A Travellerspoint blog

APRIL 2007-kaleidoscope of ancient and modern Japan -part II

Templed out in Kyoto and Nara

semi-overcast 13 °C
View Seoul to Japan part I on Bulls's travel map.

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Kyoto

Once we arrived in Kyoto our slight disappointment with Mount Fuji's "poor hospitality" towards us, was quickly replaced by the zing and excitement of being in Japan's most beautiful and most "Japanese city" -according to the worlwide reputation.

However, if you arrive like us by train, you will be first impressed not by -what Kyoto is best known for -rich cultural heritage of the ancient Japan (17 Unesco World Heritage Sites)-but one of the largest buildings in Japan -the very futuristic and modern building of the Kyoto Station. It will also take you back into the 21st century when your visit to Kyoto is over.

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We had only a couple of full days to explore it with an extra day for the trip to nearby Nara. With a late evening arrival, also a late departure and a trip to Nara we decided to stay in the ryokan located near the station and save some time on commuting to and fro.
It proved to be a good choice as it was handy and very comfortable and compared to Tokyo's one - recently renovated and very clean. The room was specious and once Maja was fast asleep in bed (read: on futon) we could sit on the little "balcony" and reflect on our busy day and plan the next one while sipping green tea...or indulging ourselves in Japanese beer and delicious desserts....

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Although most scenic and beautiful spots are located west, east, south and north of the city centre as if embracing all that is new, there are also a few highlights in the central part of the city which we decided to explore first.

We went to Nijo Castle -built at the beginning of the XVII century. It first served as an official residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns until the country's sovereignty had been returned to the Emperor in the XIX century and the castle became the property of the Imperial Family.

Passing through the fortification and over the moat to stand on the hill overlooking the castle grounds with its palaces and gardens, you're guaranteed to be taken back in time.

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But if your mind keeps drifting back to the present day wait until you go through old wooden gates and enter the reception rooms and the original "nightingale floor" starts squeaking under your feet as you walk along!

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Of course the castle wouldn't be short of blossoming trees that come in all colours and variations and it even has its own "blossom calendar":

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We have also visited "nearby" -well still centrally located- Imperial Park surrounding The Imperial Palace although we didn't go to the palace as you need to prebook your tour well in advance and also because we didn't have enough time.

It was getting late in the afternoon when we went to wander the streets of Gion district hoping to catch a glimpse of a geisha passing by. The place felt very aunthentic with its streets lit by lanterns, decorated with vivid colour ribbons and lined up with original old wooden buildings that served as restaurants, souvenir shops or exclusive teahouses -"geisha retreats" where patrons may pay more then $4000 to spend an evening in the company of 2 or 3 geisha.

According to the guide book the evening in a teahouse begins with an exquisite dinner presented in accordance with strict rules of ettiquette and geisha (or maiko-apprentice geisha) introducing herself in Kyoto dialect while the client eats his dinner. Next comes shamisen (traditional 3 string instrument) performance, followed by a traditional fan dance and of course the service of pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes and bantering.

Unless you are introduced by an established patron it is almost impossible to enter the a Gion teahouse and witness a geisha performance with the exceptions of annual public performances or dance presentations or.... watching more or less dodgy posts on YouTube!

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And today the luck was on our side - we managed to see quite a few, possibly on the way to/from their appointments or theater shows.

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Once in Gion we went to Gion Corner to observe tea ceremony, Moribana -a flower arrangement, a performances of Kyoto music, an ancient comic play and a traditional Kyoto dance performed by beatifully and colorfully dressed Maiko and Geisha. At the end we also watched a puppet play where the actors operating life size puppets are also present on stage although dressed completely in black.

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It was an interesting experience although it felt a little stiff and dry.

After that we went back to the central part of Kyoto to see what the modern Kyoto's night life and streets look like.
Unfortunately only to a certain extend as our own little puppet was getting a bit tired. We found a nice place to eat (deep fried noodles served and then crashed with salad and other bits, delicious!) and headed back to ryokan.
On the way we popped into an internet/manga cafe to check our emails:

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and of course some MANGA

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Although the central part of Kyoto is a very modern place with neon lights,big shopping arcades, modern architecture etc Kyoto's ancient vibe does not leave you for a minute. Many people move around on old bikes, you see many women and men casually wearing their kimonos, there are plenty of little shops or stands serving traditional foods and snack -we had delicious grilled rice cakes topped with succulent caramel.

Here is a view of a temple at night:

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The next day we went to the outskirts of town and visited quite a few temples which seemed to be appearing anywhere like "mushrooms after rain". After walking from one to another we were totally templed out and decided just to walk along and enjoy the serenity of nature without stopping by:

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While walking we came across not an average VIP you might think of - the moss boss and his numerous faces

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and here he is at his best, stretching amongst the trees like a green carpet decorated with red flowers:

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Nara

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While staying in Kyoto we visited nearby Nara (40 min train journey) -the first permament capital of Japan (before that capitals were moved from place to place with the passing of each emperor according to native Shinto taboos about deaths) and a second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan's cultural legacy (8 Unesco World Heritage Sites ). In size Nara is quite small so we were able to see most important sights and attractions but we could easily have spent another day or two there and explore some of the more distant sights as well.

Most of the attractions are situated in Nara-koen area -a park on the eastern side of the city. It is within a walking distance from the JR station and the whole area can be easily covered by foot.

Temples and shrines are Nara's biggest attractions. Buddhism first flourished here along with traditional Japanese Shinto religion under the strong patronage of succesive emperors and empresses.

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The park is also home to an estimated 1100 deer which today hold a status of National Treasure and in pre-Buddhist times were considered messengers of the gods.

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You can see them roaming all over the park but mainly at the entrances to temples looking out for tourists with food. You can buy special buiscuits for them but if you are with children you should try to do it discreetly as their eyes are watching you all the time and the moment you hand out something to one you 'll be surronded by the others sniffing and biting your pockets which can be a little scary and intimidating.

Nara's star attraction is Todai-Ji temple and Daibutsu-den Hall

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which is considered the largest wooden building in the world sheltering the enormous statue of the Buddha (16m high, 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kg of gold!).
The statue represent the cosmic Buddha -the centre of the universe, believed to give rise to all worlds and their respective historical Buddhas,

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There is also a tall wooden pole with a hole the size of Buddha's nostril. It is believed that once you squeeze through it you become enlightened. We wanted to have a go but would have to dedicate half a day to it by joining a long que of schoolkids on their way to illumination!

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Outside the hall there is a "healing statue" (sorry I cannot remember the name) and again according to beliefs if you touch it with "a suffering part" of your body it will be healed.

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We walked around the park, admiring the scenery and the old architecture that survived through wars, fires and other disasters.

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On the way back we came across a Buddhist celebration. We tried to find out what it was but nobody could speak English although they tried to explain it to us by gestures mainly pointing at Buddha.

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Maja went to get a closer look and say hello to a beautifully dressed Japanese girl, who in return gave her a colorful flower to keep.

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Accompanied by fog and drizzle throughout the entire day,we really enjoyed Nara and wish we had more time to explore this little town , go to museums and see some more of the local people and their ways of life ...

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This month we also liked:

"Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken." Frank Herbert

"Memoirs of the Geisha"- strongly critised however still a great film!

Maja posing with Kitty - her favourite character !

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watching Japanese Matrix on YouTube (now we know where they get the idea from)
here is our favourite:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=5RrLWT4TjKs&mode=related&search=

Posted by Bulls 14:55 Archived in Japan Tagged family_travel

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