After spending several days in Osaka, we decided to go to the nearby city of Nara. Nara was the capital of Japan for a brief period (710-784), and is full of ancient temples and shrines. I had also heard that it was a very walkable city, and that it could be seen in one or two days.
We took the JR train to Nara, which only took about forty-five minutes. After arriving in Nara, we headed to Nara Park, which is where most of the main temples and attractions of the city are. As we began walking through the city I liked it immediately; it was very clean and chic, full of interesting stores and restaurants. Just before entering the park we passed by a serene pond with views of several temples in the distance, it was very peaceful.
Immediately upon entering the park I began to see deer. One of the ‘attractions’ of Nara are the deer, which I had heard were plentiful in the park. Although I have obviously seen deer before, I have never been somewhere where they are so unfazed, and unintimidated by people. Of course, this could be because of the numerous stands selling deer cookies to feed the deer with, but it was still surprising to see deer calmly walking around and harassing people for food. Some of the smarter deer just waited right next the vendors selling deer cookies, although others were content surrounding and head-butting people with cookies until they were fed.
On our way to Todaji Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), William decided to buy some cookies and feed the deer which was an amusing sight. He gave me a cookie to feed them with which I quickly surrendered before the small gathering of deer grew impatient.
The first temple we saw, Todaji Temple, was also the most impressive and probably my favorite temple I saw in Japan. It is actually the largest wooden building in the world, although it is much smaller than it was originally. On the roof it is decorated with two fish tails to prevent it from burning down, although it actually suffered that fate twice.
Inside there was a large Buddha, as well as several other statues of what I assumed were important figures. One of the most interesting parts of the temple was a wooden column with a small hole through its base. Apparently if children climb through the hole they gain intelligence from Buddha, and so there was a long line of children waiting to go through the column.
After seeing Todaji Temple, we continued on through the park where we saw several more Buddhist temples and a Shinto shrine. Towards the end of the day we decided to relax next to a pond in the park, where occasional cranes floated on the otherwise unmolested waters.
Overall, Nara was my favorite city we visited in Japan because it was full of temples that were within walking distance of each other. It was also very clean and beautifully laid out, a complete contrast from the cities and towns of Thailand.
That weekend, we headed to Kyoto to meet Natsu and explore the city. Again, we took the JR train to Kyoto, which only took about an hour. The Kyoto train station was incredibly immense and busy, and also interestingly enough, one of the most modern train stations I had been in. Walking out of the station we were greeted by the Kyoto Tower, another large modern architectural structure that I later decided was a bizarre outlier to overall historical atmosphere of the city.
Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera, another World Heritage Site and perhaps the most famous temple in Kyoto. As we were taking the bus to the temple, it was immediate how large and spread out Kyoto was. Unlike Nara, which is easily walkable, Kyoto has an incredibly complex bus and subway system that one has to use to efficiently explore the city. As it was, it took us about forty minutes to take the bus from the station to the temple on the eastern side of the city.
Unfortunately, one of the main halls of the temple was being renovated, so we were somewhat limited in what we could see. However, we were still able to see the view of the city, as the temple is built on one of the hillsides that surround the valley the city is in. The temple was also very crowded, as it was approaching the peak tourist season of fall (probably in November sometime when the leaves are changing colors).
After Kiyomizu-dera, we headed to the Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the silver pavilion. Although the temple is not actually covered in silver, or silver in any way really, it was still beautiful. The temple was surrounded by a very beautiful garden with miniature streams and islands as well as moss and zen gardens combed to perfection. The temple was built by a shogun as his personal villa, and the main pavilion is actually the tea house where he had tea.
Behind the temple was a path leading up the hill which offered a nice view of the temple, before we headed back down and out of the grounds.
After the silver pavilion, we headed to a nearby shrine. Although in my head I had pictured temples as being large buildings and shrines as smaller buildings, this was not the case. While some of the temples were indeed large, the shrines were often just as large if not larger making me somewhat confused as to what created the distinctions between temples and shrines.
The next day we headed back to Kyoto to again meet Natsu as well as Taka. We started the day off by heading to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the most visited attraction in Kyoto. When I googled pictures of Kyoto before visiting, many of the pictures that came up were the numerous, orange arches that line the path of the Fushimi Inari shrine.
Consequently, the main sight at the shrine is the long path lined with orange arches, which only lead to small pavilions. Interestingly enough, each of the arches bore the name of a company or benefactor to the shrine. However, the path was furiously lined with the arches, so any new companies or individuals looking to donate and put their name on an arch would not have an easy time finding an open spot.
The path up the mountain continued for several kilometers, so after walking through many of the arches, we decided we had seen enough and headed back down.
We next went to the Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion. This temple is actually covered in gold, so the name actually does apply to the structure. This temple was also the retirement villa of a shogun, and is also surrounded with beautiful gardens like the silver temple. It was very beautiful, although I preferred the restrained elegance of the silver pavilion over the somewhat gaudy exterior of the golden pavilion.
On our last day in Kyoto we decided to see some of the lesser known temples, and explore more of the city. The first temple we saw, the Nanzenji temple, turned out to be my favorite temple in Kyoto. While the other temples were certainly impressive, they were also overcrowded with tourists. By contrast, the Nanzenji temple had almost no tourists, giving it a very relaxed vibe. The grounds were also immense, and as we explored them I was surprised to see a large aqueduct spanning the grounds.
As we walked to the aqueduct, we found a path on top of it, where we were able to ascend the mountain to a small park that overlooked the city. On the way back down, we found a few smaller temples free of tourists that we explored before leaving the temple grounds.
Our final stop in Kyoto was Nijo-jo Castle. Although not much of a castle compared to the one in Osaka, Nijo-jo was interesting nonetheless. The main wooden building had a nightingale floor, meaning that there was a constant stream of squeaks and chirps erupting from all angles of the building as we and other tourists walked through the building. Although this was designed to prevent assassins (as one cannot walk through the building silently), I could not imagine having to hear the constant high-pitched noises all day.
The castle also had a large expanse of grounds, with several ponds and gardens.
Overall, Kyoto was a very beautiful city with dozens of temples and historical sites that we only saw a fraction of. I enjoyed the city immensely, although it took very long to explore with the bus system (especially compared to the expedient metro system in Osaka).