We woke up at a stupidly early time to pack up and get ready for a 7am breakfast so that we could make the train for Kyoto. This was our first authentic Japanese breakfast of the trip. As with all the ryokan meals, there was no choice in what we ate, we simply got served our breakfast. It was a lot of fun and rather tasty. We had a mix of fish, rice, soup, some components to roll our own little sushi rolls (but with hot miso paste inside) a poached egg and numerous small dishes of accompaniments. We then had a slightly nervous wait for a late taxi (nice to see something in Japan can be late though) and got onto the 8am train to Nagoya. At Nagoya we switched onto the bullet train for Kyoto and relaxed at we sped across the countryside.
Kyoto subway isn’t nearly as comprehensive as the one in Tokyo. There’s only a few lines and they’re only good for reaching a few places. We weren’t ready to figure out the buses so we jumped in a taxi to our hotel, The Royal Park Hotel, to drop off our bags. We then immediately headed out to explore and try to find the Aritsugu knife shop in a nearby old market so I could indulge in a little souvenir shopping. They offer to engrave the knives when you buy them with your name (converted to Japanese) and I had to explain that I wanted mine to have “Kyuubi” and “Hachibi” which mean “9-tails” and “8-tails”, two animal spirits from Naruto, one of my favourite anime and manga series. The young staff in the store were also big anime and manga fans (as most Japanese are) and we had a long conversation whilst the engraving was taking place all about what shows we all liked and how I got into it all. They were really lovely and had very good English.
We then tried using the subway (with the help of a local who explained how we use the machine to buy tickets) to get over to Nijo-jo Castle. This is a very large, single-storey castle in the middle of Kyoto. It is famous for the entire building having “Nightingale” floors between the outside and the interior rooms. The purpose of the floors is to make a noise when anyone walks on them so that even the most silent assassin may not approach and kill the Shogun. You might expect a squeaky floor when you step onto it but you really understand how they got the name. It’s a quite magical sound and the smile rarely left my face from walking on it all the way round the rooms. As we walked through the building we got to see the initial audience chambers, then the chambers for more important guests, slowly building up to the Shogun’s own room. All the rooms were devoid of furniture and were large tatami mat rooms which could be used as necessary. As all the walls were made of sliding doors you could open up both the exterior walls and the interior room dividers and turn the whole castle into an open air room if needed. It must have been quite something on hot days if they did that.
After the interior we toured the extensive gardens of the castle before making our way back to the hotel. We’d eaten at 7am and not yet found lunch and it was nearly 3pm. We buckled immediately and near ran for Burger King over the road. We then checked into our room and had a short rest, reveling in the feeling of a proper bed before heading out to Samurai Kembu, a short walk away. I’d signed us up for a 3 hour session where we’d watch a performance of kembu and then be shown some samurai basics ourselves. Kembu is like a performance art of samurai abilities using a sword and a fan. Samurai would traditionally do it before a battle to build courage or during celebrations and they would practise to hone their ability.
This all took place in the basement of a building on one of the larger streets east of the river. For the first out the crew of 4 performed many great short pieces which showed different styles and told stories from old samurai history. They then got us dressed into kimono that we had chosen so that we could look the part of samurai and gave us each a sword. We were joined for this by 2 other young tourists visiting from Australia but it was just the 4 of us. We were then taught the basics of drawing the sword and a number of different strikes. After a further hour the Australians left and we had a bit more time. We were taught some use of the fan for kembu and then some further (very tiring) sword techniques. We then had to practise a small kembu routine and each perform it separately on a stage. There is video footage, I do not know if it will ever see the light of day!
My knees were just about as bruised as could be after the session so we rested at the hotel for a short while before seeking a very late dinner. The hotel gave us instructions on finding a bento shop that made it hot and fresh to order. Unfortunately the shop had no English signs and all we had was the name, but the logo was just about enough to make an educated guess that we had the right place. The tonkatsu bento was rather delicious and we ended up getting to bed much too late given how much sightseeing there is to be done in Kyoto. At least the pillows were comfy!