Tuesday, 21 August 2012

How to enjoy the Gion Matsuri

Hailed as one of Japan's greatest festivals, the Gion Matsuri is a month-long festival in July, with the festival highlights being the Yoiyama from 14 to 16 July and the Yama Hoko Junko Grand Parade on 17 July.
A ritual at Yasaka Shrine on 17 July 2012, just before the parade of the mikoshi
(portable shrine) that evening.
A tradition of more than a thousand years, the festival first started in 869 as a religious purification ritual at the Yasaka Shrine in Gion, decreed by the emperor then as a response to a serious plague. As the ritual had been deemed successful, the imperial court decreed that it be performed everytime there was an epidemic or disaster. Eventually, it became a yearly ritual to appease the Gods.

Just days away from the term exams,  my school mates and I  took time to bask in the lively atmosphere of Yoiyama, the "pre-party" to the Grand Parade. During Yoiyama, the downtown streets around Shijo and Karasuma were car-free. Food and game stalls were set up along the streets where the Yama and Hoko floats were on display. Throngs of people crowded into the streets in traditional yukata in the evenings, and the Gion Bayashi  (the festival music) filled your ears.

A day before the exam, more than half the class did not turn up at school.  They were watching the Grand Parade of massive Yama and Hoko floats. A classmate told me that truancy was necessary because watching the parade was a once-in-a-lifetime experience

While I missed some of the most exciting parts of the festival, I managed to see enough to draw a few learning points and I thought I should share them here.


Check out the floats but don't forget the traditional performances!

One of the massive Hoko floats on display.
There were many events during July as part of the Gion Matsuri from the first day of the month till the last. For example,  32 floats were on display across the streets during the Yoiyama, which meant alot of walking if you wanted to see them all. I didn't see all of them.   I think it should suffice to look at a select few for the craftsmenship and let the rest come to you during the Grand Parade instead.

There were also traditional dance, music and theatrical performances held at the Yasaka Shrine (free entry) so one should try to drop by Yasaka Shrine to catch these performances.  I didn't manage to watch these performances unfortunately, due to poor time management.

Soak in the evening atmosphere

I went to check out the Yoiyama in the afternoon trying to avoid the crowd. But on hindsight, I should have stayed till the evening to see the lit-up lanterns on the floats and on the streets in spite of the crowd. It was quite a sight, judging from the photos I saw from friends' albums.

Look out for treasures on display while walking through the streets

During Yoiyama, the old textile merchant homes and businesses on Shinmachi and Muromachi typically open up the front of their homes and shops to show off their antique folding screens and other treasures, a tradition from the ancient times.  I actually overlooked all these treasures!

Buy a yukata (remember to compare prices!) and wear it

Following the Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession on 24 July 2012. A parade that
 was part of the Gion Matsuri.
If there was a good time to buy and wear a yukata, it had to be during the Gion Matsuri.

Forget Uniqlo which does not carry a yukata collection every year, and Rakuten which sells yukata sets with pre-set obi (the piece of cloth you tie around the waist).

Stroll the streets and look out for shops selling traditional yukata, obi and other accessories at great prices. Many shops lowered the prices because of the matsuri. Besides, it was the summer sale period too.

My yukaka cost 1800 Yen, my obi cost 800 Yen and
the pair of geta (free size) cost 800 Yen. It is possible
 to find yukata at 1000 Yen and  geta at 500 Yen
during this period.

I bought a yukata for a good price - at 3400 Yen (SGD 54) for a three-item set.  It was the first shop I came across and I recalled it was in Shinmachi. But there were yukata sets with even better prices as I walked further on.

Note the time of the last bus

I had friends who were so absorbed in their revelry that they missed the last bus and had to take a taxi home. It seemed that Kyoto did not extend the bus service hours even when there was a massive event such as this. Generally, many buses stopped running at around 11pm.

The Parades

Go early to get a good photo position

Having been to a few massive events here, I have learnt that
being a few hours early before an event  to get a good
spot is very common among the Japanese.

I did not get to see the Grand Parade in the morning of 17 July but I witnessed the Shinko Festival that evening, after class. It was a ritual in which three mikoshi (portable shrine) carrying the shrine deities that presided over the matsuri were transported from Yasaka Shrine.

View of the parade from the side of the Yasaka Shrine. It was too far away!

The ritual began at 6pm and I was there an hour earlier but the streets were already lined with people waiting. I had a position which was alright but decided to cross over to the side of the Yasaka Shrine. It turned out to be a mistake as the mikoshi did not exit from the main gate of the shrine. It might have been better to stay in the streets opposite the shrine.

I shall target to get onto the building in the background for a good photo op in future.
I also noticed there were many people on the roof-top of a building overlooking the road intersection so I figured that should be a prime position too.

I learnt my lesson after the Shinko Festival and managed to get a good photo position early for the Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession on 24 July, which was a parade of large umbrella floats.

The Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession on 24 July 2012 in clear view.

Never stand near a police officer
Many of my photos had these men in blue in them.

Just as tourists and locals lined the streets to watch the parades, so did the the police officers. Many officers lined the streets yelling polite warnings at people and managing crowd movements. If you ended up at a spot near one, you would be beset with the most terrible misfortune of having these men in blue in every possible photo that you took of the parade. I think they look most out of place in the photos of a thousand-year-old festival!

Reflect on the festival

The skeleton of the Ofune-hoko float which was on display
at the Kyoto City Intangible Cultural Property Display Room
on the first floor of Yodobashi Camera in front of Kyoto Station. 

When my landlord spoke of the matsuri, he spoke about it with pride. And I felt the passion of the residents of Kyoto from what I saw of the matsuri. How could a city retain the traditions from days long past if not for the passion and conviction of its people? 

I came across the story of the Ofune-hoko float which used to be part of the Grand Parade in the ancient days. But as it had been destroyed a few times in the past, it had been excluded from the Grand Parade for more than 100 years.

The locals who have been taking care of this float have been trying to reconstruct it to its past glory. For 15 years, they worked hard on reviving the float. The good news is there is a possibility of seeing this float back in action in 2014.

I really like how the young people and children are always involved in the festivals.

When I reflect on the festival, from the music that I heard, to the craftsmanship of the floats that I saw and the people who made it happen every year, I could not help but feel glad that I was there. 

How could the Gion Matsuri be a once-in-a-lifetime experience? I have never thought that my ties with Kyoto would only last a summer.  

Friday, 17 August 2012

Japanese Wagashi: The Art of Five Senses

Wagashi made of white Azuki beans served at the tea ceremony which I
was invited to. The wagashi evokes the image of a fish swimming in a stream.
Two months ago, I was invited to a tea ceremony by a Japanese lady, N-san whom I met at my traditional Japanese dance class.  She brought me to Uji where her sister lives and after lunch, we set out for a popular tea room.

Uji is famous for the production and distribution of quality green tea, and the trip opened my eyes to another aspect of Japanese culture. During the tea ceremony, wagashi or traditional Japanese confection was served along with the tea. 

"Can you see that this is a stream?" asked N-san's sister, pointing to the wagashi that was served. She explained that Japanese wagashi often evokes images of nature and provides a sense of the season. 

I always thought that Japanese wagashi looks pretty but have never associated it to an art form. But the interaction with N-san and her sister that day piqued my interest and I read up a little on the internet on the history of Japanese wagashi.

When we savour a piece of wagashi, we may not have realised that the wagashi is made with the concept, the Art of the Five Senses in mind. Apart from the appearance of the wagashi, alot of thought also goes into creating a unique texture, taste and aroma which complement the context in which the wagashi is served. In addition, there is also the concept of sound that completes the whole concept of a wagashi. This refers to the name of the wagashi which is meant to evoke classic literature or images of the season.
Wagashi with poetic names in the window display of a restaurant at Kyoto Station. From left: The notes of water; Summer robe; Glory in the water.
Minazuki sold in supermarkets. 4 pieces for 420 Yen.
In the month of June, a common wagashi seen in supermarkets and confectionery is Minazuki (水無月). After I found out that the naming of wagashi evokes classic prose and poetry, I have been very curious about the name of Minazuki which in Chinese means "The water with no moon".  I thought it must have to do with the red beans blocking out the reflection of the moon in a triangular pond or something.  But what does the red beans signify?

After some research, I learnt that the name has nothing to do with the moon but more with the month.  As the character for "moon" and "month" is the same, I misunderstood one for the other. Minazuki  actually means the "Month of water".  In other words, June, the month in which the fields are irrigated. There is also another explanation which links it to the month of the rainy season but this second explanation is said to be erroneous. 

Minazuki is often eaten in June when summer begins. As it is made to look like a piece of ice, you supposedly feel cool after eating it. Apart from Minazuki, I also spotted a few other types of wagashi in the supermarkets. If you look at them, you will find the similarities with Minazuki, and generally many other types of wagashi of the season. They all have a translucent appearance which I believe is meant to bring about a sense of coolness.  

A variety of summer wagashi found in the supermarkets.
It takes some imagination to eat these wagashi and feel cool as a result I guess.  I tried Minazuki and it has no cooling effect on me. I still prefer ice-cream, or even better, ice kacang.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How I cope with summer

"The cicadas sing. On the green Sakura trees. And the blue sky smiles."

How positive and happy my haiku sounds! But everyday since summer has begun, it has been pretty painful for me trying to cope with the summer heat. 

The daytime temperature in Kyoto today was about 35 degree celsius. Again. 4 degree celsius higher than the temperature in Singapore today. Kyoto sits in a valley, surrounded by mountain ranges. That is why the winters are harsh and the summers difficult to bear.

My landlord always uses this analogy when talking about Kyoto's summer heat. Imagine a giant bowl that is heated up and you are in the middle of it. The heat really engulfs you. So I often find myself drenched in perspiration.

The Japan National Institute for Environment Studies has a webpage listing the number of heatstroke patients sent to the hospitals in different prefectures. Close to 300 cases were reported in Kyoto thus far.  One of my neighbours recently suffered a heatstroke too. So I try to be careful and ensure I stay hydrated.

In Japanese, there is a term called natsubate which means fatigue from the summer heat.  I think I have been showing symptoms of natsubate. It's the holidays but I really do not feel like going out much. And cooking has turned into an arduous process. When I planned 3 dishes, I would give up after 2 and then I would lose all appetite because of the heat.  Talking about cooking,  I removed some meat from the freezer for thawing one day and it turned bad quickly in the humidity. It was quite a shock to me and I had to throw it all away. What a waste.

To cope with the summer heat, an easy solution would be most definitely to switch on the air-conditioning. Everyday, when I open my windows, I hear the humming of the air-conditioners hard at work around the neighbourhood. It is very tempting indeed. But I refuse to pay 3000 Yen more for the electricity bills. Furthermore, I don't want to grow accustomed to the air-conditioning and then suffer withdrawal symptoms during the rolling blackouts. So how do I cope with the heat? 

Here are some of the strategies I have adopted and I hope they are good enough to last me through till the end of September!

1. Fans.

I can't do anything without them. Even when I am cycling, I will have with me one of the fans that I have been given by sales promoters.

In summer, fans are commonly distributed for free as publicity material.

 2. Soumen

Soumen is popular in summer.  I run the noodles under cold water after it has been boiled and dip it in the cold sauce, like how you eat cold soba. It's simple to prepare, no sweat at all.

3. New Zealand's Zespri Kiwis

I found out that mixing kiwis in yoghurt makes me happy so I have been indulging in kiwis pretty much these days.

The New Zealand kiwis are possibly the next cheapest fruit after Philippines' bananas in the supermarkets. A pack of 4 kiwi fruits costs around 200 Yen (SGD 3.20) in a sale.

4. Ice cream

I hardly eat ice cream in Singapore but here, I have no choice really. I need them to keep cool in my furnace of an apartment. I hope all the ice cream can help me regain some weight!

5. Cold showers at night

I have been taking cold showers late at night but much to my disappointment, the water is  almost always luke warm.

6. Ditching the bed for the floor

It is such an irony that I bought a bed during winter as sleeping on the floor on the futon was too cold for me. And now in summer, the floor is so much more inviting. My bed is underutilised these days.

I am probably going to get rheumatism and all sorts of aches from Strategy 5 and 6 but for now, they are critical in battling the summer heat.

7. Regular visits to the school library

It is good that the school is so near and I could pop by to enjoy the air-conditioned library as often as possible.  Even though it is the school vacation, the library is crowded with students with the same idea as me. 

It is not uncommon to see students napping in the library too. And I should mention that I have seen many students sleeping undisturbed for the longest time in the library. The librarians do not stop them so I believe this is an acceptable practice in Japan.

8. Write happy sounding haikus

I have so much time on my hands that I am spending alot more time writing.  Writing lifts my spirits and reminds me that I am here to enjoy myself, not to suffer the summer heat.

A couple of days ago, I went out to do my groceries in the evening and I saw a rainbow. "How can there be a rainbow when it has not rained at all?" My neighbour said when I told her about it.

Maybe it means the good times will come. Maybe. And yes, I will continue to write.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Experiencing the "Kampong spirit" in a mansion

In Japan, the type of apartment where I am staying is called a "mansion".   There are about 24 people living in the four-storey mansion where I live. A quarter of them are non-locals.  

The four-storey mansion where I live.
My next-door neighbour is O-san, a young Chinese girl from Anhui. I first met O-san in early April after I had just moved in. From her, I gathered where I could buy furniture and other household items at good prices, and where the nearest 100 Yen shop is.   When O-san  came over to look at my place that day,  I was very glad to have her look around the spartanly furnished apartment, and to hear her suggestions on how to optimise space use in the 15-square-metre apartment. The following day, she knocked on my door with an almond pudding in hand as a welcome gift.   

Neighbours know best. Top: A recycle shop recommended by neighbours,
which sells second-hand furniture and household items.
Bottom: Kohnan, a department store recommended by neighbours as well.
It sells new furniture and household items at good prices.

Besides O-san, I also got to know the rest of the non-local neighbours by knocking on their doors and introducing myself.  Staying across from me are  D-san and H-san. Through these gentlemen, I learnt that there was actually free wireless internet I could tap on if I stood near the entrance of my mansion! They also taught me how to tap on a LAN internet connection by the use of a flat LAN cable.  In fact, they offered to let me tap on their internet but unfortunately, it was not feasible to run a cable between our apartments. So they advised that I brought this idea to O-san. O-san graciously agreed to let me run a cable through her window to tap on her internet.  So instead of paying about 4000 Yen (SGD 64) of subscription per month if I had applied to the service provider, I am paying half the amount sharing the cost with O-san.

Hikkoshi soba prepared by J-san. I contributed the Xiao Long Bao and the tofu.
A month ago,  a new neighbour, J-san from Shanghai, moved in. I introduced her to the neighbours I know, and brought her to where she could get cheap furniture and household items.  It felt good to be able to pay it forward the kindness that I had received from others. I was very happy when J-san invited me to her place for hikkoshi soba.  Hikkoshi soba is soba you give your neighbours upon moving in to a new residence.  The practice is very rare in Japan these days so it was a really nice surprise to receive hikkoshi soba from my new Chinese neighbour.  Last week, J-san tried to bake cookies with the microwave oven and invited me over to taste the cookies after she finally succeeded. I never knew you could bake using a microwave oven!

I was glad to experience the "kampong spirit" with the few neighbours whom I got to know in this foreign land. I had the good fortune of receiving some mooncakes in the mail from two really amazing friends from home. I shared these with O-san and J-san, who were thrilled to see the mooncakes. O-san said she had not tasted a mooncake in ages. 

The loneliness would have been unbearable if not for the warmth I experienced from my neighbours' kindness.  From O-san's easy-going nature, to D-san and H-san's willingness to dispense advice. And now, J-san's interesting culinary adventures.

O-san, D-san and H-san would be returning to their countries soon as their 2-year Masters Programme had ended.  Once the summer heat had become more bearable, I shall attempt to whip up some Singapore-style curry to share around.

Friday, 3 August 2012

My first visit to the Health Centre

Every Wednesday, from 8.30am to 10.30am, the Health Centre in the ward where I am staying provides health examination services. As I was applying for a homestay in Ishikawa Prefecture, I needed a health examination as part of the application. 

Before I visited the Health Centre, I had first approached the Medical Centre in my university upon the advice of my neighbour. The health examination that I needed was the usual one covering the standard checks for height, weight, eyesight and blood pressure, as well as lungs x-ray and urinanalysis. The university could provide such a health examination at a subsidised fee - 1500 Yen (SGD 24).  Unfortunately, I was not entitled to this service because I am an exchange student.   The Medical Officer recommended that I visit a hospital and suggested one that provides the cheapest fee for health examination, at about 5300 Yen (SGD 85).
The building on the left is the Health Centre.
The white building next to it is the ward office. where all foreigners who will be 
residing in Japan for more than 90 days have to register for their residence card.

I spoke to a few more people and gathered that the Health Centre in the ward provides such services at an even more affordable rate. So after confirming the details over the phone, I dropped by at the Health Centre early on Wednesday morning.  A prior appointment was not necessary.  At the Health Centre, there was a counter that handled health examination. I went there, filled up some forms and was then shown to an area to wait for my turn. I thought the Health Centre felt like a cross between Singapore's Health Promotion Board and a Polyclinic.

"You are very thin!" said the nurse who took my height and weight. I realised I lost 5 kilos! I replied that I had lost weight since coming to Japan.  She said it must be the stress of a new environment. I thought it could probably be due to all the cycling.  It was nice to be able to make small talk in Japanese. But when she started to question me about medical history, I was totally lost in all the difficult medical terms. So she searched a drawer and took out a list of questions she had to ask, all translated into English.

Price list for the different tests as part of the health exam. I paid for the health cert
which costs 1800 Yen, urine test which costs 200 Yen and the x-ray result.
Next, it was time for the session with the doctor. I was nervous and wondered how it would go with my broken Japanese and limited knowledge of medical-related vocabulary. I had my mobile phone ready so that I could use the dictionary application. "Could you understand Japanese?" asked the doctor.  I wanted to tell him that I would love to practise Japanese with him, since I still had not made any Japanese friend whom I could practise Japanese with. But I thought better of it and said weakly, "Er, alittle..." Then he got all excited and asked me in Mandarin if I could speak Mandarin. And then I got all excited as well to be able to speak Mandarin with him. The consultation with the Japanese doctor who spoke Beijing-accented Mandarin went smoothly afterall. I was told that my blood pressure was normal. Good to know.

The health examination ended in about 30 minutes as there was no queue. I would have to return in a week's time to get the report. There is no such thing as expediting a medical report.  And oh, I paid 2300 Yen for the health examination in total. Glad that I did not have to pay more just because I am a foreigner.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The search for new spectacles

A week ago, I dropped my spectacles while sightseeing on my bicycle.
The signboard I saw along the streets before I lost my spectacles -_-
I was cycling on the Kyoto streets one Saturday. My spirits were high and the weather was great. I passed this huge signboard that says "Your good times are just beginning" and I truly believed that only good things would happen on that day. 

And then it started to pour.

I put on my new raincoat from the 100 Yen shop and kept cycling, spirits undampened. Cycling in the rain in a raincoat (I had not worn one since I was a child) was to me a very novel experience. So I was really enjoying it.  As the raindrops on my spectacles hindered my vision,  I removed them for safety reasons. Having nowhere else to put them, I placed them in my bicycle basket.  That was the worst decision I made that day.

I realised that my spectacles were gone after about 20 minutes of cycling. I immediately retraced my route, half expecting to see them lying in the middle of the road as the wheels of a truck ran over them.  Twice, I retraced the route but there was no trace of them.

After that hapless day, I embarked on a week-long operation to search for new spectacles.  When I entered the shops to enquire about the prices, I was often asked about the whereabouts of my old spectacles.

Now, there are 2 Japanese verbs for "drop", depending on whether someone drops the object or the object drops by itself.   In my case, the spectacles dropped from my bicycle without me realising.  But in my broken Japanese, I somehow managed to make all the shop assistants think that I dropped my spectacles and broke the lens while cycling.  They were all very sympathetic.  I was exasperated, more from the fact that I had made little improvement in Japanese though, rather than from having lost my spectacles.

Price range
On the right, a JINS outlet in OPA, a shopping mall at Shijo Kawaramachi.
A second outlet can be found in the Daimaru nearby.

Anyway, I checked with a few people and gathered that a pair of spectacles cost about 10000 Yen (SGD 160).  Prices for the spectacles frame usually start from 5000 Yen and you pay about 5000 Yen more for the lens.  However, I guess I was still considered lucky because it was the summer sale! With the summer sale, I could get a pair of spectacles at half the price!

Recommended shop for spectacles

Upon the recommendation from a friend, I checked out JINS, a shop selling really trendy and affordable spectacles. There I got a new pair of spectacles, complete with lens at 3990 Yen (about SGD 64).  The "standard operating procedure" for buying spectacles at JINS goes like this :
    A wide selection of colourful light-weight plastic frames at JINS.
    You can also find metal frames here.
    You choose the spectacles you like and bring it to the counter.
  2. Next, it is the eye check.  You will be asked to wait for your turn at the seating area that flanked both sides of the counter.  During the eye check, I was asked if I could read Japanese. I was then asked to read Japanese alphabets from a chart.  I believe a different chart will be used for people who do not speak Japanese.
  3. After the eye check is done, you make payment at the counter. During that time, you will be asked to choose the colour of the spectacle case that you like. I chose fuchsia. Other colours include brown, white, turquoise, gold and silver etc.
  4. After payment, you will be asked to wait at the seating area for your spectacles. I waited about 15 minutes.
  5. And after getting your spectacles, the staff will make sure they fit nicely on your ears and nose before packing them into the case.  A warranty card is included in the spectacle case.
My new blue plastic spectacles.
I was really happy with the service and the prices offered by JINS.  It was a pleasant surprise to be able to get my new spectacles on the spot too.  I think the prices of spectacles in Japan are comparable to and perhaps even cheaper than in Singapore, especially during the summer sale.
However, if you are looking for Japan-made frames, I am not sure if you may be able to find it in JINS though.  I believe most of their spectacles are not made here. 
Well, I sure hope that my good times are really beginning with these new spectacles!

Getting around in Kyoto

Transport in Japan is expensive.The standard cost of a bus ride on the Kyoto city bus is 220 Yen (SGD 3.50). The subway costs about the same, starting from 210 Yen.  I met 2 Singaporeans visiting Kyoto through a Taiwanese school mate and they had an interesting perspective.  "In order not to feel the pinch, just pretend that you were riding in a taxi all the time".

When I arrived in Kyoto, I was determined to find an apartment near my school so that I didn't have to incur unnecessary transport costs. I could of course invest in a bicycle like everyone else living here but I had no confidence riding a bicycle then.

And so my most important criterion to my housing agent was to find a place within 20 minutes' walk from my school so that I could walk to school everyday.  It was fortunate that they found me an apartment 700m from school, about 10 minutes' walk. 

To save on transport costs, I started to walk to places I wanted to go instead of getting on public transport.  My threshold for what was considered "far" was raised.  Any place within a hour of walking was considered "near" by my new standard.
A bicycle shop near my university.

When I started to get engaged in volunteer work, I began to realise that transport costs were depleting my budget.  The venues for those activities were too far for walking.  The transport costs on an activity day would cost me more than 1000 Yen (SGD 16).  

At first, I bought 1-day bus passes for unlimited travelling on the Kyoto city bus. That costs 500 Yen each. However, the transport costs for a month of volunteering activities were still quite high. Eventually, I started to seriously consider a bicycle.

Getting a bicycle

There are many shops in Kyoto selling used bicycles.  The shops in areas where there are universities tend to sell their used bicycles at higher prices, from around 6000 Yen (SGD 100). There are some cheap  department stores like "Kohnan" which sell new bicycles from about 8000 Yen.  The internet, notably Amazon.co.jp has some pretty good offers for new foldable bicycles costing slightly more than 9000 Yen.

A friend also pointed me to the message boards at the Kyoto City International Foundation to check out the items for sale. There, I found someone who was willing to sell his bicycle for 1000 Yen but you must first justify to him why he should sell his bicycle to you.

I also heard about school mates who managed to get cheap second-hand bicycles at only around 3000 Yen.  So I started to ask around in school with the hope of buying an even cheaper used bicycle from overseas students who were returning home.  Eventually, I found someone who offered to give me her bicycle as she was returning to America.

Soon after I got a bicycle, my quality of life improved tremendously. I no longer had to walk the distance back from the supermarkets with the heavy groceries. I was also able to explore more places in Kyoto, which also meant I could seek out places where the bargains were.

Used bicycles in tip-top condition for sale at Toji flea market.
Recently, I went to a flea market at Toji Temple, cycling almost 1.5 hours to get there.  I discovered bicycles going for less than 3000 Yen at the flea market.

My neighbour quipped that I should get another bicycle since  it is so cheap. It was very tempting indeed, considering that they all came in many different bright colours and were in tip-top condition. I would have loved to get the one in fuchsia to match my wallet and laptop.

A bicycle crossing right beside a zebra crossing for pedestrians.
The bicycle is indeed the best and cheapest way to travel around Kyoto.  Kyoto streets are easy to navigate due to the grid layout of the city.  The walking paths are usually shared between the pedestrians and cyclists.  On some sidewalks, a path for bicycles is clearly marked out. 

The only grouse most people have is probably the challenge of finding parking for bicycles.  There are many people who park illegally in parks or sidewalks.  They would then risk getting their bicycles removed and being slapped with a 2300 Yen handling fee. Taking the advice from friends, I usually pretend to be a patron of a pachinko outlet or a restaurant and park my bicycle there for free, like everyone else.

With a bicycle, anywhere within 1.5 hours of cycling could be considered "near" by my new standard. As temperature soared in summer, cycling could be pretty torturous.  I also found out that discounted bus and train tickets could be purchased in downtown Kyoto. So on days when I did not feel like cycling, I would use such tickets.  

A shop along Shijo Kawaramachi selling discounted train and bus tickets. On the right is a diagram showing the price of the discounted Hankyu Railway tickets for use on normal days, non-peak hours and on weekends.
The 1-day bus pass, and the discounted
 tickets for off-peak travel on the Kyoto City Bus.
Discounted tickets for public transport

The discounted bus tickets have to be bought in bulk so it is really for people living in Kyoto. You pay 2000 Yen for 13 tickets which means that each ticket costs only about 150 Yen instead of 220 Yen.  However, the catch is you can only travel between non-peak hours from 10am to 4pm, and you cannot travel on Sundays.  If you do not want such restrictions, you can pay 5000 Yen for 26 tickets and each ticket will cost 190 Yen.

The shops selling such tickets also sells JR train passes and sightseeing passes for tourists. They even sell movie tickets at lower prices.  I went to Osaka on the private Hankyu Railway at only 300 Yen on a Sunday, using the discounted Hankyu tickets. 

If you are coming to Kyoto, you know that there are always cheaper options available for travelling around here.