Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 7 (24 May 18) – Creating Instant Noodles and Shopping Around Osaka Station

 

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View of Osaka City from HEP5 Ferries Wheel

We spent the last 2 days of our Kansai trip in Osaka. Unlike my previous trips where I did not cater time for shopping, we dedicated 2 days to shop around in Osaka. There are 2 main shopping areas in Osaka, 1 at Osaka Station and another at Namba area. Today we shopped around in Osaka Station Area.

Cup Noodles Museum

Our first stop today is the Cup Noodles Museum. There are 2 Cup Noodles Museum in Japan, one of which is located in Osaka. To get to the museum, we took the train to Ikeda station (this station is not covered under the 2 day Osaka Amazing Pass) and walked for about 5 mins. The Cup Noodle Museum is relatively empty at the time of our visit. Entrance to the museum is free. Once inside the museum, there are exhibits on the origins of cup noodles and cup noodles were prepared and sold in the early days. There is even a mock-up shed where the world’s first instant noodles were created and how it was created. Down the hall, there is a tunnel display of the instant noodles that was sold in Japan throughout the decades.

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Nissin Cup Noodle Museum in Ikeda

The highlight of this place is that we get to make our own cup noodles. My friend and I each bought an empty cup (at ¥300 each) and was escorted to a table where we start doodling on the cups. After we were done drawing our cup, we approached the end of the room where we customised our cup noodles with ingredients and flavouring. Our customised cup noodles were sealed right before our eyes before they were given to us as a souvenir for us to bring back. We headed to the 2nd floor of the museum where there is a class for visitors to make the ramen noodles from kneading the dough to the finished product of the noodles. My friend and I did not participate in this activity. It took us about 1 hour to finish visiting the Cup Noodle Museum.

Shopping in Osaka Station

We headed for shopping at Osaka Station. There are a number of shopping malls in the vicinity of Osaka JR Station. We headed for the HEP5 Shopping Mall, which is across the road from Osaka Station. The HEP5 Shopping Mall has 6 levels and sells mainly clothing and shoes. We saw the ferries wheel on top of this building and will be back later in the evening after the shops are closed. After shopping around in HEP5, we headed to the departmental stores right on top of Osaka station. The Daimaru store occupies 15 storeys while the Lucca occupies 10 storeys. There is another Hankyu Departmental Store across Osaka Station. We did not go into this store as the product offerings are the same in all these departmental stores.

HEP5 Ferries Wheel

One good thing about getting the Osaka Amazing Pass is that other than allowing us to take the subway for free, we can also visit 36 spots for free. Some of these include riverboat ride, entering the Osaka Castle and taking a ride on HEP5 Ferries Wheel. My friend and I returned to HEP5 at about 8pm, after most of the shopping malls have closed to ride on the Ferries Wheel. The HEP5 Ferries Wheel is located on the 7th floor of the building. The ride on the ferries wheel takes about 15 mins, with the highest point being 106m from the ground. The views on the ferries wheel aren’t that great as the glass looks blurry and we did not have a good view of Osaka city. I would not have ridden on it if it is not covered under the Osaka Amazing Pass. After taking the ferries wheel, we headed back to our accommodation to rest.

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HEP5 Ferries wheel is located on top of a shopping mall

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On the streets of Osaka at night

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 6 (23 May 18) – The Temples of Kyoto: Wandering Through the Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari-Taishi, to the Zen Gardens of Ginkakuji, to the Majestic Water Temple of Kiyomizu-Dera

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Torii gates of Fushimi Inari-Taishi

Fumishi Inari-Taishi (伏見稲荷大社)

Visitors to Kyoto will bound to make a visit to Fushimi Inari-Taishi, a shrine that is dedicated to The God of Rice, Inari. The shrine was built in 711, just celebrated its 1300th anniversary recently. Our journey to Kansai today brought us to Eastern Kyoto, our first stop is The Temple of Thousand Torii Gates – Fumishi Inari-Taishi. We were hoping to get to the shrine early to avoid bumping into huge crowds, after all, Fushimi Inari-Taishi is one of the visited and photographed spots in Kyoto. I figured it would be boring (not mentioning mainstream) if we just visited the main shrine and walking through the very busy Senbon Torii, other than these sites, we planned to hike up to the top shrine in Mt Inari, hoping to get a good view of the surroundings from the top. The 4km hike up Mt Inari would take about 2 hours. Despite the drizzle, Fushimi Inari-Taishi is still packed with crowds. At Romon (樓門), the main gate of Fushimi Inari-Taishi, we spotted a single storey structure that is decked in bright red pillars and beams with white coloured walls, as the centre part built slightly higher than the side structures.  A little further from Romon sits Honden (本殿), the main shrine of Fushimi Inari-Taishi. Visitors are only allowed to pay their respects to the 5 deities enshrined here at the entrance of the shrine, where 5 bells are installed for prayers to ring prior to their prayers.

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We were greeted with hordes of visitors at Romon, the main entrance to Fushimi Inari-Taishi

After paying our respects at Honden, we started our hike up Mt Inari through the first stretch Torii Gates, know as Senbon Torii (千本鳥居). Senbon Torii has the highest concentration of torii gates, estimated to be thousands. The torii gates are lined up almost back to back with very little gaps. Walking through these bright red torii gates gives me an almost magical feeling. I have been seeing pictures of Senbon Torii, and now that I am here, it just feels so surreal. Owing to its fame, the number of visitors here is also the highest. It is very difficult to take pictures of the torii gates at Senbon Torii without capturing someone in the shot. My friend and I ended up walking through the torii gates, taking very few pictures. At one point under these torii gates, we came to a split path. The right side leads upwards towards the inner shrine, whereas the left path is for visitors to descend from the inner shrine. Moments later we arrived at the inner shrine of Okusha (奥社奉拝所). There are 3 buildings at Okusha, 2 for temple administrations and 1 is where the deity is enshrined. We also spotted a queue where people seem to be touching some stone. As the queue was rather long, plus we have to cater time to hike up Mt Inari, we did not join the queue.

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The torii gates at Senbon Torii Gates

Fushimi Inari-Taishi consists of many smaller shrines spreading on Mt Inari, which we spotted on the hike up to Mt Inari. The torii gates pass Okusha are much larger than those we have seen so far. This part of Fushimi Inari-Taishi is where the crowd started to thin out. From here onwards, we were able to take more pictures with no people in it. Along the way, we saw Kumatakasha (熊鷹社) shrine with a large lake behind it. Along the way, we also came to a rest area. There is a small tea house looking shop that sells food and drinks. I highly recommend people making a trip to Fushimi Inari-Taishi to make a hike up here. It is here we saw Kyoto city from a higher ground. We continued our way up the peak, along the way seeing more smaller shrines. Some shrines are bigger while others seem to be a cluster of smaller shrines. At some points of the path, it felt that the shrines have merged with nature. The forest air is crisp and fresh, possibly due to the rain. We finally reached the top of Mt Inari where the shrine Inchinomine (一ノ峰) is located. We were a tad disappointed that there are no viewpoints at the peak of Mt Inari. From Inchinomine, the path turns downhill. The shrines here are more spread out. We also spotted some torii gates that seem to be newly installed. We see more nature on our way down. Once at the base of Mt Inari, we headed to Kyoto JR Station for our next destination.

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View of Southeastern Kyoto from Mt Inari

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The Shrine on the top of Mt Inari

Ginkakuji (銀閣寺)

We originally planned to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace after we are done with Fushimi Inari-Taishi. However, due to the downpour, we spent additional time at Fushimi Inari Taishi, which caused us to miss the English guided tour timing. We decided to change our destination and wanted to visit Kiyomizu-Dera. While queuing for the bus, we realised bus number 100 goes to both Kiyomizu-Dera and Ginkakuji. We decided to make a trip to Ginkakuji. Ginkakuji is a short walk from the bus stop we alighted. Along the way, we walked past the famed Philosopher’s walk. I told my friend we would take a look at Philosopher’s walk if we have the time after visiting Ginkakuji.

Ginkakuji is built in 1482 and served as the retirement villa for the owner, mirroring the Kinkakuji which was built by the owner’s grandfather. Ginkakuji was converted to a temple after the owner’s death in 1490. The named Ginkaku was given when the owner wanted to cover the pavilion with silver foil, however, this did not materialise till the day the owner passed on. Entering Ginkakuji, there is a short walk from the main gate before we reach the inner gate. Passing the inner gate, the highlight of Ginkakuji, Kannon-den (観音殿)or Ginkaku (銀閣) was on the right of the entrance. Ginkaku is a 2 storey wooden structure sitting by a small pond. The silver pavilion is much simpler and smaller than Kinkakuji, perhaps due to the owner does not want to dwarf the works of his grandfather. Ginkaku still retains its original look (and colour) the day it was built. Similar to Kinkakuji, a silver phoenix taking flight stands on the roof of Ginkaku. Having visited Kinkakuji the day before, looking at Ginkakuji feels like a knockoff from its golden version. Afterall it is modelled after its famous golden version.

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Ginkaku, the Silver Pavilion

Next to Ginkakuji is where Kogetsudai (向月台) is located. The Kogetsudai is a large open space with a volcano structure made of white sand, which represents waves and Mt Fuji. Next to Kogetsudai sits the Hondo (本堂) and Togudo(東求堂) side by side. Built of wood, the Hondo is out of bounds and is one of the largest buildings in Ginkakuji. Similarly, the Togudo is also made of wood, this is the oldest Shoin style building that has survived earthquakes and fires throughout the centuries.

Perhaps the most iconic feature of Ginkakuji is its zen gardens. Almost half the area is dedicated to the zen gardens. There are 4 ponds in Ginkakuji in total, of which 3 are visible to visitors. Passing the Toguko, a path that leads to the moss gardens in Ginkakuji, which leads to a viewpoint up a small hill. Walking around the gardens feels therapeutic and peaceful. From the viewpoint up in the hills, we can see the whole of Ginkakuji and the town in Northeastern Kyoto. Ginkakuji is rather small, it took us 30 mins to finish walking around the grounds of Ginkakuji. Unless one is interested in zen gardens or happens to have spare time (like us), Ginkakuji is hardly worth the time to travel to this part of Kyoto. We originally wanted to take a walk down Philosopher’s Path, however, after walking past, it felt like walking behind someone’s backyard. We gave up the idea of walking down Philosopher’s Path and headed for our next destination in Kyoto.

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View of Ginkakuji and northeastern Kyoto from the hill in Ginkakuji

Kiyomizu-Dera (清水寺)

We took the same bus that brought us to Ginkakuji to Kiyomizu-Dera, which is one of the more iconic temples in Kyoto. It took us 7 mins to walk from the bus stop to Kiyomizu-Dera, passing by some wooden buildings along the way. Walking on this street feels as if we are being taken back in time. The street is now filled with shops selling souvenirs. Kiyomizu-Dera is at the end of this street, the first indication of arriving at the temple is the bright red 2 stories main gate. The 14m tall Nio-mon (仁王門) is the main gate that welcomes visitors daily. Sitting on top of a flight of stairs, Nio-mon looks commanding. Walking past Nio-mon, just right behind it, is where the Sai-mon (西門) is located. We were not particularly impressed with the Sai-mon, but are more captivated by the 3 stories red pagoda behind it. From Sai-mon, we spotted another pagoda across on the other side of Kiyomizu-Dera.

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Nio-mon, the main gate to  Kiyomizu-Dera

As it was approaching closing time (we only had 45 mins at the time we arrived at Kiyomizu-Dera). My friend and I wasted no time and headed into the main hall – Hondo (本堂). The Stage in Hondo is the most iconic feature in Kiyomizu-Dera, thanks to the location it is built on. The Stage is essentially a veranda, protruding out of the Hondo, built on the steep cliff, supported by 18 pillars that measure 13m tall. However we were a tad disappointed to learn that Kiyomizu-Dera is undergoing preservations works, most the iconic Kiyomizu Stage is covered in canvas and scaffolds, except for a small section that allowed us to take a peek down from the veranda. After offering our respects to the god in Hondo, my friend and I proceeded to the other parts of Kiyomizu-Dera.

From Hondo, there is a path that splits into lower and upper path in Kiyomizu-Dera. We took the upper path as this is where we can get a good view of Hondo. There are a couple of buildings on this side of Kiyomizu-Dera, the Okuno-in Hall (奧の院) resembles Hondo, but at a smaller scale. Similar to Hondo, there is a veranda at Okuno-in Hall where we got great shots of Hondo (if not for the hideous canvas). We continued on the path leading to the pagoda located opposite Hondo. From Hondo, this pagoda seems far, but the distance between the 2 structures is not as far as it seems. Arriving at this pagoda, it looks the same as the first pagoda next to Nio-mon. As Kiyomizu-Dera is closing soon (announcements were being made on its closing time), we headed for the waterfalls in the temple grounds.

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The veranda at Okuno-in Hall is a great picture spot of Hondo

Coming from the pagoda, we took the lower path that leads to the waterfall. Otowa no taki (音羽の瀧) is one the iconic features in Kiyomizu-Dera. It is the pure waters from the mountains here that gives the temple its name. Otowa no taki is a pavilion that has 3 streams of water flowing down from the mountains. It is believed that each of these streams grants different wishes, but drinking from all 3 streams will bring bad luck. I tried drinking from one of the streams, the water tasted like tap water and is very refreshing. One of the good thing about coming to Kiyomizu-Dera when it is about to close is the absence of large crowds, my friend and I did not have to queue for the spring water nor are there crowds that obscure us from taking pictures. If one were to come here when it is about to close (the temple closes at 6pm), do come at least 1½ hours before it closes.

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Taking the last wefie before we leave Kiyomizu-Dera

We hurried out Kiyomizu-Dera as it was about to close.  As it was dinner time, my friend and I had dinner in one of the small bento eateries (they were delicious and not pricey at all). We spent the rest of the night shopping in Kyoto before heading back to Osaka.

 

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On a double-decker train heading back to Osaka

 

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 5 (22 May 18) – The Nature and the Ancients of Kyoto: From Arashiyama to Kinkakuji

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Kinkakuji in Kyoto

For the next 2 days, our travels in Kansai region will be spent visiting the sites in Kyoto. There are a lot of historic places to visit in Kyoto and it would not possible to see everything given the time we will be spending in Kyoto. Numerous guides online provide guides for visitors to Kyoto. I was initially planned on following one of these guides. After some planning, I was telling myself why settle for some guides with places that I am not interested in? A few iterations later, I finally settled on the places I wanted to visit in Kyoto, the beauty of a free and easy trip. We spent our 1st day visiting the sights northwest Kyoto and 2nd day in the southeast Kyoto.

Arashiyama (嵐山)

We started our Kyoto travels with Arashiyama, which is famed for its scenic views of the river and the Bamboo Grove. There are 3 train stations that serve Arashiyama area namely Hankyu-Arashiyama Station (阪急嵐山駅), Randen-Arashiyama Station (嵐電嵐山駅), and JR Saga-Arashiyama (嵯峨嵐山駅) located at the south, central and north of Arashiyama, respective. We opted to take the train to the southeast of Arashiyama so that our journey will start from the south and end up in the north of Arashiyama where we will catch the Sangano Scenic Railway.

Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋)

Leaving Hankyu-Arashiyama Station, we headed towards the Katsura River (桂川), where the famed Togetsukyo Bridge is located. We reached Katsura River within minutes and there lies the 155m Togetsukyo Bridge in a distance. The view from the riverside was beautiful. With Togetsukyo Bridge in the foreground and the spring green trees on the hills behind the bridge, no wonder visitors flog here for a picture on the bridge. We walked towards the bridge and was treated to more scenic views of a small raised dam, which looked like a waterfall on the river bed. There are sightseeing boats that dock in the nearby pier. Crossing Togetsukyo Bridge, we came to the built-up area of Arashiyama. The view of the bridge from this side of the river presents a different view, however, I prefer the view from the side near the Hankyu-Arashiyama Station, mainly due to a lesser crowd there.

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Panoramic Shot of Katsura River from Togetsu Bridge

Arashiyama Rickshaw Ride (京都人力車)

The buildings in this part of Kyoto looks rustic and as though they are from a page out of a history book. As we were waiting to cross the road, we saw rickshaws with visitors on them. Though not in part of our plan, nonetheless we tried a 30mins ride on the rickshaw. Despite being touristy, riding the rickshaw through Arashiyama is a good way of orienting ourselves around Arashiyama. It is also a good way of seeing the sights around this town for those who have little time in this area. Our rickshaw driver introduced us to the various sights along the way. Everywhere in Arashiyama town is crowded with visitors, our rickshaw driver is very skilful in manoeuvring the rickshaw through the hordes of visitors, especially when he was turning into the Bamboo Grove. The main highlight of the ride is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. As the rickshaw driver pulled us through the Bamboo Grove, he suddenly turned into a small road that is free from visitors. The rickshaw driver explained this is a road that is reserved for rickshaws. On this road, we can feel the peacefulness in the Bamboo Grove. The Bamboo Grove is split into 2 parts, the area before the train track is crowded with visitors. as compared to the area after the train track. There is a small Shinto shrine near the train track. Somehow this is where all the visitors turned back and headed back to the town. We made mental notes of where to go to after we are done with the rickshaw ride. The driver pulled us pass the train tracks to the part where there are lesser people. It is here that the rickshaw driver made a brief stop and took pictures of us on the rickshaw. We made a u-turn and head back to Katsura River where we boarded the rickshaw. As we thought that our ride will be ending soon, the rickshaw driver made a turn into a side road. On this road, we felt the peacefulness of Arashiyama once again. There are some rustic buildings on this road. Soon we were on the side of the road that we boarded the rickshaw. This marks the end of our rickshaw ride. After a few pictures with the driver, we headed back to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

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Map and rate of the Rickshaw that we rode in Arashiyama

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My friend with the rickshaw driver

Tenryuji (天龍寺)

As we were walking towards the Bamboo Grove, we came to Tenryuji, one of the temples on the main road in Arashiyama that we have passed by on the rickshaw just now. My friend and I headed into the compound of this temple. There are quite a number of visitors to Tenryuji. The attraction of this temple is its zen gardens. After walking for another 5 mins, we came to the Kuri (庫裏).  Entering the compounds of the temple is free, however, there are different charges on the admission to various buildings and gardens. Kuri is a relatively small white building triangular roof and is built in 1899. The Kuri is considered one of the 7 major buildings according to the principles of Zen. We felt this place is a little touristy and did not enter Kuri. As we were rushing for time, we exited Tenryuji and headed for the Bamboo Grove.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (竹林の小径)

Minutes later, we arrived at the entrance to the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Having been here moments earlier, we know exactly which spot to go to where there are lesser people. In the area before the train tracks, we couldn’t really appreciate the bamboo grove. Most of the time we were squeezing with other visitors and this area is very bad for photos. As we were making our way past the train tracks, we made a brief stop at the Shinto Shrine in the midst of the Bamboo Grove. Nonomiya Shrine (野宮神社) is a small shrine that the locals come to pray for marriage. There are several small structures in Nonomiya Shrine, consisting of the main prayer shelter and several boards for visitors to hang this wishes. As the shrine is rather small, we exited the shrine after taking some pictures.

The train tracks that cut the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove into 2 parts is right next to Nonomiya Shrine. We continued our walk in the Bamboo Grove past the train tracks. This is where we felt peace in the Bamboo Grove. There are significantly lesser visitors to this part of the grove, making strolling in this part of the grove a relaxing one. It is here we can hear the rustling of the bamboo leaves as they dance to the rhythm of the wind. My friend and I turned into a small area where we stopped by on the rickshaw earlier to have our photo taken on the rickshaw. This is a perfect spot for pictures with the Bamboos and lesser people. It is recommended for those visiting Arashiyama Bamboo Grove to walk past the train tracks and come here to get away from the crowds.

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On the rickshaw in Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Sagano Scenic Railway (嵯峨野トロッコ列車)

Leaving Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, our next stop is the Saga Torkko Station where we planned to board the Sagano Scenic Railway towards Kameoka. The station about 7 mins walk from the rear exit of the Bamboo Grove. The 25 mins Sagano Scenic Railway runs along Hozugawa River between Arashiyama and Kameoka, after which it will turn around and return to Arashiyama. There are 5 carriages on the Sagano Scenic Railway, 1 of which is open air. We originally wanted to take the open air carriage but was told all seats in this carriage are taken. Our plan of taking the train up to Kameoka was also changed on the spot as the next train available is some 2 hours later. We did not want to wait and opted for the return train ride from Kameoka instead. As our JR pass is still valid, we took the JR towards Umahori Station and waited for our train to come by. Arriving at Umahori Station, we took a 5 mins walk from the JR station to the Scenic Railway station. Along the way, we saw some farmlands in rural Kyoto.

Our train ride arrived on time and we boarded the train as soon as passengers alighted. The cabin of the train is made of wood, giving the train a rustic feel to it. As the train left the station and started on its 25 mins journey towards Arashiyama, we were treated to views of the wilderness in Kyoto. The dramatic scenery saw Hozugawa River turns from being peaceful to angry with rapids in certain areas. The river also widens and narrows as the train runs alongside the river. We saw the hills on the opposite side of the river donning on their spring green coats and at some point of the journey, the hills gave way to the river as Hozugawa River snakes through the mountain ranges. We even saw boats at some point of the river, where visitors chose to brave through the rapids of Hozugawa River as their return option towards Arashiyama. Initially, we were worried that the seats we were assigned will not give us much of the river view as one side of the train tracks will be facing the mountains. We were lucky to have assigned seats on the left side of the train as we realised on the return trip the left side has more time with the sceneries of the wilderness of Arashiyama.

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Bridge over Hozugawa River

Nijo Castle(二条城)

We headed back to Kyoto after alighting from Sagano Scenic Railway. As we were riding on the JR towards Kyoto, I realised there is a JR station near Nijo Castle, which is our next stop in Kyoto. We alighted at the station and headed towards Nijo Castle. The walk from Nijo Station to the castle takes around 15 mins. Soon we found ourselves at the entrance of Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle is built in 1626 as a residence for the Shogun who was tasked to protect the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Unlike Himeji Castle, Nijo Castle is rather flat. We passed through the main gate – Higashiote-mon (東大手門). Higashiote-mon has a rather simple design, the bottom half of the gate and this walls surrounding Nijo Castle are built with stones and the top part is painted in white. The main gate looks rather modest in size with traces of gold plating and looks very well preserved.

Passing Higashiote-mon, we came to another gate. The Kara-mon (唐門) is more elaborate in its designs. Though not as tall and big as the Higashiote-mon, Kara-mon is work of art. There are more traces of gold plating on this gate, making it look more royalty. The beams are engraved with vibrantly coloured flowers, with a couple of Japanese Cranes in flight from the front of the gate. The second beam has carvings of dragon and tiger.

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Kara-mon in Nijo Castle

Passing Kara-mon, the first building that we saw is the Ninomaru Palace (二の丸御殿).  Ninomaru Palace consists of 6 connecting buildings, which we were made to walk in a pre-determined fashion through these 6 buildings. Photography is strictly not allowed in the palace and there are staffs stationed around in the palace to enforce this rule. Walking through the buildings, we saw lots of empty rooms, most of which with elaborate paintings on the walls. Some of these rooms are larger than others. These larger rooms tend to be near the entrance to Ninomaru Palace, which served as audience rooms. There are some statues placed in the audience room give visitors a glimpse of what it looked like when Nijo Castle was functional. The rest of the rooms are empty with paintings on it. We walked around the 6 rooms in Ninomaru Palace like zombies as everyone visiting the palace felt like going through the motion of passing through these rooms, and the no photography rule baffles me. Finally, we exited Ninomaru Palace and headed to other parts of Nijo Castle. We followed the pre-determined path round Ninomaru Palace to the gardens behind the palace. As I am not a garden person, I find this a tad boring.

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Ninomaru Palace in Nijo Castle

The path leads us to a small bridge crossing a moat inside Nijo Castle. Crossing the bridge, we came to Honmaru Yaguramon (本丸櫓門), which functions as a defensive gate for the main keep inside. The path took us to another garden inside the moat. Little that we realised we can only see the main keep from outside, there are no indications or openings that allow visitors to enter into the main keep. The flat structure of the main keep (本丸御殿), make this main keep feels more like some old Japanese houses rather than a palace. We wandered through this garden in the pre-determined path and headed out Nijo Castle. Personally, I find Nijo Castle not worth visiting with most parts of the palace being out of bounds and the restrictive photography rule inside the only building that is open to visitors. Unless one is an avid garden lover, visiting Nijo Castle is a waste of time.

Kinkaku Rokuonji (金閣鹿苑寺)

Leaving Nijo Castle, we headed to Kinkaku Rokuonji. The temple is famous for its Kinkaku (Golden Pavilion) hence people usually refer to this temple as Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion Temple). When planning for this trip, I read that Kinkakuji is very crowded most of the time. The best time for visiting this temple would be either early morning when it first open or 1 hour before it closes, where the crowd would usually thin out. We chose to visit Kinkakuji 1 hour before it closes hoping to see the golden pavilion at the time when crowds are lesser. After paying for our tickets, we entered the grounds of Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion sitting on the side of a lake is immediately in our sight. Kinkakuji is a 3 storey building, with the ground floor of Kinkakuji being semi-open. From the front of Kinkakuji, we can see into the rather empty ground floor with its walls painted with some flower mural. The entire 2nd and 3rd floor are enclosed. It is these levels where the walls are covered in gold foil, giving Kinkakuji its name. A phoenix statue stands right at top of the Kinkakuji with its wings spread out, as though it is ready to take flight. It is said that a Buddha relic is stored on the top floor of Kinkakuji. Kinkakuji looks especially charming with the rays of the setting sun shining onto it, making the top 2 floors of Kinkakuji glow like a gem. Indeed there are lesser people at the time we entered Kinkakuji. We can easily take pictures of Kinkakuji with no people in the background.

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Kinkaku up close

My friend and I followed the designated footpath making our way out of the temple grounds. Along the way, we came across Fudo-do (不動堂), a small shrine dedicated to the Buddist deity Fudo-myo-o (不動明王). We paid our respects to the deity enshrined here before making our way out of Kinkakuji.

Strolling in Downtown Kyoto

We left Kinkakuji on a local bus bound for Kyoto JR Station. As we were near our destination, we realised there is a shopping strip where the bus was plying through. We hit the buzzer and alighted on the next stop the bus calls on. There are numerous shops and departmental stores along this main road. As we were walking, we saw this small alley that seems to be crowded and turned in to check it out. Little that we realised that we are in the Kamo River (鴨川) dining district. One of the things to do in Kyoto is to dine at one of the restaurants that have an outdoor terrace that faces the Kamo River. This dining experience is only available from May to September each year and has existed for over 400 years in Kyoto. People would flock here to enjoy the cool river breeze while dining during the hotter months of the year. I have wanted to experience this before I came to Kyoto and by chance, we stumbled into this area. We walked along the alley from restaurant to restaurant searching for the food that we like. Dining here is a tad pricey. As we were walking along the alley, I spotted a Geisha walking discreetly to her next place of work. I read that Geishas are a rare sight in Kyoto these days, I must be lucky to have spotted one on my very first time (and first day) in Kyoto. We settled in a restaurant for dinner, dining here is indeed a unique experience.

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Geisha spotted rushing to her workplace

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Dining in one of the open terraces along Kamo River

Gion District (祇園)

After dinner, we headed across the Kamo River to check out if there are any other shops there. We stumbled in a quiet Gion District, where most of the old wooden buildings are located. Tourists flog here partly for the feel of olden days in Kyoto, partly hoping to catch a glimpse of Geishas as they usually ply through here for work in some of the restaurants here in Gion District. Walking in the streets of Gion District is as though we have been transported back in time. Most of the buildings here are restaurants and have ceased operations at the time we were there. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the peacefulness of the street, which makes strolling in Gion District pleasant. We headed back to Osaka to rest of the night after we believe that we have covered most of Gion District.

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 4 (21 May 18) – Oh Deer Oh Deer: Feeding the Deers in Nara Park and the Majestic Todaiji Temple

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The majestic Todaiji

Nara (奈良) was established as the first permanent capital of Japan from 710 to 794 (also known as the Nara period) before Kyoto was. Nara was chosen as the capital of Japan owing to its location being right in the centre of Japan. Today the only remanent of the imperial palace used during the Nara Period is an open space where the former Palace sat, located north-west of Nara JR station. Nara remains an important historical centre for Buddhism in Japan and is home to the largest wooden structure in the world. Our trip today mainly focuses on the temples East of Nara JR station. Visitors can either take the JR or the Kintetsu line to Nara. As my friend and I wanted to maximise the use of our Kansai-Wide JR Pass, we opted to take the JR to Nara. The way to visit the major sights in Nara is not difficult to locate, I was telling my friend “just follow the crowd, they will bring us to the places we wanted to visit”. The Kintetsu railway is much closer to the major sights and Nara Park.

Main Street in Nara

Coming from the JR Station, we walked along the main shopping street in Nara. As it was still rather early, most of the shops have yet to open. Along this street, I can spot shops selling souvenirs as well as a handful of restaurants. The streets of Nara is very clean, however along the street since leaving the JR station, we couldn’t find any rubbish bin. This means visitors would have to carry their trash with them till Todaiji Temple where we found some trash bins, which is a 15 to 20 mins walk.

Kofukuji (興福寺)

Kofukuji is our first stop in Nara. The temple was transferred to its current location from Kyoto in 710. Coming up from the stairs, the first structure we spot is an octagonal building. This Southern Round Hall (南円堂) is an important cultural property in Japan and houses some of the valuable Buddha statues. With pillars and beams painted in bright red, the Southern Round Hall was first built in 819 and was destroyed by fire 3 times. The current building is constructed in 1789.

Leaving the Southern Round Hall, we headed along a stretch of gravel road towards the main prayer hall. On the way we spotted a building that is covered with canvas, seems like this building is undergoing preservation. At the end of the road, we came to a 5-storey pagoda and the large prayer hall. The wooden 5-Storey Pagoda (五重塔) is originally constructed in 730, however, it was destroyed by fire a few times and the current version of the pagoda is built in 1426. The grand 5-Storey pagoda is the 2nd tallest wooden building in Japan and is a magnificent sight to look at. Like the temples we saw in Mt Shosha, the 5-Storey Pagoda seem to be constructed without using any nails.

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The 5-Story Pagoda (五重塔)

Next to the 5-Storey Pagoda lies the Eastern Golden Hall (東金堂), one of the 3 Golden Halls in Kofukuji. The original Eastern Golden Hall was built in 726, like the other buildings in Kofukuji, it was destroyed by fire several times. The current Eastern Golden Hall was built in 1415. Unlike its name suggests, the Eastern Golden Hall is a single storey wooden building clad with white walls. As we are eager to feed the deer in the park, we did not enter the Eastern Golden Hall.

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Eastern Golden Hall (東金堂) next to the 5-Storey Pagoda

Nara Park (奈良公園)

A small road between the 5-Storey Pagoda and the Eastern Golden Hall leads to Nara Park. Nara Park is a large park that we have to pass through to get to Todaiji. As soon as we hit the park, we saw numerous deer roaming around the park waiting for visitors to feed them. Deers are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, hence the locals have been keeping the 1,200 deer in Nara Park. These deer have become the mascot of Nara City and even been designated as a natural treasure. As we were approaching the park, we were approached by some deer, thinking we have food to feed them. My friend bought some deer crackers from a nearby vendor and started to feed them. Some of these deer would bow to my friend, a gesture that they have learnt when asking for food. As my friend was feeding 2 of the deer, a few more deer approached him wanting food from him. As he was feeding 1 of the deer, I saw a deer shoving another deer away. Yet a 3rd deer sneaked up to my friend, passing the other 2 deer and pulling my friend’s shirt in an attempt to get attention from my friend to feed it. My friend bought another set of crackers to feed the deer. After much feeding, we crossed the road to the other side of the park to find more deer. The deer seem to understand the human language when one of them approached me, I told it I have no crackers. The deer left us alone then. Nara Park is a huge area, with deer roaming around the park, either looking for visitors for food or resting below trees.

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Taking a wefie with a deer in Nara Park

As we were walking out of Nara Park heading towards Todaiji, we spotted a building that welcomes visitors to rest, use their toilet and top up their water bottles. This building exhibits technology that earthquake-proof buildings. As we were walking in, one of the staff welcomed us and suggested that we visit the rooftop of this building, where we can see Todaiji from. We heeded her recommendation and went to the rooftop. Indeed we were able to see Todaiji as well as the hill behind it. Weary visitors can come in here for a rest, which the staffs welcomed us to do so.

Todaiji (東大寺)

My friend and I soon find ourselves at the gate leading to Todaiji. There are a lot of visitors coming to Todaji despite being a Monday. We saw crowds of Japanese students on a field trip here. As with Nara Park, there are pockets of deer roaming around near the entrance of Todaiji.

Nandaimon (南大門)

As we were walking towards the temple gate Nandaimon, I am awed by the sheer size of the gate. This is the biggest wooden temple gate that we have come across so far in our travels in Kansai. Indeed Nandaimon is the largest temple gate in entire Japan and was originally built in 1203. I am amazed by how the architects came out with this unique way of constructing the gate, it is visible that the individual woods are pieced together like Lego bricks, using ingenious ways of fitting each block to another. Upon closer inspection of the gate, it seems that Nandaimon was originally painted in red, as traces of peeled red paints can be spotted on the beams of Nandaimon. Walking through Nandaimon makes me feels like an ant on by the side of a giant. 2 gigantic statues of Heavenly Kings (or Ni-o) are installed inside both sides of Nandaimon. A little further from Nandaimon I saw a pond with a small piece of land in the middle. A red torii gate and a small building, which I think is a shrine hide beyond trees planted on this small island.

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The impressive Nandaimon

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A small shrine hiding behind the trees

Daibutsuden (大仏殿)

A stone’s throw from the pond, we came to the inner gate (中門) to Daibutsuden. Unlike Nandaimon, the inner gate dons on bright red on its pillars and beams with white walls. The path towards Daibutsuden from the inner gate is blocked off, there are signs that points to a side entrance to Daibutsuden. This is where we got our tickets and secured our entrance to the biggest wooden structure in the world.

As soon as we passed the ticketing side gates, the majestic Daibutsuden sitting in the centre of a large courtyard come into our view, looking like a gentle giant resting in its den welcoming visitors. Daibutsuden was built in 798. As we were walking to Daibutsuden, its grandeur started to reveal itself. Daibutsuden does not require any fanciful or bright colour to make itself stand out, its sheer size is sufficient to awe visitors. Clad in simple white colour and using its natural colour of the wood it was built with, the only bright colour on Daibutsuden is the pair of golden shachis (decorative ornaments mounted on the top of the roof). From outside, Daibutsuden appears to be a 2-storey building with its 2-tiered roof design. Walking into the building, Daibutsuden is a single storey building with very high roofs. In the centre of Daibutsuden is a large statue of Buddha (Daibutsu). The nearby 15m tall Daibutsu was cast in bronze over in 8 castings over a period of 3 years. The Daibutsu was covered in gold leaf when it was first made, these days the bronze castings gave the big Buddha statue a character if its own. My friend and I walked around the Buddha to explore Daibutsuden. There are 4 other statues on either side of the bid Buddha. Behind the Buddha statue, tucked by the back wall of the hall are 3 models of Daibutsuden. It appears the hall was rebuilt 3 times and the original hall was much bigger than it is today. After walking 1 round in Daibutsuden, we headed out of the hall.

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The first look of Daibutsuden after we passed through the ticketing area

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Daibutsuden – The largest wooden structure in the world

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The nearly 15m tall Big Buddha in Daibtsuden

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Model of the original and bigger Daibutsuden

We noticed a wooden and somewhat creepy statue on the right of the entrance of Daibutsuden. Several visitors are looking at this statue. Upon closer inspection, a sign by this statute states that the locals believed by touching the statue and rubbing against the parts where one would feel pain, the pain will go away.

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It is believed that touching this statue will help to relieve pains

Nigatsudo (二月堂)

After visiting Daibutsuden, my friend and I followed a pathway outside the parameters of  Daibutsuden. There is hardly anyone going this way. Our plan is to visit some of the side temple buildings in Todaiji. Most visitors would head out of Todaiji after visiting Daibutsuden, however, there are more interesting buildings around. One of these is the Nigatsudo. Nigatsudo (translates to “The Hall of the Second Month”) is one of the important structures in Todaiji, ceremonies are held here in the 2nd month of the lunar calendar. Nigatsudo is first built between 756 to 772 but was destroyed by a fire in 1667. The current building is built in 1669. Nigatsudo was built on the foot of Mt Wakakusa. The 2-storey wooden building is one of the biggest buildings in Todaiji (after Daibutsuden). To get the temple halls, we had to climb a flight of stairs as the temple halls are perched on the side of a hill. Nigatsudo is a great place to get away from the crowds of visitors to Daibutsuden. It is peaceful and quiet here as there are just a handful of visitors (mostly Japanese) here. The biggest draw of us coming to Nigatsudo is the view from the veranda. Other than shielding is from the heat of late spring Kansai (it was getting hot), the view from the veranda allows us to see the whole of Nara City with Daibutsuden in the foreground. It is peaceful and scenic here, coupled with the late spring breeze, the benches on the veranda in Nigatsudo is a great place to relax. It is a shame that most visitors to Todaiji make a u-turn for the exit after visiting Daibutsuden.

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Nigatsudo is built into the slopes at the foot of Mt Wakakusa

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View of Nara City from Nigatsudo, highly recommend not to miss this spot when one comes to Todaiji

Sangatsudo (三月堂)

Coming down the stairs from Nigatsudo, we spotted a small building on stilts. Sangatsudo is the oldest temple building in Todaiji, dating back to the year 740. The rather simple building holds some valuable statues. Sangatsudo look closed at the time of our visit, my friend and I took some pictures of it and left for Nara City where we grabbed our late lunch.

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Sangatsudo is the oldest building in Todaiji

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Sangatsudo up close

Back To Himeji

It is still early by the time we are done with visiting the temples in Nara. My Friend and I headed back to Himeji to shop around its shopping Malls at Himeji JR station. Using the Shinkansen ( another way for us to maximise the use of our JR pass) we got to Himeji in less than 1 hour from Nara. After some shopping, we headed back to our accommodation in Osaka to rest for the night, getting ready to visit the sights in Kyoto the next day.

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 3 (20 May 18) – Quaint Seaside Town of Amanohashidate

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Amanohashidate Bridge to Heaven, one of top 3 views in Japan

Kuromon Ichiba Market (黑門市場)

We are visiting Amanohashidate today. When I was planning this Kansai trip, I came across a video that introduces Amanohashidate. Other than the title of 1 of Japan’s top 3 scenic spots, what draws me to make a trip to Amanohashidate is the fact that there are very few foreign visitors coming to this place. As we were on our way to the train station where we begin our 3-hour journey to Amanohashidate, we walked through Kuromon Ichiba Market. Commonly known as the Black Market, Kuromon Ichiba Market sells mainly local produces sourced from all over Japan. Since we are passing through it, my friend and I decided to check what’s on offer, after all, I have heard so much as I was planning our trip to Kansai. The stalls in Kuromon Ichiba Market sells mainly fresh produce such as vegetables, fruits and seafood. The price is a lot cheaper than what we have seen so far in Kansai. Some of the stalls selling seafood even have a dining area, where one can savour the fresh seafood from as far north as Hokkaido, prepared ala-minute and served to patrons. We window-shopped a little, before heading to the train station to catch our train to Amanohashidate.

Kyoto By the Sea – Amanohashidate (天橋立)

Amanohashidate is some 3-hour train ride from Osaka and is located in northern part of Kyoto Prefecture. After changing 3 trains, we finally arrived at Amanohashidate. There are some shops selling souvenirs opposite Amanohashidate JR station. We briefly went inside some of these shops and decided to come back later if time permits. There are 2 viewpoints in Amanohashidate that will allow us to view the famed sandbar that propelled this quaint little town into top 3 scenic views in Japan. One of these viewpoints is located about 7 mins walk from Amanohashidate JR station. In Amanohashidate Viewland (天橋立ビューランド) lies a small theme park. However, we did not go to this viewpoint as I wanted to visit the original viewpoint at Kasamatsu Park (傘松公園) instead.

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Amanohashidate JR Station

Chionji Temple (智恩寺)

Chionji Temple is our first stop in Amanohashidate, located some 3 mins walk from the JR Station. Chionji is one of the 3 temples in the whole of Japan that is dedicated to Bodhisattva Monju, who grants wisdom to those to come and pay respects at this temple. As we did not enter the temple grounds via the main gate, the first thing that caught my eyes is the 2-storey wooden Tahoto Pagoda (多宝塔). The pagoda is built in the 1500s and is the oldest structure in the temple grounds. Despite not painted in bright colours, rather the pagoda is still clad in its original wooden colour, I like this pagoda for its rustic look. This pagoda, like those temples we seen in Mt Shosha yesterday, looks like they have been assembled block by block with no nails used.

After going through the ritual of cleansing our hands, a ritual when visiting temples in Japan, we headed for the main prayer hall of Chionji. This prayer hall was also made entirely out of wood, took 2 years in its construction and was completed in 1657. The main prayer hall looked more like a big pavilion, with a large fan-shaped roof. It is a ritual here to ring the bell hanging at the entrance of the prayer hall. My friend and I each got a fortune that is shaped like a folding fan. We left our fortunes hanging one of the pine trees in the temple grounds, which is what the locals did. The surrounding of the Chionji Temple exudes a sense of zen, though the other parts of the temple are out of bounds. We left Chionji via the temple gate, known as Ogonkaku (山門). The 2 level gate was built in 7 years by 8,780 carpenters, completing construction in the year 1767.

The Best Way to Visit Amanohashidate – Cycling Through Sandbar

In front of Chionji is a shopping street that sells mainly souvenirs and a handful of restaurants. After settling our lunch, we proceeded to one of the shops to rent a bike. There are several shops on this street that one can rent the bicycle for. We asked around and found a shop that rents a bicycle for the whole day for ¥400 (the other shops’ rate is ¥400 for 2 hours).

The 3.6 km sandbar in Amanohashidate has Miyazu Bay on one side and Ine Bay. The entire sandbar, at its narrowest point, is a mere 20m wide and 170m wide at its widest point, is home to some 8,000 Japanese pine tree. The sandbar has been moulded to its current shape through thousands of years of earth movement. To get to the other side of Miyazu Bay, one can either walk or cycle or take a ferry across the bay. I think of the best way of visiting Amanohashidate is to cycle through the sandbar, which cuts the travelling time (compared to walking) from 50 mins to 20 mins. Cycling through the sandbar, I was able to see these pine trees up close, as well as the white sandy beach on Ine Bay side of the sandbar. There are a number of locals playing by the beach near to the South side of the sandbar (near to the JR Station). There is only one shop at this side of the sandbar that is operating. Throughout the sandbar, I spotted some buildings that have seen better days, these days these buildings appear to be abandoned. There are also numerous pavilions along the sandbar, ideal for visitors to picnic or simply lunch with a bento set that is bought from one of the nearby shops. There are also several points along the sandbar where vending machines can be found. We reached the northern side of the sandbar in 20 minutes cycling through it.

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Panoramic view of the beach facing Ine Bay

Motoise Kono Shrine(龍神社)

Crossing a road, we found a spot to park our bicycles and proceeded to the ropeway station for Kasamatsu Park. The base ropeway station to Kasamatsu Park is rather hidden. To get to the base station, we passed through Motoise Kono Shrine. Motoise Kono Shrine is a Shinto Shrine, where the Goddess of Agriculture is enshrined. The shrine grounds are especially peaceful as soon as I entered it, partly due not many people visiting the shrine at the time I was there. Within the shrine grounds, I can hear a harp-like sound produced as water drips into an underground cave from the Japanese garden ornament. The shrine grounds are not very big and that photography is not allowed in the shrine grounds, we can only take pictures from outside the shrine.

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Motoise Kono Shrine

Kasamatsu Park(傘松公園)

The station where the cable car/ chairlift to Kasamatsu Park is a mere 2 mins walk from Motoise Kono Shrine. We were given the option to take the chairlift or cable car up to Kasamatsu Park. We opted for the chairlift as it looked more exciting. One should take the chairlift when coming down from Kasamatsu Park as one will be treated to the magnificent view of Amanohashidate, as the chairlift faces the sandbar when descending from the hill. When going up the hill, the chairlift is facing the hill. The chairlift rides take about 5 mins, every now and then I turned around in hope to capture some pictures of the view that made it to the top 3 scenic views in Japan.

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Amanohashidate Cable car/chairlift station

We soon reached the top of the hill. As soon as we turned around, we know that spending the 3 hours on the JR to Amanohashidate is well worth it. The view here is nothing short of spectacular. From the viewpoint here, the sandbar resembles the word “One” in Kanji and Chinese. There are several points where we can see the scenic view of the bay. My friend and I headed to this wooden platform that protrudes into the air where we caught our first glimpse of the Bridge to Heaven. It is simply amazing and to a certain extent, therapeutic. Kasamatsu Park indeed provided the best view of the sandbar. Up here, we can see the sandbar trying to link both sides of the land while separating the lake from the sea. On the left of the sandbar is Ine Bay and the right is Miyazu Bay. With the mountain ranges forming the backdrop, we felt we can stay here forever. There is a small platform by the side of the wooden platform, where a piece of thick glass is used as a panel. From this glass panel, we realised how high we are in the air. There is building in front of the wooden platform. My friend and I checked out the second level, to see if we can grab a better view of the sandbar. On the second level, a big heart-shape with a bell attached serving as a backdrop to 2 chairs was found. This is a great place for lovers to take pictures from, though I do find the pink heart structure a tad too cheesy and spoilt the view of the sandbar.

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Panoramic view of Amanohashidate Sandbar

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Map of Kasamatsu Park

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A perfect spot for lovers to take pictures of Amanohashidate

We then headed to the side furthest away from the station. From here we can see out into Ine Bay and some of the islands popping out from the sea as though some playful child is peeping out of the sea. A shrine is installed at this side of Kasamatsu Park. Beside the small shrine, one can try one’s luck by tossing a ceramic tile (3 tiles for ¥300, just take 3 tiles and drop the coins into the coin box) into a ring that is installed in the halls. It is believed that one will get one’s wishes come true if one managed to toss the ceramic tile through the ring. After seeing so many people trying their luck, my friend and I also participated in the fun. I got my first ceramic tile through the ring and was immediately applauded by the Japanese around me. At the time we visited, other than my friend and I, the only other foreigners are this couple (seems from Taiwan). The rest of the visitors are Japanese.

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Ine Bay from Kasamatsu Park

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A shrine at Kasamatsu Park in front of Ine Bay view

There are some platforms that look like benches near the ring tossing area. This is where an ancient old practice of Matanozuki (股のぞき) of viewing the sandbar has existed for millennia. To do Matanozuki, one would have to stand on one of these platforms with one’s back facing the sandbar and bend down to look at the sandbar (upside down) between one’s legs. My friend and I did the Matanozuki. By viewing the sandbar this way, we understood why the sandbar is also called “Bridge to Heaven” (天の浮橋) by the locals. Viewing the sandbar upside down, the sandbar seems to connect the earth to the sky. It is a must try activity when one comes to view the “Bridge to Heaven” at Matanozuki Park. We were mesmerised by the view here in Kasamatsu Park and did not realise we had spent quite a bit of time here.

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By doing the Matanozuki, the sandbar resembles a bridge to heaven, hence the name Amanohashidate

As it was approaching 5pm (the time we need to return our bikes), my friend and I headed to the station. Our plan was to take the chairlift down so we can enjoy the view of the “Bridge to Heaven” as we were leaving the park. However the chairlift ceased operations at 4pm, our only option is to ride in the cable car down the hill. Once at the base cable car station, we raced across the sandbar and made it in time to return the bike before the shop closes. After returning our bikes, we headed back to Dotonbori in Osaka for our dinner before heading back to our accommodation to rest for the night.

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My friend with a friendly shopkeeper selling fishcake

Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 2 (19 May 18) – The Majestic White Heron Castle: Himeji Castle and The Ancient Temples Of Mt Shosha: Engyoji Temple

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The Majestic Himeji Castle

Onwards to Himeji

Our journey in Kansai region takes us to the city of Himeji today, home of the first UNESCO world heritage site in Japan, Himeji Castle. To get to Himeji, we can either take a local bus to Sannomiya Bus Station and transfer to JR twice to reach Himeji or we could alight at Shin-Kobe from the same bus and catch a Shinkansen from Shin-Kobe station to Himeji. We caught the bus at the bus stop just a stone’s throw distance from the hotel and soon we were on our way to Himeji. Riding the Shinkansen for the first time was an interesting experience, watching this part of Kansai zooming pass our eyes, we were in Himeji station in 30 mins from Shin-Kobe station.

The White Heron Castle – Himeji Castle(姬路城)

As soon as we arrived at Himeji JR Station, my friend and I left our luggage in the locked found in the JR station. One cannot miss Himeji Castle as one stands at the entrance of the JR Station. The white castle is standing at the end of the road and is visible from the station. It took us 20 mins to get to Himeji Castle by foot. Like most castles around the world, Himeji Castle is surrounded by a moat which functioned as the first layer of defence for the castle in the olden days. A large stone signage placed before the wooden bridge to the grounds of Himeji Castle proudly announces to visitors that Himeji Castle is Japan’s number 1 national treasure.

The old wooden bridge that seems to exist together with the castle over its 600 years of existence. Crossing the bridge, pass a wooden archway that welcomes visitors into the grounds of Himeji Castle, I was able to adorn the glory of Himeji Castle perching on top of a hill. There is a large open space in front of the castle, which makes a great photo spot for visitors with the castle. Himeji Castle also affectionately known as the White Heron Castle by the locals, as it resembles a white eagle perching on top of the hill, protecting the citizens of Himeji from harm.

Main Keep of Himeji Castle (天守閣)

The distinctive feature of Himeji Castle is its white walls and roofs, which gives the castle a very pure look. The main keep of Himeji Castle has 7-storeys, comprising 6 floors above ground and 1 basement floor. From the outside, the main keep of Himeji it appears as if the castle has only 5 storeys. Before we enter the main keep, there is a small building (which can be easily missed despite the signs around pointing to it) at the base of the castle displaying the original West Pillar which was replaced, due to the decaying core, after supporting Himeji Castle for 350 years.

A little further up the hill from the building that displayed the West Main Pillar is the ticketing and entrance to Himeji Castle. Passing the ticketing entrance, we walked pass road that resembles a maze passing through another 7 doors before reaching the main keep. The pathway towards the main keep of Himeji Castle is a pleasant walk. The buildings here are all clad in white, forming a harmonious scheme with the main keep, yet not stealing the limelight from the main keep. I was able to spot the main keep sitting majestically at every twist and turns on the way to the main keep. The pathway to the main keep is designed to slow down intruders with tons of holes where defenders of Himeji Castle can shoot intruders from.

Soon we found ourselves at the entrance to the main keep. All visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering the main keep. I guess this is done for preservation purposes. There are designated pathways that visitors should follow while inside the main keep. Inside the main keep, I can see the entire Himeji Castle is made of wood. We passed by numerous empty rooms, which must have served as barracks or places where the soldiers of Himeji Castle stationed in even of attacks to the castle. Occasionally we spotted signs that attempt to explain what these rooms are used for. On the 2nd floor of the castle, I spotted some racks on some of the walls by the windows inside Himeji Castle, which served as storage for weapons for the faster reaction to attackers.

On the 3rd floor, I saw some trap doors spotted in corners of the main keep. These trap doors served as an ambush point to surprise invaders to the castle should they have made it this far into the castle. There are separate stairways that lead up to the top of Himeji Castle. These stairways get steeper and the headroom gets shorter as I climbed up the floors in Himeji Castle. The floor size of each floor seems to get smaller the higher I go up the castle.

The East and West Pillars can be spotted on the 5th floor of Himeji Castle. These pillars are the backbone of Himeji Castle and supported the main keep from its basement some 6 floors down.

I climbed a small flight of staircase to the 6th floor of the main keep. There is a staff member stationed at the staircase welcoming visitors to the top floor of Himeji Castle. The 6th floor has a rather small floor space. There is a shrine located in the centre of the top floor in Himeji Castle. The Osakabe-jinja shrine seems to serve to protect visitors these days. The view from the top floor is stunning. I can see the entire Himeji City from the top floor of Himeji Castle Main Keep. Visitors stayed on the top floor the longest to take in the views of the city and to rest before walking down the steep staircase to exit the castle. My friend and I enjoyed the breeze and the scenery from the top floor of Himeji Castle.

My friend and I climbed down 6 floors and exited the main keep. There are some exhibits in the rooms before the exit to Himeji Castle’s main keep, these exhibits explain the roofing and titles that were used in the construction of Himeji Castle. There is also a display on the structural framework of Himeji Castle.

The West Bailey (西の丸)

We found spots in front of the main keep that allows us to admire the grandeur of Himeji Castle. This is also a great spot to take pictures of the castle up close. As we were walking towards the exit of Himeji Castle, we spotted a sign that points to West Bailey. Since we are already here, we decided to follow the sign and check what is in this West Bailey.

The West Bailey is a 2-storey building that seems to snake around the parameters of Himeji Castle. There are few visitors to the West Bailey, which makes it a great place to wind down from the hordes of visitors coming to see the castle. There are displays on the lords of Himeji Castle. The West Bailey is essentially a long corridor that served as sleeping quarters of the occupants of Himeji Castle. Some of these rooms are bigger than the others, we can only assume that the occupants of these bigger rooms must have been someone important. At the end of the corridor on the 2nd floor of the West Bailey, we spotted a large room with a female figurine in it. This is the figurine of Princess Sen. After walking through the corridors of West Bailey, my friend and I exited Himeji Castle grounds and headed to our next destination in Himeji.

The Backyard of Himeji – Mt Shosha (書寫山)

Mt Shosha is home to the ancient Engyoji Temple and is a mere 30 mins bus ride from Himeji Castle. To get to Mt Shosha, we took a bus from the bus stop in front of Himeji Castle to the end of the line. The Mt Shosha ropeway station is just behind the bus stop. We made it in time for the next gondola going up to Mt Shosha. The gondola up to the 371m Mt Shosha takes around 5 mins. As the gondola ascends the mountain, the view of Himeji city becomes apparent. At the top of Mt Shosha, we were greeted with crisp fresh mountain air. There are not many people at the time we visited Mt Shosha (let alone foreigners).  There is only one gravelled pathway that leads to the 1,000-year old temple. Statues of various Buddhas are placed along the sloppy (upwards) path towards Engyoji Temple. A short distance from the ropeway station, we came across a bell pavilion. As we were walking along the path,  we arrived at an open area where we are able to catch the sight of Himeji City below, thank goodness it was a clear day which allowed us to catch a glimpse of the city.

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View of Himeji City from Mt Shosha

The Ancient Engyoji Temple (圓教寺)

Engyoji Temple was founded about 1,000 years ago in A.D.966 by a holy priest. The locals believed that one will get purified both in body and spirit when one climbed Mt Shosha. Engyoji Temple served as an important training centre for priests in the Himeji region. Engyoji Temple is made up of several buildings, some of which are constructed since the temple was around. Most of the buildings we see today are reconstructed.

Niomon (仁王門)

After walking for around 7 mins upslope, we arrived at Niomon. This wooden gate serves as the main entrance to Engyoji Temple. The gate, though simple, looks as if it has been survived through the years. This version of Niomon has been reconstructed and stood to serve as the entrance to the Engyoji Temple since 1665. The area after Niomon is considered sacred. There are a few buildings that seem to serve as living quarters in Engyoji Temple as we were walking towards the first ancient temple building. The peace and tranquillity, as well as the absence of hordes of tourists, made walking on Mt Shosha very pleasant.

Maniden (摩尼殿)

Another 5 mins walk later we arrived at one of the ancient Temples in Engyoji. The Maniden was first built in A.D970, dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. However, Maniden was burnt down in 1921, the present building was completed in 1932 and stood strong since then. The entire building is made of wood, on top of a hilly part of Mt Shosha. A staircase leads to the entrance of Maniden. From the bottom of the staircase, I can see part of Maniden is being built into the soil of the hill, and part of the temple protrudes out into the air, supported by numerous thick pillars which looks as though it has been there for ages. Once at the top of the staircase, Maniden comes into full view. The entire Maniden is made of wood that seems to stand the test of time. I did not see any nails or any metallic pieces that were used in the construction of this magnificent temple building. Despite not clad in bright colours and still reminding in its wooden finish colour, Maniden still looks magnificent owing to the intricate carvings on the front of the temple. Maniden has a balcony-like structure outside the prayer halls, handing over the cliff side of the hill it is built on. After my friend and I paid respects to the Goddess of Mercy installed in Maniden, we wandered around the parameters of Maniden on the balcony. Perhaps due to the low in human traffic, looking out into the greenery spring forest of Mt Shosha gives me a sense of tranquillity.  As Maniden was not too big, we continued the pathway and headed towards the next group of 3 temple buildings.

Mitsunodo Hall(三つの堂)

About another 5 mins walk from Maniden, we arrived at Mitsunodo Hall. Mitsunodo Hall is made up of 3 building complexes, namely the Main Hall (Daikodo (大講堂)), Dining Hall (Jikido(食堂)), and Training Hall (Jogyodo(常行堂)). From the entrance to Mistunodo Hall, a large square surrounded by the 3 temple buildings. This is also the filming grounds for Hollywood movie, The Last Samurai. The nearest to the entrance is Jogyodo, an elevated single storey elongated wooden building that has a section protruding out in the middle of the building. As with Maniden, Jogyodo is made entirely out of wood with no traces of nails used in its construction. Jogyodo served the function as a training that also doubles as a ceremonial hall. The exact date of the original Jogyodo was unknown, however, this hall was reconstructed in 1965. The simple Jogyodo has its doors closed at the time of our visit.

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The Square at Mitsunodo Hall

Opposite Jogyodo is the Daikodo, which functions as a Main Hall. The original Daikodo was built in A.D986 and was reconstructed in 1956. Compared to Jogyodo, the architectural design of Daikodo is a tad more elaborate. The single storey, double roofed Daikodo also appears to be constructed entirely out of wood with no traces of nails being used. Peeking inside the Daikodo, I can see statues of Golden Buddhas being placed inside, however, we can only offer our prayers outside the Daikodo as the interior of the building was sealed up.

Connecting Daikodo and Jogyodo is the Dining Hall, known as Jikido. The 2 storey building has an open concept. This is the only building here that is opened to visitors. The original Jikido was built in 1174 and was dismantled and rebuilt in 1963. On the first floor of Jikido, a large section has some tables placed on it. This is a place where visitors can practise the art of zen through Japanese calligraphy. Behind the tables, a small section displays the roofing titles of the temples in Engyoji. The second storey of Jikido displays the artefacts of this temple, amongst it are some millennium old Buddha statues that were made out of wood. I like the balconies of Jikido on the 2nd level. The balconies stretch the entire length of the building. On one side, the square that the 3 temple buildings can be seen from a height, while on the other side, one can see the forest. I prefer the view of the forest as it brings peace.