In beautiful Kyoto: Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari

If you could live in any foreign city for a year, which one would it be? For me, it would have to be Kyoto.

The first time I got to set foot in this Japanese city, I was smitten. Centuries-old heritage sites, picturesque tree-lined paths, charming alleys lined by traditional wooden houses, idyllic-looking neighborhoods–every turn seemed to reveal something old and beautiful. The former imperial capital also sits close to nature, surrounded by many mountains, but like other Japanese cities, it maintains the usual modern trappings (all you need to do is arrive in Kyoto Station to see it). And while it can get crowded during spring and autumn, Kyoto still possesses a relaxed atmosphere, a calm murmur compared to a frenetic throb of a metropolis like Tokyo.

On our fourth day in Japan, in our trip last month, we took the train out of Osaka to spend the entire Saturday in Kyoto. The two places we didn’t get to see the first time we went there were the Fushimi Inari shrine and the Arashiyama area, both places that do nothing to diminish Kyoto’s reputation as one of the most culturally-rich cities in the country.

Dreamy Arashiyama

Dreamy bamboo grove in Arashiyama

Arashiyama area (or Sagano) is a charming district that lies at the base of Kyoto’s western mountains. The charm sets in the minute you get off the Hankyu Kyoto Line and go out of the Hankyu Arashiyama Station. It’s a small town train station and when you get out, the streets are pretty quiet and empty except for the throngs of tourists such as yourself spilling out of the station. There’s a tree-lined avenue to the side, which you take on foot or with a bike to lead you to a small bridge.  After you cross the bridge, you face a riverside park covered in pebbles. (So wear comfy walking shoes and not heels as I saw some tourists were wearing. Eeep!)

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Where people worship

I’ve always loved visiting churches, temples, shrines and other places where people worship. When you’re traveling, it can give you a glimpse into the place’s history or culture.  You see what people hold dear, what they believe in, what customs and traditions they have upheld through the centuries.

In the Philippines, Catholicism is the predominant religion. Three centuries of being a Spanish colony can do that to a country. Based on historical accounts, the province of Cebu is where one of the rulers of the country first converted to Christianity together with his subjects. It’s also where the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño is located, believed to have been the oldest church in the country (until the original structure was destroyed in a fire in the 16th century) and its site is where the oldest Catholic image of the Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus) was found from the 1521 Magellan expedition. That’s a lot of Catholic history. So when we went to Cebu, P and I visited the Basilica.

The atmosphere outside the church is just like any other large Catholic church in the country, bustling with activity outside and quiet and somber inside the church. A devotee praying on her knees was moving towards the altar. People were lighting candles. There was a room filled with statues of different saints and a few stood in front of them, whispering their prayers, dropping donations in boxes. All familiar rituals.

Basílica Minore del Santo Niño in Cebu

In Japan, visits to its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples revealed rituals I was curious to understand. With majority of Japanese subscribing to Buddhism and Shinto, temples and shrines are their places of worship.

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The Cheapskate’s Guide to Tokyo (or at least how I did it)

A couple of weeks ago, I got messages from friends who are planning to go to Japan to catch the cherry blossoms in bloom next year. One of their concerns (as it was mine) was keeping the expenses down. I wrote about seeing Kyoto on a budget for in-flight magazine, Smile, last July, and I thought it would be good idea to list down some ideas to keep costs down in Tokyo while still seeing a lot of what that huge metropolitan city has to offer. So here’s another entry, my gift to my Japan-bound friends–minus my long Japan travel tales of Days 1 to 10. 🙂

Explore the streets. No better way to witness the pulse of the Japanese capital than walk its busy (as well as its quiet) streets where you can be among the ultra-fashionable, the throngs of salarymen, or fellow tourists in awe of Tokyo. To minimize transportation costs, it’s best to explore the city per area. The extensive metro rail of the city has stops for most of the popular spots in Tokyo, anyway. And bring your most comfortable shoes!  (There were days though when I did succumb to “vanity over comfort” mentality with a pair of boots that just looked nicer. Tsk, tsk.)

Heading down Takeshita-dori. Hello, crowd.

1. Harajuku. Head down Takeshita Dori, which is just across the JR Yamanote line exit of Harajuku Station. Walk down this narrow street lined with trendy boutiques, shops where cosplayers likely shop, a 100 yen store, some restaurants and a lot of crepe stalls. Check it our during a Sunday to see Japanese teens get all dressed up. Walk further south and you’ll end up in Omotesando, where the crowd is past their adolescence and has a different kind of style–less costumey, more chic.

Akihabara in the afternoon. An even better sight in the evening!

2. Akihabara. Tokyo’s Electric Town and ground zero for geekery with all the manga and toy stores, gadgets galore, and maid cafes to gawk at. You can get out of the JR Akihabara exit and start checking out the stores from there. (Here is the very detailed Akihabara map we were given on our walking tour. Here is another one from Tokyo Tourism that might be helpful. They have 53 Ways to Explore Tokyo on Foot; most tourist spots are in areas A, B, C, and D.)

Pedestrians waiting for the green light at the Shibuya Crossing

3. Shibuya. Where you can find the tourist-draw of a crossing, that little Hachiko statue, sharply dressed young Japanese women (makes you feel you want to go back to your inn and put on something nicer) and so many department stores for a consumerist high.

An alley in the Golden Gai in Shinjuku–one of the most interesting night spots in Tokyo

4. Shinjuku. Where skyscrapers, more department stores, and night spots, including a red-light district, abound. Must check out the alleys and pubs of the Golden Gai, though a visit in one of the bars will set you back a cover charge or admission fee between Y700 to Y2000. (FYI: To fellow Pinoys, there is a bar nearby called Champion Bar and it is co-owned by a Filipino and frequented by Pinoys working in Tokyo. Our friend pointed it out to us, but we didn’t get a chance to go inside.) You can also just head to one of the big chain stores, like Takashimaya (with a large Tokyu Hands branch inside), Isetan (must stop for the basement food hall), or Yodobashi to drool over electronics.

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Tokyo, Day 9: The day we didn’t go to Ghibli Museum

On the ninth day, we had originally planned to head over to the Ghibli Museum. We knew you have to book months ahead if you plan to go during the peak tourist season, which was when we were going. Purchase of the tickets can only be done at certain travel agencies in certain countries—the Philippines not included. This meant we had to ask someone in Japan to buy our tickets in a Lawson’s convenience store. So we did. Two months before we arrived. But by the time our friend headed over to Lawson’s to get the tickets, the only ones available were for sometime in May. My Studio Ghibli dreams were crushed. (But check out this one blogger who got to go.) Oh, but there remained a silver lining. We were still in Japan and it was a free day without anything planned. (Pardon the low-res photos, my net connection sucks so these are easier to upload.)

Bandai mothership calling

P had originally wanted to see the life-sized Gundam statue that was erected in Odaiba a year before. But it had been moved out of Tokyo and into Shizuoka. So when he spotted the Bandai logo on top of a building as we were about to cross the blue bridge over Sumida River, it was like the mother ship calling out to him. I have friends who’ve gone to Paris and who headed to the Eiffel Tower just by keeping it in its sight. (Not a recommended thing to do.) This is how we ended up across the street from what looked like the Bandai office building, where statues of Bandai characters lined the sidewalk—including Ultraman and Kamen Rider. P had a nerdgasm. We took an embarrassing amount of photos before going inside, where toys and more Bandai characters were in display on the ground floor.

 

Kamen Rider equals nerdgasm for P

Hello, Ultraman

My favorite sight inside the Bandai building--it's the sergeant!

Keroro toys, hmmm.

Of course we had to go inside. (Too bad you can't take pictures inside)

When we got out, it started raining. We were hungry and I was still craving for tapsilog (which is a Filipino breakfast consisting of tapa or cured salty beef, sinangag or fried rice and pritong itlog or sunny side-up egg) or any –silog for the matter. I didn’t want tea, miso soup, beef bowl, ramen or onigiri that morning. Without a Filipino restaurant in sight, we ended up in McDonald’s.

Then with our one-day Metro card (bundled with the limousine bus ticket we bought in Narita the day we arrived) and our JR Pass, we took the Ginza line from Asakusa to Ueno, then from Ueno we took the JR line to Harajuku. Yes, we were creatures of habit and Harajuku seemed to be a pretty straightforward and manageable area to explore for the day as Meiji-Jingu and Yoyogi Park were also just short walking distance from the station exit. (I just promised P we were not going to set foot in crowded Takeshita-dori again.)

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Tokyo to Kyoto, Day 5: In slumber and snow (and a bullet train in between)

Shibuya Crossing on a quiet and rainy Monday morning

Our shinkansen ride to Kyoto was scheduled a few minutes past noon, but we left C’s apartment early. From Sangen-jaya, we had to go to the Shibuya train station to take the Yamanote line to Shinagawa station, where we would take the shinkansen. We wanted to have more than enough time to find Shinagawa and we also thought it would be a good idea to kill some time exploring Shibuya. After stashing our luggage in one of the lockers in the station by eight am, we headed out. (There are only a few station lockers for big pieces of luggage so if you want to grab a hold of one, be there early.)

Outside the Hachiko Exit of Shibuya Station

There was the statue of Hachiko outside the Shibuya station exit named after the loyal Akita dog, all by its lonesome, minus the constant hordes of people who have made it a popular meeting spot. The Shibuya Crossing on that cold, rainy Monday morning seemed reluctant to come to life without the multitude of pedestrians. Its blinking video screens and neon lights still in slumber. It was like our first glimpse of Tokyo from the airport. As we walked the streets of Shibuya, the entire district, which is crammed with many department stores and little boutiques, seemed to be in no hurry to wake up. There was not much activity save for a camera crew shooting a group of dancing girls for what looked like a commercial. When we spotted an open gyudon restaurant an hour later, we ducked into it for some breakfast.

One of the reliable eateries for thrifty travelers in Japan are the gyudon-ya, which serves the popular donburi dish of gyudon (rice topped with beef and onion), along with some pork variations (butadon and tondon) and salmon for around ¥500. You either pay for it at the counter or via vending machine by the restaurant’s entrance. The vending machines often don’t have an English menu so you have to rely on the photos (though it’s sometimes hard to tell the beef and pork bowls apart). The gyudon typically comes with the Japanese set meal staples of miso soup, pickled vegetables, and hot tea.

In our entire trip to Japan, the gyudon has always been a dependable and satisfying meal, so we were surprised when less than three hours later, we were seated in one of the restaurants inside Shinagawa station having another meal. We still had an hour before our train arrived so we decided to explore the station. It was filled with stalls selling bento boxes, an udon place filled with salarymen hunched over their bowls of noodles, a restaurant serving “homemade curry” as it claimed on its doorway, and a bunch of other eateries that made us crave to have an early lunch.

Hello, shinkansen!

At 12:10 pm, the shinkansen Hikari line we were to board for Kyoto pulled up in front of the platform in all its sleek, steel gorgeousness…as much as a train can be gorgeous. (Or, judging from my past entries, I could be biased for everything Japanese.) Via the shinkansen, the 460-plus kilometer distance between two cities is covered in a little over two hours. (Taking the bus would have taken it around eight hours.) I felt like I was going on vacation from a vacation—from the rapid pace of Tokyo that can leave anyone breathless (I’m sure my itinerary didn’t help) to a slower and historically-rich Japan of surreal golden temples, well-preserved castles, and Zen gardens. I was going to get a taste of traditional Japan and my mouth was watering.

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