2 Weeks during sakura season 2014
Day 2: A Food and Sake Tour of Fushimi
Scheduling a tour on our first day made us get up early and go out exploring sooner than we would have otherwise. We took a food and sake tour of Kyoto with Jason, a local of Fushimi, a town just south of Kyoto. Jason moved to the area after growing up in the Midwest and coming over for college in Tokyo. If you’re looking for an amazing, personal, fun experience in Kyoto, I’d recommend contacting JD Kai Tour and seeing about scheduling one. At $50 a person per tour, this was one of the best values of our trip.
Fushimi Food Tour
This tour took us outside of downtown Kyoto to areas tourists wouldn’t normally go. We tried foods I’d never seen available before in the US, but will seek out in the future. The softer tempura with a cod batter was delicious, as were the fresh sweet potato stuffed pancakes, squash croquettes, fresh sushi and eel stuffed omelets.
Kyoto Sake Tour
Following the food tour, we jumped immediately into the sake tour. The Fushimi area has long been a renown center for sake in Japan. It was close to the capital, and served by the springs in the area containing an optimal mineral balance for sake. On our walk over to this tour, we spotted our first cherry blossoms of the season.
Our first stop on the tour was a liquor store where we learned the basics behind the different types of sake. My knowledge of sake was limited to dry vs sweet and filtered vs unfiltered, but Jason went more into depth about the rice milling rate, pasteurized vs unpasteurized and more.
We went to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, home to a sake distillery founded in 1667. I wouldn’t recommend going to this museum without a guide, as the more interesting bits were in Japanese and would have been lost on us without a guide. Although, you’d still get sake, so it’s not all bad.
Fushimi Inari-taisha - 伏見稲荷大社
On our way back to the hotel, we decided to stop by Fushimi Inari - a large shrine that sits at the bottom of a mountain and trails up 4 kilometers into hillside. It was dusk when we made it there, so we only managed to make it about a kilometer up. Unlike parks in the US, this was open at all hours, with lanterns along the pathway. Fushimi Inari was founded as far back as 711, and is famous for having thousands of torii, the orange gates you see. It is one of the most iconic sites in all of Japan, and worth the visit.
Day 3: Exploring Kyotos History
Planning out a few days in Kyoto means deciding which famous sites you want to visit and which you can leave out. There is no shortage of shrines and castles within a short train ride. Today was our day to explore the town and see some of the sites.
Nishiki Market - 錦市場
Within walking distance of our hotel was Nishiki Market, taking over a street and running about 8 blocks before coming in contact with another market running perpendicular to it providing more traditional shopping. The market thrives around 10am with vendors putting out their fresh tempura, fish, pickles and other wares. This market doesn’t start as early as some others, so don’t aim to get there right at opening, or you’ll probably see a lot of closed stalls. We woke up early and grabbed breakfast before exploring the market.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple - 清水寺
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is another ancient temple and UNESCO world heritage site on the east side of Kyoto. It’s name translates to “Pure Water Template”, which people line up to drink. Founded in 778, this temple sits high on the mountainside with a great view of the city. The tall main structure of the Buddhist temple was constructed using no nails.
We were there about a week before the cherry blossoms bloomed, but that didn’t stop the view from being amazing. The trail up to the template was littered with stores selling trinkets, food and souvenirs, but we did manage to spot a shop selling nothing but Ghibli merchandise which we somehow left with money leftover.
Gion - 祇園
The small district of Gion is famous for it’s Geishas and restaurants and sits on Kyotos east side. If you show up around sunset, you’ll see a number of maiko fully dressed, heading to tea houses. We admired and appreciated the ones we saw, but didn’t want to interrupt them with photo requests.
We wandered the streets, appreciating the small gardens and architecture that stood out in comparison to the rest of the city. One of the highlights of our adventures in Gion was a Maiko performance at Gion Corner. The short 1 hour performance showcases a number of arts including Kyo-mai Dance, Tea Ceremony, Koto Zither, Puppet Theater and Gagaku Court music.
Day 4: Ancient Castles and Osaka
Since it was raining, we wanted to keep it close to the hotel to start the day. Marilyn was still sick, so today we tried to take it easy to start the day. We stopped by a grocery store to grab a snack and was amazed by their fresh foods. You could pickup a full sashimi plate for under $6, or grab freshly made tempura by the pound.
Nijo Castle - 二条城
Nijo Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site and 400 year old castle was across from our hotel. We took a rainy morning and explored the castle and its grounds. Although pictures are prohibited within the buildings, the gardens and moat surrounding the castle were picturesque enough. At $5, the audio guide was well worth it.
Nijo castle was constructed with the help of feudal lords in the area who were all ordered to contribute to its construction. Some parts of it were also moved from elsewhere in the 1600s. It was initially built as the residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns during the Edo period.
Kyoto Imperial Castle Gardens - 京都御所
A few blocks from Nijo Castle sits the Imperial Palace. Stretching almost a kilometer, it offers a tranquil spot to get away from the streets of Kyoto. In order to get inside the palace, you’ll need to make a reservation, but anyone can walk into the gardens. We arrived just as the plum blossoms were in full bloom. These bloom just before the cherry blossoms, but to me were the more beautiful in their colors and diversity.
The Busy Streets of Osaka - 大阪
After our castle tours, we made it back to the hotel to dry off before jumping on a train down to Osaka. It’s only a 15 minute train ride by bullet train, which is free with a Japan Rail Pass. We headed to the Namba district, famous for its nightlife, restaurants and kilometer long shopping arcades.
We made our way down Shinsaibashi, a hugely crowded shopping mall with every brand you could imagine. We stopped by a 4 floor Sega arcade which had an odd selection of games. The entire top 2 floors contained room-sized photo booths, with costumes handy for the girls to change into (and only girls were allowed).
At the end of the street, we crossed the Dōtonboribashi Bridge and sat down for dinner at a okonomiyaki style restaurant. Imagine an egg heavy pancake cooked at a small grill at your table. It’s also a local favorite that started in Osaka.
In our wandering, we also walked through the area featured in the documentary The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. It’s an interesting documentary about the culture of host cafes – cafes where you pay exorbitant drink fees for the privilege of company and “friendship” from attractive men and women.
Day 5: Nara, Japans First capital - 奈良市
Just outside of Kyoto is Nara, the capital of Japan about 700-1300 years ago. The area is famous for its deer and ancient temples in close proximity of each other which are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We took the train down from Kyoto, which is actually about a 1 hour ride due to the number of stops.
We you get off the train and make your way east, before too long you’ll run into the famous deer of Nara. I like Wikipedias explantation of why there are so many.
According to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country.
So it’s basically like cows in India, except tourists come from far and wide to feed them. At night they are penned up and fed for their own safety and population control reasons. From what I’ve read, they keep their antlers short to protect visitors.
You can pet them, but if you have food they’ll head butt you for it. For only $1.50 you can pick up a pack of rice crackers to feed to them from any of the many vendors lined up on the main street. If you get some crackers here and keep them for the deer in Kasuga Tasiha, you’ll be able to feed them one at a time rather than all at once.
Kasuga Taisha - 春日大社
After pushing our way through the deer, we started the walk up to Kasuga Taisha. I’d heard from Marilyn it was a nice walk, but this was probably my favorite walk throughout the entire trip. If you know the scene at the beginning of Spirited Away where Chihiro is passing by many stone lanterns in a very close forest – this reminded me of that.
Leading up to the main shrine, you’ll travel through the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. This ancient forest has a close, damp feel to it. The path is surrounded by thousands of stone lanterns all along the walkway, which you’ll see deer peeking through.
Compared to the walk up, the shrine itself is anticlimactic, but worth the $5 admission while you’re there.
Lunch at the Garden
Closer to Todai-ji Temple there are a number of restaurants and roadside food stands, but farther up towards Kasuga Taisha the options are limited. There is a small botanical garden you can pay a few hundred yen to tour, or if you only want a view you can stop in for lunch. We got off our feet for a while for a light lunch before heading to Todai-ji.
Todai-ji Temple - 東大寺
The most visited site in Nara is Todai-ji temple, a monstrously large Buddhist temple housing the worlds largest bronze Buddha statue. This was our last stop in Nara. When we rounded the corner and saw Todai-ji for the first time, we both gasped at the sheer size of it. Due to the surrounding gate houses, you don’t get a close view of Todai-ji until you’re close, and at that point it is the most impressive.
The walk up to Todai-ji is littered with stores and street food. I made it my quest to try each and every one.