It’s such a great time to be in Tokyo right now. The whole city seems to be bathed in glistening sunshine. It’s like when you take out an old piece of jewellery and give it a polish–it transforms into something incredible before your very eyes.Continue reading “Mid-Autumn: Tokyo’s Time to Shine”
There are loads of well-known tourist places in Tokyo… Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo Tower, Shibuya Crossing, to name a few. Whenever friends from home or other international visitors come to Japan, I often get asked for recommendations on things to do and see in Tokyo. Continue reading “Touristing at Sensoji”
This was the first time since I moved to Tokyo that I have stayed in Japan over the winter break. It was so nice to spend time just catching up with friends, relaxing and getting up without an alarm, rather than packing suitcases and catching planes. Another great thing is that I was able to fully experience Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year period, from beginning to end. Continue reading “Oshogatsu: the Beginning of a New Year”
Kyoto is incredible any time of the year. No two visits are ever the same, and there are endless places to explore. With its World Heritage temples and shrines, geisha district, traditional foods and ancient history, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular cities in the world. Continue reading “Spectacular Colours in Kyoto”
No trip to the Kansai region is complete without seeing Nara. So, after 24 hours sakura hunting in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, I hopped on the train and moved an hour south to another of the former capital cities.
From 710 to 784, Nara was the centre of Japan. Remarkably, some of the world’s oldest surviving buildings are found in Nara Prefecture, like the pagoda at Horyuji Temple. Up until the 700s, Shintoism had been the main belief system in Japan. But the Emperor, a devout Buddhist, changed that. Buddhism spread across the country from China, and with it came the earliest known works of written literature produced in Japan. Also under the order of the Emperor, Todaiji Temple was built and inside it, the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.
Surrounding Todaiji is Nara Koen, a park full of free-roaming, wild deer! They came from the sacred hills behind Nara and were once considered messengers from God. They were protected by the government so much so that harming a deer would have resulted in heavy punishment. Today, the laws are a bit more relaxed though they are still recognised as a national treasure of Japan. People can buy special deer crackers to feed them and I think after so many years of being hand-fed, they have become one of the bossiest animals I’ve ever come across! They will grab anything out of your hand – so hold onto your food, maps, brochures and handbag tightly if you don’t want to lose them!
I was up early on day two of my trip and headed to Nara Park before the bus loads of tourists arrived. It was so peaceful and I got to witness the deer coming down through the forest and into the township. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a migration! They didn’t take any notice of me or the other people around, nor of the traffic that was starting to get busy. The funniest thing was seeing them cross the road. There was a special deer warning sign and somehow they all stopped right in front of it, then proceeded like children at a pedestrian crossing.
Starting from the edge of the town, a long, wide path serves as the entrance to Kasuga Taisha, a shrine tucked away in the woods. The shrine grounds were completed in 768 and some original structures exist to this day. Kasuga Taisha is registered as a World Heritage Site and is known for its 3,000 lanterns which have been donated by worshippers over the past 1,200-odd years. My favourite part was a pitch black chamber full of glowing lanterns. It was eerie but mesmerising.
I didn’t go to Nara just to see Todaiji and the deer, though. I wanted to get out of the city and explore the countryside. My original plan was to visit a place called Yoshino-yama, which is considered by many as the best sakura spot in the country. For 1 or 2 weeks a year, the entire mountain is covered in pink trees. But I was about 4 or 5 days too early and if I’d gone, I would have only seen a few flowers here and there. Not worth the 2-hour, multiple transfer train trip. Bad timing! Anyway, there’s always next year. So instead, I turned to some locals’ advice and continued my sakura hunt to Koriyama Castle, known for its cherry blossoms; Yakushi-ji Temple, one of the Japan’s oldest temples; and Toshodai-ji Temple which along with Yakushiji is a World Heritage Site.
Can you imagine what life would have been like back in the 700s? It was surreal to be walking around all of these ancient places in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It didn’t really feel like Japan, to be honest. I was in another world.
The day was drawing to a close and I was pretty exhausted after what felt like an entire day of walking. I got back on the train and headed towards my third and final destination, the home of the White Heron Castle. Part 3 to come.
In a country famous for its spring scenes filled with pink and white cherry blossoms, it’s hard to decide just where to go to enjoy these short-lived flowers. Your most memorable sakura experience could be anywhere from a residential street to a major tourist spot to a remote mountain side. The only thing to do is just get out there and explore!
For the sakura season, I had originally planned to stick around Tokyo like last year, mainly so that I could save money. But the closer I got to the spring holidays, the more I felt the itch to leave the city and make the most of my time off. With a week to go, I bit the bullet and booked my tickets, found accommodation and jotted down a rough plan. My destination: Kansai.
Kansai is a region of Japan that’s home to ancient cities, national treasures and the country’s oldest structures. It’s almost the polar opposite of Tokyo. After living in the modern, fast-paced capital for 3 years now, I immediately noticed the difference especially at my first stop, Kyoto. Even the most touristy of places have somehow managed to keep that traditional, ‘old Japan’ charm.
The last time I was in Kyoto was in 2012 during one of their best ever autumn foliage seasons. The streets were splashed with brilliant reds and yellows and oranges. After seeing the city at its fiery best, I knew I had to see it during the sakura season, too.
Higashiyama & Gion
Heian Jingu & Nanzen-ji
Rokkaku-do & Philosopher’s Path
Kyoto was breathtakingly beautiful, even though the sakura were not in full bloom. I loved strolling, or rather, crowd surfing, in Higayashima. I made it to Kiyomizu-dera just before dark and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains. Walking around the streets at night felt like I was on a movie set with so many girls wearing kimono. I think Kyoto is the only city where it’s completely normal for everyone to wear a kimono! The following day I rented a bicycle which was such a good idea. You don’t have to worry about bus timetables, or getting tired from walking, or limiting yourself to just one area. Highly recommended if you visit Kyoto :) As for the sakura, the Imperial Palace was by far the best spot to see them while I was there. I love the feeling of being rained on by petals when you stand under a weeping cherry tree. And the Imperial Palace was full of them! I was also lucky to get sunshine on and off all day. As we all know, pink blossoms against a blue sky is always a winner.
After a busy day of sakura hunting I bid farewell to Kyoto, and continued onto my next stop. I headed south to a place famous for their deer that freely roam the streets. Part 2 coming soon.