Wandering around Japan Part 2… Kyoto and Nara

 

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Njo Castle

I arrived in Kyoto by flying to Osaka on the evening of 8th October. This was a really good thing and I would recommend checking what time your flight arrives as this meant we could go straight to bed on arrival at the hotel and be ready to start properly the next day. From the Sunday it was non stop for the next two weeks and I loved it! The tour i was on started with a city tour and our guide, Tats, took us to several of the top sights in Kyoto.

Firstly we went to Njo Castle was the place where the miliatry and shoguns of Japan and it dominates a large part of the north west of the city. It is palace built in 1603 with glorious gardens (photos were not allowed inside) and our first glimpse of some autumn colour. It was still 23/24 degrees celcuis when we arrived and so most of the trees were still fully green. The gardens were very peaceful and the palace within the space gave an insight into the traditional arhitecture using paper sliding doors and tatami mats.

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Njo Castle

Before our next place to visit we went to a family restaurant with a sushi train! This was so much fun and the touch screen made it easy to find something my mum would eat. Anything you ordered would come a long on the top conveyor and stop directly by your table. The bottom conveyor was the normal things going round and round for a period of time for everyone to choose from. It was a great introduction for a lot of the group who had not been to a sushi restaurant before.

Sushi Train

The next place our tour was the Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion. It is one of Japan’s best known places due to the top of the building being completely covered in gold leaf. It was originally built in 1397 as a retirement villa for the shogun and then was later converted into a temple. It was burnt down in 1950 and reconstructed with the gold leaf extended further than before. There is a designated path that takes you to all the viewing points, but be warned it was busy when we went and it can be even busier in the full tourist season.

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Kinkakuji Temple

Next we went to the Ryoan-ji, which is another well known sight form Kyoto due to the rock garden. The photo below does not do it justice as you cannot see all the racked lines in the gravel. I imagine it would be a very peaceful place if there wasn’t anyone else around, but where I was stood taking this photo was a viewing platform full of people. I would love to have a small version of this in my future garden. It has 15 rocks located within the gravel, but you can only every see 14 at one time (we tested this and it seems to be true).

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Ryoanji-Temple

We used public transport to get everywhere on this tour and it was a great experience to use the subway, trains, trams and buses as one of the locals.  We headed to the east of the city to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove next. It was super busy and I was not able to get any photos like what you see online, but I gave it go. The bamboo is harvested and sold as a resource. If you look past the line of bamboo that marks the path you can see the cut stalks behind. It is an amazing place and I wish I could have gone once it had gone dark as I imagine it would be magical when all lit up.

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Arahiyarma Bamboo Grove

Our first proper night in Kyoto the group went to the Gion area and Shabbu Shabbu for dinner. This is when you have a pot of water that you can control the temperature from the table and then to this you add vegetables and meat and then once cooked place in your bowls with sauce from the jugs. We got a bit confused and added the noodles too soon as you are supposed to have them at the end of the meal. The instructions were not great, but it was all you can eat and was very tasty.

Shabbu Shabbu

We then wandered through the Gion area which is famous for entertainment and the geishas. It was a very beautiful area and is well worth wandering through later in the evening when it a bit quieter. A lot of people head there to spot geishas around 6pm, so heading there around 9pm gives it chance to settle down.

Gion Gesha District
Gion

We also wandered through the park called Maruyama-koen, which is home to some beautiful shrines and Kyoto’s most famous cherry tree.

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Gion

The first day was full of beautiful sights and that continued on the second day of the tour with a trip to Nara. Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital city and contains 8 World Heritage Sites. There are wild deer wandering around the whole city and can buy biscuits to feed to them. They were quite friendly, but would try to steal any food you had to hand, which made having lunch in the park fun!

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Nara

The main sight to see in Nara can be found within the Todai-ji – the Daibutsu or Great Buddha is amazing! It is a bronze Buddha and is contained in one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, orginally built between 710 and 784.

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Todai-ji

Several parts of the Buddha have been recast due to fires that have burnt the wooden build down and melted the metal.  It is almost 15 metres tall and weighs 500 tonnes. It was an awesome presense and it felt very peaceful wandering around inside. I feel quite connect to Buddhism and it is something I keep thinking I need to spend some time really understanding what is it about.

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Great Buddha

As I said the deer were quite inquizitive and kept trying to make friends with my mum throughout this holiday!

My Mum making friends with a Nara Deer

Next in Nara we wandered behind the home of the Great Buddha and up a very beautiful stone paved street where we has lovely views above the rooftops. We climbed the hill to the Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do, which are sub temples of the Todai-ji.

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Nigatsu-do & Sangatsu-do

I took quite a few photos of deer as I loved that they were just wandering around without a care in the world. These three young deer were right next to the path and I loved the pose they struck as I came up to take a closer photo.

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Nara

We then headed to Kasua Taisha which is a sprawling shrine in the woods. The paths around it are lined with hundreds, maybe thousands of lanterns. It was founded in the 8th century and there are twice yearly lantern festivals, which I think would be amazing to experience. Maybe when I go back one day!

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Kasuga Taisha

That night we were back in Kyoto and I made my mum walk quite a bit to find recommended ramen restaurant. It was amazing, but my mum was not so keen (because of the fat on the meat, even though it melted in the hot water as was so thinly cut!). It was so tasty and I must learn how to make these types of stocks as soup bases as I think I could live off ramen this good!

Miso Ramen

The third day of the tour was another full day exploring Kyoto. The first place we went to was Fushimi-Irani Taisha which is a mountain full of torii gate paths. It is a sprawling shrine and is probably the place in any photos of the shrines of Kyoto. You can walk all the way up tot top of mountain, but we only went about a third of the way due to time contraints. if i went again I would like to walk the whole thing as the further you went the less people you encoutnered.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha

I was lucky and managed to get some lovely photos without any people in the way. It was very atmospheric and I really enjoyed wandering and I could very much understand why people come to worship here.

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Fushimi-Inari Taisha

It was just non-stop in a good way. Up and down the mountain with each torii gate deicated to someone or a family.

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Fushimi-Inari Taisha

I did let my mum be in some of the photos!

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Fushimi-Inari Taisha

After a morning in the ancient aspects of the city we headed back to the modern and explored Kyoto Station. It’s an impressive building made of steel and glass and includes a glass corridor across the top of the station. Also it has light up stairs that were fun to watch!

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Kyoto Station

We then headed to Kyoto Tower as I like being able to get up high and get a sense of the city and it’s scale. It is nothing special inside, but the views are amazing , although it could do with having a few more seats up the top, but it does have a shrine!

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Kyoto Tower

We then walked to the Higashi Hongan-ji, or the Eastern Temple of the True Vow. It is said to the secnd largest wooden structure in Japan. This was the first place where we had to take off our shoes and put them in a plastic bag to carry around and it made total sense. I really loved the whole taking off your shoes thing as it kept places clean and the wooden floors were so smooth (which only turned into a problem when it came to steep steps and there will be more on that in a later post!).

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Higashi Hongan-ji

We then walked to the Nishiki Market, which is arcade full of market type shops. It is full or weird and wonderful foods and is right in the centre of the city. We didn’t end up buying anything in the market, but we did have fun guessing what some of the things were as most signs were only in Japanese, but many of the shop keepers are happy to tell you about what they were selling.

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Nishiki Market

The third day was super busy as we also then went to a shortened tea ceremony. It was less than an hour long and they show you the movements required and let you make a bowl of tea. I really enjoyed it and would like to learn more about the whole tradition and maybe one day go to a full ceremony, which I believe can be up to 4 hours long. We went to En in Gion which was recommended by our tour guide as they conduct it in English.

Tea ceremony

I found it very interesting and the traditions behind it we glimpsed sound fascinating.

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Tea ceremony

We then wandered through the Gion area on our way to fidn some food and spotted a real geisha on her way to an appointment. My photo came out blurry as she was moving quickly and I didn’t have my camera ready or on the right settings. However I love this photo as you are warned not to try and stop them and rather take photos as they pass and this photo captures for me the sense of urgency and importance they have about them.

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Gion

We did get distracted again on our way to find food as we found a tiny bar where they offered a sake taster. The bartender was super nice and instead of just 3 tasters each he gave us 6 different ones to try between us. I liked the sweeter sakes better and did not like the cloudy one at all as it had a gritty texture. We has a lovely evening and ended up getting another full glass of a different sake the bartender recommended. We also got talking to couple who came into the bar later and were doing the opposite from us as they had started  their trip in Tokyo.

Sake Tasting

Finally we got to the food and randomly found a tempura restaurant. The process was to fill out a form stating all the different tempura pieces you wanted. As we didn’t know how much we would get we chose to get one of each of almost all the veggies and then come fishcake and a couple of hug prawns. It was amazing and we even had a whole medium boiled egg, which I have never had as tempura before! The batter is definitely lighter than what we get at home and it was amazingly crisp and tasty!

Tempura (including a whole egg!)

My tips for Kyoto and Nara:

  • If you have the time walk everywhere to explore more than the tourist spots
  • Go early to the main tourist sites to avoid the crowds
  • Have cash (general tip for visiting Japan)

Overall an amazing first 3 days of my trip. This pos turned out a lot longer than I thought so I am adding an extra post to my to cover everything I want to cover.

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