Japan: Lost in a Dream

A  few months ago I flew to Japan to spend my Christmas vacation with my family in Tokyo. The trip had long been dreamed of, with my mother expressing her ambition to take me there for the past 18 years or so, but the dream did not fully materialize until the year 2014. Despite being only two weeks long, it was a trip that meant so much to me and my family, and I want to remember it as much as I can before it completely falls into the void of my (declining) memory stash, so here we are.

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December 23

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Day 1 was a morning of anxious nerves. The trip being my first time to fly out of the country alone was a factor, but it was mainly due to excitement to see my dream country. Much of it was spent trying to find definitive ways to kill time while being 38,000 feet off the ground and sour-graping that if I could handle four hours worth of travel time from my workplace to home – thanks to EDSA’s world-class traffic – then I could definitely handle another four hours of being in a plane. They were the most torturous and yet the most thrilling; time suddenly seemed to have gone by so fast when the captain finally announced that we had already entered Japan’s airspace and Fuji-san came into view.

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I was greeted by a snowflake on my window, a cold yet pleasant welcome that was preemptive to the many pleasant surprises that were still waiting for me.

I landed at Narita by 12:05 pm, five minutes shy of my supposed landing time. By the time I reached the arrival lobby, I was literally freezing my ass off, but the cold was temporarily forgotten when I started to see the warm smiles of my family, huddled together and eagerly waiting for me.

I started tearing up out of joy the moment I hugged my mom and so did she. My stepdad hugged us along with my two sisters. We probably looked ridiculous in the near-empty Narita arrival lobby at the time but we couldn’t care less. Other people who were present in the area probably thought we were a family finally united after several years (and it was partly true) because I remember seeing a woman smile at us when mom asked me and my sisters to pose for a picture, the first memorabilia of my trip taken at land.

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I spent the next hour admiring the view of the streets we passed by, the kanji on the signage of the nearby buildings were the constant reminder that yes, I am finally in Japan, as I found myself sometimes staring in disbelief. It took 20 years in the making  – what was only yesterday’s dream was now happening in real life.

Our first stop was at Asakusa Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo and a common place for locales and tourists. The place first reminded me of Singapore’s Chinatown, but this one is more colorful and is busier, with several stalls lined up along the path to offer various Japanese souvenirs for tourists. The cold was no hindrance to the continuous bustling of activity in the area; tourists continue to flock the shrine while locales went with their business as usual.

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It was a series of firsts. A first visit to a Japanese temple, a first immersion to the culture. A first try at amazake, a Japanese sweet drink made from fermented rice – a delightful treat in the freezing weather. A first attempt at calling my stepfather ‘Papa’ after several years of separation, offering him my own cup of amazake after noticing he only bought cups for me and my sisters. The relief of knowing that he welcomes the title entirely. It was long overdue anyway and he was probably waiting for it more than I was practicing to say it.

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The day ended with my first proper Japanese meal for the trip: yakiniku, a personal favorite since I was a child. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it was the result of the same blood flowing in our veins, but Papa happily recalled that it was also yakiniku that mom first asked to eat when she started residing in Japan, remarking that there’s really no denying that mom and I are related.

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December 25

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 Christmas was simply celebrated by decorating and eating cake, feasting on yakitori and salad, and exchanging toasts of pretend-wine. To any Japanese household, the Santa-adorned strawberry-cake is usually the highlight of the noche buena. However, in my case, what truly captured my heart was this baby below:

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Prior to cooking this, Papa told me, “I’m going to serve you high-quality beef,” and he wasn’t lying. Wagyu beef is a term that I often see in food articles, and the mere mention of the name is usually equivalent to a rave review of the dish and now I know why. It was the show-stealer of the night; the soft meat almost melting in my mouth, the yakiniku sauce seeping through the meat generously, the richness of the flavor enveloping my taste buds all at once. Every bite was like a one-way ticket to food nirvana. The instant I took my first bite, I thought to myself, “This is the kind of meat that food writers rave about.” And here I am. I don’t even eat cooked fat, but the meat was too delicious and cooked really well that this meal had to be an exception.

Christmas in Japan was quieter and much simple than the extravagant and colorful celebration of Christmas in the PH, but definitely livelier than the dull celebration that I’m used to at home.

December 28 

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The day was spent taking in the beauty of a white blanket covering the mountain range of Hida, a short trip to Shirakawa-go, a small village famous for its traditional farmhouses built 200 years ago. It was my first time to see snow in the flesh, but it was my mom and sisters who were probably even more excited for the experience than I was. We were stuck on traffic when my mom went out to grab a handful of snow from nearby and placed some on my hand to let me feel it for the first time. My sisters, on the other hand, immediately took turns on throwing snow balls at me the moment we stepped out of the car and entered the village.

December 31-January 1

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Takahatafudo, a place I used to only read about in history books due to my fascination with Hijikata Toshizo and Shinsengumi – now viewed from my own eyes. As 2014 gave way to the new year, the temperature drastically dropped, the first onset of snow in Tokyo heavily hovering in the air.

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We were on our way to Takahatafudo when the snow really started to fall. The entire street leading to the complex was packed, but I was too busy being amazed by my first snowfall to pay any mind. Plus, crowds during winter were not much of an issue when all of us were seeking for more warmth anyway.

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My mom dubbed it as a blessing since the weather did cooperate and let me experience snow during the remaining days of my stay. Here she is in the corner of the frame, frantically trying to take a video of me as commemoration for my first snowfall experience. An extremely cold yet fascinating welcome for 2015. 
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Japanese festivals are something that I’ve always been fond of, especially from glimpses that I’ve seen on anime. Characterized by a bustling crowd, numerous food stalls, and various forms of entertainment – it was something I’ve always wanted to experience first-hand. My mom warned me of the cold and the crowd, asked me several times if I really wanted to go, but I answered ‘yes’ every time. Our schedule for the day was initially limited to shopping, but I insisted on going to Takahatafudo again because I simply cannot miss out the core of the Japanese new year celebration – the Hatsumode, the first visit to a Shinto/Buddhist temple. It was extremely cold indeed but every second I spent out in the below zero weather was utterly worth it.

January 4

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As my vacation came to its end, I spent my remaining hours in Japan admiring the country’s sunrise, the sky a beautiful gradient of dark blue transitioning into a rich orange. As the city continues to sleep, the backdrop of the city begins to show the signs of life for the day. Yet the dark does not fully give way to the day yet, but the beginning of the day continues to edge its way in. This tension gives way to the middle ground – to the transition of dark to light and vice-versa – and it perfectly defines that time frame when it is too early to get up yet but already too late to sleep, to that feeling when it is time for you to go but you still don’t want to leave.

Japan was a lot different from what I expected. Although not entirely, there was a great gap from the image I had formed in my head due to the representations I’ve watched from what I personally experienced, but the difference was not unpleasant at all. It’s just that Japan is more peaceful, more reserved, and definitely more beautiful.

Also, this trip, if anything, solidified my relationship with my loved ones and showed me the definition of a family that I may have always been secretly looking for. As Papa and mom accompanied me to the airport with Papa carrying my luggage, I felt like a kid all over again being sent to school by her parents. Except that I no longer was a kid and instead of going to school and going home to the company of my parents by the end of the day, I was leaving for another country – to my home country – and the next time that I would come back to the comfort of my parents is left uncertain. It may take years, months if I’m lucky.

As this dream eventually gets crossed off my bucket list, I find myself wondering, what now? Where to? When I told Papa how happy I was because Japan has always been my dream, he told me, “Dream bigger.” And this trip taught me just that – sometimes life just gives you the things you’ve been longing for, regardless of the wait, sometimes they do come. I would be waiting until the time I can finally come back, but until then I will be dreaming of bigger things until these bigger things also materialized for my next trip.

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Japan 2014: Traveling to the Kansai Region (II)

After spending the night at Osaka, we went back to Kyoto first thing in the morning to visit more temples. Kyoto is not called the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines” for nothing. As a former capital of Japan, one could only expect the great number of temples, shrines, and palaces that can be found in this city. Japan’s culture and history is truly reflected in this city; during World War II, the palaces and shrines at Kyoto were especially removed from enemies’ target so as to preserve them. And I’m really glad they did. After seeing for myself at how beautiful Kyoto is, I cannot begin to imagine how Japanese citizens would have felt if their cultural and historical treasures that were intricately built and preserved by their past leaders and ancestors were to only be destroyed by foreign enemies.

Our first stop for the day was at Kinkaku-ji or The Golden Pavillion, another Buddhist temple in Kyoto that is famous for its garden design and golden architecture. Upon entering the complex, tourists have the chance to strike a bonsho or a Buddhist bell. Bells in Buddhist temples are usually struck with a suspended rope beam, as it was with the bonsho  at Kinkaku-ji. It is believed that striking a bonsho would help you achieve your wish. The practice is done in three steps: 1) toss a coin at a saisen box (100 JPY is usually enough), 2) strike the bonsho, 3) clap your hands twice or simply put your hands together as you would in a prayer and bow humbly and make your wish.

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In Kinkaku-ji, your coin donation would be collected by a temple worker who would also assist you to strike the bonsho. After striking the bell and making your wish, the temple worker would give you a post card of Kinkaku-ji. It was winter by the time we visited so what we got were post cards of the temple during the season.

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One thing I learned from striking the bell for the very first time: hold onto the suspender beam until it strikes the bell! I made the grave mistake of letting it go earlier than I was supposed to. Thankfully, the temple worker understood that it was purely a mistake. You can see from the photo above that he was the one who held onto the rope after I let it go >_<

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The actual golden temple. The top two stories of this Buddhist temple were made from gold leaf and houses the shariden or the Buddha’s ashes. Among the temples that I visited in Kyoto so far, this one is definitely the prettiest! My pictures do not give it much justice, but the garden that contains this temple was also extremely beautiful and only shows how sophisticated and intricate Japanese architecture is.

As it can be seen from the first photo above, the temple is surrounded by bonsai trees while being strategically placed near a pond, making it a picture perfect sight. The still water from the pond makes the whole thing even more beautiful as it also reflects its surroundings, including the temple and the trees. It was like a picture taken straight out of a post card, except that it was real, and I had to remind myself for a brief second that what I was seeing was the actual thing with my own eyes, in person. But that’s the thing: the entire garden complex of The Golden Pavillion was too beautiful that you’d begin to wonder if it is real.

The path that surrounds the garden complex is also decorated by several maple trees that I felt like I was in a Korean drama (hello Autumn in My heart and Winter Sonata). I cannot stress it enough, IT WAS TOO BEAUTIFUL.

As it was with other temples we visited, the outer area of the actual garden complex also have several stalls that sells a variety of souvenirs and food, such as mochi and lucky charms. The complex also has a sign that the temple employs bilingual workers (I guess it was due to the great number of tourists who visit the temple everyday). I expected the workers to only know English so I was totally surprised when one of the workers from a sake stand greeted me with a “Kumusta, kumusta? Salamat, salamat! (How are you, how are you? Thank you, thank you!)” when I passed by. I immediately told my mom and she laughed it off then asked me, “How could he know you’re a Filipino(-jin)?” It was nice seeing you, multilingual-san.

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We were starting to get really cold from walking outside, so we decided to take a short break before proceeding to our next stop. We bought green tea and mochi from a nearby snack stand. The warm, bitter and herbal taste of the green tea perfectly complements the sweet taste of the azuki or red bean paste inside the green tea mochi, making it a perfect snack combination for the weather. Having warm tea during winter is definitely one of the greatest delights one could have.

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Our next stop was at Ryoan-jia Zen temple. This temple is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It is famous for its zen garden design, which is created to facilitate meditation. The garden currently has 14 distinctive rocks, but it is said that there was another one in “hiding”. The 15th rock is said to only appear to those who have already achieved enlightenment.

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Our next stop was at Toei Kyoto Studio Park, a theme park that features the filming sites of most period dramas. The actual filming site portrays the street from the Edo Period and also features other attractions such as a Haunted House, a Ninja Mystery House, and a 3D Theater. The studio also has an anime museum that can be found at the lobby. Inside, you can see posters of films and animes that were shot/produced by Toei Studios, some of them including Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Kamen Rider (as shown in the photo above).

kansai_24One thing that I really liked about this place was their display of the dolls of prominent figures during the Edo period, such as the Shinsengumi and the Oniwabanshu.

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The famous Shinsengumi trio. From left to right: Hijikata Toshizo (vice commander), Kondo Isami (commander), Okita Soji (first unit captain). Shinsengumi was Kyoto’s special police force formed during Japan’s Bakumatsu period. It was formed to particularly protect the Shogunate.

We were supposed to watch in the 3D theater, but the show does not start until 3 pm on that day so we opted to have a tour in the filming site instead. I’m really glad we did because that’s when my inner fan girl feelings started to explode.

kansai_25 kansai_27The whole site was really BEAUTIFUL. I was secretly dying inside because I really felt like I was transported to the Edo period. The houses, the shops, everything! The inner Gintama fan in me was also celebrating.

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A lovely, lovely place.

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A portrayal of the Yoshiwara street during the Edo period, Japan’s red-light district. Like in the photo above, courtesans were put behind bars on brothels for potential customers to look at. My primary knowledge about this district comes from Gintama so you can only imagine how happy I was when I spotted this street.

One of the highlights of our visit in this park was the Haunted House. I haven’t been to a lot of haunted houses but I could say that this one was quite haunting, but not exactly scary. Visitors who decide to brave this attraction would have to wait in line as customers were instructed to enter the haunted house by each pair (an opposite to the norm I was used to back home, where customers can enter the haunted house simultaneously and huddle in groups). Once you enter, you would be instructed to watch a short clip on a television placed inside where a woman reminds you of the few things that you should and should not do inside the haunted house (English translation included). The clip was eerie and sets the mood, a primer for the experience that you are about to have. Once the clip is done, the doors to the actual haunted area automatically opens for customers to enter.

The haunted house was frightening but not extremely scary. In retrospect, the interior was not filled with scary designs everywhere in comparison to the haunted house I once saw in a Korean reality show. However, the sound effects were surprising and had me screaming. My mindset was to finish the course as fast as I can so I sprinted my way through the entire haunted house, with my sister in tow. I even heard a real ghost actor make creepy noises behind us but I did not bother to look back and just encouraged my sister to run. In fact, we were so fast that we managed to reach two Japanese teenagers who entered the attraction before us. There was a scary female mannequin ghost on the corner where we met them and at first, the four of us were reluctant to proceed, afraid that it was actually a real person who would start running after us once we pass by. I decided to take the lead by of course, running, everything be damned.

By the time we were back outside, my sister was laughing at me for running too fast. I blame Xiumin for this newly acquired technique for handling haunted houses.

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Another highlight of our visit was this encounter with samurais. These actors were readily available for a photo op; there was another worker who takes your pictures, and there were baskets near the photo op area where you could place your belongings for the mean time. They were kind and hospitable too and patronizes the customers with much delight.

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One of the must-try attractions in this park is the Ninja Mystery House. This attraction features a demonstration of how ninjas move and how their houses work, including how to discover and go through false doors and pull-out staircases. Once the demonstration is done, customers would be given the option to stay and watch a ninja clip or proceed to the fun part: the ninja maze. The ninja maze would test the information you have acquired from the demonstration earlier, you would have to work out your way outside by going through false doors and walls.

I went to this attraction with Papa and my two sisters, and Papa opted that we proceed to the maze right away. As a result, we were the ones who first made it outside among our group. The workers from the Ninja Mystery House would greet you a welcome back and a congratulations once you make it back outside.

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This entire place really gave me strong Gintama and Ruroken feels, you don’t even know.

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Aside from the photo op area with samurais, the park also features other interesting places to take pictures at including this cut-board area where you can insert your head to the body of samurais and ninjas, and the small roof where children can pretend to be bad-ass ninjas.

The studio park also has shops inside where you can choose from a great array of souvenirs, particularly ones that pay tribute to the rich history of Kyoto. I was delighted to find a couple of Shinsengumi goods in the shop inside the studio, and much to my amusement, there were even some items which proudly has Kondo Isami’s and Hijikata Toshizo’s pictures printed on them respectively. It was then when I came to the conclusion that Japan really love their Shinsengumi heroes.

In summary, Toei Kyoto Studio Park successfully manages to merge a cultural and historical experience with a fun leisure time, something that the neighboring sacred temples do not entirely permit. If you’re traveling with children to Kyoto, this is a great and a must-try place.

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.

kansai_1Our 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!