Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts

Tokyo has a lot of districts, but the most famous and busiest downtown ones should be Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Shinjuku is a large district where the city’s metropolitan government is located, and features some of Tokyo’s tallest highrises. I went up the Metropolitan Government Building tower, which is actually a massive highrise joining together two towers, to take advantage of its free 45th-floor viewing deck. The view was great, taking in neighboring highrises and a vast stretch of the surrounding districts.
At night, it becomes this buzz of luminescent activity including clubs, pachinko parlors, bars and even a red-light district, though this isn’t exactly out of place in Japan. Shinjuku subway station is huge, because it consists of different platforms for different lines, and I actually got a little lost – I couldn’t find the platform for the subway to go back to my hotel and kept walking around in circles – and had to ask an employee for help. He couldn’t speak English but he helpfully directed me in the right direction. It remains the one and only time I’ve ever gotten lost inside a subway.

Shibuya is a well-known shopping district but is famous for something weird – a street crossing that is the world’s busiest. That’s because when the lights turn red, pedestrians from several directions converge creating a special sight. I admit I went there in the evening specifically to see the crossing in effect. The intersection is surrounded by brightly lit stores, buildings and large ads that create a spectacle similar to Times Square in New York. I wasn’t the only one there taking pictures though, and there were even a few Western tourists recording it! This crossing was seen in Lost in Translation, the movie with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two American strangers in Tokyo who become close friends for a few days.
Those were also the only two downtown districts I visited since with only four days, I had to limit which places I went to in this vast city.

I also dropped by Akihabara, the famous tech and manga neighborhood, twice, but didn’t spend too much time there. I saw the manga and maid cafes, with girls dressed as maids handing out flyers in the streets, and I went into a couple of stores.
My flight back to Taiwan was on AirAsiaJapan at 7.45 am, so I had to race to take the subway and then the airport bus to make it on time or face having to take the taxi which would have cost about US$200. I arrived with just about an hour to spare, but I wasn’t the only AirAsia passenger to do so since the line at the counter was really long. The flight was uneventful but I remember the flight attendants were very, very attractive.
So, this is it for my 2013 Japan trip series. Thankfully, I’ve finished it before the end of 2015!

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Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, Shinjuku, which houses educational institutions
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Shinjuku at night
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Approaching Shibuya Crossing
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The lights turn red and this massive collection of humanity flows in all directions 
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Back in Shinjuku
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Tokyo Government Municipal Building, headquarters of the metro government
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Continue reading “Japan travel- Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts”

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Japan travel · Travel

Mt. Fuji photo roundup

Here are more photos of Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko, which lies near the foot of the mountain.
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Almost as if I were soaring in the clouds
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Volcanic crater on the summit
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This is on the trail at the fifth station, where I started from
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Rock cairn on the summit
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Close to the top
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Looks like a grave  
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Heading down

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel – climbing and conquering Mt. Fuji

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Japan’s most famous natural symbol is the mighty Mt. Fuji, whose almost-symmetrical snow-capped cone is a familiar sight in photos and pictures. Rising over 3,776 meters, its famous reputation extends far beyond the country.

Towards the end of my 2013 trip to Japan, in what is perhaps one of the few major achievements in my modest life, I climbed it. It was the perfect height – spectacular enough to be one of Asia’s highest mountains, but able to be climbed in one day. It wasn’t easy as it took me about 6 hours to reach the top, 1.5 hours to walk around the crater at the top, and 3 hours to get back down. I have to clarify that I didn’t climb it from the ground, but midway from the 5th station on the Yoshida Trail, the most popular of the four trails on Mt. Fuji. This isn’t cheating though, almost everyone who climbs it does it from that point.

After I got to Tokyo, I spent one day there then went to Mt. Fuji. Rather, I took the night bus to Kawaguchiko, a small resort town at the foot of Mt. Fuji which also borders a lake of the same name, and checked in at a hostel just across the station that I had prebooked. The next morning, I took the bus up to the Fuji Subaru 5th station, which is a large rest area on the mountain with several stores and washrooms.

I started off on a wide gravelly path along the Yoshida Trail, the most popular of the four different trails that go up from different directions and intersect near the top. However, coming down, you do need to be careful to go down the correct train. There were a lot of people, some of whom were coming in the opposite direction who’d probably climbed down after viewing the sunrise on top. Mt. Fuji was one of the few places I saw a fair number of foreigners during my Japan trip. There were even horses carrying lazy hikers further on to a certain point.

The path got steadily steeper, narrower and rockier and darker. The higher you go, the less vegetation there is until eventually it’s all bare soil and rock because Mt. Fuji is a volcano. I’d started from the 5th station so there were 3 more stations to pass until the top. At each one, there were benches, toilets (you had to pay to use but they were rather clean), and even huts that travelers could sleep in. There was always a lot of people, both Japanese and foreigners, along the trail. I even passed a few Hong Kongers including one family, who I’d bump into later.

While it was still summer and hot on the ground, it was a little cold on the mountain, which was the highest mountain I’d ever been on. The ground was desolate; there was no trees or vegetation and the soil was red. From far off, Mt. Fuji looks great but up close, it was ugly but majestic. Climbing the mountain is not technically difficult as there are clear trails and steps, but it was extremely tiring and I had to stop almost every 10 minutes or so. There were signs along the way and at each station showing how much more meters to go before reaching the top which provides a small psychological boost. It was a cloudy day and when I got high enough, the clouds were below me and often shrouded the land below so I couldn’t see it.

After what seemed an eternity, the top came into view. I told myself I’d soon be on top and I did, but that last bit was one of the hardest. It was great when I finally reached the summit; the sky was blue, the clouds formed an impenetrable layer around the mountain, and I was literally above the clouds. It was one of the most fantastic sights I have ever beheld.

The summit isn’t a single spot, but a large crater which requires over an hour to walk around. The absence of any vegetation and walking on red earth surrounded by bare rocky slopes almost felt like being on the moon or someplace not on this earth.

I’d started the hike at about 10 in the morning and I reached the top at 3.30, so by 5, I headed back down. The trail down was initially on a different path from the one going up, and at one point, it splits into two with one continuing on the Yoshida trail and the other to a different trail, but this is clearly marked by signs that explicitly warned climbers not to confuse the two trails. The trail down was very loose and almost sandy, so at times it was possible to jog down.

Lower down, I ran into a HK family of three who I’d met near the top and we passed each other several times again. It was a good thing because it was getting dark and just before we reached the fifth station, we took a wrong turn that resulted in me asking a park employee who spoke no English, and the family having a small dispute, shouting in Cantonese. It was a little desperate because we had to catch the final bus at the fifth station down to Kawaguchiko which left at 8.30, but we ended up doing so with some time to spare too.
We were actually staying at the same hostel too, but on different floors. After saying goodbye, I took a soak in the hostel’s hotspring spa. The next morning, I walked to Lake Kawaguchiko which was about 20 minutes from my hostel, did a short stroll enjoying the scenic lake, then headed back and took the bus back to Tokyo.

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View from the top
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Kawaguchiko bus station, with Mt. Fuji looming in the back

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5th station, the starting point of my trek

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The trail starts off nice and smooth
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It was misty at times.
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7th station

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The “8.5th” station, one more station and 900m to go before the top
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When the clouds shifted, you could see a bit of the ground below
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Summit
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The summit features large craters which take at least an hour to walk around.
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Weather station, where the highest point is

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The highest point on the summit
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The way down starts off on a different path (though it’s considered the same trail as the one up)
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The trail forks at this point, but luckily there are clearly marked signs like this

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Lake Kawaguchiko

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Ueno district

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When I was in Tokyo, I stayed in a hotel in the middle of two historic districts. To the east was Asakusa, and to the west was Ueno. Its main attraction is Ueno Park, a giant park in which the National Museum, Tokyo Zoo and several other museums are located as well as quite a few temples and shrines, including one dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great Japanese shogun who helped unify the country in the 17th century.

The park was actually built on the site of a major battle in 1868 when shogunate samurais (Shogitai) tried unsuccessfully to resist the new Meiji government, and the tomb of Shogitai warriors still lies inside the park. There is a large lotus pond at the south end, Shinobazu Pond, that looks out onto office buildings, providing a stark contrast. The photo at the top of this post is of Saigo Takamori, who was a samurai commander who led an imperial army in an earlier uprising (when the battle in Ueno happened) but then rebelled against the government in 1877 and died under mysterious circumstances in the climatic battle. According to Wikipedia, the plot in The Last Samurai, the Tom Cruise samurai movie, was based on his rebellion. I have to admit though that when I visited the park, mainly to go to the national museum, I was unaware of all this history and it was only after I stumbled onto all these sights like the Shogitai tomb and the samurai statue that I learned about it.

The Tokyo National Museum stands at the north end of the park and is divided into several buildings housing Japanese history, art, and Asian artifacts. While the Japanese section was good, with Japanese samurai armor and swords being a personal highlight, the most interesting section was the Asian building which featured Chinese, Korean, SE Asian and even South Asian exhibits, as well an Egyptian mummy.

Ueno train station is nearby, and if you saw the first Wolverine movie, it was featured during a chase scene. Opposite the park is a shopping area called Ameyayokocho, a busy shopping area wedged into a bunch of alleys. The “Ame” in its name stands for America, as it was a black market for American goods after World War II. At night, its numerous pachinko (a popular Japanese pinball-like game) parlors really light up the area.
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Shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan’s greatest shoguns
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Ameyayokocho

 

Shinobazu pond, below
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Tokyo National Museum
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Another of the museum buildings
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Wooden statues of the “twelve heavenly generals.” They look more devilish than heavenly to me.
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Samurai sword (above) and armor (below)
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Buddha found near Peshawar, Pakistan from the 2nd-3rd century. The lean figure looks much different from the chubby, bald Buddhas you usually find in China and SE Asia.
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Seen in the Wolverine movie!

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Asakusa district

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Tokyo is one of the great world cities that everybody has heard about. But to be honest, I liked Osaka better. Perhaps it’s because Tokyo is so big and multifaceted, so modern and such a mega-metropolis, that I wasn’t able to feel that much affection for it. I only spent three days there and maybe that wasn’t enough. It was the last stop of my Japan trip in 2013, with a trip to Mt Fuji bracketed in between, following Matsumoto.

I stayed in a rather old and cramped but passable hotel in a neighborhood between Ueno and Asakusa, two districts with a lot of history. Asakusa features Tokyo’s oldest and most well-known temple, Sensoji Temple, with over 1,300 years of history. It’s a pleasant white-and-red Buddhist temple, that has a front gate, the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, with a giant paper lantern hung in between and a small shopping street, Nakamise-dori, leading up to it, with stores selling snacks and souvenirs. Passing that street brings you to another gate, a large two-story one, with three giant paper lanterns, that you pass through before entering the temple proper. The main temple hall also features a giant paper lantern. The temple grounds is a nice place to walk around, with a pagoda, smaller halls, a 300-year-old bell and two rather stylish sitting Buddhas. The temple was busy with worshippers and tourists when I went there on a drizzling afternoon, and the shopping street was packed.

Weirdly enough, there is also a street near Sensoji that is well-known for … kitchen utensils. I passed by it and I saw a few stores, some of which had very large colorful kitchen cups as decorations, but passed up the chance to browse.

Asakusa has Tokyo’s oldest temple and its tallest tower. Tokyo Skytree is further east of Sensoji on the bank of the Sumida river. Standing 634 meters tall, the Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. However, I didn’t bother to go up the Skytree, mainly because I planned to go up a skyscraper in downtown Tokyo that was free. I did walk up to it and appreciate how tall it was. It doesn’t have a fancy design as it is a fully functioning TV tower and only a small part of it is used for regular human activity, which is the observation deck.


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Main temple hall
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Looking back at the second entrance gate to Sensoji
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Shopping street that leads up to the temple
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Stylish Buddhas on the temple grounds
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A statue of a mother and children in the temple ground. I also saw little statues with bibs in Kyoto. These are called jizo and usually have something to do with children. This statue was erected to comfort the spirits of mothers and children who died during World War II.

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Tokyo Skytree. I don’t know what the hell is that golden “horn” perched on the black box on the left.
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Oldish wooden houses on a side street in Asakusa

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel – Tateyama

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On my trip to Japan in 2013, between Kyoto and Tokyo, I stopped at Matsumoto. Now, Matsumoto is a nice town with a very impressive castle, but the main reason I stayed there was to go to nearby Tateyama, one of Japan’s holy mountains in the “Japan Alps.”

Tateyama features a giant dam and a scenic lake halfway to the top, which is surrounded by mountains. This route, called the Kurobe Tateyama Alpine Route, consists of a series of different modes of transportation – buses going through tunnels, cable car, and an uphill tram – which allow you to stop at certain points. At the highest stop Murodo, you can hike a couple of hours to the top of Tateyama or other mountains. Getting to Tateyama from Matsumoto first entailed taking a train to Shinano-Omachi station, then getting onto a shuttle bus to the Tateyama visitor center, where the actual alpine route started.
I’d gone to Tateyama many years before when I was in university as part of a tour group with my brother. Back then, we’d had to rush and we didn’t have much time to spend at each point, but I knew I wanted to come back.

This time, I was determined to get off at the top station and hike to the mountaintop, but unfortunately the weather didn’t play along. When I reached the dam, the sky was blue and calm though there were a few clouds. When I got out at the top station, the clouds had gotten thicker and there was slight rain. I walked around hoping the sky would clear, but instead it got worse. This was in late July but there was still some ice and hardened snow. I did go on the trail and passed numerous people coming down and I had to stop and go back when I could barely see up ahead.
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Starting off on the way up, as you can see here at Kurobe dam, the weather was fine.
Visitors can walk across the dam in the middle to the other side to continue the ascent to Tateyama.
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The top station has a wide “meadow” and a small lake as well as trails to get to several mountains including Tateyama.
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Starting off the actual hiking to the top of Tateyama
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Passed a lot of people coming down, including these schoolkids

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Going up, it looked good at one point but then the clouds came back again and it got really bad (see below).
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Coming back down, the weather was like this.
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One of the several forms of transport up and down the mountain
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A last look at the dam on the way back

The following photos are in random order:
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Saw these guys going down a slope from the cable car
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Probably the most amusing non-native English sign I’ve come across
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Field (rice maybe) on the way back to Matsumoto

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Matsumoto’s Crow Castle

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My next stop after Kyoto was Matsumoto, a small city in the “Japan Alps.” The name says it all – a mountain range in central Japan that some people liken to the Alps in Europe. I didn’t go to Matsumoto to visit the city itself, but for Mt Tateyama, one of Japan’s holiest mountains and the site of a mountain dam. I’d actually been there before back in my university days when I went with my brother on a short tour through Japan and it was so beautiful that I knew I had to go back.

I’d arrived in Matsumoto by train from Kyoto, but not before the journey was doubled by the train being stuck for almost two hours in a station because of a truck accident on a bridge, which I found out about after emailing the Japanese office in Taiwan ( they contacted the train company) later on. The train ride to Matsumoto passed through lush rice fields, attractive rural villages and alongside a river in a valley.

Matsumoto has got something famous too – one of Japan’s most impressive old castles, Matsumoto Castle, also known as the Crow Castle. The nickname name is derived from its all-black walls which give it an imposing, menacing appearance. The castle, which was built in end of the 16th century, sits on a stone base surrounded by a moat. I went to see the castle at night and then the following day.

When I went to view it at night, there was a youth taiko drumming concert going on inside the grounds and afterwards, a light projection show (Digital-Kakejiku Art Project) that illuminated the entire castle in funky colors. The next day I went back and into the actual castle. The inside is mostly hollow with wooden floors and stairs, and a small museum with samurai armor and weaponry on display. The top floor provides a nice lookout over the entire city, which is more like a rural town, and the surrounding hills.

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Here’s the castle at daytime:

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Ancient rocket. Looks like a toy doesn’t it?
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Nearby shrine
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On the way to the castle
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View from the train to Matsumot

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- farewell to Kyoto

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On my final day in Kyoto, I took a trip to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the hillside shrine that features paths lined with a lot of orange torii gates. The famous Shinto shrine is in a quiet area to the east and I had to cross a train track and passing some old-style stores to get there.

After the entrance lie the main shrine and small pavilions, each red and white. Behind the shrine are concrete footpaths behind it that lead up a hill Mt Inari framed by hundreds of torii gates and surrounded by forest. There is even a small lake with fish. The gates are paid for by donations from individuals and companies; the larger the gate the more expensive it was.

Going higher up, there are concrete “altars” with mini torii gates and statues of gates and foxes. This is because Inari is the god of rice and foxes are his messengers. The top gives you a good view of Kyoto, but it was hazy that day so the view wasn’t that nice. It was a nice walk though I got tired of the torii gates after passing so many of them. However, the gates make the place a favorite for some Taiwanese who visit Kyoto.

The Inari shrine wasn’t the last site I visited in Kyoto. Kyoto Station was, and the reason I mention it is because it was a very attractive station with a massive arched glass roof atop a metal grid and a spacious interior. The station overlooks the Kyoto Tower, an observation tower on top of a 9-story building and the only tall structure in the entire city. I took a bus to the station, bought a ticket to my next stop Matsumoto, with a transfer at Nagoya, and then that was it for Kyoto.
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One of the numerous altars along the trail
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Trailside restaurant
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Main shrine at the base of the hill
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Torii gate prices, starting at 175,000 yen or $1,412.25 
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Crossed this to get to the shrine
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I couldn’t help noticing a “battle” between wasps and beetles on this tree. The beetles had this really nice color scheme on their shells of green alternating with red.
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View from the hill
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s Nanzenji and Heian Temples

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So continuing on from my previous Kyoto post, after Chionin Temple, I reached Nanzenji Temple, a large Zen Buddhist complex nestled at the foot of a hill. As the head temple of a Zen Buddhism sect school, it features several different buildings that require separate admissions tickets. The main hall, the Hojo and former head priest’s residence, featured squeaking floors similar to Nijo Castle which were meant to detect intruders, and a rock garden with rocks that are said to resemble tigers and cubs crossing water. The rock gardens are meant for quiet contemplation which seems like a very Japanese thing.

There’s also a large brick aquaduct that was part of a canal system that carried water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto.
I also went inside the grounds of one of the temples inside, which consisted of a wooden building that you could not enter and a pleasant garden with a large pond and forested grounds. This was the retirement villa built by Grand Emperor Kameyama in the 13th century.

Nanzenji also has a massive Sanmon gate of its own, and it’s said that legendary bandit Ishikawa Goemon sheltered there while running from the law (a 2009 movie about him is one of the few Japanese movies I’ve ever seen). The Sanmon Gate has a chamber on top with stairs on the side. To go up required an entrance fee so I didn’t bother. The Sanmon Gate here is similar to Chionin Temple’s own, though that one is bigger. When looking back at my photos, it’s a little hard to differentiate as I went to Nanzenji right after Chionin (the walk took about 40 minutes).
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Entrance to the Hojo
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Nanzenji’s massive Sanmon gate
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Grand Emperor Kameyama’s retirement villa
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Rock garden inside the Hojo
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Aquaduct that carried water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto

After I went to Heian Shrine, a Shinto Temple which I read somewhere was a favorite of Chinese tourists due to its design being based on Chinese temples. This is apparent in the green-tiled roofs on the red and white buildings arranged around a large open ground. The shrine is a replica of the Imperial Palace that existed in the Heian era (794-1185) in which Chinese influence was at its strongest, hence the architectural similarity.
The temple buildings looked kind of gaudy which I didn’t exactly find so attractive. The reason it looks so new is because it’s not that old, having been built in 1895 but the current buildings were reconstructed in 1976 after being burnt down by fire. The way to the shrine passes through a park with museums and a zoo, and a massive red torii gate.

On the way back, I passed Shorenin Temple, but I was tired of temples by then so I didn’t go inside. I did see the 5 giant camphor trees in front of the temple that are a “natural monument” and were planted by a famous monk.

Besides the temples, even the city streets were attractive since there were a lot of traditional wooden houses and buildings that people still lived in. It’s easy to see why a lot of people are charmed by the city.

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Heian Shrine
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Wacky store or home on a random street

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Aquaduct from on top
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Garden inside Grand Emperor Kameyama’s retirement villa
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Below the aquaduct
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Side view of the Sanmon gate
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Inside the Hojo
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I think this is the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu and his lover
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Shorenin Temple’s massive trees, above and below
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s hillside Kiyomizu Temple and old district

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My second full day in Kyoto was temples, giant temple gates, old neighborhoods and a shrine to a dead warlord. I started with Kiyomizu Temple, located on a hill in the east, then stopped by Chionin Temple, went on to Nanenji Temple and finally Heian temple, which is based on Chinese Tang Dynasty temples. It was a long walk that took up half a day and required lots of sweat, but no tears, as well a little sunburn (really).

Kiyomizu or Pure Water Temple is an attractive Buddhist temple complex views overlooking the hill and the city. I could see it from my hotel on the hill and it was a relatively straightforward 20-minute walk.

The front features two tall pagodas, then you enter the main complex. After that, there are a few small shrines including one devoted to Okuninushi, the god of love, and a small waterfall (which is basically just a trickle) with supposedly pure water, which the temple was named after, that people lined up to drink from. Right below the temple is a neighborhood of traditional shops and teahouses, part of the Higashiyama District. It’s said to be old Kyoto, with wooden buildings and independent shops, cafes and restaurants, and I don’t doubt it. It’s a pleasant atmosphere and there are no cars so you’re free to walk right on the streets and lanes.
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Kiyomizu Temple’s main building
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Kiyomizu Temple’s front towers
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Okuninushi, the god of love and “good matches” and his rabbit messenger, at Kiyomizu Temple
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Walking down a street in Higashiyama District

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Higashiyama District again

Walking west from Higashiyama District, I briefly visited Chionin Temple, which is Buddhist. Chionin’s entrance features a giant wooden gate, the 24-meter-tall Sanmon Gate which is Japan’s largest such gate. The actual temple was undergoing renovation and was completely covered by a facade that made it seem like a wooden building. I’d seen the structure when I came in but walked around trying to find the temple before realizing that that wooden building was it. The fact they’d covered the entire temple so thoroughly was because the renovation was going to go on for 7 years (2012-2019)! The Japanese don’t mess around when it comes to doing things carefully and thoroughly, unlike a certain giant Asian neighbor.
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Chionin Temple’s massive Sanmon gate
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I walked by this and kept on looking for Chionin Temple’s main building until I found out this was it.

Here are more photos of Kiyomizu Temple and Higashiyama District:
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The “waterfall” which Kiyomizu Temple is named after

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View of Kyoto; the lone tower is the city’s only highrise
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Small stone deities adorned with frocks on the Kiyomizu Temple grounds
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These were a bunch of tourists, possibly mainland Chinese.
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Geishas or dress-up tourists? If the latter, then the make-up and dress were done very well.
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Random houses on a random street