Kyoto 京都 and Nara 奈良

This was part of a larger trip that we made to Osaka to visit Suan’s brother. He had been out-stationed in Japan for about a year and one of the longer stops he made within the country had been Osaka. We had flew in earlier and spent a few days with him enjoying Osaka.

Osaka-Kyoto-Nara travelNow, the ancient capitals of Japan beckons and we were drawn like flies to the lights to the north and east of the metropolis. It was two separate small journeys that we made from Osaka. The first was to Kyoto, ancient capital since AD794 and having been so for a continued period until 1869. We spent a good two days there, but as you will soon agree, it was not sufficient. If that was unjust, wait till you read our regret about doing only a day trip to Nara! Only capital for a short period of approximately 84 years, the city is now home to a number of venerated Buddhist shrines.

The Capital (京都)

Due to the proximity with Osaka (~56km), the train journey (¥540pp) only took about an hour. As we wanted to maximize our time, we kept our small luggage in the train lockers as soon as we arrived for ¥300.

As we are not driving, it is useful to buy the bus day pass (¥500pp) as it accords you the use of all the buses in the city. It has to be said that this is a good way to get around, and we found the buses came frequently. At the stops, you can read off when they are expected to arrive and it is always a surprise that they do! Just good to know that if you take single trips, it costs ¥220 regardless distance.

First stop, Nijo castle (entry ¥600pp).

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Built by the first Tokugawa Shogun in 1603, this was like the place a military junta held power even as the Emperor became just a puppet head of state. An interesting place to spend perhaps 1.5-2 hours, we like the moat, very well preserved. But then it was time to head for the old part of town called “Gion”, on the eastern banks of the Kamo river. Here are low wood houses of old are preserved and many are teahouses or restaurants.

Geisha1This is also where we (Mel and Suan) was “tracking” a Geiko who was on her way to work. Actually we realize she was actually a tourist too, having donned the kimono and makeup. Her boyfriend was actually filming her throughout. But that did not stop us from also posing with a “Geisha”.

Just remember this, the real Geiko are operating on a very tight schedule of training or performance. When they move around, they are usually in a hurry. Furthermore, they are not usually alone and often chaperoned by a minder. Nowadays we are told, the Geiko take chartered taxis. So any “geisha” walking along the old streets is more than likely foreign tourists all dolled up for the experience. You need to book a real one to get the genuine photo.

Also, remember that as you stroll along in the Gion district, you will find numerous small shops retailing snacks etc. Unless it is made in the store, we found that most of the them can be bought at the local Isetan or Takashimaya departmental stores!

Now when you are in Kyoto, clearly you cannot miss out on the world heritage site that is Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺). Translated, it means temple of pure water. What intrigued us was the fact that the temple is hugging a cliff, or at least built against one.

And said to be constructed without a single nail. We followed the throng of devotees to the base of the temple foundations (the wood stilts) to where people drink the spring water emanating out of the rocks. Thanks, but not for us…

Fushimi Inari07Of all the things that we did was to let our curiosity get the better of us. As we looked up the Kyoto map, we saw temple called Inari listed on the map with fox symbols. Like curious cats, we decided to investigate what this could be. Worshipping foxes? Who has heard of that?

Then we found out that the Inari temple is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. Now, this god apparently uses foxes as his “minions” conducting messages to the worshippers. Fushimi Inari09Built on a hill (which we later found out to be 223m high), it was a long walk/hike up – a full 2 hours!

You will note that it seems everywhere we walked there were Torii gates. And when you examine the columns you will find names of people or companies carved on them.

Fushimi Inari12Like Hermes (Greek) or Mercury (Roman), Inari is also the patron god for business, trade and manufacturers. Now you know why there are so many Torii gates, they were donated by the devotees either as a gift of thanks or a symbol of request to the god. Now you would think these beliefs are ancient…

This ends our quick jaunt to Kyoto, but it is the start of the next and to an…

Even older capital (奈良)

Located just 32km away from Osaka (1 hour’s train ride, maybe slower train…), Nara is rather small. And it was this reason we thought we only needed a day’s trip from Osaka. Wrong! Right from the start, it was a surprise for us.

What’s that? Deers.

Nara deer13The park that was just a short distance from the station was full of them. This is Nara park and the deers here roam free. Deer cookies were sold for tourists to feed them, but we gave that a pass.

However be careful! Any ruffling sound could be taken as a signal by these creatures that you are about to offer them something. Nara deer18We believe that they will not hesitate to eat the plastic bags as well…We are here essentially NOT for the deers, but more for the temple complexes that fill the grounds; the Todaiji, Kakufuji etc.

Todaiji02What we wanted to see was the world’s largest wood house. You’d think the entrance is the old structure, well no.

That’s just the gate. Todaiji06It houses Japan’s largest Buddha (Daibatsu) statue as well sitting tall at ~15m. While it is not the largest in the world, it is the largest one made of gilded bronze.

There is said to be 400kg of gold on the statue. The current  Todaiji was built in 1709 and is actually 30% smaller than the original. There were suppose to be two accompanying pagodas much like the way Ayia Sophia has towers (now minarets). But these had been destroyed in an earthquake.

Walking all day can be draining. And having expended our energies, we headed back to the bright lights of Osaka. It has been an educational journey and having spent too little time here we seemed to have missed out on some experiences. We are sure to be back, just need to set a date.

July 2005