>The day was physically and mentally exhausting and filled with drama galore!
First off we only had the morning left in Kyoto before taking the 2pm shinkansen back to Tokyo. So we checked out early, but left our bags in the hotel, once again crossing the road to grab a train – this time with the time constraint we had to keep it near, so we decided to go to the Inari Fushimi shrine and to Tofukuji temple, just two or three stops away on the JR line.
The Inari Fushimi shrine was nice and empty in the morning. Hardly any tourists – perhaps because there was little autumn foliage to be seen and the bulk of the Japanese visitors seem to be making a beeline straight for the places with coloured trees. So the shrine was left quiet and empty and very peaceful.
The shrine was dedicated to the fox deity and it was the headquarters of all fox shrines in Japan. It is known for its long long line of torii gates which stretch for many km into the hillside. The gates, given by devotees, form dark vermillion tunnels leading all the way up and into the hills. We didn’t go all the way up because we had not enough time. Just enough to wander up a bit, take a couple of pictures and move down. It was an impressive sight though – to see so many thousands of bright orange torii one after another going on forever up the hills, through the trees etc. Lonely Planet commented that the further up you go, the eerier it can be sometimes – particularly in the late afternoon or evening. I would love to try that some time! Not with 5kids in tow though!
The kids insisted on buying their little fox good luck charms, which I know they would lose soon enough, but almost each one had an omamori by then, and this was really going to be our last stop in terms of temples/shrines, so I caved. Isaac and Owain both got tiny gold angular foxes which denote good academic success.
Finishing Fushimi Inari quickly, we went off one stop down to Tofukuji.
Just getting off the train should have set off the warning bells in us already about the size of the crowd – but it didn’t. We could barely move off the platform – the crowd was that thick. It was slow moving all the way down, and out of the tiny station, then out onto the street. Gosh, it was so packed with people that everyone really just seemed to shuffle along instead of walking. Everywhere there was people, people and more people! I guess the turnout was larger than any I’ve seen before because Nov 23 was a public holiday too.
Gamely though, we pushed on, just following the crowds, so huge that policemen had to be deployed to do crowd control and crowd directions. We stopped at some sub-temples along the way just to get out of the huge river of people streaming along, always taking careful note of each other. I knew that this was prime situation for getting lost – and God help us if we did! A crowd this size, getting lost or separated from the kids would be a nightmare beyond nightmares.
And with Murphy’s Law in full effect this trip, yep, it seemed we would do just that.
It happened right after we jumped out of the crowd to scan some nice trees in a quiet garden. When we decided to jump back into the crowd, for some reason, the crowd just grew larger and everyone seemed to swarm up front, pushing us apart.
So I had Isaac, Caitlin and baby Trinity with me. I couldn’t see KH but hoped he was with Gillian and Owain. We were just swept along with the crowd. I gripped the children’s hands and called to them to stay close and never ever let go of my hand. At the same time, I was worried about being separated from KH and with the size of the crowd, I had decided it was better to just forget about going to Tofukuji. So I called out: Daddy! KH!! Go to the left! Go to the left! Owain! Gillian! Left!
I don’t know if they heard me and I had no response but we were still being swept inexorably onward. I could barely see above the heads of the people in front of me, but soon realised that there was a wooden covered bridge ahead. I knew that one of Tofukuji’s highlights was a wooden bridge and the outstanding autumn views from the bridge. So I guessed this might be it – hence the eager crowd just pushing its way though.
Right at the front, we were pushed onto the bridge – everyone else seemed to be pushing their way, forcing their way up. I decided to be as Japanese as everyone and elbowed my way through too, to the railing of the bridge. In a split second, I wondered how the old bridge was going to hold the weight of so many people! But just then, I caught sight of the scene before me. Despite my anxiety at being separated from KH and the others, I could not help but marvel at the sight. The kids were open-mouthed too at the wonder before them – the glorious blaze of red and gold and yellows in the valley and the sides. It was autumn in full glow here. Absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I wished I had a camera to take a picture! I realised that this was not the famous bridge after all, but it faced the real one! The people on the other side of the gorge were also spilling out of the bridge gawking at the scenery and back at us!
After a minute or so of gawking, we were again pushed out the other end of the bridge. That end was quieter and the crowd had spaced out. The avenue led to the main entrance of the Tofukuji temple complex. Meanwhile, still no sign of KH and the kids. I was beginning to really worry about separation but I still had some aces up my sleeve.
The kids and I walked to the main entrance of Tofukuji and entered the grounds. We hoped to see KH and the rest waiting for us there. Nope. The place was packed but no sign of them at all. Isaac wanted to explore the grounds to look for him. I said no. It was just madness out there and I could not risk one more kid getting lost.
After a while, I gave up and said let’s head back to the train station. My last ace. I thought that if KH gave up and went back, the station would be our meeting place. It was the only sensible place we had in common to meet.
So we battled the crowd at the bridge again and headed back, checking at every place we stopped before to see if they were there. No such luck.
Back at the front of the station, we plonked ourselves just outside a barbershop. The crowd was unbelievable, claustrophobic even, with people going in and going out and everywhere was just a big sea of faces and heads. I waited there, standing with Isaac and Caitlin and Trin in a sling. Thus far, Trin was sleeping. But KH was not there and never showed up. I really began to panic.
I had no money, no phone. I basically had no way of getting back to Kyoto station. We were stuck in Tofukuji! And I was aware that the minutes were ticking by and we risked missing the shinkansen back to Tokyo.
Yes I was in full-fledged panic by then. We looked so pathetic, like beggars at the roadside, and I felt so sorry for us being in this tight situation. Yet the kids seemed sanguine – I did tell them how and why I was worried, but it never really struck home for them. Only Isaac seemed panicky at times. He burst out with a sacrilegious “Damn them all!” once in a while. Which made me smile but I was still on the verge of hysteria.
I tried to keep it together – I knew I had to get to a phone or get some money. So I tried to borrow a phone. Most of the Japanese, despite the language barrier, were eager to help – until they realised I needed to call an overseas number (KH’s Singapore number) and then they shook their heads. I tried asking a Chinese national in halting Mandarin – he tried to help somewhat but also limited by the phone’s limitations. Tried asking an American man. But all he did was laugh and say: oh yeah in this crowd its kinda hard. I don’t have a cell phone but I sure hope you meet them soon. Etc. Right, thanks!
I was really about to scream or cry hysterically. To add to the tension, Trin woke up and started on one of her inexplicable screaming fits. She kept pointing to the station gateway and screaming “There!” and crying. Nothing would calm her. The kids looked on helplessly. There was no way to sit down and nurse – every square inch of the place was covered with people walking! Honestly, I was really about to break down. Finally I managed to calm her and nurse her by tightening the sling and adjusting it so that she nursed sitting up in the sling. Thank God I was wearing a nursing top under the layers!
I think I stood there in this panicked state for more than an hour. Until I begged this nice group of Aussies for help. I told them my story and they couldn’t offer their handphone too. But they did offer me money which I gratefully accepted. I have no way of repaying them though. They gave me about 600yen – enough to buy tickets back to Kyoto station. My plan was to run back to the New Miyako Hotel and use the phone there to call KH. I thanked the Aussies profusely and was practically in tears. At the same time, I felt so embarrassed to be caught in this sort of situation. Honestly we looked just like any of the many beggar families we see in Bangkok! There I was, two children and a baby in a sling, a hard luck story etc. Gosh!! It was awkward, and humiliating.
Even as we bought the tickets, I made Isaac run out to the entrance to check again to see if KH had come. Of course he was not there and still panicking and weak-kneed, we made our way back to Kyoto station and ran for dear life back to the New Miyako.
There in the lobby, sitting down on a bench – were the three of them – KH, Owain and Gillian! I was so relieved I teared up. I wanted to just bawl from the relief of the stress and intensity of the moment but controlled myself to just relating the story before we had to grab our bags and make a run for it. We had a scant 20min to make it to the shinkansen!
Again deja vu – we were off and running like mad to catch a train! We made it with minutes to spare, buying sandwiches and drinks for the journey. On the platform as the train pulled in, the kids jumped in while I made a last minute purchase. I had always wanted to have a bento sushi meal on board a train, buying it from the platform and I wasn’t about to let this go to waste. So with the kids frantically gesturing and hollering at me to get on board, I grabbed a box of Osaka-style saba sushi, paid for it (all of 640yen!) and jumped on board – literally with not a minute to lose for barely had I taken my seat, the train doors whooshed shut and the train pulled away.
The kids were on a high – recounting their adventures to each other. I later found out that Gillian and KH had heard me calling right from the beginning, but could not catch sight of me. They managed to push themselves out of the crowd but I could not and I was swept on. After that, the real split was when I continued on to Tofukuji in the mistaken belief that he would also press on and find me there. He, on the other hand, had already come out of the crowd before even getting on the bridge. So when I didn’t show up, he turned around and went back to the station. He waited there for a while until deciding to head back to the hotel, believing I would follow them back to the hotel since we still had luggage there. The moment of truth only dawned on him in the train when Gillian asked: er dad, d’you think mum would have any money to come back to the hotel? Then he realised – I had nothing with me. No phone, no cash. And no way of coming back. And Trin’s inexplicable crying, according to our accounts and our approximate timing, weirdly enough, that was right when KH and the kids were inside the station already, on the platform waiting for the train! Now how strange is that that she would wake up suddenly, point to the inside of the train station and howl ‘there! there!’ – sent chills down my spine! I remember walking her to the station steps itself and she kept on pointing into the station and I couldn’t figure out why! My ESP baby!
We spent the two hours on the shinkansen eating our sandwiches, dozing off, and for me, just chilling out and releasing myself from the residual tension and the high. And I enjoyed my saba sushi! And so did the kids! I finally got my sushi-on-the-shinkansen experience!
We pulled into Tokyo station at 4.30pm and it was dark already. Owain was so tired he slumped on the floor outside the men’s room while waiting for the rest to finish their turn at the loo!
We had to take a train on the Keihin-Tohoku line to Kamata station and from there, change another train on the Tokyo Ikegami line to Chidoricho station. The transfer was easy, but it was still a longish journey – made longer with tired cranky kids and heavy backpacks. I knew what we were heading on to – a comfortable ryokan with a hot bath – but the kids didn’t and so didn’t have this warm picture ahead to sustain them.
Chidoricho station, so far out of the Tokyo main drag, was right in the heart of suburban Tokyo. It was such a different picture. No neon for one! And so quiet! The streets were small, deserted, with only warm lights shining out from the odd restaurant and convenience store and of course, houses and apartments. The station was a single storey building and the train tracks were right on the roads, passing through backyards and houses.
We got off and asked a girl at a laundry for directions to the ryokan. The girl at the laundry was very helpful despite the lack of English for her and Japanese for me. She gestured and used sign language. We found our way easily enough. It was set across the tracks, up a small slope. Here we are now at Kangetsu Ryokan!
As we climbed up and passed through the bamboo gate, we found ourselves in a garden! Tiny garden lights and lanterns cast pools of light in a space of bamboo and trees. We crossed a small red ‘bridge’ and came to the warmly-lit open reception area. The lady manager welcomed us and showed us to our room on the ground floor.
Kangetsu Ryokyan is made up of two main wings – the older one (where we stayed) and constructed largely of wood and bamboo, with wall hangings and sculptures and wooden shoe racks and the newer annex, made of ferroconcrete – all Zen straight lines, grey and glass and minimalist stylish. Both wings were connected via the central garden and the reception area. Our room was in the older wing, on the ground floor. We didn’t have a attached toilet but the common one was just outside our room, and since the other room sharing the space was unoccupied, it was practically as good as our private toilet!
The children were thrilled by the room – tatami-matted and large! It looked like two rooms instead of one. Three futons had been laid out on one side of the room with a screen door and another two laid out in the other space, along with a tv, a low table and cushions. There was nothing in the way of wardrobes, just a clothes rack, but the kids were ecstatic! They loved the traditional look and feel and were busy deciding who slept on which futon. I think it was actually quite a basic set-up, but it was still a unique experience for the kids and hence, loads of fun.
Suddenly they were energized again and were busy sliding open screens and exploring the space.
We decided to have dinner outside the ryokan first. So we clattered down and out the ryokan to check out the places around. The neighbourhood was so quiet that our family seemed to be very loud as we walked around, debating what to eat. We finally saw a hole-in-the-wall sushi place. It was manned by two middle-aged ladies and seemed to be largely a takeaway joint. We observed it for a while and saw people coming up to the open counter, rattling off their orders and taking away their stuff. But then at the side, there was a tiny doorway. And inside, the width of the doorway, was a counter with stools – just enough for all of us! Perfect.
We peered in and there was a man eating there. He saw us and hurriedly finished eating, smiling all the way. The lady of the store apologised but he said it was okay. Then we all went in and sat down, ordering our food. And boy did we order! It was our last night in Tokyo and we were ready to make it a good one.
We ordered a large set – take set which had about 30 pieces of sushi (salmon, tuna, prawn, yellowfish etc) then I ordered an otoro set which came in 6 pieces, Gillian had a shake-don (salmon with rice) bowl, and I ordered an 8-piece tuna set. We had loads of ikura too which the kids devoured eagerly. Back in Singapore, ikura and otoro cost an arm and a leg and the kids were always rationed on this – I would daintily pick and pop them just pearls of ikura one at a time. But here, each kid had at least one or two pieces of ikura sushi all to themselves!
We took up the whole space and we ate and ate. The middle-aged ladies manning the store were fascinated I think. They asked where we were from and nodded when we said Singapore. In general, I’ve observed that people in Japan seem to know Singapore, or at least they don’t look blank when we say where we’re from! The ladies saw Trinity chomping on ikura and asked me how old she was. I said she was two and they seemed taken aback in awe and asked to see her teeth. I got Trin to open wide and they nodded, satisfied and asked: what can she eat since we were all eating fish? I pointed to the ikura and the salmon and tuna and they seemed amazed that she was eating all that at two years old! I thought Japanese kids started on sushi even earlier so I could not understand their amazement!They promptly prepared some tamago maki gratis just for Trin. I thanked them profusely for their generosity!
The slices of fish were fresh, slick and generously thick – half a cm at least! – and long too, draping over the mound of rice. So unlike Singapore where you’d get a thin slice sitting primly on top with nothing draping over! That night we ate till our hearts’ content, reaching a stage of satiation like we never would have back in Singapore – we actually had to ta-pao part of the tamago maki! And the bill? 4900yen. KH and I shook our heads – we just had the best and the cheapest sushi meal of all time right in the heart of one of the world’s most expensive cities – Tokyo!
We strolled around the neighbourhood for a while before heading back to the ryokan. KH insisted on taking pictures at the rail/road intersection, waiting until the barriers came down, a car stopped and the train whizzed by! It was a quiet place and there was no noise at all, cars were rare and there wasn’t even tv sounds or sounds of any family life. Compared to the rest of what we had seen at Tokyo, this was really very unusual – but in a good way! One thing we also found weird was the large number of laundromats and full-service laundries! There were at least five or six in a small area the size of a football field! Did nobody do their own laundry here?
Back at the ryokan, it was rotemburo time! I got the guys to babysit Trin while Gillian, Cait and I hit the hot bath. There was a common indoor ladies bath right outside our room, but we wanted to try the outdoor rotemburo – which was on the roof top of the annex. So Gillian and I dressed in our yukatas while Cait undressed to her long johns and we walked through the gardens, across a glass bridge and up the lift in the annex to the 4th floor.
It was a cosy, welcoming place! There was a sink, pigeonholes with wicker baskets for us to leave our clothes in, and a toilet with the bells and whistles. Once we had undressed in the warmth of the room, left our folded clothes in the wicker baskets, we took a deep breath and opened the door to the outdoor terrace.
The cold air hit us with a blast! I think it was about 9 to 10deg. We hurriedly hit the bank of showers. I washed Cait as quickly and as thoroughly as I could, then myself, shivering all the way. Thank God it wasn’t very windy, but it was bad enough! We were all starkers in front of each other which was not a problem with me. No one else was using the rotemburo which was not very sizeable. One by one we got into the hot water. Steam was rising from the surface. It was fun to hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘ouch’ as Gillian and Caitlin inched themselves in. Then I went in. And my gosh, the water was great!!! It was blissfully hot and I could just lie in that heat forever! With the cold air and the hot water – man, it was heaven.
It was a really fun and a nice experience for all of us girls to share and till today, Cait still calls it one of the best times she will always remember from the trip. So nice to sit in there and soak in the hot hot water together, giggling and talking. I took pictures of course – all RA!
After a while, though reluctant to get out, we had to. The boys were impatient to go for their turn I was sure. So we rubbed ourselves dry, dressed in the yukatas and went back down. And true enough, Isaac and Owain were jumping in their impatience to go. I gave a clueless KH a briefing on onsen etiquette before they went.
While they were gone, I washed Trin, walked out to get myself a bottle of Coke from the vending machine and drank it in the room. Oh feeling so mellow from the bath!
It took a while and the boys came back and it was obvious they had fun! Owain from the waist down was the pink of boiled lobster! They didn’t want to get out of the tub. I took a RA shot of him, balls and all, a lovely shade of hot pink!
After that, the kids headed out to the public spaces – rooms where you could use the massage chair, watch DVDs, use the internet, listen to music etc. I stayed in and snuggled under my futon blanket, nursed Trin to the background of buzz of Japanese tv and slowly fell asleep.
Now that, is what I call the real Japanese accomodation experience! I didn’t want to leave Japan not having gone through a night in a Japanese inn, with a Japanese public bath experience. It was rewarding for me and a fun eye-opener into Japanese culture for the kids. Something they would always remember. Kangetsu Ryokan was a real haven for me that night – coming after the horrible nightmare of the morning, it was a real balm to my soul for the night. And as for the kids, they were busy oohing and ahhing and finding their own slice of memory in the ryokan that night. Gillian enjoyed listening to music from CDs in the outdoor pavilion, headphones on. Isaac enjoyed surfing the net and playing his net games online. Owain and Cait hit the massage chairs. They had loads of fun and told me after that they wished they had stayed here from the very beginning.
It was our last night in Tokyo, and I was glad I made it a memorable one for them.