Kyoto during New Years was an amazing experience. I did not set my alarm the whole week I was there, so I woke up when I was ready to each morning. There was never a day that I slept in ridiculously late and since I was there for a whole week, it wasn’t like I was trying to cram everything into just a day or two. My vacation was very relaxing.
At the same time, Kyoto during the New Year period is insanely crowded. Some of the temples and shrines I went to were so crowded you could not move. You didn’t even have to know where you were going because you were just kind of pushed and pulled to where you needed to be by the massive crowds of people. It was an interesting experience. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, because for the most part, I did. Some of the shrines I visited had a street fair feel leading into the main shrine area. There were lots of stands selling various street foods. Some even had tented seating areas where you could sit on covered plywood benches/tables and warm-up near the space heater.
This time, I took advantage of public transportation in the form of loop buses. These buses are super convenient and a day pass only cost ￥500. If you are going to take the bus at least three times, this pass is the economical option. The bus could be crowded at times, but that is part of the fun. At various stops there were employees of the bus company to assist you as to what bus to take (there is more than one loop bus route). Due to the crowds, some stops had police to help with keeping everything in order. I don’t think they were really needed as everyone was patiently waiting in line to board.
I also went to the sentō – twice! Both times the health/beauty bath had a different herbal mixture. The first time the water was green. The second time I went it was a lovely shade of blue. What either of these mixtures was supposed to do, I have no idea. I couldn’t even sound it out to look it up later as the information was mostly kanji. And yes, I went in the 電気風呂 – the electric bath! The electric bath is a terrifying yet invigorating experience. The thought of climbing into a tub full of water with an electric current running through it brings up images of hairdryers or radios falling into the bathtub and thoughts of electrocution. A few times in the past I’ve reached into a fish tank and due to grounding issues have felt a mild electric current. This was different. I didn’t submerge myself fully (up to my chin) as I was nervous about the electricity. What happens when the metal plates supplying the current lineup with your heart? Seriously, that is what was running through my head. It did feel really good on my legs and hands though.
Another thing I did was spend a whole day shopping. Yes, I spent one day of my vacation going around to different stores. I visited Takashimaya, a famous department store in Kyoto. I window-shopped and had lunch up on the restaurant floor. The service was amazing. I also visited three different teashops. That was the real purpose of my shopping day. For those of you who are thinking A: why go to three different tea stores? And B: how long can that really take?, let me tell you, it’s not just about picking up some tea, it’s an educational and relaxing experience. Customer service in Japan is amazing.
I went to the Ippodo Tea Company Kyoto shop. At their Kyoto location they have a tearoom where you can order the different teas that sell. You don’t just get a cup of tea, you get a lesson on how to prepare that specific tea. You can sit an relax, enjoying your tea and deciding if that is a tea you want to purchase to enjoy at home. I was not overly fond of the tea I tried; it was too bitter. I did pickup some tea that I enjoy on an almost daily basis though.
I also visited the Fukujuen Kyoto Flagship Store. This is a multi-level store devoted to tea and tea products. The street level floor has Uji teas while the lower level has a wider variety. Upstairs there is a restaurant, a tearoom, and a floor of tea utensils. Both Ippodo and Fukujuen offer tea preparation lessons. Tea is serious business in Kyoto.
The last teashop I visited, Horaido, was the hardest to find. I unknowingly passed it multiple times, but finally saw the sign. This store was cramped and dark (due to the low ceiling) but had a wide range of Uji teas. Uji teas are desirable and the area is famous for its green teas. Uji is just a short train ride from Kyoto (between Kyoto and Nara).
I am now stocked up for the next few months and have been enjoying my tea on a daily basis since I returned from Kyoto. I am back at work and keeping busy (as well as warm) since the New Year period ended.