Category Archives: Japan

Part #10: Highlights and Lowlights

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
Part #7: Orange I Glad I Made it to Inari?
Part #8: The Very Gold Golden Pavilion
Part #9: First Class Baby!

My second trip to Asia was many things: Amazing, exhausting, eye-opening, cold, beautiful, empowering, and scary. Here are some of my favorite and not-so favorite experiences.

Highlights:

1) Traveling with my sister: This was my sister’s first trip to Asia, and it was exciting to see the excitement of travel through her eyes. She is now off to the Canadian Rockies this summer with my youngest sister, and I’m so excited for them.

2) Kyoto: Japan was a complete surprise. I didn’t have many expectations for Kyoto, and it turned out to be a beautiful, charming, and friendly city. I easily filled four days there.

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3) The Great Wall of China: The Great Wall of China stands out as a top tourist attraction for a reason. It is truly stunning. I highly encourage you to to take a guided tour to a less touristy part of the wall so you can enjoy the splendor without thousands of other tourists.

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4) First-class: Traveling in first class – what is there not to like?

5) The Shanghai skyline: Despite the cold and the numbing sensation in my fingers, the Shanghai skyline was enchanting. The Shanghai Tower – now the second tallest building in the world – was the icing on the cake.

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6) The Shanghai Ghetto: We visited the old Jewish ghetto where my maternal grandparents lived for several years during World War Two. For years, I had listened to my mom tell the story of how her parents escaped the Holocaust. It was extremely meaningful and fascinating to visit the place they called home for five years.

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7) Traveling solo: Yes, traveling by myself for the last couple of days of my trip was slightly terrifying, but it was also empowering. I came home knowing not only that I am capable of traveling solo, but that I am capable of enjoying it.

Lowlights:

1) Jet lag: The jet lag on the way to Asia was no picnic, but the jet lag I endured after I came home was brutal and incapacitating. It was enough to make me swear off of Asia for a year.

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2) Traveling solo: Like I said, the anticipation of traveling by myself in a foreign country was terrifying. All my bravado and wanderlust aside, I’m not very good at being alone. Being alone in a foreign country kicked my normal anxiety into overtime.

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3) Navigating in China: The lack of English and general expanse of China’s mega cities made the simple act of navigating challenging – although not impossible.

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4) The Beijing smog: We were lucky to have a day of clear blue skies in Beijing, but found out just how bad Beijing’s famous smog truly is. There is nothing like a grey curtain hanging overhead to ruin a good picture.

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5) The cold: We knew it would be cold in China so this wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was still a nuisance.

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Part #9: First Class Baby!

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
Part #7: Orange I Glad I Made it to Inari?
Part #8: The Very Gold Golden Pavilion 

After two and half weeks in Asia, it was time for me to return home. I had a great time, but I was looking forward to my apartment, my bed, my television, etc. I was also looking forward to flying first class – YES, FIRST CLASS.

First class on United was only an extra 10,000 miles over business class – 80,000 miles and $61.40 – which was a no-brainer to me. For years, I’ve drooled over reviews of over-the-top first class products on Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, etc. United’s first class does not live up to that standard – not terribly surprising given United’s mediocre business class product. It was more like an extremely luxurious business class seat, but it was still lovely.

First up, I visited the lounge in Osaka’s airport.

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I had a short stopover in Beijing and sprinted to the first class lounge to take some pictures and stock up on diet cokes. The lounge was spacious and lovely. I wish I had a little more time to revel in the luxury.

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Finally, first class, or, FIRST CLASS!

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Part #8: The Very Gold Golden 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
Part #6: The Not-So Silver Silver Pavilion
Part #7: Orange I Glad I Made it to Inari?

Unlike the not-so silver Silver Pavilion, the Gold Pavilion in northern Kyoto is indeed very gold. Kinkakuji, as its known in Japanese, dates back to 1397, but has been destroyed several times and subsequently rebuilt. The current structure was rebuilt in 1955 after it was burnt down by a fanatic monk in 1950. Kinkakuji’s top two levels are covered in gold leaf, hence the title. There isn’t much to do at Kinkakuji but admire the glimmering building and its gold reflection, but that was enough for me.

Kinkakuji is not the most convenient of tourist attractions. The closest subway stop is Kitano-Hakubai cho, and it is still a 20 minute walk north. The more accessible Emmachi Station is a 33 minute walk. I am proud to announce that I took the bus like a genuine local and did not get lost!

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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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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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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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