Monday, March 22, 2010

Of Toris and Bath Houses

Our second day in Kyoto surrounded us with classic Japanese imagery. I felt like I had stepped into Miyzaki's film Spirited Away. First by visiting the central Inari Shrine in Japan, wandering a bamboo forest and then soaking in a bathhouse. All in the pouring rain.

Stephany and I took the train to Fushimi Inari-taisha after a ill conceived attempt to start the day with a bath at the bathhouse (it opens at three). The Shinto shrine is famous for its numerous Torii gates. The Torii is a bright orange gate used to mark the entrance of a holy place. The Shrine we were visiting is devoted to Inari, the deity of financial success. Each Torii in the shrine is donated by a business, which answers our question of "why do some gates look brand new while others are falling apart?'. It also give us a clue of what was written on the back of each Torii.

The numerous Torii that were flanked by fox guardian spirits. The grounds of the shrine continue endlessly up the mountain and the site was littered with thousands of shines for private worship. Like this one patronized by shrine kitty.

At some point in our adventures we decided that we had time for one more summit. We looked at the map on the way up and concluded that it should only take fifteen more minutes to reach the summit. Rule number one of this trip- traveling of any kind never goes as planned. We made it to the group of shrines on the peak of the mountain and than had the brilliant idea of taking a Torii-less shortcut back down.

We wandered down the path beyond the main shrine, past peoples homes and trough small family shrines. I was never too worried as we were never to far from a road or a home. I knew that we were safe from spending the night on the hill top but finding the train station again was a different story. We wandered in the rain though a breathtaking bamboo forest. It must have been for farming as the feeling of being shrunken Alice would be swapped with towering over the clear cutting. I have yet to see bamboo in Korea and the trip through the forest reminded me again that I was in my dream Asia.

At on point we turned a corner and discovered a small shrine with hundreds of strands of paper cranes. In the corner of the shrine was a carving of a Buddha about 18 inches tall. It had a washed out note card in English describing it as a "heavy-light stone". If you make a wish and then guess if the stone will be heavy or light, the Buddha will change its weight to grant it. By now we had been lost for over two hours and I wished that we could find the main entrance within the next ten minutes. I then guessed that the stone was heavy and just about pulled my arms out of their sockets haphazardly picking it up. Leaving the small shrine behind we stumbled right into the inner-shrine at the heart of Inrari. Thanks heavy-light stone!

Next up on our Spirited Away adventure. Funaoka Onsen, a classic Yubabba style bathhouse. Kyoto has no local thermal hot springs so we were unable to experience the classic Onsen experience. Steph and I still wanted to give the public bath a try, did a little research and found Funaoka. The onsen is one of the few remaining from the 1920's and it has retained its original wood carvings that strangely enough depict the Chinese invading Manchuria. I have gone to many public houses in Korea and I forgot how awkward the first time dropping trow and "hot tubbing" nude can be. It was no issue as Stephany did fantastic at all cultural challenges Japan threw at her. The Onsen has indoor and outdoor pools. The outdoor bamboo pool was the most pleasant but strangely I kept going back for more time in the electric pool. There is a reason my body was buzzing, they run a weak current in the water.

The dip in a classic Onsen was the prefect way to warm up after a long hike in the rain.

Next up- Our visit with Nikki with a Saki in a juice box AND Nara- Tame deer, wild schoolboys.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


A theme to our trip to Japan seems to be traveling. I am willing to wager that Stephany and I spent equal amounts of time on trains, buses and subways as we did sightseeing or exploring.

Eventually Stephany and I did make it to Kinkaku-ji. The famous golden Zen Buddhist temple is as synonymous with Kyoto as the geisha. Kinkaku-ji (Ji means Buddhist temple) was built in 1393 as a retirement villa and then converted into a temple. The original building was much less ornate than what we saw as the original burnt down in 1955 and the gold leaf has recently been replaced. You don't see the temple until you round the corner waking me to the fact that I was really in Japan.

I can't say this enough. I love Japan.

Japan is very different than Korea. The mythical East Asia of my dreams lives on strong within Japan. The towns are diverse architecturally and the people have fascinating differences in fashion. Also many people commute on bike and strangely enough Kyoto reminded me of Amsterdam. Japan was a lovely break from the stares and faceless housing blocks of Korea.

After Kinkaku-ju, Stephany and I found our way back into the central part of Kyoto and decided to wander with temple intent. Its impossible not to find temples in Kyoto and stumbled into a Shinto Shrine and a massive Zen Buddhist temple.

Many Japanese would describe themselves as both Buddhist and Shinto. Shinto tends to be the religion of choice for life and Buddhism for after death. Shinto is a purely Japanese religion based on the worship of Kami spirits who are found in all living and natural things. While 90% of Japanese take part in shrine ceremonies only 30% are considered to ascribe to the faith system. Stephany is standing in front of a Shinto shrine in the picture. They have distinctive orange Tori gates and often a brighter color scheme. Yet it is difficult to tell the two apart at a glace as Buddhism and Shintoism are so connected many temples are templeshrines with the symbolism and traditions of both religions.

Kyoto has over 1600 Shrine and Temples. We had no specific plans to visit temples outside of the Golden One so I felt very lucky that our wanders took us to Mii-dera. Founded in 672 this Buddhist temple is one of the four largest in Japan. The site of much turmoil and warfare the temple was burned to the ground in three major wars before finally being rebuilt in 1599. Its sprawling grounds are prefect for two sisters with a knack for stumbling off the beaten track. Along with the main halls, we explored the bell tower and the graveyard. I will always remember the emotions of standing in that empty graveyard with the rustling sounds of the sotobas in the wind (sticks meant to represent stupas left at grave site). It was a moment that made me reflect on how blessed I am to be traveling yet again.

We also traversed a bit up the mountain to find a small fresh water spring dedicated to Jizo the guardian of children who die before their parents. Statues of Jizo are often decorated with red bibs.

After the exploring the shrine, We traveled to Gion. The historic center of Kyoto which is home to narrow back alleys and traditional homes. Stephany and I lurked the streets hoping to see a Gieko (Kyoto term for Geisha). This was our quest and we traveled up and down the streets stopping at nothing.

Ok, maybe some savory mochi in front of Kyoto's Miniami-za Kabuki theater could
cause us to pause.

We rewarded in the early evening to see a young Maiko (Geisha in training) being herded by a older woman teetering in her okobo shoes. It felt much more like stepping into a movie set then reality and the uniqueness of the situation is striking me more as I write this then it did at the time. I regret not taking a picture of her but I did manage to snap one of this full fledged Geisha.

That's all for now, later I'll share the epic story of "Kalk Sisters; Lost in the Bamboo Forest!"

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hi every one,

This is Stephany reporting to you from my very first international trip! This whole experience has been amazing and I hope to be able to have another wonderful experience like this soon (-ish). Every part of this trip has been great, I'm just sad it has to end so soon.

The first night of our trip set the pattern for this trip. By that I mean that we got lost. After arriving in Kyoto that night we eventually found our hostel and went right to bed. The hostel we stayed at was really nice, but when you are in a very small four-person room and two of them are already asleep at ten o'clock it can be difficult to rummage through your bags to get ready for bed. we ended going out into the hall and practically emptying all of our stuff on the floor because we didn't want to wake our roommates up.

The next day we went to the golden temple. Katie's lonely planet guide book, which we have been following without question, told us that it was right off the 205 bus route. So we hop on the first 205 bus we see and are off to see the golden temple. So we ride along not at all concerned about being the only ones on the train. Now remember what I said about getting lost? Not too far after we got on the bus pulls over and the driver proclaims, "finishu" we continue to chat excitedly about being in Japan, "finishu," still no response, "FINISHU!" We hastily got off the bus and found our selves in the middle of a random Kyoto street.

And that's all the time my fellow international traveler had to guest blog. I said goodbye to Steph today and I am prepping for my last day in Tokyo. I will finish what my sister started when I arrive back in Korea.