Japan - Kyoto Kimono

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without dressing up in traditional Kimono's.  I knew my mom might take a bit of convincing so I told her it was a belated birthday surprise that I had planned for her.  She has quite cleverly learned to be slightly skeptical of my "surprises" but she seemed up for the adventure and we had a wonderful time.

The process of getting dressed up in the kimono is completely bizarre. Apparently in the past, when kimonos were worn daily, everyone could dress themselves, and they'd just shrug them on no matter how they hung on their bodies, tie on their obi, and get to work.

Now, though, kimono are used for special occasions so having the garment line up correctly with your body is incredibly important. Curves are no good for kimono wearing which was a bit of a conundrum for our lady at the kimono shop. She kept saying to my mom and I "Nice body, No good kimono".  But there is always a solution to every problem...Towels. Lots and lots of towels padding around our curves so that the kimono would hang properly. Once our curves had been tucked away, the layers of fabric began.  There were 1-2 layers of thin white garments followed by the kimono fabric and finally the obi. The whole process was incredibly efficient and in less than 45 minutes we had been transformed.

During this time we sent Kingsley and my Dad off for coffee/tea as the old Japanese Proverb wisely warns:

 "If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty."

Japan - Mt Fuji

A glimpse of Mt Fuji as we flew by on the bullet train.  Japanese officials just announced that Mt Fuji could soon become a UNESCO World heritage site. It makes perfect sense to me as throughout the centuries Japanese have written about it, painted it, and more than a few people have died trying to climb the 12, 355 foot giant (highest mountain in Japan) that is often loving referred to as "Fuji-san".  The mountain is almost always covered in clouds so we considered ourselves incredibly lucky to have timed our bullet train schedule with a brief moment of clearing on what was otherwise a somewhat cloudy day.  

Fuji-san is an active volcano and although it last erupted in 1707 there has been much speculation recently that we could see another eruption in our lifetime.  I cannot even begin to comprehend the magnitude of a natural disaster on that level. 

For now the majestic Fuji-san sleeps.... and we quietly, reverently, slipped past...

Japan - Osaka

We had exactly 1 full day to explore Osaka so we packed in as many highlights as we could. 

The Tempozan Ferris Wheel was the worlds largest ferris wheel between 1997-1999. An interesting feature of Tempozan Ferris Wheel are the lights on its arms that predict the weather for the following day. If the lights are orange sunny weather is forecast, green equals cloudy, and blue signifies rain.  We were fortunate enough to see the wheel with orange lights indicating a sunny day ahead.

Osaka Castle was built as a display of power by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  One hundred thousand workers worked for over 3 years to construct the castle, finishing the job in 1583. However the present structure is a 1931 concrete reconstruction of the original which was refurbished in 1997.

We started from the top floor to see a great view overlooking Osaka. We moved down each level but it was hard to grasp the history as it was mostly in Japanese. There were videos which helped.

Osaka Castle, the grounds of which was the estate of the Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the first man to unite all of Japan under one rule in 1590 after around 100 years of civil war. He rose from being a peasant to being one of the most powerful men in Asia at that time, the most powerful man in Japan, and one of the most powerful men in Japanese history.

After Toyotomi's death, Japan fell into more chaos when war broke out between Toyotomi supporters and the Tokugawa clan. Eventually, the Tokugawa clan lead by the patriarch of the clan, Ieyasu, and his son, the reigning Shogun of Japan, Hidetada, defeated the Toyotomi clan in 1614, destroyed the original Osaka castle, and ordered a new castle be built on the same grounds. The castle has a long and complex history but it was fascinating to learn a bit more about it.

Downtown Osaka Station at dusk where we had a quick walk through Panasonic Square. 

And just enough time to squeeze in another visit to a massive multilevel electronic store and walk down every single aisle...twice - before catching the last train out of Osaka back to our Kobe hotel for the night. 

Japan - Kobe

After a few wonderful days in Nara we took another bullet train to Kobe the fifth largest city in Japan and a beautiful cosmopolitan port city. 

Kingsley and my Mom had by this time become expert train travelers.  A little bit of bento box lunch and a quick nap and you have arrived before you know it.

For thousands of years the seaport at Kobe has been a major epicenter, regulating trade between Japan and China, Okinawa, and several other countries. Like Nara, Kobe at one point over 8 centuries ago was also the capital of Japan.

On Jan 17, 1995 a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Kobe, killing over 6,000 people and injuring tens of thousands more. Despite having lost over 100,000 homes and suffering structural road damage that made relief efforts nearly impossible, Kobe has revitalized itself. Visitors who aren’t familiar with the area would never guess that such a devastating event had occurred only a little over 10 years prior.

Kobe earthquake 1995

My family spent 4 years living in Kobe (1982-1986) and have many fond memories from our time there. After the earthquake we learned that our old home in Kobe had been destroyed and that our landlord had been trapped under the house for several days before being rescued.  Though we knew that the old house would no longer be there, we still wanted to walk through the neighborhood to take a look. 

This apartment building now stands where our old house in Kobe used to be. 

Me on the same street (28 years earlier) as the picture above.

Japan - Nara Kasuga Shrine Run

Kingsley and I were allegedly "training" for a half marathon/ 10K race while in Japan.  We actually only got in about 3 decent runs the entire trip but...we did try.  One of our most memorable runs was in Nara when we ran through the deer park to the Kasuga Grand Shrine.

Originally the royal shrine of the powerful Fujiwara family, Kasuga Grand Shrine was founded in 768 and, according to Shinto concepts of purity, was torn down and rebuilt every 20 years in its original form until 1863. Since virtually all empresses hailed from the Fujiwara family, Kasuga Shrine enjoyed a privileged status with the imperial family.

Our intention was to go for a brisk morning run but we kept stopping- drawn by the beautiful stone lanterns and the early morning mist that surrounded the temple. 

Nestled in the midst of verdant woods, Kasuga Taisha is approached via a long pathway of stone lanterns intended to give the visitor time to prepare for worship. The natural setting is a purposeful part of the sacred site, since Shinto is rooted in nature.

As we walked/ran along the path up to the shrine we came across an astounding 3,000 stone and bronze lanterns. These lanterns were donated over the years by common people as tokens of faith and thankfulness, and used to be lit every night.

Running back down through the deer park in the early morning, it was so peaceful and beautiful. 

Japan - Nara Food, Sake and Mochi

Before this trip to Japan, I had no idea that Nara Prefecture, which borders Osaka and Kyoto in western Japan, is known as the birthplace of sake. The longer we spent in Nara, I realized how much of a major significance it played in Japan’s history, Nara was even the capital from 710 to 784. During that time, there was a brewing department within the walls of the imperial palace in Nara. Sake back then, however, was a far cry from what it is today, and the Imperial Sake brewers focused their efforts for the most part on sake used in ceremonies and events. In fact, they produced upwards of a dozen different types of sake, some colored with ash of black, red or white hues, with varying degrees of alcohol content, mostly for use in ceremonies.  Not sure anything with ash added to it could taste very good but we certainly learned from the tea ceremony that it is not always about the flavor.

In any event sake has come a long way since then and it was fun to sample a few different local sakes with our newfound respect for Nara as the birthplace of sake, each sip linking us back to the history and culture of 600-odd years past.

Sake Tasting

This was one of our favorites

Love the plastic food in the shopfront windows. 

Kansai style okonomiyaki is prepared somewhat like a pancake, the batter is made of flour, grated yam, water/dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage. Also added on top are tempura flakes and pickled ginger. It usually contains other ingredients such as spring onions, meat, or seafood. Having attempted to make this at home before I can vouch for the fact that it is not an easy dish to perfect. Thankfully we were in the heart of okonomiyaki country and had an excellent meal!

Kingsley and I ordered the seafood and veggie teppanyaki (hot iron griddle used to cook the food at the table).  It was delicious!

I really really loved this umbrella but sadly it was too big to fit in my suitcase to take back to Singapore.

Amazing video of freshly made mochi (rice) cake dessert. 

Japan - Nara Deer Park and Great Buddah

Kingsley and I rented bikes (800 yen/day) for the day to explore Nara.  We had so much fun peddling along the tiny pedestrian street stopping along the way to visit a few of the beautiful gardens and temples and of course for me the major attraction was to feed the deer. 

Our bike route map. We rode from the bottom left corner (Matsumae Ryokan) of the map to the upper right (Todaiji temple). 

Another snapshot from my childhood. I remember loving the deer park but also being a tiny bit afraid of the deer.  The only thing that has changed 20 years later is the deer seem a little bit smaller!  

Feeding deer in Nara

Established in 1880, the park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered in Shinto to be messengers of the gods, Nara's nearly 1200 deer have become a symbol of the city and have been designated a natural treasure.

The deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be rather mischievous if they think you will feed them or are hiding food from them. One of the deer kept nibbling on my shirt when I was ignoring it to feed other deer.

Deer crackers are for sale around the park for about 150 yen for a pack of 10 crackers. Some deer have learned to bow to visitors asking to be fed which provided me hours of entertainment.

In the video below I am not sure who was more photographed the deer or myself! 

Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. The Kofukuji temple was built in 710 and was the family temple of the Fujiwara, the most powerful family clan. The wife of Fujiwara built the temple, wishing for her husband’s recovery from illness. The pagoda is the second tallest in Japan. At 50 meters, the five story pagoda is Japan's second tallest, just seven meters shorter than the five story pagoda at Kyoto's Toji temple.

Todaiji Temple in Nara is an awe-inspiring sight and in my opinion should be at the top of any sightseeing trip to Japan. The temple was built in 752 during the Nara period (710 – 794 AD) the name Todaiji means Great Eastern Temple, and it was built to be the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples in Japan.

Todaiji’s Daibutsuden Hall (Hall of the Great Buddha) is the largest wooden building in the world. It is truly impressive, but even more amazing is the fact that today it is only two-thirds the size of the original building. The current building dates from 1709 when it was rebuilt. The Great Buddha is one of the largest bronze figures in the world. It was originally cast in 746, and the present statue was recast during the Edo period. It stands at just over 16m high and contains 437 tons of bronze and 130kg of gold.