July 5, 2012
By Kevin Leong
The day after our Hiroshima trip was completely free. Unfortunately, the good weather from that day didn’t carry over and it started to rain again. Our group did many things, such as shop around our hotel/Kyoto Station area, visited Himeji Castle/Himeji Zoo, or head down to Osaka. I spent my day in Osaka. The Osaka Station is also a huge mall, and at the top of the south building there is a Pokemon Center, where we all relived our childhood.
From there, a few of us went to the Osaka Aquarium, and the rest went to Dotonbori. This area is known for its wide variety of restaurants and a lot of shopping. We got a lot of souvenir shopping done in Osaka, even though it wouldn’t stop raining all day.
By Alex Karpos
Another group of us decided to visit Himeji Castle on our free day. After a fairly long train ride, we arrived in Himeji, a city to the south west of Kyoto. Though the city was drenched in seemingly never-ending torrential rain, we decided to slog through the downpour. It was a decision we would not regret. Himeji Castle is truly an astounding complex. Last updated an astounding 400 years ago, this structure is considered the prototypical model for the medieval Japanese castle. The castle is surrounded by a truly amazing complex consisting of several walls, guardhouses, and open lawns surrounding the castle. Though the main, and most recognizable, tower of the castle is under restoration and thus covered from outside elements, this proved to be a blessing in disguise.
June 28, 2012
By Erika Klein and Alex Karpos
Arriving in Hiroshima this morning after our second, and more relaxed, Shinkansen experience of the month, we immediately boarded a bus to visit the city’s well-known sites. Our guide, Masako, began her introduction with the suggestion that “perhaps the name Hiroshima reminds you of the first atomic bomb.” While she went on to mention some statistics related to the bomb, however, the first part of the day unexpectedly focused on less-popularly known aspects of Hiroshima, reminding us that the city is much more than one tragic event. Having learned that Hiroshima is Japan’s largest oyster-producing area, we observed the flat collection of rafts on the Seto Inland Sea as we traveled by ferry to the sacred Miyajima Island to visit Itsukushima Shrine.
Like Nara, the island was inhabited by half-tame deer, worshipped as divine creatures in Japan and unafraid of approaching humans and attempting to snag food or brochures for a quick snack. Besides photographing the antics of the deer (and those whom they surprised), we took pictures from every angle of Otorii Gate, which appears to float in the ocean during high tide.
The gate, serving as a barrier between the Shinto gods’ home on the mountainous island and the human realm of Hiroshima, shared the same orange, evil-expelling color as the ancient shrine, which we explored next.
June 27, 2012
By Morgan Pavey
On our last day in Kyoto, we woke up early to check out of our hotel and head over to Shunkoin Temple for a special Zen meditation session with the attending head priest of the temple, Reverend Takafumi Kawakami. Upon arriving at the temple, we took off our shoes and were led into a traditional tea-ceremony room with tatami mats and simple wooden walls, which was naturally-lit from the sun streaming in from the zen garden outside. The Reverend encouraged us to sit on our cushions in whichever way was most comfortable for us, since comfort and ease were the only reasons why monks used the traditional “half-lotus” leg position. He emphasized the importance of understanding the origins and logic behind traditions like the sitting positions for meditation; it is through this understanding that we will be able to practice the true intent of a tradition and keep it alive.
We enjoyed two brief meditative sessions, initiated by the clapping of wooden sticks and ringing of a bell. As incense floated through the air, we focused on our breathing and accepting any thoughts that entered into our minds without trying to judge or control them. We considered the Zen idea of impermanence, or how each present moment is significant in the way that it will soon become a part of our pasts, but also pave the way for our futures. After the second session, the Reverend showed us the zen garden and the beautiful screen paintings in the adjoining room, pointing out how the gold paint best illuminated the objects depicted when the lighting was dim, as it would have been in ancient times. We then shared fresh matcha and senbei before saying our good-byes, departing a little more enlightened than we had been an hour and a half before.
After a quick Japanese bento box lunch on the bus, we arrived with our guide Masako at Ryoan-ji. Ryoan-ji contains a famous rock garden, which embodies the Zen idea of impermanence (each pattern that you rake in the pebbles will become your past as soon as you create it, and will disappear with the wind or human disturbances of the near future). Ryoan-ji’s garden is famous for its fifteen rocks, which are organized in one group of five, two groups of three, and two groups of two. At any given vantage point, however, only fourteen stones are visible at one time. It is said that only through reaching the final stage of enlightenment will a person be able to see all fifteen stones at once.
June 26, 2012
By Kevin Leong
Our first full day in Kyoto was packed with activities. Unfortunately, a typhoon was forecast to hit us on this day as well.
We woke up to a rainy morning, but nothing too heavy. We all boarded our tour “coach” (bus) with rain gear in hand and headed to our first destination, Kiyomizu Temple. When we arrived at this Buddhist temple, the rain started to really come down. This was a good thing in this situation, though, because at this temple there is a famous fountain that supposedly has ability to extend the life of people who drink from it. Morgan and I decided partake in this local tradition and drank from the fountain. It was very cold and refreshing. The water for the fountain is sourced from the mountain on which Kiyomizu Temple is located. Something I thought was really amazing is that the ladles for the fountain weren’t the usual wooden ones we’ve seen around other temples and shrines in Japan, but made of metal and stored in a box with a UV light to kill any bacteria on the ladle.
Another interesting thing about Kiyomizu Temple is that there is a sloped stage at the front of it, from which a Japanese saying has been derived: “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu.” This is equivalent to the English saying “taking the plunge.” There have been instances where people actually would jump off this stage into the forest area below. Surprisingly, a high percentage of these people survived the plunge.
Our next stop on Typhoon Tuesday was Nanzenji Temple. At this temple, there is a really nice and peaceful Zen rock garden. Even though the rain was coming down harder than earlier in the day, we all enjoyed this temple and its serenity. There was also a nice arch structure that a few of us took pictures around.
By Morgan Pavey
After almost three full weeks of exploring Tokyo and getting used to the feel of city life, many of us were excited to experience a change of pace and set out for our week-long experience of Western Japan. We left Sakura Hotel on Monday morning by shinkansen (the famous Japanese bullet train) to Kyoto, the ancient city which was the nation’s capital from its establishment during the Heian Period in 794 until the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1869. After a brief mishap with our departure – which more-or-less involved an epic, movie-esque sprint through Tokyo Station to catch the train before it pulled away from 13 of us, and the heart-breaking separation from Chad and Sheng, who were forced to catch the next train a full thirty minutes later – we arrived safely and met up with our wonderful tour guide, Masako.
Our guide Masako took us on a half-day tour of Nara, another former capital just an hour away from Kyoto by bus. We first visited the spectacular Todai-ji Temple, which includes the largest wooden structure in the world. This structure houses the Daibutsu, or Giant Buddha – an enormous statue that welcomed us in with one open palm, meaning “do not fear,” and one up-turned palm, meaning “I will answer your requests.”
The sacred mood of the temple was accentuated by the hundreds of deer that were wandering freely around the premises, which were so tame that we could actually reach out and touch them. According to the Shinto religion, deer are divine messengers of the gods and guardians of the temple. According to us and the other tourists visiting Todai-ji, they are also adorable.