Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Destination ... Kyoto Station

Train stations take you from one destination to the next. But in some cases,  train stations by virtue of their history, architectural design or available facilities become iconic.
They are destinations unto themselves.
Grand Central Station in New York comes to mind, so does Gare Lyon and Gare du Nord in Paris and
the ultra futuristic Gare Centrale in Strasbourg.
I have been guilty many times of not taking the time to explore a train station.
I walk in, go from one exit to the next, go down deeper into its subterranean depths without ever coming up to the ground.
But on this second visit to Kyoto, the hotel we were staying in was just across Kyoto Station so  I decided that I would take the time to explore and experience the place.

Opened in the late 1990s, Kyoto Station, all steel and glass beauty of it,  does not seem at all incongruous in genteel, tradition bound, elegant Kyoto.
It is an integral and vibrant part of the city -- with two hotels, hundreds of shops, a wide variety of restaurants and of course, numerous train and subway tracks and even bus and taxi terminals.
This huge open area, full of people,  is what you see when you come in from the central gate of the station.

The central space is anchored on both sides by two towers.  The east side features extremely tall escalators that quickly bring you to the top.

It may look like a roller coaster drop but it's really the top of the escalator that goes straight from the atrium on the 6th floor up to the 10th floor.   Down below is a large open-air space with cafes and restaurants surrounding it.

People with vertigo or who are scared of heights should avoid the long walkway that connects the east tower to the west side.  Wide glass windows open up to great city views.
Ten floors above the station floor, you walk alongside curvilinear steel frames and  highly polished glass and you feel you are suspended and walking on top of the building -- which in a way, you really are.

Upon reaching the other side of the walkway, you can see how really architecturally amazing Kyoto Station is, with all its graceful curves that are not just there for design but are functional features as well.
 If the east tower had a long and tall escalator that carried you up four straight floors,
the west tower has a very long stairway,  that reaches up to the top of the station.
There are still escalators on the side but the main feature is, dare I say it,  this "stairway to heaven"  which on this  mild  spring morning, has become a place for locals and tourists like me, to sit on the steps and just relax and enjoy the day.

There is a viewing deck on the top of the station that gives you a bird's eye view of Kyoto -- I wonder how many tourists and visitors to the city really take the time to come up all the way here and see this wonderful perspective.  I'm glad I didn't miss this.

Soon, I realize it's noontime and that I'm hungry.  Aside from the many eating places scattered all over the station, Kyoto Station has two floors devoted to the business of eating. 
On the 10th floor is Ramen Koji,  an all ramen noodle floor with several ramen restaurants.  
What ramen would you like?  You definitely will be able to find it here.  But be prepared to line up if you come during peak dining hours.

A short escalator ride up from Ramen Koji is another floor with more restaurants.
I spy an okonomiyaki place but there's a long line as well.

Katsukura, a tonkatsu chain that I frequent in Tokyo is originally from Kyoto and has a shop at the station.

There are more choices on the 11th floor -- from sushi and sashimi to bento sets, you won't go hungry.
I realize I could just stay inside Kyoto Station and eat for days on end!

After a full day of sightseeing, we come back to Kyoto station at night and find that the monumental staircase has transformed into a light and sound show.  I watch entranced as through the magic of hundreds of thousands of little lights, the steps have become a giant screen -- where visuals of pop designs and Japanese characters are projected in time with music.  What an impressive sight!

The performance ends with this heartwarming message -- Welcome to Kyoto!  Indeed, this alone should make you not miss a visit to Kyoto Station.  A surprising and not to be missed part of your itinerary.

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