Last week we left off in beautiful Kinosaki, Japan. This week we slowly make our way to Kyoto, in hopes of meeting a real-life geisha or maiko (I am on an exclusive "Memoirs of a Geisha" tour).
Leaving Kinosaki, we got picked up in a phat new van. This thing was sweet! It had soft red velvet seats that could swivel around, making for a congenial atmosphere. A few of us hung out in the back and shared travel stories, while we admired the picturesque scenery passing by. Thirty minutes into the trip we made our first stop: Stork Park in Toyooka City. We were there to check out their 118 wild Oriental white storks. They are an endangered species, with supposedly only 2,000 remaining worldwide. This is a peaceful place for storks (and visitors) to roam around in. What's great about this place -- besides the many acres of lush grounds -- is that the workers help the storks breed, then reintroduce them back into the wild. Admission is free, and they are closed Mondays. For more information, check out the official Toyooka City Hyogo Prefecture (jurisdiction) website at city.toyooka.lg.jp. Warning: Like most Japanese websites, there is no English button, and web translators don't work for this site.
The storks were amazing creatures and I am glad I got to see them. But I'm not a big bird watcher, and after 15 minutes I was ready to hit the road. We were there for at least an hour, though, before jumping back on the bus. Our next stop, 30 minutes down the road, was Izushi town. I could've spent a lot more time there. Izushi town is famous for three things: the Izushi Castle, the Shinko Ro Tower, and Izushi Soba (buckwheat noodles). The Castle is built on a hill, with 37 bright red torii gates leading to a shrine. The Shinko Ro Tower is located near the main castle gate, and is regarded as the symbol of Izushi. These are both nice to see, but we were there for one reason: to eat the local specialty. These cold, thin buckwheat noodles are typically served on five (count 'em) tiny Izushi ware dishes. They come with a sweet soy sauce, and a raw egg to make for a tasty dipping sauce. There are many places to get these popular noodles, because Izushi has 50 soba restaurants. Some even offer cooking classes, so you can make your own soba at home. We ate lunch at the highly regarded Shokaku Tanakaya. The cost was 850 yen ($8.50). Don't just eat and run -- make sure to walk around the cute town, and check out the shops. Everyone is super-friendly.
Just in case you want to see what a Japanese McDonald's looks like, here are a couple of pictures (the bold blue links in this paragraph). I know what you're thinking: What a pathetic American tourist, going to McDonald's overseas. I couldn't agree with you more. I hate to see American fast food chains on foreign ground (actually I hate to see them in most places, except when I'm starving on the highway). But I was at this one for a good reason. We were driving two hours to Miyamacho, and our tour guide asked if anyone needed a bathroom break. Of course everyone raised their hands (it must have been all the sake at lunch). You know where we pulled over. And you probably guessed that someone in our group waiting around for the bathroom had to order French fries for everyone to experience. I'm ashamed to say I had one (okay, 20). And they were darn good.