Day 15 – Downtown Kyoto

First thing today is to go back to the Costume Museum, which is happily open this time. It’s a cute one-room affair with a miniature-sized diorama of an Emperor’s palace, with little dolls of all the people in costume. Very nicely done, and you can also try on a full-size traditional robe and have photos taken – which I did, feeling a bit silly.

Next stop, Nijo Castle, a shogun castle dating from the 1600s. I’m in a bit of a bad mood on arriving due to navigating Kyoto’s frustrating bus system, and it didn’t improve when getting there. The place is totally filled with signs stating ‘NO PHOTOS’, ‘DO NOT TOUCH’, ‘NO SKETCHING’ (no sketching, seriously?), ‘DO NOT OPEN’ – so many rules that it ruined the enjoyment of the place, some of which would otherwise be interesting and attractive. Presumably all the rules are there to preserve the place but at a steep Y600 entrance fee, I didn’t get anything out of it. The place was also overrun by American tourists and schoolchildren with whom we had to troupe around the carefully-signposted ROUTE mapped out for us. In the gardens some schoolchildren come up and sweetly ask us some questions to practice their English and give us a little handmade booklet as a thank-you. Other than that though, the castle is a dud for me. I think I also have a touch of architecture-fatigue after seeing so much more amazing stuff on previous days.

We find some lunch in a nice French boulangerie where you grab a tray and some tongs and fill your tray with as much tasty carb-based goodness as you can eat. Pizza, garlic bread and cheese rolls for lunch – fine by me. Now to make up for the disappointment of Nijo castle with some SHOPPING.

We head back downtown, starting in the Mina department store which has a big branch of Uniqlo and some fairly nice small boutiques, including a very cute homewares store. We then veer off Kawaramachi street and find an area that felt a bit more similar to Tokyo – I even find another branch of Loft and happily reminisce. Find a cool vintage-esque clothing shop called ‘We Go’ and buy an amusingly non-sensical logo sweater. Also pop into a supermarket to stock up on some umeshu (plum wine) and sake to take home, and into a bookshop to buy the Maru book, which I’ve been searching for all holiday.

All shopped out, we find a bar near the canal called Tori Dori for a drink – nice place with food illustrations on the outside and dark wood inside. For dinner, we try yet again to go to a veggie place in the market called Hale recommended in the guidebook, but it’s still closed, with a sign in the window presumably explaining why (in Japanese). We decide to try to find a different veggie place in the guidebook that we couldn’t find at all yesterday. Walking over, we bump into a friend of Josh’s from London – totally random shock to see someone familiar in a city so far from home! We chat about our travels – they are doing a longer and more in-depth tour of Japan and have just arrived in from Tokyo; it’s nice to share our experiences.

We find the restaurant, Mikoan, this time, down a tiny alley off Teramachi Street, the English ‘vegetarian restaurant’ sign the only thing that gives it away. Walking in, we see a tiny little bar with about ten seats on the counter, and a massive accumulation of books, posters, a cat tree (!), trinkets and liquor bottles all over the place. The lady behind the bar beckons us to some free seats at the back, and we order the Y1000 set dinner. The food is as close as we get to experiencing shojin ryori, the high-class vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. Between us we get about twelve little dishes full of treats – deep-fried yuba, tofu-filled spring rolls, sesame seaweed, hot ginger and chilli beansprouts, miso broth, some I didn’t even know what they are but everything is totally amazing. The one lady cooks it all at a tiny stove behind the bar, at the same time chatting to the other customers and changing the jazz tape for the music. It’s laid back, cosy and just a fantastic experience.

When I finish eating, I go to look at the cat tree – I’d seen a picture of a cat in the guidebook – and I first spot a male tabby chilling in a cardboard box by the door, then turn to the cat tree and see a female cat nuzzling with the tiniest kitten I’ve ever seen in real life. It’s totally adorable to see the whole little kitty family in this amazing little place.

We pay up – a total bargain considered the quality of food – and the old lady who’s been sat at the bar the whole time gave us our change – I assume she’s the mother of the lady doing all the cooking. She has the baby kitten sat on her shoulders and draped around her neck, so cute. Tear ourselves away eventually as we have to get back to the ryokan to pack for an early start tomorrow.