Last week, a few of us islanders decided to escape during “Spring Break” and visit Kansai. We booked our flights for the last week in March so we still could attend soubetsukai and see off leaving teachers, but to our surprise, our trip coincided perfectly with Hamami in Kyoto and Osaka!
After 5 days of Big City traveling, I am thoroughly exhausted. I think living on a sleepy island where we operate on shimajikan (Island Time) has affected me more than I realized. Relying on trains and buses instead of my kei car wore me out too. I guess I am more of an Island Cat than a City Squirrel these days.
Anyway…here`s a breakdown of our trip by day. Complete with pictures, silly anecdotes, and lots of whim. Enjoy!
We flew direct from Amami to Itami Airport in Osaka and then took a couple trains to our Budget Inn Ryokan near Kyoto Station. In theory, it would have been more convenient to fly into Kansai Airport because then we could have taken a direct train to Kyoto Station, but the flight would have cost double. A few train transfers in exchange for ¥4000 was definitely the right choice.
We arrived at our accommodation (it was really nice, it didn’t reek of smoke, and the guy at check in was very eager to tell us about Kyoto), dropped off our things, and then walked over to Karasuma-dori for dinner and our first evening of exploring traditional Japan!
Armed with our ¥500 yen one-day bus passes, we set off around 9 to Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Silver Pavilion. I had woken up with a stomach ache, so the 40 minute bus ride left me dizzy and nauseous. But as soon as I stepped off the humid, crowded bus and was greeted by rows of sakuras, I felt better.
I had been more eager to visit Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), but I really enjoyed the atmosphere of Ginkaku-ji and strolling through the lush gardens. As expected though, the temple was terribly crowded and we had to be ninja-quick to take decent photos before another horde of tourists shoved their way into our frames!
Then we followed part of the Philosopher`s Walk, a path along a cherry tree-lined canal. So many tourists crowded beneath each tree with their cell phones or cameras to take close ups of low-hanging blossoms. Each tree seemed to have at least one branch that bowed forward, like an invitation for people to take photographs. Many women dressed in yukatas and posed beneath the cherry trees. It seemed like no one was talking to their friends or family. Everyone focused on capturing as many angles as they possibly could of those fleeting, pale pink blossoms as they floated downward like snow. I can`t blame them because I did just the same.
After wandering aimlessly through a deserted Kyoto neighborhood (because we walked in the wrong direction of the bus stop) and a quick lunch at a cute-but-overpriced sandwich cafe (patrons are required to order a drink so I paid ¥500 for iced tea with lemon), we boarded another bus to Kinkaku-ji.
The crowds at Kinkaku-ji were insane, and it was 10 times more difficult to take a decent picture with the tourists encroaching my personal space than it was at Ginkaku-ji. Despite the insufferable heaps of humans, the Golden Pavilion is magnificent and worth a visit. Kinjaku-ji was one of the first images that came to mind when I used to think of Japan before I moved here, so I felt like I was gawking at a celebrity from afar.
We returned to Kyoto Station around 4:30 pm. Three long, bumpy bus rides, two famous temples, and one stroll down the Philosopher`s Walk was more than enough for me and my upset stomach. I was foolish to think I was ready for that Matcha ice cream cone too. I passed on shopping and went back to our Ryokan to sleep off whatever bug I had caught. I won`t go into grave detail, but I`ll tell you that the streets of Kyoto Station are not as pristine anymore now that I`ve visited…ごめんなさい, Kyoto.
I turned on some bizarre Japanese TV program and fell into a dreamless, two hour nap. Everyone else returned around 9 with tons of shopping bags. They brought me home some Cadbury chocolate and Mister Donut for when I was better, and even some Totoro stationary. Because my friends are awesome.
I woke up feeling 100% better! Just in time for us to spend the day at Fushimi Inari, the iconic rows of red torii gates. Inari Shrine was only four stops away by train from Kyoto Station, a quicker journey for us than the day before. But our visit to Inari was quite the journey in itself…
Before walking through the entrance, we agreed to take our time with the hike. It was a sunny and warm spring day. The classic pictures I`ve seen of Fushimi Inari leave little to the imagination, as if the experience is nothing more than an impossibly long row of torii gates. But no, we ascended hundreds of steps beneath those gates. And it`s not just a straight shot to the top. Like the Tugley Woods in Wonderland, there are many different paths to follow. If you`re adventurous like us, you`ll deviate from the main path and happen upon a bamboo grove, tiny shrines, ¥100 omikuji (paper fortunes) stations, miniature torii gates, and a chance to break away from crowds and hang out with nature. We also took an alternative path on our way back and ended up at a wood carving shop and talked to the artist there. In total, we spent about 6 hours wandering around Fushimi Inari.
I got more out of our time at Fushimi Inari than I ever could have expected. In person, the gates are a unique fox red color. Some are brand new, some are worn, and some are made of stone. Dozens of stone foxes–the messengers of Inari–stare at you along the way up.
This is the little wood carving workshop we stumbled on. The artist is currently working on this statue that he carved out of camphor trees. He invited us inside, and we got to see his workshop where he also restores old statues for Inari. The little figurines below are made out of what he calls “tea plants.” He was so proud to share with us his process and show us his work. We talked with him for about 20 minutes, and he told us that he listens to NPR every day so he can learn American idioms.
Because Fushimi Inari is so big, it is easy to avoid the crowds. Tourist groups tend to linger at the base of the shrine and at the rest stops along the way, buying snacks and wishes and bowing their heads in prayer at the altars. The crowd really thins out the higher you go because most tourist groups don`t make it to the top because of their time constraints. When we reached the summit shrine, there were only a few people around.
After Inari, we took a bus to Gion district and stayed there until the sun went down. Mario said it best as we walked through Maruyama Park: “This feels like Japan to me.”
Geisha Count: 2 (They walked too fast for me to take a good picture. But trust me, I saw them!)
I also ended up buying my firs yukata and obi set. It was on the sale rack because I am not someone who needs an expensive or fancy yukuta, but it was fun to get the experience of an obachan helping me put on my yukuta properly. I am excited to wear it at the Amami summer festival in July!
We took the train out to Nara! It was only an hour away from Kyoto and the perfect thing to do on our one and only rainy day. I bought a cute black and white polka dotted umbrella at a konbini that looked awesome in my pictures with the Nara deer.
We stopped at a crosswalk and asked a woman in a bright orange hat which way to Nara Park. She smiled, stretched out her arms and shouted in English, “This! This is Nara Park!” She said she was a volunteer tour guide and a Nara native. As we crossed the street, she started to follow us and tell us facts about Nara in very loud English…and this is how we ended up with the most eccentric tour guide for our rainy morning in Nara.
Here are the highlights:
-As we walked past Kofuku-ji’s five-tiered pagoda, she told us, “A pagoda is a grave for Buddha.”
-“Today is April Fool`s Day. I go to England the 17th of every month to study English!”
-A deer grabbed a map out of a woman’s pocket and started chomping on it, so our tour guide bolted over to the deer and tore the map from its teeth and screamed, “No! Ink is bad for deer!” I think the woman was more traumatized by our guide than the deer encounter.
-She pointed out a pregnant deer, and then grabbed her own belly and said she always looks pregnant. (I seized this teachable moment and taught her the term “food baby.”) When she took a photo of us later on, she said “1-2-3, I am always pregnant!”
-“It`s green! It`s green!” *Sprints across the street before the light turns red.*
-After I complained about stepping in deer poop, she said, “Oh no, did you step in shit?”
-Before we entered Todai-ji, she said,”You pay 500 yen, but I get in for free because I`m tour guide!”
-When I tried to enter the Daibutsu hall from the left, she grabbed my arm and said “This way! You have to see big buddha from the front first!”
-She mimicked a fawn as it made a squeaking, crying noise. When we asked why the deer was crying, she said unapologetically, “maybe it`s lost its mom!”
-She pulled out year-old acorns from her pocket and told us to feed it to the deer…
We didn’t need a tour guide to just walk around Nara Park and visit the Big Buddha, but I am so glad that this quirky, hilarious lady decided to show us around. It made for an unforgettable story and lots of laughs on the train ride home.
Right after lunch, we headed back to Kyoto and decided to shirk our Temple viewing duties and go shopping instead. We went to the brand new Pokemon Center in Kyoto that was unsuitably tucked away on the top floor of the most high end mall I have ever stepped foot in. Then we went to the Disney Store and had McDonald’s for dinner. Because we are adults.
We had but one day to explore Osaka. I’ve heard so many varying opinions about this city, but I really needed to see it for myself and make up my own mind. Consensus? I flipping loved it. In daylight, Osaka was vibrant, trendy, and artsy. I saw many street performers and it was significantly less touristy on Saturday because everyone was probably in Kyoto.
We stayed at an AirBnB in a quaint and traditional Japanese-style neighborhood in Shin-Osaka. On Amami, I’m used to seeing cement walls in most neighborhoods, but here, everything was open. Saturday was sunny, so everyone had their laundry and futons out to dry on their balconies. As a girl who is always in flux, I enjoy seeing the simple things, like someone hanging laundry or watering plants. Is that weird?
After we dropped off our things, here’s what we did with our one day in Osaka:
Go to Osaka Castle Park, but not inside. This was the right thing to do because there was major Hanami happening at the park. It was incredible to observe. I didn’t really know what Hanami was until I saw it in action. Hundreds of people sat on blue tarps and ate, drank, and enjoyed each other’s company beneath the cherry blossoms. Hanami translates to cherry blossom viewing. There was lots of festival food to be had, including mango on a stick! On the train ride there we had passed by more Hanami–flashes of blue and pink and then it was gone.
After dinner and one last trip to Uniqlo, we headed back to our AirBnB, totally spent (our wallets and our energy), and then promptly ordered in Pizza Hut. We gobbled up our two pizzas in mere minutes. I know it’s not your typical Osaka Night-Life experience, but it worked for us sleepy islanders.
Sunday morning we roused ourselves at 5:30 am so we could backtrack our way to Itami Airport and do some omiyage shopping and have breakfast before our 9:30 am return flight to Amami.
Reflection: I woke up today (Monday) and felt so present and in love with being in Japan. I had spent so much time thinking about what my next step would be after Japan, but going to Kansai to see the fleeting blossoms reminded me that my time here is precious and fleeting too. I will never have this again, so I should enjoy it while it lasts. I understand the magic and poetry of hanami. Witnessing it has revitalized me and I have finally come back to myself and the present.
I didn’t realize that experiencing Cherry Blossom Season would have this much of an impact on me. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you get the chance to experience it some day too.