The jetlag problem improved drastically today as we woke up at 3 and stopped pretending to sleep by 3:30. We carried on some deep conversations (because 3 hours of sleep really cleared our heads like Drano would a toilet) for two hours, then we stepped our for an early morning walk like a grandparent-aged couple.
Breakfast at a convenience store was something else needing to come off our check list. What better time to do it than a time when nothing else was open? I got myself a ginger-honey-lemon drink from the heater (instead of refrigerator) because any warm drink other than tea/coffee would be considered weird in the US. For food, I got a sandwich and she got a curry bread, both of which were pretty good.
We walked around the business district and found some early risers – full suit at the office by 6am, really? Then we walked to the Imperial Palace and stopped at an art museum’s garden on the way. Later, Hong enjoyed a cup of morning coffee at the gourmet cafe of choice – McDonald’s. We sat, afraid to make a noise, among a room full of professional individuals who ate and read newspapers in silence. There was no music and people did what they needed to do in a perfectly orderly manner. The experience made me paranoid to think about entering a library in Japan. I’d probably need some ninja training before I can walk around without disturbing other patrons!
After checking out of the hotel, we dragged our luggage back to Tokyo Station and obtained our flashy JR Passes. The timing was just right and we were able to catch the next Hikari train to Maibara. I remember hearing about the Shinkansen bullet train as a kid, and was very excited being able to experience it. Although it wasn’t a new technology any more, it was still faster, quieter, and smoother than any of the trains I had ever taken. The interior was quite nice, too, with far more space for legs and luggage than the travel websites made it sound.
After two and so hours, we arrived at Maibara, the “rice field”, or from our snobby perspective, the middle of nowhere. It was the closest Shinkansen stop to Hikone, an even smaller town that we took a local train to. Hikone housed one of Japan’s only four castles with the national treasure designation, and it was the only one not under renovation or too terribly out of the way.
The small town reminded us a lot of, well, small towns in Taiwan. It was cute, but the problem was we couldn’t find any restaurant within the ten-minute walk between the train station and the castle grounds. We resisted the urge to return to the train station for another McDonald’s lunch, and eventually found a soba specialist alone the moat. The place had a nice classic aura and the food was alright, but the price tag wasn’t exactly what I’d expect from a small town.
Hikone Castle was built 400 years ago on top of a mountain by the Biwa (Chinese: pi2 pa2 as in the music instrument) Lake. Upon crossing the entrance bridge over the moat, mountain roads spiraled up with many guard towers, bridges, gates, and walls on the way. Honmaru, the main castle building, was propped up on a high stone base above the mountain peak. There were so many layers of defense mechanism that we wondered if anyone had attempted to attack it. If we were ancient soldiers, simply climbing to the top would have had us defeated.
And it did defeat us. Foot aches started to escalate and we had to cut the side trips out. If anyone wonders what the Hikone lord’s garden looked like or where the peasants shopped, well, we do too. As a result, we arrived at Kyoto early and checked into our hotel, which, given the crammed setup, looked like a side business of Seattle’s Best Coffee.
There was a thought that hotel rooms couldn’t possibly get smaller than the one in Tokyo. Meh, incorrect! It should’ve been a warning sign that the reception counter was smaller than the coffee bar. Our room was a “semi double” – a term that puzzles me because semi = 0.5x and double = 2.0x, so doesn’t semi double = single? It surely wasn’t bigger than any single room that I was capable of imagining. The bathroom was so tiny that they had to install the toilet at an angle… and the garbage can? The size of a small milk carton from America!
After a two-hour nap on the barely-wider-than-twin bed, we grabbed dinner above the train station. It was a random advice of wisdom from my dad, who I had no idea even had been to Kyoto. We picked a place out on the “ramen street” on the 10th floor, bought meal tickets from the vending machine, and enjoyed some really nice noodles. It wasn’t ridiculously salty like all Japanese-made ramen I had had in the US, and this gave me some newfound respect for Japanese cuisine.
What made no sense to me was, that the gate way to Kyoto the “ancient city” was like something straight out of a Star Wars filming set. Kyoto Station, the connecting towers, front plaza, and Kyoto Tower are all of futuristic design and remind you more of Mars than of World Heritage sites.
To conclude the day, we had dessert at a Lipton Cafe. That’s right, the upscale Lipton Cafe!