Saturday, January 28, 2012

Japan Day Nine: Deer Hunting & Crossing Shibuya

From Kyoto, we traveled 1 hour by rapid train (kaisoku) to Nara for a half day tour. We got on a bus to get to the popular attractions in the city.

We strolled a bit...

and stumbled upon Kofukuji Temple. The 50 meter, five story pagoda found at Kokufuji Temple is said to be the second tallest pagoda in Japan. 

The desire to have a deer encounter however was what made us visit Nara.

Nara Park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer so we knew we were in the right place for some deer hunting. The deer at Nara Park are symbols of the city and are considered to be natural treasures.

This was the very first deer I saw.

We explored the huge Nara Park

and got to see the deer doing different activities.



For a full deer experience, one can opt to feed the deer with cookies. 

Just be careful though because the deer are not as harmless and tame as they appear to be.

The deer were able to sense instantly that we had cookies and would not leave our side until we feed them everything we got. From experience, males were more aggressive with one even bumping me from behind, almost knocking me down. Dandy!

Nara Park is also the location of Todaiji Temple, one of the most historically important temples of Japan. Todaiji was constructed in 752 and was the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples.

Todaiji Temple is also the world's largest wooden building...

and houses Japan's biggest bronze Buddha, making Todaiji one of the most famous temples in all of Japan.

From the laidback atmosphere of Nara, we returned to Kyoto to take the shinkansen and head to the final destination of this trip, Tokyo!

This is how an ordinary cart looks like. Much smaller than the green carts but comfortable still. 

We found seats near the rear of the cart so that space behind our seats was big enough to store our luggage.

After 3 hours of traveling, we got off at Japan's busiest train station, Shinjuku. For a  moment, I got overwhelmed by the number of people transiting and questioned how we were going to maneuver our way through unfamiliar territory with overstuffed luggage in tow.

We somehow did and reached our hotel in Tokyo, none the worse.

Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku hosted our final five nights in Japan. I chose this hotel for its convenient location and large room by Tokyo standards. 

From our hotel in Shinjuku, there was no time to rest and we immediately went to Shibuya. Shibuya is a popular entertainment and shopping area, considered to be one of the busiest districts in Japan.  

At Shibuya train station, it's best to use the Hachiko entrance to easily locate the Hachiko Statue.

For those who are not familiar, Hachiko is a most loyal dog who waited for many years, in front of the Shibuya station, for his master who has already passed away. The Hachiko Statue is a famous meeting spot for friends and lovers.

A closeup look shows how rough the statue is. Hachiko doesn't even have eyes. :(

Near the Hachiko Statue lies Shibuya's most famous landmark, the Shibuya crossing. There are three large TV screens that overlook the crossing, as well as many advertising signs. 

For a Friday night however, I expected more people to be in Shibuya. I wonder where the people have gone as crossing Shibuya was not the mad, frantic scramble I expected it to be.

The streets of Shibuya were also not that crowded:

In between exploring Shibuya, we did find time to have a snack. 

We got curious because of the relatively long lines but the fried chicken nuggets were just so-so.

We also had dinner at Sukiya, a restaurant chain popular for its gyudon.

Space was tight

and food was nothing to write home about.
Plain Gyudon with Egg

Hamburger Curry with Cheese

I have to say that Shibuya didn't live up to its hype as a lively crowded district bursting with energy. I guess it's not possible for now, with the tsunami disaster still fresh in the minds of the Japanese.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Japan Day Eight: Kyoto Express

Leaving the comforts of joining a tour group behind, it was time to rough it out with some D.I.Y. traveling! Armed with a homemade travel guide and our thirst for adventure, Murtle and I spent another 7 days exploring Kyoto, Nara, and Tokyo.

Since we were going to move from one city to another, I opted to buy a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). The JR Pass is exclusive for foreigners and can only be bought outside of Japan at prices that the Japanese can only dream about.

In the Philippines, there are only two accredited travel agencies where locals can buy the JR PassI got mine at Universal Holidays but H.I.S. Travel Corporation in Serendra offers better rates for those who prefer to pay in dollars or pesos.

What we got from our home country was actually a JR Pass order form which we had to exchange at any Japan Rail Station. Don't worry, exchanging the order form to an actual pass was a breeze. 

The pass indicates the type of ticket bought and duration of use. We got the 7 day ordinary ticket for 28,300yen. It was very convenient to have the pass since we only had to show the card to the ticket officer in charge and we could practically travel to any destination in Japan. 

The first time we used our JR Pass was to travel by shinkansen or bullet train from Nagoya to Kyoto. Travel time is 45 minutes.

Here's how a superior class green car looks like. The seats are wider and more comfortable but this area is only for green pass holders (read: not for us).

Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years making it a city deeply rooted in history and tradition. Kyoto is also considered as one of the most beautiful cities in Japan, with every guidebook recommending a trip to this old city.  

Due to a very full schedule, I only allocated a day for us to explore Kyoto. We were in a mad rush the moment we reached the Kyoto train station. 

From the train station, I could already see our hotel...

Welcome to our home in Kyoto.

I knew when I booked our room that it was going to be tiny but I still chose to stay at Hotel Hokke Club Kyoto because its location (just across the train station), was most important for this leg of the trip.

After quickly depositing our luggage and getting some guides at the hotel, we returned to the Kyoto Train Station. We took a local train (JR Sagano line) in order to reach Arashiyama, a city found on the outskirts of Western Kyoto.

Arashiyama is a sleepy tourist town popular during the cherry blossom and fall seasons. What made me go to Arashiyama though was the opportunity to take the Sagano Romantic Train. The Sagano Romantic Train runs 7 kilometers from Arashiyama to nearby Kameoka with the scenic Hozu River as the backdrop.

The train traveled at a pace of 25km per hour for 25 minutes giving me plenty of time to admire the picturesque landscape.  

A Hozu River Boat Tour can also be arranged for a leisurely 2 hour trip down the winding Hozu River.

Since we didn't have time for the boat ride, we bought Sagano Romantic Train roundtrip tickets. During the return trip, we got off the last stop before the train reached its starting point to make it to the Sagano Bamboo Grove.

The Sagano Bamboo Grove is a walking path with rows and rows of tall bamboo trees covering the forest. It could get crowded...

but there's still a certain tranquility that the place offers.

I didn't get tired of walking up and down the path for it was such a unique experience.

But I do regret not taking a cab to get back to civilization. 

Because of my desire to be completely immersed, we had to walk for about an hour to reach the train station which brought us back to Kyoto city proper. While we did see some interesting things during our expedition,  the cab would have bought us more time in exploring other places.
Having Tea



Back from Arashiyama, we had lunch at an okonomiyaki joint located at the Kyoto Train Station. I chose the restaurant because I just love okonomiyaki!

Potato, Bacon, Cheese, and Corn Okonomiyaki
Diced Japanese Beef Steak

After the satisfying meal of okonomiyaki and steak, we bought a Kyoto City Bus 1 Day Card. It came in handy traveling to all the sights we wanted to visit.

Our first stop was the most visited attraction in Kyoto, Kinkakuji or the Golden Pavilion. Kinkakuji is a Zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It was so beautiful that I was blown away and completely mesmerized when I had my first glimpse.

Initially, we scrapped Kinkakuji off our itinerary due to logistical concerns but I'm glad that we listened to our tour guide Elsie who said that we should not miss Kinkakuji. She was right because Kinkakuji is a must visit and was one of my favorite attractions in Japan. 

From Kinkakuji which is in Northern Kyoto, we then traveled to Eastern Kyoto. We hiked up a steep street...

to reach the gate of Kiyomizudera, which literally means Pure Water Temple.

Kiyomizudera is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan, famous for its wooden stage which is 13 meters above the hillside.

The stage is popular because it is overlooking the city and also gives visitors nice views of the maples trees below.

At the base of Kiyomizudera lies the Otowa Waterfall. Its water is divided into three different streams which visitors can drink by using cups attached to long poles. It is believed that the waters from Otowa have wish-granting powers so I made sure to have a sip.

Though it was not later than 5 p.m. by the time we left Kiyomizudera, it was already very dark outside. We explored the Higashiyama district

and saw the Yasaka Shrine from the other side of the street.

Our last cultural attraction of the day was Gion. Unsurprisingly, we got lost and though the sign says otherwise, street below is not Gion. 

After meandering in the cold for what seemed like forever, we realized we were finally on the right track when we caught this geisha.

Gion is the world's most famous geisha district filled with shops, restaurants, and teahouses where geishas entertain. I was very excited to see Gion but I have to say that I was a bit underwhelmed because it didn't have the mystique I envisioned it of having. Gion felt commercialized and ordinary but I'm still glad that we were able to find Gion because I have always associated Gion with Japan. My trip would not have been complete without Gion.

We returned to our home base after Gion and saw the Kyoto Tower all lit up.

We explored the shopping area of Kyoto and spent most of our time at Yodobashi, one of the biggest electronics shops in Japan.

Endless Options

Chilled Films

Giant Telescope

Completely spent from all the activities of the day, we had dinner at a restaurant in Yodabashi. 

Chasu Ramen


We called it a night soon after having the best gyoza of my life.

Our time in Kyoto was short and sweet but I do feel that we were able to capture the essence of Kyoto. I'm in no way recommending an express Kyoto tour though because I'm sure we skipped a lot of wonderful sights that would have made me fall more in love with Kyoto.

Oh Kyoto, I'm not yet over you. I promise to be back!
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