Published: December 5th 2009November 23rd 2009
Gorgeous, especially the way it reflects off the pond.
The Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto was fun. It's an incredibly smooth ride considering you're on a train reaching speeds of up to 180 mph. It happened to be a gorgeous day and from my window seat I watched town after town blur by. At one point I looked up from the book I was reading to see Mount Fuji, seemingly so close, snowcapped and surrounded by blue skies. In just a few quick hours I was in Kyoto, and little did I know that I was arriving for the peak Autumn leaves season.
With plans to meet my couchsurfing host that evening, I locked my bag away at the Kyoto Train Station. As the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is one of the most culturally rich cities in the world; there are over 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto and the surrounding area. With so much to see I got right to work. I hopped a bus from Kyoto Station to the south Okazaki Area of the city. I chose this starting point arbitrarily, but with so much to see in the city and with it all being new to my eyes, I couldn't go
wrong just meandering aimlessly, which is exactly what I did. My first stop was the Nanzenji Temple. The temples themselves are all exquisite and though they're all restored and maintained, what impresses me most is that they are all hundreds of years old, designed and constructed for the leaders of Japan's past. Nanzenji was established in 1291!!! For many of the Japanese visiting Nanzenji and the other sights in Kyoto, the temples and shrines represent more than just historic spots for sight-seeing, as was the case for me. Instead, they are pristine religious grounds where many come to partake in prayer. I removed my shoes to walk through the halls of this temple which looked out upon perfectly maintained gardens. There's nothing to do at these temples except soak it in - just to observe and be aware and be grateful for its beauty and history. After my rounds through the temple halls I passed through the gardens. Aesthetically, the gardens are my favorite part of any temple... I don't know why... I'm just a Japanese garden fan I guess. The attention to detail is just amazing. Every tree trimmed so precisely... every stone and statue covered with moss... every
Autumn Leaves Season
Magnificent color in ever direction.
pond reflecting Autumn colors of the Japanese Maples. (As I mentioned above, I unknowingly timed my trip to Kyoto for peak autumn leaves season which meant an inundation of Japanese tourists and Japanese Maples flourishing every autumn color you can picture... greens, yellows, oranges, browns and reds... It was absolutely spectacular. Just a week later most of the leaves would be on the ground.)
After leaving Nanzenji, I explored a few more temples and shrines, and eventually found myself in Maruyama Park. It was entirely unintentional but I realized I was no longer on shrine territory when I saw a long-haired American guy singing Johnny Cash on a bench surrounded by clapping Japanese tourists. I later talked to this guy who turned out to be from Massachusetts and has come to Kyoto for the past 20 years to street perform during the autumn season. After relaxing in the park for a few hours, I began to make my way back to Kyoto station via the Gion area of the city. This part of the city, though now filled with modern shops and restaurants, was developed in the Middle Ages and still boasts the same architectural style from that time.
I grabbed my pack from storage at Kyoto Station and made my way to Yukari and Ryo's apartment, my would-be hosts for the next 4 nights. Again, my hosts could not have been more hospitable. Not only did they host me for 4 nights but we shared homemade dinners and Ryo, who is a chef at a popular restaurant, brought me home gourmet steaks and chocolate mousse cakes. This is five-star couchsurfing!
I spent another two full days exploring Kyoto's sights which were highlighted by the following: Arashiyama Area
- This part of the city I found especially beautiful. Located on the east side
of the city, it butts right up against the mountains. In this area I went to a monkey preserve called Monkey Mountain and to Tenryuji temple which was home to the most beautiful gardens I witnessed on my trip. Kinkakuji
- Maybe Japan's most famous temple, it is covered in pure gold foil and sits out over a pond. This makes for some incredible photos. Ryoanji
- I loved this temple for its zen garden of raked gravel and stones. Its creator gave no explanation, yet the design is so simple and beautiful. I'm
Mt. Fuji from the Shinkansen
It was all luck to snap this photo as there were transmission lines inhibiting the view nearly the whole time AND flying by at dizzying speeds.
guessing this is the zen garden for which the novelty zen garden gift mimics. Night Trip to Kiyamizu
- This giant temple is lit up at night during this time of year. The maples are underlit and spectacular.
My other days based in Kyoto I made day trips, my first of which was to Nara. Nara is a short trip from Kyoto. It is a much smaller city but famous for the same types of cultural sights. I spent nearly a full day exploring the temples and shrines of the city, the most spectacular being Todaiji, a temple that is the largest wooden building in the world and which is also home to a 50 foot Buddha statue. The magnificent hall that houses the Buddha is called Daibutsu. Though I was already beginning to feel templed-out by the time I got to Nara, Todaiji was special and anybody visiting Japan should not miss this temple. (One other thing to note about Nara is that there were deer everywhere. Normally, this wouldn't excite me, however, these deer were totally zenned-out deer. They barely moved and would just stare you in the eye. You could walk right up to them and
The skeletal ruins of the old Industrial Promotion Hall. The atom bomb on Hiroshima exploded 600 meters directly above this spot.
pet them! And despite there being hundreds of deer, they all managed to stay out of the bustling traffic. In New Jersey, if I see a deer in my backyard it runs away within seconds, and the only other time I see them are dead on the side of the road.)
The following day was Thanksgiving and as my itinerary happened to unfold, I would spend it in Hiroshima. I took a very early Shinkansen to Hiroshima, but before heading into the city, I hopped another train and then ferry to Miyajima island. About 45 minutes away from Hiroshima, Miyajima is a small island where Itsukushima Shrine is built partially in the sea. Though I was there at low tide which exposed many of the shrines sections on the sea bed, during high tide much of the shrine rises out of the water. The center section of the shrine looks out a Torii which is even further in the sea (which again was not so far in the sea during the tidal position for which I was there) and mainland Japan. Beautiful. How did they build these structures in ancient times without heavy equipment!? I took my pictures of
This is the zen garden at Ryoanji consisting of several stones with perfectly raked gravel all around it. The novelty zen garden gift I imagine was inspired from this.
Itsukushima and ate some Miyajima street food (Octopus fish cake) in the early morning sun, and then made my way back to Hiroshima to visit the A-Bomb Dome and Memorial Peace Park and Museum. We all know what happened there in Hiroshima, but to be present where it happened was a heavy experience. Where I walked had been incinerated 60-some years ago. Thousands of civilians died instantly. Thousands died in the years that followed. And thousands were left injured, burned and disfigured for the rest of their lives... For those who don't know, the A-Bomb Dome is the skeletal remains of Hiroshima's old Industrial Promotion Hall. The atom detonated nearly 600 meters directly above the hall to optimize its destructive effects. A 2 km radius reached scorching temperatures and was leveled by the explosions shock wave. The Memorial Peace Park was designed beautifully in my opinion and its message to disarm the planet of nuclear weapons is powerfully conveyed. After an educational trip through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, I started my way back to Kyoto.
On my fourth and last night in Kyoto, Yukari and Ryo also hosted a French couple, Marie and Adua, who currently live in
Dubai. Here's another example of a wonderful couchsurfing experience. Marie cooked us all a homemade Tajine dinner, a traditional Moroccan dish.... So here I am in Kyoto, Japan, having dinner with my new friends from Japan and France and experiencing my first Moroccan meal. Delicious and memorable indeed. The five of us wound up staying up through much of the night talking about our travels and France and Dubai and Hawaii. Ah, good times it was.
After a nap of a night's sleep, I said my goodbyes to my new friends. It was now time to get out of the cities. Next stop... the mountains of Japan!
(For any who do not realize, there are 4 pages of photos. Enjoy!)
There are more photos below