Published: March 13th 2006May 1st 2005
Luckily, we caught the tail end of the sakura season. We couldn't get enough of BEAUTIFUL cherry blossoms
We spent 11 days in the magical world of Japan, enjoying everything this wonderful little country had to offer. At the end of our trip, we felt rejuvenated by the baths, green tea, food and hospitality of Japanese. We were in awe of the beautiful cherry blossoms and the meticulously maintained beautiful gardens that lined the streets. We were enlightened by the temples and the peacefulness of the Zen gardens. We were tickled pink by the stuff that were distinctly Japanese, such as the sentos, the multi-function toilets and the cartoons/ads that range from completely being cheesy to informative. There were cartoons for everything from the Police Station Mouse to advertisements. These cartoons made us laugh everywhere we went. The high-tech toilets with fancy control panels made us realize how technically advanced Japan is, while the squatty potties finally made sense (after seeing a cartoon on the wall why squatting is more hygienic). I learned to squat (and become skilled at positioning my squat so nothing will fall out of my pockets). On the other side, I also learned to enjoy the automatic chirping bird noises and heated seats from the multi-function toilets.
This is our second visit to Japan
This is where we stayed at in Koya San. The futons are laid out on the floor over tatami mats. More comfortable than you think!
and I liked it immensely more during this trip than the one we took 3 years back to Tokyo/Kamakura. This can be attributed to our stay in the traditional Japanese Ryokan and Buddhist Temple lodging. We visited Nara, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Himeji. On this trip we had a chance to experience more of Japanese culture.
Kyoto is the cultural center of Japan and was a surprise for us. Before the trip, I was told that it is the cultural and ancient capital of Japan. Hence, I had expectations of a small traditional city. It turned out Kyoto was a sprawling city, with modernity mixed with tradition. If you take the train into Kyoto, you will be greeted by the latest in Japanese architecture and technology - the Kyoto Train Station - a huge, tall, impressive, modern station with complete shopping mall in the basement and a food court. Then you will be greeted by Kyoto Tower, which looks better in the nighttime than it does in daytime. We visited wonderful Zen gardens in Kyoto, ate good food, saw rock gardens, and ancient castles.
In Kyoto, the Nijo Castle is a wonderful place to visit. The grounds are meticulously maintained
Green Tea Paradise
There is green tea everywhere and we loved it! I am enjoying a nice cup offered free at the "Rest Station" at most tourist sites. You grab a cub and dispense the tea, and wash the cup after use. I drank many a bowls of tea on this trip!
and lined with Cherry Blossoms (Sakura). Fortunately, we arrived during the Cherry Blossom season and was able to view its beauty. Nijo castle also has one of the nicest places to drink tea while overlooking a peaceful zen garden. Matcha Tea was served by woman wearing traditional kimonos. The matcha bowls were spinned a few times before serving. Sweet red bean cakes were usually served with the Matcha
Part of the enjoyment from our trip can be attributed to our stay in the Japanese Ryokan and our stay at a Temple Lodging. We had so much fun in these places and just loved every aspect of it. Ryokans charge by the person and it can range from $35 per person on the low end to over $1000 pp on the high end. Since we were in Kyoto for 7 days, we had to stick to the lower end “budget” ryokan, but still had a great time. As soon as we entered the ryokan, we were instructed to put our shoes aside and transfer into these brown slippers. We carried our luggage up the narrow stairways, in these one-size fits all slippers for guests. Initially, it was a bit awkward
and our slippers fell off a few times! When we entered our room, we took off the slippers, and left it outside the door. The room had a jug of hot water, with a teapot and green teabags. There were Japanese robes (yukatas) for us to use. We put the yukatas on and took some pictures. However, we were never sure of the complete etiquette of the yukatas. Some ryokans required you to walk around everywhere in the yukatas. We did wear them everywhere and it was very comfortable. It also made for interesting pictures. The futons were laid out on the floor with comfortable mats.
In the bathroom, there were also specific “WC” slippers, we had to transfer to. It is the custom to take your shoes off as a sign of respect in many places in Japan, home, temples, museums (if they were once homes). Wearing slip on shoes when you sight-see is easier but not necessary.
Any one going to Japan has to experience the Japanese bath house where you bath with other people! To do this, you have to put aside your intimidation with nudity, homophobia, self-consciousness of your body or any other hang-ups
Temple Food (YUM)
This is the lavish 10-15 course meal served at the temple. These monks can sure cook!
you may have. We went to a sento near my ryokan, paid the 350 yen, and walked in. Of course, looking confused, an elderly Japanese female customer had sympathy for me and started advising me what to do. She handed me a bin and motioned me where to put my items. I took off my clothes and then stepped into another area, where several other women were sitting on little stools washing up and chatting with each other. This other room was connected to the baths where you sit and wash before going into the bath. (This is similar to western Jacuzzis, where it also requires you to rinse before entering) There were 5-6 separate baths, the one on the left was cold, two in the middle were hot with a little fountain. The ones on the side were blue/green in color and I assumed were the medicinal baths. I stepped into the bath and it was FREAKIN hot. I turned to see if anyone had any issues with this water. No one did - the Japanese just walked right into this FREAKIN hot water. I submerged my foot and then my leg - it took me several minutes to
Beautiful park, landscape gardens, ahhh
get used to the temperature, but once you get used to it, it’s the most relaxing feeling. True ryokans require you to bathe before dinner.
Interesting note is that in western culture, bathing is a private thing, but in Japan, it’s a social activity. Families go there, sit naked next to each other, and chat while washing. I saw mothers sit next to daughters and chat while cleaning themselves. It was great. No one seems self-conscious about their bodies and no one stared at anyone - it was a natural. It was also interesting to see different body types at different ages. Most people only get exposed to nudity via entertainment media, which does not represent real people and real body types. If people were exposed to real body types, there wouldn’t be so many hang ups about body image. The key to enjoying the Japanese bath is 1. Nudity is not sexuality 2. Remember to wash thoroughly before entering the bath 3. Go into the bath slowly, as it can be quite hot for someone not used to it 4. Enjoy! Bathing is a Japanese tradition and a total relaxing experience.
In Nara, the Todaji was amazing
Interesting cartoon advertisements
In this cartoon ad, a green haired- man flying by spots a cartoon pretty girl and gives a thumbs up approval. Even the squid and turtles are impressed and wink at the girl
and the deer park was so much fun. We saw the Todai-ji Temple built which is AMAZING. It was built in the year 743 AD and possesses one of the world’s largest wooden structures. Also, the temple enshrines Japan’s largest bronze Buddha, which is 49 feet tall. The most fun part of the Todaji (for me anyway) was trying to squeeze into the Buddha’s nostrils. There is a structure shaped in the size of the Buddha’s nostrils. It is a small tunnel carved into a wooden tree, and approximately 2 feet by 2 feet. Legend has it that if you can squeeze though the Buddha’s nostrils, you will attain eternal enlightenment. It was fun to see kids squeezing in quite easily and adults getting stuck halfway. I squeezed in 5 times! So I guess I will have enlightenment for 5 lives.
Like most historic places in this area, the grounds and temple were flooded with school kids on field trips. It seem that everywhere we went where hordes of school kids. Each school or district had distinct uniforms. The temple is surrounded by a deer park. We bought wafer shaped deer treats to feed the. They had been trained
Japanese Students in front of Silver Temple
In Japan, it is forbidden to take a picture without making a PEACE sign with your fingers
to bow their heads to receive the treats. The deer were so cute and we had a great time watching kids and adults feed. The bowing of the deer was cute and so Japanese.
If you can afford it, any one going to Japan also has to try staying at a Temple Lodging. We spent the rest of the 3 days over night in Koya-San Mountain, which is quite a journey. We had to take a train to Osaka, transfer to a subway, to another train, take a cable car up to the mountain, then take a bus to the temple. The temples are a bit costly, but it is worth it - you get a FABULOUS breakfast and dinner, and also see the lives of monks. Those monks sure know how to cook! And they seem to enjoy their lives. We would hear them chatting lively while they were preparing dinner or cleaning up.
Temple lodgings are usually well maintained with beautiful gardens. Some temples ask that you attend their morning prayers and evening meditation. We attended the evening meditation before dinner at 6. In the morning, there was a chant before breakfast. The chants were interesting.
The meditation was good exercise to free one’s mind from the thoughts. People don’t’ usually sit still and clear their thoughts, but the meditations gave us a chance to do that. What fascinated us was how the monk knew when to end the mediation. With his eyes closed the entire time, how did he know to open them to end the meditation? It must be an internal clock that they have programmed.
The food served at the Temple Lodging was a lavish affair with 2 trays of food, and 12-16 courses. Food was the best we had in Japan. We were so full from this food, we couldn’t walk. Koya san Mountain was chilly, so the temple offered 2 types of robe, a traditional black and white yukata and one that was very thick and warm. It almost felt like a burlap but I couldn’t believe how warm it was. We were in heaving eating a huge Japanese breakfast and dinner. The food was sooooo delicious. It consisted of several vegetable dishes prepared in different ways, rice noodles, special tofu, miso soup, rice, small hot pot, tempura, etc. Temple lodging rocked!
Here’s a summary of our trip (where
Aspirin Age is Open
Hmmmm. We couldn't figure out what this place was!
we went, what we loved and disliked and other interesting observations)
Where We Went
We stationed in Kyoto for 7 days. From Kyoto, we made side trips to Nara, Himeji and Hiroshima. Then we took a weekend trip to Mount Koya. Places Visited
- Kyoto (Gion area)
- Nara (Deer Park)
- Himeji (Himeji Castle, Temple Complex)
- Hiroshima (Peace Park/Museum, A-Bomb Dome, Miya Jima Island)
What We Loved
- Deer Park was great 1. Deer Park in Nara
- Zen Heaven 2. Zen Gardens
- Green Tea Galore 3 Green Tea
- Eating Paradise 4. Japanese food is one of the healthiest and tastiest in the world!
- Civic Responsibility There is more civic Responsibility, initiation (Recycling)
- Cherry Blossom
- Sentos The hot baths offered complete relaxation. Japanese baths gave a whole new meaning to bathing
- Slipper Etiquette We liked how slippers separated different rooms
- Hospitality of Japanese We had difficulty finding places. One time, we couldn’t find a restaurant and asked a woman. She brought us into her house, called her son, who could speak better English, to talk to us. Then, she fetched her husband to talk to her son. The husband took us out, and walked us 10 blocks to the restaurant. When we reached the restaurant, he went inside, got us a seat, make sure we were alright. Very nice
What We Didn't Like
- Expensive We found Japan to be one of the most expensive countries we’ve been to, with the exception of London and Switzerland.
- Male Dominated Japan is still a very male dominated society
- Gropers on Train Japan has a problem with men groping women on the packed trains. It has become such a big problem that a female-only car has been created during peak travel times.
- Excessive Packaging All items are packed so beautifully but this packaging is excessive. Everything purchased, down to a snack in the street, was boxed or wrapped in paper.
- Drunk Businessmen The drunk Japanese business is still a frequent scene late at night. It is common to see a businessman stumble out in a drunken stupor out of a restaurant. For some Japanese men, being drunk is an excuse to do anything - women, be aware
- Train derailment I The punctual culture of Japan caused the driver to speed to make the schedule. This happened on our last day were in Japan. Actually, we were in that area about 3-5 hours after the derailment happened
- Quiet - The Japanese are so polite & so quiet. In general, people talk in soft voices. I didn’t hear parents yelling at kids, or young people being loud in public. (The only exception to this were the drunk businessmen during the evenings
- Civic Pride As Japan is more of a group society, people seem to have a sense of civic responsibility
- Work Ethics We observed workers in many establishments and notice a very strong work ethic that is not in the USA. Counter workers would wait dutifully for customers to enter.
- Bowing Conductors bowed to the customers when entering and leaving the car. Store
employees bowed. Gas Station attendants bow when you leave. It is soo cool.
Heading up to Engyojji Temple Complex
- Horizontal Lights The street lights are horizontal.
- High Tech Toilets Heated seats, music, multi-control panel. You can get spoiled by the toilets in Japan
- Brown messy hair style In Kyoto, everyone under age of 25 had same hairstyle. Girls had layered brown hair with bangs that were about shoulder length. Boys had similar but shorter and styled in a messy “just-woke up” look
- Noodle Eating etiquette Slurping your noodles loudly is expected, but you shouldn’t blow your nose
- Women Voices Is it me or do most women feign a girlie, chipmunk voice even in their adulthood?
- Japan is cartoon crazy. There is a cartoon for police station, stores, products.
- Japanese love comics. There are people standing around in magazine section reading comic books. Businessmen read comics on train.
- Retail store worker Workers greet you in a “sing song-like” chant when walking in
- Hidden Laughs Japanese woman cover their mouths when laughing
- Vending Machine Etiquette Even though Japan has the largest number of vending machines, you don’t see people drinking or eating anywhere, We didn’t’ see anyone drinking in the trains stations, parks, etc. Japanese only eat/drink when they can sit.
- Cosmetic Dentistry Doesn’t seem to be very popular
- Picture Taking Rule Every person under the age of 30 took pictures with 2 fingers held up in peace signs.
- Tatami Mats - Rooms are frequently size is measured by tatami mats
- Number counting Japanese indicate an amount of 7 by putting out one hand palm up, and placing 2 fingers from the other hand in the palm
Tips for Travel in Japan
- If you stood long on the street long enough looking confused, a Japanese local would have pity on you and attempt to help!
- Wear shoes that remove easily, as most temples require you to remove your shoes and don slippers
- Learn (and memorize!) key Japanese phrases like “Over there, Here, Where is”
- Get plenty of cash (yen) when you see an ATM because there aren’t many! Typically, only post offices and airports service foreign atm cards. We learned this the tough way.
- There are smoking and non smoking cars in the train. Make sure you reserve the appropriate one.
- The trains are damn long. You can ask them where to stand to get into your designated car. If you don’t do that, you will have to traverse througin your car.
- Enjoy your trip - Japan has so much to offer
There are more photos below