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.
Take your pick. We noted that all the musubi are now branded with 7-11 logos.
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.
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.
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).
Next up: Nijo Castle, the auxiliary residence of the Shogun.
Some solid Japanese engineering right here.
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).
Moving on, we’re at Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, on the grounds of a Zen Buddhist temple.
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.
From there, a quick stop off for lunch: a small nabe, menchi katsu and assorted koko.
Quick shot of the largest pagoda remaining in Kyoto as we head to Nara.
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.
And its guardian.
And the other.
On to the inner gate.
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.
Which holds this. A really Great Buddha, made of bronze.
Hard to tell from the previous picture of its scale, but the Buddha is sitting on many lotus petals, each about 10 meters across.
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.
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.
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.
Moving on, T meets another popular attraction in Nara, the deer. Hey, T, why don’t you feed that deer some senbei?
Err, that deer has its nose inside of T’s jacket, and others sense opportunity.
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.
On to the last stop on the tour: Kasuga Taisha, Nara’s most celebrated Shinto Shrine. The stone lanterns are tributes from believers.
A 100-year old cypress Tree growing out of a 1000-year old cypress tree.
The bronze lanterns are also tributes.
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.
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.
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.
Dinner 1: last chance at tonkatsu greatness. Katsukura rosu katsu teishoku and a side of ebi (prawn) katsu. And the winner is still Maisen.
And a katsu sando for later, too.
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.
Dinner 3: tonkotsu-shoyu style ramen. Also recommended. And much better.
And, finally, dessert: a mattcha parfait with seemingly everything on it (including a french fry).
Once again, good night.
- Japan 2012 – Introduction, Day 1
- Japan 2012 – Day 2, Part 1 – Tsukiji and 3 Breakfasts
- Japan 2012 – Day 2, Part 2 – Asakusa, Kappabashi
- Japan 2012 – Day 3 – Tokyo Disney Sea and a Journey to Nostalgia
- Japan 2012 – Day 4 – Odaiba and Hometown Tonkatsu
- Japan 2012 – Day 5 – Ueno, Meiji Jingu, Yoyogi, Omotesando, Shibuya
- Japan 2012 – Day 6 – Travel Day by Shinkansen, Kyoto
- Japan 2012 – Day 8 – Bicycling through Kyoto, Turtle Dinner
- Japan 2012 – Day 9 – Kyoto Imperial Palace, Ginkakuji, Travel Day to Hakone
- Japan 2012 – Day 10 – Hakone Circuit and Onsen-ing
- Japan 2012 – Day 11 – Travel Day Return to Tokyo and Sushi at Kyubey
- Japan 2012 – Days 12-13 – Akihabara Craft Beer Festival and Our Goodbyes to Japan