>Day 5 21 Nov 2007 Kyoto, Osaka

>Up at 5.30am this morning, marshalled sleepy kids up and out the door by 6am. We had a shinkansen to Kyoto to catch at 7.06am. And Tokyo trains are notorious for being ruthlessly punctual. Be there not a minute before or else.

It was so early that we could not even have breakfast and the buses were not even running. We’d have to hustle to the train station on foot to make the connection to Tokyo station. While KH got the smaller kids out the door, he said over his shoulder and I distinctly HEARD: Make sure you have the room keys and return them.

Isaac was with me. Now I knew I had the keys just a couple of minutes before but right then, just as we were giving the rooms one last check, we could not find them. Thus began a frantic ransack of the room again in search of the missing keys. Time ticked by and I got more panicked. I sent Isaac down to the hotel lobby in search of KH and nope, the guy was gone. Along with the kids. They must have walked ahead. We trashed the room one more time. Then again. And then yet again. No keys. I think I must have sweated blood. We must have spent about 20min going through the room. My phone was in the other haversack that Gillian was carrying, so I couldn’t even call KH to check.

Finally I just could not wait anymore. Heck it, I said. Everything was already paid in full, let’s go. So Isaac and I clattered down the stairs, past the front desk. On a sudden suspicion, I checked the box of room keys and voila!! There they were!! I wasted 20min for nothing and now I still got to make tracks to get to the station which was easily about a 15min walk. We were cutting it very very close. I grumbled at the absent Uncle Chong. Grrr…

Isaac and I each had one large haversack each. We walked fast, our breaths making little puffs of steam. The children were fascinated and delighted with this phenomenon over the past few days and every chance they got, were busy puffing and blowing to see their breaths rise in the cold morning air. But this morning, we were too busy striding as fast as we could to care.

We could see KH, Gillian and the little ones far ahead but we walked briskly and soon caught up whereupon I gave a sheepish KH a verbal cuff about the head for telling me to check the room keys when Gillian already had them and thrown them in the box. Gah!

We didn’t even have time to buy breakfast, just jump on the first train that came long. Then make the long trek from the Keiyo line to Tokyo station. Thankfully the shinkansen gates were not too far away from the main station plaza. But it was still go go go all the way as we dragged kids, bumped our backpacks and scrambled into the train. Without a minute to lose as it turned out – the train pulled away from the station barely a minute after we got on.

The shinkansen was very comfortable – airline style seats but with more legroom and recline action. We were all hungry and as soon as the overpriced food service comes rolling by, we leaped into action but the food service trollery was not very well stocked. Apart from overpriced Coke, we had some crab cakes (like our fishcakes) which everyone fought over. Have to say the crab cakes were good though!

The scenery was pretty interesting. You see the grey and tightly packed Tokyo and Yokohama city sprawl. Then the density of housing gets less and there’s more greenery. I think we passed by the Pacific Ocean at one point and it was quite pretty in the morning. The town sitting in front of it looked sizeable but nice – cliffs and temple roofs and yes, the ubiquitious ferris wheel! I think this might have been the gateway to the Izu peninsula? Then further on we passed Mt Fuji on our right! I got excited and made KH take pictures of the snow-capped caldera. We were not alone in snapping away. The little old ladies sitting across from us were also fishing out cameras. It was a lovely day – the sky was so blue and the light made everything seem so fresh. Or maybe I was just high at the prospect of going to Kyoto!

Although we were technically on one of the world’s fastest trains, you couldn’t feel the speed sitting inside. Immediately outside the window, all was a blur but you could still see the countryside beyond. I think the Shinkansen Tokaido line generally runs through pretty populated areas – apart from a stretch just before Kyoto, most of the route ran through towns, large and small, some industrial areas, smallish farms and fields, ditches, over rivers, bridges. Once in a while in the distance you could see a flash of snow-clad mountains. That tiny stretch just before Kyoto is the prettiest – the rolling hills, mountains, and bamboo groves. Trees that were turning colours and giving the hillsides a patchwork quality of browns, reds, yellows and greens.

Two and a half hours later we pulled into Kyoto station. Initially, a very bewildering place. People briskly moving everywhere. It aroused in me the same thrilled open-mouthed gaze as I tried to take in everything – all the food stalls around, the shops selling quality food souvenirs, the brightness and polish and newness of it all. But with 5 kids, one can’t stand and dawdle. So we tried to navigate our way to the back of the station, cross the road and right there – our hotel the New Miyako Hotel.

We couldn’t check in yet since it was only 9.30am in the morning. So we left our bags there, crossed the road to the railway station, which also had an oldish shopping mall at its back end, and scouted for food there. Isaac chose a restaurant which had ramen and other stuff. But this was not a very good choice in the end – the place did not seem as spotlessly clean as the other places we went to, food was not great, portions were tiny for the price. But the kids as usual, wolfed it all down and said everything was good. Now you know why they’re my favourite critics at home. KH sniffed that Kyoto seemed more pricey than Tokyo.

Hunger pangs satiated, we headed for the front of the station to try to get some information on the leafy situation in Kyoto. A first enquiry at an information counter proved dissatisfying until one kind Australian told me that there was a bigger TIC in the front of the station. But when we got there, it was all in Japanese. Which sent me up to the 9th floor to the TIC for foreigners, but also proved a bit non-productive. When I asked where the leaves were at their best, they just vaguely said: all of Kyoto is turning. Some at 30% some at 70%. Du-uh! sigh.

Since we were already at the station, we decided to just skip Kyoto today and head for Osaka instead. Piled into an express train which stopped only at two other stops before arriving at Osaka station – took only about half an hour. From there, it was an easy trip via subway (all connected with little walking! Yay! Can you tell that I was getting seriously tired from all that walking and carrying of Trin??) to Osaka Castle. Oh interesting note: it was here that I saw those train cars which were strictly reserved for women during peak hours!

Now my only reason for heading to Osaka castle was because dear Mr Chong said he wanted to re-visit the all the places he had been to in his sailing days – and Osaka castle was one of them. So okay, to make the man happy, off we went to Osaka castle.

The castle could be reached through a large park (yes, lots more walking!). The kids were given free rein and they joyfully ran off. Large avenues flanked with bushy fir-like trees and yellow-leafy gingko trees fanned out like spokes from a huge round fountain. And best of all – pigeons galore. The kids had a field day traumatising the pigeons.

Owain got so carried away running after the pigeons and yelling “Yaaaaaahhh!!!” at them that he didn’t hear us calling him to walk on with us. So we did a very bad thing. We hid behind one of the bushy firs to watch what he would do when he realised we were gone.

Now all the children had been given a card from the New Miyako Hotel with strict instructions on what to do if they were lost. First – show someone (preferably a lady) or a policeman in uniform, or at a train station, the card and have them call the hotel. Or failing that, just stay put where they last saw us.

So after a few happy moments chasing the poor pigeons, Owain realised he was lost. Have to hand it to the little guy. He just stayed cool and calm. Walked one round around the fountain (looked so cute in his green bomber jacket with the hood up – this tiny figure in green walking around!) , then we saw him unzip his little pocket on his sleeve, take out the hotel card and tap it reflectively . Then he just hopped up on the rim of the fountain and sat there. No crying. No screaming. No hysteria. He just waited calmly for us to show up.

At this point I couldn’t take it – he looked so cute sitting there and his behaviour was so cool – I made KH go over and get him. KH said he looked resigned sitting there and when he realised that daddy and Isaac kor-kor were there, he just gave them a sheepishly rueful expression, hopped off the fountain ledge and went with them. I gave him a hug – he was a real brave trouper not to have cried and to remain so calm.

After that, we hiked up (yes, hiked up!) a long flight of stairs, past the outer moat, up a hillock, past a park, across the inner moat and then into the castle grounds. Man, it was tiring!!

Nothing much to do/see in Osaka Castle. We didn’t bother to go in. To his disappointment, KH could not find the cannon he had sat on 20 years ago when he was last here. And they had spiffed up the place so much it looked spanking new! The view from the castle grounds were great though. And I saw my first monk! Yes I am thrilled just by that alone! He was standing alone, head bowed with a conical hat, hand cupping an alms bowl, a string of beads around his neck, in full dark robes and white leggings. Exactly like the pictures!! A satisfying Japan moment for me.

From there, we trudged all the way down again. KH carrying Trin and walking ahead (thank God! Thought my arms were about to snap). I lagged behind with Owain, Isaac and Cait. Owain, I discovered, had deliberately put on his jacket the wrong way round and made his kor-kor zip it up, looking like he was in a strait-jacket. He was carefully picking fallen tiny red berries/seeds up and putting them into his hood, like a bowl. He even had Isaac and Cait helping him! He told me earnestly: mummy, we have to pick up all these berries to sell so that we can be rich! We can sell many many many berries and then we can be very very rich!

I had to work hard not to laugh but say instead: what happens when you sell all your berries here? Then you have no more berries next time to sell. You’d have to sell many many berries before you can be rich you know!

He thought about it and said: Okay, we have to bring some home to grow them so we can sell later. Hee, the fishball can be very fixated on S-11! But me being mean-spirited mum told him to throw away all his berries because “I’m not carrying a load of dusty sandy berries all the way to Singapore!”

Our walk down to the lower park where we started, was very idyllic. We took a slightly different path. KH and the girls could not be seen by then. So we took our time slowly going down. The kids swooped down on the fallen leaves, in search of the perfect red or yellow leaf in the lovely tree-lined avenue we were walking in. All around us were yellow gingkoes and some reddish maples. Then I heard it – the elegant notes of a saxophone. At first I grinned – piped in music in a park??

We followed the strains until it got louder and then I saw a young man, standing deep in the wooded area of the park, a music stand before him, concentrating on his saxophone. Oh it was lovely to just be in the moment! The blue skies, a light cool breeze, the yellow leaves on the trees, the crackle of leaves underfoot, the soaring music, my children with their hands full of leaves, faces wreathed in smiles of delight as they found one leaf after another. I will never forget just this little moment. I think in life, more likely when we travel, there will be moments like these – pure beauty, pure life. You wish it would last, that these moments can always permeate your life. But of course they can’t ever last and that contributes to the sweetness of it.

Well, we lingered and made it down to the lower park where KH was waiting impatiently. He’d missed it all.

From Osaka Castle, we headed for the waterfront to Kaiyukan – the famed Osaka Aquarium.

It was blisteringly cold!! The wind just sliced through us as we literally struggled to the Aquarium. It was a 10-min walk, but seemed like forever with that kind of wind. And by then it was already getting dark at almost 4pm.

The aquarium cost us a whopping 2000yen per adult to enter! On hindsight, I would not go again. Having been to the large and lovely Monterey Bay aquarium in California, I felt this one was a letdown. Architecturally and as an aquarium. In all honesty I felt that even KL’s Aquaria fared better in terms of display and certainly the architecture of the building does not even show up as well as the Tokyo Sea Life park at Kasai Rinkai Koen where we stayed. We went to the aquarium because of the whale shark. But now on hindsight, why support an organisation that keeps one of nature’s largest and rarest of creatures in captivity? The only thing I really liked was how the place was structured – we had to take an escalator up to the 8th floor, then walk our way down, wending past huge tanks of fishes and sea creatures housed by the region they hail from. Right from the top would be the sea creatures from Japanese shores, then came the playful otters from the Aleutian islands, sea lions from California, penguins from antarctica etc before one came to the main attraction, the whale shark and others housed in the Pacific tank – a huge central core of water.

The kids loved the otters – cute furry faced creatures who charmed us all as they flipped, dove and torpedoed their slick bodies through the water. I think generally the kids had a good time – they seemed to enjoy looking at the fishes. But I have to say I feel very sorry for the whale shark. It was smaller than we expected. Later I learnt that they do adapt their size to fit the environment, and a tank is certainly no match for the oceans of the world. To see a creature like this aimlessly swimming and turning from one glass face of the tank to another is quite sad. The whale shark was often accompanied by a school of smaller fishes. Isaac joked that this was the star’s entourage and fan club. The other-worldly jellyfish, glowing in the darkness, were also a visual treat for us.

After the aquarium, we went for some cheap take-out sushi, snacking our way through a kitschy and rather touristy layout of old Osaka food stalls. The kids again hankered for ramen but we said no. I thought I saw a series of tiny restaurants along the way from the station, and being typically Singaporean, wanted to zero in one that had (what else!) a slew of newspaper cuttings! Ha, we trust places that either have a queue or a whole noticeboard of newspaper cuttings and reviews!

The wind had died down and while it was chilly, it was not as cold as it was earlier. The streets were relatively empty though and I thought this was surprising for a touristy part of Osaka.

We stopped to eat at the ramen place I remembered. Pushing the sliding door aside and ducking under the nori, we entered a tiny quaint little place that looked as if time stood still. Wooden panelled walls, a bar lined with stools, kitschy decor items, coat hangers hanging on the wall and standing there behind the counter, a thin, unsmiling, bald man who was the cook, the wait staff all rolled into one. The place looked tiny, cosy and totally charming. Steam floated up from big pots behind the counter and Ella Fitzgerald sang. It was warm, a lovely respite from the cold outside. For me, it was another Japanese Moment. The whole place looked worn, dated and a bit tired. I can’t explain the appeal. Yet everything, the place, the music, the food, the mood, was exactly perfect. I would not forget this easily.

With sign language and bad Japanese, we got our message across – six bowls of ramen and a serving of gyoza. As was usually the case in these tiny restaurants, we took up almost the entire bar counter! The one-man chef got to work, and soon good smells were wafting up from the wok in front of us and the clanging sounds of wok and spatula filled the air. When the ramen arrived, everyone dove right in. You could hear the sounds of the kids slurping away.

After dinner, it was a long way home to Kyoto (or at least it seemed long to me, tired and carrying Trin). We stood all the way on the train from Osaka station back to Kyoto. I was grateful that the hotel was so near the station – well within staggering distance! But before we hit the hotel, we decided to take my colleague Chee Yong’s advice and just buy breakfast from the konbini. So we stocked up on milk, sandwiches and juice. At 9pm the place was still packed with commuters coming and going.

We checked in the hotel and were shown to our rooms. I took room 832 which faced the shinkansen tracks and Kyoto station. KH, Cait, Isaac and Owain took the room opposite ours which faced the new wing of the hotel. Once the noise and bustle of settling all the children, giving their baths etc, settled any squabbling over the tv remote control and all that is finally over, I crawled into bed, lay down with Trin and let her nurse while I just lay flat.

Have to say that so far the kids have been real troupers about all the walking. Owain would still try his luck and ask to be carried, but when told no, he would gamely walk. I think he’s been pretty good about it so far. Sometimes I do feel a bit sorry to his little legs pumping away, given the distances we’ve been walking. The only one who has not walked much is Trin and I am paying the price – carrying her around all day is really very tiring. Even the sling does not help as much because by the time the end of the day rolls round, I get a really tired throbbing pain in the left side. And there’s not much use in passing her to KH because she only wanted me to carry her. sigh. At night, really beat from a day of walking etc, it felt really very very good to just lie down flat on the bed and hope you’d never have to get up again! Bliss…

Tomorrow – Kyoto!

Pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/chongbrood/Day5Osaka

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