Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Japan Trip - Osaka

The last day of our trip was spent in Osaka. Our flight left at 11:30 pm, so we had the whole day to explore. We started with a bento box in a little food stall. Osaka is known for being relatively cheap, and we weren't disappointed. This bento box was really tasty and quite inexpensive.
With our appetite momentarily quenched, we headed for Osaka-jo, a very large castle in the middle of the city.
Completed in 1583, this castle was built under the orders of Toyotomi Hideyoshi after he successfully unified Japan.
100,000 workers built the castle in just 3 years. Similar to Egypt's pyramids, modern scholars aren't quite sure how the huge granite rocks were moved for the construction of the palace.
After walking up to the 8th floor of the castle to see the view, we found ourselves ready for a snack: ice cream! I had the ginger ice cream in the front, and Bobby had his favorite green tea ice cream in the back.
Ice cream in hand, we left the castle, walking across its two moats.
Our next stop was Shitteno-ji. Founded in 593, Shitteno-ji is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. However, like so many other structures in Japan, all of the shrines and temples in Shitteno-ji are reconstructions of the original buildings. Truth be told, this wasn't a very pretty temple. Oh well, we can at least say we've been there and done that.
Osaka is a pretty large city; in fact, it's the third largest city in Japan. It is also a very modern city since it was basically bombed flat during WWII. We used the circle train to get around the large city. On one of the rides, Bobby sat next to a sleeping man.
As the train moved, this guy fell more and more asleep, and fell more and more sideways towards Bobby. I was laughing so hard at this point that it was difficult to get a proper picture!
In the evening, we headed to Minami area of Osaka. This was the first time where I felt like I was in the Japan so often portrayed in movies. There are bright lights and neon signs everywhere. All of the restaurants have near-perfect plastic models of their food in the windows, and hip young Japanese kids with crazy hair were hanging out with their friends. Whenever we go to Tokyo, I think it will be quite similar to this.
We went to a sushi restaurant for our last meal in Japan. We ordered fugu, the infamous puffer fish which, if not prepared correctly, can poison the eater. Luckily, our fugu was properly prepared. It didn't really taste like anything, but its consistency was similar to jelly fish.
Luckily, the sushi did have flavor. Good flavor, that is.
Overall, our trip to Japan was spectacular! We really enjoyed everything about the trip: the fantastic food we ate every day, the beautiful fall colors, the lovely temples and shrines, spending time with Robin, and interacting with some very friendly and helpful people along the way. There is still so much of the country to see, and we hope to go back in the near future.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Japan Trip - Kyoto, day 4

We began our final day in Kyoto with Fushimi-Inari Taisha. Created in the 8th century by a wealthy family, it is the head shrine for the 30,000 Inari shrines scattered across Japan.
The red torii (traditional gates found at the entrance to Shinto shrines) snake up the mountain for 4 km/2.5 miles. When you first enter the torii, all you see is a maze of solid red-orange.
But when you turn around, you see that all of the torii are inscribed with prayers and dedications.
The shrine complex was initially dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. We found this offering of sake, rice, and salt.
After wandering around Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, it was time for lunch. We stopped at a little restaurant near the shrine. I had a bowl of ramen with tempura (it is the first time I've seen a leaf made into tempura), and Bobby had eel.
We split this. Can you guess what it is?
If you guessed whole baby pheasant, you guessed correctly! The whole bird, which is marinated, is grilled. Once it's cooked, the head is removed and the remainder is chopped into bite-sized pieces, bone and all. It reminded us of the whole baby chicken we ate in Cambodia.
As we walked to the next temple, we got our favorite treat: ice cream! This time we had the really delicious black sesame ice cream. I could eat this stuff every day!
Ice cream finished, we headed to Tofuku-ji. Founded in 1236, Tofuku-ji currently includes 24 sub-temples and is a part of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The monk pictured here is overlooking the huge San-mon, which is the oldest Zen main gate in Japan.
One of the other large temples had this dragon painted inside the roof.
Similar to other Zen Buddhist temples we visited, Tofuku-ji has a sand garden. This garden was raked into a checker board pattern
There is also a lovely moss garden, complete with a little pond and a pretty stone bridge.
But the best part of Tofuku-ji is the small valley filled with maple trees.
I know we've already established my love/obsession with Japanese maple trees. But at least I wasn't the only one enamored with the bright red leaves and multiple colors. Tofuku-ji is actually one of Kyoto's most famous autumn-foliage spots.
And with good reason.
After the stunning Tofuku-ji, we headed towards the equally impressive Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavillion. Similar to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), Ginkaku-ji was initially built as a retirement villa but was converted into a temple soon as its original occupant's death.
The Zen garden here is much larger than the one in Tofuku-ji. The pond is large and surrounded by beautiful trees.
The sand garden is also larger and includes these large conical formations.
From a distance, you get a better idea of the sand garden's pattern.
The walking path, which meanders up the hillside a bit, provides a lovely view of the trees surrounding the pond and the top of Ginkaku-ji's roof.
Our last stop was to this Shinto cemetery. We were the only people in the cemetery, and with the wind blowing through the trees and the red and yellow leaves slowly drifting to the ground, it was a peaceful close to our time in Kyoto.
But we are unable to leave good enough alone, so we topped the peacefulness of the cemetery off with some cherry blossom ice cream.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Japan Trip - Kyoto, day 3

On our 3rd day, we headed towards the western part of Kyoto, known as Arashiyama. But first, we had a breakfast of a gigantic apple. Honestly, this apple as the size of a large orange!
We were planning on heading right for a temple, but we were distracted by ice cream. What, you don't eat green tea ice cream at 10 am?
We finally made it to Tenryu-ji, one of the major temples of the Rinzai school of Zen. Like most other structures in Japan, this temple, originally built in 1339, was reconstructed multiple times. The present buildings date from 1900.
Tenryu-ji is famous for its 14th century Zen garden. One part of the garden features a Zen sand and rock garden.
Rocks and sand are cool, but I much prefer this part of the Zen garden, with beautiful trees, a large pond, and rocks placed in and around the pond.
Aren't we cute?
I have to say, one of my favorite parts of the trip was seeing the Japanese maple trees with bright red leaves. I think this photo looks like a Christmas maple!
Really, does it get much more beautiful than this?
Poor Bobby was starting to get a little bit tired of me taking so many photos of red leaves.
But there was more than just red leaves! I have no idea what kind of flower this is, but it's pretty cool looking.
After visiting Tenryu-ji, we headed towards the neighboring bamboo grove. These bamboo are huge!
And there are so, so many bamboo in this grove. It is eerily quiet in here.
Our next stop in the Arashiyama area was the awesome monkey park! This stop wasn't on our itinerary, but how could we say no to monkeys? We entered the park and had to walk up a mountain for 30 minutes before we got to the monkeys. All along the path were signs warning you to not look the monkeys directly in the eyes. There was also this sign with a very strange use of English.
After hiking for 30 minutes, we came to the main feeding area of the monkeys. You can roam free around the park and around the monkeys, but if you want to feed them, you have to go inside this structure and feed the monkeys through the fence.

The park is home to over 200 Japanese macaque monkeys. These monkeys are wild animals (hence the warnings about looking them in the eyes), but they are used to human presence and aren't phased by us roaming around.
It was really difficult to leave the monkey park; I could have easily spent the whole day there! But I knew we had one last sight to see before heading back to downtown Kyoto. Our last temple of the day was the stunning Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. Originally building in 1397 as a retirement villa, it was soon converted into a temple. However, in 1950, a crazed monk, who had become obsessed with the temple, burned it to the ground! So the temple we see today was rebuilt in 1955 and is an exact replica of the original structure.
I'm really happy we saw the Golden Pavilion at near-twilight. The position of the sun near the horizon made the side of the building light up as though it were on fire. It was such a remarkable sight.