Kyoto: Maruyama Park

Although Dan has been to Japan many times for work, this trip was my first visit, and it came about in a rather spontaneous way. We had not been planning to take a big vacation this year, but when Dan’s brother invited us to join him and one of our nieces on his business trip/vacation, we jumped at the chance. It was a great opportunity for us to have a true vacation and see Japan together, rather than adding some days onto one of Dan’s work trips. We were sorely in need of some fun and relaxation after a challenging year or so, and this was just the ticket. We didn’t really choose the timing, but it was our good fortune to visit while cherry blossom season was still in progress.

Our arrival in Japan was an easy one. After landing at Haneda late in the evening, we went straight to our hotel near the airport and slept right through until 8am the next morning. After a tasty breakfast of of soba and congee at the hotel, we made our way to the nearby train station on foot. The streets were quiet on a Sunday morning, giving me a gentle first taste of Japan. After a short ride on the local train, we arrived at Shinagawa station to catch our Shinkansen to Kyoto. 

The bullet train was an efficient (though not especially cheap) way to get there from Tokyo. The real reason we chose it, though, was that I had wanted to take a trip on one since I was a kid, and it did not disappoint. We sped past blue tiled roofs, many tiny farms and gardens, and since it was mid-April, trees were in bloom everywhere. I spent the trip glued to the window with the fascination I always feel when experiencing a new place. I noticed cemeteries with tall, narrow grave markers, lots of solar panels on roofs and in open spaces, and lots of wild mustard growing in fields that was a little connection to home. About halfway through the journey I asked Dan if the route would take us past Fuji-san, and looked up at just the right moment to see the mountain in the near distance on the other side of the train.

Kyoto Station is an impressive glass and steel structure that incorporates a giant multi-level shopping complex. Our first task was to track down the BMobile store to get a SIM card, but we were not successful. After going around in circles getting hungrier and hungrier, we eventually gave up, got some sandwiches, coffee and ‘royal milk tea,’ and then headed out of the station to catch a bus to our hotel. We had chosen to stay in the Gion district, in hotel that offered traditional Japanese-style rooms. When we arrived, our room had tatami mats and a low table and chairs, but no bedding in sight – it was stowed away for the day.

After dropping our bags and freshening up, we went out for a wander in the old-style neighborhood around the hotel. Our first thought was to head south toward the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine, but we soon realized it would take too long to get there before the light started to fade. We turned back and headed north to Maruyama Park and saw our first sakura up close. This is a popular park, and even more so during cherry blossom time. We saw many groups picnicking on tatami mats under the trees for hanami, or flower viewing parties, and there were food stalls offering lots of tasty treats.

Maruyama Park is famous for its big shidare sakura, also known as Yozakura of Gion, which is a large and ancient weeping cherry tree in the center of the park. During the sakura season, the tree is illuminated at night and attracts many cherry‐blossom viewers. Another special feature at this time of year is the kagaribi, or bonfires, that are lit in iron baskets around the park as dusk approaches. 

As it began to get dark, we walked back down from park to Tousuiro for a traditional tofu dinner. Tofu is something of an art form in Kyoto, our dinner showcased this with numerous courses spanning a wide range of styles, from firm to custard-like, and preparations including fresh, baked, fried, and poached in broth. I would call myself only a moderately adventurous eater, and it was a little bit daunting to eat some of the things I could not identify. But, since I had challenged myself to stretch a little more on this trip, I sampled everything offered – including uni, which I must admit I just got down as fast as possible. This was a good meal, but for me the concept and experience of having so many forms and textures of tofu was more interesting than the flavors themselves.

After dinner, we returned to our room, where our futon and bedding had been laid out for us for the night. We went to sleep looking forward to more exploration the next day.