day 3 in Kyoto: Hozu river boating, Rilakkuma Cafe, Nijo-jo Castle, and Bar Cordon Noir

Thursday, June 14, we rode a series of trains until we met Eric, a quad-lingual KKday tour guide originally from China who lives in Japan and was our guide for the “romantic” train taking us to a horse-drawn carriage taking us to a wooden boat taking us down the Hozu River, where 5th and 6th generation boatmen with wooden poles and oars guided us through whitewater rapids, and it was awesome.

The level of skill these men had was incredible.  I’ve canoed down the Chattahoochee and kayaked down the Hiwassee a few times; neither is nearly as narrow, winding, or filled with whitecaps as the Hozu, yet I’ve gotten stuck, flipped, or both many times.  These guys guided our craft through these waves with absolute flawless precision for 10 miles. The ride down even has its own Japanese phrase to describe it:  hozugawa kudari.  Just before the trip concludes, a motor boat pulls up beside your boat, and it’s full of snacks, grilled meat, and beer!  Naturally, I had to have a beer delivered in mid-air-refueling fashion, because it was hot outside, and how cool is that?

We walked through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove toward an area lined with street food vendors and shops, and discovered a cafe dedicated to a character my 11-year-old had fallen in love with our first day in Tokyo when exploring the stores under the train station:  Rilakkuma.

I had secretly fallen in love with this soft, plush, and mischievous little bear, too, but had kept it under wraps until it served me pancakes and ice cream, and before I knew it, I’d bought a Rilakkuma bear and even his friend, Chairoikoguma, for my office, and we loved each other with shameless abandon.

When back at the train station, we stopped to enjoy an enormous model train set with diorama of Kyoto that was my 9-year-old boy’s happiest of happy places.  For a few yen, you can operate one of several different models of trains through the various sites and scenes of Kyoto.  It’s 12.3 x 17.3 meters and has 2.7 kilometers of tracks, and every half hour, the lights dim for a night scene of the city, plus a constellation show!

A train ride later, we were at Nijo-jo Castle, which served as the residence and office for the Shogun when visiting Kyoto.

It’s protected by walls and moats, and the hallways connecting the various buildings have “nightingale floors” that chirp like birds as you step on them (which we’d read was designed to warn inhabitants of any intruders approaching, but our guide said it was just how the hardwoods were nailed in).  Built in 1603, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, like pretty much everything we saw in Japan. It’s also a great place to engage in public displays of affection with Rilakkuma.

That night, I’d been told I could finally do what I’d wanted to do every day since we arrived:  find one (or more) of Japan’s famed secret bars.  We went to Kanga-an:  the tiny bar hidden in a temple.  We walked by the ghost-like white statues, past a reservations-only vegetarian restaurant on the property, and entered the tiny bar next to a zen garden.

But when we got inside, it was empty.  I found a button and pushed it, hoping a bartender would appear and ask “What’ll ya have?”  but not really expecting anything to happen, as there were no signs of life anywhere around this tiny bar, but after a few minutes, someone did show up, and he told us they don’t open until 8pm.  We were 3 hours too early.  I was crushed.

Having struck out with the secret bar, my other desired grownup stop was Bar Cordon Noir, a whisky bar with 800 varieties that I’d read about online when looking for a place to sample some of the famously good Japanese whiskies.  We arrived just as it opened, at 7pm, and were the only ones there. The bartender brought me stacks of whisky menus and helped me choose some good selections that wouldn’t require a payment plan. I had the Taketsuru Pure Malt (17-years-old), a Kirin Pure Malt Fuji Gotemba 20th Anniversary, and a Hibiki Japanese Harmony (by Suntory, which was exciting, since it meant “relaxing time“) blend.  I had all of them neat, and I loved them–smoother and more delicious than any Scottish whisky I’ve had.  We also had some appetizers and some premium ginger ale that was outstanding, too.

The children had mocktails, and I even got to smoke my fancy new bamboo pipe.  I loved it.

My bride felt we should go before the regulars shuffled in, so we headed back toward our AirBnB, stopping for a real dinner at a pizza place that was absolutely delicious called Pizzeria Da Naghino that, as much as we’d enjoyed Japanese food for over a week, hit the spot as a 9pm second dinner.

Our 3rd day in Kyoto was finished, and every bit of it was awesome.

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