Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Day 5: Great Expectations

Tonight is our first “traditional Japanese” experience at a ryokan – tatami mats, futon, low table with cushions, wall panels….I’m so excited! We booked Tani Guest-house last night as we committed to head to Kyoto today.  Tokyo is cool, but it doesn’t really offer much in the way of cultural feeling.  It’s a big city with a lot to offer, but we want to “feel” Japan. Of course, the first part of that will be right here in Tokyo – running the path around the Imperial Palace grounds where, apparently, Tokyo comes to run!

The Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo are encircled by a perfectly measured (at every 100m), traffic-free running route, with washrooms, lockers, and even posted etiquette!

I have wanted to run this since I first started looking into a vacation to Japan!

The vibe is incredible – so many runners of all abilities, right in the heart of a massive city! Mindy loved it so much that her 10-15km run turned into 25km.  Myself, I ran about 17km – probably a little long for the week leading up to my marathon in Lake Biwa…but what an experience!  

Having finished with Tokyo for now, we jumped on the Shinkansen (bullet-train) bound for Kyoto. Fast as those things go, it was a bit late when we set out, and so it was getting dark by the time we reached Kyoto.  Mindy and I were both a little worn out from the trip, and hungry, so we stopped at a grocery store to load up on dinner food.  Tani House has a kitchen, and we can eat at the low table in our room, sitting on cushions.  Feeling confident from our subway experiences in Tokyo, and loaded down with food for dinner, we got on a city bus…and then I got a little concerned when the bus driver stared at the directions on my phone for a long time before finally exclaiming the name of the stop we would need. My Japanese is pretty…um…I don’t “have” any Japanese, so he graciously flagged that stop for us as we approached.

A beautiful path into a temple complex met us at the bus stop, and this set up high hopes as we followed the map toward Tani House.  When we felt that we must be nearly there, we stopped and asked a woman who happened to be at her front door.  She struggled to explain directions to us, calling her husband out to help, and then a man who happened to be walking by overheard their conversation and – through gestures – offered to walk us there.  We were not nearly there.  In retrospect, we weren’t that far off. Had we gone back to the main street, we were one street off from where we needed to go.  However, this very kind Japanese man quickly marched us through the dark temple complex, up and down paths and through woods…I was uneasy enough that I didn’t enjoy the scenery barely visible in the darkness, and instead wondered if we were about to be robbed. 

Eventually, the man proudly stopped in front of a crudely made sign for the Tani House, and gestured for us to go the rest of the way.

In my excitement to book this ryokan experience, I neglected to read the reviews on Tani House. Once it was booked and non-refundable, I read mixed reviews.  Some said it was filthy and poorly maintained, and others claimed that a sweet woman opened her house up for the true Japanese experience.  I’m willing to see for myself; how bad can it be? The former reviews were closer to the truth. There we were, trudging through a dirt path in the dark after our generous guide had left us, coming upon a ramshackle hostel with rusted bicycles out front and a messily overgrown garden.

These photos were taken the next day in the daylight, so try to think of these with the added aspect of darkness:

The hostess (who did seem rather sweet, admittedly) led us to our room – the nicest in the place – and showed us how to set up our bed from the pile of futon mattresses and linens in a closet accessible through a window (to the outside). The room was dirty. The kitchen was vile.  The bathroom was worse than the public washrooms in Union Station in Toronto. It was so disheartening.  But it was late and dark in Kyoto, so we were staying there.  At least the sheets were clean (I know from my own backyard the stiffness of sheets that hang to dry, then get rained on, then dry again), and we were only staying one night.  We locked up our luggage and set out for a restaurant for dinner.  We were not eating at Tani House!

Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is a sleepy city.  We found one street with a few open restaurants, and found our first very pleasant surprise of the evening! Traditional Japanese, and this time it wasn’t code for dirty and run-down.

We ordered every vegetarian dish on the menu, as well as a couple of Japanese hard apple ciders to build confidence for the imminent return to Tani House.  We discovered Kyoto-style pizza (teriyaki sauce, a different crust, and delicious cheese), assorted Kyoto-style tofu dishes, and hot soup. Admittedly, we stayed away from menu items that just don't translate very well...

...and in some cases, it's not the translation:

We chatted (a bit) with one of the servers who had spent a few weeks in Vancouver and had much better English than I would have Japanese after a few weeks here! It was a fantastic experience – the feel of culture we were missing in Tokyo, and exactly what we needed after the dismal shock of Tani House. 

Eventually we had to leave, and we made our way back to the hovel. We used a blanket we had saved from the flight to cover the pillows.  At least our faces wouldn’t be resting on the questionably clean sheets.

I’m all up for adventure, but I really prefer it when my expectations are exceeded. This is a test. I have to hand it to Mindy for taking this in stride.  I have stayed in worse places….or at least one worse place, but my university-age mind-set at midnight on a night of torrential rain was willing to accept a lot.  I would recommend this place to the bums from the Tenderloin in San Francisco, but not to many others. Pretty foul.

I’d say “good night”, but I don’t think that’s true for me…

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