Kaiseki at Kikokuso

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As great as the toilet was, the kaiseki dinner and breakfast are what we were really excited (and nervous) about.  The husband half of the team does all the cooking while his wife served us in this private dining room adjacent to the garden:

Every single course of dinner was delicious and beautifully presented.  Many items were things we’d never seen or heard of before, but that didn’t get in the way of the taste.  Neither of us wasted a single bite.

Here’s a slideshow with the full course.  Pardon the vague captions, but it’s honestly the best we know!

 

While not quite as elaborate, breakfast was a continuation of dinner.  Waffles it ain’t, but delicious again.  Another slideshow:

 

As you might guess, these meals were not particularly cheap.  They were a really outstanding and classy way to wrap up our trip, though.  When in Kyoto and thereabouts, everyone should budget on a splurge like this.

Kikokuso Ryokan

Kikokuso Outside

For this last night in Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional Japanese guest house.  I can’t imagine having made a better pick than Kikokuso.  This place is run by a completely adorable husband and wife team.  Up until last year you’d also be greeted by their Shiba Inu named Gonta.  There is a small memorial to Gonta when you enter, and there’s no doubt that his presence would have made the place just a bit more perfect.

The courtyard garden was impressive.  This ability to turn the smallest of spaces into such beautiful gardens is just amazing.

An iPhone shot of the Japanese bath.  This bath was pretty cool—when you flipped the faucet for more water, it would come dribbling out of the rock wall.  I love a boiling hot shower, but I found myself suffocating in this total body heat.

Caliente!

The beds at these ryokans are simple futon mattresses on the floor.  After you wake up, the staff quickly rolls them back up until its bedtime again.  As a result, I missed that photo-op.  So this is what our room looked like after clean up:

Just like the Westin room, the toilet was again the star of the room.  After you flush the toilet, there’s a sink on top for a quick hand wash with the water that’s heading into the bowl.

Ingenius!  Don’t be surprised to see this in our guest bathroom someday…

Remember how we said the owners were adorable?  They gave us this postcard when we left.  Brilliant.  Without knowing Gonta the dog…we rather miss him, too! 

Gonta's House

Checking Out From the Westin Miyako Kyoto

I’m pretty loyal to the Starwood program if you can’t tell, so we spent two nights at the Westin Miyako Kyoto to start the Japanese portion of our trip.  I had a pretty decent rate for the first night and a cash and points stay for the second night.  As usual, we got bumped up a room category to a much larger room thanks to SPG Gold status.

We are very messy

Nice enough view from the window:

The best part of the room was this, though:

It’s very important to always know where the STOP button is…

The Heavenly Bed did it’s job on our second night here—we barely made our 1pm late checkout.  The jet lag and exhaustion from the trip had finally caught up with us.  This day was pretty squandered, but our bodies weren’t going to let us have it any other way.

Our only real accomplishment for the day was checking out a 100 yen shop.  It was a bit disappointing in that there was nothing "weird" there.  Just about everything was rather nice and super practical.  We came out of there with some chopsticks.

Tired from not doing anything all day, we threw in the towel at 5pm and popped over to where we’d spend our final night in Kyoto…

Doctor Fish in Kyoto

I don’t know whose feet these are, but it pretty clearly illustrates what we did (no photos allowed where we were):

 Doctor Fish on random feet

This was a pretty unplanned venture.  We had heard and read about Doctor Fish, so we asked the concierge if there were any places in Kyoto that offered this.  The concierge immediately started laughing and said she’d done it before.  She hopped on the computer and gave us a printout with the below map to this place:

Where to go

Yeah, not a really helpful map if you don’t know Japanese.  With the assistance of seven other Kyoto maps, we were able to triangulate this place to be at the Oitaguchi stop on the #11 bus.  This was an absolute shock we successfully made it here with no issues (lots of high fives).

Thanks to the printout, we were able to match the logo on the website to the logo on the front door:

As mentioned, there’s no photography allowed inside this onsen.  And there’s no English going on inside this place either.  After a 1,000 yen entry fee each, we got 15 minutes of foot soaking time with these dead skin eating fish for another 500 yen each.

Hard to say if our feet were in any better shape afterwards.  Can say that it tickles like none other.  Again, an awesomely unique Japanese experience.

We ended the night with delicious tonkatsu at Katsukura on the top of Kyoto Station.  Sad to not have photos of this meal as it was one of the best of the trip.  Breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets are always pretty good, but this was next level.

This concluded a solid 13+ hour day roaming Kyoto.  We were happy to tuck ourselves into the Heavenly Bed at the Westin…

Kaiten-Zushi

We stumbled on one of these at a perfect time when we were starving.  It’s right between Ryoanji and Kinkakuji and easy to spot.  Most everything on the menu/conveyor belt is 110 yen.  The food really wasn’t that great here, but the experience was what it was all about.

Here’s what our little booth looked like:

There is no reason to ever deal with a waiter here.  That black spigot looking thing spits out boiling water so you can mix up your own green tea.  Then you chuck your empty plates into the metal area in the bottom of the photo—which then tallies up how many plates you ate for billing purposes.

If you don’t see what you want on the belt, just hop on your little touchscreen LCD:

Select what you want (and how many) and the order is sent to the kitchen.  When your item is about five feet away on the conveyor belt, your LCD screen starts going crazy alerting you to be ready to grab it.

This was the future.

Temples and Gardens

The list of potential temples and gardens to visit in Kyoto is pretty ridiculous.  On our first day, we decided on: Kodaiji, Kiyomizu, Kinkakuji, and Ryoanji.  For some reason, I didn’t take any photos at Kodaiji.  As for the rest:

Kiyomizu is a zoo.  Hordes and hordes of tourists (almost all Japanese) here.  From watching others have their photos taken at the entrance, this is apparently how you are supposed to pose:

Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple Pavilion, was stunning.

Ryoanji was one of our favorites—it’s a Zen rock garden.  Due to some construction of the viewing platform, it was especially difficult to get a good photo.  Sitting and looking at 15 rocks and gravel might not be for everyone, but we quite enjoyed it.

We also caught a nice glimpse of a Great Blue Heron at Ryoanji.  We see these on just about every trip we go on (in North America, South America, and Africa), so it was nice to add this trip (and Asia) to that list.  Never gets old seeing this awesome bird.

Laundry in Kyoto

We’ve done the washing clothes in the sink thing in the past and just aren’t sold on how "clean" your clothes really get.  So on this trip we decided we’d pay to have our clothes cleaned.  Unfortunately, we had terrible difficulty finding places to clean our clothes given our travel schedule.  Then when we did have time, we were staying at swankier hotels that wanted $10/pants.  No thanks.

We asked the concierge at the Westin Kyoto about the whereabouts of a coin laundry.  Our expectations were far-exceeded when she ran into a back office and came back with a nice pre-printed map.  (See said map here)

This laundromat was a treat and weirdly a highlight.  The sign alone was welcoming:

There was just enough English signage that we had no troubles operating the machines and we were out of there in less than an hour.  The only bummer was that we didn’t have a pair of shoes handy to give this guy a spin:

Big First Day Roaming Kyoto

In pre-trip planning for Kyoto, we came up with a rough list of things we wanted to do.  It provided a nice backbone for once we are on the ground to play things by ear with some ideas in our pocket.

The forecast for the day was thunderstorms.  The actual weather was blue skies and sunshine.  Simply beautiful.  We started the day by purchasing a 2-day bus/subway pass for 2,000 yen each.  Again, we had great success purchasing this from a machine without assistance.  The rest of the day was spent ping ponging around town on public transit—which was stunningly easy to navigate.

Highlights of the day were: doing laundry (!), four different temples and gardens, kaiten-zushi for lunch, fish chewing on our feet at a spa (!!), and tonkatsu for dinner.

It was a uniquely Japanese day—a nice day it was.  I’m going to group this first day up into common themes, rather than writing totally chronological.  To be honest, we simply aren’t going to be able to maintain the same level of excitement as earlier reports on baby gorillas.  Regardless, hopefully you’ll stick around for these last few dispatches, and find some nugget of entertainment value in them…

Onwards to Kyoto, Japan

There were definitely a few times at the end of our stay in Uganda where we were thinking: "We’re going to Japan, next?"  Indeed. 

We had a nice and relatively short layover at Heathrow this time (3 hours).  By the time we did the T5 to T3 hokey pokey this was down to 2 hours.  We passed the rest of the time in the Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge—not that great of a lounge, but it was good to start consuming some Japanese beer and snacks.

Beer Nuts

This London to Tokyo flight was our longest of the trip thus far at about 11 hours flying time.  Sadly, their Shell Flat Seat was probably the weakest seat we’ve encountered (relatively speaking!).  Yeah, it’s flat…but at a wicked angle.  Many hours of sleep were still achieved, though. 

For the meal service, I went Japanese and Lillie was soft and went Western.  First the Western meal. The starters (picture on the left) were: chicken liver and wild mushroom pate, prawn & gravlax, and a fresh salad with olive oil and balsamic dressing.  And the main dish is a fillet of beef with red wine and herb sauce.

Amuse Bouche Organic Australian fillet of beef steak served with herb flavor rich sauce made from red wine.  Accompanied by leek and potato gratin, sauteed spinach, and carrots.

The Japanese meal was the most elaborate airplane meal I’ve ever had.

Left to right in the izakaya style starters (picture on the left): tofu custard with crabmeat; fillet of sea-bass sashimi style; tuna sashimi with yam sauce; fired marinated small fish; Japanese noodle somen; grilled chicken Japanese style; deep-simmered vegetable; and sake-steamed whelk.

And the main course is braised Iberico pork with tofu custard; steamed Koshihikari rice; Japanese pickles; and miso soup.

Kobachi Dainomono

Before landing, we got our snacks on.  On the left is my Chinese ramen noodles in soy sauce flavor soup with Kagoshima pork fillet.  Lillie’s tray on the right has Japanese udon noodles in soup with fried bean curd.

IMG_0070 IMG_0071

One of the main reasons we were going to Japan at the end of the trip was for the food, so this was all a nice way to kick things off.  Upon landing at Tokyo-Narita, we got our first glimpse of the surgical mask craze in Japan as we went through a health screening to ease concerns we had swine flu.  It was just a few yes/no questions, so no big deal and we had our free visas soon enough.

We had a short hour and a half layover here before our connection to Osaka-Itami that we spent at another JAL Sakura Lounge.  All sorts of awkwardness here as I was trying to make some green tea for myself.  Only to have an old Japanese women push me to the side and take over.  Watching her it was very clear that I was doing many things wrong and I was thankful for her intervention.

After a completely uneventful domestic flight to ITM, we landed at 6pm.  The next step was to hop onto the Airport Limo bus to Kyoto.  Within seconds of stepping up the automated ticket kiosks, we had tickets in our hands, and marveled at how easy it was.  Our fingers were crossed that everything would be this easy in Japan…

It’s a 50-minute ride on the bus to Kyoto Station and it’s very nice.  You’d almost think you’re riding some light rail it’s so quiet and smooth.

Once at Kyoto Station, our final destination was the Westin Miyako.  Only two subway trains to go to get there!  Like our previous bus tickets, this subway ticket machine was an equally pleasurable experience.  Very quickly we had two tickets to take us to the Keage station right next to the Westin.  We high fived as we walked into the hotel less than 90-minutes after landing at ITM.

We set out by foot randomly looking for food and fast realized there isn’t a whole lot in the immediate area.  Then we stumbled on a 7-11 and grabbed some (what turned out to be delicious) little packaged dinners.  I also picked up a little guy of Haagen Dazs green tea ice cream to wash it down. 

Then back at the Westin late at night we started fighting jet lag for the first time on the trip…

Back to Kampala and Out of Uganda

We used 4K Starwood points to stay at the Sheraton Kampala (excellent value, although it now costs 7K+).  We were booked into their lowest category “Classic” room, but thanks to SPG Gold status were upgraded to a “Superior” room on an upper SPG floor.  SPG Gold is pretty easy to acquire one way or another, and these little upgrades definitely keep us loyal. 

I was pumped about the free wireless internet available here, but then was less pumped to find it running at 4 kbp/s.  A nice room on the 9th floor, though it looked a bit neater at check-in:

Sheraton Kampala Room

At the same time, this hotel is a bit ridiculous with all the NGO peeps running around fighting poverty and such.  We mingled with them at dinner, where a Korean trio with a scantly clad female member sang slow jams like Desperado, and I mistakenly ordered a Mexicana Pizza.  (The first and only time I felt ill from food on this trip…an obviously stupid decision.)

We had grand plans of cleaning some clothes in Kampala.  With our time constraints this turned into a dead end.  The Sheraton wanted $10 for a single pair of pants, so that was a no go.  However, this Kwik Wash place could be a great asset for others.  We crossed our fingers we’d be able to figure out something at our next destination.

At 6:30am we started the 30+ minute drive (with no traffic) to the Entebbe airport for our 9am BA flight back to Heathrow.  Here we said farewell to Baker.  Great guy that we would recommend without any reservations (more on this later).

Lillie and Baker

At EBB, business class passengers get access to the Karibuni lounge after security.  I had very low expectations for this place and was blown away.  Big (and clean) leather couches everywhere, computers with a reasonable internet connection, and delicious samosas that we ate too many of for 8am:

Samosas!

The BA flight was just another BA flight, which is typically a good thing for us.  The only downside being the Club World seats on the 767s they send to EBB are in really dire condition.  Though there really aren’t too many glamorous options otherwise, so no big deal.  (Had we paid full price, I might not be saying that.)

Just for the sake of completeness, our BA brunch (which wasn’t all that amazing):

Salad of roast tomato and peppers topped with garlic and anchovy  Grilled tilapia with lemon garlic butter Marinated grilled chicken served on pesto risotto


Notes regarding the planning of the gorilla tracking portion of the trip:  I started by creating an itinerary that would allow us to track gorillas on both sides of the border.  This was shaped by various trip reports online, the Bradt guide, and the BA flight schedules since they only fly 3x per week.  All of this to achieve a nice balance in comfort with cost

My attempt to save some money had me booking things a bit a la carte.  I wanted to have total transparency into how much everything costs–I’m not a fan of the convenience that a single package price provides.  I arranged all our accommodations directly with the hotels via email.  For a car hire with driver and gorilla permits, I exchanged emails with different tour organizers from this Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) list.

In the end, I settled on Crystal Safaris because they answered emails promptly and were a simple $100/day for Land Cruiser and driver for five days, plus actual cost of permits.  We were responsible for paying for petrol along the way–this came out to $186.75.  We prepaid for the car and permits in advance via wire.

Considering the quality of Baker, I am supremely satisfied with the value received.  He was smart, punctual, anticipated any needs, funny, and spoke perfect English.  We are very picky people, and we would recommend Baker to everyone we know.