Unlike the previous day where Kyoto was just a sad, gray, and dreary day, our day 2 was very very different. The sun was out, the air was cool, the day was bright and shiny, and the city just majestically opened itself to us. Our itinerary for the day: Nara Park and Todai-ji temple, Kiyomizu-dera, and the shopping/historical district of Gion.
Nara Park and Todai-ji
Our first stops for the day was farthest from Kyoto, the lush Nara Park and gigantic and massive Todai-ji temple. From Kyoto station, going to Nara Park is about an hour’s ride, perfect time to catch up on some zzz’s and take in the provincial landscape. Upon reaching the JR Nara Station, we took another bus (bus no. 5) that shuttled us all the way to Nara Park.
Prior to arriving, I had always thought of Nara Park as a park, something akin to Central Park, an enclosed natural enclave with pathways, gardens, and various activities. I was wrong, Nara Park is not just a park, it’s a really huge park filled with deer, museums, shops, and temples, and it absolutely blew me away.
The first thing I saw in Nara were the deer, they were everywhere! They crossed the streets, they were grazing in open spaces, they were in gardens, they were in singles or in herds, and best of all, you could feed them. Throughout the park, there were stands where for ¥150 (Php. 75) you could buy wafer-like biscuits while the deer swarm around you. To be honest, it was cute feeding the deer, but they were also like Pavlovian dogs, the moment they saw me with the biscuits they swarmed and turned ravenous, some actually bit me (good thing I was wearing a jacket). Having fed my curiosity, we moved on, but not without enjoying the cute (but somewhat dangerous) deer that roamed all around us.
Once past the deer, we entered a portal that led us to the entrance to Todai-ji temple, a grand, massive, and impressive Buddhist temple. In all my travels, I have always been wowed by grandiose structures: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Terra-cotta Warriors, the Borobodur and Prambanan temples. When I saw Todai-ji, that same feeling of excitement, wonder, and awe was there. This massive blue/black and white structure took over the scene, it was huge and I couldn’t help feeling small and insignificant as I basked under its shadow.
I could go on and on just looking at the grand structure but we had to move. It was a good thing that we did move, because once again I was floored by the gigantic statue of Buddha that took over the entire temple. It could have been 4 floors or even 5 floors high but all I knew was that I had to crane my neck as we circled the grand structure. My camera could not capture the entirety of Buddha, but you get the picture. The thing was big and people were just amazed. Besides Buddha, there were other statues situated in various corners of the temple and in one side of the temple, there was a pillar. This pillar had a hole at the bottom of it, based on the general air of laughter and excitement, people were trying to get inside the hole and come out the other side. I could only surmise that if successful good karma would shower from the heavens or your wish would be granted. Given my girth and knowing Tricia’s panicky self, I did not dare to try but it was fun watching attempting visitors. Before we exited, Tricia and I decided to spend ¥600 on one of the wooden boards to ask for some blessings from Buddha himself.
From the grand temple of Todai-ji and the cute deer, we moved on to our next destination: the mountaintop vista that is Kiyomizu-dera. When we got to Kiyomize-dera, the hills were alive, not with the sound of music but with the sound of tourists making their way to and back to different places.
Once again I knew very little of the places we were going to in Japan. I had always assumed that these places were always a bus stop away. Unfortunately I was wrong, very wrong, because Kiyomizu-dera was located atop a hill/mountain, we had to walk a good 15-20 minutes just to get there. Nonetheless, we entertained ourselves looking for souvenirs, sampling the local ice cream, and watching people dress up in yukatas and kimonos (¥3,000-6,000/Php. 1,500-3,000) as they strolled around the area. When we did finally reach Kiyomizu-dera, were gifted with majestic views of the Kyoto skyline.
The sun was up in the sky, the clouds were calm and serene, and from afar we could just make out Kinkaku-ji glistening on the horizon. Kyoto tower dominated most of the skyline but it was nice seeing the city from a different perspective and enjoy the majestic views. On the other hand though, we came at inopportune time, the temple itself was being renovated, thus the beautiful pictures I saw on Google were not successfully emulated. However, there were plenty of other things to enjoy in the temple, the sakura for one were in full bloom, the people dressed in their yukatas and kimonos, the lush gardens and the sound of water streaming were more than enough to make up for the renovation.
Having explored Kiyomizu-dera and taking in the scenery, we made our final stop in Gion district. For years I have always imagined Gion to be this old, rustic, provincial street perpetually stuck in time. For me Gion will always be that place where geishas converge and walk on their wooden sandals and their maiko trailing after them.
I blame all of that to Memoirs of a Geisha and Japanese documentaries/postcards that have always portrayed the district as it is. In reality though, Gion is a bustling, jam-packed, tourist hub filled with restaurants, shops, coffee houses and not a geisha or maiko in sight. There were no cobbled roads or even geisha houses, it was just one huge shopping district that stretched as a far as the eye could see.
But therein lies the beauty of Gion, the main road holds everything that tourists would like to see and enjoy. On the other side of the main road, enter just one of the many side roads, is the Gion that I know. In the side streets of this district everything that I had envisioned was all there, treelined (sakura lined?), cobbled streets, geisha houses, geishas and their maikos, restaurants, a stream…everything was absolutely stunning and breathtaking. The experience was something straight out of an old Japanese print, it was just wonderfully amazing and something I will remember for a long time.
After having traveled for the entire day, we decided to finally call it a day but not before meeting a friend whom I met in Japan. On our last day in Kyoto, I met Kaede Nishikawa, one of the participants in the conference I attended in Seoul last year. That night, Kaede took us to a small ramen restaurant just near Gion and I had a very delicious helping of authentic ramen and gyoza. We chatted and caught up with each other, learning all about the intricacies and nuances of Kyoto and by-large, Japan.
With Kyoto done and packed up, we then made our way to the next city: Osaka, also known as Japan’s kitchen.
Nara, Nara Prefecture
Entrance fee: Free
Deer feed: ¥150 (Php. 75~)
406-1 Zoshicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture
Entrance fee: ¥500 (Php. 250~)
294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Kyoto
Entrance fee: ¥500 (Php. 250~)