Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sakura in Osaka ( Part 4 ) Nara and Kyoto

Kyoto and Nara are 2 of Japan's ancient capitals both located in the Kansai region. The prettier one to most people would be Kyoto. Most of the time, Kyoto would be in the list of places in Japan as a " must see places " in a travelers list.

Today is going to be a hectic day for all of us. We are going to visit Nara and Kyoto. We all decided to do the trip on our own instead of going on a tour. Yes, it would be more adventurous for us since  none of us speak any word in Japanese further than “ arigato ” or “ sumimasen ”. Yet we somehow survived a 5-day vacation there in self-exploration itinerary. I decided to write our experience, hoping that we can help other travelers who plan to visit Japan.

Japan is a cash society. It is the primary method of payment there. Some major stores accept credit cards, but if you expect to explore Japan in more traditional ways, going to places where locals go, then cash is a better option.

After a quick breakfast at the subway station near our hotel, we headed to the train station to go to Nara. From the information brochure we got at the lobby of our hotel -- the train ride should only take around 50 minute train ride from Namba station on the Kintetsu Nara line.

As we waited patiently at the train platform, I glanced at the digital display showing the name and direction of each train that arrives. This display shows the train name in kanji letters.  So if you see a display that only shows Japanese letters, no need to panic, just wait for few seconds and it will show you the “English” version. Make sure that you don’t enter the wrong train. There are also digital displays inside the train.  So you can always check the direction before entering.

When we arrived at the Nara station. We headed to the nearest map of Nara and figured out where we wanted to go. I suggested that we go to the nearest temples. Kofukuji temple was the nearest to the subway station and it said --- it was 700meters ( it took us 20 minutes walk from the Kintetsu Nara Station ).  As we exited the subway station, we saw that it was a bit overcast and we were all concerned that it might start raining.  Neither of us had an umbrella though we had hoods on our coats.  Still we were hoping the weather gods would be with us and keep the rain away. Nara is not the place you want to be when it starts to rain because unlike Kyoto and Osaka -- you can still find plenty of things that will keep you dry.

The Kokufuji Temple is said to be the second tallest pagoda in Japan. Kofukuji Temple is a five storied pagoda that is very important for Buddhists due to its history.  It is a beautiful structure, but one that is hard to get in a photo unless you are standing far away.  We stayed in this area for about 30 minutes, then headed to the Nara park beside the temple. 

Nara Park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer so we knew we were in the right place for some deer hunting. The deer at Nara Park are symbols of the city and are considered to be natural treasures. Just be careful though because they are not as harmless and tame as they appear to be. Nearly two dozen deer and an equal number of tourists were clustered in front of a small temple. Their attention was focused on the deer  (who were about four feet tall not including antlers ).

For 150 yen, tourists  can buy packets of deer snacks, which are flat brown crackers to feed the deers and hopefully take a photo. As long as you were food-free, most of deer were fairly docile.

On the way back to the train station we found a little area that was sort of like a strip mall and within it we found a local joint that served a cheap lunch to fill us up.

After lunch we walked around the little mall and went back once more to the train station and headed for Kyoto. The train ride from Nara to Kyoto would take at least an hour to get there. What seemed to be an easy ride to another city turned out to be our first  (mis)adventure -- let me share it with you....

We went back to the subway station and bought our tickets ( the departure was in 15 minutes ), we had no choice but to run towards the escalator to the platform of our train. As we were going down the escalator - we saw the train leaving. Corito and I ran towards the train as it pulled away waving frantically our tickets .... and all the conductor did was bow his head as if he was saying , " too bad ladies -- catch the next train ". As the rest of the group approached us, we saw another train that also said KYOTO.. so we immediately entered the train and took our seats. What we thought was a "close call " was a big mistake!! As other passengers got in to the train and slowly started to move, we noticed that we had a different ticket than what they had. It was panic time for the group!! We spoked amongst ourselves asking what we should do --- get out in the next stop or just wait for the conductor to come in and check our tickets. We all opted to wait and see what happens. The next stop came, more passengers came in and got off-- some of us had to stand up and let them sit on their seats ( this was why we knew we took a different train -- all the seats on this train were "reserved seats " ). Next stop came -- more people came and the train started to move once more... a man in uniform came to check our tickets and  noticed we had the wrong ticket.. I tried to explain, in English, and I don’t think he understood a single word I was saying. As soon as I start my first word in English, he just said “daijobu” ( which meant "  it’s ok " ), he bowed lightly and took out his calculator and showed us that we had to add 500Yen for the journey. After we paid ... he left. I guess letting us stay was easier for him rather than trying to communicate with us.

Next stop KYOTO:

We were still early for the Illumination show at the Niju Castle -- so we took our time at Isetan Department store. We all headed for the food basement. While walking around taking photos.. here are some items you should bring back home :

Honeydew melon -  the sweetest  I have ever tasted. A must try !!

Japanese strawberries are spectacular!!  perfectly sweet with just a hint of sour and so much sweetness.  On top of that, they’re also perfectly plump, and I’ve never seen such a deep, pretty red!  One of these giant strawberries can satisfy your strawberry craving. The only down side to these precious gems are they can get expensive!  They range from 30-500 yen each depending on their size.

Marron Glaces - The chestnuts are peeled, then either dipped in a syrup and dried in an oven, or soaked in syrup and vanilla.They are usually sold individually wrapped inside a sealed box. They are very expensive. The best brand is MARY'S in Asia. If you are in Italy - you should buy these marrons from GUILLIANI'S. You should try it...

Yoku Moku -  Made primarily of butter, sugar, egg whites, wheat flour, almond powder and vanilla. The Yoku Moku cookie literally melts in your mouth. They are light , crunchy and totally tasty which tastes very much like lengua de gato.  Not too sweet but defintely high in calories.

After almost an hour of just aimlessly wandering around the food lanes -- we headed of to the Nijo Castle to watch the light illumnation of the cherry trees. As we neared the castle we saw a long line of people at the ticket booth. I lined up to buy the entrance tickets ( 400yen/person ) for the whole group.

Nijo Castle was built by the Tokugawa Shogunate and is a designated World Heritage Site. In the castle grounds there are more than 200 cherry trees which are fantastically illuminated beneath the night sky during the event period.

That night we were lucky to have another unique experience as we capitalised on the wonderful weather. From what we read on our travel borchure, for about three weeks in early spring, Nijo Castle opens its grounds for a special night-time illumination, called “Light Up”.

We headed across to Nijo and filed along with the throng of locals through the illuminated castle grounds and the groves of cherry and plum blossoms. Seeing the flowers by night is a completely different way to appreciate these seasonal miracles.

There was one grove in particular that took my breath away – it was a huge canopy of blossoms, all glowing in the lamplight – backlit blossoms as far as the eye could see. My camera did not do it justice. One of my favorite things about it was how quiet it was in the dark; the pathways were illuminated by signs saying “ Route ” in light upon the pebbles. The whole walking experience is at least 2 hours. This is a MUST SEE !!

At the end of the walk--  there was a free koto concert .

This was one of the most stunning and romantic and magical events I have experienced in Kyoto.  we spent almost two hours just looking at the gardens and weeping sakura trees. There are no adjectives or superlatives to describe our experience that night. You must go there and experience it yourself. I highly recommend to visit the Nijo castle at night time.. It was really awesome.


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