S: Japan 2011
FC: Kyoto and Osaka
1: Fueled by Starbucks, Jordon and I jetted off to Japan for a three-day weekend. Our hostel was wonderful and located in the center of the city near the rocket-shaped Kyoto Tower. According to Lonely Planet, "Kyoto is the storehouse of Japan's traditional culture and one of the world's most culturally rich cities.” Jordon and I never found ourselves far from a piece of history with 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines scattered throughout the city. We spent the first night wandering around the city, exploring multiple shrines, temples and shops.
5: Our adventures started in the Shijo-do area. A tourist-shoppers paradise, the streets are lined with bright lanterns and shops selling trinkets, scarves, coffee and sweets. We walked around a few shrines and temples including Yasaka Shrine. The large lanterns display the name of local businesses that made donations to Yasaka.
7: Behind the main shopping street, dim alleys led us to countless rows of tea shops and restaurants. It was difficult to tell if places were open because the windows and doors were covered. Our laughter was contagious as were searched for a place to eat dinner. We felt like burglars as we slowly pulled back the entryway cloth and quietly slid open the door. Not sure what we were walking into, we eventually found a place. The only two customers in the joint, the sweet owner insisted we use a service bell that we both agreed was a placebo button. | Udon | Sashimi & rice
10: On a quest to find sake, we located a small bar near our hostel. No larger than a walk-in closet, the walls were covered floor-to-ceiling with old posters and shelves filled with knickknacks. Before we could even take a sip of our sake, the owner was in the corner dusting off a samurai costume for us to wear. This stop quickly became the highlight of our first day in Kyoto. It's amazing how much you can communicate without much speaking. We learned that she opened the bar at a young age – a photo of her during her younger years was proudly displayed behind the bar - and she has two grown children. Noticing a karaoke machine, we asked if she would sing a song for us. Knowing Jordon and I only knew three Japanese words, she acted out the lyrics during her performance. She noticed Jordon had a cold so she provided her some tissues and gave her a pocket-sized pack for the road. After showing us how to properly wear disposable masks, she pulled out a mirror for us to check them out. There was no end to what was tucked behind the tiny bar.
14: Fushimi Inari Shrine One of several thousand shrines across Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and later business, Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its countless torii gates. Foxes are said to be his/her messengers, so you will find many fox statues at Inari shrines. On the back of the gates are the names of individuals and companies. The cost to advertise your name starts at 5,000 USD for a small sized gate up to 13,000 USD for a larger gate.
16: The cab driver we had was really sweet. He was born in Japan but lived in South Korea for a few years before returning to Japan. He insisted several times that he looked like Steve McQueen. During the short trip, he spoke to us in three different languages, Japanese, Korean and English, and gave us a sheet of stickers as a "souvenir" - power ranger looking figures with three-leaf clovers on their helmets. We were both pleasantly surprised when he cut the price by a third saying it was "service", a term Jordon and I have both come to love in Korea since it usually means a free drink or dessert. He brought us to Toji Temple where we saw Kyoto's famous five story pagoda.
17: Toji Temple pagoda Standing at 187 feet, it's the tallest pagoda in Japan. Supposedly entrance into the pagoda is permitted only a few days a year, but we were able to walk inside and check out the four Buddha statues.
18: Arashiyama As we walked down Bamboo Grove we were amazed at the strength and energy of the men pulling the man-drawn carriages. They were all over the park and the men always had a smile on their face as they ran up hills and weaved through the crowd.
20: We walked 20 minutes up Arashiyama Mountain to an observation platform at Iwatayama Monkey Park. Once we made it to the top, we were surrounded by monkeys walking freely around. I have never been so close to so many monkeys. At the top we saw Mount Hiei and a panoramic view of Kyoto. All 130 Japanese monkeys (snow monkeys) in the park are wild, but fed by park staff.
22: Since the monkeys are wild, the park requested visitors follow certain rules: 1. Don't stare into the monkeys' eyes. They consider it a threat and some of them become aggressive. 2. Don't touch the monkeys. Like other wild animals, the monkeys hate being touched and feel stress. 3. Don't feed them outside the hut surrounded by a wire netting. This encourages them to misbehave to people.
24: The main building of the temple, each floor represents a different style of architecture. The first floor is built in the Shinden style, used for palace buildings with natural wood pillars and white plaster walls. The second floor is built similar to samurai residences and has its exterior completely covered in gold leaf. The top floor is built in the style of a Chinese Zen Hall and is covered inside and out with gold leaf. A golden phoenix sits at the top. | The Golden Pavilion
26: Higashiyama in this popular area filled with small shops, cafés and restaurants, property taxes used to be based upon street frontage, so the houses were built with narrow fronts, but extend far into the street.
27: The famous geisha district is also filled with shops, restaurants and teahouses. The first night we saw three geishas in a cab, their hair and make-up looked flawless, so we wanted to see the complete ensemble. Just when we thought our search was a bust, we spotted a geisha walking towards us. Having read that they don't like their photos to be taken by annoying, paparazzi tourists, we waited until she turned the corner and snapped a quick photo from a distance. | Gion
30: Umeda Sky Building
31: After a 90 minute bus trip and an hour-long ride on a high-speed train, we could tell we were no longer in a city with 1.5 million people. Osaka was bustling with people. The population during the day is 3.7 million and drops to 2.6 million at night. We spent the day walking around the JR Osaka and Umeda Station area. | At the Umeda Sky Building, we took a see-through escalator to the Floating Garden Obervatory/Lumi Sky Walk. Once we reached the fortieth floor we were met with a 360 degree view of the city.
32: On the Walk is the Lumi Deck where couples can purchase a lock for the "Fence of Vows." They are instructed to hold hands while sitting on the bench, touch the dome and a pattern on the floor will change to tell them the degree of their love - 1, 2, 3 or max.
35: HEP (Hankyu Entertainment Park)
36: Osaka Dome baseball stadium | Yodobashi Camera
37: Possibly interesting tidbits: 1. It is said that Japanese people don't feel a sense of country pride, so you will only see flags flying on special days outside of government buildings. 2. Vehicles drive on the left-side of the road. 3. Taxi drivers are able to open and close the left-sided rear passenger door with a button. 4. Bus drivers turn-off the engine at stop lights.