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WHAT TO DO IN KYOTO FOR FUN

This post is part of a Japan Trip series.

If you visit just one city in Japan, make it Kyoto. With its temples, geiko (geisha), bamboo groves, walking paths and traditional wooden houses it is the quintessential Japanese city combining the charm of Takayama with the glitz of Tokyo.

Now, here’s what you should do in Kyoto.

STAY AT THE HYATT REGENCY KYOTO

After my spartan stay at Ekoin walking into the Hyatt Regency Kyoto felt like entering a palace. A concierge! Restaurants! My own shower! Sure, sleeping on the floor of a monastery is all fun and games for one night. And then it’s not. I like my luxuries.

Kyoto Hyatt do in kyoto

TOP 10 REASONS TO STAY AT THE HYATT REGENCY KYOTO:

  • Complimentary taxi service from Kyoto Station (but it’s secret complimentary taxi service: the Hyatt Regency Kyoto website and the reservation confirmation emails fail to mention the service.) After you disembark, go to the MK taxi stand near the Ibis hotel to claim your cab
  • Proximity to the Yogen-in Temple (next door), Shichijo station (the Keihan Line conveniently runs North and South along the River) and a McDonald’s (I know! I know it’s wrong! But I will never get used to Japanese food for breakfast)
  • Choice of three restaurants and a bar
  • $30 off meals and spa services when you book your reservation online (this may be a temporary perk — I was surprised to receive it even though I booked my stay with points)
  • Some native English speaking staff
  • Above-and-beyond, friendly service (outside of the restaurants, anyway)
  • Garden/courtyard views
  • The Hyatt Regency Kyoto accepts and awards Starwood Points
  • To-die-for pillows (of course any pillow is going to feel like heaven after that oversized bag of marbles I slept on at Ekoin)
  • Colorful but tasteful decor:

Hyatt Regency Kyoto

WALK THE KYOTO WALKS

When you arrive at Kyoto Station, go to the Tourist Information Center to get a map and the Kyoto Walks guide (or download it here), which outlines specific routes and lists the admission fees and opening hours for the sights along them. My favorite of the Kyoto Walks was the Higashiyama Area walk (photo below) that cuts through the Gion district, past shops, restaurants, temples, and gardens into Maruyama Park, ending at the Heian Jingu Shrine. If you’re not walked-out at this point, head approximately six blocks east to catch the lovely Path of Philosophy leading to even more temples and shrines. Kyoto is not lacking in temples and shrines.

GET LOST IN GION

Exploring the Gion District was my favorite thing to do in Kyoto. Don’t stick precisely to the Higashiyama Area walk artery: explore its capillaries for glimpses into upscale residential life in Kyoto. Everything feels so secretive, so impenetrable in Japan: I’ve never felt like more of a foreigner in this land than when I wandered through Kyoto’s backstreets.

Kyoto Walk

The street you hear the most about — Shijo Street — may be the most dull: the blocks north of it are far more interesting. I’d walk them at night, passing the endless clubs, restaurants and teahouses that appear so aloof and unwelcoming. Who is going to all those places? What’s going on in there?

Geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) spotting is a popular pastime in these parts, but during the day you’re more likely to spy young Japanese women dressing up as geiko for a kick, shuffling joyfully between temples and posing for selfies with unsuspecting tourists.

From Gion, cross the Kamo River near Shijo Station and stroll the atmospheric Pontocho Alley (it runs parallel to the west bank of the river) in the evening. The narrow strip of sidewalk is not much to look at by day, but its restaurants and bars come alive at night.

SIDETRIP TO ARASHIYAMA

The Arashiyama District is an easy Japan Railway train ride from Kyoto Station. You’ll first encounter its main street, which is kinda touristy but should not be overlooked if for no other reason than the availability of green tea, black sesame and yuba tofu soft serve ice cream cones (all excellent and, yes, I indulged in one of each).

sesame softserve

A pleasant  (if melanoma-inducing) walk or bike ride through the district will lead you to multiple shrines, the Kameyama-koen monkey park, and the river where you can rent a boat and do some rowing. Or, — better yet — sit in the shade, enjoy a tap beer and watch other people row their boats past you while feeling smug.

Don’t miss the tranquilic bamboo grove.

Kyoto Arashiyama Bamboo

EAT A SEN MON TEN

Here’s how you find Sen Mon Ten restaurant: Find Man on the Moon pub, which is on many maps and sports a big sign written in English, and then look across the street. That little hole-in-the-wall restaurant at the top of the steps that you would never, ever look at twice? That’s Sen Mon Ten.

Sen Mon Ten is not fancy. For decor there’s a tv, a bar, and a few tables and stools. For food there are three varieties of gyoza (potstickers) (vegetarian, pork or pork topped with melted cheese), draft beer, sake and all the pickles you can eat. Unlike many Kyoto restaurants hidden behind foreboding heavy wooden doors, Sen Mon Ten is casual, welcoming and unintimidating, and the food is cheap and tasty. Sen Mon Ten is a neighborhood hidden gem that is worth the search.

Senmonten Kyoto

VISIT KYOTO’S TEMPLES

The one thing you absolutely HAVE to do in Kyoto is visit the temples. More on that subject in my next post…

INSIDE KYOTO

My last recommendation for what to do in Kyoto is to check-out the Inside Kyoto website before you go. It’s an attractive, straightforward website authored by Chris Rowthorn, author of Lonely Planet Kyoto. You will find everything about what to do in Kyoto and how to do it at this resource.

Read the entire Japan Trip series.

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BULK LINT: WHY BLAH AIRLINES IS MY NEW FAVORITE AIRLINE

I am in marketing, fly a lot and have a skewed sense of humor. So of course Virgin America’s new campaign cracks me up. The sarcastic creatives behind it have perfectly satired the bland flying experience and lousy customer service that’s pervasive in the uninspired airline industry and have delivered it in the boring package that is BLAH Airlines.

You will get there. — BLAH Airlines

The name says it all. — Connie C., 54. Payallup, Washington

BLAH AIRLINES DESIGN

BLAH Airlines logoThe brilliance of the BLAH Airlines design (hell, the whole campaign) is not that it’s so bad, but that’s it’s so believably bad.

Of course beige is the brand’s color scheme: that’s a no-brainer. But that font selection is pure genius — awful enough to offend, but it’s not overly offensive. I’ll bet valuable BLAH Airlines miles (that can be redeemed for earphones that work) that the marketers behind this graphic travesty debated long and hard over the just-right so-wrong-it’s-right typography.

And about the layout of the logo. It’s not good. Again, the team successfully managed to balance off-putting with not quite over-the-top-off-putting that would trespass beyond the realm of belief.

it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. — David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap

And a lot of thought went into creating a website that looks like not a lot of thought went into creating the website. With BLAHairlines.com’s grid paper background, mixed fonts (some with shadows — always a good look), amateur graphics and grainy photos it succeeds in exemplifying the company’s commitment to mediocrity while simultaneously calling out the cookie cutter website design of nearly every airline.

BLAH AIRLINES AMENITIES

BLAH Airlines peanutsBLAH Airlines provides an array of amenities (proudly identified by #travelperks on Twitter) including (but not limited to): rear-mounted magazine pouches; complimentary peanuts (which come free, they add); drinks, sodas, and other liquids; and “entertainment” (their quotes, not mine). One might think that the marketers are going a tad bit overboard here, except I had the misfortune to fly not only Ryanair but EasyJet recently, and neither offered the luxury of rear-mounted magazine pouches; complimentary peanuts (provided free); drinks, sodas or other liquids (at no cost); nor “entertainment”.

The (BLAH Airlines) windows can be opened or closed. — Gwen G., 68. Phoenix, Arizona

BLAH AIRLINES PERKS

Blah Airlines Bulk lint

Has BLAH Airlines got perks? You bet!

For one, BLAH Airlines passengers are afforded the opportunity to buy Air Junk™ from the Air Junk™ catalogue, which offers such practical must-haves as bulk lint, a rubber band, a red brick and a paper cup. Some loyal passengers are appreciative, yet more hard-to-please flyers have expressed (through social media outlets) an unfilled need for hair picks, executive beige bricks, and bags of cat hair.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. — Abraham Lincoln

And speaking of fiber, per a Facebook announcement yesterday: you can also buy Stool on BLAH Airlines. A wooden stool that is, for passengers who want to take the comfort of their seat home with them.

I envision the Virgin America popular kids (the Marketing department) behind this campaign collapsed over a conference table in a hip, glass-walled room laughing themselves to tears over the mundacity of “bulk lint”. They’ve got a fun job, those marketers.

You might be thinking to yourself that those very marketers have finally jumped the shark with their ridiculous Air Junk™ offerings until, like me, you are forced to rifle through a stained SkyMall magazine between O’Hare and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and discover that this real-world shopping magazine makes available items as ordinary as 7-Watt Replacement Bulbs, Toilet Locks, Compression Socks, Gutter Zap Cleaning Spray and Night Bunion Regulators (great name for a band, though). Suddenly “bulk lint” doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

BLAH Airlines coffee and bev nap

Shopping aside, other BLAH Airlines perks include free cups with every decaffeinated coffee order (limit one per customer, per flight), the BLAH Airlines Beige Credit Card ($450 quarterly fee) and pay phones at their terminals. The psuedoperks are funny because they’re grounded in reality. At the risk of sounding like Jerry Seinfeld, what’s with airlines no longer offering free meals on domestic flights, having to book award travel 331 days in advance, and the lack of in-seat power outlets on most major carriers (except, ahem, Virgin America)?

BLAH AIRLINES CUSTOMER SERVICE

Like marketing, retail sales, and running a public aviation company, customer service isn’t BLAH Airlines’ strong suit.

We don’t care. We don’t have to. — The Phone Company

Customers are advised to contact BLAH Airlines over the telephone, via fax machine (they’re very fond of faxing over there at BLAH) or by sending them an email.

We may not respond, but you can always contact us via fax, phone, or email. — BLAH Airlines on Twitter

Customers calling BLAH will reach a robotic sounding, slightly-garbled and inarticulate automated attendant:

Thank you for calling BLAH Airlines. To ensure that we are best able to serve you, we will give you some options for you to pick. Please listen closely to our menu of options as they may have shifted even though they probably have not changed in years.

Customers seeking arrival or departure status information are told that their flight is delayed, those wanting nutrition information on BLAH peanuts will hear a detailed dietary breakdown for both the salted and unsalted varieties, and anyone curious as to the in-flight entertainment will learn that Gary Giggles (a baby who can talk) will be shown on longer legs. Anyone hoping to reach a human is SOL.

Not big on phones myself, I e-mailed BLAH Airlines requesting use of their photos in this post. My inquiry was met with the following reply:

Hello Individual,

You are receiving this automated electronic mail because you contacted BLAH Airlines with a comment, question, or suggestion. We acknowledge your input but are not responding to individual communications at this time. For a more personalized experience, please refer to our Response Matrix below.

Yours in transit,

BLAH Airlines, Consumer Interaction Division

“You will get there”

The Response Matrix displayed a chart offering canned replies depending on whether the email is a comment, question or suggestion and is positive neutral or negative.

If all else fails, customers are invited to chat live with Sheri, who suspiciously resembles a mannequin (with bad teeth and lockjaw).

Sheri: Welcome to BLAH, sir or ma’am!

Me: Hi, Sheri

Sheri: I didn’t realize that is how you felt about that.

Me: Sheri, I forgot my diamond tiara on the plane

Sheri: Okay, let’s go back.

Me: Back where?

Sheri: You’re going to love our peanuts.

This parody is not that far off-the-mark from the real thing. Gary Giggles sounds execrable but a quick search of current online entertainment offerings on major airlines includes such Oscar contenders as the Sandler/Barrymore hit (to use the word loosely) BlendedGodzilla (yes, there’s a 2014 version) and endless episodes of The Big Bang Theory, which is admittedly entertaining. Until the fourth consecutive episode.

And we’ve all been sucked into a hellish automated attendant vortex in which our punched-in responses deliver us to an endless loop of repeating options, our pointer finger eventually bruised from stabbing wildly at the keypad through a film of tears. Who among us has not flipped-off our phone as an automated attendant failed to recognize our verbal “DE – PAR – TURES” directive after multiple, clearly enunciated attempts? Then hated ourself afterwards for being reduced to profaning a computer.

Should a person have the good fortune of reaching a live, breathing, agent, good luck booking flights with Miles (you’d reserve them online if you could, but the options are neither visible nor bookable on the airline’s website). Just as often as not you will be rushed through your award flight inquiries by an impatient agent who clearly can’t wait to discontinue the conversation. Only to then engage in a similar conversation and another and another ad infinitum. If customer service isn’t a person’s “thing” I can respect that, but maybe in that case don’t go into customer service?

AND IN CONCLUSION

And in conclusion… Despite all my complaining I still love to fly. I’m STILL thrilled every time I pull down the window shade, pop my Ambien, recline the seat, and position my leopard-print eye pillow knowing that in sixteen hours I’ll land on the other side of the world. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD. How fortunate I am to be living in an era where continent hopping is possible, and to possess the means to do so. Crappy peanuts, blasé service, and bulk lint? It could be worse. 

Thanks, BLAH Airlines, for taking from the place where I was to the place I am going. I know I will get there!

P.S

If you haven’t flown for awhile and have forgotten just how luxurious and sexy air travel can be, fly BLAH Airlines virtually here.

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EKOIN, MOUNT KOYA: SLEEPING AMONG the MONKS

This post is part of a Japan Trip series.

CHUBU AND KANSAI REGIONS

The trip from Kanazawa to Ekoin in Mount Koya entails riding two JRL trains, a subway, a local train, a cable car and a bus.

This better be good.

mount koya cable car

MOUNT KOYA (KOYASAN)

Mount Koya is the center of Shingon Buddhism, and a small temple town has developed around the sect’s headquarters. Approximately 50 of the temples offer lodging (skukubo) to tourists. An aficionado of bizarre hotels, I could not resist the chance to stay in a Buddhist temple during my trip to Japan. I figured when I was booking it that sleeping on the floor of a monastery in a remote village atop a mountain would be either the best or worst experience of the journey.

EKOIN

The bus deposits me across the street from Ekoin, a 1,000-year old Buddhist Temple  (booked through Booking.com for $115) and likely the oldest lodging at which I’ve ever stayed. I drag Bagzillo and the rest of my luggage up to the entrance.

Bagzillo at Ekoin

Pretty much everyone else on the cable car carried only a large backpack. I realize how ridiculous I’m going to look with my three pieces of designer luggage (for a one-night stay) to a group of guys who have shunned worldly possessions.

My room at Ekoin is sparse (as one would expect in a Japanese Buddhist monastery) but it offers a fantastic view of the sunny garden. Unfortunately (and I knew this in advance) the rooms do not have bathrooms: unisex toilet stalls are located down the hallway and the communal showers (one for men; one for women) are situated on an entirely different floor. I find a household hand towel disgusting, so I’m less-than-enthusiastic about the idea of sharing shoes, a toilet and shower with a bunch of backpackers.

Ekoin Mount Koya guestroom

I have very little need for stuff here at Ekoin, so instead of unpacking my stuff (where would I even put my stuff?) I hurry to Okunoin, Mount Koya’s most sacred site, to experience it before dinner is served. More on Okunoin in the next post.

Dinner is served at the early hour of 5:30 at Ekoin, probably because there’s not a helluva lot of nightlife in Mount Koya (no clubbing tonight). My monk — all business — rushes into the room and instructs me to sit down. I take my seat on my towel (like in kindergarten), facing the window so that I can enjoy the view only to be informed by my monk that I’m facing the wrong direction. I rotate 90 degrees, now staring at the blank, lime green wall instead.

I was thrilled to learn at check-in that beer is served with the vegetarian dinner, upon request. I requested. If I can eat nothing else during this current culinary adventure, I know I’ll enjoy a cold bottle of Asahi.

Ekoin dinner Mount Koya

Play:

There are black noodles (I don’t eat black food), some weird shaped stuff, fruit (not a big fan of fruit) and something indistinguishable. Thankfully there’s also steamed rice (of course), miso soup (of course) and my new favorite food, Japanese tofu. So the meal isn’t a total bust.

After dinner I have the bright idea of returning to the Okunoin Cemetery (next post). Back in my room shortly thereafter I change into my official Ekoin yakuta (not as nice as the one in Takayama, but much easier to tie) and rest on my futon bed, which would be comfortable enough if the pillow wasn’t stuffed with what feels like pellets of rabbit food. It actually crunches audibly every time I move my head.

I turn on my laptop and voila! a wi-fi connection. I send a tweet back to the U.S.:

Hey @VerizonWireless: How come I get better wifi service in a Buddhist monastery on the top of Mount Koya, Japan than in my Chicago condo?

They don’t answer me.

MORNING

Waking-up at 6:00 a.m. is easy when you go to sleep at the nerdy hour of 9:00 p.m. I join my fellow guests to observe the daily prayer service.

Ekoin Buddhist Ceremony

It’s interesting enough for a half-hour but any longer than that and I think the nasal, monotone chanting would send me into a seizure of some sort.

Play:

Afterwards we follow the monks next door to the daily Goma fire ritual. From Wikipedia:

The ritual is performed for the purpose of destroying negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires, and for the making of secular requests and blessings; these are in the form of pieces of lumber with prayers written down by individuals and stamped with Acalanatha’s seed syllable.

Ekoin Fire Ceremony Mount Koya

Guests can purchase the “pieces of lumber”, write their prayers on them, and submit them the evening prior to the ceremony to be included in the burning (which feels a little akin to the Catholic Church selling indulgences). I beseech Buddha for better wifi service back in Chicago.

READ the entire Japan Trip series.

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