Jan 26, 2015

Kyoto - Spring Illuminations

During cherry blossom season, several locations around Kyoto stay open at night and the buildings and trees are illuminated for all to enjoy.

We had a few hours before nightfall, so we spent some time walking around the Higashiyama District of eastern Kyoto.

We found a nice spot in Maruyama Park and people-watched. It was quite amusing watching some of the cherry blossom revelers, who couldn't seem to hold their liquor and nearly fell into the pond. 

We started making our way to our first illumination site: Kiyomizudera. The path leading to the temple is along a steep street that is lined with traditional wooden buildings that serve as shops and restaurants. 

It is hard to tell but the street made for quite a strenuous walk it was on such an incline! 

We finally arrived at the temple and the walk was worth it. Just look at these views!

Kiyomizudera means "Pure Water Temple" and derives its name from the Otowa Waterfall, which is located on this site. 

The temple is also known for its large wooden stage that is accessible from the temple's main hall. It is from here that we and other visitors were able to get such marvelous photos of the spring blooms. 

The waterfall is located at the base of the main hall, so we ventured down there to drink from its streams, which is supposed to be good luck!

Next we headed to Kodai-ji, another temple participating in the spring illumination. While Kiyomizudera is a vast complex, Kodai-ji is smaller in scale, but its interiors are decorated in beautiful accents. Sadly, photos were not allowed of the inside. 

The temple also features Zen gardens which surround the temple buildings and, of course, were lit up for the occasion.

There were even some multimedia art displays being projected onto the huge gravel rock garden.

My favorite part of Kodai-ji was the bamboo grove in the back. The illumination made for a pleasant stroll through the grove.

When ended our spring illumination viewing at one of the largest cherry blossom trees in Japan, which is located near Maruyama Park.

Jan 22, 2015

Kyoto - Bamboo, Shrines and Palaces

Our original plan was to stay in Kyoto for two nights during our trip to Japan last spring. I quickly realized that would be entirely too little time and added a day trip from Osaka into our itinerary. We were able to fit in quite a lot over this beautiful spring day. Our day was filled with some of Kyoto's most famous attractions.

From Osaka Station, it was a short 30 minute train-ride to Kyoto. We started our day in the Arashiyama section of town.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto's oft-photographed sights, and it is not hard to figure out why. The bamboo grove is an atmospheric and serene location for a daytime walk, even with the crunch of the cherry blossom season crowd.

On the approach to the bamboo grove are many souvenir and snack shops. We picked up these delicious rice balls to enjoy on our stroll.

We returned towards Arashiyama Station and walked along the riverside. 

The mass of cherry blossom trees were in full bloom all along the river. The view of Togetsukyo Bridge next to the trees reminded me of why we decided to come to Japan during this season.

We crossed over Togetsukyo Bridge to venture over to Arashiyama's main drag. As we were making our way across, we came across these three young ladies in full maiko gear. I am not sure whether they were real maiko or just tourists dressed up to look like them. I suspect they were tourists.

Our last stop before lunch was Monkey Park Iwatayama, which I wrote about last year soon after our trip. Then it was off to lunch on the main drag. We stumbled upon this restaurant and were able to grab a table before the lunch crush.

I ordered a delicious meal of cold soba and rice balls. Yum! So simple but tasty.

Following lunch, we hoped a bus to Kinkaku-Ji (the Golden Pavilion). Originally, the site served as the retirement villa of a shogun, but following his death, it became a Zen temple. 

Kinkaku-Ji was one of the most impressive sights we visited on our entire trip. Not only was the building itself stunning, but it is in the middle of a large pond with lush green gardens surrounding it. I could just imagine what a peaceful respite this place would make. 

We continued on our whirlwind tour of Northern Kyoto and visited Nijo-jo, a feudal castle dating to 1603.

Entrance gate to Nijo-jo

The castle is surrounded by stone walls as well as a moat and consists of several buildings and gardens.  

After walking through the large entrance gate, we came upon the ornate Karamon Gate that leads visitors to Ninomaru Palace, the main building open to the public. Unfortunately, photos were not permitted within the palace.

Karamon Gate, leading to Ninomaru Palace
Ninomaru Palace

The Palace served as the residence and office of the shogun, with tatami-matted rooms and painted sliding doors. Most interesting were the corridors with "nightingale floors," which squeak when walked on. This was used as a security measure!

Outside the Palace was a traditional Japanese garden, with, of course, more cherry blossom trees. 

The day was winding down with the temperature dropping and the sunlight getting dimmer, but we decided to push on and visit one last spot. 

Fushimi Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine that is famous for its thousands of red torii gates. It is a sight to behold! Plus, as you can see, the rows of torii make for great photographs. 

The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, and foxes symbolize the messengers of Inari. 

It was a long day in Kyoto, and we were happy to be on our way back to our hotel in Osaka! 

Jan 20, 2015

A Day Trip to Nara (Japan)

During our stay in Osaka last spring, we made a side trip to the ancient capital of Nara. Nara was the first permanent Japanese capital, beginning from the year 710, and remained the capital for a total of 74 years.

We hopped on the JR train from Osaka Station and made it to Nara approximately 50 minutes later. From the JR Nara Station, we rode the bus headed towards the sights around Nara Park. The park is home to a thousand gentle, free-roaming deer. They are quite friendly and like to say hello to all of the tourists. 

Our first sight of the day was Todai-ji Temple. Todai-ji is home to Daibutsu-den Hall, which houses a Great Buddha (Daibutsu). 

Daibutsu-den Hall

Daibutsuden was destroyed several times throughout the years by earthquake and other natural disasters. Even still, it is the largest wood structure in the world and is a beautiful, impressive sight to behold.

Located inside the Hall is one of Nara's most famous attractions: The Great Buddha. In fact, this Buddha is the largest bronze Buddha in Japan at a height of over 50 feet!

To the back of the Hall is a large wooden column with a hole in it. The hole is said to be the same size as the Great Buddha's nostril, and if you can squeeze through the hole, you will reach enlightenment. This is something that neither Raisin Bread nor I attempted!

Instead, we decided to purchase some fortunes. After paying for your fortune, you pick up a metal cannister and shake it until a wooden stick comes out. The stick will have a number on it that corresponds to a piece of paper with your fortune written out on it.

Hmmm....My fortune to the left and Raisin Bread's to the right. It's a good thing we compliment each other!

Our next stop of the day led us through the woods to Nigatsu-do to enjoy the spectacular view.

We were famished from our journey, sight-seeing and walking, so lunch was in order. We enjoyed some warm tempura soba on this cold and dreary day at Kasugano, a combination souvenir shop and cafe. 

There were quite a few restaurants and shops on this stretch. Many sold "deer cookies" that are meant for the local furry residents. 

We made our way next to Kasuga Taisha, a Shinto shrine established at the same time as the capital. 

We arrived at a fortuitous time because not one, but two Shinto wedding processionals were occuring just as we were there. 

Kasuga Taisha is also famous for its hundreds of bronze lanterns that hang from the temple buildings...

and for its stone lanterns that line the shrine property and the path leading to the shrine.

After leaving the shrine, we continued through the park and noticed an older gentleman sketching a building and the cherry blossom trees in Nara Park. 

Even the deer seems quite impressed. 

Our last main stop of the day was Kofukuji Temple. The temple complex houses several different buildings of importance, including a five-story pagoda, which is the second-tallest pagoda in Japan. 

Five-story pagoda
Kofukuji - Octagonal Hall

We also visited the Treasure House which had on display many of the original statues and artworks from the temple's buildings. 

What was to be our final stop of the day was Naramachi, a former merchant district. The notable thing about this part of town is the traditional wooden buildings that have been preserved to this day. 

We were even able to enter one of the homes. Koshi-no-Ie is open to the public and shows how these merchant homes where utilized as both a shop and living space. 

As our day trip to Nara drew to a close, we headed back towards the train station and took in some last pieces of the lovely former capital.

Nara manhole cover
Cartoon of deer eating deer cookies

We opted for one final stop. We passed by this beautiful-looking tea house, which I missed the name of, that seemed too good to forgo so we went in from the chilly outdoors to enjoy a sweet and cup of matcha.

It was the perfect ending to our day in Nara.