Monday, September 22, 2014

Nara & Nikko

Our trips to Nara and Nikko were rather short but sweet. Especially to Nara. According to legends a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived on a white deer and since then deers are considered holy animals, protecting the city.

And it's easy to see Nara is better protected than the Pope with hundreds of deers wandering around the city, being cute and sniffing tourist's bags for food. You can feed them with rice crackers that are sold on the street stalls, but beware. The minute you posses food, you're fair game. Though ridiculously cute, deers will also bite or lick you/your clothes and in some cases, jump on you, kick you or butt you with their head.

Deers of Nara
Scouting for cookies
Deers waiting for treats
I'm cute, give me food!
Spotting tourists with food
I saw this sandwich first!
The other thing Nara is famous for is the giant statue of Buddha in Tōdai-ji temple. The wooden temple burned down in a fire and was rebuilt, the bronze Buddha however survived. This truly majestic 15 m statue is the world's largest bronze Buddha and absolutely worth seeing. Figures around Buddha's head are different sizes to appear the same size when people view them from below.

Tōdai-ji Temple
Tōdai-ji Temple
Buddha
The bronze Buddha
Nikko, on the other hand, is closer to the mountains and known for temples, tasty Yuba and suicides waterfalls. Though it's fairly easy to get a temple/shrine overdose in Japan, Nikkō Tōshō-gū Shinto with three wise monkeys and the sleeping cat is worth checking out. Monkeys are supposedly connected to Tendai Buddhist legend and represent human's life cycle. Sleeping cat or Nemuri-neko on the other hand is one of many animals carved in the corridor, meant protect the house from evil and bring good luck (go cats!).

The three wise monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
The three wise monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
English: Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat) carving at...
English: Nemuri-neko (Sleeping Cat) carving at Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō Polski: Płaskorzeźba Śpiącego Kota w świątyni Tōshō-gū w Nikko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Five story pagoda in Tōshō-gū Shrine with anti-earthquake hanging pillar
Five story pagoda in Tōshō-gū Shrine with anti-earthquake hanging pillar
School kids visitnig the Shrine
School kids visiting the shrine

Nikko's famous waterfalls - Kegon falls are fairly easy to reach by a bus. The ride includes adrenalin rush as you're progressing up the mountain on a very curvy road. Luckily all the the roads to and from the mountain are one-way. It's super easy to go to the bottom of the falls - with an elevator. Yes, for real.

On a more gruesome note,  Kegon falls seem to be a popular suicide spot among Japanese youth. Perhaps glorified suicide of Misao Fujimura, a Japanese poet and philosophy student, has something to do with that. In 1902 he apparently wrote his farewell poem on a tree trunk, read it out loud and then threw himself into the falls. Needles to say he got famous almost instantly.

Kegon falls, Nikko
Kegon falls
Chuzenji lake
Chuzenji, vulcanic lake
Food is definitely one of Nikko's highlights and everything they say about it is true. We tried out Nikko's speciality and yes, I'd have some of that tasty Yuba anytime - it's unbelievably juicy, a bit sweet and extremely addictive. Usually served with rice, noodles and tempura.

Tofu skin (yuba) with buckwheat noodles (soba) and tempura
Tofu skin (Yuba) with buckwheat noodles (soba) and tempura
Though very nice and interesting, Nikko is also rather pricy, so if you're running short of time (or money) and hesitating between the two cities, I'd strongly recommend Nara. After all, how many times will you have the chance to be chased by urban deers?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Kyoto

At first sight Kyoto is more traditional and quiet than Tokyo. While we did see more people wearing kimono's there's nothing quiet about the city. It's very much alive, vibrant and charming. As intellectual center Kyoto was original considered as a target for atomic bomb and was in the ends replaced by Nagasaki upon insistence of US Secretary of War.

Today this former imperial capital with its 1.5 million inhabitants has a lot to offer. Its cute mix of traditional and modern culture and rich history give a feeling that every stone has a story to tell. Also - Kyoto gives you 3 hours of free internet every day.

Nijo castle
Nijo Castle

It's mostly known for temples, zen gardens and cuisine. It is also the place of Japan's highest pagoda and two most famous pavilions: golden and silver one.

To set straight the rivalry between the two pavilions, the silver one is really just a nice wooden house in a beautiful zen garden. While golden one is really a wow - must see.

The golden pavilion
The golden pavilion
5 story pagoda - highest in Japan
5 story pagoda - highest in Japan
Zen Garden Konchi-in, Kyoto
Zen Garden Konchi-in, Kyoto
Famous Fushimi-inari shrine with hundreds of red gates

Kyoto's food is simply delicious, from fish dishes to deserts of strange colors and shapes. Vegetarians might struggle a bit, but there is always enough of tasty bean-curd skin to make your mouth water. Soy dishes, ramen noodles (with strange sour plum spice that you get used to) and green deserts with red beans. It's all delicious, thought admittedly sometimes a bit weird.

While you can't go much wrong with eating in Kyoto, I'd strongly recommend avoiding restaurants in shopping streets (especially if they're trying to lure you in). You'll just get pricy food that is below Japanese standards. The best rule is to eat at the big train stations and shopping malls. It might sound strange but food there is really very tasty and cheap. If you like to dine with a view, then you will love eating at the top floor of Kyoto's train station.

Night view of Kyoto from the train station
Night view of Kyoto from the train station

Museum of Kyoto offers great overview of city's history and friendly volunteers are happy to guide english speaking visitors through the first part provide interesting historical insights. Our guide (who was around 70 years old) shared few enthusiastic stories about the city's history and gave good recommendations on which of Kyoto's 1600 temples are worth visiting.

The city is also the birthplace of the first novel The tale of Genji, writen around year 1000 by female writer Murasaki Shikibu. Museum of Kyoto hosts also interesting temporary exhibitions (e.g. Japanese comics about space travel).
Murasaki Shikibu
Murasaki Shikibu
Philosopher's path is names after Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who walked alongside the canal, probably thinking deep thoughts. The path is well worth taking even if you're not into philosophy: enjoyable stroll along the river is accompanied by many cute cats, little craft shops and interesting opportunities, like 30 minute pottery classes, where you can make your own tea cups.

Cat station on Philosopher's path
Cat station on Philosopher's path
One of city's biggest attraction is of course the bamboo forest or Chikurin No Komichi, real treat for all nature lovers that want to take a walk among magnificent bamboos. It's enjoyable and free.

Bamboo forest
Bamboo forest

Bamboo forest

Only few kilometers from the forest is Iwatayama, a hill that we lovingly referred to as the Monkey mountain. This hill is full of cute wild (but seriously introvert) monkeys that you can feed (in a secure way) but not touch, cuddle, talk to or stare at. They'll go after white plastic bags, thinking it's food. 

However, once you're there, you can buy fresh snacks and feed them safely from behind a net. No worries, there will be plenty of instructions on how. From the top of the hill you can also enjoy one of the nicest views on the city.

Iwatayama
The "Monkey Mountain"

Kyoto, yes definitely. As our guide in Museum of Kyoto explained, some people believe Kyoto will be Japan's capital once more. And in a way it already is. Since Tokyo actually means East Kyoto.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Japan

It's hard to talk about Japan without using superlatives. Friendly and considerate people, heavenly food, unimaginable dedication and superb bizarreness that stretches beyond the imaginable. Everything about Japan is surprising in one way or another.

Take the toilets for example, which have not only seat warming and different washing options, but also produce flushing noise on your demand, if your bodily noises embaras you.

Japanese toilet
Japanese toilet

My first impressions of Japan were that people make and follow many rules. People wait and cue patiently, they are considerate and polite in any situation and strive towards what it seems continuous improvement of everything. Big things, small things, microscopic details you wouldn't even think of.

Too busy for pets but still want to have them? Visit pet cafes. Surprised by the rain during your guided tour? Use some of provided umbrellas. Want to have a snack on the go but don't want to stink up the train? Get a bento box. There is a solution for every challenge. I am pretty sure there aren't many (if any) things that could surprise the Japanese.

Neko cafe in Kyoto
Neko cafe in Kyoto
Bento box
Bento box
Time is precious in Japan and counted in seconds rather than minutes. Accustomed to more leisure Brussels time, I was rather surprised to hear apologies every time I had to wait for a minute or more. No seconds are lost and there is an efficient system in place for just about everything.

Another distinctive Japanese feature is love for good food and culture. And I mean probably the best food I've ever eaten, fresh and accompanied by fair amount of cold or hot green tea - ceremonially served in places with the red umbrella.
Lunch
Sushi belt
Sushi belt 
Onigiri - a healthy snack
Onigiri - strangely addictive healthy snack

Cold green matcha tea
Cold green matcha tea
But as efficient, thoughtful and enchanting Japanese culture is, it has the darker side. Determination and dedication to continuos improvement of life and everything is taking its toll. While more and more time is spent improving things at work, less and less time is left for family and personal fulfillment.

Streets and subways are full of salary men who work from dawn till dusk, often spending the few hours left to sleep in a hotel, to increase the efficiency. They focus career and if they find time to meet someone or have a relationship, they would see each other only on the weekends and most likely never have any friends in common. They would use a third of their two week vacation time so no wonder many burn out and do that often.

Yes, Japan is weird but at the same time extremely magnetic and thought this is my first journey (spending my last days in Tokyo) I have a strong feelings it won't be the last one. It's just too good to miss.

To be continued...