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 

 

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s golden shrine, rock garden and shogunate castle

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Kyoto is famous for temples and that is what this post is full of. Plus a castle, since Kyoto was also the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years.
The most famous of the city’s temples is probably the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji, likely its most beautiful one too. However, it is actually a rebuilt version since it was actually burnt down in 1950 by a deranged monk.
Besides the pavilion, there’s a nice lake and garden in the complex.
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After Kinkaku-ji, I walked about 15 minutes to nearby Ryoan-ji, which is a Zen temple with one of Japan’s most famous rock gardens. Specifically, it’s an arrangement of giant rocks placed in a rectangular pebble-filled area which are swept into a pattern. The rock garden is for meditation which one does by viewing it seated from a nearby veranda.

I took the bus from Ryoan-ji to the subway, where I discovered one of the nifty things that makes Japanese society so high-tech. The bus had an electronic fare machine that took your money and actually gave you change. Mightily convenient and great for tourists like me who don’t have local transport cards.
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Room in the building overlooking the rock garden with a painting of mountains on the rear panels

Nijo Castle is a castle that served as the shogun’s residence. It’s not as imposing as Osaka Castle but it has an attractive main building, the one-storey Ninomaru Palace, with nice sweeping dark-brown roofs. The main building features squeaking “nightingale” floors which make noises as you walk on them. This was to detect any assassins who sneaked into the castle. Outside, there is a nice Japanese landscape garden and you can go onto the walls to view the entire complex.
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More photos below:
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Pull the rope for luck, a feature of some shrines
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Forested pathway at Ryoan-ji
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Pond at Ryoan-ji
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Landscape garden in Nijo Castle’s grounds
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Nijo Castle buildings
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Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Kyoto’s Gion district- geishas and teahouses

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Despite Osaka being Japan’s second most vibrant city, it is neighboring Kyoto that gets almost all the attention. The capital of Japan for several centuries, Kyoto has a dignified presence in which much of its past is still preserved. It is filled with temples, castle, old neighborhoods and geisha districts. Tokyo is like a latecomer, having only been the capital for over a hundred years while Kyoto was the capital for over one thousand years. After I was done with Osaka, I took the 30-minute train to Kyoto.
The two cities are part of Kansai region, which is Japan’s cultural and historic heartland. Kansai also features Nara, the Japanese capital in the 8th century, and the port city of Kobe.

After checking into my hotel, I headed to the nearby Gion district, which is famous for its geishas who perform in intimate eating places in wooden buildings that are off the main street. These side streets feature a lot of these elegant windowless wooden buildings that all had restaurants inside, but the only time you could see inside was when the door opened.

On the way to Gion, you cross a bridge over a stream and there are restaurants along both sides. There is a main street lined with shops, theaters and restaurants, which if you go to the end will take you to the Yasaka Shrine.
The Yasaka Shrine is located on a small hill at the end of a main street and has an elaborate gate entrance. Even though it was night, it was open and parts of it were lit up. A notable sight was the performance dance stage which had hundreds of lanterns.
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To the south of the main street are a series of small lanes with wooden buildings where the geishas and old teahouses are.
I don’t have a geisha fetish but it was the assumption geishas are supposed to be “exotic” and that I was in the most famous area in Kyoto that they work.
I did catch a glimpse several times though it was brief because they were in a hurry. I tried to take photos of them especially when one walked right past me but I didn’t go as far as call out to them or chase them, which I actually saw somebody do. I was walking by when a geisha suddenly came around the corner, walking fast while being followed by a few Western tourists. One lady called out to her and ran up close to her to take her picture by pointing the camera at her, in the rudest way possible.

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I returned the next evening to walk through the geisha neighborhood, then went to a pleasant lane called Shirakawa that is north of the main road. It’s a quiet lane that runs along a small canal, with several wooden restaurants and houses, and has a cobblestoned road.
After the serenity of Shirakawa, turning back onto the main road took me past a street with adult-themed stores and massages and wacky restaurants.
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Shirakawa lane
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Old teahouses where the geishas perform in
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I wasn’t chasing this geisha; she passed me (see photo above this one) and I took this from behind.
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Stream that you cross on the way to Gion

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Wacky restaurant decor
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Japan travel · Travel

Overview of a Japan trip

Last summer, I went to Japan for two weeks as my second quitting-my-job vacation. I went to the main cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, as well as Matsumoto in the “Japan Alps.” I also climbed Mt. Fuji. Japan to me, is a vastly fascinating nation, and beautiful too. I first visited it before my last year of university, over six years ago, but as part of a Taiwan tour group. We visited some nice rural attractions across the nation, but I felt I hadn’t really experienced Japan. So I decided after quitting my job last year to go for a solo journey. I was able to experience the history in Kyoto, the great scenery of Tateyama and Mt. Fuji, and the ultramodern and bustling cities of Tokyo and Osaka. The sights were interesting, the buildings were attractive and the streets were orderly, the temples were impressive, and the people, specifically service staff, were polite.

Despite this, Japan isn’t all shiny and great. I don’t support its geopolitical stances such as its purposefully ignorant attitude towards its WWII atrocities. I’m also aware of its serious social problems such as its sexual perversions, which carry over from private obsession to public behavior, teen bullying and a growing number of people who don’t work, play computer games all the time, or who spend all their money on buying clothes and other consumer goods. Materialism is very apparent, as are quirky stuff like maid cafes and places catering to all kinds of sexual behavior.
Most of all, I’d read a lot about how insular Japan is, especially or ironically despite its prosperity. People seem to ignore outside influences, news, and culture. People supposedly speak less English than in Taiwan or mainland China. Less Japanese study overseas now than decades ago, and having a Western degree can actually hinder Japanese in getting jobs in their country. Other Asians, especially Chinese, are looked down upon. I did get a vivid sense of this insularity and arrogance, having actually been pointed out at times when walking on the street or on the subway. In addition, while Japan is wealthy and developed, there’s also visible poverty such as rough neighborhoods in Osaka or homeless in a major Tokyo park.

I also had one of my worst travel experiences when my 2-hour train stopped at a station and did not move for almost 2 hours! That one stop doubled my journey, so I pulled into my stop almost 2 hours after the intended time. There was no English announcement or staff around, and the other Japanese passengers were so calm so I sat for those 2 hours unable to do anything. On the plus side, the staff at train stations, subways and diners wherever I went were very polite and helpful.
To be honest, Osaka was the most interesting city (I’ve already written about it for my papers) while Tokyo was a little disappointing. Kyoto was very decent, while Mt Fuji was spectacular. Tateyama, in the Japan Alps, was good, though bad weather prevented me from experiencing the full effect.

It’s definitely a place to visit if you’re in Asia or even halfway around the world.

The itinerary
I flew from Taipei to Osaka, spent a few days there, then went to Kyoto by train. I spent a few days there as well, then went to the holiday town of Matsumoto by train. I went to Tateyama for a daytrip, which was the main reason I’d gone to Matsumoto. I then went to Tokyo for the final leg of my trip, again by train. After one day in Tokyo, I went to Kawaguchiko, where I spent a day climbing Mt Fuji, and then returned to Tokyo for two days before departing back to Taipei.

The highlights

Osaka
-Osaka castle- despite being a reconstruction, it’s a handsome structure with a museum inside about one of Japan’s most famous “rulers” and the top provides a good 360-degree view of the park and surrounding area.
-Aquarium- full of cool sea life, the first time I’ve seen whale sharks.

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Kyoto
-Temples and old houses- this needs no explanation.
-Nijo castle-despite being a one-story structure, it’s actually quite decent, and features the “nightingale” security floor, in which certain panels squeak as you walk on them, which served to deter intruders.

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Matsumoto
-Tateyama- a mountain park in the Japan Alps with a dam and great scenery.
-Matsumoto Castle-a very impressive black castle that is one of the nation’s three most famous.
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Mt Fuji
It was exhausting but well worth it. The sights and atmosphere at the top were amazing, when I really felt like I was on the top of the world.
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Tokyo
-National museum- I like museums and this one featured a lot of good stuff, including an entire building with Asian and Egyptian artifacts.
-Shittenoji temple-an impressive temple with a lively merchant pedestrian street leading up to the entrance.
-Shinjuku crossing- probably the most famous street intersection in the world due to the mass number of people who cross when the lights turn red.
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