A Travellerspoint blog

Japan

Kyoto & Nara

semi-overcast 33 °C

Certainly the most enjoyable city on our visit, Kyoto is all it is made up to be! A beautiful city with all the culture a visitor could possibly want to experience. We arrived, dripping with sweat due to the hot, humid weather, at the Palace Side Hotel. Not a bad place to stay, though the room, in particular the bathroom, was quite cramped. The reasonable price made up for it though and the service was excellent.

The abundance of things to do in Kyoto is almost overwhelming. We started with a visit to the Nishijin Textile Center. There are weaving demonstrations, people dressing up in kimonos, a large shop and perhaps most importantly, a kimono fashion parade (!) once an hour. And if you're really keen, you can hire a kimono for a day and walk around town in it. Naturally, we did not hire kimonos.

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But we did walk around Kyoto, minus the kimonos. The Gion area is particularly good to just walk around. There are beautiful old streets lined with eateries, pottery shops and various intriguing shops that are only signposted in Japanese. We entered one shop so tightly packed with pottery that the old man in the shop had to get up from his chair in the walkway to allow us in.

An interesting shop

An interesting shop

Entrance to Yasaka shrine

Entrance to Yasaka shrine

One drizzly day was spent walking the Philosopher's Walk, one of the most popular attractions in the city. And for good reason. The meandering 1.5 km cobbled canalside walk passes temple after temple, with a few souvenir shops dotted in between. The beautiful Ginkaku-ji temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion, has some incredible landscaped gardens to wander through. One of the things that Kyoto gardens are supposedly known for is their use of 'borrowed landscape', using the nearby mountains as part of their overall design and this is done to great effect at Ginkaku-ji. Another feature of their garden is the sand, carefully raked in lovely patterns with a nice little mound in the middle. And people take their moss very serious here.

Towards the end of the walk, the Eikan-do complex of temples are another great attraction. After taking our shoes off at the start, we followed the corridors snaking up the hill to the various temples. Of course, there are some lovely landscaped gardens to complete the picture and various golden statues, trinkets and chanting monks.

A little further down again, the Nanzen-ji grounds include an aquaduct from 1890 - a strange sight in Japan, but an interesting one nonetheless.

But the temples aren't the only World Heritage listed site in Kyoto either. Back nearer our hotel, Nijo Castle is a beautiful old structure. This castle is nothing like the Osaka or Himeji Castles, with far less grand fortifications. It is also missing the donjon, the large central building that can be seen at Osaka and Himeji, due to a lightning strike in 1750. The highlight though, is the Honmaru Palace, decorated splendidly inside with gold leaf paintings. And a little protection never goes astray; the Nightingale floors serve that purpose. The what floors you ask? Indeed, one of the first things you notice entering the building is the squeeking floors underneath. It's not the usual annoying squeek, more a gentle tweet, specially created to warn of intruders. Nice touch.

Various other shrines were visited while in Kyoto - too much to remember really. It seems they have some shrine for every occasion, like one that seemed to be dedicated to football. It's a great city to spend time in and if you're planning a trip, I would certainly join the chorus in recommending Kyoto as a focal point.

Shrine to do with football somehow

Shrine to do with football somehow

Nara

On our last day we decided to make a trip to nearby Nara, mainly for its giant bronze buddha, the largest bronze buddha in the world, housed in the largest wooden building in the world. But the buddha shares the limelight with 1000 wild deer and indeed they almost seem the more popular attraction. We certainly enjoyed watching them eating maps out of people's hands. :) Well, the buddha didn't disappoint either, it truly is gigantic. The statues to either side would even be considered large, if they weren't next to the largest bronze buddha in the world. Nara park includes more than deer and buddha though, indeed the whole park is quite enjoyable to walk around. There's a smaller temple near the giant one, a shinto shrine, a pagoda and even a pond full of turtles right on the outskirt!

Lanterns, Nara

Lanterns, Nara

Today we left Kyoto behind us and tomorrow we leave for Singapore. Our impressions of Japan have been very good.

Posted by Peter 04:08 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Osaka & Himeji

sunny 31 °C

Arriving in Osaka, we were warmly welcomed at the Yamatoya Honten Ryokan with tray after tray of various delicacies, generally quite fishy; raw fish, fish dumplings, fish soup, fried fish and so it continued. We were stuffed by the end of it all! And for breakfast, guess what, more fish :) It was a pleasant experience, but we were glad we had only ordered that treat for one night!

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Our meal in Osaka

The hotel is diagonally opposite Dotonbori Street, one of the livelier areas in town and we had views of it from our window on the 9th floor. I spent some time trying to pick tattoo'ed men missing fingers, supposedly a sign that they are members of the Yakuza, the Japanese maffia who call Osaka home according to our guidebook. Well, none were seen from such a height, but we did spot one or two tattoo'ed men while wandering the streets. Don't worry, I didn't test my very limited / non-existent ninjutsu skills on them.

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The view from our room

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Fancy puffer fish for dinner?

Osaka Castle was our first port of call as far as tourist attractions were concerned. The structure is quite impressive with the arched walls and grand building inside. Inside the main building is an exhibit spread out over 6 floors. Really, the interior of the building is about as exciting as an average department store, I guess somewhere along the line the original was 'renovated'. Conveniently, it does have an elevator, but inconveniently (for us), it is only supposed to be used by disabled people. The view from the 6th floor is quite nice though and not bad after you recover your breath.

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One of the walls of the Osaka Castle

Not quite as nice as the view from the Umeda Sky Building though, where we headed the next day. 175 metres and 40 floors up, their Garden Observatory (no, there's no garden up there, just a few plastic plants) offers some fantastic views of Osaka. The place feels a bit like a spaceship with suitably spacy outfits for the various staff up there.

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Not far from the Umeda Sky Building, we stopped for lunch at a little cafe, which as far as we could tell was called 'Cafe Bar', though that could be due to our lack of Japanese. It was a very pleasant place with good food at reasonable prices and a couple of very friendly hosts. Their English was broken, but they seemed to enjoy the opportunity to make conversation.. conversations like

'where from?'
'Australia'
'aahhh, you have ..' *she makes some hopping hand motions*
'you mean kangaroos?'
'aaah, yes, kangaroos, hahaha'

and so it went on. In fact it was quite pleasant and nice to have people take some interest. Kind of like the guy in Tokyo who approached us and started an interrogation routine; just to finally explain that he was practising his English!

Another stop in Osaka was the Folk Art Museum, not too far from our hotel. Lots of objects created by various Japanese craftspeople. Some nice pottery, weaving and bits and pieces.

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Osaka Folk Craft Museum

Himeji lured us away from Osaka for a day, primary attraction naturally their World Heritage listed castle. Three metro stops and a Shinkansen later, we were presented with a quaint looking tourist bus bound for the castle. Instead, we hopped on the nearest public bus (because we've had such good experiences with them, ehem) and before too long found ourselves one stop too far. Oh well, at least it only cost a fifth of the tourist bus. Janelle was particularly pleasantly surprised that the temporary art exhibition she had previously seen on some flyer in Tokyo was in fact in the Museum we were now walking past. So, first stop was the Himeji Museum of Art. The exhibition was actually rather impressive with various takes on nature by contemporary Japanese artists. We particularly appreciated some charcoal drawings that at first glance looked like photographs, very impressive. Nice to appreciate some good art now and then. But ok, back on track and back out of the eirkon (that's Japanese for air conditioning), we headed up the hill to the castle.

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The Himeji Castle is a great place to visit, though there is no elevator, leaving six flights of stairs needing to be climbed. The interior of the building is original with weapon racks, toilets and all sorts of other interesting nooks and crannies (dunno what a 'crannie' is actually, but there definitely were nooks) to look at on the way up. Just mind your head if you're anything over 140cm.. Outside the main building, the grounds are pleasant to walk around, though most likely more pleasant on a less hot day. There's a well that supposedly has a story attached to it that is the basis of the movie The Ring (see previous post from Tokyo) - if you want to scare yourself, you should watch this Japanese classic sometime.

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And that concluded our stay in Osaka. I don't think we felt we needed to stay much longer, though it was a pleasant enough time. Onwards and upwards (if North is up, which it in fact quite often isn't on maps here) to nearby Kyoto.

Posted by Peter 05:21 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Nikko

semi-overcast 25 °C

Next stop on our tour of Japan was the small town of Nikko, home of the World Heritage listed Nikko Shrine and Temple complex and the National Park. We were waiting for the hour long bus ride to our hotel mentioned on the internet when Janelle noticed a courtesy bus of theirs picking up some other guests. We talked our way onto that courtesy bus and 5 minutes later we arrived at our hotel, baffled as to why the regular bus would have taken an hour. Turns out my directions were for another Hotel Kanaya in the not so nearby town of Chuzen-ji.

The Hotel Kanaya is a beautiful old building, (1873) quite rightly noted in our guidebook as an 'architectural delight', with impeccable service and beautiful garden view rooms. There is a long list of famous people who stayed at this hotel, with photos dating back a hundred years plastered all over the walls.

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The view from our room at the Hotel Kanaya

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Shinkyo Bridge, just down the road

We went down the road for lunch in the pouring rain and soon came across 'The Little Yakatori Bar'. It would seem this place is notorious among travellers. It has several glowing guidebook reviews tacked on the wall and inside the whole place is plastered with notes and business cards from people who have eaten there. I think the main highlight is that it serves vegetarian food, which isn't necessarily easy to come by. We found the food reasonable, but not nearly as exciting as the glowing advertorials would have you believe. The old lady was very friendly though and the atmosphere was pleasant. Naturally, you can now find a Travellerspoint card on the wall as well ;) Interesting to note is that all the other nearby restaurants seem to be copying The Little Yakitori Bar's tactics now, making a big deal out of their list of international diners.

The primary attraction in Nikko are the numerous shrines and temples and the various buildings and gardens are truly awe inspiring to behold. It was handy wearing sandles for this excursion though, as it would have be a royal pain in the you know what taking off your shoes every time you need to enter a particularly important place. What more can one say about looking at temples? Scary looking statues, lots of incense burning, golden buddhas and such things. Some pictures below should give you an idea. It's a very enjoyable place to visit.

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Exiting the temple district, we decided we would take the bus up the mountain to Chuzen-ji, where the other Hotel Kanaya is located. We made some dumb choices regarding transport, passing up the option of a shuttle service the hotel runs, opting for a regular bus instead. Little did we realise it would come to 1000 Yen a person each way. Oh well, such is life. Oh, I forgot to mention the other lure of the mountain, namely wild monkeys.. Anyhow, halfway up the mountain, nearing our final destination, we experienced a moment of confusion when the bus pulled up at a very scenic lookout offering people the chance to get off. Strangely enough, we decided to get off and see what there was to see, despite the protests of other passengers on the bus. A very nice view mainly, but also a chair lift up to err.. an even nicer view, this time of the lake and town we were trying to get to. Ok, that sightseeing need taken care of, we returned to the bus stop to complete our journey. And it turned out the next bus would be here in, let's see, an hour! argghh .. Perhaps to torment us while stuck on this block of cement with nothing but a toilet to entertain us, there was an interesting sign stating not to 'approach the wild monkeys with food'. Unfortunately, no monkeys were available to approach. So, there we stood for a while in the drizzling rain waiting for the next bus. A friendly lady said it was a twenty minute walk to Chuzen-ji from here, but we decided to wait anyway. Either way, by now it would be roughly the same time waiting or walking. Then they came, first one crossing the road, then a swarm. At least a dozen hairy, red faced monkeys (don't ask me for the species) were wandering around the place, some with young. Naturally, I took note of the sign and didn't approach them 'with food', instead approaching them with my camera - hey they're monkeys, they're clever right? Later we spoke to an Australian who had been attacked by a gang of vicious furry monkeys, so this perhaps was not a very wise move on my behalf - note to kids, don't sneak up on monkeys.

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Waiting with us at the bus stop

Oh, and Lake Chuzen-ji and the nearby waterfall were also well worth the trip. See the pics below.

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Now, we're being bulleted to Osaka at 300 km/h. I must say, these Shinkansens really do make you feel like you've entered a warp zone of some sort. A very pretty warp zone too..

Posted by Peter 18:44 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

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