Getting to Kyoto from Bangkok involved a very long day of traveling, which seems to be a recurring theme on this trip. First we took a 5-hour flight to Tokyo, then had to hop on an hour-long train to get to the 3-hour-long Shinkansen — where we had to stand in the unreserved smoking car for about 45 minutes before getting seats. We also had a bit of a failure in planning here — we had no baht left to exchange for yen, so we didn’t get any in Bangkok. Then we missed the exchange counter at the Tokyo airport, leaving us with 0 yen, and thus no food or drink possibilities. We thought we’d be able to find an ATM at one of the train stations, but that didn’t happen, and when we finally got to Yamashina, where we just needed to take a Kyoto subway 4 stops to Daigo, we got stuck. Our Japan Rail passes wouldn’t cover the trip, the ATMs we found wouldn’t take foreign cards and at 10:30 p.m., we didn’t have any exchange options we could see. We were also caught in a thunderstorm. Thankfully, we were able to call the person we were staying with, Ted, to come pick us up. He even had dinner ready for us when we got to his house.
The front gate at Kiyomizudera
We spent our first few days in Kyoto exploring the city — going shopping, eating at vegetarian restaurants and checking out the temples. Kiyomizudera was my favorite, with its pretty trails, beautiful views and quaint wooden shrines. The complex also has a waterfall that people drink from to gain luck and knowledge — we made sure to drink up! We also spent some time in Gion, where we saw a Geisha in her full get-up, with white face makeup and all. Tons of people were snapping photos of her just crossing the road. There were many other women in traditional kimonos, but not many were fully made up.
We visited some other temples in the hills that form the city’s border, like Nanzen-Ji, where we walked through an enormous gateway and under a red-brick aqueducts and up into the woods to visit a small shrine by a waterfall. And we walked down the Philosopher’s Path, a quiet walkway by a canal, until we found Honsen-In, another temple, which was closed for the day.
A temple garden in Kyoto
We were able to scramble over to the Ginkaku-Ji, the Silver Pavilion, shortly before closing time, but were disappointed to find the structure undergoing a complete restoration — it was basically a shell of a building covered in tarps. The gardens, however, were well worth the visit, with clear ponds, stone steps leading up to a view point, sunny and shady areas, plenty of moss groundcover, and a sand garden shaped to represent Mount Fuji and the sea. We took a second loop around the grounds because we liked it so much.
The rest of the time we were based in Kyoto, we took day trips to nearby cities. Also, we were surprised by how hot Kyoto, and Japan in general, was — the heat and humidity made Thailand feel temperate, and we had to buy little towels to wipe the sweat from our faces. Who knew?
August 11, 2008
First, we took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima, where we visited the peace park. We saw the A-Bomb Dome, the ruins of a neoclassical building that was very close to the hypocenter of the blast, which was eerie — parts are still standing, other parts are totally mangled, and there are Japanese families taking photos giving the peace sign in front of it. From there, we walked on to the island where most of the park is, and saw all the paper cranes that comprise the children’s memorial, then went by the eternal flame and the cenotaph, which looks back on the A-Bomb Dome.
The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima
We also visited the museum, which gave a detailed history of Hiroshima and a good amount of insight as to why it was bombed. It also had a lot of information on nuclear weapons and really showcased the devastation of the city through photos, models and artifacts from the day it was bombed, like warped metal girders, burned clothed, melted roof tiles and some gruesome victim portraits. The museum isn’t only a memorial of what happened there, though — it is truly a call for peace and an end to nuclear proliferation. It was very powerful to see such a tragedy turned into a positive mission.
After taking in the museum, we also checked out the memorial hall, a large, echoing sunken space with a fountain at its center and the names of Hiroshima’s neighborhoods set around it. Also, we noticed that water played an important role at the peace park — many visitors were leaving water bottles at the memorials — and we learned that it’s because many of the bomb’s victims died begging for water.
The floating gate in Miyajima
Once we’d toured the park, we were ready for some lighter fare and headed to Miyajima to see the tori gate in the sea. We took a ferry over to the island and were surprised to find lots of deer to greet us. We walked down the coast to the shrine, which was closed because it was a bit late in the day, then watched the sun set pink behind the bright orange floating gate.
August 12, 2008
Our second day trip was to Himeji to see the castle. From the train station, we walked right up the main road until it stopped at the big, scenic moat. We walked across the bridge and onto the castle grounds and went to the main tower — a big, white, multistoried building on a tall stone foundation. There were lots of small spaces for people to throw rocks or boiling water down on invaders, and these came in square, circle, triangle and rectangle shapes. It was also a no-shoes building, so we climbed the stairs to the top barefoot, carrying our shoes in bags. I don’t know why they insist in putting metal caps on the ends of the stairs for people going barefoot — it’s quite an uncomfortable climb.
The view from the top wasn’t all that great — Himeji looks pretty industrial — but it was nice to see the castle.
When we returned to Kyoto station in the evening and took the escalators up to the roof garden on top top of the cool modern bulding to take in the nighttime view, then walked across its glass walkways.
August 13, 2008
Our day trips started feeling like doing suicide sprints backwards — we started with the longest, Hiroshima, and just kept on the same train lines, going shorter and shorter distances each day. We definitely made the most out of our JR passes. The bullet train was basically our daily transport, which really helped us get back and forth quickly, though we wish we could have ridden the super-speedy Nozomi trains, which had better, longer routes.
Osaka is only a short ride away from Tokyo, yet it feels quite different. It’s much more modern, and much more crowded. We first went to the aquarium, since it was highly recommended. Apparently it was highly recommended to all of Japan, though, since there were some really incredible crowds. There were people blocking every tank and sign and women on bullhorns yelling announcements every few feet. It made for a pretty stressful visit, though we did manage to at least get a glimpse of the dolphins, otters, penguins, rays and whale sharks. The best part was a smallish exhibit with baby otters, which was set apart from the main path and nowhere near as packed.
Looking up at the Osaka Sky Building
Next on our sightseeing tour was the Osaka Sky Building, a transformers-looking structure, with two tall buildings attached at the top, with long escalators running to the roof garden observation point and a thin bridge at the 22nd floor. We made it to the top just in time for sunset, when the clouds and sky turned a beautiful pink over the sprawling city. And riding up to the top in the glass elevator and then taking the glass escalator the last five stories was quite a thrill.