City of the Sublime

When you pull into Kyoto, you could be forgiven for naively thinking that it’s just another industrial Japanese city.

Kyoto skyline

However, the city is actually full of some of the most incredible castles, temple and shrine you’ll ever see.

You can turn corners and find yourself face to face with some of the largest wooden buildings on earth.

Higashi-Honganji Temple

The grounds of most of these buildings are almost completely hidden from the streets and contain their own treasures:

Sanjusangen-do Temple

Traditional Japanese and bonzai gardens can be found everywhere:

Pond at Sanjusangen-do Temple

Bonzai garden at Kiyomizudera Temple

Garden at Nijo Castle

Later you can climb the lush hills, where you’ll pass graveyards on the way to various shrines:

Kyoto graveyard

The hills are dotted with different temples and shrines, each their own charms:

Pagoda at Kiyomizudera Temple

Chion-in Temple

Gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Statue at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Some seem to literally appear out of the hills:

Kiyomizudera Temple

If you explore a little off the beaten path you might find yourself in the middle of a bamboo forest:

Bamboo at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Back on the beaten path, you can wind your way through the wooden houses and granite paving stone streets of the old city:

Ninenzaka steps

Old Kyoto alleyway

If you hunt around, you’ll get a glimpse of courtyards full of rock gardens and ornate fantasy gardens attached to tea houses:

Japanese garden framed in door

Tea house koi pond

When you explore Nijo Castle, you almost expect a samurai to come walking around the corner:

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle with Kyoto Skyline

It’s a beautiful city and should be on any Japan traveller’s agenda.

Here are a few parting shots:

Gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Statue at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Statue at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Incense at Sanjusangen-do Temple

More Great Japanese Food

One of the things I love about traveling is the opportunity to sample great food. We’ve been having some great experiences in Japan.


The Koru-mon Noodle House is a tiny little shack in Shinjuku. They specialize in soba noodles; try the “machine gun” for a slightly spicier dipping sauce:

Broth at Kuro-mon Noodle House

Soba at Broth at Kuro-mon Noodle House


Monjayaki is a variation on a Japanese pancake. The ingredients are brought to you and then cooked (by your waitress or you) on a hotplate built into the table:

Monjayaki in Tsukada

It’s great fun to watch. The waitress organizes all the ingredients into a pile on the hot plate. A lot of chopping ensues. The chopped ingredients are then formed into a ring around the hot plate.

The waitress then pours half the batter (it’s in the bowl, below the ingredients) into the center. Much mixing and folding occurs.

The rest of the batter is mixed in and you let it cook for a few minutes. After that, you simply scrape off the piece you want to eat:

Monjayaki in Tsukada

We had our monjayaki in Tsukuda. If you go down Nishinaki Dori (the main street), you’ll find tonnes of great places. (You should also visit the nearby Sumiyoshi Shrine).


The sister of monjayaki is okonomiyaki. If monjayaki is a pancake, okonomiyaki is a pizza. Except that it’s made of egg, not dough, fried and topped with barbecue sauce and mayonnaise.

Oyshi! (Delicious)



A few months back I read an article in the NY Times about Tokyo’s ramen shops so we had to visit at least one of them before we left. We ended up going to Nagi in Kabuki Cho.

To get there, you walk through the chaos of Shinjuku, dodge the touts of Kabuki Cho’s red light district, walk up a cedar lined alley and then climb the steep narrow stairs into a poorly marked upstairs restaurant. Here’s Wendy trying to leave:

Wendy on Nagi Ramen stairs

The place seats 8, all at a bar. The chef is on the other side and boxed in all night. If you know what you’re ordering you buy a ticket from the vending machine and place it on the counter (don’t worry, if you’re clueless like us you just need to say “pork” or “fish”).

After a couple of minutes, a heap of steaming noodles topped with a few slices of pork appear. As you wait, you can contemplate what else you would order if you spoke any Japanese:

Writing at Nagi Ramen

Diner Food

If you’ve ever lived in Toronto and worked in an office tower or visited a mall, you’ve probably seen an Edo Japan restaurant offering teriyaki. New Yorkers may have been to the lonely states-side outpost of Japan’s Yoshinoya; it’s in Times Square (and the only one on the East Coast).

What I didn’t realize until visiting here, is that these are the Japanese equivalent of a diner.

We went to one in Kyoto and after ordering you sat at stools, just like in a North American diner. It felt quite like a diner, except for the ordering – you did that from a machine (a la ramen above) and then brought your ticket to a stool to get your meal made. The nice thing here is that you could see the picture of what you were buying before you purchased it:


The actual meal was delicious. Miso soup instead of chicken noodle. A variation on the garden salad. An terikyaki with an egg instead of a club sandwich.



In Tokyo we ate at a nice little place in Harajuku called Mother Kurkku. It was the least Japanese restaurant Japanese restaurant we’ve been to yet. The (smoke free!) second floor dining room had a double height ceiling (I think it’s a converted loft) and glass walls.

Plus, the wait and kitchen staff were all female.
Mother Kurkku

The menu is very simple; there are only a few things available (pork, fish and spaghetti – there’s an Italian food fad going on right now [seriously]). I picked the pork, which was described as “pork boiled in broth”. Here’s what it looked like:

Boiled pork at Mother Kurkku

Maybe you can tell from the picture – that’s basically bacon. This is bacon boiled in stock. And it tasted great. I would never think to cook it this way; now I may have to add it to the repertoire.


Japan is not on the backpacker circuit as it’s not known for its low prices. However, you can eat surprisingly cheaply here if you want.

Every city has a set of cafeteria-style noodle houses. You grab a tray, pick which broth you want with your udon noodle and then maybe grab a piece of tempura (friend chicken sounds so much fancier when you call it tempura).

Udon cafeteria noodles

However, these are not crappy udon noodles. For instance, the place that I ate at had it’s own noodle machine in the front. It was only a matter of minutes between when the noodles were made and when they were served to you:

Noodles made at cafeteria

Octopus Balls

The Japanese love their octopus balls. They’re served as a meal by themselves or sometimes as an amuse bouche. They’re also surprisingly tasty – and this from someone who hates most seafood; they’re a nice mix of crunchy and rubbery – great texture.

Octopus balls

But don’t take my word for it; check out how much Wendy loves ’em:

Wendy eating balls. Octopus balls

Land O’ Engineers

Japan is really proud of it’s industrial heritage and engineering skills. It’s on display everywhere.

You can’t go through any town without seeing a warren of bridges and canals and elevated highways:

Trains on bridge near Ochanomizu Station


Construction sites also have to happen on a massive scale and surround themselves with a bit of mystique:


There are even ads for robotics and machine tooling companies:



But nowhere is it more obvious of how big their engineering culture is than when you ride the Shinkanzen bullet train. We took it between Kyoto and Tokyo, where the N700 rips along at over a kilometer every fifteen seconds.

At that speed you only have a few seconds to take anything in; many things pass by too fast for your eyes to focus on or for your visual cortex to comprehend. You literally can watch clouds change perspective as you whiz by.

But don’t take my word for it; here’s a video of our trip. I particularly like how the rice paddies come in and out of perspective:

As you whip through the Japanese countryside, you also see strange industrial installations. There’s a Fujitsu elevator factor in the middle of nowhere; it has a giant, many hundred foot tower that is presumably for testing the elevators before they ship. You fly by the huge Sanyo Sun Ark, an interestingly shaped solar lab.

Japan’s countryside is also about man triumphing over nature. Power lines come down from the lush, cloud-swept mountains and gingerly step their way across terraced rice paddies.


A great journey and a fitting representation of the country.