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October 3rd 2010
Published: October 3rd 2010
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One of only 100 Geisha in Kyoto
You might notice that we’ve added a new destination to our travel map! Chris and I have recently taken a trip to Japan along with our friend and co-worker Courtney for the Chuseok Holiday in Korea which is similar to the North American Thanksgiving.

Originally we considered taking the ferry to Japan from Busan but ultimately it proved to be too long and tiresome a journey and too inconvenient for the difference in cost as opposed to flying. So off we flew from Incheon International, collecting the stamps in our passports, and arriving in Osaka a few hours later. From what I had heard and read of Osaka I did not have high expectations for the city itself in terms of general aesthetics. Taking the comfortable train from the airport into the city I was surprised to see so many neighbourhoods and housing estates, not unlike those back in England, as I have grown accustomed to high-rise apartment buildings as far as the eye can see living in Korea these past seven months.

The three of us disembarked at Namba station and made our way to our lodgings for the next two nights; a Capsual Motel (most often used by Japanese business men) in the trendy Shinsaibashi area, neighbouring non-other than Chanel, Marc Jacobs and the like. Etiquette for the Capsule Motel is very similar to the jjimjilbang (bath house) in Korea - shoes off at the door, exchange your cash for a uniform at reception and off you go. The Motel was spotlessly clean and I cannot describe the sleeping arrangements better than “like a morgue” but with a little luxury and for the living, as you essentially crawl into a small cavity inside which was a radio, T.V., air-conditioning, light…surprisingly it was a comfortable night’s sleep and a great experience to have undertaken whilst in Japan.

After a quick change we headed out in search of food and sake. Close by was the busy Dotombori area with many restaurants and shopping arcades and eccentric Japanese teenagers. We settled to eat and drank tea and hot sake. Often I find eating an ordeal trying to ensure that there is no “hidden surprises” in my vegetable pancake etc., but that first night I was pleasantly surprised at the availability of vegetarian food and delighted as to how much I enjoyed the meal which was udon (think noodles) in hot water and then a dip which you made up yourself to suit your taste which consisted of hot soy sauce, raw egg, a chive-like vegetable and grated lemon zest. Afterwards we spent a good few hours walking up and down the busy and lesser streets in the area and being refused entry to an amazing little Jazz bar due to our lack of Japanese language ability until we finally settled on a tiny bar (as this is how they all appeared, only big enough for six people at a squeeze) for one drink before heading back towards our Motel for a night cap at “Pink Elephant” for another beer and a round of Pop Up Pirate.

The next morning we were up and out early and taking the train to Koya-san, roughly an hour and a half scenic journey south of Osaka. Koya-san is a town in the mountains and a significant place within Kansai due to it being the birthplace of Shingon-shu Buddhism, so as you might expect it is rich in history and there are many interesting temples and shrines to visit whilst you are there.

The last leg in the journey getting to Koya-san is the cable car which takes you high into the mountains, more than 800m above sea level. Our first stop was to Oku-no-in: a large, ancient grave yard where past bodhisattvas lay in wait for the return of the Miroku Buddha to earth. Here there were thousands of extravagant graves and monuments for the dead, many statues wearing shawls and hats and at the end of the cemetery there is a bridge named Inchi-no-hashi which takes you to the sacred Lantern Hall (Mimyo-no-hashi) in which it is said that two lanterns have been burning for 900 years. Afterwards we walked through the village to Kongobu-ji which is the active head quarters for Shingon-shu Buddhism which was built in 1593 and consists of many buildings and beautifully painted rooms (such as the extravagant yet grisly Yangi-no-ma or “Willow Room” in which we later learned, after enjoying for longer than I would have liked in hindsight, one man committed ritual suicide by disembowelment). We were given green tea and rice cake and enjoyed a tea ceremony whilst a young and personable monk spoke at length in Japanese on the benefits of meditation. Courtney and I made an attempt to learn something from this, followed suit by lying down and breathing in slowly and out loudly… Chris made a speedy exit, not his cup of tea apparently.

Our last stop before taking the scenic route back into the city was at the Dai-Garan which is a collection of buildings, the most impressive of which being the recently repainted, crimson Daito or the Great Stupa inside which stands the Cosmic Buddha, great and golden.

That night in Osaka we took the subway to the Umeda Sky building, likened to a space-age, Asian Arc de Triomphe. From the Sky Garden observatory you can see the entire city, far less drab and dreary than I had imagined and worth the expensive subway journey. Beneath the Sky building is an underground recreation of the many side streets typical of Japan. Here we found a wonderful restaurant with wonderfully kind and helpful staff where we ate and enjoyed okonomi-yaki or savoury pancakes.

The next day we said Sayonara to Osaka and Konnichiwa to Kyoto where our accommodation for the final three nights was a traditional Japanese building recently renovated into a hostel and run by the kind, interesting and well travelled Komiyo and his “guard
Crimson DaitoCrimson DaitoCrimson Daito

The Great Stupa at Dai-Garan
dog” Tida, close to Nijo-jo castle which was our first port of call. Inside the castle were numerous rooms divided by elegantly painted screens but I personally enjoyed the exterior of the castle; the vast, green Zen gardens surrounded by a high white wall.

That afternoon we made our way to the western mountains of Kyoto and Arashiyama. Crossing the Togestsu-kyu Bridge over the Hozu-gawa River I felt like I was in the Japan that I had imagined. Here we visited Tenryu-ji which is “one of the major temples of the Rinzai school of Zen” and the name means “heavenly dragon”. Tenryu-ji is impressive as it sounds, especially its extensive 14th century Zen garden which leads to Arashiyama’s famous bamboo garden. The three of us sat around and took in the surroundings until dusk when the temperature dropped and we retreated to central Kyoto and found ourselves appreciating the modern architecture of Kyoto station, becoming ever bemused by the adjacent Kyoto tower that was reflected in the glass exterior of the station so that the less observant of us in the group could not understand why there was now two towers?! So naturally it was time for drinks and then back to the hostel to meet new friends.

On our second day in Kyoto, we took the train to Fushimi Inari, an impressive shrine with 4km of red wooden gates built close together up into a mountain, the craftsmanship of which lead to conversation of the dedication of some to their religion. Inari was one of my favourite sights in Kyoto for its general atmosphere and aesthetics.

The rest of the day we spent in the Geisha district of Kyoto, Gion, and the surrounding streets teeming with shops selling ceramics and zori (magnificent wooden, platform sandals worn by the Geisha). It was walking down a quite side street in an outer residential area of Gion that we saw a real Geisha, of whom I believe that there are only 100 remaining within Kyoto, making us very lucky indeed. She was beautiful and wore an elegant, red kimono with painted face and neck; her hair was teased to perfection and from her head hung various flower-like adornments. It felt like such a privilege to see her so unexpectedly in that empty street, I quickly took a photograph as I passed and she obliged by looking over and smiling for the camera.

Gion is the tourist magnet that you might expect but enjoyable nonetheless, it’s a great place to pick up souvenirs and to partake in one of my favourite past times, people watching. We got to Gion corner after dark and headed for Shinbashi-dori, one of the most beautiful streets in all of Japan so we were told and I have to say I couldn’t agree more. It’s a traditional cobbled street running parallel to a small river, which when lit up at night is quite an experience. Here the street is reasonably quiet so we enjoyed the occasion by sitting on the cobbled street and watching the willows that ran parallel alongside the stream.

The sun was shining for our final day in Japan which we spent mostly at the Tenjin-san flea market next to Kitano Tenman-gu shrine. Here I chose a wonderful Kimono as an early birthday present from Chris, which is cream in colour and carefully embroidered with an eagle between the family crest. We also purchased an antique Japanese tea pot which has become Chris’ new pride and joy and two ceramic sake cups to add to our steadily growing “world art” collection for the grown-up house we are years from owning.

Our final excursion was to the well recognised “Golden Pavillion” (Kinkaku) or Rokuon-ji which was the villa of Kintsune Saionio in the 1220’s. The golden paintwork was stunning against the blue sky and a perfect way to end our stay in Japan.

Additional photos below
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Scenic Train JourneyScenic Train Journey
Scenic Train Journey

This was prior to the cable car

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