Kansai - Koya-san, Kyoto and Nara
Trip Start Aug 21, 2007
27Trip End Dec 20, 2007
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Oh what blessed art thou in thine autumn robe!
Yes, we unwittingly ventured into Japan while it was wearing one of its two most beautiful costumes. The first such seasons would have been the cherry blossom time in February (not really tempting for a hay fever suffere like me) and the second one is Japan's Indian summer with the maple leaves turning all hues of red. A magnificent display of coulours we just could not get enough of. This together with the foreground of temples, lakes and gardens has to make Japan`s historical Kansai region one of the best spots in the world to appreciate this autumn spectacle. And now we've got some pictures up, too
Japan has to be one of those countries you should visit before you die! It's the world's second largest economy. The population has a highly developed standard of civilisation with respect and hardcore work ethics as its basis. The ubiquitous bowing and repetitive polite phrases made us feel very welcome from the outset. After China it was a real bonus that we weren't once harassed by sales touts. Aaah...sigh of relief.
There's not a lot of room in urban Japan along the main island's Honshu's coasts. Houses are tiny and squeezed, usually without any garden. Cars tend to be tiny and box sized and are often a commodity that's unaffordable not financially, but due to lack of space.
And you can get around very well without Japanese. All Japanese school children learn English so everyone between 12 and 30 should speak at least a little English. The problem is that they mainly learn to translate on paper and do not have a lot of experience in conversation. Another reason many won't speak it (unless gently pressed) is for fear of making minor errors, understandable in a culture where perfection is essential. And even if they don't speak English the Japanese won't rest until they've activated someone who can help you
Road and train signs are in both languages so transport is no problem. We had it even easier in that we had two consecutive train passes with which we could just walk straight to our trains without having to navigate the ticket machines (which are often also labeled in English anyway). We had a Kansai rail pass and a JR railpass. The former let us travel throughout the ancient Kansai region on practically all public transport other than JR railway lines. These in turn were covered by the JR pass which we used for the long distance bullet trains to Hiroshima and Tokyo and some local transport in Tokyo. Easypeasy.
Even menus aren't too challenging. Many Japanese restaurants have plastic versions of their food with prices diplayed in the window. So again it's a point and choose job. You'll still be in for some surprises, though...And the food is awesome!! If you've had Japanese food in your country it hardly compares to the taste and presentation in the home country. We were pleased we could tick off most items on our culinary wish list as mentioned further on.
Get on with it!!!
So our first priority was organising our rail passes and the last bit of accomodation for our trip at Osaka Kansai airport. This is the one country on our itinerary that we would recommend booking the whole trip's nights in advance. Especially if you're on a budget, because budget accomodation is few and far between. And Japan is pretty expensive as it is, probably similarly priced to the US. Budget travelers can do ok if, like us, they're happy to stay in hostel dorms
First stop was the Kyoto BAKPAK hostel, a riverside location smack in the middle of the old town called Gion with its narrow winding streets and famous for dining and Geisha entertainment. It was a comfy and very well run place (including lots of free chocolate!). Apparently we were the first overt honeymooners there and our hosts Hana and Yugo were incredibly accomodating.
But before exploring Kyoto we opted to visit Koya-san, a hillside village made up of over 40 temples, 28 of which offer shukubo, temple lodging. The highlight was the local cemetary, Okuno-in. Kukai was the name of the enlightened Buddhist who founded the particular type of buddhism practised in Koya-san (Shingon). It is believed that when the next Buddha arrives Kukai will rise from his tomb to greet him. So any buddhist worth their rosary is buried on the cemetary (that's about 500.000 souls). Watched over by high towering pines, it's a grand collection of stone pinacles, gates and monuments. And figurines, some of them clad in layer upon layer of colourful bibs and the occasional winter hat / skull cap
Other places worth visiting in Koya-san are the main temple precinct with quite a few large temples and pagodas, the ginormous town gate and the head abbot's temple where we encountered our first raked gravel garden.
After sunset we settled into our temple lodging. We stayed in a comparatively cheap temple called Haryo-in. There were only 3 resident monks and only two other guests apart from us. So it had a relatively deserted feel to it. The routine for us was to start with a bath. This is communal, but sex-segregated. It consists of a large hot tub. Before entering this
you're expected to scrub with soap, bucket and ladle. The hot tub is like a liquid sauna, really really hot and so relaxing, I kept catching myself exclaiming in glee throughout the bathing experience
Next stop was to be Nara, capital for only 70 years, but with well preserved temple sites and a few superlatives to boast. We hired a student guide, Koichi, to show us around. We were lucky that, being a Japanese culture student, he could enlighten us about the significance of some ot the buddhist and shinto practices and decorations
We visited the world's largest wooden building (heard that claim before in NZ), Todai-ji temple, with a massive sitting buddha and his equally massive attendant gods and guardians. In the back there's a fun hole in a pillar just as big as the buddhas's nostril. If you manage to squeeze through there you are granted with a year's worth of good health. I was thus blessed. Regine hopefully won't regret that she didn't give it a go.
There's a big bell and a few multi-storey pagoda to see amongst other things. Most buildings are laid out within a vast park, the vibrant autumn foliage of which blended in very well with the orange tones of the Shinto shrines and gates. One such shrine was the Kasuga Taisha shrine. This has hundreds of lanterns leading up to it and hanging within it. the annual lantern festival must be a magnificent sight to behold. Next door is a shrine dedicated to lovers. Just like in similar localities elsewhere on our trip we dedicated and left behind good wishes for our future.
After our temple hopping we walked through Nara's old town (Naramachi) and stopped into a restaurant that served typical Nara specialties, served with purple rice and again laid out on a multitude of small saucers, aesthetically and culinarily pleasing
After Nara we travelled back to Kyoto to spend 2 days there. We got into the mood by trialing all-you-can-eat Shabu Shabu on my dad's recommendation. Shabu Shabu is basically what we'd call a meat fondue: a vegetable broth that you can also cook noodles in. The main attraction, though, is the finely sliced raw beef. This is traditionally exquisite Kobe beef: in my understanding meat from veal fed with malted barley and watered with malt beer. It's sliced so thin, you just briefly drag it back and forth through the broth 2 or 3 times muttering "shabu shabu" and it's done. Scrumptideedle-doo! Loved it and worked our way through 3 helpings each.
Just strolling along the river across from Kyoto's most sophisticated entertainment alley Ponto Cho you can usually spy a few Geishas entertaining their well-to-do customers. So what's a Geisha? Well, I haven't entirely figured that one out yet, but basically they are a highly trained lady of pleasure
Kyoto is a city of tradition. For centuries it was the capital of emperors and feudal shogun lords. Despite massive destruction throughout centuries of terretorial warfare and bombing in WWII Kyoto is the place to go for ancient temples and culture. And the culture is very alive. You can spot flocks of women beatifully dressed up in their festive Kimonos. There are very active Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Japanese buddhism is mainly of the Zen tradition and very tolerant. Many japanese practice Shinto and buddhist traditions. We've discussed buddhism before. Shintoism is basically an old polytheistic animistic religion
We had a final day in Kyoto and so much yet to see. As it was a beautiful autumn day we opted to rent bikes at our hostel to then cruise around some of the closer temples. We pedaled through the narrow streets of Gion with their traditional Japanese facades and arrived at the local Yasaka shrine just in time to see the official unveiling ceremony of its new front gate. To the sound of a spine-sawingly awful cacophony of traditional Japanese music and great applause by the present officials and priests (and a few geishas) the big bed sheet was dropped and the gate opened. Incidentally, when we came by on our way back in the evening we happened to be in time to see a parade of lanterns similar to the German St Martin's day parades make its way down the street towards the shrine to the same bone-chillingly dissonant sacral sounds. A great number of lantern bearers wearing various costumes (sport teams, boy scouts, etc...) snaked onto the shrine's grounds to be treated to free all-you-can-drink sake. We were offered countless rounds. I had to throw in the towel after my fifth cup and admit defeat, though.
Next stop was the Chion-in Buddhist temple. Highlights here are a nice setting with some hillside gardens and a vast cemetery, the biggest bell in Japan and nightingale floors. The latter were often features of samurais' homes, too, and are basically very squeaky wooden floors that creak louder the more you try to avoid making a sound. Their function is to protect the inhabitants of the respective temple/house from a nocturnal ambush
Next was Nanzen-ji. This again was within a vast and beautifully wooded area with several sub-temples. Going into the Hojo (the temple residences), you're treated to long winding Japanese style corridors and rooms with beautifully painted paper sliding doors surrounded by various types of typical Japanese gardens. The nearby Eikan-do temple gardens are another prime maple leaf vantage site.
We then cycled along a canal on the so-called philosophers' path, again boasting some beautiful autumn foliage. On the way to the Ginkaku-ji, the (not actually) silver Pagoda, we enjoyed some typical snack tasters and green tea ice cream (you can get all sorts of wacky soft ice varieties in Japan...including red bean and chestnut). Ginkaku-ji is famous for its patterns of raked gravel within a nice little park with a great view.
After bidding farewell to our lovely hosts Hana and Yugo, we were to continue our travels south to Himeji and Hiroshima.
If I had any capacity to do so I would decorate you with a very big medal for grappling with this text to the end. Hey, after the discontinuation of this blog has left a gaping hole in your life you may have to consider getting a new hobby! Just kidding. Thanks for sticking it out!!!