Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kyoto, Japan

We're currently in Beijing, China, and I had to use a VPN to get to this blog. I don't know if China blocks all Blogspot blogs or if there's something about ours in particular that tripped the censors. Interesting...

We spent the second half of our time in Japan in the city of Kyoto, which is a beautiful place full of shrines and temples and history. I've been there once before about eight years ago, and was eager to come back again on this trip.

There are more than 1000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto, and they're spread out all over the city.  Most Japanese people practice both religions, and they seem to fill different needs in people's lives, which I find really interesting. Since everything is so spread out and we only had a couple of days, we decided to take some organized tours. This meant shuffling Carter around from place to place in a big bus full of people, rather than taking our time and letting him explore at his own pace. We'd done a couple of group tours on the cruise and those had gone well, so we decided to give it a try.

The first day we took an afternoon tour to the nearby city of Nara, where there is an amazing park full of sacred deer that are extremely tame. We first visited the Todaji temple.

The gateway is impressive enough...

...but the main building of the temple itself is huge, and is reportedly the largest wooden building in the world.

It houses the (again, reportedly) largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world.

Carter was somewhat impressed by the big Buddha and the temple, but mostly he wanted to run around on the grounds.

This became a theme of the next day and a half. When he saw an open space, he ran around in it. He actually hasn't had much of a chance to do that for a few weeks, so I can't say I blame him.

He really liked seeing the deer in the park. They're sacred animals and so are protected by law, and they're utterly unafraid of people. They're so used to being fed that they can be quite aggressive when they know you have food. Otherwise, they kind of ignore you.

When this one realized Carter didn't have any food, it walked away, but he really liked being able to pet it. When else do you get to pet a deer, you know?

Feeding them is an experience in itself. They sell food at the park, rice wafers that look like styrofoam. The deer love these and will immediately surround you when you buy a package. It was all I could do to get the wafers out of the package before the deer were on top of me. There were deer head-butting me from behind, biting my coat and tugging it to get my attention, and crowding all around. I couldn't get a wafer to Carter -- every time I tried, a deer would snatch it out of my hand before he could take it!

This sign is funny, and so accurate.

Our next stop was the Kasuga Shrine, a Shinto shrine that is famous for its hundreds of lanterns.

These beautiful moss-covered lanterns lined the path up to the shrine. When they are all lit up for festivals, it must be an amazing sight.

The shrine itself is also beautiful. 

Again, Carter was more interested in playing than looking at the shrine. We realized by this point that we were basically only using the tour company for transportation, and we were going to miss most of the guide's talking. But honestly, it was fine. It wasn't as if we expected Carter to be able to listen to a series of lectures for a day and a half. Instead, we looked at all the things we saw and talked about them to the extent that we could, and then made up games to play as we walked along.

All the temples and shrines we saw were so beautiful. The color orange and the presence of water were a common thread through all of the Shinto shrines. (Perhaps if I'd been able to listen to the tour guide, I would be able to say why...)

Here Carter and I are in the middle of talking about something we've seen. I didn't know Doug was taking this picture, but I really like it.

There were more deer to feed at the shrine, and it was a very similar experience this time too.

That night we had a (very, very expensive) dinner at the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. It was the one meal we ate in that restaurant. On the other nights, we went to the hotel's other restaurant, which is possibly the best Italian restaurant I've ever eaten at outside of Italy. Lest you think it's strange that we ate Italian food while in Kyoto, I'll add that we had lunches out in town and ate Japanese food. (I will miss ramen bars so much!)  I should also note that we have a small child who loves Italian food, and considering that we're embarking on a couple of months in Asia during which three will likely be entire days where he will have nothing familiar to eat, we didn't feel guilty about letting him eat pizza and pasta daily while it was so easily accessible.

The second day was going to be a long one, and we ended up having to work pretty hard to keep Carter entertained. One of the difficulties with these sorts of group tours is that they're trying to move you through the sights quickly so you can see as much as possible. That's perfect for adults, but it's just not very easy to do that with a small child.  He would become interested in an unexpected part of the shrine or temple, something the rest of the tour group was going to pass right by because it wasn't the main thing to see. And of course, we had to keep up with the group, so it seemed like we were tearing him away from everything he found interesting, over and over, to make him spend time looking at the things he wasn't interested in. That made the day a challenge, as you might imagine. If we had to do it again, I think we would have picked a few places and made our way to them on our own, and then spent as much time there as we wanted. It was a good lesson that we've told ourselves we'll keep in mind from here on out.

Our first stop of the day was at Nijo Castle, which was a castle housing the Shogun starting in the 15th century. It is surrounded by a moat and has a "nightingale floor", a wooden floor that makes a sound like birds singing when you walk on it. This was a protection measure, since no one could sneak up on the Shogun without being heard. Legend has it that only ninjas could walk on the floor without making a sound. ;-)

I only have pictures of the outside, since cameras weren't allowed inside. There was a lovely garden.

There was a place where you could crawl under and see the bottom of the nightingale floor. Carter just liked sitting under there, mostly.

Our next stop was at the Golden Pavillion, which is an iconic and incredibly beautiful structure at the Kinkakuji Temple.

As you can see, Carter was impressed. ;-)

He enjoyed running around the gardens, of course. I have so many photos like this of him, where he is off in the distance, running away from the camera.

Here he and I are picking out a drink from a vending machine at the Temple complex. I love the vending machines in Japan! They have ones that serve hot drinks as well as cold, and there's always a great variety. They also like iced tea in Japan, and I am a huge fan of iced tea. Japan is one of the rare countries where Fanta sodas contain actual fruit juice and no crazy artificial colors. Carter drank a lot of peach Fanta while we were in Japan, and it even tasted like actual peaches. I'm not sure why the US only has the kind with HFCS and artificial colors and flavors, when countries like Japan and Italy have Fanta that is so much better.

The next stop was at the Kitano-tenmangu Shrine, which was full of blooming plum trees. We were there just a couple of weeks too early to see cherry blossoms, but the plum blossoms at this shrine were gorgeous. 

One of the games Carter played all day was the "spaceship" game. He'd find a rock that looked like a spaceship and fly it all around the grounds as we moved from place to place. (He was desperately trying to entertain himself.)  He's holding up one of his spaceship rocks here.

The contrast between the old ornate buildings and the plum blossoms is just gorgeous.

These are barrels of sake offered to the shrine. There was a long line of people waiting to pray at this shrine on the day we were there, and our guide said that this was a popular shrine for students to come to to pray for luck to pass their exams.

These golden lanterns are so striking.

Here I'm trying to get a picture with Carter.  

We had lunch with the tour group and then had a bit of free time, so we wandered over to this nearby shrine. There wasn't a sign with the name in English, so I have no idea which one it is.

There were icons of rabbits everywhere in this shrine. There were at least a hundred of them on this rack, perhaps left as offerings?

And a large rabbit here, surrounded by the wooden cards people write their prayers on. The water is another common feature; the people rinse their hands and mouths in the water to purify themselves before praying to the deity of the shrine.

In the afternoon we visited the Heian Jingu Shrine.

The grounds of the shrine are huge and spacious, presumably to hold a lot of people.

For Carter, this meant even more space to run around.

This shrine is famous for its beautiful gardens. 

The next stop of the afternoon was the Sanjusangendo Temple, which houses 1001 statues of Buddha. No photography was allowed inside the temple, so I took a picture of the outside. :-)

Our final stop was at another incredibly iconic Kyoto spot, the Kiyomizudera Temple. It sits on a hillside overlooking the city. Its architecture is stunning.

The water from this waterfall (which is directed through some stone channels to this point) is believed to have the power to grant wishes if you drink it and wash your hands with it. The queue for the waterfall was very long!

Just stunning, really! We actually decided to leave the tour group here so we could explore at our own pace.

There is a pedestrian street full of shops that leads down from the temple, and we walked all the way back to our hotel from here (about a mile).

The next day we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo and then made our way to Haneda airport. We were very proud of ourselves for navigating the train system with all of our luggage. Traveling around in Japan is not easy, though it's totally worth it. We spent the night at a hotel in Haneda airport, where we had a view of the runway. Carter enjoyed that. We all got a kick out of this Pokemon plane.

The next morning we got up early for our flight to Beijing, China. I really enjoyed our time in Japan, and I have to say it was the first place on the entire trip that I wasn't ready to move on from. I wish we'd had a few more days. Of course, a few more days here would mean a few less days somewhere else. We only have a year, after all. ;-)

1 comment:

  1. I have been telling the husband about going to Japan, Now you have given me visuals that I will use to convincing him.
    As always I totally enjoy your postings :)