Trip Report: Japan 2012 – Day 7 – Kyoto and Nara Day Tour

So, in order to maximize the intake of cultural sites, we arranged for a day-tour of Kyoto and Nara. If you’re ever in the area, we suggest you do the same. We arranged our tour via Japanican, a subsidiary of JTB. One can only do so many temples and shrines, but this tour gives a really nice overview, and makes accessing Nara easy. I should add, there is an important reason why you should see Nara along with Kyoto and Tokyo – by doing so, you’d be visiting the New Capital (Tokyo, 1869-present), the Old Capital (Kyoto, 784-1868), and the Ancient Capital (Nara, 710-784).

But, to begin, the Japanese breakfast of champions: 7-11 musubi and coffee.

7-11 Musubi and Coffee. Image Credit: Ryan.

Take your pick. We noted that all the musubi are now branded with 7-11 logos.

7-11 Wall of Musubi. Image Credit: Ryan.

Obviously, you can arrange all kinds of tours in all kinds of variations. Our tour provided all transportation via bus, an English-speaking guide, and lunch. Each guide (and there will be many) will be holding up some kind of sign or flag to signify which group you belong to when they start moving. Try to keep up. Our tour guide was Hiro, by the way.

Tour Guide, Hiro. Image Credit: Ryan.

Our first stop was Nishi Hongwanji Temple. You might be familiar with the Hongwanji-affiliated temples all throughout the Hawaiian Islands (first established in 1889). This is where that all started. And these buildings are considered National Treasures of Japan.

Nishi Hongwanji Temple. Image Credit: Ryan.

Not to get all da kine, but this is the Founder’s Hall where a statue carved by Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism, is displayed. They mixed some of his ashes into the varnish of the statue, making this a super sacred relic. Shin Buddhism is the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan, with 20% of the population identifying as members of the sect (but usually only during funerals).

Founder’s Hall, Nishi Honganji. Image Credit: Ryan.

Next up: Nijo Castle, the auxiliary residence of the Shogun.

Nijo Castle. Image Credit: Ryan.
Nijo Castle Wall and Moat. Image Credit: Ryan.

Some solid Japanese engineering right here.

Solid Japanese Engineering. Image Credit: Ryan.

Nijo Castle also boasts a beautiful landscaped garden. Not that you can’t walk ten feet in Kyoto and find yourself in another beautiful landscaped garden. But this one is very nice. Also, when it’s not cold and miserable, there is a plum orchard (blooms around early March-ish?), a cherry blossom orchard (blooms late March, early April), and fall foliage (November-ish).

Garden at Nijo Castle. Image Credit: Ryan.

Moving on, we’re at Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, on the grounds of a Zen Buddhist temple.

T and Kinkakuji. Image Credit: Ryan.

That’s gold leaf from the second floor up. A little gaudy, to tell you the truth, but the grounds are nice. Also check out Kinkakuji, or the silver pavilion, which has no silver leaf but may have been named for the reflection of the moon reflecting off its exterior, formerly painted with black lacquer.

Kinkakuji, Up Close. Image Credit: Ryan.
Ginkakuji Garden. Image Credit: Ryan.

From there, a quick stop off for lunch: a small nabe, menchi katsu and assorted koko.

Tour Lunch. Image Credit: Ryan.

Quick shot of the largest pagoda remaining in Kyoto as we head to Nara.

Largest Pagoda in Kyoto. Image Credit: Ryan.

Here we’re headed for Todai-ji, one of the most impressive wooden structures ever crafted by the hands of humans. But, first, the gate.

South Gate, Todai-ji. Image Credit: T.

And its guardian.

Guardian of Todai-ji, Ungyo. Image Credit: Ryan.

And the other.

Guardian of Todai-ji, Agyo. Image Credit: Ryan.

On to the inner gate.

Inner Gate, Todai-ji. Image Credit: T.

Turn the corner, and, whoa, that’s a big wooden building. Look at the people on the stairs for scale. This is the Daibutsuden, or Great Buddha Hall.

Todai-ji Great Buddha Hall. Image Credit: T.

Which holds this. A really Great Buddha, made of bronze.

Great Buddha. Image Credit: Ryan.

Hard to tell from the previous picture of its scale, but the Buddha is sitting on many lotus petals, each about 10 meters across.

Bronze Lotus Petal. Image Credit: Ryan.

Another way to understand the scale of this Buddha and the immense building its housed in: this hole in one of the support pillars is the size of the Buddha’s nostril. It is said that if you can squeeze through the hole, you are guaranteed a place in Heaven. Not pictured: T squeezing through the hole. Because she was chicken.

Buddhist Good Luck Hole. Image Credit: Ryan.

This bronze lantern out in front of Todai-ji dates back to the 700s. Yeah, that’s right – no 1 in front of the 700. 1300 years ago.

Bronze Lantern, Todai-ji. Image Credit: Ryan.

Cherry(?) Blossom Interlude. It only occurs to me right now that this is probably a plum blossom tree, because cherry blossoms were in such short supply at the time. Equally nice, actually.

T and the Cherry/Plum Blossom Tree, Todai-ji. Image Credit: Ryan.

Moving on, T meets another popular attraction in Nara, the deer. Hey, T, why don’t you feed that deer some senbei?

T Meets a Deer. Image Credit: Ryan.

Err, that deer has its nose inside of T’s jacket, and others sense opportunity.

More Deer. Image Credit: Ryan.

And they’re upon her. The one on the left actually bit T’s jacket before snatching its senbei. T took off in a panic about 2 seconds after this picture is taken.

Deer Mob. Image Credit: Ryan.

On to the last stop on the tour: Kasuga Taisha, Nara’s most celebrated Shinto Shrine.  The stone lanterns are tributes from believers.

Kasuga Shrine. Image Credit: Ryan.

A 100-year old cypress Tree growing out of a 1000-year old cypress tree.

Cypress Tree, Kasuga Taisha. Image Credit: Ryan.

The bronze lanterns are also tributes.

Bronze Lanterns, Kasuga Taisha. Image Credit: Ryan.

Random, but the sign marks the dangerous years for men and women. For women (in Western years): 18, 32, 36; for men: 24, 41, 60.

Random Warning Sign, Kasuga Taisha. Image Credit: Ryan.

Back on the bus and time for a snack. Various hot drinks and kakinoha-zushi (Nara style). Note: since Nara is far from the ocean, seafood had to be preserved; it’s a little funky if all you’re used to is Edo-mae (or California) style.

Bus Snack. Image Credit: Ryan.

The tour terminated at Kyoto Station. It had been a long day (in a series of long days) so we immediately went off in search of food. Saw this – a McDonald’s with private booths to eat in – but didn’t stop there.

Kyoto Station McDonald’s. Image Credit: Ryan.

Dinner 1: last chance at tonkatsu greatness. Katsukura rosu katsu teishoku and a side of ebi (prawn) katsu. And the winner is still Maisen.

Katsukura Rosu Teishoku. Image Credit: Ryan.

And a katsu sando for later, too.

Katsu Sando. Image Credit: Ryan.

Dinner 2: chicken-shoyu base ramen. Couldn’t tell you the name of the place we went to, but it was one of the shops in the Kyoto Ramen Koji on the 10th floor of Kyoto Station. It was one of the ramen recommended by the ice cream shop girl. It wasn’t that good.

Chicken-shoyu base ramen. Image Credit: Ryan.

Dinner 3: tonkotsu-shoyu style ramen. Also recommended. And much better.

Tonkotsu-shoyu Ramen. Image Credit: Ryan.

And, finally, dessert: a mattcha parfait with seemingly everything on it (including a french fry).

Mattcha Parfait Dessert. Image Credit: Ryan.

Once again, good night.


Questions, Comments or Criticisms?