Journey to Japan v.3: A Day In Kyoto

Imperial Palace in Kyoto, Japan

A Day In Kyoto

I woke up sore and fatigued from a couple days of touring and hard walking. Mentally preparing myself for a day in Kyoto. 12 miles in two days doesn’t seem like much, but (1.) I’m jet lagged; (2.) we’re doing a lot of this walking with packs on; (3.) it’s hot as balls every day; (4.) the number of stairs in Japan is insane; (5.) I have an auto immune; and, of course, (6.) I’m just plain out of shape.


We’ll save excuse #6 for last and act like it has zero impact on my exhaustion. It did occur to me that the rash I’ve been carrying around was something more and I have had a sore throat recently (probably just sinuses). But I warned Jeff to keep an eye out on me in case I started getting full-blown flu-like symptoms. Until then, I’m soldiering on.

Unlike the last couple of days, there was nothing particularly notable about breakfast, but for the fact Jeff pointed out I never require breakfast except when I’m on vacation. For some unknown reason, I wake up starving to death and salivating for European-style food. It’s a requirement every. single. day. on vacation. Every other day of my life, I suck down a cup or two of coffee and forget to eat until lunch time. Sometimes, even dinner time. (My rheumatologist loves this terrible habit, by the way.)

Kyoto & Nara, Here We Come!

We’ve got a day in Kyoto and Nara planned today. It’s a ten-hour excursion and we’d learn that you could spend an entire day in Nara alone. You’d probably ideally want at least two days in Kyoto. We had to walk (some more) to another hotel for pick-up. To get to this other hotel, we had to pass through the dreaded Kyoto train station. Literally took us a half hour. Got lost again. Of course.

Found the joint we needed to find and got special tour stickers we had to wear on our shirts all day. Ours had a temple and a deer… for what turned out to be a thousand temples, and this “deer park” I’ve been looking forward to. (More about the deer park later.) Our guide’s name was Amy and, boy oh boy, did Amy run a tight ship. This tour was like 40 people and we had very regimented pick-up times at each stop. We also had a hundred stops. Chock full of sites.

The first couple stops were in the city of Kyoto. I’m not sure if we just didn’t see historic old town, or if one doesn’t actually exist. Seems sort of crucial for a day in Kyoto, no? Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of historical sites there, all beautiful, but we never saw a fancy city center all day. At least not something similar to what most cities have somewhere. We did learn the former capital city was burned down multiple times and suffered many, many years of civil war, so maybe that’s why. Or… maybe we missed it.*

Also of note, Kyoto is nothing like Tokyo. The differences between the two cities is startling. Tokyo has that big “wow factor” with skyscrapers and super slick architecture; Kyoto has what almost resembles Eastern Bloc housing and, like DC, height restrictions on construction. Again, the shrines and temples are beyond amazing, but the city itself is not the prettiest. Anyhow. Moving on to the tour itself.

Nijo Castle With The “Nightingale Flooring”

The first stop of our tour was Nijo Castle, the “humble abode” of Japan’s last real shogun. If you’ve only got a day in Kyoto, I’d recommend this one. Many moons ago, they trained legit samurai warriors at the castle. It had this pretty innovative feature called “Nightingale floors” that thoroughly entertained me for most of the tour.

To protect themselves against ninjas (yep, ninjas), they installed something or other under the floorboards throughout the entire castle that makes them squeak, thus notifying residents of intruders. When you’ve got a 40-person tour walking through and, when it’s Golden Week and all of Japan is on holiday touring as well, the floors literally sounded like a flock of birds that… never went away. I gotta be honest, I’m impressed.

What I wasn’t impressed with was that they thought leopards were just female tigers back in the day, so all the murals in the castle feature both leopards and tigers together. Like… why? Why would you think that even a couple hundred years ago? I wouldn’t guess leopard and tiger anatomy was all that different from any other animal anatomy, but what do I know? And they had to have killed a couple here and there, right? To confirm? They weren’t mythical creatures. I’ve probably overanalyzed this way too much, but whatever.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan

Golden Palace Misery

Next up was the Golden Palace, a palace on a pond covered in tons of real gold leaf. A must for a day in Kyoto. It was pretty enough, but it was an absolute zoo. Like a conveyor belt of people.

Those of you who’ve read my travel posts before know how much I adore crowds. Trudging forward at a painfully slow pace with them, humming the Russian Volga Boatman song to myself to pass the time, running into people when they all stop for the exact same photo in a high-traffic area, all of that. Love it. Downside of seeing famous attractions in real life, I suppose.

They had more incense wafting at the shrine there, so I wafted myself again in the hopes it would get rid of my mystery rash. …It hasn’t. I’m sure it will resolve in another few days when I return home. (See? Totally works.)

Golden Palace in Kyoto, Japan

Imperial Palace…?

Honestly, there’s not much to say about the Imperial Palace and the “Imperial Rock Garden,” as Jeff now calls it. It was a pretty vast expanse of gravel. With architecture not nearly as impressive as Golden Palace. Not even any Nightingale flooring. Psssh.

The “garden” had one small, well-manicured little patch not accessible to the public, so we just stood in the blazing hot heat taking photos longingly from a distance. Thumbs down on this. Thanks for playing.

Imperial Palace in Kyoto, Japan
Imperial Gardens in Kyoto, Japan

A Japanese-Style “American Lunch”

We stopped for lunch at a local craft center, where they announced they had a buffet with “American food.” It was literally all fried and left me wondering exactly what American food is, anyway. There were fried chicken pieces. And french fries. Besides hamburgers and hot dogs, is that all that defines American cuisine in the rest of the world? Maybe so. A little frightening, if you think about that perception. It’s not necessarily wrong, is it?

We lunched with a super nice older, Australian couple who spent their time between Australia and England. They traveled fairly extensively and had been on the road for nine weeks now. Apparently, the guy was a former [almost-] Olympic pole vaulter. He qualified for the Olympic trials in Tokyo, but did not make it into the Olympics themselves. He now has two hip replacements and a knee replacement. Go, him, though for truckin’ away all day. It was not an easy day.

His wife, meanwhile, spoke for a half hour straight about her Celiac disease and how her esophagus was completely rotted out and how she couldn’t eat anything at all on the road. …This is while we’re eating… the super healthy American buffet food. She was really nice, but that was a treat I don’t wish to relive anytime soon. Like… ever.

Samurai Swords & A Drive To Nara

El Jefe and I escaped to the craft shop to spend a few minutes milling around before the second half of our tour commenced. We were checking out the samurai swords, all of which come in pairs.

The first, longer sword is to battle your opponents, of course. The second, shorter sword is basically a dagger you commit suicide with when captured by the enemy. It’s more honorable to kill yourself than to fall at the hands of an enemy. So they say. Jeff commented to a random stranger also viewing the swords that he’d never need the second one. Ever. Which elicited some laughter.

After spending half a day in Kyoto, Amy’s next stops for us would be located in Nara, about an hour away. The rural landscape in this area and on the way to and from Tokyo is not so impressive, but we did learn that they basically build centers with everything contained in one place—supermarkets, clothing stores, pharmacies, appliance stores, etc.

Which actually might explain a lot about why we keep ending up eating at train stations and large hotel plazas this trip. They’re intended to be entire epicenters. This is not to say there are no other restaurants anywhere or we couldn’t explore more, it just… I dunno, provides me with a rationalization to temper my own guilt? If I keep repeating it to myself, I’ll eventually believe it.

The Largest Buddha In The World

Next temple: Todai-ji. The largest wooden structure in the world with the largest Buddha in the world. In the middle of a deer park. You read correctly. Never mind big Buddha. The deer in Nara are protected and sacred, and there are 15,000 of them. All counted between the hours of 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. while sleeping… by 25 monks. Supposedly.

They’re free-range deer that just hang around all over the place. You can pet them and feed them, but we were warned in advance they’re sometimes aggressive, so to let someone else do the feeding if you’re smart. There were a ton of them outside the temple gate, but only a few actually within the temple grounds. We learned the two warrior statues on either side of the gate protected the temple from evil, so I just assumed the deer out front were the bad deer.

Todai-Ji entrance in Nara, Japan
Todai-Ji Temple in Nara, Japan

Okay, big Buddha temple—I cannot even put into words how massive this temple was. or how big Buddha actually was. I mean… huge. 53 feet high. Buddhas’ right hand measures 8.4 feet from palm to fingertips. He’s surrounded by a bunch of warrior statues, too many to remember specifics.

Outside, there’s a statue of Binzuru. The story goes that he and Buddha were buddies, but Buddha kicked him out after he was showing off his healing powers to random people, bragging, being arrogant. So, he sits outside. Because he’s known for his healing powers, if you rub the statue body part of your ailment and then your body part, it’s said you’ll be healed of your pain. Jeff rubbed his knees and, while I couldn’t reach Binzuru’s head, I rubbed what I could reach and then rubbed my head. I will try anything to get rid of my migraines. Anything.

Big Buddha at Todai-Ji in Nara, Japan

Nara Deer Park

After we exited the temple, we had some free time to play with the deer. I was very excited about this. We bought “deer cookies” and I tried time and time again to offer the deer snacks. They were all cookied out. People were just placing stacks of cookies in front of them as they lay there. They wanted nothing whatsoever to do with my cookies. Total devastation. (That’s okay. Jefe wants my cookies.)

I did get to pet a couple deer, though. Gave the remaining deer cookies (which was basically the whole pack) to a bunch of children whose parents have either crushed their childrens’ dreams, or are just plain tired of spending money on more deer cookies for their kiddos. (No deer photos just yet, because… there’s more.)

Deer cookies poster in Nara, Japan

Lanterns & Wisteria at Kasuga Taisha

Oh my goodness. Last temple of the day—Kasuga Taisha. This one was truly beautiful and one of the best of the day, but I was so incredibly exhausted at this point, I was barely functioning. I really, really wish I’d’ve been in better shape to enjoy it. We also didn’t spend as much time there as I would’ve liked. Good ol’ tour guide Amy.

It’s got Wisteria everywhere and smells marvelous. It’s also known for having over 3,000 lanterns, donated by everyday folks as tokens of thankfulness. The lanterns take on a few different forms—what we’d traditionally consider lanterns, but mostly, they were stone monuments with cubbies up top.

Three times a year, they light a candle in the cubby to honor the gods. They were everywhere. This is what would normally be my photography dream setting, but I was hanging on by a thread and only ended up snapping a few photos. Jeff went bananas and got a lot of great shots, so between the two of us, we’ve got memories.

I’m actually a little jealous Jeff got such great shots and I got, like… none. But he’s displayed an interest in photography and really did get some great shots, so go, hubby. I’m impressed with the hubs’ creative side today.

More lanterns at Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan
Wisteria at Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan
Lantern at Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan
Wisteria branches at Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan

Feeding The Deer

Also of note here… we passed by a couple deer on the way up to the shrine who were eating leaves off the ground. Leaves, people. So, yes, Jeff and I were actually able to feed some Nara deer. They ate the leaves right from our hands, too. So sweet and gentle. And one was just a tiny baby. Made my heart melt. Screw those deer cookies. Gaijin money trap. Another gaijin money trap—deer poop candies at a souvenir shop. Chocolate and all. Kind of hilarious.

Deer at Nara Deer Park
Feeding deer at Nara Deer Park

The day finished with us getting lost in the train station yet again, grabbing a bite to eat, and heading back to the hotel. Jeff got to use his bidet. Still encouraging me to do the same.

Total mileage after a day in Kyoto and Nara = 6.78 miles. I hurt. Badly. We both hurt. Must… see… Japan…

Stay tuned for tomorrow. More temples in Kyoto. Temples, temples, temples. They’re like castles in Germany or cathedrals in France. Friggin’ everywhere. Then the train back to Tokyo.

A Note on Downtown Kyoto

*A note after a day in Kyoto: Yep, we missed Kyoto’s old town area. Doesn’t seem like a particularly expansive area, though. That’s too bad, but I don’t think we were fitting anything else into our Kyoto itinerary anyway. More collateral damage from my lack of planning.

That’s okay. I operate under the philosophy there will always be more things I want to see and do and I’ll always wish I had more time, but I’m just really thankful for everything I do get to see and do.

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