Archive for May, 2013

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Kodai-ji in Kyoto

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Kodai-ji is another temple just down the mountainside street from Kiyomizu-dera and in the Higashiyama District, talked about in the previous post. Kodai-ji is worth a visit because it offers a few experiences which not every run of the mill temple in Japan has to offer. A large zen garden (with raked stones) is worth seeing, at least once when you’re in Japan. The other garden the temple has to offer is a “tsukiyama style garden”…which from what I can tell seem to resemble normal non-flower gardens: rocks, ponds, hills, trees, done, though the 16th century landscape artist who designed the gardens was a fairly big deal. There are two tea houses in the complex,  a santcuary with a small shrine with impressive lacquer work (the finest lacquer work of the period, actually, which incorporates designs in gold; unfortunately you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the buildings), and several other buildings, including a mausoleum. The artwork and gardens are absolutely worth seeing and talking a stroll through, and most of the buildings in the complex you can actually go inside and walk around in, which is a nice change from most historic sites in Japan, in which most of the building is only viewable, and not walkable. (You will need to take off your shoes to enter these buildings).

The buildings date from different times, because of several fires over the years. The oldest are from the early 17th century, and the most recent was rebuilt in the early 20th century. Kodai-ji is named after a noble woman, Kita-no-Mandokoro (her honorary name was Kodai-in) who became a Buddhist nun after her husband died.

More information on Kodai-hi is available here, including hours, admission fees, and a map!

Todaiji_ed02http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3927.html

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Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera and Higashiyama

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Too bad all the plants were still pretty dead in mid-March…

Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist Temple (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) that was founded in 780, though the current structures were built in 1633, including the Niomon (2-storied gate), Sanjunoto (3 storied pagoda), a bell tower and the two main halls.

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“Kiyomizu” means “pure water” and the temple is named for the waterfall which flows on the eastern side of the main sanctuary. Visitors can go to the base of the waterfall (which lets out in a stone basic, though whole thing is very constructed ….this is not like a rustic jungle waterfall or something. The waterfall is divided into three separate streams, the water for each is supposed to grant something different: longevity, a good love life, and success in school. Visitors can use cups on wooden sticks to catch the water from the three streams and drink it to receive the “benefits”. Drinking from all three streams, however, is considered greedy and in poor form. The wood of the temple is crafted in such a way that not a single nail is used in the structure. The temple offers beautiful views of the surrounding mountainside and of Kyoto, particularly in spring and fall, when the temple almost seems to be floating in a sea of cherry blossoms or  red maple leaves in spring/fall respectively. 

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I’d consider Kiyomizu-dera the best thing I saw in Kyoto, as far as temples/shrines go, because of the fantastic views, the expansive and varied temple complex, and its proximity to the Higashiyama district, one of the best preserved historic districts in Kyoto.

 

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Higashiyama caters heavily to tourists, offering a variety of restaurants, cafes, pottery shops, clothing stores, souvenir shops, and specialty shops with local sweets, pickles (Japanese people seem to pickle everything), and crafts. Though the stretch of narrow road down the mountainside from Kiyomizudera through Higashiyama is only about 2km long, it’s quite easy to spend a few hours wandering the area. Yasaka Pagoda, 5 stories tall, is also along this street, and visitors can actually climb the stairs inside (usually pagodas can only be viewed from the outside). 

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Other attractions in the Higashiyama district include: Kodai-ji Temple (which I visited and will be covered in a separate entry), Yasaka Shrine (ditto),  and Maruyama Park. More information on Higashiyama, as well as a map, can be found here: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3959.html

The Yasaka pagoda is open 10:00-4:00, every day of the year, and costs 400 yen (about $4). Kiyomizudera is open from 6:00-6:00, every day of the year, and costs 300 yen. The shops of Higashiyama generally close at about the same time as the surrounding temples, though stay open later during the spring and fall when “Illuminations” are held at Kiyomizudera. 

More information on Kiyomizudera can be found here: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3901.html

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Mt. Fuji (Fujisan)

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Fujisan was definitely the most beautiful and breathtaking sight I’ve seen so far in Japan. It may even be my top natural sight that I’ve seen anywhere in the world (Notre Dame is my top man-made sight). I would classify it as a “Must See” if you’re in Japan and have an even remote appreciation for nature. 

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Fujisan is 12,388 ft, making it pretty damn impressive (though, for perspective, there are some peaks in the Rockies that rise into the 14,000-something territory). I think (having seen both the Colorado Rockies and Fujisan) that it appears more impressive because of its shape and the fact that it’s essentially standing alone. There are other mountains in the area, but it stands alone in the fact that no other mountains are garbled onto it. You can clearly see its mostly smooth, nearly symmetrical, sloping outline and it’s volcanic conical top. It makes it more beautiful, and seem more gargantuan, than any mountain I’ve seen before. 

Fujisan is one of Japan’s 3 Holy Mountains (note that it’s called “Fuji-“san”, and not “Fuji”-“yama”, which is the normal suffix for mountain; “-san”is more respectful). Next year it will become a Cultural World Heritage Sight. Mt. Fuji is an active volcano (and as of early 2013 has been even MORE active…eek) but it last erupted in the early 18th century. 

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We took a bus tour up to the fifth station, which is at about the tree line, and as high as you can go by vehicle and during the spring. In the summer you can hike up to the summit, but those trails are closed in May. At the fifth station there are souvenir shops (where you can buy what I believe is canned air from the summit) and restaurants and a small museum, as well as picturesque views of the summit and the surrounding valleys and mountains. 

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We also stopped at a park with beautiful pink flowers (“ground” sakura? was the translation I got from my Japanese-speaking friend), and gorgeous views of Mt. Fuji. There were of course numerous food stalls open here as well, as seems to be the case anywhere in Japan that may have tourists. (You will seriously never go hungry in this country). 

So, if I had to wrap this up with one resound piece of advice, it would be GO TO MT. FUJI. It’s awesome. You won’t regret it, even if you end up spending a little more money on a sightseeing tour than you wanted. 

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Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens in Tokyo

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The weeping cherry tree

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens in Tokyo is self-described as a “special historic and scenic park”. The park’s brochure gives a little history of the park, including the fact that this garden was completed in 1629 as part of a Tokyo (Edo) residence for the second clan ruler, Mitsukuni, of the Tokugawa family. He was influenced by a Chinese Confucian scholar and thus incorporated some Chinese elements into the garden: a reproduction of Seiko Lake (in China) and a “Full Moon Bridge”.  The name “Korakuen” means “the garden for enjoying power later on” (after one has successfully secured and maintained power). 

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The garden is a nice relaxing stroll away from all the noise and crowds in Tokyo. I’d recommend it if you need a breather. The garden’s highlight include the Full moon Bridge, the “Ume” (Plum) grove, a field of irises, the “inner garden”, the weeping cherry tree, one of the traditionally styled red Japanese bridges, and Tokujin-do, a small shrine.

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The garden charges an admission of 300 yen per adult, or 150 yen for anyone 65 or older. It’s open 9-5, every day except Dec 29th-Jan 2nd. The closes train stations are Iidabashi, Korakuen, and Suidobashi. The park comes with an English brochure and map, which marks two different walking routes. One route takes about an hour, and the other about a half an hour. The park is not that large and most of the pathways are paved so  just wandering it is fine too. There are events held throughout the year. 

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Asakusa (Tokyo Souvenir Paradise)

ImageAsakusa is one of the most touristy areas of Tokyo, and a great place if you’re looking for quintessential Japanese souvenirs- you know, over priced Samurai swords, tea sets, those pretty glazed plates and bowls and sake glasses, candy, decorative cloths in millions of sizes and patterns, wooden dolls, postcards, kimonos, etc.

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Asakusa is most famous for Sensoji, a Buddhist temple dating from the 7th century, and the gate in front of it, Kaminarimon. The most popular shopping street in Asakusa leads straight up to the gate and temple. For those more interested in food than souvenirs, fear not. As in every major touristy part of Japan (that I have been to, at least) the street is swarming with small shops and street vendors purveying various Japanese sweets and snacks. I got a melon flavored kakigori (shaved ice) and a pastry filled with custard…you can also get the pastries billed with sweet red bean paste (anko).

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Definitely a good place to stop if you aren’t templed and souvenir shopped out. It’s also an easy twenty minute walk from the Tokyo Sky Tree, so it’s conveniently located if you’re doing a day of sightseeing in Tokyo.

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Here’s a nice little guide, in English, with a map, if you’ll be visiting or want to learn more about Asakusa: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3004.html


Tokyo Skytree

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The Tokyo Skytree is the world’s highest broadcasting tower, and has a 360 degrees observation deck which rises 450 meters above the streets of Tokyo (450 meters is about 1,476 feet, or a little more than a quarter mile for you Imperial System users). I normally tend to shun observations decks of any kind, seeing that they seem kind of like a money wasting tourist trap to me (Eiffel Tower excluded, because it’s pretty). Tokyo Skytree, however, is worth the visit even if you don’t end up going up to see the view (which is probably also worth it, I’ll admit begrudgingly). 

The views from the observation deck allow you to see 70 meters in all directions, and are…beautiful. My friends and I went up at twilight (you technically are only allowed to stay up there for a half an hour, but no one was pestering us to go down, there’s enough people that it’s pretty chaotic). The sky was still light blue and a little hazy when we arrived and by the time we lift we could see the lights and neon of nighttime Tokyo.

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Tokyo Skytree is also (how surprising) a huge mall (like everything else in Japan) and has its own train station below it (again, not surprised). The easiest way to access the Skytree is by train via the Tobu Skytree line to the Tokyo Skytree Station: http://www.tokyo-skytree.jp/en/access/index.html I didn’t do much exploring in the mall itself, but there did appear to be some good Tokyo souvenir shops (which you won’t find in the trendy parts of Tokyo) and an AMAZING specialty chocolate shop. I’d recommend stopping into the chocolate shop, the 100% Chocolate Cafe (http://www.meiji.co.jp/sweets/choco-cafe/), just to check out all the strange flavors, even if you’re not a chocoholic yourself. I bought  few souvenir chocolates to try and an orange juice and chocolate syrup drink (delicious!).