Kyoto & Nara

DAY 8:  Kyoto, the Western Capital

We arrived in Kyoto city around mid-morning. Our hotel is a little more modern, but we still had to sleep on tatami mats. The hotel staff was very friendly. A young Japanese boy named Taro greeted and took care of our registration. For some odd reason, the boy’s name tickled YY so much that she couldn’t stop laughing about it. Apparently, the word Taro is equivalent to yam.

After a lengthy rest from the laughter, we decided to take the day easy and just explore the surrounding area as we look for potential good restaurants. Our first impression of Kyoto spelled olden but rich. It seems just as hectic and metropolitan but unlike Tokyo, Kyoto tries to preserve every last drop; every square inch of history and tradition while it still can amidst changing times. We went shopping, and then had lunch at a noodle place called Nakau. This time, we had to order from a large vending machine, where tickets are purchased for the respected dish, and then passed to the chef. Not sure why the set up is this way, but we assumed that it could be most efficient during peak hours.

Shopping was all we did for the rest of the day. We found a sushi restaurant at the basement of the Kyoto Central Train Station. Finally, cheap and affordable sushi! Once again, we were the only female customers. Everyone else were men, in business wear, eating by themselves in front of the sushi belt.

Excited at the prospect of being able to watch Hana Yori Dango Finale in Japan, we decided to take the train and travel to the nearest cinema (Toho Cinemas). To our dismay, the movie was not subbed in English, and so we ended up watching an American film instead. After the movie, we headed back to our hotel to plan the week’s agenda in Kyoto!

DAY 9: “Take picture, take picture”

That’s the sentence of the day. Its humour is most probably only understood by Malaysians. Right … and so … our adventure begins on a fine, sunny day. We were targeting a visit to three different temples for the day. It was quite an ambitious plan, and I must say by the end, we were very exhausted.

Tourist attractions in Kyoto Japan
Kinkaku-ji – Temple of the Golden Pavillion
Five-storey Pagoda

Our first stop was at the Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavillion), a beautiful and historic three-story building situated on the grounds of Rokuon-ji temple complex. The top two stories are covered in pure gold leaf, and on a sunny day like this the reflection of the pavillion can be seen clearly on the surrounding pond. Our next temple destination was Ninna-ji. Amazingly tranquil and beautiful heritage site. It is part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple is huge. There are many buildings and gardens located inside the compound.

Miniature model of karesansui at Ryoan-ji

Then, we made our way to Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple. It is also known as The Temple of the Dragon at Peace. The place is known for its karesansui, or Japanese rock garden (dry landscape garden). We were unable to take a picture of the actual garden because it was too huge to fit into the frame of the camera … but we took a photo of the miniature model! I just recall feeling so much peace at these temples and gardens. It was unbelievably surreal! Another object of interest was this carved stone basin that had water continuously flowing through it. There is also kanji written on the surface of the basin. I’ll let Wikipedia do the explanation since it’s already flawlessly scripted there:

The kanji written on the surface of the stone are without significance when read alone. If each is read in combination with 口 (kuchi), which the central bowl is meant to represent, then the characters become 吾, 唯, 足, 知. This is read as “ware tada taru (wo) shiru” and translates literally as “I only know plenty” (吾 = ware = I, 唯 = tada = only, 足 = taru = plenty, 知 = shiru = know). The meaning of the phrase carved into the top of the tsukubai is simply that “what one has is all one needs” and is meant to reinforce the basic anti-materialistic teachings of Buddhism.

And … that was the end of our adventures for our first day in Kyoto! On our way back, we couldn’t help but admire the scrumptious dessert pies that were displayed in a shop at the train station …

DAY 10:  Man, the Deer Rules!

We traveled north towards Nara, the capital city of Nara prefecture in the Kansai region, for a day trip. We have been forewarned by Lonely Planet that the city has tame deer roaming around, intelligently nudging tourists for food, and perhaps some fiercely hungry ones might just bite off that ice cream in our hands. We found these deer to be quite sneaky, really. In Canada, the deer runs away from the slightest sign of humans. Here in Japan, they’re not shy to come close and have a sniff or two of you (or rather, what’s in your bag)! YY bought some deer biscuits that these roadside vendors were selling, and while she was putting her wallet back into her bag, the deer munched all the biscuits in her hand. Yeap …

According to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country. – Wikipedia

Tourist attractions in Nara Japan
See if you can spot my friend in the baby blue shirt … that’s how freaking huge this building is!!!!

After much maneuvering around hungry and over-friendly deers, we finally made it to Todai-ji, also known as The Eastern Great Temple. The temple complex is HUGE. A large garden and a colossal building called the Daibutsuden, or The Great Buddha Hall. The hall is the largest wooden building in the world, and houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha. After the long journey to get just to the entrance of Daibutsuden … we were greeted by the bronze Buddha statue.

Here’s the fun part. Apparently, a supporting post in the Daibutsuden has a hole the same size as one of the Buddha statue’s nostrils. Legend has it that those who pass through it will be blessed with enlightenment in their next life. As we were watching some children effortlessly making their way through the hole, this one Japanese uncle asked ME to try it out, because he said I was chisai or “little/small”. Next thing I know this whole group of Japanese uncles and aunties were cheering me on to try it. And YY just grabbed the camera from me, guided me towards the post, and said with an evil smirk on her face, “Just do it, gal.”  Grrrr … and this was the outcome:

Hopefully, I will be blessed with enlightenment as they say since I managed to crawl through it! I was probably entertainment content to these uncles and aunties video cameras that day.

And just to reiterate how amusing the deer are at this place …

After the temple’s visit, we continued on to visit a Shinto shrine called Kasuga-taisha. On our way, we stopped at an interesting tourist information center. We actually heard about this from a German guy who was also staying at the hotel we were at in Hiroshima, and he said we need to walk in try the earthquake simulation seat. It was really not advertised anywhere at all, very unknown to the scurrying tourists on the street. We were greeted by a friendly Japanese lady inside the building. We then saw “The Chair”.

I think the lady  knew we came for this Chair. She then helped us with the experience. The Chair has two earthquake scenes, one less intense and the other more dangerous. Both are simulations of the intensities of the actual earthquake events that happened in Japan. I have to say, it was quite scary to imagine being caught in the actual event if it wasn’t for the strap on the chair protecting me while I experience what a 6.0 earthquake intensity. The lady then asked us where we were from. We told her we were from Canada and she replied, “You are very lucky to live in an earthquake free zone.” I guess we are kind of lucky. Then again, we have crazy blizzards in Alberta, and – 50C weather in winter. There are pros and cons, but with a blizzard you can hide. WIth an earthquake, don’t think there’s a lot of choices. You can’t run from it and hide. You can stay indoors, but what if the building collapses??? Yea … she got us pondering there for a bit. She then educated us on some technology being implemented on new building constructions in Japan. The company is called Okumura Corporation, specializing in building technology and seismic isolation systems. We discovered then this building was not just some tourist information center (how silly of us). It was actually an office branch of Okumura Corporation. Now it makes sense … why would there be an earthquake simulation chair in the middle of temples, gardens, and busy tourists?? Perhaps, it is there to educate the people, or maybe it is a plain business marketing thing … however to us, it didn’t seem like she was trying to sell us anything.

Anyway, after the whole shaking experience, she took us outside to look through a window of the base of the building. There, stood a model of a seismic isolation system. Apparently, this system will allow buildings, especially sky-scrappers, to slide in the event of an earthquake instead of toppling sideways into ruins. So these laminated rubber steels under that are attached to the base of the building and are movable (no more than 30 cm) to absorb the intense shifts during an earthquake. Pretty cool to learn something like this on my vacation in Japan, if you asked me.


Okay, now on to Kasuga-taisha … we reached a magnificent red facade of Minamimon, the gate to the shrine complex.This shrine is famous for its many bronze and stone lanterns. We decided not to pay to go in and see the 3000 bronze lanterns since we could see some of it on the outskirts of the building. And so we continued on the path that would lead us to the shrine itself. The path was braced with many stone lanterns. A very serene path, and to me it was almost too eerie actually. I guess it is a different kind of beauty. That’s it for Nara; the deer, crawling through a divine hole, the simulated earthquake experience, huge temples and pretty shrines all in one day!

DAY 11:  Atsui-ne … (it is hot …)

All in all, this day was not a comfortable day. The temperature was just hot and the sun was scorching. Perhaps, we could have chosen this day to go indoors and shop. Instead, we made a trip to another Buddhist temple called Kiyomizu-dera. We had to walk up this hill just to get to the entrance of the temple complex, which again is huge … and has many buildings and shrines within it.

There were A LOT of tourists groups from Korea and Taiwan. It was difficult to move about in there. Also, we didn’t stop to take a lot of photos because of the unbearable crowd. We came about to the “Love Stones” at one of the shrines.

Tourist attractions in Kyoto Japan

There is a pair of stones about 20 feet apart from each other. Apparently, if one succeeds walking from one of the stones to the other with their eyes closed (the stone must be touched), they will find their true love. If not successful, it will be long before true love is realized for the respective person. Of course, everyone was excited to try this out. So imagine a cluster of girls walking blindly in that area trying to touch the stone. It was quite hilarious. I gave it a try as well. Although, I did not touch the stone 😦

Lake at Heian Shrine
The huge torii

Our next destination was Heian-jingu, also known as Heian Shrine. There is a huge torii before the main gate, and is apparently one of the largest in Japan. Since it was reeaallly hot … we did not explore as much as “gung-ho” tourists do. We took shelter in the shaded, beautiful garden inside the shrine complex. It was awesome being away from the sweltering heat. To our surprise, we saw a crane resting at the lake!

We figured we could not travel to another outdoor tourist spot, and so we settled down for the evening at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. This place was awesome as it had manga in English and Mandarin! We spent a couple hours reading manga here until nightfall. It was very relaxing 🙂

DAY 12:  Okay, enough of temples and shrines. Time to shop, baby!

A break from the temples and shrines was much needed. We took a trip to the Gion district, which is also known as the Geisha district. I liked walking around here. In some ways, I feel like I am back in olden times here in Japan; the old-style Japanese houses and traditional architecture.Of course, in time modern architecture will blend in with the old. It’s still nice to see some of it being preserved. And boy, what a bustling district it was! We spent the day walking on Shingyoku and Teramichi streets, shopping our hard-earned money away, haha!

DAY 13:   Japanese castles!

Another hot day it is … but if we continue to spend the next few days just shopping aimlessly again, we will be broke before the end of our trip. Therefore, we took a brave trip to Himeji, a city located in the Hyogo prefecture of the Kansai region. There, we were interested in seeing Himeji Castle. Apparently, this castle has remained intact even throughout extensive bombing during WW2 and other earthquake events.

There were a lot of stairs … to climb up to the top. I’m not good with stairs after a while. I tend to complain a lot about them. Of course, it always pays off once I reach the top. The view of Himeji city was gorgeous! We also noticed that there were these intricately carved tiles of what looks like a fish. This legendary fish is a kind of large dolphin, called Shachi. Apparently, there are eleven Shachi tiles on the roofs of the main tower. In ancient times, this fish was reputed to be able to protect buildings from fire.

Legendary Fish – Shachi
Koko-en Garden
Tourist attractions in Kyoto Japan
Sannenzaka & Ninnenzaka stairs

The present Shachi tiles were patterned after an original which was found on the roof of the Nishi-chidori ward, an older part of the castle. The original tile was quite old. Dates engraved on the back show that it was made in 1687. The Shachi tile is quite huge … 1.85 meters tall! After seeing the indoors, we headed outdoors into the gardens. The Japanese garden, Koko-en Garden, is located next to Himeji Castle. I bet it is gorgeous here during all four seasons of the year. We took the train back to Kyoto city and decided to see the famous Sannenzaka & Ninnenzaka stairs, which is actually a short stroll from Kiyomizu-dera. We read in Lonely Planet that these stairs are popular photography spots, and it is particularly beautiful when it rains. It was nice strolling through these streets. They have very unique local business here, and the traditional architecture of the buildings still intact. I love exploring and being part of the daily life of the residents here. I bought a pair of ghetta at one of the shops here to complement the yukata I bought in Miyajima island.

We returned to the hotel and started packing as we had to move to another hotel for the rest of our stay in Kyoto. That’s when I realized I needed to buy another suitcase to fit the loot that I collected over the days …

DAY 14:  Continuing Kyoto

We checked into Backpackers K’s house, which is a very clean and busy hostel. Quite the crowd there. Unfortunately, we encountered many young and rude South American girls who were also staying there on our first day itself. They were very demanding and loud, don’t think the people who worked there liked them very much either. Anyhow, after checking in we made our way to Sanjusangen-do (thirty-three ken hall), a Buddhist temple in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. It is officially known as the Hall of the Lotus King, and the temple’s name literally means “hall with thirty three spaces between columns.” We were not allowed to take photos inside the temple, and so there is none to show. Of all the temples we had visited, this was my favourite. The main deity of the temple is the Thousand Armed Kannon. Kannon refers to Guan Yin bodhisattva, or more well known as the Goddess of Mercy. Also, there are 1001 life size statues of the thousand armed kannon, which stand on both the right and left sides of the main statue. Being here gave me a feeling of awe, and a sense that I belong. It was pure and amazing.

Our next stop was Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavillion), but unfortunately it was closed to general public due to re-construction. So we just walked around the garden, which was still very nice. After that, we boarded the bus to head to our last stop, the place where the big Kannon statue sits.

Beside us on the bus, was an old Japanese man who was very curious about us. He spoke very good English, and explained that he is a war veteran. He informed us that the youth of Japan nowadays learn English in school but never utilize them in daily life, and so they do not become fluent in the language. During his time as a war veteran, he met a lot of Western people, and had to learn to communicate in English. Very friendly old guy. This does explained why the young folks would always shy away from us when we ask for directions in English, while the older folks understand us and can help by using basic English sentences. When we arrived at our destination, we were very  impressed with the big statue of Kannon. Took a couple of photos here and there, and then we headed back to the hotel to rest.

DAY 15:  The Red Path

Tourist attractions in Kyoto Japan

Our adventure of the day began with a trip to Fushimi Inari Taisha (Fushimi Inari Shrine), which is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the God of rice, sake, and prosperity. We did not walk the full path to the shrine, but still it was a lovely gentle hike amongst the 10,000 red, small torii that arch over the path. These torii are donated and have names of individuals/business inscribed on them.

Outside Nijo Castle

On our way to Nijo Castle, we came across an interesting thing called the “Auto Toilet.” We dared one another to give it a try but in vain. I only came close to taking a photo of it. In the end, we were more amused by how it actually works and was paying close attention to the instructions at the door of the toilet. Fortunately, there was no one in the toilet at that time as the poor fellow could have been shocked by these two weirdo girls right outside the door. We arrived at Nijo Castle and proceeded to the main attraction of the castle, Ninomaru, which served as the residence and the office of the Shogun during his visits to Kyoto.The palace has multiple separate buildings, and are connected by corridors with what they call “Nightingale” floors. Apparently, they squeak when walked upon and it was used as a security measure against intruders. It was literally difficult to tiptoe across these floors, certified and proven by both our hard-working attempts. That evening, we decided to take it real easy and just do what the locals do instead of visiting more temples, shrines, or castles. We went to Toho Cinemas nearby and bought tickets to watch the movie 21. Back at the hostel, I tried epilating my legs using YY’s epilator for the very first time, and I remember pain … pain … PAIN.

DAY 16: Our Last Day in Kyoto

View from bottom of the stairs
View from the top of the stairs

Shopping was what we had left to do. I required a bigger luggage to fit everything in, and so we walked around the shopping area near the Kyoto station. At some point (can’t remember exactly where), we found this … long … tall … climb of stairs up to the rooftop of the building. I have never seen so many stairs in an urban place before. Beside it was the long escalator up. Must be an architectural flare thing to include so many stairs in that wide space. To our surprise, there was a lovely garden area at the top. Who would have thought there would be such a peaceful getaway atop a building in the busy streets of Kyoto? And that’s the end of our adventures in Kyoto! Sad to say goodbye as our trip is coming to an end soon …

To our last Japanese city – Osaka!



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