Japan Day 13 - Kyoto

Villa Front Kyoto Seimei was a strange place to say the least. I had booked it for $60 per night, which was a steal in Japan, and so I suppose I couldn’t complain too much, but it was still an odd place. It wasn’t really a hotel or an Airbnb. It was a building full of rooms like a hotel, but without the staff. Instead, someone at a drug store, a 20-minute bus ride away, was working the check-in and check-out. The room itself could have been really nice. It was brand new, spacious, with two queen beds, and laid out similar to a western-style hotel room. The drawback was that with all that space, there wasn’t a single drawer or shelf to set anything on, no counter space, not even a hook or a rack for a towel in the bathroom. I take that back, there was one towel rack on the shower door, a door which folded open. When the door was pulled closed, I noticed a little too late that the towel rack was actually on the inside of the shower, and I had just soaked my towel. To top it all off, the pillows were ridiculously uncomfortable. I’ll sleep on anything. In five plus years of traveling, and sleeping in a lot of less-than-ideal places, I don’t think I’ve ever once complained about a mattress or a pillow. This pillow felt like a stack of newspapers as Fletch put it. The bottom half was made up of these weird plastic beads, all densely packed together. The top half was a small layer of foam covering the beads. It was awful. I’ve slept on my backpack before with better results.

We spent the morning relaxing, lazy with the knowledge that we had two full days here instead of just one. Fletch caught up on some work. I scoured the internet and guide books for a good lunch spot. By the time hunger struck, I had found the perfect place, an eel restaurant called Kyogoku Kane-yo. We hadn’t had much eel yet on our trip, and we were both craving it.

The other downside to our “hotel” was that it was in a residential area and we had to get on a bus to go anywhere. Luckily the bus stops were a short walk away. Of course all the stop names were only given in the Japanese characters, kanji, and so we had to play match-the-kanji, 9 stops over to the Shinkyogoku Shopping District.

We found the restaurant down a little side street with the help of Google Maps and some user-submitted photos of the storefront on TripAdvisor. What did people ever do before smart phones? The inside was quaint, with a window looking out to a miniature, though nicely landscaped garden area with a waterfall. The lady saw the color of our skin and gave us an English menu. Everything on the menu was eel, cooked a dozen different ways, in a dozen different dishes. They all looked to be on the small side, and so we just started pointing and ordering one of nearly everything, until I lost track of what was supposed to be arriving at our table.

Two carafes of sake arrived, along with the compulsory little side dish they always serve with alcohol in Japan. It’s odd, a snack nearly always comes with alcohol, and yet it’s not complimentary. In this case it was something that looked to be salted eel spine. It crunched like a potato chip but was a little too salty for my taste. The eel with cucumbers and vinegar was a much better appetizer, and I was oh so thankful for something green. I was definitely beginning to notice a lack of fresh produce in the Japanese diet by week two. The next dish was eel liver with okra. The liver had a terrible burnt taste, but was edible after dousing in sweet, eel sauce.

Eel liver and okra. 

There is a Japanese dish called chawanmushi, which is a hot, savory egg custard, usually with random bits of cooked fish floating around inside. I never used to be a fan before. Something about custard being hot and savory instead of sweet just didn’t sit right. Of course I wanted Fletch to experience all the delights that Japanese cuisine had to offer, both the wonderful and the weird, and so we ordered a little pot of eel chawanmushi. It turned out that the taste had grown on me. I am now a fan of chawanmushi! And Fletch liked it from the beginning.

Eel chawanmushi

Finally, we got a big bowl of rice covered in a nice eel fillet and an omelet. All this reminiscing over that eel meal is making me hungry. It was totemo oishii as they say in Japanese (very delicious).

When we left the restaurant, we weren’t completely full yet, and so stopped for desert at a little taiyaki stand next door. Taiyaki is a sweet cake shaped like a fish, stuffed with some sort of red bean or matcha custardy goodness, and then topped off with ice cream and other sweets like mochi or cookies. Yeah, pretty much what every kid dreams of if they had to pick one food to eat for the rest of their lives. I opted for the black sesame ice cream, and Fletch the matcha. When in Japan, take advantage of the experiences you can’t find back home.

Taiyaki with black sesame ice cream. 

We wandered back towards the bus stop, without any real goal in mind. We passed by a department store we had seen in several cities now called “Loft,” and so decided to check it out. The store appeared to just keep going up and up and up, floor after floor of random home goods and gadgets. Fletch bought some lotion horrendously named “Moist,” meaning that I had to hear the word “moist” way more often than was necessary from then on. Why is that such a terrible word? We had fun browsing through all the random doodads that might have been found in a SkyMall magazine. Things such as fans that blew hot air instead of cold, cute head wrap towels with bunny ears, bathroom mats made out of stone, and travel eating utensil kits.

On one floor we found a cat cafe hidden in the corner. Obviously we had to go in. I love cats and Japan is where the whole cat cafe craze started. We removed our shoes and sanitized our hands, then walked past a mirrored counter where the Japanese and Chinese patrons were trying on cat ears. They are all about the props for the photos. Finally we were allowed to enter the cat room. The room was nicely decorated, with a big cat tree in the center and various bird cage looking shelves hanging from the ceiling, all great perches for a kitty to enjoy.

Cat Cafe Mocha

Something was off though.

I approached the first little fluff and cautiously put my hand in front of its nose, allowing it to get to know me before a stranger started harassing it. No response. Puzzled, I went in for the stroke. Usually cats have a momentary flinch were they try to avoid getting pet before they succumb to love. Or maybe they start purring if they really enjoy it. This cat was no more reactive than a stuffed animal. Slightly unsettled, I moved on to the next kitty, and went through the same process, with the same results. There were maybe 15 cats in the room and they all acted drugged. It felt like petting the tigers in Thailand, which I am embarrassed to admit I fell for. It just felt wrong. Something was very wrong. These were all young cats too; they should have been playing and jumping and wrestling with each other. It was a very disconcerting experience. The cafe charged for every ten minutes, and so Fletch and I both hurried out as soon as our ten minutes were up. I left missing our loving, purring, island mutt of a kitty who was currently back in Colorado.

Kitties at the Cat Cafe Mocha. 

We left the Loft and continued back in the direction of the bus stop. Our next scenic route led us down a covered walking street, and into a honey shop. The guy running the shop was amazing, and spoke very good English. He was incredibly friendly, and wasted no time in striking up a conversation, and then kept pouring us samples of different honey drinks and concoctions. We couldn’t even finish one sample before he was presenting us with another. We managed to sneak a peek at some of the prices, which were all extravagant, and so began to feel bad about not buying anything, but the samples just kept coming. Luckily we were saved by a loud Italian couple who burst through the door complaining about her husband’s sore throat. I would have considered her demanding tone rude, but she saved us by creating a diversion for the friendly shopkeeper and allowing us to sneak out without the sales pitch that surely would have followed.

A window full of sweets was too eye-catching to pass up, so we contemplated bringing some back to the room for later. The little travel cutlery sets we had seen at Loft came back to mind, and it struck us that we should buy those instead of continuing to use disposable plastics on every takeout meal. After living on the ocean and seeing the amount of trash wash up first hand for so many years, I have become painfully aware of every piece of single-use plastic I consume. The travel utensils were a great idea. So we returned to Loft, picked ourselves out a couple of sets that came with a fork, spoon, and chopsticks, and then returned to the sweets place and picked out some desserts for later on in the day.

The covered street seemed to be nothing but tourists, and mostly of the white variety. The gaijin (foreigners) were very funny to watch in Japan. They all carefully avoided eye contact with one another, and walked around with this air like they were the only gaijin in Kyoto. Ten years ago that may have been the case, but Kyoto in 2018 had way more tourists than I was comfortable with.

How's this window display for weird Japanese food? Hot dog, and fried shrimp parfaits... Don't worry, these aren't the sweets we brought back with us. 

We had our fill of tourist central, and so walked back to the bus stop. There was a kaiten zushi (conveyer belt sushi) place right there, with a little stand facing the street selling some packaged sushi to go. It would probably be a good idea to have something for dinner besides just sweets, so we picked up several rolls for dirt cheap. After an obligatory stop at the conbini for drinks, we retired to the room, happy to save our energy for a day full of sightseeing tomorrow.