Golden Week 2014

For Golden Week this year, I headed back to Osaka and Kyoto, where I’d spent four days with my family two years ago, this time with Helen in tow who was visiting for the first time. In the end, it turned out cheaper flying to Kansai airport than going by shinkansen, even if the time in all was about the same, so we spent our first few days in Osaka.

The first night in Osaka was wet and miserable, and we didn’t feel up to much more than just popping to Dotonbori-dori for a bite to eat. Walking past all the massive crabs on the walls, luring people into the seafood restaurants, we found a cool little restaurant with what seemed to be a wild west theme called Bikkuri Donki (translated as the ‘Surprised Donkey’, not sure on the connection!) selling the hamburg steak and rice you can find in many places around Japan.

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Thankfully, the weather was much better the next day and we could get some sightseeing done. We made a return visit to Osaka castle – I’ve read Shogun since my last visit in 2012 and so had slightly more idea on the history and therefore relevance of some of the sieges that they were banging on about inside – and Shitenno-ji temple, officially the oldest officially administrated temple in Japan dating originally back to the 590s.

In the afternoon, we headed over to Osaka aquarium, one of the largest aquaria in the world, which had some nice fish in it. Amongst the nice fish were hammerhead and whale sharks, many manta rays, some lovely penguins and even possibly some dolphins. I think my favourite part of most aquariums is the jellyfish with the cool displays thereof, and Osaka certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect.

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Time however was ticking on, so the next day we pressed on with a half an hour train ride to Nara, to revisit the deer park and the world’s largest wooden building (before 1998 when a bigger one was built in America). As a little something new, we also visited Horyu-ji temple, whose pagoda is “widely acknowledged to be one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world” according to Wikipedia. It looked pretty similar to all the other pagodas and shrines in the area – to be honest they all start looking the same after a while – but being of significant cultural value it’s recognised by UNESCO and so has made it onto my list of visited sites.

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Most of the other temples in Nara are also UNESCO recognised, but the biggy (until 1998 at least) is Todai-ji which holds the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha (seemingly every statue of the Buddha we visit is the world’s biggest or best in some category, it’s ridiculous!). Todai-ji is located in the middle of Nara park, and deer roam freely all over the place inside the grounds. There are many vendors of senbei, or deer food, dotted around, and Helen made us buy some to feed the animals.

It was another scorching day, so by then we’d decided to call it a day and head on to our main stop on the tour, Kyoto. In Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan-style hotel, which meant we had a tatami floor and slept on futons. We also had semi-traditional shoji doors (I say semi traditional, in that they weren’t covered by paper, causing a security issue, but were sliding doors filled with frosted glass). They might as well have been paper doors for the amount of hassle it took to lock the door each time we left, it took a full minute of jiggling in the lock every time to open or close it!

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My previous visit to Kyoto was squeezed into a day, as I didn’t have much time and didn’t know if I would ever return. Thankfully this time we’d made sure it would be much more relaxed, as we had four nights booked so could walk around the place more leisurely, rather than the rush it was before.

Over the four days, we visited the Golden and Silver temples and Kiyomizu-dera for a second time, but also branched off and visited many places I didn’t have the chance to see before. One such place that had been recommended by one of my students was Arashiyama, a ten minute train ride to the east of the city, which has a famous bridge and a walk through a forest of huge bamboo trees, and was very impressive. We hired a boat on the river, and had a nice row (not an argument) enjoying the beautiful weather and the gorgeous scenery.

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Back in Kyoto, we also visited Fushimi-inari shrine, possibly the most famous shrine in Kyoto after the Golden temple, the one with all the red torii gates. The temple is on the side of a big hill, and walking to the top took about an hour and led to a really anticlimactic gift shop; the wonder, however, is walking through the thousands of gates that line the paths, each donated at a grand price by a company for good luck in business. It was really something quite special.

In the centre of Kyoto is Nijo-jo, the castle of the Shogun just across the road from the Emperor’s palace. The castle famously has a ‘nightingale’ floor, so named because it was designed to squeak like a bird whenever anyone walked on it so that the occupants would never be caught unaware by stealthy intruders or assassins. It was pretty impressive, even though it would have been even more so had it had any form of furniture in it to give an impression of how it would have looked when it was in use. As it was, there were wide open spaces of tatami floor with some nice paintings on the wall, but it was hard to visualise what actually went on there.

We had originally planned to stop in at Himeji on the way back to get our flight from Osaka, but it’s been under construction for the last 3 years and although technically that may be finished, they’re taking their sweet time in taking the scaffolding down so we decided against making that particular detour. Instead, we headed north east to Japan’s biggest lake, Biwa-ko, and the town on Otsu, only about 15 minutes from Kyoto station. By this time, our luck with the weather had passed and it was a little grey and drab, so we didn’t stay for too long, but we had a look at the southernmost point of the lake before heading in to escape the impending rain. As the rain continued, we thought it best to head straight back to Osaka before flying back to Narita in the morning.

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