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Japan 2019: Sake in the Air

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Never move house right before your holiday. We did it just before our trip to Japan and it made the whole affair very stressful. We finished the move on Wednesday and flew out of London on Thursday morning. The new flat was a complete mess with all our stuff lying all over the place and packing was a nightmare.

Gekkeikan Cap-Ace

But every cloud has a silver lining. In our case, we were so tired that falling asleep on the plane was an easy task. It definitely helped with the jetlag. Anyway, given that we were flying JAL, the first thing I asked on board was sake. I decided to practise my language skills and did it in Japanese.

The flight attendant didn’t get it first but then understood. “I’m sorry but I’m not Japanese”, he explained. Well, at least I tried. Fortunately, they had sake, Gekkeikan Cap-Ace, a nice junmai sake, cold and refreshing.

Gekkeikan Cap-Ace
Gekkeikan Cap-Ace Junmai Sake

The River of People at Shinagawa

We arrived in Tokyo in the morning and after picking up the portable wifi, headed to Shinagawa station to take a shinkansen to Kyoto. Before that, we met with my friend from London who lives in Japan.

Shinagawa station is massive. Not as big as Shinjuku but still quite sizable. The station is No.8 in Japan by the number of passengers, which is around 750 thousand daily. In comparison, London Waterloo, the busiest station in London has around 270 thousand passengers a day.

Shinagawa Station in the morning

After having a nice cup of coffee with my friend and learning a lot of interesting stuff not only about life in Japan but also self-driving cars and other techy things, we got on shinkansen and headed for Kyoto.

Airbnb Misfortune

The journey on shinkansen was pleasant and quick. After just over 2 hours we arrived in the ancient imperial capital of Japan. We booked an Airbnb for our stay in Kyoto, thinking that it would be nice to try to live in a traditional Japanese house. The reviews for the property were very good and the location suited us very much. Unfortunately, we made a mistake.

The good thing about the property, which was described as a refurbished machiya, a traditional Japanese house, was that the office of the company, which manages it, was just 5 minutes walk from the Kyoto station. The checking in was easy, and the house was available for us before the actual check-in time.

Airbnb Machiya in Kyoto
Airbnb Machiya in Kyoto

We took a tourist-friendly taxi, which had enough space for our suitcases and after less than 20 minutes were at the property. The tourist-friendliness of the taxi meant that the driver, a nice woman, told us a few facts about the Kyoto Tower and the city’s streets.

The first problem with the house was that the toilet was actually outside. It was never mentioned anywhere in the description. Also, the house seemed to be in the shadow, so it felt cold and dump.

While a bit disappointed, we decided that it’s OK, we would manage. The toilet was only a couple of steps from the house entrance, the bathroom in the house looked fine, it was enough space for all 3 of us and we turned the aircon for heating, hoping that it will make the house warm.

Kyoto’s Yakitori

So we left our things and went for lunch. One of the places recommended to me was nearby, so went there. The restaurant was called Kushikura, a traditional izakaya, where you can sit just in front of the grill (though behind a glass wall) watching the chefs making yakitori.

The restaurant is located in a Kyoto traditional house, which was built more than 100 years ago. The food was very tasty. I had a yakitori lunch set and loved it. We were tired and jetlagged so I didn’t take any pictures of the restaurant. But can surely recommend it to anyone.

Back to the house, and the situation seemed to improve. It felt warmer and nicer. While we felt exhausted by the flight and the travel from Tokyo, the plan was to manage to stay awake until at least 9 pm in order to sleep through the night and feel better the next day.

Teramachi Street

Piggy of Teramachi
Piggy of Teramachi

So my daughter and I decided to explore the area a bit. She wanted to do some shopping or at least to see what is available around. I just decided to tag along. We were staying between the old Imperial Palace and Teremachi Street/Nishiki market area. My wife didn’t believe in our anti-jetlag method and went to bed.

So we walked around and ended up at Teramachi street, a covered shopping arcade with many small shops, restaurants and cafe.

At the beginning of the street, there is a temple, where Oda Nobunaga ended his life when he was betrayed by one of his generals.

Roughly a halfway through the arcade we encountered a strange statue of a creature resembling a very unhappy pig. So the walk helped us to stay awake and carry out our anti-jetlag strategy.

Escape from Airbnb

We skipped dinner because we were too tired (bought some snacks at the local 7Eleven) and went to bed. I think I switched off the moment my head touched the pillow and vaguely remember that my daughter was complaining about the cleanness of her futon.

In the morning she told me that she found somebody’s hairs when she unfolded the futon, rice grains and some stains. To be honest, it’s very unusual for Japan. We’ve been in the country before and never encountered anything like that.

Still, having weighed all pro and cons of staying at the house we decided to cancel our reservation and to find a hotel. It cost us some extra money but luckily, the cancellation policy was reasonable so we only paid for 2 nights and some admin fees.

We packed and went to find some breakfast. As we were going in the direction of Nishiki Market we came across a very nice pancake cafe. It was a small queue outside, a sign that the place is popular. While we were waiting, my wife decided to check out a hotel we passed on the way and ended up booking us in.

Pancake at Matsunosuke

All’s well that ends well

In the hindsight, I am happy that we made this decision. We would probably end up being very stressed in the Airbnb and the hotel suited us much better.

So, in the end, we found ourselves in a nice hotel and a tasty breakfast. The cafe is called Matsunosuke. They serve amazing pancakes and apple pies. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to try the pie, but I can vouch for pancakes, they are scrumptious!

So that’s the beginning of our journey! Let me know if the details are tedious or descriptions of the mundane things are a bit too long. If not, I’ll continue our chronicles!



Alex is a London-based sake blogger, podcaster, IWC Sake judge and sake advocate. He is a publisher of the Sugidama Blog website and a host of the Sugidama Podcast. Alex has an International Kikisake-shi (Sake Specialist) qualification from SSI (Sake Service Institute). He sees his mission as expanding the awareness of Japanese sake among as many people as possible and helping the growing community of sake lovers to bring together beautiful Japanese sake and non-Japanese food as a way to build a better understanding between our cultures.

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