Kyoto: The Land of Dreams (part 2)

While Kyoto itself is a wonderful place, it probably doesn’t have everything you desire. Luckily for you, Kyoto is located in the heart of the Kansai area of Japan. A short train ride can take you to one of many places of interest. Whether you want to continue your dive into history and culture in another previous capital of Japan, Nara, or you want a night out in the big city, Osaka, it is all easily accessible.

Walking around Nara

On my first trip to Kyoto, I took my obligatory trip to Nara. Nara was the capital of Japan between 710-784A.D. It’ll take you under an hour by train to reach Nara from Kyoto. Nara is a small, sleepy city. Once you find your way to Nara Park, though, things start to get interesting. All around the park, you’ll find roaming deer. You can buy food to feed them. Once they notice you have food, they’ll bow to ask you for it. From there venture on to Todai Temple, with the famous Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in Japan and one of the largest in the world. The temple dates back to somewhere around 728A.D. and the entrance is massive.

Entrance to Todai Temple

Make your way to the Daibutsuden, the Great Buddha Hall. There it’ll be immediately obvious why this is the largest wooden building in the world. It towers over you. In the early history of Japanese buddhism, this temple was the administrative center for six different schools of buddhism.

Great Buddha Hall

Head on inside of the Great Buddha Hall, passing the ever-creepy Buddha of Medicine and Healing statue. Seriously, it’s creepy.

Buddha of healing and medicine

Inside is the Daibutsu. Having been to Thailand and other buddhist countries claiming to have large buddha statues, this one is a bit underwhelming. The most interesting part is just walking around the hall and noticing how truly old this building is. The fact that it is made out of wood probably increases the effect, nevertheless it just feels old.

Exit the temple and continue your stroll around Nara park taking in the various temples and other age-old structures that please the eye. While walking through Kyoto presents a mix of old and new everywhere you go, walking through Nara park just feels old. You feel as if you have transported back in time. If you close your eyes, you can imagine the nobility and common people making their way from meetings and other tasks in beautifully clad Kimono.

Random Nara Temple Goodness

Back to my current trip. I still had a few days left on my Seishun-juhachi ticket, so I needed to use them somehow. I can’t think of a much better example of two cities so opposite, yet right next to one another than Kyoto and Osaka. If Kyoto is where you rest and seek out Japanese historical culture, then Osaka is where you go to shop, party and walk among the neons lights typical of a modern day Japan.

Osaka had been on my itinerary before, but I hadn’t the time to visit. This time, with a bit more time and a lot of curiosity, I decided to make the trip. The main attraction I wanted to explore was Osaka Castle. As most of the cherry blossoms had bloomed at this point, it provided a perfect opportunity to check out the castle and the surrounding park.

Osaka Castle

While Kyoto maxes out around 1.5million people, Osaka has closer to 3 million people. While Kyoto is packed with temples, Osaka is dominated by skyscrapers. While Kyoto sleeps early, Osaka is just waking after the sun sets. Osaka is a funky city with cool people. The Japanese drive on the left side of the road (opposite to America). When you get on an escalator in Japan, people stand on the left side and walk on the right side. Not in Osaka. Here they stand on the right and walk on the left. And while escalator-walking-side preference may not seem like a big deal, it is just a general reflection of the Osaka attitude compared with the rest of Japan.

So I made the 30 minute journey from Kyoto to Osaka and quickly grabbed the train to Osaka Castle. Construction on Osaka Castle started in the late 16th century and was completed just before the turn of the century. The Osaka played a large role in the reunification of Japan during the 16th century. Today it is one of Japan’s most famous castles and an iconic symbol of the city of Osaka.

Osaka Castle by Night

The park surrounding the castle is massive, coming in at just over one square kilometer. The Castle is relatively simple to access via the JR rail. Once you hop off the train, you immediate decend into the castle park. It takes about 20 minutes to come to the actual castle complex, which is somewhat small once you have walked around the park.

Upon entering the castle, there is a museum highlighting the history of the castle and focusing heavily on the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his son, Toyotomi Hideyori (careful, the names are almost identical except for the last syllable). As I have mentioned before, most museums bore me. However, I was actually quiet keen on this one. It had a lot of information about the different conquests and problems of the Toyotomi era. It also touched on one of the first occupations of Korea.

When you leave the castle, just make sure you come back out on the same side you entered, otherwise you might be looking at an hour walk or so back to the rail station. I learned this the hard way.

The massive outside of the castle

There isn’t much else I was interested in seeing during my stay in Osaka, besides it was getting late and I had one more location on my agenda before I headed back to Kyoto for the evening.

Keihanshin is the name of the Japanese metropolitan area encompassing the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. All three of these cities should ring familiar in your head (if nothing else, you should know Kyoto and Osaka from reading this wonderful blog). The aforementioned area has a population spiking somewhere around 18 million people over 11,000 square kilometers. It’s Japan’s second most populated area housing about 15% of the population.

Kobe will probably stick out in your mind for one reason: Kobe beef. That’s why it stands out in my mind and the only reason I was headed that way. Although I was on a backpacker’s budget, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try it at least once and find out what the hype is all about.

Kobe is just a short ride from Osaka and since I was already half way there, I ventured out a little father to Kobe. I had researched a place on the internet which had good beef at a fairly reasonable price. Night had fallen and the weather was surprisingly cold compared to Kyoto. I only had a light jacket on me while I was attempting to find this hidden restaurant on some random Japanese backstreet. I was freezing, half-blinded by all the neon lights, and about to head home when I spotted it just down a small side street.

Kobe Beef Restaurant

I wasn’t dressed well, but luckily it seemed to be a casual place. I took my seat at what was similar to a bar with a hibachi style grill taking the place of a normal marble countertop. I made my selection from the menu and watched as the chef brought out my dinner and prepared it.

Now there are not a lot of reasons where I am happy to claim I’m from Texas, but when it comes to steak, Texas has some of the best. I have loved steak from the time I was little. My birthday dinners many years running where located at one of many steakhouses. I have had some very good steaks and also some very bad steaks in my life. The meat that was served to me in this Kobe steakhouse was without a doubt the best I have ever eaten. It was tender, extremely flavorful and very much melt-in-your-mouth-able. I can still taste it as I write this blog.

My total bill came to somewhere around 6,000yen if I remember correctly, which is about $77 US at the current exchange rate. And I will tell you with complete honesty, it was worth every yen of it. After my delicious meal, I headed back to Kyoto to sleep it off. Sweet dreams of beef danced in my head all night.

Since my first visit to Nara was sans cherry blossoms, I contemplated heading back that way for a cherry blossom filled visit. I was visiting a friend in a local bar when one of the barstaff directed me to another location farther south of Nara, where the cherry blossoms were supposed to more beautiful and more famous.

My destination was Yoshino-yama, Mount Yoshino, in the southern part of the Nara prefecture. I figured I would just hop on a train from Kyoto main station heading south and find my way to Yoshino. As it turns out, this is not the best idea in Japan. I ended up having to change trains and try to navigate signs with little or no English on them.

I eventually stopped at Yamatotakada station and ended up missing the next train I was supposed to take because I wasn’t sure if it was the correct train. I checked the schedule and it would be an hour before the next train would arrive. Fine. I was hungry anyway, so I just slipped out into this little city and grabbed a nice bowl of Gyu-don (beef bowl with rice). After lunch, I decided to take a stroll in the city because I had seen a sign saying something about cherry blossoms.

Cherry Blossom Walkway

This is where I stumbled across an accidental paradise. Out of all the cherry blossoms I saw while in Japan this year, this place was absolutely the most beautiful. Accidental discoveries while traveling can reap the best rewards. I walked along the river for a little while before returning to the train station to catch the next leg of my train. If the cherry blossoms where this beautiful here, I couldn’t imagine how beautiful my final destination would be.

Yoshino-yama

I arrived at Mount Yoshino late in the afternoon. I checked to see when the last train back to Kyoto would depart and headed off to make my way up the mountain. The mountain was indeed beautiful, however, many of the cherry blossoms had yet to bloom. I can only imagine that this had to do with it being slightly colder on the mountain than down closer to sea level. I was also bothered a lot by the touristy feel of the mountain. There were shops and restaurants lining all the streets. While this may be what some people want while exploring nature, it absolutely wasn’t what I was looking for.

Commercialism on Yoshino-yama

Still, I caught a couple amazing views from the mountain and enjoyed a bit of the mountain air before I headed back down to catch the train. I wish that I had stayed in the Yamatotakada area longer to enjoy that area, but, without the luxury of predicting the future, I had no way of knowing that Mount Yoshino would be slightly disappointing.

Yoshino-yama

So the biggest lesson I learned from this portion of my trip is to take all travel advice lightly. Not everyone enjoys the same scene or can predict what you will enjoy the most. After completing my final day trip, I only had one more thing to do before flying out of Japan and on to my next destination: The Hanami Picnic…..

To be concluded in part three of – Kyoto: The Land of Dreams

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