beer bar we found. In fact, Beer Komachi was in the same little arcade as our guest house, almost directly opposite. We didn't notice it when we arrived, as with the shutters down in the daytime you can't really see it at all (although once we knew it was there, we realised it had a lantern outside which clearly said “Craft Beer” in English!). But at night we couldn't miss it, with its completely open front covered only in transparent plastic curtains. We felt we could not pass up having a local craft beer bar on our doorstep, so we popped in and had a couple of tasty Japanese beers. The Minami Shinshu Apple Hop was both appley and hoppy, and the Shiga Kogen Miyama Blonde was, erm, blonde (and hoppy). Both were good examples of the current Japanese craft beer scene. We stopped in the bar again the next night, when it was a bit more buzzy, this time going for a couple of giants of the Japanese craft beer world: Hitachino Nest's New Year Ale was every bit as special as we'd hoped it would be, while Minoh's Godfather 3 was an outstanding yuzu stout. If you are in the area, I would definitely recommend giving this little bar a try.
From Kyoto, it's an easy day-trip to Osaka: and when you think of Osaka food, Okonomiyaki springs to mind. Yukari Okonomiyaki has a couple of branches, and we had a tasty late lunch in the Tensan branch in Tenjinbashi of potato and tuna okonomiyakis, accompanied by some oolong tea. The restaurant itself was pretty busy, with a fun atmosphere, and the okonomiyakis were good and hearty.
We finished off with another craft beer bar. I'm sure you'll understand why a bar called Yellow Ape Craft might have caught Spank's eye, and in every way, it worked out really well for our final night in Japan. We shared a selection of tasty dishes from the food menu - mackerel, mini-pizza, chips, spicy edamame - to soak up our choices of Japanese craft beers. The Yuzu White from the mighty Minoh was a quality wheat beer made all the more interesting for the very Japanese twist of using yuzu instead of orange. 10 to Go Smoked Porter from Ushitora Brewery wasn't the heaviest or smokiest of smoked porters, but was enjoyable enough. We may have picked the Yona Yona beer from Yo-Ho Brewing as much for the festive associations with the brewery's name as anything, but it was a decent American pale ale. And I have no idea why Ise Kadoaya called their IPA "Koala", but it was another solid effort. The customers, as well as the staff, were very friendly and helpful: all in all, Yellow Ape Craft was a great place to have our final dinner and craft beers of the holiday.
The BBG is spot on regarding the friendliness of Yellow Ape Craft, on both sides of the counter. My favourite memory of the evening is watching a local customer talk to her in English, and her automatically replying to him in Japanese. She claims to have no memory of doing this. Anyway, she mentions above that our last full day in Japan this time involves a day trip out to Osaka, a pretty easy thing to do from Kyoto station. (Magnificently, the train we get there is called Thunderbird 14.) You already know what we ate and drank: what else did we do there?
After an initial visit to the station's tourist information office, we catch the JR loop line to Tennoji to ascend Abeno Harukas, a new supertall building that only opened a few months earlier and hasn't made any of the guidebooks yet. But the Japanese people know all about it, so the queues are pretty huge - this time, unfortunately, we didn't get here early enough to bypass them. Still, we get all the usual benefits of a Japanese observation tower, including an appearance by their mascot character Abeno Bear (who looks bloody terrifying when he's smiling). The view down on Osaka is great, making it look like a child's idea of citybuilding - The BBG compares it to a huge Scalextric setup, with roads vaulting over rail tracks, and more tracks going over those. From ground level it isn't so obvious, but from above you clearly see how the transport system consists of literal archaeological layers.
We use the lowest of those layers next, taking our first subway and discovering along the way that one-day passes cost a mere 600 yen during the new year week. We head to one end of Tenjinbashi-suji, the famous covered market street that's an insane 2.6 kilometres long, and start walking. Thankfully, before too long we hit the okonomiyaki restaurant mentioned by The BBG above, and get a good solid Osakan lunch down us. After that, we take it slow, waddling contentedly down the full length of the arcade and enjoying all the shops along the way. It's a good job they're enjoyable, because our planned destination at the far end - the Museum of Housing and Living - turns out to be yet another thing that's closed for the holiday week.
Instead, we get the subway to the next item on our list, Osaka Castle - or more accurately, a light show in its grounds. Osaka is a big city for Christmas lights, but most of them finish on December 25th: this show, however, is scheduled to carry on till March 2015. It's hugely popular, with massive queues outside when we arrive 45 minutes before opening time. Once we get in, we realise most of it is a walking route through a ridiculously elaborate collection of LED enhanced tunnels, where the staff get snotty if you stand around for more than a couple of seconds to take photos. The centrepiece is the castle itself, where every half hour there's a ten minute psychedelic projection on the front. Billed as 3D mapping, it plays around with the structure of the building: having its sections rotate like a Rubik's Cube, the whole thing burn and rebuild, or a phoenix fly out of it. It's spectacularly silly, and probably not something the castle's builders were planning on 400 years ago.
After that comes our successful trip to Yellow Ape Craft, and from then on we're effectively just winding down. On our late return to Kyoto station we take the escalators up to its rooftop terrace for a delightful view over the city, only marred by staff turning the escalators off while we're up there and forcing us to walk down eight of the eleven stories to get out. Next morning, it's an early departure from Sakaran to Kansai airport, which is rammed with a) punters wanting to leave Kyoto for New Year and b) TV crews reporting on those punters. The flight is an uneventful one, which is a good thing in a week when yet another plane appears to have fallen out of the sky. (It's unnerving that five months later, I had to do a search to remind myself which plane this was.) We land in Helsinki to find it covered in snow, and The BBG tries to come up with some sort of scenario where we’re snowed in enough that we have to spend the night in Helsinki, but not so much that we can’t spend the night in a hotel near the BrewDog bar. (It doesn't happen.)
We don't eat on the short-haul Finnair flight back to London, mainly because they want you to pay for it. Still, we make up for it back at Heathrow (20 hours after getting out of bed that morning) with a meal of fish, chips and beer – we send a photo of ourselves in the bar back to Miki, as we imagine she thinks that’s a typical English night out. It's an enjoyably stereotypical end to another lovely holiday in one of our favourite countries. One thing, though, Japan: for all your excellence in toilet technology, couldn’t you at least consider using something more than single-ply toilet paper? It’s something you should look into before the 2020 Olympics. I’ll be coming back to check up on that. Being a monkey, and all.