Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Pepe Gaka takes us around Kyoto

I woke up to the hum of the air-conditioner, I looked at my watch and it read 7:00 am. I gave out a light groan, I wanted to get some more shut-eye but we were scheduled to go around Kyoto today with our friend, Pepe Gaka, at 9:00 am. With the impressive efficiency of Japanese trains, I was sure we'd arrive there in no time. Time to wake up the parents, I thought, as I climbed down the ladder to their futon.

Who is Pepe Gaka?

My sister and I spotted Giuseppe "Pepe" Gaka while walking along Auckland's Princes Wharf last January. We were rushing to get some bus tickets for our city tour when I spotted a street artist and got curious. I told my sister we should go and say hi, but since we were on a tight schedule she dismissed it and said we should get on our way.

But as per usual, my curiosity got the best of me. I walked towards him and said hello, mesmerized by his intricate artwork of the Last Supper (a replica of one done by Dutch painter, Carl Bloch).

Pepe is an Italian-born itinerant street artist (locally called Madonnaro), professionally busking his way around the world and he had just arrived in Auckland for an 12-week stint. He works on large canvas on the street, drawing crowds and onlookers everywhere he goes. Once finished, he donates his artwork to charity and lives off of donations by kind strangers and passersby.

We met him on Tuesday and we chatted for around 20 minutes before we bid farewell, secretly hoping we'd bump into him again on our last day in Auckland. Of course we didn't because as Pepe predicted, it would rain on Friday and when we passed by the harbor he was nowhere in sight. I think our hearts sank a bit there, but how serendipitous it was to meet with him again just two weeks ago in Japan.

Meeting in Japan

Our arrival in Kyoto from Osaka was nothing short of amazing. The Kyoto train station is considered as the most prominent transportation hub in Japan, it was an architectural marvel to say the least.

And then a grinning Pepe Gaka arrived with his backpack in tow, "Kira-chan!" he exclaimed. He had taken the Shinkansen from Tokyo earlier to meet us in Kyoto. A quick breakfast before we go exploring was in order, and we chose Cosme Kitchen Cafe as our first stop.

Pepe rocks the manbun


Having worked in Japan previously, Pepe decided we were to visit Eastern Kyoto's most famous geisha district which involved walking to Shichijo and eventually ending in Gion. We were very excited though the weather that day did not cooperate (it was hotter than the previous days), the parents were not as thrilled and had to endure walking around Kyoto. If I had my way, I would go around Kyoto on a bike. 

On the way I was ecstatic to see cute school kids in uniform (much to the dismay of everyone) that I had to have a photo taken. Thank you, Pepe, for asking them nicely in Japanese.

Walking to Gion you'll pass by rows of Machiya (traditional wooden merchant houses) that offer precious earthenware, food, liquor, silk garbs, etc. 

Visiting a Shinto Shrine

With over 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto alone, it can be a challenge to choose which to visit. We randomly chose one (exact Shinto Shrine to follow, still researching) with Pepe taking the reigns.   

Before entering you must purify your hands and mouth using the cool water in the "temizuya" water pavilion. A temizuya consists of a water basin with ladles which worshipers and tourists can use. This ritual signifies "washing away impurities in your heart as well as from your physical self."

How to pray at shrines and temples: 

- At the altar, quietly throw your lucky 5 Yen coin into the "saisenbako" offering box.
- Bow twice, then clap your hands twice.
- Offer a prayer or express your gratitude and respect of meeting the deity.
- Bow again once.


Crawl through the enkiri/enmusubi stone at the Yasui-kompira-gu Shrine

At the edge of Gion is a shrine in Higashiyama-ku where you'll spot a weird-looking structure. It's called the enkiri/enmusubi stone where you can pray to strengthen relationships or sever ties.

What you do is buy the special paper and write your name and wish on it. If you want to bind a good relationship tighter, you clutch the paper and crawl through the tunnel in the stone from front to back. If you want to end a relationship, you do the opposite and crawl through from back to front. Once done, grab the handy container of glue and affix your paper to the ever growing mountain of wishes covering the stone.


Grab a sugar cloud along Hanamikoji Dori

Known for their pastry shops, tea houses, and other specialty food stores, Hanamikoji Dori is a foodie's paradise. 

We highly recommend stopping by the cream puff shop for their choux pastry filled with matcha or black sesame custard. Each is 300 Yen.

Explore more sweet tooth options at Candy Show Time

Watch how candy is made into teeny sushi versions, molded into lips and 'staches, and stock up on freshly made daifuku (mochi with red bean filling) here.

Order ramen via vending machine -- so cool!

Ramen lovers will get a kick out of ordering food via Vendo. Pepe shows us how it's done, I ordered ramen, karaage, and gohan in a nearby hole-in-the-wall [and very compact] eatery. This method helps keeps costs low, makes service more efficient, and the set menu lessens the waiting time. 

Appreciate Japanese ladies wearing their lovely kimonos

Gion is the largest maiko and geiko district in Kyoto, and is the heart of Kyoto's culture. Expect to run into ladies wearing the traditional kimono but please don't forget to show them utmost respect. I've heard a lot get annoyed by tourists who ogle, follow them, and try to take endless photos. 

Get lost at the Teramachi and Shin Kyogoku Shopping Arcades

Explore rows and rows of shops and food places along Shin Kyogoku. You'll find everything from men's clothes, mod cloth stores, novelty shops, cafes, etc. My sister and I gave up and turned back 20 minutes into stepping foot in this shopping arcade -- it seemed the road never ends so we backtracked our way and had coffee instead. 

After an insanely long day of walking around, we were famished so Pepe took us to a Japanese restaurant where you can conveniently order via tablet. Someone burst my bubble and told me this was regular stuff in Manila already, but I was still so stoked to try it out :)

The best dish of the night was the octopus tempura, so fresh and so good, I ordered 2 servings after this. And I did not share!

Ride the Skinkansen (bullet train)

Pepe also helped us score tickets for the Nozomi Shinkansen so we can experience a smooth 20-minute bullet train ride from Kyoto to Osaka. Each ticket was 3000 Yen.

Thank you so much, Pepe, for spending a day with us in Kyoto! We wish we had more time to chat and catch up, but I guess we'll see you in Canada next year? :)

Know more about Pepe and his travels at


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