Having looked at the price of accommodation in Kyoto and Nara (staying overnight in either of these places is nearly double the price of cheap digs available in Osaka) we decided that Osaka would be our base for the next few days as we explored a bit more of the Kansai region.
With our Japan Rail Passes none of these destinations are more than an hour away from Osaka. From our enjoyment of the city madness of Osaka, the humbling Hiroshima and the mountainous Miyajima we were ready to visit a few more temples and shrines, Kyoto and Nara have these in oodles. We’re yet to suffer the much talked about ‘temple fatigue’ when visiting Japan and have been wowed by the architecture and serene beauty of the gardens surrounding these places of worship.
Temple worship in Nara
Getting to Nara is easy and only takes 45 minutes on the fast train.
We decided to stop short of Nara for our first temple at Horyuji, about twelve minutes outside Nara. From Horyuji station it is a short hop on a very small bus and you are at the the Temple. Here you get a very impressive set of temples and gardens to wander around. Not a bad start, but the museum in the grounds houses some major Japanese ‘National Treasures’ dating back from the 14th and 15th centuries. This temple is well worth the stop on the way to Nara, even if you are a bit pushed for time.
After Horuji we continued our journey on to Nara where you are spoilt for choice for temples. From the station it is about a ten minute walk to Nara Park where you will find the greatest treasures, but one or two are situated on the walk so be sure to take the time to stop along the way. Notably Kofukuji Temple and its adjacent five storey pagoda.
Nara park is vast and full of deer, the same as we saw on Miyajima.
Unlike Miyajima there are stalls here that sell biscuits to feed them. Stop and watch for a while, you see people who are clearly frightened of animals purchasing deer biscuits. They then spend the next ten minutes running away from the deer as the ‘wild’ animals go in search of their latest snack. Funny to watch.
The best of the temples in Nara has to be the Todaiji, it houses a 16 metre high bronze buddah. Equally impressive is the size and architecture of the wooden temple (Daibutsuden ) that houses it. It is the ‘largest wooden structure’ in the world. Truly impressive. Not as large, but equally astonishing, are the wooden carved statues of Kongōrikishi (left).
We meandered back through the park and then caught the train back to Osaka for the evening. A prefect day trip from Osaka taken at a leisurely pace. The next day in Kyoto proved to be much more challenging, but with it came some very special moments.
Kyoto blog post continues below after these photographs of Nara.
Kyoto is even easier to get to from Osaka. If you catch a bullet train you can be there in 15 minutes from Shin-Osaka station, but we were closer to Osaka station so took the ‘Thunderbird’ instead (25 minutes) , mostly because it had a cool name.
Kyoto is a reasonably big city of about 1.5 million people, but unlike Osaka or Tokyo its subway and train system is of limited value to the tourist there for a days sightseeing. You mostly have to use the buses which get you to the places you need to go with the exception of the Inari shrine.
It’s a lot slower than the subway, but at least you get to see and feel the proportions of the city while you zip between the sights.
We had on our wish list
- The Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
- The Golden Temple (Kinkakuji)
- The Silver Temple (Ginkakuji)
- The Path of Philosophy cherry blossom walk
- Gion area for dinner and hopefully a bit of Geisha spotting
We presented this wish list to the loveley people at the Tourist information office and told them we were there for the day. Their eyebrows raised and they were sceptical that we would achieve it all, so we saw that as a challenge. They furnished us with their very helpful bus map which tells you the buses you need to use between the sights and off we
trotted ran to get the train to our first shrine at Inari.
When we reached the platform we asked one of the JR station staff where the next train to the Inari temple was leaving from, we thanked him and waited patiently on the platform. Sadly the departure board told us that it was not leaving for 23 minutes – a serious setback to our time challenge sightseeing tour.
Five minutes later we spotted him running up the platform towards us, in a breathless state he informed us there was an earlier train leaving from another platform that would be stopping at Inari station. He personally guided us there just in time, as we boarded the doors closed and we were back on track. Now I can’t imagine that many British Rail staff would go that extra mile for a couple of foreign tourists. What a lovely man – act of kindness number one.
Fifteen minutes on the train and we were at the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine. In order to truly appreciate this shrine and the thousands upon thousands of torii gates which line your winding path up the mountain you need to do a bit of semi serious walking.
It takes about two hours for the round trip up and down the winding gate lined paths. We were now beginning to understand the raised eyebrows at the tourist office! Especially as I took a wrong turn at the top and we ended up on the other side of the mountain after our descent.
The ever helpful Japanese came to our rescue again and one of the locals who spoke a bit of English understood our plea of ‘JR station’ and the lost look on our faces. She insisted in guiding us through the small village until we were on the right road for the station back to Kyoto. Act of kindness number two.
I already felt like we should’ve tried finding Japanese lessons online before we left to make getting around easier.
At Kyoto we hopped on our bus and headed North West to the Golden temple. I had seen pictures of this and the reality did not disappoint.
The temple is absolutely magnificent. It is set on a small lake and the gold leaf which adorns virtually every inch of its exterior glimmers beautifully in the sun which luckily for us had just made a brief appearance on what was a rather murky day.
Another bus hop and we had made it to the Silver temple and paid our entrance fee (entrance to the shrines and temples will range from 300-500 Yen). This was set in beautiful moss and tree lined gardens, but for us we could not spot a bit of silver between us, sometimes we’re quite literal like that.
We then headed down the Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku no michi) to view the blossoms which line the canal that runs from this temple back into the centre of the city. The path is named after to Nishida Kitaro, a famous Japanese philosopher. It was claimed he used to practice meditation along this route while making his way to Kyoto University each day. I was merely wondering whether we would get lucky and spot at Geisha in the Gion area. John was getting gooey about the blossoms and has turned into a ‘sakura’ fan.
We were now ahead of time, so got off the bus early and decided to have a wander in Chionin temple. When we approached from the road we saw lots of food stalls and as we wandered into the park adjoining it there were hundreds of groundsheets being set up underneath the cherry trees. We had just found our first Sakura party (Hanami) .
It was still only around five pm so we decided to pop back later after we had gone on our geisha hunt.
We wandered around the Gion in search of the elusive beauties (the skeptical tourist staff had said we would be lucky to see them) and we were getting a little forlorn, it’d been an early start to the day.
The sun was setting and all we could find were hoards of tourists being led by flag or umbrella waving guides making there way to dinner in one of the many ceremonial tea houses before heading back to their tour buses. Then what do we see but a couple of geisha scuttling into one of the many Geisha houses in Gion – Snap one…
We turned the corner, John spotted another crowd gathering and we went to investigate. It looked liked some very important event was just concluding with lots of beautifully dressed people being hurried into a line of waiting taxis.
We hung around and were rewarded with more Geisha leaving with them, hurriedly getting into the waiting cars. Out came the camera and I enetered paparazzi mode and snapped away. Result Geisha shots number two and three.
Oh Hanami what fun
Satisfied with our papping we went back to the park, via the convenience store to pick up a liquid picnic and sat watching the party get into its stride. We found a nice spot on a bench, overlooking the assembled crowds underneath the blossoms. We watched as they laid out their picnics and chosen drinks for the evening, from the amount of booze being carted in, it was clear that this was going to be an all night affair. We we’re a little sad, that we had to take a train later that evening, and wouldn’t be able to join the party into the early hours.
It was a wonderful atmosphere, the groups ranged from the noisy and excited student gatherings, to groups of co-workers who had just finished work and decided their Friday night office outing would be to sit under the blossom, eat and drink together. We watched the speeches, singing and dancing as we were warmly welcomed into the festivities. We exchanged smiles and brief conversations whilst sipping our beers at this awesome spectacle. We ended up chatting to a fellow traveller who enjoyed the scene along with us.
Then we had our third act of Japanese kindness that day. A man from one of the groups wandered over to us said “Konichiwa”, handed us a bag of tempura, told us it was chicken and vegetables, then handed us two hand wipes, bowed and then rejoined his group.
John and I were both touched by this little act of random kindness, in fact it moved us to shed a little tear. We happily enjoyed his gift and made sure when we were leaving we went over to thank him again in our best Japanese accents. It rounded off a beautiful day and we reluctantly left the party at about 10pm. Before finally leaving for the station, we had a final tour round the rest of the park and warmed our now chilly hands on the basket fires that they light around the park for the revellers.
It was a most wonderful day of Japanese history, culture, but most of all kindness and help from the wonderful Kyoto people. This is one of the special days that just all comes together like this.
We both had our fortune told that day, and both received better than average luck ratings, I hope this good karma continues.