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Family Vacation part 2: Kyoto part 2

2010 January 24

Day 4
Nara isn’t technically in Kyoto, but it is only 30 minutes away by train, so we made a day trip to see some of the many sights in the central park area.

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The first thing you notice entering this area of Nara is the deer. In Shinto tradition, deer are messengers of the gods, so around shrines deer are sacred animals and are protected from harm. Nara has a large complex of temples, which means there’s a lot of land for the deer to wander, and they’re not at all shy around people. In fact, a tourist industry was created to sell rice crackers for feeding the deer, but you have to be careful that the deer don’t get pushy or start eating other things off you!

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Perhaps you remember photos of me with the deer at Miyajima. Miyajima is a sacred island, so the deer there are totally isolated and protected, and they can get really pushy. At Nara, there is the potential for deer to wander off onto unprotected land, so they’re (supposedly) a little more respectful. I kept my purse closed just in case.

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Nara’s centerpiece is the world’s largest wooden building, the temple of Toudaiji, containing the 50 foot-tall Giant Buddha.

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The building and the Buddha were originally constructed in the 700s(!); they have periodically been damaged by earthquakes, the most famous of which knocked the Buddha’s head off. It was replaced in 1692.

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The Buddha’s ear is eight feet long. Chances are this is taller than you by a good amount.

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This pillar has a hole through it about the size of the Buddha’s nose. Legend is that those who are able to pass through it will reach enlightenment quickly. Good for kids, bad for fat foreigners!

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One of the most beautiful manhole covers I collected on our trip was at Nara. I’m making a special gallery on Flickr if you’d like to see my collection so far.

Food-wise, we did well this day. For lunch, I got the family to try takoyaki – quickly-baked balls of dough with chunks of octopus inside, another favorite of mine. That evening, we went to a store that served only gyoza (Chinese dumplings) and then found a special parfait store in Kyoto’s Gion shopping district. They had every kind of gourmet parfait imaginable, and if you ordered a week in advance, you could get a birthday parfait worth over $100 to serve 6-8 people! Sam settled for a chocolate brownie parfait, and I got the Japanese special, which had ice cream flavors like soybean flour, black sesame, and sweet bean.

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Day 5
It was December 31st, and things were starting to close for the New Year’s holiday. I called Himeji castle and no sooner had I gotten out “Today…” in Japanese when they replied, “Yes, yes, we’re open! Please come!”

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Himeji is also not in Kyoto. It’s an hour away by shinkansen, just past Osaka, but with the JR passes we figured it was worth the trip. Himeji castle is supposed to be one of the best castles in Japan.

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It sure is quite a castle! Overlooking Himeji city and its port from the highest point in the area, the entrance to the castle is full of so many twists and turns and low doors that the invading army would certainly be confused, at least tired, before having to face the castle itself – six stories and full of trap doors and armaments.

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Koukouen Garden

Beside the castle is a beautiful Chinese-style garden, full of the attractive kind of koi. They still tried to kill each other over a rock that Sam threw in.

Day 6
New Year’s Eve is not a big party in Japan like it is in the US. Instead, the new year is literally rung in by every Buddhist temple, where the bells and gongs are rung 108 times to remind people of the 108 sins of mankind. Buddhism is definitely the somber side of Japanese religion. Shinto, on the other hand, is very lively, so the parents and I decided to do hatsumode (first pilgrimage of the new year) to Fushimi-Inari Taisha, one of the most famous Shinto shrines in all of Japan.

New Years in Fushimi-Inari Taisha

Located on Fushimi Mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto, it’s the central shrine for worship of the god/dess Inari, who brings good harvests and wealth. Fushimi-Inari Taisha’s most famous feature is its 10,000 red torii gates up and down the side of the mountain, each one dedicated by a business hoping to receive luck from Inari.

New Years in Fushimi-Inari Taisha

New Year’s Day at Fushimi-Inari Taisha was, as Mom described it, like Christmas and the county fair combined. The streets up to the temple were lined with vendors selling food and trinkets, and at the shrine complex itself hundreds of people lined up to purchase new omamori, make offerings, and ring bells.

New Years in Fushimi-Inari Taisha

The Japanese concept of religion is very different from the Western one. Buddhism and Shinto coexisted and played off of each other for so long that most Japanese people have accepted and integrated the two. Shinto is for celebrating life – festivals, births, special birthdays, weddings – and Buddhism is for the afterlife – for death and for funerals. Some people commit themselves to a particular temple or shrine or kami (Shinto god) or branch of Buddhism, but for the most part, people pick and choose what they want to do without taking it too seriously. Christian missionaries probably find it hard to work in Japan because this attitude is recently applied to Christianity as well. People tell me that some Japanese convert just to have a Western-style wedding, probably integrating some church and some holidays into their existing religious rotation. The saying I hear a lot is “Shinto for birth, Christian for wedding, Buddhist for death.”

New Years in Fushimi-Inari Taisha

At Fushimi-Inari Taisha, we made it up about half the mountain before we had to quit and turn back. The major achievement for the day was probably Mom getting caught on camera by a news crew. We saw the footage a week later on a game show when they were talking about how much Fushimi-Inari Taisha made in donations on New Year’s Day. Only a week in Japan, and my mother’s already famous!

New Years in Fushimi-Inari Taisha

Fushimi-Inari Taisha was definitely my favorite thing in Kyoto. I’m looking forward to going back and climbing to the top of the shrine.

Day 7
Lots of things were still closed for the New Year’s holiday, and swarms of people were still headed to the major shrines and temples for hatsumode, so we went to the older side of the Gion shopping street and looked around for omiyage.

Last Day in Kyoto

Japanese people have laughed about how, whenever they go anywhere on a trip, the first thing they do is look for a souvenir shop. It’s sort of the opposite of my family, who prefer to experience things and then send postcards. But Japan has an established concept of omiyage – an important present you bring to coworkers, friends, and family that represents where you were and prompts a conversation about your trip.

Kyoto To Yonago

The easiest and most popular sort of omiyage is the office- or group-oriented Japanese society is food, so wherever you go, you see large, beautifully wrapped boxes of individually wrapped sweets. These are easy to leave in the break room at your office or present to the person in charge of serving tea for your club, so that when snack time comes, everyone who indulges comes over to thank you and ask you about where you were. The sweets tend to be local delicacies – like buckwheat and glutinous rice soba mochi from Izumo – or representative of local attractions – the cookies with sea-life printed on them from Aquas aquarium in Hamada, or the maple leaf-shaped manju from Hiroshima. A junior high school friend of mine told me to look for Kyoto’s famous 八ツ橋 (“yatsuhashi”), which are soft rice cakes with sweet fillings made in the shape of Kyoto’s bridges. I was worried about them hardening before I could make it back to Hamada, though, so I bought a newer 八ツ橋 product – baked curved cookies – in the original cinnamon flavor as well as green tea and banana.

Gion Shopping District

The established omiyage culture in Japan presents a problem for me sometimes. For one, I have eleven schools, but I only see each once ever two weeks or so. When I go on a trip, I generally only bring back omiyage for my office, unless it was a long holiday and I’m headed straight to school the next day. (If it’s a long weekend, most people have been somewhere, since the Japanese take few personal holidays and have to take every public holiday as a chance to travel. Thus, long holidays mean lots of delicious omiyage at the office or in the staff room at school!) Also, I love treating my office and my schools to American foods, as a cultural experience – but other than candy, American food doesn’t come individually wrapped! Often my bringing food means the secretary or nurse has to find some scrap paper in order to dispense a little bit onto everyone’s desk. Not that this is a bad thing, though – when I brought Jelly Belly jelly beans to one of my schools, they had so much fun sorting the colors into little bags and deciding who was going to “challenge” the black bean. 😀

Leaving Kyoto
Our last day, we were helped out of our rented house by the caretaker, who was very nice about my Japanese ability and invited me back to Kyoto. 🙂 We bought lunch and snacks for the train in Kyoto station, where I scrambled to buy a Subway sub, since it’s one of the few places in Japan that serves turkey. Then we hopped on the shinkansen and headed for Chugoku.

The Rosenkrantz's on the Shinkansen

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Miriam Cohen permalink
    2010 January 26 4:18 am

    Mara, your account of the family trip and your descriptions of Japanese customs, etc., were utterly fascinating. Thank you for sharing these special experiences on your blog.
    We have enjoyed reading your blog this past year and we look forward to future stories and accounts of your experiences and learnings. We send our love.

  2. Sparks permalink
    2010 January 28 10:23 pm

    Go dad on that awesome last picture.

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