Part #7: Orange I Glad I Made it to Inari?

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan
Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto
Part #3: Bamboos Galore!
Part #4: The One in Which I Did Not Get Attacked By a Monkey
Part #5: In Search of a Geisha
Part #6: The Not-So Silver Silver Pavilion

If you like the color orange, you’ll love Fushimi Inari-taisha. Fushimi Inari-taisha is the main shrine located at the base of the mountain Inari. The path up the mountain is flanked by thousands of bright orange gates leading to smaller shrines as you climb the steps and leave the tourists far behind. Inari is the patron of business and merchants, and each of the gates (called torii) are sponsored by a Japanese business. This factoid explains some of the charms I found for sale.

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This is the nature of money. This will hope that you can receive lots of money.

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When you met a bad happen, this will save you.

The beginning of the hike is fairly flat and swamped with tourists. As the path climbs, fewer tourists opt to climb with it, and you’ll have thousands of orange gates to yourself. According to the Internet, the more than 10,000 gates date back to 711.

I can see people saying, “What’s the big deal about a bunch of orange gates?” But I was not one of those people. I loved the bright orange torii, and I loved climbing with them high above Kyoto.

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Part #6: The Not-So Silver Silver Pavilion

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan
Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto
Part #3: Bamboos Galore!
Part #4: The One in Which I Did Not Get Attacked By a Monkey
Part #5: In Search of a Geisha

Next up on my Kyoto itinerary was the Silver Pavilion, or Ginkaku-ji. Built in the 15th century, the two-storied temple isn’t actually silver. Way back when, the plan was to cover the building in a silver foil, and the nickname stuck.

The best way to get to the Silver Pavilion from the Westin is to walk along the Philosopher’s Walk, a pedestrian-only path along a canal.

It is an easy, scenic stroll, filled with curious odds and ends. Case in point:

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And this:

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The path is also very popular with cats and people who like to play with cats.

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The end of the path leads to the Silver Pavilion which boasts traditional Japanese gardens and pretty views in addition to the not-so silver Silver Pavilion.

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The Silver Pavilion

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I love these Japanese trees. We need more of these in the U.S.

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So pretty.

Japanese rock gardens are decidedly sparse. But that doesn’t mean they are easy to maintain. They are stunning works of art.

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And finally the view from the top of the garden:

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Next Up: Scotland!

In a little more than a month, I  will jet off to Scotland with my good friend Lisa for a two-week tour that will take us from Edinburgh to the Highlands, to the Isle of Skye, to Glasgow. Now, I’m not a scotch or golf aficionado – two of Scotland’s typical draws. If not for Lisa, I would skip the requisite distillery tour altogether, and we will probably forgo a visit to St. Andrews. Blasphemy – I know. Instead, we plan on seeing some of Scotland’s most beautiful natural regions, famous castles, and a couple major historical sites (the inevitable result of being an longtime Outlander fan).

Here is a map of our itinerary:

We fly into Edinburgh Monday morning, where we will spend three days getting to know Scotland’s historic capital. On Thursday morning, we will head north and east to check out the famous Fife coastal walk. On Friday, we will continue north towards Inverness, allotting time for a scotch tour and a visit to Scotland’s most famous battlefield, Culloden. We will spend Saturday relaxing in Inverness and Sunday driving around the Loch Ness region. On Monday, we will head west to the Isle of Skye with a couple of stops along the way. We will spend the next day checking out (read: photographing) Skye’s stunning natural wonders. On Wednesday, we will head south towards Glasgow, completing our circle of Scotland. We’ll spend Thursday getting a taste of Scotland’s largest city and fly home Friday morning.

As usual, I insisted on using my points and miles to pay for as much of the trip as possible. Here is how I did it.

  • Economy flight from DCA-EWR-EDI: 30,000 United miles + $5.60
  • Three nights at the Radisson Blu Edinburgh: 100,000 Club Carlson points for two nights and a free third night
  • Car rental for one week: $397.74 (split among two people)
  • One night at the Hilton Double Tree in Dundee: 8,000 Hilton points + $41.74
  • Three nights at the Holiday Inn Express in Inverness: Two nights for 60,000 IHG points and one free night thanks to my IHG credit card (this is the only points hotel in Inverness)
  • Two nights at the Bosville Hotel in the Isle of Skye: $473.25 split among two people (there are no points hotels on the island and the hotels are rather expensive)
  • Two nights at the Radisson Blu Glasgow: 44,000 Club Carlson points for the first night and a free second night
  • Economy flight from GLA – PHL: 30,000 American Airlines miles + $146.20 (I still have to get from Philadelphia to Washington D.C.)

My out-of-pocket cost: $608.16

Needless to say, I am super excited. Lisa and I haven’t traveled together since last summer’s Peru trip, and we are desperately in need of some recharging girl time. I know we will have a blast.

In the meantime, I will listen to this song over and over again:

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Part #5: In Search of a Geisha

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan
Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto
Part #3: Bamboos Galore!
Part #4: The One in Which I Did Not Get Attacked By a Monkey

To be honest, I don’t really know what a Geisha is. But I knew that I really wanted to find some and take their picture. So I followed my guide books and headed to the Gion and Higashiyama neighborhoods.

Here is what I discovered: Geishas are really hard to find.

In all my walking around, I saw only one real geisha and she hurried away as quickly as she could. I came across many tourists dressed as Geishas, but you can tell the difference because they will gladly pose for pictures.

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Real Geisha

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Fake Geishas – notice how the makeup doesn’t completely cover their necks

The good news is that there are plenty of other pretty things to see in Gion and Higashiyama, including many of Kyoto’s famous temples and shrines. I meandered through the streets with no particular destination in mind.

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A shopping arcade in Gion

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A Japanese man in Gion

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As I made my way south, I stumbled upon the Yasaka Pagoda, a five-tiered pagoda built sometime between the years 592 and 794.

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I continued through the jumble of narrow streets to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. Kiyomizu-dera is a massive complex, rising into the clouds overlooking the city below. The main structure is made entirely of wood and constructed without a single nail (so says the Internet).

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Approaching the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera

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Kiyomizu Stage

Walking down from Kiyomizu Stage along a path on the eastern edge of the mountains, I found a bright orange three-tiered pagoda, contrasting brilliantly against the blue sky.

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Kiyomizu-dera offers stunning views of the city at sunset.

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And finally, some random night photography as I made my way back to the hotel.

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Weed, Running, and Boating in Toronto

Four months ago, I had a crazy idea. I emailed two of my favorite people in the world and wrote: “Let’s sign up for the Nike 15K race in Toronto.” To my pleasant surprise, they agreed.

Lucky for us Americans, one of those people – my good friend Daveeda – lives in Toronto. Rachel and I had instant accommodations. Too bad, the weather wasn’t quite as accommodating.

We flew into Toronto Friday morning at the crack of dawn and spent some time soaking up the important sites in between the rain. For Rachel, this meant sampling poutine. For me, this meant taking pictures everywhere.

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Posing in front of our course map

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Rachel sampling sunglasses for the meager price of $178. A steal!

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Apparently, we are a big deal in Canada.

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After picking up our race packets, we made our way to Kensington Market which is a hispster’s dream neighborhood. Think graffiti, overpriced trinkets, dilapidated storefronts, and trendy restaurants. Oh, and lots and lots of weed.

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Hehehe…

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Kensington Market

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Just considering my career options…

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Dear Toronto, I LOVE this. Sincerely, me.

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Pretty graffiti in Kensington Market

After a lazy Saturday, race day arrived. I checked the weather for the fifteenth time, and the weather gods promised us no rain until the afternoon. Shockingly, the weather gods were wrong.

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Getting on the ferry for the Toronto Islands

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Daveeda and Rachel

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Me pretending not to be exhausted

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The stunning Toronto skyline from our ferry

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Getting ready…

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In case you’re curious, I could not find the clothing optional beach

The course was beautiful. I wish I had more pictures, but since I’m pretty slow as it is, I refused to drag my time down further by stopping to take pictures. We traversed pavement, grass, gravel, and even a stunning boardwalk along the water. I managed to take this picture while running, as we made our way through Billy Bishop Airport and Toronto’s skyline came into view.

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I am happy to report that I finished the race, and I am the proud owner of my second Nike Tiffany necklace. I am also very proud of my friends who made excellent time. Daveeda and Rachel – you are legit runners.

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By the time we finished, however, it had started raining. I was wet, freezing, and just a little bit grumpy – a terrible combination. The euphoria of running 9.3 miles was quickly washed away by the urgent desire to take the longest and hottest shower known to mankind.

That was not an option – at least not yet. First, we had to get back to the mainland. Instead of waiting three hours for the communal ferry, we hopped a ride on a private boat owned by Daveeda’s friend, Addler. This was a brilliant move on our part, except for the minor fact that it was still raining, and we were still cold and wet. As we squeezed ourselves into the boat, (including Daveeda’s husband and four kids) and zipped along Lake Ontario, the wind slapped our faces, and the water seeped into my bones. I didn’t know it was possible to be so miserably cold and deliriously happy at the same time.

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Our brilliant/disastrous boat ride

Daveeda’s seven-year-old daughter, not the least bit pleased with the prospect of a rainy boat ride, summed up the entire experience best: “Mommy, why did you run this race???”

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Part #4: The One in Which I Did Not Get Attacked By a Monkey

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan
Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto
Part #3: Bamboos Galore!

Dedicated readers of this blog (shoutout to Tamar, Chad, Devora, and Uncle Ari) will recall that my excitement over seeing monkeys roam free in Thailand was marred by the experience of getting attacked by said monkeys.

Despite this experience, I was determined to visit the monkey park in Arashiyama. The entrance to the monkey park is a pleasant 20 minute stroll from the famous bamboo groves, but the actual park is a steep 20 minute walk up a mountain so prepare yourself.

As the map below shows, you can walk through the streets if you prefer, but I enjoyed meandering along the river.

Monkey Park map

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The monkey park is exactly as it sounds: A bunch of monkey running around an open area. If you don’t get a kick out of seeing monkeys, it’s probably not worth it, though the views of Kyoto below are pretty specially in their own right.

For some reason, I loved the monkey park. Even though I’m not an animal person in my real life, I love photographing animals in the so-called wild. Hence, the hundreds of monkey pictures you’re about to see.

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Hehe. What the heck are these guys doing? Anyone?

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Love this little guy sitting and and observing his fellow monkeys.

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The view of Kyoto from the top of Arashiyama monkey park.

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Part #3: Bamboos Galore!

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan
Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto

My first morning in Kyoto, I headed west to the other side of Kyoto. Arashiyama refers to a district on the western outskirts of Kyoto, but to tourists, it refers specifically to the famous and beautiful bamboo forest in the district by the same name. That is what I wanted to see.

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As I made my way to Arashiyama, I stumbled upon another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tenry-ji Temple and the surrounding gardens. I wasn’t going to enter, but then I saw a pretty flower, and then a pretty tree, and then a cool Japanese gate, and the next thing you know, I’m deep in the gardens snapping away.

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The aforementioned cool gate!

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I caught the tail end of Kyoto’s fall foliage season, and jumped for joy every time I caught sight of red and yellow leaves.

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I’m a little bit obsessed with Japanese trees. There is an elegance in their disjointed limbs. If only there was an elegance in my disjointed limbs.

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Why don’t we have gardens like this in the U.S.?

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Finally, I made my way to Arashiyama. The good news is that the bamboo forest lives up to the imagination. The bad news is that a lot of tourists want to see it too. If you want to take pictures without pesky tourists showing up your shot, you may need to go early in the morning. Or you can just use your telekinesis super power to move them out of the way.

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Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan

Kyoto’s public transportation is easy enough to use – as long as you’re not embarrassed to ask some stupid questions. Luckily, shame has never been my strong suit.

The confusing part is that the map is made up of three separate train systems. Kyoto has two subway lines – the Tozai and Karasuma lines – represented by the brown and turquoise lines in the map below. There are 16 private railway lines that connect at a couple of junction points. Finally there are two JR lines, one local and one long distance (which I used to get to and from the airport).

When I arrived at the Osaka airport, I purchased the ICOCA and Haruka package deal for 4,000 yen (around 40 U.S. dollars at the time). The package includes two rides on the express JR Tokaido Shinkasen train which took me from the airport to Kyoto Station and back to the airport on my way home (the blue and white line below). It also includes the ICOCA card loaded with 1,500 yen which works like the Metro card in New York City. It is a rechargeable card to be used on the local public train system so you don’t have to buy a ticket every time (it does not work on buses though). Important note: The package must be purchased with cash – no credit cards accepted.

Kyoto Train map

Click here for a larger version of Kyoto’s local train system.

The Shinkasen train from Osaka airport to Kyoto Station takes about 77 minutes. It is a comfortable ride, much like long-distance train travel in the United States.

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The local trains were well-signed and delightfully colorful.

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Using a combination of subway, bus, and walking, I got everywhere I wanted to go in Kyoto. I only used a taxi once – to get to my hotel late at night when I first arrived in Kyoto. In contrast to China’s mega-cities, Kyoto is very accessible, and that is part of its charm.

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Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Japan. I didn’t really expect anything at all. I chose Japan for the tail end of my China trip for non-sentimental reasons. 1) It was close to China. 2) I didn’t need a visa. 3) It was safe. 4) It was easy enough to navigate for an English speaking individual. I chose Kyoto for similar reasons. Kyoto was closer to Shanghai than Tokyo, smaller, and allegedly warmer.

All of the above reasons were spot on. But there was so much more to Kyoto than that. I had heard that Tokyo resembles a cleaner version of New York City – a city built into the sky with few trees. Kyoto is nothing like that. Kyoto is large enough to offer all the advantages of city life and small enough not to be overwhelming. It sits in a valley, surrounded by mountains and nature galore.

The people are extraordinarily friendly and helpful, and they spoke enough English for me to get by. Public transportation is plentiful and easy enough to understand (after a few stupid questions). I even took a local bus without getting lost – a feat that filled my heart with pride.

Kyoto is rich with culture and natural beauty, serving as Japan’s imperial capital for 1,000 years. While Tokyo was burnt to a crisp during World War II, Kyoto and its bountiful history was spared. Kyoto was initially placed on the United States’ list of targets for the atomic bomb, but was vetoed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Sixty years later, all of Kyoto’s marvelous castles and shrines – including 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – remain intact. I had thought I might venture on a couple of day trips to nearby towns, but I had no difficulty filling five days in Kyoto alone.

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I used 40,000 Starwood points (which I commandeered from my ex-boyfriend – getting your heart trampled on has a couple of perks) to secure five nights at Kyoto’s Westin thanks to Starwood’s five nights for the price of four deal. The room was perfectly comfortable, but the best thing about the Westin – besides for its proximity to the subway – was the view when I woke up in the morning. Located on the eastern edge of Kyoto, the mountains feel close enough to touch.

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Kyoto – and Japan – surprised me. And I’m so glad it did.

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Living Large in Cancun

For the record, I’m not a beach person. I get antsy. I want to see and do things. But I had two free Hyatt nights I needed to use and the idea of relaxing in the lap of unadulterated luxury appealed to me. So my friend Eliana and I hopped a direct Southwest flight from Baltimore to Cancun for a four-day weekend.

This review needs to be prefaced by the fact that I was pretty sick most of the trip. Being the stubborn overachiever that I am, when I get sick, I go all the way – boxes of tissues, endless sniffling and sneezing — the works. Needless to say, I was fairly miserable. But that is not the hotel’s fault.

The hotel is beautiful. The rooms are large (though not as large as I have seen in some descriptions) and all have lovely views of the Caribbean Sea. The massive Jacuzzi is kind of hysterical, and I caused a mild flood in our room when I gave it a whirl. Oops.

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My friend Eliana relaxing on the hammock on our balcony.

The hotel is all-inclusive so once you get your bracelet, everything (except for the spa) is free. The hotel boasts five restaurants, a cafe, and a 24-hour club room. The thrill of drinking as many diet cokes as I liked was intoxicating.

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The weather was hot and humid, hitting a consistent high 80s each day. We spent the majority of our time in the pool (Eliana) or lounging by the pool (me) and sleeping (both of us). I had big plans to go to the gym and try out the yoga classes, but the persistent congestion killed those plans. I made it to the gym on the last morning, and while small, it is modern and stocked with everything you might need – including excellent wifi. (P.S. Netflix works in Cancun!)

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As many people have reported, the cabanas and lounge chairs get snapped up at a ridiculous hour of the morning that I refuse to get up at on vacation, but we managed to find adequate spots to rest our lazy butts.

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There is nightly entertainment in the main lobby and a lovely spa where we enjoyed deep tissue massages (thanks Eliana!).

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Dancers doing something exotic.

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The spa

All in all, it was a very relaxing and luxurious weekend. It’s not something I feel a need to do again, but if you are a beach person, I highly recommend the Hyatt Zillara.

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