Walking up to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one could be forgiven for confusing the man-made wonder for a small mountain. Built in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th, and long forgotten afterwards under layers of ash and a thick growth of jungle, Borobudur could very well have looked even more like a mountain than it had to us before Dutch colonialists, intrigued by superstitious tales of ill-omened ruins deep in the wilds of the Indonesian island of Java, dug the temple out of its bushy overgrowth and revealed it once more to the world as the awe-inspiring structure that it was.
Having visited Prambanan, a nearby Hindu temple complex, the day before, we worried that our appreciation of Borobudur would be somehow diminished as a result. From afar, the temple, a dark gray blotch crowding the horizon, was impressive in size only, its shadowed figure standing in stark contrast to the vibrant greens of the grass and trees surrounding it. Up close though, it became a work of art with a myriad of details covering its different levels, which, like terraces, corralled up and out of sight towards its apex. The more we took it in, the more our worries of Borobudur being somehow dulled because of our time at Prambanan became laughable.
Unlike Prambanan, choosing how to experience Borobudur proved rather easy. While the former had a multitude of temples scattered about its grounds with no discernible way to view them apart from wandering around aimlessly, Borobudur consisted of just one temple, however massive, and just one suggested route for viewing it. The five-kilometer route, as old as the temple itself and just as important to its spirituality as the many carvings and statues covering its walls, consisted of circumscribing each level in a clockwise fashion until reaching the top; a journey meant to symbolize one’s worldly pursuit and ascent towards nirvana. Each level, we would discover later, represented a different stage in that pursuit: the lower levels representing the world of desires where one’s identity is tied to the things they want in life, which is, namely, life itself; the middle levels the world of forms where one no longer pursues desire but whose identity is still linked to their face and name; and the topmost level the formless world or nirvana where identity melts away into eternal nothingness.
As we ascended the temple level by level, we found ourselves unconsciously adhering to what each section represented. In the lower levels, the world of desires, we were greedy in our want to take in every detail. This turned out to be quite the pursuit as every inch of each level’s corridor was covered with reliefs depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as the glories of the kingdom that constructed Borobudur; to say nothing of the countless other statues and carvings that seemed humbly content with being one of the many minor and overlooked details of the temple, which, when taken as a whole, contributed flawlessly to its grandiosity.
Moving further up into the world of forms, we found ourselves resigned to fact that there were simply too many details to take in and became content instead with appreciating the temple as a whole, our attention often drifting from the reliefs and carvings that still ran alongside our path to the natural scenery outside the temple, whose beauty and expanse seemed to grow with each level.
To pass from section to section, it was necessary to walk through a doorway atop which sat a deity called Kala, who is said to represent time. As one ascends further towards the formless world, they must continuously grapple with the concept of time and their relationship with it. As you willingly give up desires and identity, you resign yourself to the impermanence of all things, an essential step in moving closer to nirvana.
Passing under our last Kala-capped doorway, our journey took us outside the boundaries of time altogether to the formless world, where the multitude of carvings fittingly gave way to vast open spaces void of detail save the stupa encased Buddha’s dotting the platform. The experience was transcendent. We knew nothing of the stories that the reliefs depicted and were oblivious to the meanings behind the other carvings and imagery of the temple until the writing of this blog, yet when standing atop the temple and looking out at the vast valley it sat in, we experienced an overwhelming state of calm and appreciation toward the greater world, a mindset that was fiercely challenged by the hordes of tourists surrounding us who had also achieved metaphorical nirvana.
Our blissful crash course in nirvana attainment came to an abrupt end as security guards ushered us out of the upper tier of Borobudur and back to the world of desires where, for the rest of the night, our only desire would be to return to the temple and experience it once more.
When confronted with the wonders of nature, it becomes not at all surprising that it took humankind a few millennia to supplant religion with science. For, when face to face with the restless oceans, bottomless caves and capricious volcanoes of the world, one would be hard pressed to convince someone that behind the scope and fury of the nature in question was not an all-powerful and vengeful god but merely a case of natural phenomenon. It was with this thought in mind that we gazed out at the lakes of Kelimutu, which over the years have taken on any number of colors, from red to blue to green to white to brown and even black. That the lakes were passageways to the spiritual world, a belief traditionally held by locals, seemed much more likely an explanation than the fact that their otherworldly color was a result of“oxidation-reduction chemical dynamics” due to the underlying volcanic activity.
To see the lakes we would be staying overnight in Moni, a small town on the eastern-side of the Indonesian island of Flores. Our homestay, unassuming in its simplicity, would end up being one of our favorite places to stay during our time on the island and the whole of Indonesia for that matter. This was due partly to its quiet and welcoming setting, but mostly to the owner who, laid back and reggae-loving, embodied Moni. Our short stay there was highlighted by a wonderful dinner he prepared for us, which, we were told, was made from ingredients that he himself either grew or sourced locally. What surprised and impressed us most about this was that it didn’t seem like a business scheme, something he tells visitors to brand his establishment as eco-friendly, but rather what he truly believed in. It was with deep regret then that we would only be staying for one night, if not for giving business to someone who truly deserved it, then at least not for being able to enjoy another delicious meal.
Early the next morning we enthusiastically got dressed in a manner befitting of someone going to see a sunrise, for under no other circumstance could we ever be excited or spry after a 4:00 alarm. Once at the foot of the volcano, the incandescent reach of our smartphone’s flashlight, accompanied by a cloud of swarming gnats, guided our way up the dark and overgrown steps that led to the craters. At the top, a small collection of fellow crater-lake admirers had already gathered along with coffee and snack hawkers who, crouched and unmoving as the wind whistled and whipped around them, looked permanent in their perches around the viewing platform.
To describe the lakes themselves, the suffix of -ish becomes necessary for restricting their appearance to just one color would be a disservice to their uniqueness. Amidst the lifeless terrain of grays, browns and dull and darkened greens, the lakes, a pastel shade of bluish-green that would have looked much more at home in a paint can rather than a volcano crater, practically glowed. The sky above, a marbled gray, offered little hope of seeing a sunrise, though one wouldn’t be necessary as the beauty of the lakes made it difficult to imagine our attention being given to anything else.
As we marveled at the phenomenon, any number of fantastical explanations seemed plausible to explain the lakes. To us, they called to mind the magical contents of a cauldron, otherworldly in color with wisps of fog coiling off of them and up into the sky, making it seem like the lakes themselves were the steaming contents of a witch’s brew. For the local people of Moni, they believed the lakes to be a final resting place for departed souls, one for the elderly, one for the young, and one for the evil souls of the world.
With a driver waiting to take us back to the homestay and a trip to the nearby city of Ende still on the day’s agenda, we decided to bid the lakes farewell, returning through the deadened landscape to our awaiting transport back to a reality significantly less enchanting than the one we had just experienced.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
A Kelimutu Fairytale
Long ago in ages past
The sky liquified
and poured itself into craters.
Now it lies,
whispering breaths of steam
that float and morph
among ribbons of breeze.
A piece of rock breaks away
from the wall and tumbles
into the depths.
Sulphuric toxins wrap
around the rough edges,
acidic fingers dissolving
it as it submerges.
The surface is still
Pulled from the pages
of Brothers Grimm,
The lake is an ethereal queen
with a witch inside.
Our experience of Tokyo was probably different from most others’. There were no trips up towering skyscrapers, walks through busy shopping districts, or even a viewing of sumo wrestling for that matter. In fact, before we had even come on the trip, we knew the bustling metropolis would be serving more as a base for us than a destination. Having just come from Shanghai, another one of the biggest cities in the world, we were more interested in the charms of a smaller city like Kyoto or the natural beauty of a place like Mt. Fuji. However, as we found out in our brief time there, Tokyo had a lot to offer outside of the typical sights of a city.
We technically had four days in the capital, but three of those consisted of trips to the train station in the morning and from it at night with an occasional meal thrown in. The only real time we had in the city was our last day there, a full one that ended with a train ride back to Osaka to catch our flight. Wanting to make the most of it, we got up early and set off to see the Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world.
When we got to the market, the condition of the morning–cold and early–gave us and the other tourists a zombie-like pace. Bundled bodies shuffling around each other in the maze of walkways inside the market gates. Our sluggish state was by no means shared by the workers though for, while our day was just beginning, theirs was coming to an end. They zoomed around us from every direction, weaving in and out of each other like a school of fish. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t the only thing they shared with their product.
The drastic difference in pace, to our surprise, never seemed to bother the workers outside of an occasional eye roll or deep sigh. Even when we would do foolish things like stop in inconvenient locations to look at a map, pausing for long moments to try and decode the nearly illegible mixture of lines and symbols, the bodies, forklifts and trolleys would just move around us. This held true for other tourists too, but it didn’t mean that we had a happy coexistence with the market for, while it allowed us into it, it in no way changed itself to become a tourist attraction other than the slew of sushi shops sitting at its gates. Because of this, the market’s relationship with us was more of toleration than accommodation, which made the experience all the more unique and exciting.
Little by little, our bodies thawed and we migrated towards the back of the market to see where the actual fish were sold. As we made our way out of the crowds and down a dark hallway littered with dusty machinery, bright lights in the distance assured us that we were going in the right direction and, when we reached them, we entered into a world of styrofoam and ice on which laid fish of every size and color. We had read before coming that the fish were for sale only to restaurants and bulk buyers so we were largely ignored during our time there which worked to our advantage as we were able to work our way through the labyrinthine market without being pounced on by eager vendors.
Among the bountiful variety of fish and seafood we saw lining the aisles of the market, some of the more interesting ones were: sea cucumbers, blowfish, octopi of every size (and sometimes just their tentacles), sea urchins, and tangles of crabs, most of which were still alive. Occasionally we would even come across remnants of the 4 a.m. tuna auction, giant fish heads laying on the ground whose bodies were most likely in the back of some van heading to a restaurant. Seeing all of this seafood, even the tuna heads strangely enough, reminded us of the other reason we had come to the market: to try the sushi, which we heard would be the freshest we would ever have.
Finding a restaurant to satisfy our appetite for sushi proved easy enough, the tricky part came in choosing which one to go to as each that we passed had a line snaking out of it so long it would make an anaconda blush. This, we figured, meant that they were all equally good and we randomly chose a restaurant with a green awning that sat at the market’s entrance. After getting in line we began to creep forward little by little but our steps were too infrequent for our liking. Nonetheless, we waited, our appetites borderline ravenous as we watched satisfied face after satisfied face leave the restaurant. After over an hour, we stood at the front door, next in line to go in and hardly able to contain ourselves as we peered through the steamy windows at the people enjoying their sushi inside.
Finally, our names were called and we smugly entered, abandoning the rest of the line-dwellers to their fate in the cold. As we sat down and took in our surroundings, we found out why our wait had been so long. The interior sat fewer than a dozen and the staff consisted of one waitress, who doubled as the cashier, and two sushi chefs. After settling in, the waitress brought us a mug of oolong tea and laid out a banana leaf before us which we knew would soon be decorated with the colorful variety of sushi we had just ordered. A bowl of shrimp head soup was added later and we filled up a dish of soy sauce in preparation. Now fully ready, we watched the chefs artistically prepare each of our rolls, slicing slivers of fish and adding pinches of wasabi to the balls of rice in their hands.
We had heard that the process of becoming a sushi chef was an arduous one, requiring years and years of training and experience before getting certified. While we initially questioned the necessity of this, as we slid the first salmon-capped roll into our mouths, we realized it was a process we were extremely grateful for. Eel, shrimp, squid, and tuna followed along with rolls of sea urchin and fish eggs. We meticulously chewed each bite, wanting to savor each new flavor and texture we were experiencing. As we did this, the sushi, so carefully prepared, practically melted in our mouths. We’d had sushi many times before, but this felt like we were trying it for the first time–a kind of born again sushi enthusiast.
After savoring our last piece and knowing that there were people waiting anxiously outside, we paid our bill and left the restaurant to a barrage of jealous stares from the faces in line. After the fish market, we debated where to go next. We had wanted to see a few more places before leaving, but after pulling out our map, we realized how poor our planning had been and just how drastically we had underestimated the size of Tokyo. For some reason we expected temples, museums, gardens, and shopping districts all to be clumped together conveniently in one place. Apparently, the zoning commissioners of the ancient city didn’t have tourism in mind when they laid it out.
With the sights we wanted to see in different corners of the city, we realized that we would only have time to visit one and decided on the oldest temple in Tokyo: Sensoji. As we got off the subway and walked up to it’s iconic front gate, we wondered if we were going to see a temple at all. Crowds and noise exploded out of the entrance, making for a very un-templelike atmosphere, but exciting nonetheless. Eager to see what the commotion was about, we maneuvered through the people and entered the gate, passing under the giant red lantern that hung from its ceiling. As we did this, the path we were walking on became lined with rows of souvenir shops and food vendors which both eventually led to the temple itself. Looking off into the distance was like looking down a hallway with the mass of heads serving as the floor, the store fronts as the walls and the sky as the ceiling.
Wanting to reach a less claustrophobic space, we made our way down the path to the second gate, which looked strikingly similar to the first, and passed through it into an open plaza. The smell of incense filled the air and we gazed around, taking in the different features of the temple. A pagoda jutting out from the landscape, the main temple with a mob of people filing in and out, the Tokyo Sky Tree off in the distance, and, one of the more unique features, giant sandals mounted on the wall of the gate.
It was bittersweet walking around the grounds knowing that this would be our last experience of Japan outside of the interior of train cars and airports. With this in mind, we made sure to enjoy the temple to its fullest, which reduced our pace to a slow contemplative meander. Minutes turned into hours and, as the lights and lamps slowly started to flicker on around the temple, we knew the moment we had dreaded had finally come. Despite only spending a week in the country, we had grown attached to it. We were aware of course that we were experiencing everything through the all-too biased tourist goggles, where everything is new and wonderful, but we’ve been many places before and this one felt different.
Perhaps the feeling could best be summed up in one of our very last experiences in Japan. After getting a train back to Osaka late that night, we discovered that the subway trains and city buses going to the airport were no longer running. So, with no place to stay and both of us being too stubborn to pay for a taxi, we decided to just wander around the city. At about 3 a.m., after getting some coffee at a gas station, we went back to the bus stop to sit and wait for the 3:30 bus. As we sat and sipped our coffees, an old street sweeper came by and began making his rounds. After sweeping for a short while, he saw us sitting there, came over, and proceeded to carry out a conversation with the handful of English he knew. After a few minutes of exhausting his arsenal, he gave a friendly wave and went on sweeping down the street. Even at 3 a.m., in an unfamiliar city outside in the cold, we still felt comfortable. For us, more than the sights and tastes, this was Japan.
The journey to Jigokudani from Tokyo was long but enjoyable and ended as our bus rolled up a snowy hillside and came to a stop outside a small wooden shelter. The bus driver began shouting some things to the passengers and we listened attentively to the string of Japanese that ended with “snow monkeys” in broken English. At the sound of this we stood up along with everyone else and shuffled out into the cold. After looking clueless for a few moments, we were lazily pointed in the direction of the park and anxiously began making our way further up the hillside, following the signs with little pictures of smiling monkeys on them to guide us. The signs eventually led us to a steep set of stairs towered over by a big banner adorned with pictures of bathing monkeys, our official welcome to the park.
Despite the icy state of the stairs, we opted to forego the crampons being sold at the foot in the hope that our boots would be sufficient enough to carry us up. Luckily, the hill was short and a rope laid alongside the stairs, both of which served to our advantage in getting up it easily without the traction of the crampons…frugality had won out this time. Once at the top of the hill, we were met with a scene out of a Christmas greeting card. The path, now long and flat, wound into a thick forest of cedar trees, whose branches still carried the burden of the latest snowfall, some of which would occasionally fall on our heads, creating the illusion of a blizzard.
It was exciting seeing snow again after nearly two years without it. Our enjoyment of it was aided by nostalgia and the fact that it was the kind of snow depicted in the movies, white and pure, a far cry from the gray, sloppy reality of a Midwestern winter. Without fail, snowballs were made and trees (and occasionally each other) were targeted as we slowly made our way along the path. After meandering for about 30 minutes, the forest cleared out into a valley whose edges we would zig-zag up to continue our hike through the park.
As we walked along, little by little, we would start to notice more people on the path. A person here. A family there. Some were on their way back from the park, parents clutching children who were excitedly recalling what they had both just seen. By that time, the trees and snow had become old news and our pace quickened in anticipation of what we knew was so near. Finally, we came to an area where a small crowd of people were huddled under a tree. As we followed their gazes up it, we got our first sight of the macaque monkeys that gave the park its fame.
As excited as we were to see it sitting perched in the tree, our attention was quickly diverted because another monkey would brush our leg, or walk by on the railing beside us. Everywhere we looked there were monkeys and as interested as we were in them, they couldn’t have cared less about us. An obstacle in their everyday life. If the rice that they snacked on wasn’t thrown from human hands, who knows if we would have been tolerated at all. For our sake though, we were, and not only that but able to interact with them in a way we had never been able to with wild animals before.
Determined not to overstep our boundaries though, we kept our distance, appreciating the monkeys from afar while on the lookout for the onsen, a Japanese hot spring, where the monkeys famously bathed. We only had to look as far as the crowd of people mushrooming out from a steaming cluster of rocks in the distance to know where to go.
Walking up to the onsen was like walking through the TV screen into a National Geographic special. All around the hot spring, monkeys lounged around in different states of indulgence. Some partook in gluttony, lapping up water and picking bugs, others in sloth, sitting on the rocks surrounding the water and soaking in the steam. Perhaps the smartest and most blissful looking of all though were the ones physically in the pool, most of them with their eyes closed, tuning out the world around them. Having just been to an onsen ourselves the night before, we felt a bit like voyeurs gazing in. This feeling wouldn’t last long however as the smell of monkey feces carried to our nostrils by the hot spring’s steam put an end to any trace of jealousy we were feeling.
Occasionally, a monkey would grow tired of the hot spring and climb out, fur soaked and steaming, and make its way through the crowd, which consisted of a slew of paparazzi, cameras ready and hanging on their every movement. Each time a monkey would do this, or anything that resembled exertion, a chorus of oohs and ahhs would accompany it. Despite this and our constant crowding around them, blocking their paths, and shoving cameras in their faces, the monkeys, for the most part, kept to themselves, scoffing at the attention being showered down on them.
This wasn’t always the case though, as Kate found out first hand what happens when the line of tolerance is crossed. Leaning in to take a picture of one particular monkey whose privacy had apparently been invaded too much that day, Kate was swiped at by the monkey who then proceeded to jump on to her and climb up her leg. As this happened, those around her were much more concerned in extending their camera lenses than a helping hand, leaving Kate to fend for herself. Luckily though, the monkey’s efforts to retrieve the camera were abandoned rather quickly as it lost interest and moved on to its next endeavor.
Taking the hint, we moved on from the hot springs, following the river that flowed alongside it to a more open area where the simian-sapien ratio wasn’t as human heavy. Among the abundance of monkeys lounging along the banks, we chose to sit by three who were picking bugs out of each other’s fur. Shortly after we sat down, the monkeys heads shot up and they and nearly all of the other ones around them began hurrying over to the hot springs. Curious to find the cause of commotion, we followed the migration to a group of park rangers throwing a dinner of rice grains into the hot springs and surrounding snow banks. The bugs, we supposed, had been their appetizer.
Oddly enough, as we watched the monkeys forage though the snow and water in search of the rice we were reminded of our own hunger and decided to bid farewell to our newfound friends, making our way back through the forest and down the hillside until finally reaching the bus stop to take us back to Tokyo.
It wasn’t a matter of if but how. Long before itineraries were made or hostels booked, we knew that our trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a visit to it’s iconic centerpiece: Mt. Fuji. We had read of train rides that ran by the mountain, offering spectacular views, and of a base camp near its foot where climbers journeying to the peak began their trek, but neither of these had the experience of Mt. Fuji that we were looking for. We craved more than a glimpse from a train car and certainly had no intention of doing any climbing in the dead of winter. Instead, we wanted a place to quietly contemplate it from afar and we found this in Hakone, a small town perched on the shores of Lake Ashi.
Upon arriving in Hakone, we couldn’t help but notice the unmistakeable lake-town vibe it had. The small buildings scattered across the landscape, clear blue skies, cool, crisp air blowing in off the lake, and, perhaps best of all after having just been in Tokyo, a slow and quiet lifestyle. Anxious to take part in the latter, we found a bench near the lake to enjoy a picnic and take in the scenery, which, apart from the beautiful view of Lake Ashi, gave us our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji. From that angle though, it was just a sliver of white peeking out from the surrounding hills.
Eager for a full view, we began working our way around the lake. Along our walk, we went through a centuries-old cedar forest, which, despite being alongside one of the busier roads in the town, was incredibly peaceful. As we passed through the forest, massive trunk after massive trunk sat perfectly aligned along the curves of the road. Tall and straight, they looked almost like ancient Roman columns, only rather than holding up giant marble roofs, these appeared to hold up the sky.
Before coming on the trip we had read about the “shyness” of Mt. Fuji and how it’s often obscured by clouds, but, as we emerged from the forest, the reality of our first full view of the mountain couldn’t have been further from this. The peak, nearly perfectly symmetrical, was as clear and detailed to us being miles away as the hills just a few hundred yards away. It was so clear in fact that we could see the veins of black that coursed through the snow capping the peak. The whiteness of it clashing beautifully with the expanse of blue sky.
Even though the scenery wasn’t going anywhere, we decided that we would have to sit for a while to take it all in and fully appreciate the beauty of it. So, we chose a spot along the lake, which was perfect because, apart from Mt. Fuji in the distance and the lake itself, there were plenty of other things to look at. Small, humble hills dotted the shores of the lake, worn rowboats bobbed on the water, and a lone orange torii gate sat partially submerged in the lake. It was like looking out at a painting. An entire story preserved in one scene.
After nearly an hour of looking out at the view, the first deterrence from the stillness of the scene before us came when a large ship sailed across the water towards a small port out of our view. This was our signal to move on as riding on the ship to the other side of the lake was one of the activities we had been looking forward to doing in the town.
So, we made our way to the port and boarded the ship, which, for some reason, resembled a pirate ship right down to the elaborately dressed captain walking around the docks taking pictures with people. The ride on the boat, while extremely cold and windy, was enjoyable and gave us a different perspective of the lake and Mt. Fuji. After about a 30-minute ride, we got off on the other side of the lake where we discovered that the cable car we had planned to take to the top of one of the hills was partially closed due to volcanic activity. Curious as to how far we were allowed to go and what scenery awaited us there, we took the cable car as far up as they would allow us, which was worth it because along the way we got a uniquely spectacular view of Mt. Fuji.
With little to do around the cable car station itself and running out of daylight, we decided to start making our way back to the train station, taking the cable car back down the hill and boarding the ship to take us back across the lake. Somehow, with just an hour or so separating us from our last ride, the trip was exponentially colder and windier, making it more a trip of endurance than enjoyment.
Back on solid ground, we began retracing our steps back to the station. Once back, the setting sun announced it was time to return to Tokyo, but our watches, which only read 6:00, told us otherwise. Determined not to be fooled into an early departure by the premature dusk, we began our search for an onsen, a natural hot spring popular in the hotels and resorts around Hakone.
Because of their popularity, we only had to venture across the river that ran alongside the station to find one. Never having gone to an onsen before, we were clueless as to what to expect, though we anticipated something similar to an outdoor hot tub; however, the experience was so much more than that, being an almost ritualistic experience where there were clear rules and guidelines about what to do and how to act.
The first of these guidelines was that bathing suits weren’t allowed so, naturally, the second one was that we had to go our separate ways. Despite being in different areas for the entirety of our time there, we later found that our onsen experience was pretty similar. As we entered the changing rooms, our first order of business was to remove our clothes. Piece by piece, we removed each article as reluctantly as in a game of strip poker. As we did this, we noticed that we seemed to be the only ones with inhibitions about public nudity as naked children ran around the room followed by equally naked octogenarians.
Being clear outliers in our uneasiness, we quickly dropped it and headed to the indoor pool, the next step in the process that culminated in the outdoor hot springs. Before getting into the steaming water, we had to first stop at a bathing station where we showered our bodies and hair while sitting on a short stool. After our bath, and a quick dip in the indoor pool, we were finally able to head outside into the freezing cold and slide into the onsen’s soothing water. The experience was purely natural, down to the stone interior of the pools, the wooden huts standing over them, and the bamboo forest surrounding it. We laid our heads back, closed our eyes and enjoyed every minute of it.
Unfortunately though, the minutes faded away as quickly as the steam into the frigid nighttime air and, after an hour and half of pure relaxation, we decided it was time to go. As we entered the changing room, we put on our clothes as reluctantly as we had taken them off, headed back to the train station, and boarded our train for Tokyo.
The lines leading up to the opening subway doors were neat and orderly and, after all the departing passengers had left, we patiently filed into the car, making our way to one of the many plush red velvet seats available to us. As we nestled ourselves in to the seats, which also happened to be heated, and lazily gazed around the car, it became very clear that we weren’t in China anymore. Sure the faces looked the same and the buzz of a big city was still ringing in our ears, but there were also sounds of birds and wildlife being played over the subway speaker system. This was Kyoto, it was different, and we liked it.
Our home base for the trip was Khaosan Kyoto Guesthouse, which was tucked away in an alley just off of one of the main shopping streets in the city. We arrived late in the afternoon so, wanting to make the most of the little time we had in a city of 2,000 temples, we made a brief stop to drop off our bags before heading off to the Arashiyama district in the outskirts of the city.
After arriving in the district, we wondered if we had gone to the right place. Temples, bamboo forests and monkeys were the attraction, but as we exited the subway station, our eyes were met instead with a surrounding of tree-blanketed hills roller-coastering their way around the skyline and a clear, gentle river running in between. Unsure of where to go, we decided to follow the scattered clusters of people meandering towards a bridge that crossed to a small town just over the river. As we crossed the bridge, the tranquil atmosphere that accompanied the walk up to it soon disappeared into a bustling one as we entered the enclave of one and two story buildings. The streets buzzed with tourists scrambling to try the wide array of new things awaiting them (which were many) ranging from fried seafood on a stick to rickshaw rides.
We decided to save the commotion for later and settled on a buffet which was a unique experience unto itself. The buffet featured an assortment of bite-size dishes that included everything from steamed pumpkin to fried potatoes to pieces of colorful tofu molded into little flowers, with all of it being served up in small baskets placed around the room. Our plates, large and square with nine separate sections indented into them, were ingeniously designed to accommodate the bountiful selection before us. We were allotted 60 minutes for the buffet but, despite our valiant efforts to fill each of the minutes as fully as we had each of the sections of our plate, our stomachs waved the white flag at just 45 minutes and we decided to leave early. In need of a good walk after this, we headed to Tenryu-ji, one of the main temples in the area.
Before coming to Japan a student had asked Ryan why he was going through all the hassle of going to another country to see temples and mountains when he could see both of those right in China. The answer to that became clear as we entered the temple. It undoubtedly shared many similarities with temples we had seen in China, but there were just enough differences to make it feel like we were touring a temple for the first time. Many of the buildings’ roofs were not tiled, as they are in China, but thatched, the walls were paper, and the gardens designed to an aesthetic uniformity. So much so in fact that as we walked through them we felt as if we were walking through a miniature set where each tree and bush had been placed exactly where they were meant to be by giant hands from above.
The grounds of this temple were small however and we soon found ourselves at the exit, which conveniently sat at the entrance of the sight that we had traveled to the area to see: the bamboo forest. In the pictures we had seen of it before the trip, each one appeared to be dipped in green with the only deterrence from the different shades of the hue being the brown dirt path running down the middle. But, as we walked up to the forest, the dim light of the late afternoon gave it a more ominous feel than the bright colors we had seen in the pictures. The only sunlight that made it into the forest shined down in slivers that had managed to slip through the thick canopy of leaves sitting on top of the stalks. This, and the cool air we felt as we entered the forest, gave it an eerie feeling. As we walked down the dirt path further into the endless stretch of bamboo stalks, the strange feeling that accompanied our entrance quickly became one of fascination as we took in row after row of thick bamboo trunks shooting up into the sky. To take everything in, we walked back and forth through the forest several times before leaving for good and crossing the river again to head back to our hostel.
Our second day started early as we wanted to beat the crowds to our first destination: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, one of the most visited sights in the city. As we entered the grounds though, we were disappointed to find hordes of tour groups wandering about, rendering our efforts of early arrival moot. Eager for a view of picturesque gardens rather than a sea of like-colored hats, we maneuvered our way through the crowd, finally coming to a stop at the edge of a small pond where we had a beautiful sweeping view of the temple’s scenery. Dominating the view was the appropriately named Golden Pavilion, which warranted the crowds moving around it with its completely gold exterior which was duplicated almost perfectly in the mirror-like reflection in the pond below.
As our trip to Japan was in early February, the landscapes we saw were not filled with cherry blossom trees or the rich foliage of autumn, but rather the bareness of winter. Though this couldn’t compare with what we imagined the other scenes to be, it still had its own beauty and the colors that did exist were more striking amidst the dull browns and whites of the trees. Of these colors, that of the moss blanketing the surrounding hillsides stuck out the most, taking on an almost lime green shade as the sunlight reflected off of it.
As we made our way around the grounds we noticed a group of students eyeing us intently and soon after their professor approached us wanting to know if we’d be willing to answer a few of their questions for a school project. This would be the first of many encounters with students looking to complete their school work, with most of them being scripted and very few of them being based in any sort of interest in what we had to say. Regardless, they were sweet and we had fun talking with them.
After Kinkaku-ji, we grabbed a bite to eat around our next stop, Nijo Castle. The food at the restaurant wasn’t anything special, but the experience we had there was. Upon entering, instead of a waitress taking orders, we went to a vending machine, chose a picture of what meal we wanted, slipped a bill into the machine, and took the two tickets that popped out. Tickets in hand, we sat down and gave them to the waitress who brought our food out shortly after. It’s funny how what’s the most mundane of tasks for some people can be so exotic for others.
With full stomachs, we headed to the castle, which was different from any concept of a castle we had ever known apart from the moat that surrounded it. Rather than tall spires reaching into the sky, the structure stretched outward with curve-tipped eaves. Inside the walls, the many rooms contained minimal furniture or decorations, making it difficult to imagine a luxurious royal lifestyle ever taking place there. The one exception to the humble interior design was the beautiful murals adorning the walls of the different rooms, with each scene being different from the next. Of all those that we saw, the one that stuck out to us the most was of tigers lounging under a shade tree. What made them unique was that the paintings weren’t based on any first-hand knowledge of tigers by the artists, but rather of descriptions they had heard through stories. Because of this, the tigers took on a stocky, muscular look, slightly different from the sleek versions that we are familiar with.
The aesthetics of simplicity didn’t just stop with the visuals though, the air in the castle halls was still and cool, the smell clean, and the sound, aside from the soft murmurs of visitors in the distance, consisted of only the creaking of the wooden floors. This, as we found out, was no accident as the creaking was designed to make sure that any intruder looking to off an imperial would not be able to do so quietly. Because of the bird-like sound of the creaking that accompanied each step, the floorboards were dubbed “nightingale floors.”
After the castle, we made our way to Kiyomizu-dera, a temple whose crowded, bustling atmosphere was a world apart from the peaceful one we had just visited. The temple was perched atop a hill and to get to it we had to walk up a crowded street full of vendors. The atmosphere, which would have triggered a fit of hair pulling in Shanghai, was comparatively charming being on vacation and we strolled up the hill to reach the temple’s main pagoda. The first thing that caught our eye as we approached it was the white and orange adorning the exterior of the different buildings which seemed to glow in the light of the setting sun.
As we explored the different corners of the grounds, we came across what we thought to be one of the more unique parts of the temple: the “Love Walk.” As legend has it, if you can walk from one of the small rocks marking the start of the path to the other at the end with your eyes closed, you have found your true love. The area, naturally, was populated by packs of giddy teens who we pushed through to partake in the testament of love. Ryan, who went first, quickly and confidently made it from one stone to the other. Kate however, veered off course rather quickly and ended far away from either stone.
With our future together now in question, we decided to move on. The rest of our time in the temple was spent wandering around the grounds, taking in views of the city slowly darkening below and the landscape obscured by twilight. As street lamps slowly flickered on around us, we decided to move on and begin our hunt for dinner.
Our search took us to a restaurant where they made a dish called issen-yosyoku, which could best be described as Japanese tacos, and the only dish they served. We took this, along with the fact that the restaurant was packed, to mean that the mad concoction of ingredients we watched the cooks stuff into the tacos was worth trying. After nibbling at first, unsure of the questionable combination of ingredients, we were happy to find that our assumptions of deliciousness were correct and we devoured the tacos.
Our last day in Kyoto started as the previous one had, with some yogurt, muesli and a cup of coffee in our hostel’s common room, though the feeling was much different as we knew that we would soon be leaving one of the most comfortable and beautiful cities we had ever visited. Anxious to make the most of the time left to us before our train left for Tokyo, we headed to the Shinto shrine of Fushimi-Inari, one of the sites we had been looking forward to seeing the most.
After going basically from temple to temple over the course of the past two days, we were worried that the all-too-familiar temple fatigue (the point when the sights and sounds of different temples start to bleed together into one, losing their allure) would set in and diminish our appreciation of the place. This worry was quickly replaced by one of excitement though as we walked up an alleyway to the temple through a haze of odorous smoke emanating from the various fried food vendors lining it. After somehow managing to elude the temptation to try one of the many delicious-looking treats, we emerged from the alley and were met with the first of what would be thousands of orange torii gates, the unignorable symbol of the temple that lined the surrounding hillsides in an endless fashion.
As we began to explore the grounds more it was hard for us to imagine the temple as a place of worship for some as any sign of tranquility was lost amidst the mob of tourists weaving in and out of each other. For us it was exciting but a meditating monk might think otherwise. One thing we noticed in our exploration was the various statues of foxes scattered around the grounds and sitting in front of the different shrines and buildings the way lions do in China. We later learned that the foxes represent messengers to Inari, the god of grain and business. This helped give some context to the torii gates too, as each one was individually donated to the shrine as an offering to Inari for good fortune in their financial endeavors.
Before entering the maze of torii gates that began where the temple grounds transitioned into forest, we stopped off at a mouth-rinsing station where we used a large bamboo ladle to rinse out the inside of our mouths as was custom for visitors to the temple. Because sincerity is a fundamental aspect of Shintoism, the mouth-rinsing represented a purification of the heart.
With clean mouths (and hearts!), we entered the stretch of gates which made for a kind of hallway that would serve as our guide up and eventually back down the hillside. The gates were packed together pretty tightly so as we walked through them, it created an illusion of walking down an orange painted tunnel that extended as far as the curves of the hillside would allow. At some points, where the stretch ahead of us was flat, the gates created a miniature hallway effect, where the people walking by us would gradually shrink as they walked on, eventually disappearing into the tiny square of light waiting at the end.
We walked on and on, waiting for a break in the gates, but it rarely came and when it did, it was brief. Some of the gaps included small shrines with the familiar fox statues adorning them, an area with tiny huts that families could reserve and go to to make offerings, and, of most use to us, large maps that always reminded us that we had not walked nearly as far as we thought we had.
After walking for an hour and a half, we realized that at least another hour of climbing awaited us before reaching the hill’s summit. So, with our departure to Tokyo looming ever closer and one more temple to visit on our list, we reluctantly decided to turn around and begin our descent. After winding back down the mountain and emerging from the gates to the main temple grounds again, we succumbed to the array of fried foods that had tempted us on the way in. As we examined the food more closely, we realized that our choices were basically a variation of either meat on a stick or seafood on a stick. We tried both, which were equally delicious, along with some of the dessert options and then made our way to our last stop in Kyoto: Nanzen-ji.
The temple, quiet and secluded, offered us a nice retreat from the crowds of Fushimi-Inari and a peaceful end to our tour of the city. Walking up to the temple, we were met with a massive 500-year-old gate that was unrestored, a rarity in Asia we’ve found, as most temples we come across are restorations due to their wooden nature. Another feature of the temple that we had been looking forward to seeing was the aqueduct running alongside it, which looked very European and seemed out of place in the Japanese landscape. The temple, nearly void of tourists, was fairly free range and we were able to climb up on top of the aqueduct and walk along it through the forest ahead. Looking to avoid a mad dash to the train station that seems to be a trademark of all of our trips, we didn’t walk too far or for that matter spend too much time at the temple. After leaving, we grabbed our bags from the hostel and boarded our train for the nation’s capital.
Our time in Kyoto was far too short but, despite barely grazing the surface of the abundance of sights and culture packed into the metropolis, undoubtedly one of the more enjoyable experiences we’ve had in our travels.