Back to Japan- Day 2 (Kyoto)

Rise and shine! We woke up to the sound of our 5.30am alarms and started the day by testing out our newly purchased pre-travel impulse buy – a clothes steamer – on our highly crumpled but summer friendly viscose shirts. Verdict – meh…

In the light of the day, we were truly able to appreciate just how spacious our room was, far more spacious than our double room at Kyoto or Tokyo during our last trip had been with enough room for 3 people to get ready without getting in each others’ way. By 6.30am, we were ready to descend on our breakfast buffet. There was plenty of bakery goodness to go around, so we filled up on an assortment of breads, croissants and waffles topped with a variety of jams and sugary sweet maple syrup to get us through the day – until we met our next halal meal.

But why waste time with mundane things like breakfast when there’s an entire city waiting at your doorstep to be explored? (Okay. Scratch that. If halal food isn’t easy to come by, please don’t skip breakfast- eat like the world can wait at your doorstep). We left breakfast and headed straight downstairs to explore the streets of Osaka before our Kyoto adventure began. The weather, as it had been the previous night, was divine, with a slight spattering of rain which was enough to prompt us to duck into the nearest 7/11 and arm ourselves with umbrellas. Z was already well-supplied thanks toオサマさん’s generosity from the last trip. Even his umbrella seems to have received army training, as we discovered when Z finally got an opportunity to use it – it’s enough to maim anyone who gets in the way. ^^

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Walking in the rain ❤

Umbrellas in hand, we walked down the street lined with trees coming to life after spring, watching the brick pavement turn a dark red with the soft drizzle. There were of course, the obligatory  vending machines and Pachinko Parlour across the street, but more remarkably, a solitary tree reaching for the sky in the centre of a mini green haven squeezed between the mass of buildings across from Tully’s Coffee. A sudden reminder that is there more to life beyond the concrete jungle.

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First vending machine spotted

We walked back to the hotel, enjoying our umbrellas and the rather empty streets at that time of day, to rendezvous with the group for a headcount before we boarded the bus to Kyoto. It was an hour long ride at best, but was enough to give some of us some much needed shut-eye, others the opportunity to take in the fleeting scenery trapped outside our windows and others some background about our first stop – the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, courtesy Kaoru せんせい who was our bona fide tour guide / source of historical information, myths and legends this time around. (Our guides from the last trip were apparently too unnecessarily verbose to handle a second time.) The last time we were here, I feel like I didn’t really understand the purpose of the shrine but this time we were treated to not just the history of the shrine, but the legend behind it.

An archer seeks to shoot a mochi which transforms into a beautiful swan and lands at a place where rice begins to grow in abundance. A sign from the gods to the archer, a shrine is erected dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. 

The shrine grew further in popularity when Toyotomi’s Hideyoshi’s (the first general to unite Japan) mother’s prayers for his success at this shrine were answered, as he went from peasant to ruler. More the sincerity of the person praying than the location of the prayer, I would think. The popularity of the shrine soared still when his mother fell ill and Hideyoshi prayed at the same place for his mother to recover, which she did, upon which he donated a large torii seen still at the entrance to the shrine. For every prayer answered, it seems a torii is donated, costing upwards of a million yen, and a winding path of bright orange toriis numbering in the thousands now lines the way up the mountain.

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The Romon Gate donated by Hideyoshi

While we didn’t make the long trek all the way up the mountain, we went through the first set of vermillion gates, each engraved with the name of the person who had donated it, along with the date of donation. Coming from a culture where giving is done in such a way that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand has given, I wondered then, for whose benefit the engraving was- the already all-knowing gods, strangers or a self-serving ego?

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The names etched in history

We managed to make our way up without a lot of rush, and were able to take some time to see the votive tablets with a variety of faces drawn on, most notably the one with the dollar symbol for eyes. Our path down was also nice and empty, which meant we had a lot of time to browse the souvenir stores at the base, something we’d missed before. I picked up some bookmarks, Z his staple crushed ice which he was loth to share with ma, and as they both got shoo’d out of the store for eating at the entrance where I was buying magnets, we concluded that we didn’t have much else to buy, apart from corn on the cob for ma ^^ We left everyone up near the shops and decided to make better use of our time by walking back down to the main torii, which was a long walk, and waiting for everyone at the base from where we could go together to the bus.

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At Fushimi Inari

We caught sight of some of the group shopping for drinks at the store opposite us, but there was no one else around. Z went back up to where we’d left everyone to investigate only to find no one there either. Not one to panic, he decided we’d just wait some more and he’d go check again. That too was to no avail. By this time ma was feeling unexpectedly unwell and we sat down at the base of a stone lantern next to some Japanese American tourists who’d brought their kids to experience Japan. We decided to callせんせい only to realize that we didn’t have a calling plan and she didn’t have a data plan. My data was switched off (force of habit thanks to exorbitant rates back home if you’re not on a plan like moi) and as soon as I switched it on, I got a message from せんせい’s daughter asking where we were. We came to realize that everyone had already headed back to the bus, without either of us realizing that we’d passed each other on the way. We quickly retraced our steps to the train line, which is where we met せんせいand her friend, a elderly student from university helping us out on Day 2, who were out looking for us. The bus was not too far away, thankfully, and we made it at last. One good thing that came out of the experience was that it prompted us to form a Whatsapp group, since most of us had gone for the data plan, where everyone could keep track of each other. ^^

The next familiar stop was the Golden Temple, Kinkakuji. If there’s one place I wouldn’t mind visiting again and again on any possible future trips to Japan, it would be the Golden Temple, in all its seasons. Luckily for us again, there wasn’t much rush, so we were able to not just enjoy the breathtaking golden temple sitting atop a lake, reflecting the grey overcast sky and the bright green foliage not yet back into its full summer swing, but also didn’t have to spend any effort in vying for precious photo space in the hope of catching a picture without random strangers in it.

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The crown that is the Golden Temple

The beauty of the temple, having now become a tourist attraction, is marred by the mindless babble of tourists and yet, there is still serenity to be found in the immaculately maintained gardens with their pristine landscaping. To me, the temple is simply the delicate finishing touch added to an incredible feat of landscaping that completes the picture of tranquility.

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The grounds of the temple

As we moved to leave, our attention was drawn to a rather secluded area with a relatively less worn pathway that led to a 600 yr old pine tree, being painstakingly shaped over time. It is a labour of love, knowing the tree will outlive all your plans for it and you will never know what it will look like when it’s ready to let go.

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The 600 year old dwarf pine tree still being shaped

It’s always to soon to say goodbye to this place and as we walked past the soothing sound of water breaking on rocks and a single maple with its leaves already rushing to turn red as though beckoning the autumn, I’m resolved to go back. We took a not-so-quick bathroom break, because this apparently is where all the tourists disappeared, and were finally ready to satisfy our bellies as much as we had our eyes, with a Persian/Asian lunch at a halal restaurant which ambiguously hosts belly dancing shows at night. As some of our group mentioned, the food’s halal and everything else is just iffy.

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Walking up to lunch ^^

The kebab and rice were just right and ma was happy to be having non-sticky rice, like she’s used to and we managed to nearly polish off both plates cue applause, only to find out that there was pizza next. Oops. Our tour guide stepped in to speed up the slow service by serving us herself, despite our many protestations to leave waitressing to the waiters and join us instead for lunch. A lively discussion ensued over lunch, with the two elderly gentleman from university who were accompanying us for the day, regarding the demographic diversity of the UAE. It seemed difficult for them to grasp the fact that despite 5/6 people in the UAE being foreigners from all corners of the world, we all get along rather well and our circle of friends is not limited to our own compatriots, but is as diverse as a rainbow. The discussion was then cut short as we began introductions. It turned out that the overwhelming majority of people were looking forward to going to Mt. Fuji the most. For me, however, the allure of this trip lay in visiting Hiroshima. For all the things I’d read and watched about the devastating impact of the bombs, I needed to see for myself the miraculous recovery of a city which stands as a reminder that while wounds may heal and scars may fade, the lessons learnt must never be allowed to fade from living memory.

Our next stop, after a filling lunch, was Nijo Castle, home of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who laid siege to Osaka Castle and was responsible for the death of Hideyoshi’s son who he had once been asked to protect. The castle is famous for its Nightingale floors which creak and sing at the slightest step, a primitive and rather annoying, though highly effective, security system. As we walked to the castle gate, we crossed the water filled moat, where bright green algae had started to deceptively cover the water surface, making it look more like a lawn than a deep moat.

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Ornate carvings, and gold decoration mark the entrance to the castle

The walk to the castle entrance is short and we had to take off our shoes before we began roaming the corridors filled with musty smell of wood I love so much. An audio guide is available, but we were pressed for time, so we just walked through the halls, reading the descriptions about each room we came across. Despite our softest footsteps, the floorboards were not to be deceived, and after a while we got used to the chirping at our feet. The castle and its nearby buildings were under renovation, and a much needed renovation it is. The murals on the wall were visibly water-damaged, which is probably why photography has been prohibited- in an attempt to prevent further deterioration from flash photography. It was interesting to stare up at the ceiling as we walked, and we noticed that the ceiling in each hall and corridor was unique – carved in a different pattern, and painted in different colours.

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Nijo Castle surrounded by trees

While the paint has begun to fade, restoration efforts should be able to restore the castle to its former glory.  On that positive note, we went to the souvenir shop and rest area to hunt down our commemorative coin and with that mission accomplished, we resisted the temptation of absolutely delicious looking ice-creams, and headed back to the bus.

We were scheduled for a quick one hour shopping stop at Hanamikoji, before returning to Kyoto. Too much to see, too much to buy and too little time was the presiding sentiment, so we set off like runners on a hundred meter sprint to take in all there was to see. From confectionary stores with sweets so cute you can hardly bring yourself to eat them, to stores dedicated to hair accessories in a dazzling rainbow of colours to match your kimono or yukata, everything was super kawaii. Somehow I even managed to stumble upon the Papernano samurai model kit that was on my list of must-bring-back-from-Japan-or-else list, along with the tools. With that happy haul, we were all set to head back to Kyoto for dinner.

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Time to Okinomiyaki at Osaka Botejyu

Dinner was Okinomiyaki – quite a mouthful, both the name and the food itself. We all settled in, already excited at the sight of the large metal hot plate embedded in our tables, a collection of sauces waiting to be tried and the prospect of cooking our own dinner. Our excitement was suddenly dampened, when we discovered that the waitress had come out with the bowl for the okinomikyaki with pork strips on the side. Serious consultations ensued between both Kaoru and Kishida せんせい and the restaurant owner to establish if our meal was actually going to be halal or not. Dinner there looked like it was going to be off the cards, but after much discussion, to our relief, dinner was back on after assurances that that specific meal was meant for someone else, and that our meals would be completely halal.

We were now ready for some fun. Our bowls came out, filled with something white and shredded, a prawn (or was it shrimp? This is going to take me much longer to figure out than my childhood confusion of chicken and meat) and raw egg as a topping.

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Getting ready to get our hands dirty (figuratively of course) ^^

I realized that I shouldn’t be having any egg and with the help of Kaoru せんせい managed to get another bowl, sans egg. The white shredded “something else” in the bowl turned out to be cabbage, enemy of my fragile fidgety colon. Sigh. With that, it meant dinner had turned from a foodie adventure into a cooking experience for me, which I didn’t really mind seeing as how we had sandwiches left over from last night, with plenty of cheddar cheese. The waitress came and with Kaoru せんせい began to demonstrate how to make our exotic looking dish. It turns out, there’s a right way to make this- remove prawn/shrimp who is just getting in the way, stir ingredients in bowl exactly 10 times before scooping half the mixture on the hot plate and flattening into a nice round pancake, add pesky prawn/shrimp with his tail sticking out only to bury him under the remaining half of the mixture so you don’t dwell (rather I don’t dwell) on how many legs he has, then flip 3 times to ensure everything is cooked through and through before lathering the top with an exciting assortment of sauces, mayonnaise and optional dried fish flakes for maximum yumminess.

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The final product a la Kaoru せんせい

We had a lot of fun making our okinomiyaki pancakes, and even though our eggless cabbage batter failed to rise into a fluffy omelette like pancake we made it nonetheless, flipping et al, which was probably the trickiest part of the whole business, with pancakes falling apart and others falling on other people’s culinary works of art. Ma and I ended up just sampling the taste, ordered coke and were pleasantly surprised when the noodles came out. Now the noodles, we could eat, which was a welcome change for me since during my last trip I couldn’t even have that! Even though I’m not a seafood person, something I’m actively trying to change in our cat, I had the noodles carefully removing any suspicious seafood-y bits. Having filled up on the tasty noodles, we were presented with transparent jelly-like mochi dessert topped with some soy powder that mum loved and I found to taste again- suspiciously like seafood.

Despite the way dinner had started out, it ended on a high note, not just because of the experience, but just as we were winding down, we were offered complimentary orange juice to make up for it. Not just that, but the restaurant owner herself came out to apologize and even offered us complimentary bottles of tea to take home with us. I passed, because I felt so bad that she felt so bad.

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Heading home

Back at the hotel, ma and I had our sandwiches with cheese and the remainder of the night was spent unpacking for the big day – Hiroshima, another futile attempt at steaming out those stubborn wrinkles and much needed showers before we finally hit the sack at 11pm.

I’m beginning to miss Aegi and Haya ❤

Missed out on Day 1?

Check out Day 3 in Hiroshima

Journey to Japan- Day 3 Part 1

Day 3. I woke up early again, but the exhaustion was creeping up so I woke up later than usual…at 7.30am. If you know my regular routine you will admit this is a stretch for me ^^ We were slated to cover three more temples during the day, and the day promised to be a hard hitting 35C with humidity reaching 80%. That didn’t do much to dissuade me since I was all set, a small electric fan in hand, hat on head and the promise of vending machines at every corner.

We started in Kyoto heading to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. It was a considerable walk to get to the shrine, since buses aren’t allowed to park just anywhere. So we got off, crossed two railroad tracks (very exciting!) and walked past rows of shops before reaching the main gate.

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My first train track crossing

The shrine is famous for its 1000 bright orange gates leading all the way up Mount Inari, and a main hall flanked by foxes. Each of the gates, as I later discovered, have been donated by people so each gate bears the name of the person or business who donated it. It takes a couple of hours to reach the top of the mountain where we were assured there were fabulous views of the city. Being pressed for time though, we enjoyed walking through two sets of gates and after a much needed refreshment break of water and Oronamin C, we headed back down to the shopping area.

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Starting our journey at Mount Inari

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More stunning architecture

There are all sorts of souvenirs you can there but the most popular by far are fox-themed souvenirs since that’s what makes this temple special, the fox being a messenger of the Inari god.

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Every fox has something different in its mouth. Guess what he has. ^^

As we headed back some people even tried Inari sushi- sushi for the masses ^^. Before we could reach the train crossing to go back, we were faced with a massive crowd of people waiting for the crossing to open- which it didn’t for quite some time. At first we thought there had been some sort of accident on the tracks, but luckily it was only a case of impatient people trying to cross quickly by pressing the emergency stop, which meant the rest of us had to wait till all crossings were checked and reopened. The wait was not as bad as the heat was and I realized the electric fan was nowhere near as effective as the regular hand fan. So not making this mistake again! To further complicate things, we realized that not all the group had managed to make it back to the bus and so had to stand outside in the heat, as this particular bus stop had a no engines running policy. I think we should been smart enough to walk to Lawson’s to stay cool, but we weren’t so we just waited till everyone showed up which they did eventually. At this point I realized that there are only 3 things you need to survive a Japanese summer – a hand fan, a bottle of water and a small hand towel. Voila- you have a make-shift cooling unit. ^^

Our next stop was Nara, about an hour or so away where we were going to visit the Todai-ji Temple situated in Nara Park also known as the deer park. I’d never seen deer up close before so I was really excited. The deer although wild, are used to being fed and petted by visitors. When feeding, we were warned though, not to spoil their habits by simply giving them food. Instead we were to make them work for their food by getting them to bow politely 3 times, which they surprisingly do if you just ask them to! We got to see the deer lazing around in the shade right at the entrance of the park all the way to the main gate of the temple. I realized that the deer are already pretty spoilt and would just walk up to you, nuzzle you looking up with their big watery eyes asking for a treat. Really, how can you say no?

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Deeeeeeeeeeeeeer! Yes, I was excited ^^

We managed to remind ourselves that the deer were not the highlight of the visit (or maybe they were ^^), but rather the temple, which is the biggest wooden structure in the world and one of the oldest. As we walked towards the temple we passed through the main gate, known as the Nandaimon Gate (narrowly avoiding stepping on a large stag with massive antlers) flanked on either side by massive statues of guardians which are, along with the temple, considered National Treasures.

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Looking up at the gate and narrowly avoiding stepping on a stag

At the first glimpse of the temple, I was simply in awe. The structure is not only massive, but beautiful with immaculately manicured gardens on either side as well. What’s even more amazing is that this structure is only two-third’s of the original size, having been rebuilt several times following fires and earthquakes.

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The largest wooden structure in the world

This temple houses the statue of Buddha, commissioned by the emperor in the mid-700s. The statue is about 15-20m in height, an imposing figure, which was built mostly by the Chinese, who had the skill, at the time, in metalwork to make such a big statue. The statue is so big that a small child can fit through its nostril, a feat we saw being attempted, successfully, by many small children squirming their way through a hole in a pillar the size of the nostril. I passed on attempting it, despite promises of good luck and such, for fear that I would get embarrassingly stuck inside.

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The imposing statue of Buddha

As we walked out the temple, we came across a number of small souvenir shops, but there was one souvenir that our sensei showed us that proved to be my favourite souvenir throughout my trip. It’s a small vending machine, with different coins that you can buy, each featuring some view of the temple or park. Not only can you buy the coin, but can have it engraved with your name or any other message that will fit, along with the date, for a bumper price of 30 yen. Oh, and you can fit it in a keychain too. After such an epic souvenir, I was beginning to think that whoever told us Japan was expensive was lying.

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Souvenir from Nara

We returned to the bus famished and ready for our next Japanese lunch at Matsumotoya, situated right next to the Horyu-Ji Temple.

Stay tuned for Day 3 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 2 Part 2

… With that, we headed to lunch at the Kangaan temple.

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Kangaan Temple

We were seated four to a table and the traditional lunch for Buddhist monks came out with four pieces of each item on each dish – one for each person seated at the table. The food though was so beautiful, it seemed like a shame to eat it. In fact, it was so beautiful that I passed on eating an orchid. As we ate, we realized that there was more food coming – in fact there were a total of 13 courses. Out of the 13 courses that were all visual delights- I ended up with four favourites – the sweet pumpkin, the battered chillies, the seaweed cooked in soy sauce and the vermicelli noodles. I would gladly have eaten an entire meal of just those four items. The chillies were in fact so good that I ate all the chillies from my neighbouring table since they didn’t want to have any – they really don’t know what they missed ^^. The final course was watermelon (something I finally recognized) and we were then ready to start our hectic post-lunch tour to visit 3 historical landmarks in Kyoto.

It took a while though to get us out of the temple just because their garden was so beautiful, with its carefully trimmed trees, its traditional water fountains and stone work.

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Traditional Water Fountain

Our first post-lunch stop was The Golden Pavillion, Kinkaku, a place we nearly skipped over because we had seen a manga museum on the way to lunch. Thankfully, the manga museum closed early and we ended up at the Golden Pavillion. It was possibly one of the best decisions we made on the trip. The pavillion is like a golden jewel surrounded by breathtaking greenery and a lake filled with Koi and turtles. I can only imagine how stunning it will look in spring and autumn. Tourists thronged to get their picture taken with the temple in the backdrop and it seemed like a far cry from the  Black Temple nickname it had been given once when its gold leaf plating had worn and turned black. After the unfortunate nickname, it was thankfully restored to its former glory, this time with 5 layers of gold leaf which are checked every day for signs of blackening. I would love to come back here, hopefully in better weather and hopefully in silence and solitude, to better appreciate the beauty of the place.

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The Golden Pavillion

From Kinkaku-ji we headed to the Ryoanji Temple to see the rock garden- a traditional Buddhist Japanese garden without trees or water and filled with only white sand/gravel and 15 rocks arranged in a 5-3-2-3-2 pattern such that from no angle, except aerial I assume, can you see all 15 rocks. This fits in with their ideology that one should not be too attached to worldly things. The garden can be interpreted in many ways- a river filled with swimming tigers, a sea of clouds with mountain peaks and a sea dotted with islands. I’m leaning towards the second interpretation myself.

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Ryoanji Temple

The purpose of the visit is relaxation and meditation but once open to tourists, meditation takes a back seat as people are occupied with taking pictures and moving on. We managed to spend quite some time there relaxing and looking at the hypnotically raked sand. What I found remarkable was my first view of a cherry blossom tree. We were looking at a brochure of the garden with a picture taken in spring and when we looked up to spot the tree, we found a sad tree with leaves all drooping – not a single clue of what the tree can look like in spring. It’s a bit like people I suppose that way.

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I would love to see the Cherry Blossom in full bloom

As we left the rock garden, we walked through a beautiful tree-lined path and I’ll be honest when I say I can’t say what I liked better- the rock garden or the tree-lined path, Possibly the latter.

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Tree-lined walk back to the bus

Our final stop of the day was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, or maybe it was the shopping around the area. I can’t tel what the primary attraction was but for me it was the forest. The shops, we learnt, close rather early by UAE standards- 5 or 6pm usually which meant that for those interested in shopping, they had to move fast. I was only interested in reaching the forest, but I managed to pick up some souvenirs along the way. Towards the entrance of the forest we spotted a graveyard which we told was reserved for people who belonged to this particular temple. The forest itself was enchanting and noticeably cooler than the humid streets, with towering bamboo swaying in the wind. Since bamboo grows incredibly fast, we were told that it had to be tended to regularly especially during the rainy season.

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Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

We left the forest and headed to the Togetsukyo Bridge, or Moon Crossing Bridge, which was our rendezvous location. Over a huge river, even the bridge is full of history and tradition. Rebuilt in the 30s, this is bridge is the bridge that young girls cross leaving their parents on one side of the bridge and heading to the temple to pray on the other side, as a sort of coming of age event. The bridge and surrounding mountains are actually a sight to be seen in spring and autumn which now makes me want to go back to Japan even more.

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Togetsukyo Bridge

Dinner was a very halal Turkish affair at Istanbul Saray and after all the walking, I ate like I was famished, having burned our 13 course lunch away. (You can check out a list of halal restaurants in Kyoto here). Dessert was Muhalabiyya followed by tea – real black tea. I’m still struggling to develop a liking for green tea. After a packed day, I only realized how out of shape I was when I fell asleep in the bus. It’s a good thing I’d decided to join the gym after this trip – this trip was like the perfect warm-up. 🙂

Stay Tuned for Day 3 Part 1

Journey to Japan- Day 2 Part 1

After a restless night thanks to the sinus that had been aggravated by the A/C on the plane, I woke up at around 5am and gave up on waiting out the 6am alarm. Instead, I played around with the bedside radio and stumbled across an epic station where they were enacting some Japanese play. I think we need stations like that again. I ended up going down for an early breakfast at 6.30am. The breakfast was really good, with airy croissants that pretty much put to shame any croissant I’ve had here and yummy lychees ❤ (I could probably eat an entire tree filled with lychees in one sitting so yes I may be biased).

Our first stop of the day was the tea tasting in the hotel itself so we found the room ahead of time and then decided to head down to Lawson’s, a 24hr convenience store, to get some water for what we had been warned would be one hot and humid day. Now the tap water is perfectly safe to drink in Japan, but with my history of tummy trouble I decided to play it safe and opted to go mineral. Lawson’s is a short walk from the hotel and right next to the hotel, a couple of minutes away, is a large Buddhist temple- the Nishi Honganji temple. We didn’t enter the temple, but marvelled at the architecture from outside.

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First View of the Nishi Honganji Temple

Some of the buildings in this temple are actually National Treasures and as I later found out, the elaborate Karamon that caught my eye is also a National Treasure. People refer to this Karamon as all day gate, meaning that you could spend an entire day just admiring the carvings and architectural beauty of the gate. I would have to agree with that statement.

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The famous Karamon

During our short walk from the hotel, past the temple and into Lawson’s we were struck by one thing – the incredibly loud machine-like hum coming from the cicadas hiding in the trees and in the bushes lining the road. It’s a sound you’ll miss back home- a sound that reminds you that there’s life all around you.

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Getting to work amid the sound of cicadas

We got back to the hotel with enough time to rest before heading back down to the tea tasting which was being conducted by Tsuen, one of the oldest tea-houses in Japan based in Uji- around 850 years old. The owner was there to meet us himself, a young man who had inherited the family business and the skill and he was there to prepare a variety of teas for us to taste.

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Tea Tasting Time!

There are three main types of tea –  Matcha, Gyokuro and Sencha – the strongest tea being the green powdered Matcha and the lightest being Sencha. While tea is traditionally served warm, the tea house has evolved with the times and now offers cold varieties of the tea too. I passed on the Matcha which I normally find too bitter and opted for the warm Sencha. Less bitter but still too bitter for me. I think I’ve been too spoiled by sugar and tea-bags to appreciate green tea in its original form. The good news though is that they have great sweets to eat before the tea tasting (which I ate after the tea tasting to clear the taste from my mouth). ^^

An hour or so later, we left the tea tasting and headed to our next stop. We were originally supposed to attend the Gion Festival in the morning but Sensei felt, and rightly so, that most of us would be too exhausted to even wake up in time. Instead, we got fans from the Gion festival, which would eventually prove to be our best friends during our week-long tour.

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The Fan That Saved My Life ❤

We headed to the Kiyomizu Temple, which means The Temple of Clear Water. An ancient temple, the current buildings were mostly rebuilt after fires in the 1600s and are not only considered National Treasures but are also a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. We walked through the Deva gate, past the three-storey pagoda and straight to a place not normally opened to visitors.

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Getting to Kiyomizu Temple

We were in for a special surprise when we were allowed to enter the hall which houses the footsteps of Buddha. We took off our shoes at the entrance, changed into slippers and headed into the dimly lit hall which was more like a balcony overlooking the 4m long feet of Buddha below. The hall is around 20m in height, which corresponds to the height of a standing Buddha. The walls were covered with tiles featuring Buddha and we were handed two lotus-leaf shaped papers to toss towards the feet. This is how people make a wish, they said. We spent a considerable amount of time there learning more about the markings on the feet and Buddhist customs before we headed back out, humbled by the privileged experience. Our special treatment though was far from over. We were then escorted to the main hall. While the main hall is open to the public, there is an inner sanctuary that is not open to the public which is where we were taken. From the inner sanctum you can see three doors in front of which there are altars. In front of the central door is a statue of the goddess of mercy in typical Kyoto style with palms pressed in front of the body and over its head, with a total of a thousand arms, 11 heads and 28 followers to its side. This door is opened once every 33 years (it’s next due to open in 2033) and remains open for 9 months from March to November during which time the public can see the secret statue of Buddha. Since pictures were not allowed in either place I’m hoping I don’t forget how amazing everything looked.

We left the main hall and went out to take in the amazing views of the Otowa Mountain from the Kiyomizu Stage.

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Otowa Mountain

The stage itself is an architectural wonder, 12m or so high, built with zelkova trees- an interlocking wooden foundation without a single nail. The stage is so high that it’s featured as part of a popular metpahor “To jump off the Kiyomizu stage” (清水の舞台から飛び降りる) which means to take the plunge or make a difficult decision.

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Ready to jump off the stage?… Maybe not

We then headed out in search of the famous spring at the temple. The Otawa waterfall is channeled into three streams and drinking from each of the streams left to right is said to grant you health, wealth and wisdom respectively. But drink from all three springs and you’ll get nothing because you’re being greedy.  There was a long line of people waiting to drink from the spring but we joined them and as we got to the water, we found long-handled metal cups which can be used to reach the falling water and drink. After a long walk in the hot and humid weather, not only did we have a renewed appreciation of our hand-fans but the spring water was a much-needed refreshment.

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To health, wealth and wisdom

As with most temples, there are lots of shops on the way towards the temple and make for great souvenir shopping but since we were short of time we had to skip them both going up and coming back down. We did however discover that there are vending machines everywhere in Japan, so you don’t need to worry about packing a bottle of water since you’ll find vending machines at every corner with a variety of drinks.

With that, we headed to lunch at the Kangaan temple.

Stay tuned for Day 2 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 1

A few years ago I started to learn Japanese but ended up putting it on hold in favour of Korean. In a twist of fate though, I ended up putting my dream Korean vacation on hold over the last few years and ended up visiting Japan this July. It all started with an email from my Sensei, then a call, and then a yes followed by much excitement, attempts to refresh my rusty language skills and a shopping spree for all things cotton.

The plane ride was uneventful enough and my brother and I were lucky to have an empty seat beside us which meant more precious leg room! Yayy! We had to fill out customs forms but I can’t quite make up my mind whose customs forms are stranger- New Zealand or Japan. The Japanese form asks how much perfume you have on you and New Zealand is looking for soil under your shoes. The purpose of these questions really stumps me. In any case, after filling out the forms at 3am, we flew over China where you could actually see the huge rivers from the plane, but South Korea was clouded over so I couldn’t even manage an aerial view 😦
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China, South Korea and First View of Japanese Islands

We landed at a very Dubai-esque (read posh) Kansai airport in Osaka in the evening to a long line at immigration, made up mostly of Chinese tourists who we had been told were figuratively flooding the country during the holiday season (a bit like NZ I suppose). Luckily we only had to queue up for about an hour before we were greeted with an unexpected Salaam from the customs officer as we left arrivals with our baggage and waited outside to rendezvous with the rest of our group made up mostly of former students at the UAE-Japan Centre.
Right outside the departures gates is a vending machine selling SIM cards with data packages from so-net so we all used whatever cash we had on us to get ourselves connected, an easy enough process. For those who didn’t go to an exchange in the UAE or didn’t have change that the machine could take (1000 Yen notes) , they were confronted by a snake like queue at the money exchange and in the end gave up, because it required filling out even longer forms. Instead, they got change by ordering something from Starbucks- a much smarter and more filling way, if you ask me, of getting change.
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Connecting to the world with something so small ^^

It was a long bus ride from Osaka to Kyoto and I kept drifting off. On another day, I’d probably have felt guilty about having fallen asleep, but since it was night time, I didn’t miss much scenery. We reached the Kyoto Tokyu Hotel, only to find the reception unmanned, or so it seemed. It turned out though that the reception was not on that floor and that we had to go downstairs.
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Kyoto Tokyu Hotel

We found our way and were handed over our room cards and a box filled with our dinner – yummy vegetable sandwiches and chips.image

The rooms were not exactly small as we had been led to expect which was great since it meant all our luggage fit in rather nicely. We dug into our sandwiches while simultaneously unpacking to get ready for the long day ahead, setting up our SIMs and trying to figure out how to set up the enigmatic wifi.

Stay tuned for Day 2 Part 1