Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Reflections on a trip to Kansai

I recently arrived back in Korea from a trip to Kansai in Japan. It wasn't my first trip to Japan, but it was certainly better than my previous trip to the Tokyo area last summer. I would like to do a quick review of each place we visited on the trip.

1) Kyoto: Simply marvelous. I'm not a fan of Japanese cities, I often find them to be messy and confusing, but Kyoto was different in almost every way. Kyoto felt like a true gem. The city itself was quite beautiful, combining the old and new. It was very easy to get around by bus, subway, tram and rail. We were only there for 3 days, but we loved this place. The food, the sights, the abundant green tea. It was amazing.

Welcome to Kyoto!

Review of Sights in Kyoto:

A) Nishiki Market: This is a famous Market in Kyoto, found to the west of the Gion district. It's a traditional style market with lots of traditional shops, some of which have apparently been there for centuries. Its a fun little stroll, and you will likely buy something from the many vendors there.

The famous market!

various foodstuffs at the market

Chopstick holders, I think!

B) Kiyomizudera : Kiyomizudera is an ancient temple that was first established in eastern Kyoto in the 8th Century. This temple is huge and absolutely magnificent. One of my favourite sites in Kyoto. As you leave the temple there is a long street filled with gift shops and green tea shops, selling a huge collection of wares. I highly recommend buying the rice cakes and bottled green tea. They are delicious!

Various pictures from the temple. It was amazing!

C)Kinkakuji : The famous and much talked about Golden temple of Kyoto. This is probably one of the most hyped up locations in Kyoto. Almost everyone recommends a visit to here. I on the other hand advise against it. It looks nice, sure, but I felt it was particularly poor value for money on account of how small the grounds actually are. I don't believe you can go inside either, when I was there they seemed to be going to great efforts to keep all the tourists visiting on a set path, very far away from the golden pavilion. It was busy, noisy and far too crowded to be enjoyable. My advice? Find a hill, zoom in on it with your camera and take a picture :)
The Golden Temple of Kinkakuji.

There is actually a sister site in Kyoto, The Silver temple Ginkakuji, which is nowhere near as famous. I have never been there, but I have heard that its actually a much better site to visit because you don't have to deal with the insane crowds.

D) Ryoanji: The famous Zen Buddhist rock garden. Supposedly the finest example in all of Japan, and I have to say it was quite impressive for a rock garden.However, this was another site that I felt suffered because it had become too popular. The purpose of the rock garden was that it was supposed to be a place of peace and tranquility. A place where you could stop and contemplate things while looking upon the simple design of the garden. We most certainly were unable to do that. If you go, you can expect kids running around and shouting, tourists talking loudly to each other and well...just people in general making a mockery of the very ideals behind the temple itself. The grounds of the temple were quite big and spacious though. It was a nice stroll, unlike at Kinkakuji.

The Rock garden of Ryoanji

E) Arashiyama Bamboo Forest: After you arrive in Arashiyama you have to do a bit of walking to find this place. Its close to Tenruji temple  I recommend visiting here if you have enough time. Its quite beautiful and the shade the Bamboo provides is also really handy during the summer as Kyoto is HOT.

This forest was really breathtaking!

F) Iwatayama Monkey Park : Now this place is just damn fun. Who doesn't like monkeys? The Monkey park is in Arashiyama, across the Togetsukyo bridge. After you buy your tickets you take a hike up the mountain and when you reach the top you will find the monkey park. There are dozens of Macaque monkeys running around quite freely, eating, playing, fighting, or just grooming each other. You can take pictures of them, or with them. If you go inside the cabin at the top of the mountain you can also feed the monkeys some small pieces of apple or nuts through the cabin windows.

outside the cabin

Feeeeeeed meeeee!

Honourable Mention: Oi River: After you visit the Monkey park, I recommend that you take a stroll down the riverside. Its quiet and romantic, so its quite nice if you are on vacation with a special someone.

2) Uji: Uji is very famous for its green tea. It is said that Uji produces the highest quality green tea in all of Japan and I have to say, it does not disappoint in that regard. Uji green tea is an absolute pleasure to drink.  It's also a very beautiful place, the beauty of it is just striking. We spent an afternoon here looking around this area and visited the following places

Review of Sights in Uji:

A) Byodoin Temple: This temple was founded around 900 years ago and the fact that it is etched on the bag of every single 10yen coin signifies its importance in Japanese history. I was quite looking forward to seeing this magnificent temple, but alas, it was not to be. The temple building is undergoing some maintenance work and won't be open until mid 2014 at the earliest. On the upside, the entry fee was massively reduced and you can still wander around the grounds of the temple and visit the museum that houses some important artifacts from the temple. A bit of a disappointment, but not much that could be done. For the same reason, we were unable to visit the Ujigami shrine.

Well THAT sucked.

B) Koshoji Temple: This temple was a short walk east along the northern bank of the Uji river. It was a rather beautiful temple off the beaten path. It was free to visit too. It's not particularly big, but set against the mountainside it does have a certain kind of beauty to it. I would definitely recommend visiting if you have the time

C) Cormorant fishing: If you want to watch a traditional way of fishing, this is the place to go. In this style of fishing, the fisherman train the birds to catch the fish for them, instead of using a fishing rod or net to do the work. from 6.30pm onwards you can watch this event from a boat or a bridge on the Uji river. Its quite interesting to say the least.

3) Nara: Nara reminds me of Kamakura, near Yokohama. It has a quintessentially laid back and peaceful feel to it. Like Kamakura, it is steeped in history and filled with various beautiful shrines and parks. I think this place is definitely a must see for any visitor to the Kansai area. The city is also filled with deer. DEER! Sadly, we were only here for half a day. You could easily spend a full day here, there is so much to see.

Review of Sights in Nara:

A) Kofukuji Temple: This temple has its origins in the 7th and 8th centuries and is a UNESCO world heritage site. It's a grand old temple located right in Central Nara. Unfortunately, one of the buildings at the temple is currently undergoing a renovation and won't be open for another year. On the flip side, there were quite a few deer roaming around harassing anyone with food, it was quite a funny sight to watch.

Quite a pretty little temple

This is what happens when you tease a deer with food! This was just too funny for us to NOT take a picture of.

B)Todaiji Temple: This is a huge temple located in central Nara park. It dominates the park in every way, and like the above Kofukuji temple, it is also a UNESCO site. The main hall itself is a 1709 reconstruction of a reconstruction of the original temple and up until 15 years ago it was the largest wooden building in the world. It is pretty magnificent to look upon. It's even more amazing when you realise that the current reconstruction is actually a smaller version of the original building. Inside the temple you will find one of the largest and oldest bronze Buddhas in the world, constructed by the Emperor Shomu in the 8th century. This thing apparently almost bankrupted ancient Japan!

This Buddha statue was huge, though maybe a little smaller than the Kamakura Buddha

Honourable Mention: East side of Nara Park: If you go east from Todaiji temple you will find a multitude of shrines and temples along the hillside. All of these are worth a visit as they offer both beautiful architecture and an amazing view of Nara city.

4) Kobe: Kobe, the famous port city of Japan. We didn't actually spend very long here, so I can't really say much about it. It seemed like a very cosmopolitan place though, a bit like Yokohama. While here, we went up the Kobe ropeway to the herb gardens to see the night view of Kobe city. Word of warning though, be damn careful up there. While there I was stung or bitten by some kind of flying insect. I suspect it was the Japanese Hornet, but I can't be sure. Whatever it was, it hurt like hell for a few hours

Kobe at night.

5) Osaka: What can I say... Osaka looks like Tokyo, it feels like Tokyo, only its a dozen times more humid :P. I'm not a fan of these kind of cities, so I can't really give an unbiased opinion of it. If you like Tokyo, you will like Osaka. If, like me,  you hate Tokyo, then you probably won't like it much.

Review of Sights in Osaka:

A) Osaka Castle: Sure, this castle might be a concrete reconstruction of a previous castle that was destroyed, but its still worth seeing. The view from the top is pretty sweet and the museum inside is filled with historical artifacts from Osaka's past. The grounds of the castle are quite nice too. Its a pity that Osaka is so hot though, otherwise it would certainly have been a nice picnic location.

Osaka's famous replica castle

B) Dotunbori : Quite possibly the most famous place in Osaka. Its always filled with tourists and is generally a must see for any visitor to Osaka. Its lined with shops from one end to the other, catering to just about every part of society.Its also famous for its food, namely Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki. If you like food and cakes, go here.

6) Himeji: Himeji...Himeji...Himeji.... This was one place above all else that I wanted to visit in Kansai. There is really only one thing people go to Himeji to see and that is its castle. That was precisely why I wanted to make the journey to this place.

Review of Sights in Himeji: 

A) Himeji Castle: If there is one place in Japan that so thoroughly disappointed me then it was Himeji. The town itself is quite nice and has a small market similar to that of Nishiki in Kyoto. However despite all the advertisement this place gets the moment you enter Kansai airport and see posters of it lining the walls on the way to the airport railroad, what they forget to tell you is that it is also currently undergoing maintenance, and has been for a while now. It won't be ready for the public to see until mid 2014 at the earliest.

Now you can imagine out disappointment when we arrived at Himeji only to see a huge scaffold looming over the city where the castle should have been. You can still visit the castle grounds (at a cost!) and you can pay money to go up and have the 'privilege' of seeing the construction work in progress, but honestly that is just a waste of money. Himeji was a total let down in every possible way.

Advertisement vs Reality

All in all, It was a great trip. I would definitely visit Kyoto again in a heartbeat. There were just so many things that we didn't have time to look at. Likewise for Nara. I'd probably give Himeji a wide bearth though!


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