Sunday, May 17, 2015

Nara: World Heritage Sites Hopping

Heijokyo, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 is located in present-day Nara; it has 8 Unesco world heritage sites under its belt and a well-preserved surrounding to boot. During this period, the Japanese upper classes patterned themselves after the Chinese and Nara was modeled after Chang'an, the capital city of Tang China. In this era, Japan adapted Chinese written characters (kanji) and more importantly, the religion of Buddhism. The latter is key to appreciating the world heritage sites in the area which are more than a thousand years old.

1. Deers at the Nara Park

First order of business is to commune with the deers at Nara Park. This symbol of the city welcomes you to 4 world heritage sites located in the park.


To make sure you get their attention, feed them with shika senbei (deer crackers) and you get them at your beck and call.


Or not really. There's one trying to bite me for his biscuit.


You can take a selfie with them


Or try to train these park residents like what Person A is doing here. If you don't get to pet them at the park entrance, fret not, they're scattered all over the place waiting for the cracker.


Legend has it that the reason why there are so many deers in the park was when the Fujiwara family established the Kasuga Taisha as a family shrine they invited a mighty god from Kashima Shrine (present day Ibaraki Prefecture) and he came riding a white deer. Since then, deers have been respected and protected as divine messengers by the local people.

2. Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Established in the 8th century, the vermillion-colored buildings with cypress bark roof are the trademark of this shrine. The paths leading to the shrine are lined with approximately 2000 stone lanterns which make the walk very picturesque.


The windows you also see here is an art form reminiscent of old Japan. There are only a few left in the country.


3. Kasugayama Primeval Forest

Not only are the temples at Nara Park categorized as Unesco World Heritage Sites but the surrounding forest is also on the list. Since 841 A.D., hunting and logging have been banned in the area thus preserving its condition.


From Kasuga Taisha, Person A and I trekked 500m into the forest to admire the old trees with hanging roots and ferns. We only encountered less than 10 people doing the trail hence it is a good reprieve from the bustle of the touristy area below.

If you are into hiking and botany, it is good to include this 2.5 km hike to the summit in you itinerary. Wear hiking shoes though.

4. Nigetsudo

Finding our way to Todaiji, we chose to trek the east path and stumbled upon this structure.


This by-the-side of the mountain hall is worth the stop because of its impressive structure, it has less visitors, and the surrounding smaller temples are also a sight to behold.


Moreover, the walk to Toda-iji along the back corridor is very picturesque with cobbled stone and old-world houses. 


There were 2 old people painting the street leading to Nigetsudo and we stopped for a chat. The catch, they don't speak English but we somehow knew that we understood each other.

5. Todaiji 

This temple is the world's largest wooden structure. Founded in the 8th century, it houses the Vairocana Buddha (Buddha that shines throughout the world like the sun).


The huge temple is magnificent in terms of size and architecture. It has a lot of Chinese influence as most temples in the Kyoto-Nara area.

It is built as both a place of worship and an institution of doctrinal research producing a number of scholars. This is the head temple of the Kegon Sect of Buddhism.

We were lucky when we visited that there was some ceremony for the Emperor and that all the temple priests and scholars were in attendance in full regalia.


There was a performance by the lake garden.


At the end, there was a procession of all the high priests/scholars (i'm guessing) which is a site to behold.

6. Kofukuji Temple

Kofukuji is the national headquarters of the Hosso school, it was built by the Fujiwara family matriarch for fast recovery of her husband's illness. It was the tutelary temple of the clan.

In 2010, the temple marked its 1300 anniversary hence the main hall is under renovation until 2018. Nonetheless, you will see the five-story pagoda - which is another symbol of the city.


The structure is beautiful, intricate and is the centerpiece of the shrine.

7. Suzakumon

This gate is the entrance to the Heijo Palace. It is named after the birds which guard the south gate.


Since we came in past closing time, we took the time to admire the massive entrance to the capital's palace. Or not really, judging by the photo we took ;P If you want to take beautiful architecture shots of world heritage sites, head over past 5PM, most likely, you will have the place to yourself.

At 5pm, it is also nice to watch the train pass by inside the palace complex. If you walk via the east side of the complex, where the palace lake garden is, there is Dog Cafe which might be a good place to have a refreshment if you are a dog lover.

The other sites we have foregone in this short trip are Heijo Palace (which I think should be a must-visit), Gangoji - with its 6th century roof tiles still in use and Yakushiji.

Our one-day visit to Nara barely scratched the surface but it is sufficient for us to fall in love with this place. It has an old-town feel, lots of history-rich sites and the environment is well-preserved. To save on bus fare, avail of the 1-day pass for Y500 which will get you around most sites. There are also numerous maps in the JR train station which can help you navigate the city.

That pine wood card is  you bus pass!


Until we see you again, Nara! 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Kyoto: A Zen Temple Run

As the capital of Japan for 1000 years, the history-rich city of Kyoto is a must - stop in our Japan itinerary for the story each building and street tell. It is known as the city of ten thousand shrines. Coming from Tokyo, the first thing we were excited about was our first bullet train ride. 

Apart from the vehicle's gwapo looks


riding the shinkansen is like a normal train ride 


and you will only notice that you are taking a no ordinary train when another bullet train passes by; you can't see properly how the other train looks. In 3 hours, you will be greeted by the seemingly slower-paced life in Kyoto.

With our visit timed during the Golden Week, there were a lot of tourists. What sets it apart from Tokyo is the number of temples dotting the city and the numerous world heritage sites Kyoto can call its own. If you are after the old Japan, it is better to stay in Kyoto rather than Osaka so that you can maximize your Kyoto experience. The city is also your jump off point to Nara, which you can do as a day visit. 

Thus, begin our Temple Run.

1. Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)

The building is a Zen Buddhist hall representative of the Muromachi period architecture. Gold foil on lacquer covers the upper 2 level and a shining phoenix stands on the shingled roof.


It contains the relics of Buddha and is part of the Rokuon-ji Temple which was acquired by the 3rd shogun of the Morumachi period in 1397. The garden and the building surrounding the temple is said to represent the pure land of Buddha in this world.

The building and surrounding pond is indeed beautiful and if you can only see a single temple in Kyoto, this got to be it.

2. Ryoan-ji Temple

Close to the Golden Pavilion is another temple which I call something new to my Filipino eyes. It used to be a country house of the Tokueaji clan and was acquired in the 1400s to be made into a training temple. The centerpiece of Ryoan-ji is a 15-piece rock garden with white pebbles and nothing more: 250 sq m of rocks and stones.


This was created in the 15th century by a respected Zen monk. 

The Kyoyochi Pond welcoming you into the temple grounds is a beauty with its willow, maple and wisteria trees.

3. Arashimaya Bamboo Path and the Tenryu-ji Temple

Kyoto is well known for its Bamboo Forest. Although the clump of bamboo trees along a ~250 m walk is charming, I find it not worth the visit on its own.


However, the river that welcomes you as you alight from the bus and the flurry of activities happening is already an experience on its own. 



Don't forget to glance to your right for the good-looking and macho Japanese carriage-drawhorses ;) you'll thank me for it.

Another highlight of my Bamboo forest trip is the visit to the Tenryu-ji Temple. The Temple of the Heavenly Dragon was established in 1339 in memory of Emperor Go-Daigo. It is ranked as the first of the Five Zen Mountains of Kyoto. 


Through centuries, the buildings have been ravaged by fire at least 8 times and the current design is from the Meiji period. 

4. Fushimi Inari

This Shinto shrine is famous for its vermilion toriis which lined the footpath to the summit of Mt. Inari. The count is about a thousand. Even though throngs of tourists flock the area, the shrine is worth a visit.


Witnessing ceremonies at the vermilion halls give you a glimpse of their spiritual practices. It is also in this temple that I witnessed a family chanting prayers at a small shrine and learned how to pay respects using the bells. The sequence is: Bow bow ring clap clap bow.

The shrine is also situated in a forest so the walk through the toriis is very relaxing. I wanna head back and burn my fats all the way to the summit. 

Fox stone statue guard the area. 


5. Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion)

Inspired by the Kinkakuji Temple built by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Ginkakuji was built in 1482 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa - the grandson. It is a Zen Buddhist Temple primarily established as a retirement complex.


It is similar to most temples in Japan albeit small in area and size. In my observation, the Higashimaya den is not made of silver unlike the Kinkakuji which is made of gold.

The hedge by the entrance is a beauty. The Mt. Fuji and sand art in the garden is also worth to see. If you have spare time and have visited Kinkakuji, this world heritage site is worth a stop. 

6. Kyumizo-dera 

This Buddhist temple sits at a mountainside with the most amazing backdrop. If you get past the tourist shops and the vermilion buildings at the entrance,


you will see the beautiful main hall with the majestic hill side forest. 


I like the supports of this gigantic wooden temple.

Founded in the 8th century, this temple of the Kita Hoso sect enshrines Kannon Bosatsu (god of mercy).


The scenery around this temple is what entices visitors to take a glimpse of this splendor.  


7. Gion District

The famed Geisha area is a mish-mash of tourist shops, teahouses and restaurants. It is best to explore the neighborhood on foot especially the non-tourist area where the temples are. You get to see how the locals live.


The teahouses and restaurant area by the canal are very picturesque. We enjoyed a tempura dinner set served by a Geisha and a charming Japanese chef.

This area is worth the visit for the old-town experience and best enjoyed with a meal.

8. Cat Cafe

In the land of Hello Kitty, which I am not sure if it is a cat or not, cat cafes exist. 


You enter a small restaurant, and for a time duration you can enjoy drinks and the company of these felines. 


Background story, it was our last night in Kyoto and we had no plans of visiting an animal cafe. While looking for a place to dine and the last pieces of trinkets we want to take back home, we stumbled upon a cat cafe in one of the tourist shopping areas in Shijyo Dori 


and in 30 seconds we found ourselves availing a 30-minute session with 14 humongous cats. 


These cats are the size of a corgi, on average!


They are very tamed and like people a lot. 


The fee comes with drinks which you have to be extra careful with because these cuties like to drink straight from the straw. Restaurant rules allow you to pet  but not carry them.


Although smelly, "furring" around with these cats is worth our time and late dinner. If you love animals, you should try this.  


Kyoto is worth the visit for its temples and shrines which are at least 500 years old. Most of them are world heritage sites and is a good way to learn about history. Chinese influence is more pronounced in the Kansai area as compared to Tokyo. You will also have a glimpse of the way of life of the Japanese. I find them very hygienic and respectful, the latter I'd like to reinforce in my life.

To do your temple run, it is best to avail of the City Bus day pass which will set you back by Y500/day. It is better than taking the train.  Most of the temples are along the route of different buses and the time schedule is precise. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Kawaguchiko: The Gateway to your Mt.Fuji Adventure

Photos: Nestee Cunanan

We can never leave Japan without having a glimpse of Fuji-san. There are numerous options to accomplish this: head to one of the tall buildings in Tokyo on a sunny day, while on the Shinkansen heading south of Tokyo - it was about 10 mins of Mt. Fuji-viewing on our train ride to Kyoto, go to the Gotemba Premium Outlet or do a day trip to Mishima and probably some areas I have not read about. Since we like to admire its beauty longer and experience Japanese provincial living, we opted to spend 3 days at Kawaguchiko, a small town in one of the 5 lakes surrounding the famed mountain. It is about 2 hours from Tokyo via Otsuki through Japan Rail.


Fuji-san did not disappoint. I had my jaw-dropping, first-look of the perfect cone volcano halfway through our scenic train ride from Otsuki. Picture yourself riding an old train, managing a slow uphill ascent through farmlands and small shrines; at each small train stop locals ride and alight looking every inch how books describe them to be, then out of nowhere, a snow-capped moutain peeps through your window and there is no denying that you have seen what you have travelled miles for. 

Mt. Fuji owned my heart.

The Kawaguchiko train station is a picture out of a story book. It has a few tracks, 19th century design, cold mountain air and the volcano as its backdrop. Everywhere you walk around town, the mountain is like .... Walk... Walk... Turn... Booom! Mt Fuji. Walang pinipiling lugar, solb, quota.


You can head to the lake and marvel the volcano from there as well. 


It is a good place to have a picnic and enjoy watching the locals sail, fish or the tourists doing the Lake Kawaguchiko tour. That's what we did on our first afternoon and accomplish some cam-whoring.


Once evening settles, Fuji-san also has to rest and you can enjoy one of the Ryokans in town. Please note that most of the establishments you can find online are hotel ryokans and not the traditional ones with the full-on wooden houses. We YOLO-ed on the expense on this leg and booked a traditional ryokan. Upon setting foot at Onsen-ji Yumedono, we were surprised that we booked an entire house and not just a tatami-floored room. 


The establishment has only 3 (?) guest houses with service at par with international 5-star hotels: train station to hotel and vice versa transfer, check-in and check out at your room, slippers and shoes are already waiting for you at every turn and staff welcoming and bidding you farewell.

Our room has 2 living rooms, 


a huge sleeping area, a separate bath, another room for toilet, a dressing area, private outdoor onsen, a corridor 


and its own courtyard.


It's a stay-in kind of hotel and is best to minimize outdoor excursions to optimize the amenities of the ryokan. Since the ryokan provided us with yukatas, we took the opportunity to dress up 


and be kids 


playing make believe.


To complete the Japanese experience we tried the onsen in our ryokan sans public humiliation of getting naked in front of strangers. We still respected the ritual of getting ourselves immaculately cleaned before using the bath, dipping ourselves and not splashing around and positioning the bath towel  on top of our heads without soaking it in the bath.

Them Japanese are very hygienic. 


The onsen is not for the faint of heart. When they say hot bath, it is not lukewarm nor warm temperature but boiling hot temperature! Konting sibuyas, kangkong, sampalok at asin .... isa ka ng sinigang!

I tried several permutations of taking an icy cold bath, delaying my entry into the onsen so the cold spring air will cool down my body, slowly dipping myself into the pool, it always end with me getting very uncomfortable with the heat. I get dizzy every time I get out from the bath and turn very red all over - steaming, boiled.

Nonetheless, I conquered around 5 onsen experiences and have come to like it. It's an acquired taste for tropic-dwellers, I guess. What I noticed though is it's very nice to sleep and eat after an onsen experience.

At the ryokan, we had the chance to enjoy a Kaiseki meal - 12-course dinner reminiscent of old-court and imperial meals. One of its characteristics is the artistically-designed plates.

We started with appetizers, sashimi, 


soup palate cleansers, 2 main courses of fish and grilled steak 




All freshly-made and could pass for fine dining. Breakfast at ryokan is traditional Japanese fare, served in several courses as well. Our hostess are 2 old ladies impeccably-dressed in regal kimonos. 

We ventured out to Lake Motosu via a 1-hr bus ride from Kawaguchiko to see the shibazakuras. The come on of this spring festival is a field of white, lavender and pink moss phlox flowers in full bloom, covering several styled gardens with Mt. Fuji as its backdrop. 


The flowers are a beauty to behold and what you normally see being looped in appliance store television displays to show how sharp a unit is. Magnificent, beautiful. 


Sadly, it was an overcast morning when we headed out so there was no Mt. Fuji to be seen but the blooms colors make up for it


and the cold weather makes me pine for a jacket or scarf to complement my OOTD with the shibazakuras.

Please note that there are a lot of tourists in the area and don't be a smart aleck by wearing pink to be of the same color with the flowers, I had that brilliant idea and everyone does, too! including the staff and carts at the festival :P


There were also other flowers such as anemones


and this purple one.


Sakuras are also present in the garden. 


Apart from Shibazakura, you can also head to the 5th station where mountain climbers start their ascent to Mt. Fuji or simply take a peek of the peak, enjoy the Fuji-Q theme park where some of the rollercoasters are world title holders in terms of experience (as if riding a roller coaster with Mt. Fuji as a backdrop is not enough).


I can recommend visiting Kawaguchiko to get an unlimited view of Mt. Fuji; in my opinion, the most beautiful Family Mart could be located in this town because it has the mountain as its backdrop. We were lucky that in the 3 days we were there, Fuji-san showed itself a good number of hours each day. It gives you a glimpse of the way of life in a small Japanese town and enjoy the fresh mountain air; two 5-year old boys randomly greeted us on the street. If you want a quiet, relaxing, honeymoon try to consider this town; there are highly rated ryokans with excellent amenities (Yumedono offers Bulgari bath essentials and has facial toner, moisturizers for free) 


and there is a train route you can take straight from Narita Airport to Kawaguchiko. It is also a good rest stop if you are doing a multi-city Japan trip to allow your legs and body to recuperate for the temple and garden runs that you did and about to take.


"Aspire to be like Mt. Fuji, with such a broad and solid foundation that the strongest earthquake cannot move you, and so tall that the greatest enterprises of common men seem insignificant from your lofty perspective. With your mind as high as Mt Fuji you can see all things clearly. And you can see all the forces that shape events; not just the things happening near to you.” - Miyamoto Musashi


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