Japan part 1: Osaka, Kyoto & Nara

From the Philippines, we flew to Osaka, arriving around midday at Kansai International Airport, built on an artificial island in the bay. Getting off the plane, it was immediately noticeable that the temperature was lower than in the Philippines. Despite wanting to escape winter by going to Singapore for a year, I had managed to find it anyway, by travelling north. Luckily I had a windbreaker and jumper ready, and later got myself a hat and scarf from a “Tiger of Copenhagen” we happened to pass by. Tiger in Japan seems to be slightly upmarket. Ironic twist on the original concept. (Tiger in Danish is a play on the pronunciation of tenner, i.e. 10 kroner, around two Singapore dollars.)

The escapee from Denmark.
The escapee from Denmark in Osaka.

Anyway, from the airport, it was a simple train journey to Osaka Namba station, and from there we had our first experience with the weird Japanese address system. Addresses are constructed first by district, then by numbered sub-district (if applicable), and then by blocks and finally building number within the block. There is no logic to the building numbers within the block, and neither does there seem to be a system to how the blocks are numbered, so we spent some time circumnavigating blocks, hunting for numbers on walls. Fun games to play in Urban Japan #1.

Teppanyaki in Shinsaibashi.
Teppanyaki in Shinsaibashi.

Eventually, we found the hotel, only to discover it was locked, it being the middle of the day, and the hotel having a lockout period from 10 am to 4 pm. So we circled the block, and stumbled upon a stylish café, where we had a warm lunch. Our initial fears about no one being able to speak English were so far being allayed, but it is definitely appreciated when you can say at least please, thank you, excuse me and sorry. (“kudasai”, “arigatou gozaimasu”, “sumimasen” and “gomen nasai” respectively.) And if all else fails, point, use signs and smile. This lack of Japanese skills though really shone through, when we went exploring round the Shinsaibashi area of Osaka for the afternoon. We found a small temple tucked away in some narrow streets, and suddenly an old man came up to us and started speaking with us. He mentioned a lot of countries, pointed to us, we told him where we were from, and he then talked, presumably about which countries he had visited. He was very friendly, shaking our hands, telling us something about our handshake, either that it was too soft or too firm, teaching us a few Japanese phrases by saying the English phrase (he knew a few, about on par with my knowledge of Japanese) and then saying the Japanese phrase. He gave us some lozenges, and talked some more. We politely smiled, listened, repeated the names of a few countries we heard him say, and found the phrase in my guidebook for “I don’t speak Japanese”. He just smiled, laughed, and continued telling us about his travels, the US military base on Okinawa (we guessed) and how we were very lucky to be in Japan (I think). Eventually he excused himself, and waved goodbye. We repeated “arigatou gozaimasu” quite a few times, and “sayonara”, and he seemed very pleased to have met us.

A temple in Osaka.
A temple in Osaka.

We then continued on, finding two other temples, more impressive than this first one. Along the way, I marvelled at another Japanese innovation, hot coffee in a can from vending machines. This is now part of my staple diet here in Japan. I’m not sure if I get it more for the coffee or for the portable finger heater that it actually is. As of writing this though, I have got a cheap pair of gloves. We will see if this reduces my coffee-in-a-can consumption.

The contemporary gateway to another temple in Osaka. The guardians are the gods of wind and thunder in Japanese Buddhism.
The contemporary gateway to another temple in Osaka. The guardians are the gods of wind and thunder in Japanese Buddhism.
Detail of the third temple we visited in Osaka.
Detail of the third temple we visited in Osaka.

When we were allowed into the hotel, we dumped our bags, and marvelled at the design of these Capsule hotels as the one we were staying in. Think of it like a dormitory, only with more privacy. Your room is a 1x1x2 metre hole in the wall, which contains a mattress on the floor, a foldable table, a power outlet, an FM radio and a non-functional television in our case. Surprisingly comfortable. Unfortunately, the wifi was not working that day, which sent us scavenging for hotspots in town, while exploring the area further. The area around Namba station in Osaka is home to among other things, Shinsaibashi shopping arcade, a famous neon advertisement of a victorious athlete, and lots of nice bars and restaurants. We spent the evening at a very cozy bar that served warm sake, teppanyaki and okonomiyaki (translatable as “things I like fried”, essentially a thick pancake of vegetables, noodles and your choice of meat, served with syrup and mayonnaise.)

My room at the hotel.
My room at the hotel.

 

A bit bemused about taking this photo, but everyone else was photographing themselves here, so I guess it is tradition.
A bit bemused about taking this photo, but everyone else was photographing themselves here, it seems to be the thing to do in Shinsaibashi, besides shopping.

The next day we went on a daytrip to Kyoto, capital for many years before Tokyo took over. Kyoto is overflowing with temples, shrines, palaces, old houses and ornamental gardens. We sampled a few of them, and came away with a sense of awe at the age, size, beauty and/or serenity of each in turn. The first, and one of the more impressive temples, just for the scale of it, was the Sanjusangendo (so named because it has thirty-three pillars along the length of the main hall.) Inside the hall, there stand 1001 wooden Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy). They are quite strict about no photography inside, so instead here is a photograph from outside, and a link (here) to a website that does have photos from inside.

The main hall.
The main hall.
The ornamental gardens in the grounds of Sanjusangendo.
The ornamental gardens in the grounds of Sanjusangendo.

Next order of business was a walk up to Kiyomizu-Dera, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a temple complex originally founded in 778 AD, but rebuilt most recently in 1633. Quite pretty indeed.

The Tori at Kiyomizu-Dera temple.
The Tori at Kiyomizu-Dera temple.
Kiyomizu-Dera is partially built on wooden stilts, hanging out across the edge of a hill.
Kiyomizu-Dera is partially built on wooden stilts, hanging out across the edge of a hill.
Kiyomizu-Dera was founded on this particular site due to the springs found here. Drinking of the spring supposedly grants good fortune, thus a lot of people were queueing up.
Kiyomizu-Dera was founded on this particular site due to the springs found here. Drinking of the spring supposedly grants good fortune, thus a lot of people were queueing up.

We passed a few more temples along the way, skipping a few, and marvelling at the size of some of the others, before arriving at Jishoji, a Zen temple. This temple, originally built as a country villa in 1482, is also a UNESCO world heritage site. The gardens of the temple are beautifully sculpted, with cones of sand and ornamental ponds.

The famous Silver Pavillion in Jishoji temple.
The famous Silver Pavillion in Jishoji temple.
A classic form of Zen meditation is to sculpt sand gardens. Richly in evidence at Jishoji.
A classic form of Zen meditation is to sculpt sand gardens. Richly in evidence at Jishoji.

After walking back to the station, getting the wrong train (never again will we take a local train in Japan, they stop at every single station, and get overtaken along the way by other trains on the same line, from then on, we knew to at least get the rapid, or preferably a limited express), and getting back to Osaka, we raided a nearby supermarket for some sushi (and in the process, to our financial surprise, learned the difference between “new price: 50 yen” and “50 yen off”…) and eat it while waiting for a wash to finish at a coin laundry we found.

The supermarket façade. A classic case of "bigger is better"?
The supermarket façade. A classic case of “bigger is better”? Inside it was full of mirrors and a pink colour scheme.

Next day, we did a daytrip to Nara, the Imperial capital before Kyoto, stopping first in the small town of Horyuji for their temple. This temple complex houses the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world built in the late 7th and early 8th century. Indeed, one of the buildings, when it was renovated around 20 years ago, was estimated to contain around 15 to 20% original materials. Very impressive considering the age, just shows what lacquer treating wood can do. In this temple complex they also had an impressive collection of artefacts, from the same period. Again, since they are religious artefacts, photography is not allowed. So instead, here are some photographs of the 1200+ year old wooden buildings:

"The oldest wooden pavillion in the world" is on the right. The rain is everywhere.
“The oldest wooden pavillion in the world” is on the right. The rain is everywhere.
Detail of Horyuji temple.
Detail of Horyuji temple.

At this point, the rain was continuing to fall, so the free green tea provided at the visitors’ centre was a nice touch. We eventually decided to continue in to Nara, and arriving at the station, we picked up a recommended itinerary from the tourist office. Tourist offices at train stations in Japan are extremely useful. They have maps, lists of hotels, condensed timetables for the public transport services you might need to see the sights, and know exactly what most people come to the town to see. Nara is no different. The quick-talking lady behind the counter gave us a map, drew a route, mentioned the names of the places to see, and then rounded it all off by saying that this itinerary would take 5 hours. Efficiency permeates society here. The itinerary led us past the unofficial symbol of Nara, and into Nara park. In the park, there is a veritable infestation of deer, who seem to like tourists for the occasional food they receive, take or steal from them.

The famous pagoda in Nara.
The famous pagoda in Nara.
No, I do not have food for you. But thanks for coming this close, so I can photograph you.
No, I do not have food for you. But thanks for coming this close, so that I can photograph you properly.

The rain was quite annoying though, so we cut short the itinerary at the Nara national museum, the first secular museum we had seen that was not closed for the New Year. Inside was an impressive collection of sculptures and paintings, including several National Treasures. It also had a fascinating gallery regarding the process of conservation of archaeological artefacts. Again, photography not permitted in the main galleries, so instead here is a photo from the auxiliary gallery, exhibiting some documentary work done on one of the national treasures exhibited in the main gallery.

The free exhibition at Nara National Museum. Pictured here is an exhibit about using high-resolution digital cameras at different (visible and invisible) wavelengths to analyze a painted piece of silk.
The free exhibition at Nara National Museum. Pictured here is an exhibit about using high-resolution digital cameras at different (visible and invisible) wavelengths to analyze a painted piece of silk.

We ended our trip in Nara by attempting to find an area of old quaint houses, without success. It was getting dark anyway, so we headed back to Osaka, and eat at a seemingly popular local teppanyaki restaurant. This is also the day I decided to pick up a Kindle Paperwhite. An extremely elegant e-reader, with an integrated light. Japan is currently the cheapest place to get it, due to the depreciation of the Yen during the past few months. This box of tricks now lives in my left jacket pocket, and is the reason why I am so slow to write blog posts: I’d rather read than write most of the time, when we are travelling on the trains.

In the next post, we leave Kansai, and head south, stopping at Himeji, before celebrating New Year in Hiroshima and continuing on to Kyushu.

Author: jpamills

Website: www.jpamills.dk

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