Sunday, February 21, 2016

Japan - Part 2

After spending two days at the Jigokudani ryokan and onsen Amy and I loaded our packs and headed to Takayama. There was a fresh blanket of snow covering the countryside, leaving us with breathtaking views as we relaxed on the train.

Our first destination in the Takayama region was the historic village of Shirakawa-go. Known for its alpine A-framed houses with thick thatched roofs, the UNESCO World Heritage Site receives some of the heaviest snowfall in Japan. We were lucky that we only had to contend with a light dusting of snow.

The village is beautiful and some of the houses are open to the public. The internal framing of the house roofs is far more complex than one would imagine. The roofs can flex and shift with the extreme weight of the snow.

What is our posh German Shepard friend staring at? Only the best thing that one can cram into their face in this area... the Hida beef potato cake! Everyone has heard of Kobe and Wagyu beef, but the premium Hida beef is not as well known. It is, however, just as delicious. And as good as it is when served as a fillet if you mince it and serve it inside a creamy fried potato... well then it's just magic.

After leaving Shirakawa-go, we headed back to Takayama. While its city limits cover an area nearly the size of Tokyo, the city itself is very small and easily walkable. And like Nikko, there are walking paths connecting most of the temples in the area.

Walking the temples of Takayama was one of my favorite experiences on the trip. Every turn revealed a new beautiful, peaceful spot. Many of the shrines were decorated with origami sculptures that looked as if they were paper plants growing leaves the shape of cranes.

We continued walking the temple trail next day. There was a light snow falling, and the city was quiet.

Two days in Takayama disappeared like the melting snow, and we suddenly found ourselves on a bus to Kyoto.

Kyoto, which translates to "Capital City", was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years. It is one of the few major cities in Japan that retains a great number of traditional buildings. Once a primary target for the nuclear bomb during World War II, it was removed from the list and was spared from nuclear bombing and much of the conventional bombing. Because of this, Kyoto has some of the finest temples and shrines in the country.

Though it is possible to find older women dawning the traditional fashions, it is much more likely that the person in the kimono is a tourist in a rental outfit. We actually saw this throughout the country, and though not authentic, if you squint and blur your vision just enough, you get a feeling of what it must have been like 200 hundred years ago.

The best way to see the temples of Kyoto is to stroll along the Philosophers Walk. This path follows a cherry-tree-lined canal that meanders past many of Kyoto's most famous temples and shrines. The path is named after Nishida Kitaro, founder of the Kyoto University School of Philosophy. His daily ritual of meditation included walking this route while contemplating the meaning of nothingness.

On the opposite side of Kyoto, you will find the temple of Adashino Nenbutsu-Ji. This temple contains over 8,000 statuettes of buddha that act as memorials for the dead. I hope that one day we will be able to return to here to experience the Sento Kuyo ceremony where thousands of candles are lit to honor the spirits of the dead.

Our last stop in Kyoto is one the most famous buildings in Japan. Kinkaku-Ji, or the Golden Pavilion, is aptly named since the structure is almost entirely covered in gold leaf. Surrounded by a beautifully landscaped garden, Kinkaku-Ji simply does not seem real. It is a fantasy come to life, a painting that has left the canvas.

Our time in Kyoto ended with our time in 2015. We spent New Year's Eve at a nearby temple eating food, burning prayer sticks and welcoming 2016, the Year of the Fire Monkey!

On New Year's Day, we made our way from Kyoto to the ancient capital of Japan, Nara. Although Nara was once an important political seat, in modern times it is best known for its deer. The deer in the city have been regarded as heavenly animals ever since the mythical god Takemikazuchi arrived in the city riding one. The sika deer are seen as protectors of the city, and because of this, they roam free... everywhere!

Our final stop in Japan was Osaka. The second largest city in Japan, and also a historical capital of the country, it is now considered to be the "Nations Kitchen". This can clearly be seen in the Dōtonbori district, one of the major tourist fairways of the city. Restaurants don enormous, intricate, and wacky signs trying to persuade the passing tourists to give their menu a try.

Our trip to Japan was truly epic. But, as with all great places, we've only scratched the surface of what Japan has to offer, so I look forward to our next adventure there!

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