Monday, October 14, 2013

"Land of the Rising Sun"

About a month ago for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) I had a 5 day weekend! I took this opportunity to jet off to Japan for a few days!!

Day 1: Kyoto! Japan's ancient capital for over a thousand years, and the current cultural center of Japan.  I landed in Osaka and took the train from the airport there! I just absolutely love traveling by train! I wish I could do it every time I go somewhere. Fighting the nods of sleepiness from spending the night in the airport I summoned all my excitement to keep my eyes peeled in order to watch the scenery zooming past me. This is always one of my most favorite moments of traveling: that first time of leaving the airport and the rush of the new sights bursting all around in a foreign land! After arriving to Kyoto I found my hostel, dropped off my bag and with map in hand began my day of exploring!

My first stop was Fushimi Inari Shrine. This is famous for its thousands of torii gates (gates that mark the entrance to a shrine).  This is one of the many shrines dedicated to the Shinto (an indigenous faith of the Japanese people) god of rice, Inari.  In a sea of orange, the serpentine paths through the endless gates provided an unique walking experience. This was such a spectacular sight!

Sampling some nearby "gelato"/all-natural ice cream I navigated my way to another area of the city. As I wandered in search of specific places, I continuously stumbled upon other small temples or shrines. It was such a nice treat! After stopping at a couple temples, and checking out a massive pagoda, I wandered through the winding European-esque streets of the Higashiyama district.  This is one of the city's most well-preserved historical districts. It's filled with cafes, small shops, restaurants, and countless samples! This was basically my lunch! Along with some tea, I ate numerous samples of the delicious Japanese sweet called yatsuhashi.  It’s addicting and amazing!

Following the maze of people and stores, the street curved its way up to one of the most famous temples in Japan, as well as a UNESCO world heritage site, Kiyomizudera (meaning pure water temple).  Founded in 780, it’s best known for it's large wooden deck overlooking the surrounding landscape, as well as providing a stunning view of the city below.

Departing the temple, I meandered a bit ending up in a lovely park, and caught a peak an 80 foot Buddhist war monument representing “one who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.”  Continuing on my path, I explored another shrine (Yasaka), one of the most famous in the city.
Making my way into another district, I discovered quite a large covered market filled with all kinds of local foods, fruits, vegetables, seafood, crafts and pottery goods, and some delicious looking treats.  I strolled around the grounds of the Imperial Palace as the sun was setting and stopped for a quick peak at nearby temple. As the day came to a close, I couldn't help but notice the giant golden full moon rising, lighting my way along the river. It made for a perfect stroll as I returned to the district around my hostel in search of something to eat.

Lead by the hunger of a full day of exploring I quickly settled on a quaint place with satisfying looking pictures of the dishes within.  Upon entering, I was seated at the counter, a fellow American and English teacher working in Korea was seated a few seats down.  We had a nice chat while the food was being prepared. Actively taking shots of the man's movements occurring behind the counter as he was slashing, sliding, and flipping my meal, he motioned for me to join me.  Eagerly, I zipped around the counter and was handed the reins of finishing up my dinner! What an unforgettable time! For the rest of the evening I was flying high off such a unique and perfect "travel moment".
After a delectable desert at a nearby coffee shop, I headed back to the hostel. Being in Japan, I had to try the famous sake.  Lucky for me, my hostel had a sake bar connected downstairs. They had several specialty brews/flavors. I requested a sweet one.  As I concluded the night sipping on this traditional drink, I couldn't help but think how completely awesome Japan was so far, and what a wonderful first day it had been!

Day 2: There were a couple places left in Kyoto I wanted to see before
I headed out. First, I hopped on the bus to Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), a Zen temple with its two top floors completely covered in gold leaf.  This was a spectacular sight! It looked so mystical, glowing and shimmering there across the pond. It just made me think "Wow! I'm so in Japan right now!"  Following the path around the pond, it led to another pond area, a tea garden, and a small temple house. On the way out there were a few souvenir shops with more of the impeccable yatsuhashi samples!

My last stop in Kyoto was Nijo Castle.  This was the residence of the first shogun (military commander) of the Edo Period (1603-1897).  As well as another UNESCO world heritage site, this served as an imperial palace for a time, and is possibly the best example of castle palace architecture in all of Japan's feudal era.
Like a "true" castle, it's surrounded with both stone walls and moats.  Upon venturing over the moat and through the walls there was a beautiful gate that led to the main attraction, Nimomaru Palace.  This was quite gorgeous on the inside, covered in delicately painted walls and doors, along with exquisitely decorated ceilings. Something I found quite interesting were the nightingale floors, it purposely squeaks to warn of possible intruders.  It was neat to see all the elegant and formally extremely important rooms of this palace. Leading around the outside of the palace were small walking paths and a lovely garden and pond. Departing the castle, it was time to say goodbye to Kyoto. I hopped on the train and headed to my next destination: Nara!

This was actually Japan's very first capital in the year 710, and is home to some
of Japan's largest and oldest temples, as well as numerous historical treasures.
My first stop in Nara was for a quick bite at a 'hole in the wall' restaurant within a covered market street. I had a delicious rice bowl with egg, fried pork cutlet, and some other savory ingredients. Yum!  I first went to a small temple which had both a 3-story and a 5-story pagoda; the second tallest one in Japan.
Throughout the temple grounds wild deer roamed and napped in the shade.  Nara is known for its wild deer who live freely in its massive deer park which encompasses many temples, shrines, and other notable areas.  In Shinto, they are considered to be messengers of the gods, and have been named a national treasure.  They are free to frolic around, dashing across roads, congregating around the treat stands, and lounging on outdoor patios like they own the place.  There are deer snack stands along the sidewalks and you can constantly see people stopping for a quick pet, a photo op, or a feeding
session.  It was such a bizarre thing to see!  It's so rare to watch them being so calm and acting nonchalant around people.
Continuing through the park, I headed over to Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple), both a landmark of
Nara and one of the most historically significant and famous of Japan's temples.  Constructed in 752, it had such a strong influence on government affairs and was becoming too powerful that it caused the capital to move to another city.  The most stunning aspect of this temple is its Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall). This contains an enormous bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana (bliss body of the historical Buddha), also the largest in the Japan, and one of the largest in the world.  This jaw-dropping seated Buddha reaches almost 50 feat tall!  It was truly something to marvel at!  Also, within the building were several other Buddhist statues. Outside the door of the building was Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing.  It's said that if you touch part of the Buddha and then the part of your body in pain, the pain will then be eliminated.

Continuing on the paths throughout the park I came across several shrines, and hundreds and hundreds of lanterns. It was so enjoyable to stroll through the forests and deciding between forks in the path.  At times, I would discover myself alone in such peaceful places, only in the presence of deer hanging around.
 Departing the park in the early evening, I wandered through an area of town filled with traditional warehouses and houses, boutiques, cafes, as well as some restaurants. After strolling through the streets, I walked up and down the covered market for a while, making stops in a few interesting stores.

For dinner I headed back out to a restaurant I'd spotted on one of the old streets and had a savory Japanese pancake called Okonomiyaki; okonomi means "what you like/what you want" and  yaki means "grilled/cooked."  It's filled with a mixture of ingredients such as different meats, vegetables like green onion, cabbage and others, eggs, seafood, etc.  What's really great is after they cook it, they put it on the hot plate fitted into the table to keep it nice and warm.

Day 3: Before departing Nara, I made a brief stop at a charming Japanese garden comprised of three individual gardens: a pond garden, a moss garden, and a tea ceremony garden.  Japanese gardens are actually considered an art form which have been practiced and perfected for over 1,000 years.  Next, I boarded the train for Kobe, a dazzling port city.

Arriving here, I first went to one of the oldest shrines in the
country, Ikuta, which is a Shinto shrine. Next, I ventured over to its Chinatown.  After Kobe port was opened to trade in 1868, this area was developed by the Chinese merchants.

It is packed with food stands, restaurants, shops, bustling streets, bright lanterns and intriguing architecture. I sampled the Beijing duck, a delicious dumpling soup, and a sweet and really tasty snowy ice dessert.

Leaving Chinatown I headed down to the waterfront park where there was an earthquake memorial, a maritime museum, and Kobe Port tower.  Following the park's path along the edge of the water led me to Harborland. This was an entertainment district with shopping, restaurants, cafes, and live music playing. 

Just a short train ride away I stopped in Osaka for a couple hours before heading to the airport for the night.  I walked down the main street that headed towards downtown to the shopping arcade and cruised up and down there for just a little bit.

What an awesome mini-vacation! I really loved Japan and had a total blast my few days of exploring there! 

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