Hidden in the Mountains - Hida Takayama (高山市)
Among the mountains in Gifu prefecture lies the picturesque city of Takayama. Not to be confused with another Takayama, it is often referred to as Hida Takayama.
The main draw to this city are its traditional houses.
Largely ignored by Allied bombers during World War II, the houses and temples remain the original form for hundreds of years.
Visiting Takayama in winter or early spring is ideal to enjoy the elegance of the city covered in snow.
This city lies in a region where snow-fall is the heavies or rather most consistent in Honshu.
Crossing this elegent white Torii gate will lead you to the Takayama Matsuri Yantai Kaikan.
This is a museum / gallery / temple
But the main attraction are the festival floats.
These floats are paraded across the city twice a year, in spring and autumn.
Check on the schedule and book your accommodation early for the festival!
This traditional event dates back from the samurai era highlighting the superior craftsmanship that made Takayama prosperous.
Next to the gallery is the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine
This is an immaculate wooden Shinto shrine.
Back to town, another attraction is the Takayama Jinya.
This used to be the residence and administrative center for the Governors of Takayama.
It is now a protected heritage and a museum.
The gardens would probably be more enjoyable in spring…
Visiting small temples and shrines and crossing bridges.
Don’t forget to visit Takayama during the Matsui festivals
Takayama can be reached by buses from Tokyo or Nagoya. I would recommend taking the scenic train from Nagoya, which is included in your JR Rail Pass.
Oishī (おいしい) - Kansai Food Delights
The Kansai Region (関西地方) situated in Honshu’s south central part is well know for it’s culinary delights. However my foodie adventure here started out with only some humble convenience store sushi… stuck at the airport.
After I got out of the airport, I started out simple with some Chicken Katsu at a shokudō (cheap set-meals eatery) in Kyoto.
How could I not have deserts such as this nice green tea cake with coffee and green tea in a tea house / desert / cake house near Nara Park.
Snacking is also easy in Japan with all the street vendors like this one rice flour balls with special source.
Nara has their own style of sushi where, rice is wrapped into fresh wasabi leaves top with salmon or grilled unagi. Delicious! never had anything like this before.
Going vegetarian at Mount Koya with Soba (buckwheat noodles) and yuba (tofu skin) followed by some refreshing tea.
Green tea and some rice cracker before meditation at Mount Koya’s revered monastery.
Love my soba, taste great with mackerel too at a restaurant in Arashiyama.
Man, those Soba don’t last long gotta snack some street vendor fish cakes on sticks while I explore the woods of Arashiyama.
Gotta have some deserts too right. This is Sakura Mochi, red beans filling in glutinous rice flour wrapped in sakura leaf. Try it! your taste buds will thank you for it. The leaves are salty/sour while the ball is sweet and the filling is sweater.
To end a perfect day at Arashiyama, I had a yummy green tea ice-cream…
Back in Kyoto city at the food court on top of the train station, I had my first Okonomiyaki & Takoyaki combo. Both regional specialties of the Kansai region.
Of course everyone in Kansai will tell you the best Okonomiya is from Osaka! Like this one from Yukari in the Ohatsutenji-dori shopping arcade. Best okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka.
Basically this is a flour batter pancake with a variety of filling, you can choose from tuna to potatoes to bacon top with a sweet source and mayo. Add herbs and bonito flakes liberally.
How could something so simple be soooo delicious…
I seriously dream of eating Okonomiyaki from time to time LOL
With a side order of dikon radish salad.
You’ll never go hungry on the Dotombori strip in Osaka, Takoyaki joints are everywhere.
More green tea ice-cream on my last day in Osaka.
Osaka also has its own take on sushi. The specialty here is block sushi or oshizushi where block shaped wodden mold are used to produced this culinary delight.
Last but no least some porky goodness at Kansai Airport, a restaurant specialising in everything pork.
OK I love Japanese food and I won’t mind eating the food in Kansai Region everyday!
Mount Kōya (高野山)
Mount Koya is considered to be the sacred and spiritual center of Japan. This is home to the Shingon School of Buddhism who have since 816 built their monastic headquarters here.
ALL ABOARD!!! Going up Mount Koya is made easy by this funicular train or cable car.
Entering the Oku-no-in
This is probably the largest cemetery ground in the whole of Japan!
It is considered an honor for Japanese Buddhist to be buried here near Kukai, the founder of the Shingon School.
Don’t worry, you won’t be wondering aimlessly in the forest full of headstones. There Kukai Mausoleum and many amenities around it. Try the booth with a stone ball that weighs your sin!
Just a stroll in the park…
Next, get yourself to Kongobu-ji where the abbot of Koya-san Monastery resides. This is considered to be the headquarters of the Shingon School.
Inside there are many ornate screens depicting Kukai’s journey to China and many other Japanese motive art. You’ll be able to hear sermons and tea is also served in the hall.
Current building was built since the 19th century.
Admire the stone garden outside the Ohiro-ma room.
This is simply marvelous. If you miss the chance to see this in Kyoto, this is a much better alternative!
The rocks are suppose to give effect to worshipers listening to the sermons.
The Garan of Koya-san is just a short walk from Kongobu-ji. The Garan consists of several prayer halls and pagodas.
Most prominent is the Dai-to or Great Pagoda that represents the centre of a lotus flower mandala formed by the eight peaks around Koya-san.
The Kondo or Main Hall is also considered as a national treasure.
Last but not least, if you are a Tokugawa fan, they have a small mausoleum here as well. Although not as ornate as the one in Nikko, stop-by if you are here and entrance is free.
It’s easy to get to Mount Koya from Osaka’s Namba Station. JR Rail Pass does NOT work on this trip as is its a private rail company call Nankai.
Nankai does sell a World Heritage Ticket that includes return tickets on the train and cable car plus full entrance fee or discounted fee and the all important bus rides (as of March 2012).
The Big O - Osaka (大阪)
This is my favorite metropolis in Japan! Osaka is usually considered the second city after Tokyo. Historically it has always been a key rival to Tokyo in terms of economy and industry. In terms of food and nightlife some may say that Osaka wins hands-down!
One of the most popular areas to visit in Osaka is the Shisaibashi - Dotonbori district. It is well known for shopping, eating-out and its nightlife.
From indoor shopping arcades to high-street fashion boutiques to riverside cafes and restaurants, this place is happening day and night!
Hello Kitty even has a huge flagship store here and for pet lovers there’s Pet Parade.
You’ll see pedestrian traffic day and night, there’s even a ferris wheel by the river promenade.
The longest shopping street in Japan is also in Osaka, it’s called Tenjinbashi-suji. You might need a bicycle for this one!
Osaka Castle is also a major draw to this city.
Originally built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi - The second of the 3 unifier of the Japanese nation.
It was however destroyed many times since 1587.
Nevertheless it was reconstructed over and over again, as many as five times!
This is the latest reconstruction that was done in 1995.
Inside the Osaka Castle is a splendid museum on Osaka and especially on Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the battle of Sekigahara.
At the summit of the castle, you will get an awesome panoramic view of Osaka city.
Very favorable weather on that day, I noticed that there’s very little pollution for such a huge city.
Of course this was taken in mid-March, the beginning of the cherry blossom season.
Cherry blossom frenzy near the Osaka Castle.
The Castle is considered as one of the premier spot for hanami (sakura viewing)
Osaka is a transportation hub, by air (Kansai International), by rail (Osaka & Umeda Stations), ferry and coach. You can hardly miss an opportunity to enjoy this awesome city.
The Ancient Capital of Nara (奈良市)
Nara was once the capital of Japan from 710 - 794 AD. Although today it is only a prefecture capital, it’s ancient influence both spiritual and cultural remains prominent.
Almost all of the remnants of the ancient capital are found in Nara-koen. Here at Nara Park, indulge yourself in history and architectural beauty accompanied by a thousand deer! The Sarusawa-ike (lake) marks the beginning of the park.
First-stop is the Kofuku-ji, transferred from Kyoto in 710.
It is the second tallest pagoda in Japan (a few cms shorter than To-ji in Kyoto).
Kofuku-ji National Treasure Hall houses many artifacts from the Nara period.
Walk down the road and you find the Nara National Museum.
Passing numerous tea houses, souvenir shops and more deers….
…you will reach the Nandai-mon, an impressive main gate to the ancient city made entirely from wood.
After the Namdai gate, the Isui-en showcases the best garden in Nara.
Once you have enjoyed the walk in the garden, It is now time to pay homage to the Daibutsu at Todai-ji.
Todai-ji is the largest wooden structure in the world.
It houses the venerated Great Buddha and other spiritual Buddhist figures.
Take the south-east exit of the Todai-ji and head for the Nigatsu-do and the Sangatsu-do, both are supplementary temples to the Todai-ji.
Both temples blend Japanese architecture with the primeval forest harmoniously.
More deer across the hill.
As you approach the Kasuga Taisha from the primeval forest you will notice rows upon rows of stone lanterns.
This is the Kasuga Taisha’s answer to the Torii gates of Fushimi Inari.
Founded in the 8th century, this Shinto temple lies at the foot of the hill.
Stone lanterns and bronze lanterns adorns every aspect of the temple.
As with other Shinto temples, the color vermilion is generously used.
There are numerous sub shrines.
Because this temple venerates deer as the sacred messenger, it’s ablution fountain is also a deer.
They are very cooperative in posing for pictures!
Exiting the Kasuga temple and the primeval forest, you will get back to the hills and plains of Nara.
Cherry blossom about to bloom, this was in the middle of March.
Head back to Nara proper, you will find this pavilion on the lake.
This is the Sagi-ike lake.
The pavilion is called the Ukimido hall.
Back to the Sarusawa-ike. Weather got batter in the afternoon.
Nest up is the Naramachi or the old town of Nara.
It is full of houses from the Edo-period, although its history is much older than that.
The ruins of the pagoda at the Gongo-ji, is the only physical evidence of the Nara period.
The current Gongo-ji is much more modest and features foxes, messengers of the Shinto Kami.
Plum blossoms and cherry blossoms are abundance in this temples
The flowers blend really well to the old neighborhood and the ruins.
You might have noticed that there are a lot of deer here! They are considered as sacred and they are relatively tame albeit mischievous. The signboard are a bit over the top, the horns and hoofs of the deer are filled off regularly. All they want are these shiki-sembai (deer biscuits)! So don’t feed them anything else!
Nara is a great day trip from Kyoto, it is about 40 on the JR Nara Line. Remember to use your JR Rail Pass!
Kyoto (京都市): Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社)
Built on this site since the 9th century, this is definitely one of the most iconic temple in Japan. My earliest memory of Japan was a picture in a calender with the Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari.
The temple complex which dominates the whole hill is dedicated to the hills namesake, the Shinto deity Inari.
Inari is the principal deity for rice and sake. In modern times, Inari is today the patron deity of business and industries.
Not surprising that the thousands and thousands of Torii gates that snake up the hill are donated by companies and business men.
Donating a Torii gate symbolises the gratitude of the company for their success and fortune.
You will notice that the name of the donors are written on the sides of the Torii.
Most commonly the Shinto Torii gates are painted vermilion with black tip legs.
The gates are indeed impressive. If you cant afford to donate a huge gate, they also sell little ones!
I really like the effect of the evening sun on the brightly painted gates.
Climbing up the 4 km trail, lined with all the Torii gates was indeed a magical experience.
At the top of Inari Hill, you will be able to see the whole of Kyoto city.
Foxes are also a prominent feature in Shinto temples like this one. They are considered to be magical creatures and messengers to the Deities.
This place is a must-visit if you are in Japan.
There was no entrance fee charged at the Fushimi Inari Taisha when I was there. Getting to the temple is also very easy, get on the JR train heading for Nara at the Kyoto Station, after 5 - 10 mins’ stop at the Fushimi-Inari Station. 5 mins’ walk up to the temple from the station.
Kyoto (京都市): Arashiyama (嵐山)
The sights of Kyoto is pretty much scattered all over the city. If you’re looking for some zen natural harmony you gotta head to the hills of Arashiyama.
Located on the fringes of western Kyoto, this pretty little suburb is a renown cultural heritage treasure of Japan. The Togetsu bridge links both sides of the town across the picturesque Katsura River.
There are also traditional looking boats for hire that could bring you up the Honzu River.
These rivers are drained from the Arashi Mountains, some which are still snow-capped in March.
Besides boating, you could also hire a traditional rickshaw to bring you around town for some delicious meals.
After you’ve had a great meal, head to the hills to discover the hidden temples among the forest. You should begin your journey from the Tenryu-ji, an important Rinzai School of Zen temple.
Formerly a villa belonging to the Emperor, this has been a site of the temple since the 1300s.
Tenryu-ji kinda translates to the Temple of the Heavenly Dragon.
Although most of the buildings have since been upgraded and improved from the 1900s, the zen garden dates back to the 1300s.
Legend has it that a monk dreamt of a dragon rising from the river and was interpreted as an ill omen for the Emperor. To avoid any unwanted disaster, the temple was built to placate the spirit world.
Cherry blossoms are just beginning to bloom in the garden.
Exiting Tenryu-ji, you will encounter Arashiyama’s famed Bamboo Grove. It is indeed an experience not to be missed walking among the tall swaying bamboos.
As you walk further into the village and farms you will encounter Jojakko-ji. A pleasant temple on a hill. So get ready to climb some stairs.
At the summit you will be able to get a view of Kyoto.
Lots of maple trees, stone lanterns and mossy grounds.
This temple built at the end of the 16th century.
It would probably look superb in autumn colors.
Further north is the Gio-ji. A temple dedicated to a traditional dancer name Gio.
It is celebrated for all its mosses! If you love your moss, this is the place to be.
Here you’ll get to learn about Gio, who became a Buddhist nun after renouncing the world; and mosses, I never knew there were so many kind of mosses. But serously they are pretty.
Very pleasant and unique.
As I came down the hill, I ended up at this temple.
I am not sure what’s the name.
But had fun time taking pictures of it nevertheless.
There are many more sights to explore here on Arashiyama but unfortunately I only had half-a-day here….
All temples on the hill require an entrance fee. To get to Arashiyama by bus - take Bus 28 from Kyoto station. If you have a JR Rail Pass, get a local train from Kyoto Station to Saga Arashiyama Station for free!
Next post, hint: things are going to get vermilion…
Kyoto (京都市): Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺)
One of the most astonishing sites in Kyoto, the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji. Originally a nobleman’s villa, it was then donated to become a Zen Buddhist temple during the Muromachi period. It blends the elegance of the man-made architecture with serenity of the landscape and its surroundings.
It survived numerous disasters and wars including WW2 until it was burnt down by a mentally disturbed novice monk. What we see today is a very impressive reconstruction.
There is not much other than the pavilion itself and the Japanese garden nevertheless a definite must visit if you’re in Kyoto.
Kyoto (京都市): Nijō Castle (二条城)
All right, Japan!!! One of the most awesome travels I’ve ever done everything’s just so beautiful, proper and intriguing. On the down-side there’s just too many things to see! The old imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto itself has tons of sites to keep any traveller busy.
This is Nijō Castle, construction started in 1626 under the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The main purpose of this castle was to keep taps on the Emperor as the Shogun’s capital was in Edo (modern Tokyo).
Typical castle with moats and huge gates.
The donjon (castle keep) may be destroyed but the Ninomura Palace is still pretty impressive. Inside there are impressive gilded screens with intricate paintings.
The wildly ornate Karamon gates was under restoration as of March 2012.
Japanese garden on the castle grounds.
The Nightingale Floors are one of the unique feature of the palace, where when a person walks on the floors it will create what sound like
Honmaru Palace, the other palace on the castle grounds.
Panoramic view from the donjon ruins.
The donjon was burnt down after a lightning strike and was never rebuilt, what remains is the base.
Would be more impressive when the cherry blossoms bloom.
On the castle grounds.
Not mind blowing but still impressive. Can’t take any pix of the interior as it is not allowed,
Hey guys, sorry for the lack of posting, still trying to recover from my PTD (post travel depression) and of course filing my taxes. Hope to be posting by this weekend.
In the meantime hope you guys are having a great start to the spring season.
Pic: My snap-shot of the cherry blossom at the active volcano of Sakurajima, near the city of Kagoshima, Kyushu.