Posts from the ‘Japan’ category

Zen and the Art of Painting a Pavilion in Gold Leaf

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

An early start for us all this Monday as we begin our final day in Japan, on board the local bus (and still under the watchful eye of our local expert Leah) to the Golden Pavilion, just north of Kyoto. Kyoto Buses announce stops (and include signs) in English as well as Japanese, which makes them a reliable option for navigating this beautiful city.

The Golden Pavilion complex dates back to the end of the 14th Century, the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu converted on his death into a Zen temple. No prizes for guessing the origin of its name – the top two levels of the Golden Pavilion are completely covered by gold leaf.

Two levels of gold leaf!

The Golden Pavilion and Lake. Photo by David Sanz, CC License

Absorbing the view across the lake as the early morning light strikes the gold makes it clear why this is the favourite option for many tourists wondering what to do in Kyoto.

Entry to the Golden Pavilion, and the nearby hojo (priest’s living quarters) is not permitted, but look closely across the lake and you can admire the statues revealed inside the ground floor, including one of Yoshimitsu himself who would be impressed at the dedication Kyoto has shown to the pavilion – it’s been rebuilt at least 3 times, with the current structure dating to 1955.

Ryoan-ji Japanese Rock Garden. Photo by Ryosuke Yagi, CC License

Ryoan-ji Japanese Rock Garden. Photo by Ryosuke Yagi, CC License

Bus number 59 takes us from right outside the Golden Pavilion to our next destination, the Zen garden in the Ryoanji Temple. You may be familiar with Japanese rock gardens – Ryoanji is perhaps the most famous example of Zen rock garden design. In addition to the innumerable small stones, there are 15 large rocks in the design (though the specific meaning is unclear after 650 years). If relaxing the mind is not your idea of fun Kyoto travel, then take up this challenge: can you find the spot where all 15 large rocks can be seen? (Here are some photos – answer in ‘Want to Go? Need to Know!’ below)

The only way to see all 15 stones

Viewing from the air is cheating! Model Photo by Kimon Berlin, CC License

At Ryoanji, the hojo (and the adjacent Kuri – kitchen) are accessible, as are hours-worth of walking trails around the pond. These are best experienced in Spring, however, so we make a beeline for the restaurant Ryoanji Yudofuya and enjoy an early lunch of yudofu (Kyoto’s specialty boiled tofu) among the tatami screens.

Classic Yum!

Ryoanji Yudofuya. Photo by Herry Lawford, CC License

Next, we’re on the tram from Ryoanji to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. The sunlight dapples through the immense bamboo, and even in the middle of the day on the narrower paths there is more greenery than sunshine.

On the train ride back to Kyoto station, Leah shares that one the favourite things to do in Kyoto is an afternoon spent on these bamboo paths until completely running out of sunlight (followed, of course, by dinner in Gion trying to see a geisha).

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Photo by Curt Smith, CC License

What to do in Kyoto? Bamboo

More bamboo than sky! Photo by CLF, CC License

Bamboo and Sunlight

Some sunlight, just. Photo by hslo, CC License

But our time in Kyoto must end before the day runs out, as we take the 2.20pm bus to Kansai International Airport ahead of an evening flight from Osaka to our next daydream holiday destination – Mexico City! Prepare to say sayonara one last time, and practice your Hola for when we touch down!

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Leah, our local expert from, is “completely torn” about deciding what to do in Kyoto given the limits of our 4 day trip. If we had another day, the plan would be to spend the whole day exploring the Higashiyama district – done well you can knock over Kiyomuzudera, Yasaka Jinga, Maruyama Park and Chionin.
  • Bus passes are an easy way to travel Kyoto – grab a ‘Bus Navi‘ from the information centre – or you can walk some of the legs. Ryonaji is only a 25 minute walk from the Golden Pavilion, for example.
  • Looking for a website to help you learn more about what to do in Kyoto? Check out Japan-Guide (their links to the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji, and Arashiyama)
  • Want the answer to our Ryoanji riddle? It’s actually a trick question – it is not possible to see all 15 rocks from one viewpoint. So if you find the kids (or another tourist) are getting all up in your Zen, set them the challenge and enjoy the quiet.
  • We cross the international dateline on our flight – so while 15 hours with United is the longest flight we’ve yet done on our dream holiday, we actually depart on Monday at 6.20pm and land on Monday at 7.03pm. I’ve never seen so many movies in just 43 minutes!

Still wondering what to do in Kyoto? Or want to share your favourite moment from our Japanese daydream holiday? Wed love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

From Glico Neon to Geisha Style: The beautiful madness of Japan

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

The hardest part about early morning international flights is often the cold, yet somehow just the thought of leaving Harbin makes us feel warmer. Our flight with China Southern (not heard of them? They’re actually the 4th largest airline in the world!) lands in Osaka, Japan just after midday.

Now, “lands in Osaka” is somewhat misleading – Kansai International Airport is actually an artificial island inside Osaka Bay. Completed in 1994, engineers excavated 21 million cubic metres (27 million cubic yards) of soil from three separate mountains to create this international hub. (And they did a fantastic job – it’s already survived an earthquake and a typhoon.)

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Japan can be an overwhelming destination if you don’t come prepared. Thankfully, we’re under the watchful eye of Leah, a tours and activities expert for, and a former resident of this enticing archipelago. Minutes later, we on the airport train ‘Nankai Limited Express’ for the 45 minutes (7 stop) trip to Nipponbashi.

Better know by its local name ‘Den Den Town’, Nipponbashi is like 1980s Japan on steroids. Every electronic need you may have can be met here (and feel free to bargain with the vendors), and with districts shifting from gadgets to anime and eventually fashion, Den Den Town can be seen as a cultural immersion first and a shopping opportunity second.

Of course, Japan’s cultural heritage owes more to the samurai than to manga. Leah navigates us onto the subway for the six minute journey from Namba Station to Tanimachi (changing at Honmachi half way through). It’s Osaka, not Tokyo, so we don’t have to be squeezed into the carriages by guards.

We come back into daylight in the metaphorical shadow of Osaka Castle. From this location Hideyoshi Toyotomi unified Japan, but when the Shogunate later moved to Tokyo the region lost power – the original main tower was destroyed along with the Toyotomi family in the Summer War of Osaka in 1615. The current main tower may be twentieth century, but the artefacts and emotional history it displays are far older; so too are the immense gardens (106 Hectares / 250 acres of them) which boast cherry blossoms and 95 kinds of apricot flowers in the spring, while the highlight of our winter wander is the Great Stone Wall on the inner moat.

The brooding Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle and the Great Stone Wall. Photo by Joop Dorresteijn, CC Licensed.

Evening calls, so we head back to Dotonbori for food and neon wonderment. This is not Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, as the Glico Running Man (“a postwar symbol of Japan emerging as an economic power”, says Leah) indicates. We could walk for hours taking in the neon signs of Ebisubashi and the madness of Dotonbori Arcade, powered only by takoyaki octopus balls (or maybe a stop at one of the many izakaya, where good and drink are often served in equal quantities).

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba. Photo by yeowatzup. CC License.

But our mind turns to Saturday. An hour east of Osaka by train, Nara is the cradle of Japanese civilisation and home to the UNESCO listed Todai-ji complex. We’ve seen some overwhelming temples on our everydaydream holiday so far – but nothing prepares us for the 500 tonne, 15 metre high ‘Big Buddha’.

Daibutsu, Naro

That is a big buddha. Photo by David Offf, CC License.

You can look closely and observe the combination of periods that make up the Daibutsu – a head from the Edo period, while the hands are much older, all housed in a 300 year old hall that until 1998 was the world’s largest wooden building. If you do observe changes forced by earthquakes and fires, then be mindful of this quote from the Buddha himself:

When I was a young man, near the beginning of my life, I looked around with true mindfulness and saw that all things are subject to decay. Thus all things are subject to death, sorrow and suffering. I became aware that I too was of the same nature, the nature of beginning and end.

Too much spirituality? Then go and enjoy watching the Sika Deer which freely roam the temple gardens, before we take another train journey north to Kyoto. Once here, we head for dinner in the Gion – Kyoto’s main restaurant, shopping … and geisha (geiko, in the local dialect) hub.

An authentic geisha experience is exclusive, no dream holiday or wallet size will gain you access to the Ichiriki Ochaya, for example. While a tourist geisha experience is now an option, the thought of paying a premium to eat and watch in a tourist trap is the antithesis of our everydaydream holiday. So instead, we wander down Shirakawa Canal, select a restaurant full of locals, and enjoy some genuine Japanese cuisine (while also keeping an eye on the street for any geisha who may walk past).

See a Geisha in Kyoto

Please – if you see a Geisha in Kyoto, be respectful. Photo by This Particular Greg, CC License

Sunday dawns with a promise of comfortable shoes and quality photo equipment. We head two stations back towards Nara for the amazing 4 kilometre (6 mile) meander around Fushimi Inari. The only photographic subject more Japanese than cherry blossom has to be the red gates, and today we will see hundreds of them – large and small, isolated, and built together to created shaded paths that lead to the various shrines on this site.

Red gate Fushimi Inari

One Red Gate. Photo by Daa Nell, CC License

Many red gates Fushimi Inari

MANY Red Gates! Photo by SteFou, CC License

What an amazing weekend in Japan … and we still have Monday to see more!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Japan’s rail and subway infrastructure is superb – and clearly colour coded, even if you can’t read kanji or kana.
  • A quick rule of thumb – you can divide Yen by 100 (just remove the last two zeroes, so 3000 becomes 30) to give you an approximate amount in US Dollars. The exchange rate isn’t quite that bad (unless you buy currency at the airport!), but you try dividing everything by 89!
  • Shinto and Buddhism are the two most common religions in Japan, although (by western comparison) both are more ‘harmonious ways of living’ than an orthodox dogma.
  • Here’s a link to a collection of real Buddha quotes – but if you’re looking for laughs, go to the home page and explore their fake Buddha quotes!
  • Want a glimpse inside the madness of Osaka (and Leah)? Enjoy this personal video she took on her most recent trip to Japan (when she wasn’t dragging around hundreds of everydaydreamers).

Which part of Japan’s diverse culture interests you the most? What would you like us to do in Kyoto on Monday? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.