21
Jun

For 5 dollars I got to be Musashi

By: muttler

Himeji Castle

So it seems the “type up the blog while watching world cup” is becoming the norm. The rain coming in of an evening kinda contributes, but so does being buggered.

Anyway, I almost cried with happiness twice today. Today, as the picture above gives away, I jumped on the shinkansen to Himeji to visit the famous castle. This was easily one of my most anticipated destinations. I was a bit concerned heading there as I knew that it had just started undergoing a massive 4 year restoration that meant the main tower was off limits. And I knew that as part of that, the main tower was being completely enclosed in a temporary structure (if you don’t believe me, check this out).

But the first pang of absolute joy, and the catalyst for the almost tears was catching my first glimpse of the amazing main tower as I got out of the train station in Himeji. I can’t tell you just how mind-blowingly awesome it was. And that awesome increased exponentially as I approached the castle grounds.

Now I feel I should explain the blog title, the first part anyway. The cost for me to get into the castle was 400 yen (a bit lower than usual as the main tower was closed due to the renovations). 400 freakin’ yen. Do you know how much that is? Like 5 bucks. 5 dollars to visit one of the most impressive things IN THE WHOLE WORLD. It makes me question how anyone can charge anything for entry fees at anything in Australia. 30 bucks Melbourne Aquarium? You have to be kidding.

What will blow your mind even more is this. Meet Sadao-san…

Sadao-san

Sadao-san was my english speaking guide for the next couple of hours. MY guide. My VOLUNTEER guide. My 400 yen not only got me in to my samurai fueled image of heaven, but my own personal tour to boot. I can without any doubt say this was the best 5 dollars I have ever spent. Ever. But I digress again…

Sadao-san took me on an amazing tour of the complex. Because entry into the main tower was closed, he took me to all other kinds of nooks and crannys throughout the castle complex. I walked the board of the ancient maids quarters. But most awesomely I made my way up the windy interior paths to the foot of the main tower, all the way Sadao-san explaining what attackers would be thinking, and what the castle’s defenders would be doing. I was a ninja attacking the castle. I was Musashi, the ultimate samurai.

I know... I'm no Mifune

Thankfully, the scaffolding you see in the picture was not too intrusive, and my experience wasn’t really sullied too much. As Sadao-san quite rightly pointed out… all I have to do is come back in about 5 years.

Sadly, I waved goodbye to Sadao-san and the castle, and chilled out in nearby Koko-en garden to relax for a little bit.

Koko-en

While wandering the garden and the grounds of the castle, I had my first encounter with the “random person wanting to talk to you”. Thankfully it wasn’t a crazy old guy, but this nice lady taking her kids for a walk.

Everyone is just so darn nice!

She told me she was learning all about Himeji Castle and planned to take people around, so she wanted to know all about me and if I enjoyed the castle. I bumped into her again later in the day, so couldn’t resist the opportunity to get a photo. Even 2 year olds know how to pose for photos here.

The rest of my day was just wandering Himeji, taking the shinkansen back to Kyoto late in the afternoon, wandering a shopping mall I found on the other side of the train station (called Aeon Mall no less), ordering my first meal with no english involved whatsoever (all apologies and pointing and smiles), and finally crashing again.

But here are some random pictures from my travels that I know some of you will enjoy…

Firstly, as CC pointed out in her comment, Astro Boy does greet you outside Kyoto Station.

It's Mighty Atom!

Next, I found this advertised in Himeji. Unfortunately I was on my way to catch my train back to Kyoto, but dammit, I will find it and eat it (this one is for you Glen).

Everything is big in Himeji

I did eat another fish though, which Damien and Anna will appreciate. Not an ice cream, this one wasn’t great.

Gone fishing (part 2)

I didn’t find Bill Murray, but I found Leo. Still sporting that same stupid facial hair.

"Right side. And with intensity!"

But we all know who’s boss…

Who's the boss?

So, you may be asking? At the start of the post I said I almost cried twice with happiness? What was the second time? Well, I was in a supermarket in the shopping centre and found this. 1.5 litres of liquid gold. All for about 2 dollars.

Now THIS is a big-ass bottle of Calpis

Today I died and went to heaven.

20
Jun

Finding temples in the treetops

By: muttler

Kenin-Ji through the trees

Hi all. I didn’t realise I had so many avid readers. Thanks for the comments! I will try and make this entry a little less rambling story than the first.

Today was about two things: orienting myself properly with Kyoto, and checking out some of the main temples and sites. I knew the handful yesterday were just teasers for the main course of larger sites… and boy am I full right now.

Yesterday I hinted at the paradigm of new city (relatively) and old culture, but it was way more evident today as I did the pretty well defined tourist walk north through southern Higashiyama. I know some of you will be familiar with it, but for those not, it is where Kyoto meets the Higashiyama mountains. In some ways it’s like cliffs meeting the water… a radical change of scenery.

The main temple complex that greets you after negotiating some narrow and windy, packed, vendor laden streets, is Kiyomizu-dera. I gotta say, I wasn’t prepared for it. Where yesterday was a small temple complex buired in city streets, this was a massive multi-temple complex buried in the mountains, greeting you in the only way Kyoto knows how…

Kiyomizu-dera shrine entry

Oh, and just in case you are thinking maybe I am typing this from my house and using photos stolen off the web, here is a gratuitous self-portrait (looking a bit ragged already thanks to today’s fickle weather).

Kiyomizu-dera self-portrait

Sure, this entryway might seem pretty cool, but venture past and you get things like this in your face…

Kiyomizu-dera in the treetops

Paths went around temples, right to the forest, down to the ground, up to the treetops. It was all pretty awe inspiring.

More Kiyomizu-dera wonder

Over the course of the day, I visited numerous more temples of all varying shapes and sizes. Chion-in was my other highlight. Pretty much at the end of my days walking I ventured into the grounds of Chion-in and into the main temple, where like yesterday I came across a packed buddhist ceremony. Being tired and wanting to rest, I soaked up about half an hour of chanting and bell ringing. What did it mean? I have no idea, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was quite affecting.

The other magical part of my day was simply traversing the narrow streets between temples, those that form a beguiling link between the city and the temples. Most are lined with small restaurants or shops, none of which I found too gratuitously tourist oriented (apart from a small strip leading to Kiyomizu-dera). Red lanterns were displayed proudly in one street.

Raise the Red Lantern

They were cobblestone lined, with steep stairs leading up and down and around. Quite gorgeous. Except for this rabbit. He freaked me out.

Demonic Rabbit

One odd transition was on leaving Maruyama-koen gardens and finding myself in Gion. Gion is the geisha district and can either be thought of as home of an ancient art, or seedy entertainment district. By day it appears as at least part of the former, but by night I believe it might be a bit of the latter (if these signs lining the laneways are anything to go by… “Pick Up” and “Happy Zone” worry me in particular).

Gion "entertainment" district

True geisha’s still do exist in this part of town apparently, but spotting them is a rarity. As close as I came were these two in one of the streets leading up to Kiyomizu-dera. My spidey-senses told me they weren’t real geishas.

Real Geishas? Um, I don't think so.

So anyway what does the title of this post mean? Well, there were a number of temples I found simply my catching a glimpse of a temple roof in the trees. I have a LOT of photos of temples through trees (in a way they are my new ‘dolphin photos’ as I call these kinds of photos, like “look there’s a dolphin! take a photo! there’s another dolphin! take another photo!”), but I know that none do justice compared with catching an actual glimpse of a temple roof through some trees when you least expect it. But somehow it all feels like Kyoto though, a seamless mix of temples and city.

P.S Things I learnt today…

1. I have learned to thank the government for getting rid of tobacco advertising. I can’t unsee this image. Now you lot can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere here too.

Look away!

2. I have learned that the only thing better than beer I have never tried, like this, for 130 yen (about $1.70)…

Asahi Clear

… is big-ass cans of Calpis for 120 yen (about $1.50)

Big-ass Calpis

P.P.S This turned out to be kinda more rambling than the last post didn’t it?

19
Jun

It’s only 24 hours since I left Melbourne? Are you kidding?!

By: muttler

Well hello folk out there! My brain doesn’t know what is quite going on right now, but let me try and befuddle it a little bit.

As I type this I am enjoying fast free wi-fi in my hostel in Kyoto. I have decided to take a well earned couple of hours break before World Cup action fires up in the hostel bar. With Japan playing first, then Australia, I will either be wired or crash severely.

So you are probably asking “what’s your problem Matt?!”. Hey! No problem! Quite the opposite. I am buggered from sheer joy. I left Melbourne about 6pm last night (Friday). It is now about 6pm Saturday Japan time (only an hour out). So what I am about to tell you is all in 24 hours. Let’s backtrack.

Uneventful flights to Sydney then on to Tokyo. Uneventful in the good way in that I had a quiet person next to me, I got some sleep through the night, and my backpack was waiting for me on the carousel in Tokyo at about 6am.

It was then a quick change of a rail voucher for a rail pass and I was on my way to Kyoto.  The train swap at Shinagawa was the start of the “firsts”. I bought my first can of coffee out of a vending machine…

Black Gold from a Vending Machine

Black Gold from a Vending Machine

and I hopped on my first Shinkansen…

Shinkansen at Shinagawa

Alas it was bit early for beer and bento on the way to Kyoto, so that will have to wait for another day. The bullet train was fast, but I probably expected lightening. But still a hell of a better experience than Metro.

The scenery alternated between cities and towns, to fields. When I saw my first old dude on a bike riding through some fields I had a little smile to myself. In fact I think I was smiling all the way. I was in Japan alright.

With minute-perfect timing, I rocked in to Kyoto about lunch time… and proceeded to get lost for the first time. Well, not too lost but I knew I went out the wrong exit of the train station. What a crazy ass train station. But I’ll get back to that.

So on the right track it was off to the hostel, a quick 10 minute jaunt. As expected the welcome was warm (like the humid hot weather) and I dropped my gear off. Now, I COULD have taken a break. But, meh. Why? I may as well crash bad later. So a change of clothes and freshen up and I was off to get my bearings.

Close by was Shose-ien Gardens. What strikes me about Kyoto is how odd it is that gardens and temples just pop up in the middle of the city. I know it is a bit different on the outskirts, but it was nice to feel like I was in a city (quite foreign) but then have some buildings centuries old.

Anyway, the gardens were a nice was to relax and start to really soak it all in. Holy crap, I’m in Kyoto! Along with nice bridges etc…

Bridge in Shose-ien

… were signs that made me laugh.

Mind the Bees

Close by was my first temple, Higashi Honganji. As luck would have it some kind of buddhist ceremony was happening, so shoes off and on to the tatami for me for a breather and get in touch with any spiritual side that may be lurking in there (not sure there’s much there… maybe I’ll be converted). It was quite gorgeous to unwind to the smell of incense and sound of buddhists actually.

Higashi Honganji

From there it was another temple, this one a bit older, Nishi Honganji. After washing my hands from the mouth of the dragon, it was time to wander in. No ceremonies this time. In fact I was the only one in the main temple. Eerie and awesome.

Nishi Honganji dragon

By this time I realised I was starving. I had just been snacking the whole day. What to have! I decided to wander back to the train station to scope out the restaurants in the myriad shopping centers. Holy moly. Yes, I got lost again. Ironically I got lost in one called “The Cube”. Maybe that is where the inspiration for the puzzles in the movie Cube came from.

Anyway, after my usual indecisiveness I went with some okonomyaki. I need to take notes how they will vary as I travel. This one was quite fishy. Good though. I got some yakatori to go with it. Yum. Sorry, no photos.

It was time to wander back to the hostel to get some rest before world cup started, well, that kind of gets us right to this second. In between though I started my hunt… for Kit Kats. So far… empty handed 🙁

A few different convenience stores have proven fruitless. That’s OK. It’s just day one. I treated myself to some kind of ice cream though. Not sure what I ate, but it was that weird stale waver stuff around a fish shaped ice cream. Maybe green tea and red bean? I know it was definitely red bean in there.

Fishy Ice Cream

So there we go. Man, this has waffled on. But all this in 24 hours. In fact my first 12 hours in Japan. I loved today. People are awesome, the city looks great. And it only gets better and crazier.

I expect the entries might get a bit briefer from here. We’ll see what happens. Tomorrow I think is a big walk near the forest to check out some temples there and meet some deer. Nara, Himeji, bamboo forests and monkey parks to come. Oh, but it is World Cup tonight. Go Japan and go Aussie.

Sayonara (and well done if you actually made it this far… heaven knows I would have stopped reading ages ago).