My trip to Kyoto, Japan in March was nothing short of amazing. Japan is a country that I had never really considered visiting until I found out just how badly tourism had been affected because of the earthquake and tsumani whilst reading a Snowboarding magazine of all things.
But the warmth of the people, the history & culture, and the experiences that I had on that week long trip has made Japan a place I want to visit more than ever; and Kyoto has captured my heart.
Flying out after a week exploring the East cost of Ireland and Northern Ireland I took an early flight from Belfast (and I mean early!) to London and finally on to Tokyo where my week in Japan began.
Despite sleeping for most of the 13-hour journey from London to Tokyo I was no prepared in the slightest for what I was about to encounter – people, chaos, and a very difficult language barrier.
After getting lost in a strange area of town a rental car company I happened to walk in on showed me great hospitality and despite the fact that I spoke no Japanese and they spoke no English they kindly drove me to the hostel.
But Tokyo overwhelmed me even after sleeping off the jetlag. There was too many people, too much concrete, and hardly anyone could help me when I needed help in Japanglish. I was seriously worried that this would be the trend of the trip.
Having survived long enough to take the Shinkansen, bullet train, to Kyoto I began to get into the pace of Japan. As the buildings of Tokyo and Nagoya flew by me (at exactly the same time Nicole from Nicole is the New Black was heading from Kyoto to Tokyo!) I began to settle into a more relaxed pace.
Being presented with my first press badge as an Australia Journalist thrilled me – University was paying off… or this blogging thing! – but I laughed when I saw they included my middle name. Speaking with my guide about it she told me that the Japanese don’t have middle names so when they find that you have one they feel it important to use it.
Our first port of call was the Ando doll store – one of the most famed doll stores in Japan. The Ando family, which is now in it’s third generation of doll makers, specialise in Hina dolls – dolls which are specifically made for the doll festival held on the 3rd of March each year. Hina dolls can come in sets of up to 15, but the Empress and Emperor dolls are the most impressive of the sets being made up of porcelain featured and the many layered kimonos.
Staying in the Kyoto Hotel Okura meant that we were in the center of the city were in close proximity to everything the city had to offer. One of my favourite parts of staying at the hotel was the origami around the hotel including the two paper cranes in my room.
Visiting the Kodaiji Temple I encountered the mani wheels – one of my favourite discoveries on the trip. A buddhist monk who showed us the temple saw me and explained that I should run around the mani wheels whilst making them spin with your hands, then ring the bell at the shrine and say a prayer or make a wish.
It was only after I ran, rung and prayed that I realised that he had a big grin on his face because you don’t need to run but “they come true faster if you do.”
We also learnt the art of nagaide – a particular style of floral arrangements which translates to ‘throwing flowers’. Whilst much of the western world sees floral arrangements as big extravagant affairs nagaide teaches that simplicity is just as beautiful – and it turned out some of the boys were better than the girls!
After floral arrangements we were taken through the process of a traditional tea ceremony from the folding fan, presentation of sweets, and the different tools which make tea ceremonies such a elegant process.
Throughout the Japan trip I did discover one thing though – always wear clean socks! You never know when you will have to take off your shoes or wear temple slippers.
On our final after noon we were taken to Arashiyama on the western skirts of the city.
“This bridge is the Michael Jackson bridge,” our guide Mie announced, “you know Michael Jackson?”
The bus smiled with a few random outbursts of ‘Thriller’ and his trademark ‘Ooooowh!’
“Well this bridge isn’t actually called the Michael Jackson bridge but it is close. This bridge … litterly translates to ‘Moon-walking on water’.”
The story actually goes that a bridge was built in this place because a man thought he saw the moon trying to cross the water – the moon walked on the water, but I prefer that it’s the Michael Jackson bridge.
In Arashiyama are the Bamboo groves. Walking through the groves you wouldn’t believe that you were near what used to be the capital city of Japan, you wouldn’t believe you were near any city for that matter. The freshness of the air, only punctured by the occasional whistle of the tourist train running near the area, left me wanting to sit amongst them and read a book.
No, the little guy isn’t in a cage in fact it’s the other way around – I’m in the cage.
At the Monkey Park Iwatayama, not far from the bamboo groves, you aren’t allowed to feed the wild monkeys unless you are inside the hut and you hand the food through the bars due to the territorial nature of the animals.
Doesn’t this guy look wise?
The monkeys otherwise roam free and are ‘wild’ despite their knowledge on how to get food from the humans which visit. With a view over like this over Kyoto, the chance to get upclose to monkeys and for only a few dollars I’d highly recommend visiting the park.
A big thank you to Annabel from Get in the Hot Spot for being monkey crazy and suggesting we visit the park!
But my favourite experience throughout the trip to Japan was meeting real Meiko and Geiko at a dinner and performance. They taught us danced and sung for us, as well as taught us traditional drinking games – what a way to finish our trip!