Japan 2014: Traveling to the Kansai Region (I)

Last December, I was finally given the chance to achieve one of my lifetime goals – to travel to Japan.

I wish I was exaggerating when I say ‘lifetime’, but it has truly been one of my greatest goals since I started to have a mind of my own. I remember being five years old and writing to my mom that I’ll visit her in Japan one day through my own parachute because a) I miss her, b) my five-year old self was filled with aspiration and determination. Of course, I learned that traveling from one country to another was not as easy as it seems as I grew up, but I could say that my determination never wavered. One day, I told myself. One day, I’ll visit the foreign land that I have always loved. One day, I’ll visit my mom.

I never expected that moment to happen in the last few weeks of 2014.

Drama aside, I spent my Christmas vacation in Japan by traveling to the Kansai region. Admittedly, I was quite skeptical at first when my mother told me that we’ll be spending most of the holidays at the south and not at the city, but after the experience, I was really glad Papa (my stepfather) decided to take us there.

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Our first stop was at Todai-ji in Nara. Todai-ji was once included in the seven great temples and houses the largest wooden Buddha structure or the Daibutsu. It was around 9 am when we arrived and the temple just opened so there were very few people. I immediately recognized the gate above as the same temple gate where the first sequences of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon was shot.

kansa_2One interesting attraction that tourists can find in Nara is their deer park. The park is literally filled with about a hundred deer waiting for tourists to be fed. There were so many of them that when we went to the toilet, there were actually two deer inside, happily munching on toilet paper. There are vendors who sell crackers for these deer for only ¥100.

kansai_6The deer were harmless as their horns were already cut off, but they can get aggressive once they see food. Some immediately flock to tourists and fight over crackers.

kansai_3The torii inside Todai-ji featuring my sisters. You can notice the komainu at the right side of the picture. These statues are meant to act as guardians and ward off evil spirits.

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The Daibutsu-den or Great Buddha Hall.

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Nara’s Daibutsu, the world’s largest wooden Buddha structure. I don’t know why I look like a ghost in here.

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Our next stop was at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. Fushimi Inari is the head shrine of Inari, the god of rice. As it can be seen from the photo above, kitsune or foxes are the guardians at Inari shrines.

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The famous hundred toriis path. According to Wikipedia, each torii in here was donated by a Japanese business.

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Inari ema. These wooden boards that take the shape of a fox’s head contain the written prayers of the visitors and are left hanging at the shrine. It is interesting to see the different faces that people also draw on them. I spot a Kuroo face and a Jojo character :))

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kansai_11 kansai_10The street outside the shrine. Lots of souvenir shops and diners for everyone’s convenience. Papa advised us to thoroughly examine the diners though because some are deceiving and do not serve delicious food. Thankfully, the one where we ate at proved to be true to his good judgment.

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Random shoyu ramen because why the hell not. The most delicious ramen I’ve ever tasted in my entire existence, hands down.

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Our next stop was at Sanjusangen-do temple in Higashiyama. This Buddhist temple is famous for housing one thousand life-size Thousand Armed Kannon statues, 28 guardian deities, and the Thousand Armed Kannon. Pictures were not allowed inside the temple since the main sculpture is listed as one of Japan’s national treasures. There were English translation guides inside which provides a good description about each of the guardian deities.

Being a fan of Buddhism, this temple really delighted me since I recognized the Thousand-Armed Kannon from my previous Buddhism lessons in Philosophy. The thousand arms of Kannon stems from the legend that the god vowed not to rest until s/he had freed all beings from reincarnation.

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Sanjusange-do’s length is about 400 feet. I cannot exactly remember the details, but I read from one of the inscriptions inside the temple that archery contests used to be held on this veranda where the participants have to shoot from one endpoint to another (so the arrow literally have to travel the whole length of the temple, an entire 400 feet). There were also archery bows displayed inside.

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Random photo with my mom, ehehe.

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Our next stop was at Kiyomizu-dera, another Buddhist temple in Kyoto. This temple is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites (or as papa puts it, world hostage sites). As such, a great number of tourists flock to this place. It is interesting to note that no single nail was used in the construction of this large temple.

During the Edo period, people jumped off from this temple, believing that their wish would be granted if they survive.

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The city of Kyoto, including the famous Kyoto tower, viewed from Otowa-san.

What I liked best from my visit to Kiyomizu-dera was my journey into the darkness to “meet” Buddha. The shrine features a pitch black basement hall which contains a large stone. It is believed that touching the stone will make your wish come true.

I was still having second thoughts about entering the hall when Papa paid for our fees and before I could protest, I was already removing my shoes and leading the way into the hall despite having zero knowledge about the experience I was about to have because the line behind me was already starting to get long. It was pitch black inside and visitors are instructed to keep left and hold onto the hand rail. The hall had several turns and the floor had slight elevations but I learned that you can be assured not to trip or bump onto anything as long as you keep your grip on the hand rail.

Once you reach the center of the basement, you would see the large stone with the carving of ‘womb’ on the center, illuminated by a dim yellow light, the only source of light in the entire room. This stone is said to represent the womb of Buddha’s mom. The light gives off an eerie atmosphere. By the time we reached the end and were back outside, I can conclude that it was quite the spiritual experience. Eerie? Yes, especially if you’re afraid of the dark. But scary? Not. Buddhism is such a lovely thing.

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An encounter with a Buddhist priest. Donate any amount of money to them and they will recite a sutra for you. The obosan really fascinated me because they were something I only used to see in anime and films (i.e Rurouni Kenshin and Miroku from Inu Yasha) so you can imagine how excited I was when I encountered one in person. I donated a coin, bowed in respect, and anticipated the prayer but what I heard next had taken me aback. I did not expect the actual sutra to be that..creepy (I think I can now understand why Buddhist priests are often depicted as the strong antagonists in Japanese fiction). But they were fascinating, nonetheless.

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The entire place is packed, from souvenir shops to diners. As it can be seen from the photo above, some diners also offer al fresco dining (but I greatly would not recommend it during the winter). One definite must-try in this place are the souvenir shops that offer free tasting/sampling. One of the mochi shops that we went to offer free tasting of several variants of their mochi and even give out free tea to their customers. A great treat, especially if you’re particularly hungry and an effective marketing strategy on their part.

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Our last stop for the day was at the Osaka Castle. This castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the Sengoku period. Unfortunately, it was already closed by the time we arrived, sigh.

This sums the first day of our day trip. We spent the night in Osaka. I don’t have pictures but Osaka is also a very beautiful city.

More temples to be discovered on the following days of our trip!

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