29 June 2008

Japan, days 1-6

June 14-15
Starting with a 6 am EST flight to Atlanta, we went to Japan. Because of the time difference, we lost Saturday entire and arrived around 1:30 pm JST 6/15. After getting through immigration and the train station, we headed off to our hotel, where we showered and waited for Ben's folks to show up, since their flight was a couple hours after ours.

After they got to Tokyo, we found some dinner and got tickets to Kyoto for the next day.

June 16
Got the Shinkansen to Kyoto and got there around noon. Found our hotel, left our luggage, and walked around the Imperial Gardens, which were right across the street. Then we wandered to find lunch, then walked to Nijo Castle. Nijo was an old palace of the shogunate, and the floors were constructed to squeak melodically (nightingale floors) to warn of approaching people (or ninjas). Then back to the hotel to check in and get some food.

June 17
Nestled in the eastern mountains (東山; Higashiyama) are about a dozen temples and shrines. Kyoto was a capital once; the first character in 京都 means capital (and is part of Tokyo 東京; east capital), so it was a very important city, so many temples were built. There's a walking tour you can take to see half of them in half a day (or all of them, if you've got time). We started out at Kiyomizudera, walked up to Kodaiji, then Chion-in, skipped one, and walked up to Nanzenji, the center of Zen Buddhism in that region of Japan. From there, we took the bus over to Kinkakuji, which is covered in gold leaf.

June 18
Day trip time! Off to Inari for the Fushimi-Inari shrine, which has a plethora of torii gates in a row, and you walk through them to get up the hill. The effect is pretty cool, really. Then to Uji for another temple, Byodo-in, and another shrine. Lots of walking.

Japan is largely Buddhist and Shinto; there's a saying that Buddhism is for life, and Shinto is for death. That means Buddhism tells you how to live, but Shinto is for after you're dead. Temples are Buddhist; shrines are Shinto.

June 19
Another day trip, this time to Osaka, the second largest city in Japan (yet still considered the boonies by Tokyoites.) We went to Osaka Castle, which was destroyed in 1640 or so during the battle between shoguns Toyotomi and Tokugawa, partially rebuilt, then destroyed again in 1863 during the Meiji Restoration. For about 200 years, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family, who were a military clan. Then in 1860, the imperial family wanted to regain their power, so there was a civil war to restore the imperial dynasty. Anyway. Sometime after WW2, the castle was rebuilt, but it now houses a museum about the Toyotomi/Tokugawa war. It's kinda nifty.

Then we met a friend who's living between Kyoto and Osaka, teaching English to high school kids. We went to the neon-lit area, called the Dotombori, and had okonomiyaki, which is basically a pan-fried cake based on cabbage and egg, with mix-ins of your choice. It's really easy to make.

June 20
Moved off to Nara. Nara was the first capital of Japan, and it has the oldest, most important shrine in Japan. It's also home to the largest wooden building in the world (the Daibutsuen) which houses a very large wooden Buddha. Nara Park is home to a lot of deer, which are considered sacred, because it's believed that the imperial family's ancestor, revered in the Kasuga Taisha shrine, rode to town on a deer. The deer are tame, and you can even pet them. You can feed them, too, though the buggers know you've got food, and they'll mug you for it.

In Nara, we stayed in a traditional Japanese inn, a ryokan. The owner made a nice vegetarian dinner for me, which was awesome, since the traditional ryokan food is based on fish. Mine was based on tofu and mushrooms. I certainly approve. It was a ton of food, and I ate most of it. Then the next morning, we got breakfast, which was also huge.

After Nara, it was off to Tokyo for the remainder of the time.

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