A few days ago, I published the first part of my article about Japan. I originally intended to put my full impressions in a single article, but it became too big. For the good of the readers, it was clear it had to be split in parts, each roughly the size of a Between Life and Games review or a little above. This is Part 2, I hope you enjoy it.
All pictures in this article have been taken by me and my wife. You can click on them to see them in bigger size.
On the 3rd day, it was time to move away from Tokyo, and visit the wonderful mountain town of Nikko (日光), home to many beautiful shrines and temples. Buddhism and shinto are quite intertwined in Japan, which is why at most places you’ll see their temples very close together. Nevertheless, to get to Nikko, we had to take the train out of Tokyo for the first time. Using the Tobu line from Asakusa station (a Tokyo town pretty close to Ueno), we passed through some beautiful scenery before arriving to our destination, a nice, small town, in stark contrast with the madness in Tokyo.
I marvelled at Nikko’s beauty, as we walked along the main road, towards the temple area. While obviously a tourist attraction, it has retained a lot of the Japanese spirit from ages past. And the atmosphere is always different, purer in these mountain towns, no matter where in the world you are. It was drizzling, but we had put our rain jackets on, and all was well. Soon enough, we reached a statue of Shodo (勝道), the Buddhist priest who founded Nikko, according to legend. Before that, there was a river, and a marvellous black and red wooden bridge going over it. The saying goes that the gods made the bridge by intertwining a black and a red snake, after Shodo asked them for a way to cross the river.
After a climb through the forest, filled with the cries of the cicadas we had only heard in anime, but would soon grow so accustomed to, we were in an area with shrines and temples, and lots of people, tourists from all over Japan, who had come to visit – it was a Saturday, so they’d made fine use of the non-working day by visiting one of the country’s biggest attractions. The biggest temple was actually undergoing restoration – and when the Japanese restore something, they make a great effort to be 1:1 with the original. Thus, we saw the interesting wooden, nailless constructions used. Wood is prevalent in Japanese old-times architecture, and many of the finest temples and castles have been lost multiple times due to fires (and, of course, reconstructed soon after).
For the first time, we came head to head with the souvenir shops which are ALWAYS, without fault, found at or near bigger temples throughout Japan. There were also shrine maidens in typical white and red clothing sweeping the floors… A familiar picture for the avid anime fan. We also learned the shinto purification ritual, which everyone should undergo before entering a shrine. We learned how to pray to the shinto gods, too. On our way back to the train station, me and my wife took a little detour towards Nikko’s fascinating cemetery. Due to the steep relief, it’s on several levels, and the atmosphere, the spirituality was so different from our graveyards, it really turned out to be a defining memory about Japan.
At the train station, we ate a real treat – the traditional Nikko age yuba manju (揚げゆばまんじゅう), which, bean filling aside, really reminded me of Bulgarian mekitsas that I love so much.
A couple of hours later, we were back in Tokyo, and headed towards the famous Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー), a marvellous tower offering views of the whole city. We got up and took some wonderful pictures, it was full of tourists and Japanese people alike, especially couples apparently finding it a romantic spot to go together to. There are two levels you can ascend to, a wider one where the best pictures can be taken, and a more narrow one above it that requires additional pay, but at least you can get to the highest accessible point of the tower. From such a high point, you truly realise just how enormous of a city Tokyo is.
Koyasan (高野山) is the centre of the powerful Shingon Buddhist sect, founded by Kukai (空海), posthumously known as Kobo Daishi (弘法大師) in the 9th century. It has a whole lot of temples, pagodas and monasteries, and is thus an attractive tourist destination. It’s high in the mountains, and is ultimately reached via a cable car – a pretty exciting climb offering a nice view of the surrounding forest. Our guide had arranged a stay at one of the monasteries that doubles up as a hotel (or rather, ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel), called Fukuchiin. It had an onsen (Japanese hot spring bath), we had dinner and breakfast included, and we’d also get the chance to see the Buddhist monks pray if we got up early on the next morning. As everywhere in Japan, tradition was hand-in-hand with technology, the old Japanese style rooms being equipped with LCD TVs and free Wi-Fi internet access.
We were also welcome to wear the yukatas (traditional Japanese summer clothing) provided in our rooms around the monastery. To use the onsen, however, one must be completely naked. No big deal with that, though, considering men and women’s onsens were separate. There was also an outdoor onsen, which was absolutely amazing. After coming back from a short walk during which we got the chance to try some delicious mochi (餅), I didn’t miss the chance to take a dip under the night sky, a Japanese from Tokyo and an American happening to share this delight with me (each of us even had his separate pool). I chatted with them a bit, to my disappointment the Japanese guy didn’t know Ghost in the Shell which I mentioned when he asked me what anime I liked. At least he knew Captain Tsubasa. I congratulated him about Tokyo winning the 2020 Olympics which had just happened earlier that day.
Dinner was pretty awesome, the whole group was sat in a large room, we had to eat on very small tables on the ground, and the food was entirely of plant origin, with many different kinds of tofu. I’m not a fan of tofu at all, but most of the food was tasty, aside from some really gross seaweed in one of the soups that I usually use to toss at my wife while we’re playing in the water at the beach. The breaded vegetables were the best, and the sweet potatoes were also quite tasty. Of course, there was rice, too. The breakfast on the next day wasn’t much different, with some soups, rice and pickled vegetables. Then, it was time to see some temples.
We’d actually taken a walk to one of the biggest temples which happened to be very close to Fukuchiin the previous night, and it was quite beautiful and nicely lit. But this time, we had a Japanese guide (for the first, but far from the last time on our trip), he spoke English relatively well, and told us a lot about Kobo Daishi and the history of Koyasan. We also went to an enormous graveyard park in the forest, which had grown around Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum – although the believers say he’s not actually dead, but just meditating there and bring him food every day. Considering the enormous influence the Shingon sect has around Japan, the cemetery is actually very prestigious and only extremely wealthy individuals can afford to buy a resting place there. We saw thought-provoking gravestones like a rocket carrying the message that rockets should never again be used for war, just for peaceful purposes, memorials for the employees of some corporations like Nissan and Panasonic, children’s graves that had little statues with clothes on them because the child was lost in the woods… Japanese spirituality shines quite brightly in their understanding of the concepts of death and afterlife.
After leaving Koyasan and going down via the rope way, we were back to the beautiful Gokurakubashi train station with the countless hanging fortune scrolls with various pictures and writings on them. Since we had a longer stay there this time, I managed to truly notice their beauty. Me and my wife even drew a new one and put it into a box to be added to the others later. Soon enough, we arrived in Nara (奈良), an old capital. It was a relatively flat town for a change, and we were walking from the station towards a park, with many schoolkids walking around, when suddenly we noticed a small deer! Everyone from the group went to pet him… After we had had our fix, we continued to the park, which was pretty close now. And there, we found out it was full of deer!
They were running around freely, grazing the ever decreasing grass peacefully… People were playing with them, I also didn’t take long to get close and start petting one of them. To my utmost surprise, its antlers were fuzzy! How magical! After taking lots of pictures, we found out that you could buy special deer cookies to give to the deer – it’s forbidden to feed them anything else. A schoolboy near us had bought some, and he was immediately surrounded by deer who could’ve soon knocked him down, hadn’t he quickly given them all of his cookies. Then, we were off to the really big and beautiful Todai-ji temple. Deer were still around, and we found one of them blissfully chewing on a brochure. We only had a couple more hours in Nara, and we used them for another walk in the wonderful scenery… It was time to head to another old capital, Kyoto.
Kyoto (京都) is truly a beautiful city offering a fascinating mix between the rich culture of the past and the technology and urban development of modern Japan. As soon as we got there, a fascinating, unexpected experience unraveled before my eyes. As we made our way to the hotel, a cute, young female receptionist greeted us and started processing our documents. As we were 15 people and constantly talking to each other, it was easy to notice she was gradually growing more and more irritated. Then, at one point, she asked our guide which room he’s staying in, to which he said “I don’t know…” And, as he turned around to talk to someone else from the group, she quietly said, almost to herself (but I happened to be close enough to hear it), “Me, too!” That shocked me, but simultaneously filled me with joy. You’d never expect to see something like this from a Japanese person, much less shop or hotel staff, where they’re normally extra polite on top of being Japanese. Yet, there it was. They aren’t all robots, after all, humanity manages to seep through occasionally.
In the evening, we went to a street right next to the river, and, because we were too late, almost all restaurants were closed. We had to settle for an Italian one, despite my desire to eat Japanese. To our delight, on the way back, we saw an actual geisha, and she was nice enough to stop and let us take her picture. Before bed, we ate a fascinating dessert we bought from a convenience store, its main contents not being peeled lychees, as it initially seemed, but rather yet another culinary marvel the Japanese had made of rice. Azuki bean jam and cream were the other two contents.
The next day was mostly dedicated to temples and castles, we saw Nijo castle, then the beautiful Golden and Silver Pavilions… We had a pretty cool and spunky aging Japanese woman for a guide, she could speak English well and shared a lot of history regarding the places we were visiting with us. We also saw a LOT of Japanese women dressed traditionally, which was quite the treat, considering we’d only seen one couple in Nikko so far. Everyone took pictures of them like crazy… But, by the end of our trip, we’d have met so many of them, nobody would bother taking out their camera. In the afternoon, we went to the famous Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine (you know I had to look up the name), most notable for its incredibly long path of torii (鳥居) gates. Due to our limited time, we didn’t reach the end of the path, but the distance we passed was still enough to give us a wonderful memory. On our way back, we met a Japanese woman who was quite surprised we had come from so far away, and gave us some crane origami.
In the evening, we made our way to Kobe (神戸), which won the vote in our group about where to spend that particular evening against Hiroshima, solely thanks to its famous beef steak… I was quite bitter people had chosen Kobe for such a superficial reason, but it turned out to be a pretty rad city with seemingly vibrant nightlife. The neon lights in all kinds of different colours filled the entire city (well, the part we were in, which was most likely the centre), bringing it the closest to Tokyo in this regard of all places we visited. As soon as we got off the train, our guide asked a Japanese man about where we can eat Kobe steak. Incredibly eager to help, not unlike most Japanese people, he took out his tablet and soon found the closest Steak Land (ステーキランド) restaurant, giving us directions how to get there.
We found our way there relatively easily, not before coming past a Namco arcade I quickly got into to browse a little. The standard games we saw in Tokyo, the taiko one being most prominent, there was also Project Diva, etc. Once in the restaurant, we were pleasantly surprised to see that chefs would cook your steak right before you on the table – there were huge cooking metal plates, and customers were sitting around them, basically. We ordered Kobe beef steak for a pretty hefty price (around 5000円), me and the wife were to share one. Chef Ogata (緒方) did a marvellous job, and cooked us two steaks (we were sitting with another couple from the group), along with the side dish, in 15 minutes. His quick, but quality work was a marvellous sight to behold – we ordered medium, the other couple ordered well-done, and we didn’t even realise how he made the two different, it seemed like he moved them from the cooking plate to our dishes at the same time. Needless to say, the steak was quite tasty (though I still maintain it wasn’t 5000円 tasty :P).
After dinner, we had a short walk, and finished our short stay in Kobe at a beer place with a relatively cute waitress. I tried Japanese stout beer – it was good, much like the light ones. To our delight, we saw a couple of girls wearing uniforms and scarves of the Japanese national football team. Being a relatively loud company, they noticed us and we talked to them a bit, one of the group even high-fived one of them after mentioning Shinji Kagawa. And that was all for Kobe, but not for the night!
Once back in Kyoto, me and my wife decided to do some geocaching, and walked from the Kyoto train station to the hotel, hoping a cache would come up on the way. And, surprisingly, the name Nintendo came up among the possibilities, so I checked it and it turned out one was stashed away near the first Nintendo building from the time they were making playing cards in the 19th century.
Afterwards, I found some Dragonball soft drink on a vending machine and immediately wasted 100円 on a cola… Except, instead of Vegeta as advertised, I got a can with Piccolo on it. Oh well…