12/23/2013 – Day 4 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:34 am No Comments

We woke up bright and early to take the Shinkansen Nozomi line to Kyoto – we covered 476 km in just a little bit over two hours, with maximum speed just north of 300km/hour. I really enjoyed the smooth ride – very economical compared to the Eurostar and extremely comfortable in terms of seating and space. If only we had this type of transit in the US!

Kyoto is extraordinary! Without a doubt, it ranks as one of the top three cities I’ve visited in my life. Shrines, temples, and historic relics litter the city – I took a look at a simple tourist map, and saw dozens of UNESCO World Heritage site markings all over the place. As the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto has the historical buildings that Tokyo lacks.

We started off at Kiyomizudera Temple, founded in the Heian period in 798 with its present building constructed in 1633 under the directive of Tokugawa Iemetsu. Sitting atop a mountain, the temple is incredibly scenic, with ornate verandas and halls, pagados and curved ceilings all brightly painted…truly extraordinary. We had a spiritual experience in taking a journey to the wishing stone in the basement of the shrine, referred to as the “womb” of the Goddess of Mercy. We took off our shoes and stepped into complete pitch dark (at the borderline of anxiety inducing…), guided only by the prayer beads serving as a railing that took us to the wishing stone. The instructions provided to us: “Return to the womb of the great merciful mother. When you find a light in the dark you will realize you are newborn again. There is a Sanskrit character that symbolized Daizuigu Bosatsu on the stone. Turn around the stone and make a wish.”

Afterward, we went to the famous Jishu shrine, dedicated to Okuninushi, the god of love and matchmaking. We saw the two love stones placed 6 meters across, in which visitors who successfully walked from one stone to the other with their eyes closed get lucky in love (and those who don’t will fail)…frankly, impossible to even attempt given how crowded the shrine was with young couples! Regardless, the view was certainly romantic, nestled into the mountain with beautiful carved shrines and traditional Japanese architecture.

Wanting to make the most of the day, we went to the famous Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, a Shinto monument to the Kitsune god of rice. What an amazing landmark – words cannot express the sheer amount of amazement I felt in climbing the mountain that contained more than 10,000 red gates and over 32,000 individual sub-shrines! I’ve seen the photographs of these famous consecutive red gates in National Geographic – what an exhilarating experience to make the hike myself, enjoying the crisp mountain air and the monumental scale. I must have walked up thousands of stairs in the process…even though my thighs and knees burned from the physical exertion, this undoubtedly ranks as one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done in my lifetime. We went in the early evening when the sun was just setting – I felt as if we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It took over an hour minutes to walk up the mountain and just as long to get back, and we didn’t even take the long route either. I can’t sufficiently emphasize how magical the entire experience felt – it’s one of those just truly astounding wonders of the world.

Imagine seemingly endless vermilion tori (gate) through a thickly wooded mountain; a shrine complex a world upon its own. Along the 4km path up the mountain, shrine cats abound beside fox statues (often seen with a key in its mouth to indicate access to the rice granary). Evidently, Memories of a Geisha featured a young girl running through these “torii tunnels”, taking advantage of the mystical ambiance. By the time we came down the mountain on the “Buddhist” path (compared to the “Shinto” ascension route), the environment became semi-eerie. Even though it took a lot of effort to climb, I do hope to come back before I leave since it’s just so special.

Grace spent about a week in Kyoto during the summer so she expertly took us around. There’s simply too much to see in Kyoto – even if we tried, we wouldn’t be able to cover all the historical and religious sites in a week! Since we’re also going to visit Osaka, Himeji, and Kobe, we’re mainly going to do the highlights. There are so many local handicrafts and omiyage (special regional delicious treats, often times sweets) – I want to buy a lot of things to take home as well! Throughout the day, I bought traditional arts and crafts of Kyoto, from printed banner cloths to ceramic decorative cups – alas, if only I can take everything home! Tomorrow we look forward to Arashiyama, Monkey Mountain, Gion (the traditional geisha district – perhaps we’ll be able to spot one on the streets!), and a whole heck of a lot more temples, including the resplendent completely gilded in gold leaf Kinkakuji Temple, Nijo-jo castle, and Sanjusangendo Hall (with 1001 life size wooden statues of Kannon, the goddess of Mercy).

For dinner, we went to Sweets Paradise – oh, how I’ve wanted to come here since hearing about Grace’s experience over the summer! Basically, we had 90 full minutes to eat unlimited amounts of tasty cakes and Japanese-Italian spaghetti! There were at least 30 different cakes to choose from, from apple creme brulee and green tea mont blanc to blueberry cream tart and the most heavenly sponge cake, complete with all the fixings imaginable and a large white chocolate fondue fountain about the size of my complete torso. The spaghetti was also incredibly delicious – meat sauce, pesto, tarako (octopus eggs…ugh, didn’t like this one), spinach mushroom, and ham carbonara. The spaghetti had a texture of udon so it tasted really interesting. Furthermore, we had unlimited access to a tea bar with perhaps over 40 different types of special fruit, herbal, and traditional teas. Even though I stuffed my face to the extreme, everyone around me – these tiny Japanese girls, all barely a size 2 – put away perhaps up to double the amount that I ate. While I took a tiny sliver of the best looking cakes, they took chunks the size of their palm. Perhaps good genes that despite all the food eaten in copious quantities, no one here is that large in size?

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