Japan… What an amazing place! Everything I have been told at various business schools over the years about Japanese xenophobic culture and how distant and unfriendly Japanese are is a bunch of utter bull crap!! But let’s start from the beginning…
On the late evening of March 29th, me and Dominik took a plane from Taipei to Osaka. The flight was not too expensive, cause we flew with the budget Peach airlines, but the seats where the least comfortable ever (seriously, even worse than Ryanair!!). On top of that, the plane was almost two hours delayed, which led to missing the last train from the airport to the city centre (the airline could not care less, and a taxi ride would cost roughly as much as we spend on food in a week. Luckily there was one more bus going to the city…). The flight itself was very rough, which was caused by a thunderstorm brewing just below the pain! All in all, it was the worst flight in our lives and we had arrived to the hostel completely spent.
On Sunday, the plan was to get up early and head to Kyoto, but since we went to bed shortly before 4 am, we had decided to catch some more zzz’s. It was raining heavily, which additionally discouraged us from leaving the bed.
Around 11am we were finally on the move. We were starving and getting something vegetarian to eat proved to be impossible. Unfortunately, I had to compromise and swallow down some fish.
Taking a train from Osaka to Kyoto turned out to be more difficult and far less expensive than we had initially anticipated. The difficulty lay in not knowing Japanese – there is no instruction in English explaining how to use the ticket machine nor how to find the platform. Luckily, Japanese people are very helpful and we did not even have to ask for help. The prices were a nice surprise. One keeps hearing how expensive Japan is, so we were prepared to pay high prices for food and transportation. However, the price level in Japan is comparable to the price level in Germany rather than to the one in Norway.
In the late afternoon we had arrived to Kyoto. We booked our stay at a tube hotel called 9 Hours. The experience was far from traumatic. It definitely was much better than sleeping at a regular hostel. Everything was very clean and convenient. The tube itself was specious enough for my brain not to be nagging me with any claustrophobic thoughts. All the belongings had to be stored in a locker, so one was expected to walk to the tube only wearing a pyjama provided by the hotel. On YouTube there is a short video showing the entire experience – an interesting thing to watch if you want to find out more.
The only drawback was a that men had no access to the women areas, so me and Domi had to sleep on different floors. To be completely frank, the common area was quite shitty as well. Also if you are travelling with a big backpack, it is impossible to fit it into the locker, so you have to keep it on a shelf near the reception area. Everything else was absolutely fine.
At 5 pm we were meeting Yuma – a friend of a friend who was kind enough to give us a tour of the city. We still had some time to kill so we strolled around the neighbourhood. The hotel was located in the city centre, so we were only couple minutes away from the Ishibe Alley.
At 5 on dot, Yuma picked us up at the hotel with his car, and we drove to pick up his wife from a wedding party. Before we headed to see the city attractions, we drove to the southern suburbs of Kyoto to take Yuma’s wife and her friend home. What an exciting ride that was!
At the beginning, we were under an impression that Kyoto does not differ so much in comparison to Taipei (this was mostly caused by a presence of Chinese characters everywhere, which are also used in Japan in almost identical form). After awhile however, we started to notice big differences. The city had a “European” feel (whatever that means – we have been trying to determine the meaning of this term, but failed and as no better adjective comes to mind I ended up using it anyway). The houses are short, which does not make you feel overwhelmed. And the air… The air is clean, smells nice and actually it is hard to believe that such big city has such high quality of air, fantastic! The traffic is left-sided and many cars operate on the electrical engines (or at least hybrid). Another notable difference is an absence of scooters. There are some motorbikes present, but in comparison to Taiwan the amount is very small, and so the noise caused by traffic is so much smaller.
After dropping Yuma’s wife off, we drove back to the centre to a park to see cherry blossom at night. We were extremely lucky to arrive to Japan just when the Cherry blossom season had begun. Sakura (in Japanese cherry blossom) season is by many considered to be the most beautiful time of the year and it lasts only for about one to two weeks tops.
What was for dinner? Of course sushi!! Absolutely delicious and freshly made by a sushi robot (the hand made by a human is more expensive, which to us did not make any difference what so ever). The restaurant itself was a very interesting place – the tables were organised along a moving belt on which plates with various sushi were displayed. The dishes were placed on various types of plates – each colour or pattern indicated different price of the dish (for example green plate cost ¥300 and black one ¥1500). Also, by each table there was a touch screen and one could order some additional dishes that were not available on the running belt. Those dishes would arrive on a “train”, which tracks were lain next to the belt. Such fun!
Yuma is the kindest man, we had a lovely time! We had to fight him on paying for the dinner. This time we were successful but on some other occasions not so much…
Our first day in Kyoto was perfect. We had seen many beautiful places and we made a new, amazing friend. Completely exhausted, we took a shower, changed into Japanese pyjamas and went to the tubes to regenerate.
Next morning me and Domi met in the lobby of the hotel at 5:30 am. We had a day packed with things to see in front of us. First, we took an underground to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Travelling by train and underground take some getting used to, as the ticketing system is a bit complicated and most maps are only in Japanese, but after couple of rides we were able to move around comfortably. Also, if you want to take a bus (which in Kyoto is very convenient) Google Maps app is a must, with that tool in hand one can accomplish everything (sometimes I wonder, how people were able to travel before smartphones were invented…).
Getting a vegetarian breakfast again proved to be a challenge, but by now I am used to the fact that acquiring food demands much effort.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which compose a network of trails behind the main buildings. The trails lead through a lovely forest covering the sacred Mount Inari, which is 233 meters high. Inari is the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are considered to be Inari’s messengers, hence so many statues of those animals may be spotted in the shrine’s area. Fushimi Inari has its origins in 8th century, pre-dating the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794.
The walk around the mountain takes about three hours. The admission is free -free admission is an exception in Japan – and the area is always open for visitors.
Before the midday we came back to the city centre, where we walked to the Sanjusangendo hall, which is a temple in eastern Kyoto known for its 1001 statues of Kannon (the goddess of mercy). The temple was built in 1164, but due to being destroyed by fire, it had to be rebuilt almost a century later.
The hall is the largest wooden structure in Japan, and it is filled with thousand-armed Kannon statues, which are equipped with 11 heads to be able to better witness the suffering of humans. They also posses thousand arms in order to help humans fight the suffering. The actual statues however, have only 42 arms each. If one subtracts the two regular arms and multiply by the 25 planes of existence then the full thousand will be obtained… Unfortunately, taking photos was not allowed, but there is plenty snapshots available in the web – the view is quite spectacular.
The entrance cost ¥600 – no student discounts available (this was true for every place we had visited).
After delicious lunch (jupi!), we walked to the Kiyomizudera temple (literally “Pure Water Temple”). It is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan and in 1994 it was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
Behind Kiyomizudera’s main hall Jishu Shrine is located. It is a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. There are two stones located in front of it, placed 18 meters apart. If one successfully finds one’s way from one to the other with one’s eyes closed, is believed to bring luck in finding love. However, if one has to be guided by somebody else from one stone to the other, that is interpreted to mean that an intermediary will be needed in finding happiness in the love life.
The three-storied Koyasu Pagoda stands among the trees in the far southern end of the temple grounds, and a visit is believed to help with easy and safe childbirth.
Our last destination for the day was the Nijo Castle. It was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (on UNESCO world heritage site since 1994).
Inside the castle (taking photos was yet again forbidden), the floors were designed in a very special way. While walking on the wooden floors (visitors are required to walk without shoes – thankfully socks are allowed), each step makes a half whistling half squeaking sound – this is why it is called the “nightingale floor”. This technique was designed to alert inhabitants of any intruders (even ninjas had hard time sneaking in without being discovered).
A useful tip – before travelling in Japan, checking out JapanGuide.com is highly recommended – all admission prices as well as construction notices are available and up to date. Also, the HyperDia page is very handy when planing a train trip.
In the evening, we managed to summon some energy and walk along the river flowing next to our hotel. Admiring sakura at nigh is a pure pleasure.
On Tuesday morning, again we met at 5:30 am in the lobby. Getting up at such early hour allowed us to see more, and most of all to escape crazy amounts of tourists at the most popular places.
The first destination of the day was Arashiyama – a district in the western outskirts of Kyoto. There is so much to see in the area, and since we planed to spend only half day over there, we had to compromise a little.
The first place we had decided to visit was the Gioji Temple. This place is known for its beautiful moss garden. It was truly lovely to be there so early, breathe in the fresh, cold morning air and contemplate the garden.
After the charming Gioji Temple, it was time to see the Tenryuji Temple and the famous gardens that are surrounding its grounds. Tenryuji is ranked in top five Kyoto’s Zen temples. It was founded in 1339 and it also is on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
Our last destination was the Monkey Park Iwatayama. It is located in the Arashiyama mountains and the climb to the top – from where you have a nice view over Kyoto – takes about half an hour.
Here situation is reversed – humans in a cage, animals running freely.
In the afternoon we took a train back to Kyoto to meet again with Yuma. He showed us his company and we also had the honour to meet his mother. Yuma is an artist of a rare kind – he buys old guitars, repairs them and after they look better than when they were brand new, he sells them. It is such a beautiful job – not only to give a second live to an instrument, but also to save the environment by recycling the materials. Touching!
After discussing various possibilities, we had decided to drive to the Kinkakuji temple – Golden Pavilion. The Zen temple’s top two floors are completely covered with gold leafs, which makes it probably the most spectacular of all temples in Kyoto. I was absolutely windblown by the sight of it.
The second temple we visited with Yuma was the Silver Pavilion – Ginkakuji. The temple was not as impressive as the previous one we saw, but the gardens were unbelievable! Bamboo forest, moss garden and stone garden were the definite highlights of this amazing place.
Around 5 pm, Yuma decided to drive to Kobe (75 km one way) only to show us his favourite night view over Osaka and Kobe, so nice of him! We drove up the mountain Maya and parked the car close to the peak. Later, we climbed for 15 minutes or so – the walk up there was lighted up for visitors, so there was no problem finding the way. The view was absolutely breathtaking!
At around 9 pm we were back in Kyoto. Yuma took us to an awesome noodle bar, where we devoured a bowl of noodle-soup each (we were all starving).
After that, we had to say our good byes with Yuma. Hopefully, he is going to come visit us in Taiwan 🙂
Wednesday was our last day in Kyoto. We were sad to leave, so we had decided to spend most of the day in the city and only in the evening took a train to Osaka.
The first place that we visited that day was the Ryoanji Temple. The gardens surrounding the temple were truly beautiful, and contemplating the stone garden was most relaxing.
Zenrinji Temple was the last temple we planned to visited in Kyoto.
However, we had some time left since we had decided to stay in Kyoto for the most part of the day. That allowed us to stroll down to the Heian Shrine and to take a look at the gardens.
In the late afternoon, we strolled down the river to our hotel where we picked up our backpacks and headed for Osaka.