Japan: Not Invoking Strong Feelings

I somehow have had no inspiration on what to write for my Japan trip
blog post. It has been three weeks since I returned and this is the
first glimpse of it.  The reason, I suspect, is that no strong
feelings (positive or negative) was invoked at anytime during or after
the trip. When I mentioned this to a friend, she wisely told me, “well
then, why didn’t you write about that?”  She has made an excellent
point I suppose.

I love Japanese food, but that is not enough reason to keep returning.
Neither is cheaper Uniqlo or its cousin, Gu.  I am not into
shopping for cute little stuffs or wagashi (Japanese sweets). And I
have lacked the refined inclination to appreciate the beautiful,
well-thought packaging that is very common in Japan. I feel like a
brute saying this! It is weird but my focus lately is just actively
looking for different things to do and less on beautifying myself or
acquiring beautiful things. It is a phase I reckon.

Anyways, it is a given that everyone likes different things and have different tastes. Perhaps after reading this, you might disagree with me. Overall we had a great family trip and the kids were happy. I will share with you what we did and you can decide for yourself.

From our eight-day trip in Japan, we spent time in Takayama for two
nights (included a visit to UNESCO heritage site, Shirakawa-Go) and
Kyoto for five nights.  We did this trip as a whole family, including
three children from 3-10 years of age. Japan is kids-friendly.  And
Japanese rails are the best in the world. Everything is organized.
There are signs for doors to each rail car. There is no running from one
end to another like in Europe, because one hardly knows which cars are
in the front or back.  The rail pass is definitely a wise investment
(it must be bought outside of Japan).

 

Takayama

I did enjoy our stay in Takayama. It is a touristy town, but not
overly so. We chose to stay in a ryokan, Koto No Yume, to experience
sleeping on the tatami, wear the yukata, and eat Japanese feasts from
local ingredients (such as the Hida beef). We chose to include both
breakfast and dinner during our stay.

 

2016-03-20 18.32.57
Two ladies laying our beds for the night at Koto No Yume ryokan, in Takayama

 

 

2016-03-20 08.12.04
Japanese breakfast at Koto No Yume. The rice has yet to arrive. The best dish for me is the hida beef with miso. I prefer that more than the Oden.

 

The onsen (public bath) is also quite well done. I really enjoyed the
amenities they provided, and the semi-outdoor small pool.  They also
have private bath for rent for 40 minutes.  At night after dinner, we
decided to take a walk to the old town (about 10 minutes walk) in our
yukata, wooden slippers, and the traditional jacket.  Unfortunately,
the Japanese tends to be in smaller built. So the sleeves of the
jackets fell a bit short.  I am not fat, just big-boned! 🙂

 

2016-03-19 20.04.14
Ready for post-dinner walk in yukata, a traditional japanese jacket, and wooden slippers. I did not feel very attractive in the outfit, but it was a lot of fun.

 

Being in Takayama, one would see the offering of Hida beef everywhere.
We tried the sushi, the burger, grilled, with miso, and in sukiyaki.
This beef is delicious and is comparable to the famous Kobe beef for
an amazingly affordable price! Please visit this site for more
information on Hida beef.

 

2016-03-19 16.57.54
Beef sushi in Takayama’s Old Town of Kamisannomachi Preservation Area

 

Rice based crackers are also specialties of the region. So are grilled
rice balls (dango) with shoyu (salty soy sauce).  Some sellers of rice crackers have to be very creative to sell their merchandise due to tough competition.

 

2016-03-21 08.51.15
Look at the funny marketing line from the rice cracker seller in  the Miyagawa morning market. With such humor, who wouldn’t buy the rice crackers?

 

Another highlight of visiting Takayama is visiting the old private
homes. I went to two, side by side on a little street.

I went first to the Yoshijima Heritage House. The highlight of this house is its
architecture. One can see the high ceilings of the main area and the carefully
arranged beams.  The wallpaper design on the closet doors are amazing.
So are the areas where they make teas and the courtyard garden.

 

2016-03-21 09.17.58
The main foyer and common living space of the Yoshijima heritage house in Takayama.

 

The second house I went to is the Kusakabe Heritage House, which has
been converted as Kusakabe Folk Arts Museum.    As an architecture per
se, I prefer the Yoshijima house.  However, in the Kusakabe home,
there are interesting furnitures on display and exhibits of items
from the Kusakabe family, during the time they ran a moneylending
business.  There is also a room of exhibits highlighting the various
crafts in Japan (lacquer, wood carvings, and porcelains are a few
examples) and the relevant artists.

 

2016-03-21 09.25.44
The cooking area of the Kusakabe heritage house. The furnitures and wooden panels are for decoration.

 

I am also fascinated with Sarubobo. It is a faceless doll that is
made in many colors. Each color represents different areas of life:
family/relationship (red), academic life (blue), love (pink), etc. And
the doll is faceless because its expression of emotion should reflect
yours.  It is a simple matter and yet is very logical and profound!

 

2016-03-21 08.40.58
Altar dedicated to Sarubobo in front of one of the temples in Takayama.

 

 

Shirakawa-Go

During our stay in Takayama, we did a half day excursion to
Shirakawa-Go, which is one of the ancient Gassho-Zukuri villages awarded the UNESCO
Heritage status.  Here, we can still visit or stay in the old Gassho
buildings.  From the Shiroyama viewpoint up the hill, Shirakawa-Go
gives more of a European village feel, especially with the snow-capped
mountains around it.

 

2016-03-20 11.16.57
Shirakawa-Go village from Shirayama view point. It was a cloudy day

 

We spent about two hours in Shirakawa-Go. We decided to visit the
second oldest house because they serve tea and it was a
cosy place to hang out and enjoy the architecture.

 

2016-03-20 12.41.16
Gassho house up-close in Shirakawa-Go

 

2016-03-20 12.18.19
Peeking through a small window overlooking the main stove/area from the second floor of the second oldest Gassho house. The young men used to sleep in this room to watch over the fire.

 

2016-03-20 12.18.38
The main area of the second oldest Gassho house in Shirakawa-Go on the ground floor.  The fire stove is the centre of the house.

 

We finished our excursion with some snacks of grilled beef and grilled dango (riceballs).  And
the kids have their shares of ice cream.  Overall, they averaged an
ice cream (or perhaps two) a day for ten days.  Not a bad deal for
them at all.

 

2016-03-20 12.56.48
Grilled dango (riceballs) with shoyu in Shirakawa-Go

 


Kyoto

Kyoto, as the ancient capital of Japan, has many to offer to the
tourists, from various temples and shrines, shopping, and Geisha
spotting in Gion. Except for Golden Pavilion (which we missed), we
pretty much did all the have-to-dos of all tourists in Kyoto. Some are
more special than others, but in general, Kyoto is just too touristy.
When we were there, all the places were full of large tour groups.

On our first day, we walked passed Maruyama Park to a street full of
shopping and food, until we reached Kiyomizu temple in the Higashiyama
area.  It was just too packed and noisy. I definitely could not
appreciate it the place  properly.

 

2016-03-22 13.59.54
Entrance to the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. It was just way too crowded.

 

The next day we decided to get out of Kyoto and visit Nara. Nara is a more ancient city than Kyoto. We were told the deer park and the temples are a must see. We took a train there. Just a side note, a few of Kyoto’s major sites are reachable by JR Rail.  Staying in
hotels with metro access or around the Kyoto station can be
convenient. Traveling with kids we definitely travel on a much slower
pace. We visited only the deer park and took photos of the
Five-Storied Pagoda.

 

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Five-Storied Pagoda in Nara

 

One deer was so naughty. It stole a map from my sister’s pocket and
ate it. We never knew papers can be so yummy. 🙂 Watch the video here.

Visiting the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) and the Philosopher’s Path is
another highlight.  On the day we walked the path, a big cherry
blossom tree has bloomed.  We came in the last week of March. We were
quite lucky to see it. And were quite lucky there were a few tourists
around that day.

 

2016-03-25 12.31.11-1
Cherry blossom on Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto – one of the early bloomer.

 

On the way to the path, we came across an amazing temple, Nanzenji
Temple, with very few tourists around. Here we managed to breath the
fresh air and felt the zen energy of the place.  Even my little niece
and nephew claim this was their favorite temple.

 

2016-03-25 11.22.15
Nanzenji Temple is our favorite. It is not overrun by tourists.

 

I found the Silver Pavilion beautiful. Although there were other
tourists, we walked on designated paths in the same direction. So it
was quite manageable. We must have come late and missed the big
groups.   The ancient buildings, Kannon-den is well
maintained and impressive. The Japanese garden is well-designed and
really appeals to the eyes.

 

2016-03-25 14.48.40
Kannon-den in the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) in Kyoto.

 

Arashiyama, the bamboo forest, is one of the highlights in Kyoto.  It
was smaller than I expected. It was quite a short walk from the start
to finish. It was nice, but to me, nothing impressive. It looked a lot
more awesome in photos than real life.

 

2016-03-24 16.37.12-1
Arashimaya bamboo forest – not as impressive as I thought, but it was a nice stroll

 

Fushimi Inari Shrine is the one with thousands of orange gates. Each
gate (torii) is a donation from a person, family, or organization.
We came very late at sunset and managed to walk through the gates only
at the bottom part of mountain. A whole trip up to the top and down
can take about 2-3 hours. The benefit of coming late is that we missed
the big groups.  The most fun part of this visit is actually praying
in the shrine and made our wishes by writing on the wooden sticks.

 

2016-03-23 17.18.32
Fushimi Inari Shrine – Walking along the pathway under all the gates is a unique experience. It is a rare chance to take a photo without anyone in it.

 

I think that is my main issue on this trip and Kyoto. Things just look so much better on photos than when we experience them in real life. I do not know what it is. I have been to 56 countries before this trip (exploring mountains, beaches, cities, ancient ruins), and this is really one of the few times, I did not feel that my photos are inadequate to capture the sense of the place. (All photos shot with IPhone 6S, except a few with GoPro Hero 4 Silver in Shirakawa-Go and Arashiyama).

The trip is not all bad of course. We really had a lovely family time
together. We had tons of fun together.

One thing in Kyoto that I did on my own is geisha-spotting in Gion. I
am still undecided how I feel about Geishas. Yes, they are a strong
part of Japanese history and culture, but on the other hand, they are
nothing but escorts.  I joined a walking tour with Peter MacIntosh who has lived in Kyoto for 20+ years and has done documentary on Geishas.

 

2016-03-25 17.16.54
Geisha in Gion, Kyoto

 

One of the best part of the Kyoto trip was jogging at 6.30am in the
morning, right before we left for Nagoya, where we catch out flights
home.  We jogged through my favourite Nanzenji temple, the
Philosopher’s path to enjoy the cherry blossoms, and along a canal
until we reached the Kamo river. We hardly saw anyone and any
cars. It was a lovely experience.

 

2016-03-26 09.08.11
Jogging under the plum blossom in the morning in Kyoto – best moment of the trip.

 

I suppose I am left with some fond memories of Kyoto. After all, we
tend to remember what we felt last.  Not sure I would come back (even
though someone told me the Gold Pavillion is a must-see).

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