09 June 2011

Back to the Land of the Rising Sun

This weekend was Memorial Day in Korea, so we had Monday off and I took a vacation day on Tuesday to give my self time to visit Japan.  I had dedicated myself to the western portion of the country when I visited back in February, so this trip was all about the middle of the country.  My stops were Osaka, Himeji, Kyoto, and Nara.  All of these places are less than an hour from each other by train, so moving from place to place was relatively easy and cheap (at least by Japanese standards).

OSAKA ( 大阪 )

I started off the trip by flying from Busan to Osaka, which only takes a little over an hour.  I got into Osaka late in the afternoon, so I really didn't have anytime to explore during the day.  However, I did spend the night in Osaka and I was able to check out Umeda and Namba, which are two of the most popular nightlife spots in the city.  I was particularly impressed with an area called Namba Parks, which is an amazingly designed shopping and dining complex in Namba.  I wish that I could have spent more time in Osaka, but I really wanted to dedicate as much time to Kyoto as I could, so everything else on the trip kind of took a backseat.

Umeda Sky Building
Namba Parks
I woke up around 6:30 on Sunday to catch an early train to Himeji to see Himeji Castle, which is generally considered to be the most famous castle in all of Japan.

HIMEJI ( 姫路 )

Himeji Castle ( 姫路城 , Himeji-jo )
The castle dates back to 1333 when a fort was constructed at the current castle location.  Himeyama Castle was then built on the site in 1346 and finally Himeji Castle was constructed in the middle of the 16th century.  The castle underwent expansions in the following years, but was essentially completed in 1618.  The castle was designated as a World Heritage site in 1993.  

Why is it Famous?
Himeji Castle is the largest and best preserved castle in Japan and it was also home to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was responsible for unifying Japan.

Unfortunately, the main keep of the castle was closed for renovations when I visited.  This was pretty disappointing, but I enjoyed touring the rest of the complex.

Rating: 2.5 Stars
This place very well could have been a 5 if it hadn't been under construction.

View of castle under construction

I caught a train to Kyoto at noon and arrived about an hour later.  I started out my time in Kyoto by wandering around the Imperial Palace for a little while.  The palace itself wasn't open, but the surrounding park was beautiful.

KYOTO ( 京都 )

Kyoto Imperial Palace ( 京都御所 , Kyoto Gosho )
The Kyoto Imperial Palace has been located at its current site since the late 12th century and served as the Emperor's residence until 1869, when the capital was moved to Tokyo.

Rating: 2 Stars
This obviously would have been more exciting if the palace was open.  However, the surrounding park is still a great place to relax and walk around.

One of the entrance gates to the palace
Nijo Castle ( 二条城 , Nijo-jo )
The castle was originally constructed in 1601, but has been destroyed and rebuilt since that time.  The castle was built on the command of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The grounds also contain Ninomaru Palace ( 二の丸御殿 , Ninomaru Goten ) and Honmaru Palace ( 本丸御殿 , Honmaru Goten ).

Rating: 3 Stars
Not a particularly impressive castle.  Ninomaru Palace is the highlight and is a really nice place to tour, but you can't take any pictures inside. 
Heading toward Honmaru Palace

Temple of the Golden Pavilion ( 金閣寺 , Kinkaku-ji )
The temple dates to 1397, but the current structure was rebuilt in 1955.  However, it is said to be an exact copy of the original.

Why is it Famous?
It's painted gold!

Rating: 4.5 Stars
This a truly impressive and eye-catching structure.  The only problem I had with the place is that there really isn't anything too exciting around the pavilion itself.

Fushimi Inari Shrine ( 伏見稲荷 , Fushimi Inari-taisha )
The shrine dates to 711 AD, but the main shrine wasn't constructed until 1499.

What is it?
Fushimi Inari is a shrine built on Inari Mountain and was constructed in honor of Inari, the god of rice. 

Why is it Famous?
The shrine is particularly famous because of the over 10,000 torii, which are Japanese gates, that lead up Inari Mountain.  It is also the head shrine of Inari.

Rating: 5 Stars
This is one of the coolest places I have ever visited.  Granted, you're a little "toriied out" by the time you leave, but it's a pretty awesome experience to follow the seemingly endless tunnels of torii up the mountain.

The light at the end of the torii
Shrine after sunset

And that was that for my first day in Kyoto.  I headed to my hostel near Gion to rest up for my next day of touring.  After all, I had to get up 6:45 in the morning in order to get to all of the places that I wanted to see.

Kiyomizu Temple ( 清水寺 , Kiyomizu-dera )
The temple dates to 798 and the current buildings were constructed in 1633.

Why is it Famous?
It is famous for the main hall, which sits atop the trees and provides impressive views of the entire city.  Another interesting tidbit is that not one nail was used in the entire construction of the temple.  It was also picked as one of the 21 finalists for the New Seven Wonders of the World list, but alas was not selected.

Rating: 5 Stars
A beautiful temple that I would recommend seeing early in the morning (it opens at 6 am) because it is one of the most popular temples in Kyoto.

Kiyomizudera Niomon
Main hall

I then took a bit of stroll through southern Higashiyama on my way to Kodai Temple.

Wandering the streets of Kyoto

Kodai Temple ( 高台寺 , Kodai-ji )
The temple was established in 1606 by the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Rating: 2.5 Stars
To be honest, I wasn't too impressed with this temple.  It was a nice place to walk around, but there are far better temples in Kyoto.

Walking around Kodaiji
Bamboo forest in back of the temple

Maruyama Park ( 円山公園 , Maruyama koen )
What is it?
Maruyama Park is located just east of Gion and is in between Kodai-ji, Yasaka-jinja, and Chion-in.

Yasaka Shrine ( 八坂神社 , Yasaka-jinja )
The shrine dates to 656 and is located in the eastern part of Gion.

Rating: 4 Stars
It's not a very large shrine to tour around, but it has a convenient location and is a beautiful structure.


Chion Temple ( 知恩院 , Chion-in )
The temple was founded in 1234, but the current buildings date from the mid 17th century.

Why is it Famous?
It is Japan's headquarters for the Pure Land sect of Buddhism.

Rating: 3.5 Stars
An interesting place with a very impressive gate.  Overall however, there wasn't anything too extraordinary about this place.

Sanmon (gate)

Shoren Temple ( 青蓮院 , Shoren-in )
Constructed in the late 13th century and was temporarily used as the imperial palace.

Rating: 5 Stars
It doesn't have the impressive structures that you will see at some of the other temples, but it honestly might be the most relaxing place I have ever visited in my life.  It's not one of the main tourist draws in Kyoto, so you have time to just wander around, take in the scenery, and listen to the birds and the waterfalls.

Walking around the garden

Heian Shrine ( 平安神宮 , Heian-jingu )
This is a relatively new shrine that was built in 1895 to celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of Kyoto.

Why is it Famous?
The torii in front of the temple is one of the largest gates in Japan.

Rating: 5 Stars
I really liked this place.  The torii was obviously impressive and I just really enjoyed the whole layout of the shrine.

Torii before the entrance to Heian-jingu
Heian shrine

Nanzen Temple ( 南禅寺 , Nanzen-ji )
Nanzen Temple was established by Emperor Kameyama in 1291.

Rating: 2 Stars
Not too impressive when compared with the other temples in Kyoto.  It is however right at the beginning of the Philosopher's Path, so it's convenient.

Temple of the Silver Pavilion ( 銀閣寺 , Ginkaku-ji )
The main structure was built in 1482 and sought to emulate the Golden Pavilion.  The original plan was to cover the pavilion in silver foil, but this was never realized.

Rating: 4 Stars
The surrounding area is more enjoyable than area around the Golden Pavilion, but the structure itself is much less impressive than its older brother.

The Silver Pavilion (bit of a misnomer)
Togudo (Togu Hall)

Sanjusangen Hall ( 三十三間堂 , Sanjusangen-do )
The original temple was completed in 1164, but was burned down in 1249 and rebuilt 17 years later.  124 statues from the original temple were saved and are housed in the current temple.

Why is it Famous?
Sanjusangen-do is home to 1,001 Buddha statues (that's not an exaggeration).  1,000 of these are human-sized statues that are called the Thousand Armed Kannon and who all supposedly have a different facial expression.  There is also a large statue of the temple's main deity in in the middle of the hall.

Rating: 4.5 Stars
This definitely deserved a 5 star rating as it is a truly impressive sight.  The only reason I didn't give it 5 stars was out of spite for not allowing pictures inside the building.

Got a quick picture of the statues from outside of the hall

Tofuku Temple ( 東福寺 , Tofuku-ji )
The temple was originally constructed in 1236 and later reconstructed in the 15th century.

Rating: 3 Stars
I'm not sure if this rating is completely fair because I was pretty exhausted by the time I got around to Tofukuji.  It was a pretty cool place, but after my day of touring I wasn't too impressed.

Main gate

And that was it for Kyoto.  15 stops in a day and a half.  Not too shabby.  I hopped on a train to Nara and spent the night there so that I could get an early start the next day.

NARA ( 奈良 )

Todai Temple ( 東大寺 , Todai-ji )
The temple was originally constructed in 728, but the Great Buddha Hall ( 大仏殿 , Daibutsuden ) burned down in 1180 and 1567

Why is it Famous?
Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden building in the world and it contains the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana.  To give you some perspective on the size, the Buddha's ear is over 8 feet tall.

Rating: 5 Stars
Definitely a must-see if you are in this region of the country.  The Great Buddha Hall was awesome.  The rest of the complex has some nice sights, but the Great Buddha Hall is without a doubt the centerpiece.

Largest wooden building in the world

Virocana Buddha

Kasuga Grand Shrine ( 春日大社 , Kasuga-taisha )
The shrine was established in 768, but has been rebuilt since that time.

Rating: 3.5 Stars
I probably would have given it a better rating had I explored the primeval forest behind the shrine, but I simply didn't have the time.

Shin-Yakushi Temple ( 新薬師寺 , Shin-yakushi-ji )
The temple was constructed in 747 and the main hall still survives to this day.

Why is it Famous?
It is famous for the Yakushi Nyorai statue and the statues of the Twelve Heavenly Generals inside the main hall.

Rating: 4 Stars
Not a big complex, but the statues are awesome.  You can't take pictures inside, but I sneaked one in.

Twelve Heavenly Generals

Nara Park ( 奈良公園 , Nara koen )
The most famous part about Nara Park is the deer.  Like the deer on Miyajima, these deer are not afraid of humans because they have been considered sacred and therefore never hunted.  Killing one of these deer was actually punishable by death until 1637. 

Nara National Museum ( 奈良国立博物館 , Nara kokuritsu hakubutsukan )
I only got to see the Buddha sculpture section of the museum because the other part was closed for an event.  There were a lot of cool sculptures, but you weren't allowed to take pictures of most of them.

Standing Tamonten - 11th century
Seated Aizen Myoo - 13th century

Kofuku Temple ( 興福寺 , Kofuku-ji )
The temple was established in 669 and moved to its current location in 710.  Like most temples in Japan, it has been rebuilt many times.

Rating: 3.5 
Very cool pagoda, but the rest of the complex is pretty average.


Horyu Temple ( 法隆寺 , Horyu-ji )
The first temple is thought to have been built in 607.  It is believed that the original burnt down in 670 after being struck by lightning, but this is not known for sure.

Why is it Famous?
It is one of the oldest wooden structures in the world (and quite possibly the oldest).

Rating: 4.5 Stars
It's outside of Nara, so it's a little out of the way, but it's definitely worth the trip.

Entrance to Horyuji
Yumedono (Hall)

Central Japan Top 10
1. Fushimi Inari
2. Todai-ji
3. Shoren-in
4. Kiyomizu-dera
5. Heian-jingu
6. Kinkaku-ji
7. Sanjusangen-do
8. Horyu-ji
9. Ginkaku-ji
10. Yasaka-jinja

And that brought an end to my time in Japan.  I got the train back to Kansai Airport in Osaka and jumped on a plane back to Busan.  Not a bad way to spend 4 days.  I'm still planning one more trip to Japan, which will be to the Tokyo region and I'm thinking of doing that trip in August.

1 comment:

  1. Where are updates at homeboy? You been sitting in the bathroom shower all day?