Welcome to the third and final post about my Japan journey!
In this section I'll talk about my time in Kyoto, Nara, Koyasan, and Hiroshima.
Unfortunately, although Osaka was on the original itinerary, we had to cut that portion out and so we only went to Osaka to catch our flight home. :'(
Day 15 - 20 : Classic Kyoto
I gave us 6 whole days of exploring Kyoto, since I knew Kyoto was going to be one of the best destinations (from what I heard from friends and online.) For the first 3 nights we stayed in Higashiyama, on the East side of Kyoto, and then moved to a different airbnb located in the northwest side for the remaining 3 nights. Here's how I broke up the days :
Day 1 : Arrive from Kanazawa, explore Higashiyama and Kiyomizudera.
Day 2 : Eastern Kyoto (Nanzenji, Philosopher's Path to Ginkakuji, Gion)
Day 3 : Central / Southern Kyoto (Fushimi Inari)
Day 4 : Northern Kyoto (Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, Ninnaji)
Day 5 : Arashiyama and Sagano (Bamboo groves, monkey park)
Day 6 : Day trip to Nara (Feed the deer, Todaiji Temple, hike Wakakusayama)
We made our way to Higashiyama, dropped off our luggage, and started walking around.
We came across a really lovely river where there were musicians playing on the side of the road, and people feeding hawks! The hawks would swoop down and grab bread that the people threw into the air! It was incredible!
We had nothing planned for that evening, but lucky us, Kiyomizudera happend to be open that night (which only happens a few times throughout the year!) SCORE!
Unfortunately the main hall was under construction, but there were still a lot of incredible vistas. It was cool to finally see in person an area that I've seen in pictures hundreds of times.
The next day we explored eastern Kyoto, attempting to see some of the more well known temples. On the way if we saw a neat looking garden, drop in and check it out. Our first visit was to Ginkakuji.
From there we took a relaxing stroll along the Philosopher's Path, a walking route that takes you along a cute river, with lots of flowers and nice looking bridges. I can only imagine how beautiful it must have been with the cherry blossoms still blooming.
We accidentally wandered into some neat looking cemeteries once or twice.
You could spend a week exploring all the temples and gardens! :O
The next day was more aimless wandering, followed by a visit to Fushimi Inari in the evening. Since Fushimi Inari doesn't ever close, I figured it might be another cool location to check out at dusk.
Don't be surprised by the hoards of people! If you want some alone time here I think you have to come at the crack of dawn. But once night fell, most people left.
Just as a side note, the best vista isn't at the very top. The very top consists of the main shrine but is surrounded by trees so don't expect a grand view as a payoff. The shrine is still really neat and worth seeing though!
The next day consisted of more shrine and temple hopping! This time on the northern side. First up was Kinkakuji.
Then we saw "Japan's most famous rock garden" at Ryoanji Temple.
. . .
Yup! There were some rocks alright.
(I think you can go ahead and skip this one...)
I do wish we would have had some bicycles or something. I wanted to see more but my feet were getting really tired! DX
The next day we took a trip to Arashiyama (just an hour west of Kyoto) to visit the famous Bamboo Grove and the monkey park.
The Bamboo Grove was beautiful! But very crowded, as expected.
The monkey park, which I had zero expectations about, was such a pleasant surprise!!
There were adorable baby monkeys running around playing, some monkeys napping, some cleaning each other, and some causing trouble. They are just roaming around, so you have to avoid eye contact and don't get too close. But you can feed them through a fenced barrier if you want!
If you like photographing wildlife like I do, it'll be a real treat for you!
The view of the city from the monkey park was pretty great too!
Before we headed back to Kyoto, we took a ride on the Saga Scenic Railway, a slow, sightseeing train that goes from Arashiyama to Kameoka. It was quite lovely, but very short! I wished it was a bit longer, but just gotta learn to enjoy things while they last I suppose.
Our final day of Kyoto was spent visiting Nara, a town about an hour south of Kyoto.
You might know of Nara because of the famous 'bowing deer.' It takes about 30 minutes of walking to get to the famous Nara deer park from the train station, but you'll start seeing deer everywhere even before you arrive at the park.
Even though I heard about the bowing deer, I was still surprised to see it in person. Those deer are bowing MACHINES.
After feeding a bunch of deer, we headed to Todaiji Temple.
Todaiji Temple is home to the Big Buddha, Daibutsu. I didn't expect the hall itself to be so massive!
The Big Buddha was incredible! Pictures don't do it justice at all. It left me with a feeling of awe. If you come to Nara, I highly recommend you stopping by Todaiji.
After that, we decided to do some hiking up Mt. Wakakusayama. The hike up did take a while (maybe about an hour?) but the forest was so inviting along the way, and there were even a deer or two wandering through to say hi to.
At the top we were rewarded with a beautiful view of Nara. This was another one of my top favorite moments of Japan. :)
There were even deer all the way up there.
And sadly, that was the end of our Kyoto stay. Really loved this place, and I'm happy to have gotten all the 'tourist' destinations out of the way! I think I would enjoy coming back to Kyoto to stay in the city center a bit longer.
Day 21 - 22 : A Night in a Buddhist Temple in Koyasan
I heard about Mt. Koya when I was reading about spiritual focused places or places having significance with Buddhist history. They have temples where you can stay as a guest ("shukubo") and learn about Buddhism, monks, meditation, get introduced to their lifestyle, including eating vegetarian cuisine. This all sounded really intriguing to me!
Koyasan is a very mountainous area and a bit difficult to get to.
But getting there was truly half the fun, and the sights we got to see from the comfort of our train window were breathtaking!
What I found out later was that the Shukubo is more or less another ryokan, which was nice, but not exactly what I was expecting before I arrived. (But explained why it was so expensive...) We stayed at Ekoin.
The idea is that there are Buddhist monks and monks in training staying at these temples, and tourists are invited to stay overnight to observe some of their practices as a way to make income.
It was a bit more 'showy' and impersonal than I anticipated. (I guess for some reason I thought there'd be more freedom to interact with the monks and be able to participate somehow?) But it was more "come watch us chant at 6am, and dinner is at 5pm."
Not to say the chanting and ceremonies weren't fascinating! Plus they did offer a meditation class. It was interesting to see a different 'style' of meditating compared to the way yoga goes about it.
Besides staying at the temple, I also wanted to see Okunoin, a huge cemetery where the founder of Shingon Buddism rests. They say he isn't dead, but simply in an eternal meditation.
They say Okunoin is one of Japan's most sacred sites.
Walking through there in the absolute quiet, hearing nothing but the rain and our footsteps in the pitch dark, was quite an experience.
Once we got back to the temple, I took a bath in the hot springs, got cozy in my yukata and sat by the windowsill listening to the rain while sipping tea. I enjoyed that slow pace a lot, especially after doing so much hiking and running around in Kyoto.
I can't say I would recommend coming here for a person who isn't interested in learning about monks or spirituality at all, but I liked taking a chance in doing something a bit unusual while in Japan. I think the risk payed off for me.
Day 22 - 24 : The Finale at Hiroshima and Miyajima
We are approaching the final leg of the trip!
One thing I didn't quite realize was just how far Hiroshima is from Kyoto and Osaka. It's a bit pricey to make it all the way out there, especially if you don't have a JR pass.
But I actually enjoy long train rides. Lots of beautiful countryside along the way.
Once in Hiroshima we visited the Peace Memorial Park. We checked out the Atomic Bomb Dome and read up about its story. It's so tragic... but a lesson for the world about the terrors of nuclear weapons.
Just being there and imagining what happened brings up a lot of emotions. Made me think about the pointless-ness of killing and wars.
It was a quiet night of reflection and sadness thinking about the trip being so close to the end.
But knowing we were leaving soon sort of made it easier to really let go.
One night we just bought some dinner at a convenience store along with some sake, and ate at home watching the bizzare shows on Japanese TV. That was a pretty fun night. :)
Spent some time playing around in the arcades too!
Also found a game we recognized... (We worked on this game :P )
Hiroshima has a different vibe than other Japanese cities. It's really inviting and I had a great time visiting.
One of our days in Hiroshima was spent visiting the nearby island of Miyajima, home of the iconic floating torii gate at Itsukushima shrine.
What was interesting is when we arrived in the morning, the tide was high so it was 'floating'. But when we came back later in the evening, the tide was so low that we were able to walk right up to it.
We spent a good part of the day hiking up Mt. Misen, the highest peak in Miyajima.
There were lots of neat shrines and statues on the way up.
It took a couple hours, but we made it to the top!
Our travel charm came in handy once again as we made it just 5 minutes in time for the final cable car going down. It wouldn't have been the end of the world if we would have missed it, but we were all a bit tired and hungry by that point and who knows... one of us might have turned into a snack. :O
Day 25 : A Fly-by Glance at Osaka
When I originally made my Japan trip plan, I left a few days at the end to play in Osaka. Unfortunately due to a last minute schedule adjustment with my work, I ended up cutting out those last few days of my trip. :\
It was a really unfortunate situation, but I'm positive I will be back. We took the train into Osaka in time to have lunch with some friends, and then promptly headed to the airport to fly back to LA.
And that's it! 25 action packed days I'll never forget. Can't wait to do it again! :)
I am beyond pleased with how the trip went. It was everything I could have imagined and more!
I also have to say, although there are some places I would not visit a second time, I'm still happy I saw them once. And although my itinerary was pretty fast paced, I didn't feel like it was too hectic for me. Your mileage may vary.
Things I might adjust -
1. - Less time in Nagoya or skip it altogether
I probably won't return to Nagoya.
2. - Skip "Japan's most famous rock garden", Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto
3. - If doing a day trip to Nikko, allow a good 3 hours to get there.
Wake up super early and take the more expensive / faster trains. But looking back, I think I would have rather had the extra day to play in Tokyo.
Things I learned -
1. - Get used to not relying on yelp or google for finding restaurants
I was surprised to find yelp is not used in Japan and Google isn't really used (except by foreigners.) So if you want to find a restaurant that is highly rated by locals, you'll need to use something else.
2. - If you want sushi, get a guide or someone local to help you
Even though I can speak conversational Japanese and read a fair amount of Kanji, I got completely lost when it came to sushi. They have English menus, but they are so limited and had a feeling we weren't getting the good stuff due to being foreigners. We attempted an expensive sushi place and I left feeling pretty disappointing. But that's just my personal experience of the matter! Other people might have no issues.
3. - Lots of people smoke, and many restaurants allow it indoors.
Especially if you aren't used to being around cigarette smoke, I would highly recommend to avoid restaurants full salary men. Sometimes it can't be helped. One night we got trapped in a restaurant that prioritized a giant table of smoking business men, leaving us inhaling smoke for the next hour. D:
4. - Sometimes restaurants were closed for seemingly no reason.
I think in US we are somewhat spoiled by businesses and restaurants being open basically ALL the time. In Japan, we found the open times for restaurants and shops to be a bit narrow, especially smaller ones and mom-and-pop type shops. Multiple times we found a place that looked promising online, checked their site for hours, and yet when we arrived we found them to be closed during claimed "open" times. So, YOU as the customer have to fit the restaurants time schedule, not the other way around. It wasn't a huge problem, just something to be aware of that I was surprised by.
5. - Japanese bakeries are THE BOMB.
We quickly made it a priority to try as many bakeries as possible, especially for breakfast.
Things I'm glad I did -
1 - Push through the jet lag on the first day.
Stay up as late as you possibly can for the first day you arrive. Luckily we were forced to stay up til midnight because of our delays in arriving, but even still our bodies woke us up at 5am the next day. But after that we were basically already adjusted to Japan time and slept soundly at night and woke up bright and early feeling fully rested!
2 - Skip the JR pass.
This one would be hard to recommend to Japan first-timers, especially if you don't speak any Japanese. However, If you think you can figure out the maps and machines in the subways stations (almost all of them have English options), then going without the JR pass leaves a lot of freedom to grab a bigger variety of trains and transportation options (like buses). The Tokyo subway station was UNBELIEVABLY convenient, but I don't think the JR pass covers much (if any) of the local subway system. Sometimes, depending on your planned route and time spent, the JR pass is actually not cost effective. It just depends on your trip.
I recommend using this JR calculator to see if it's a good deal or not.
3 - Try an Onsen at least once.
Even if you have to go alone. And naked.
4 - Saw the Big Buddha (Daibutsu) at Todaiji Temple in Nara.
After a few days of visiting lots of shrines and temples, I felt that the costs were starting to really add up. (Even though most of them are only $5-$10 per person.) When we arrived at Todaiji Temple, I must have been in a weird mood, because when we walked up to the ticket purchase counter, I hesitated and wondered if it was worth it.
But we came all this way, we HAD to go for it.
Turns out it was totally worth it. There are some things you just have to experience. Pictures can't always do a sight justice!
5 - Stay in lots of Airbnbs
I think Japan has had some rocky history with airbnb, including lots of cases of rowdy foreigners ruining it for the rest of us! They recently cracked down on regulations for how the service can be used, so I'm really glad it was still allowed when I went. I used airbnb for the majority of my lodgings, and was able to get most of the rooms for an average of $60 a night. Plus, a few of the hosts actually took us for dinner or hung out with us. It's a great way to meet locals who are interested in meeting foreigners. (Not to mention we really liked having a kitchen so we could cook ourselves breakfast.
Speaking of breakfast...
6. Cooked at least one healthy meal a day (usually breakfast) to get some veggies in
We were a bit shocked to discover the lack of available fruits and vegetables, especially when going out to eat. Of course they have fruits and veggies at the store, but it's surprisingly expensive. (I think we got spoiled in LA, where we got accustomed to having meals with lots of vegetables.)
Even if it was just eating some lettuce in the morning, getting some veggies in everyday let us feel better about gorging on ramen or curry in the evening.
7 - Stay in a ryokan, just one night.
Yes it's going to offset the lodging costs for the entire trip... but it's an experience you won't get to do too often in life. So I say, treat yo self!
8 - Learn how to pray at shrines.
It was really fun to participate! We started to appreciate the shrines when we would come across them because it actually meant something to us rather than being a cool looking structure.
9. - Hiked Wakakusayama in Nara and Mt Misen in Miyajima.
Not many people are up for hiking so you won't be dealing with crowds, and the sights were so spectacular! Wakakusayama took a while to hike but the view was one of my favorites from the trip.
Sophie is a video game developer who has a variety of passions including yoga, traveling, and photography.