Aomori Lanterns

IMG_6657 We visited Aomori at a quiet time in the year. It was still summer, but well past the cherry blossom season that sees a huge influx of visitors to the region. We came to the city with the goal of seeing the huge floats that are used in the Nebuta Festival every year. IMG_6881

The festival takes place at the start of August and we were there way too early for that. Fortunately, there’s a museum open year round that showcases the floats themselves. It doesn’t have the same atmosphere as thousands of people chanting and dancing but the visuals were stunning.

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The tradition of Nebuta runs murkily into the past, where legend and hearsay mix, focused on military tactics and victories. If there is a factual origin story it’s likely long gone by now and all that remains are the floats themselves. The combat-related story is fairly clear in the statues : grimaced-faced men and gods with wild hair point fierce, decorated weaponry at beasts and demons and other foes. Fire erupts where they clash, the fingers of the sea rush in to take their toll, nature in its most violent forms is represented.

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They’re giant, nine by eight meter platforms with a five meter statue mounted on top. Some of them weigh as much as four tons. This is incredible because, when you look at how the statues are constructed you realize exactly how many pieces of art there are in any of the large displays.

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The lantern statues were traditionally made of bamboo frames with painted paper panels and actual burning lanterns illuminating the artwork. This was cause for the floats going up in flames at an alarming rate, so the introduction of wire frames and modern lightbulbs was a huge improvement.

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The wires are bent into shape and tied together, the paper panels are glued on and painted, and the internal lighting is hooked up. Making these floats is a task for many people, usually volunteers and amateur painters from the area.

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Along with the fury and elements present in many of the floats, there are minor, whimsical aspects that – if I knew more about the symbols involved – might add a layer of depth to the stunning display.

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In recent times there seems to have been a movement towards master makers, professional float crafters who study and master this as a craft. It was heartening to see that there were several women represented in the group. Their photos and workshops were on display, along with an example of each artist’s work. The theme to this display was the face – fierce, expressive, and imposing.

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Specialty dish : Yaki Curry

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Kokura’s cool shopping center.

Next in our Japan tour we visited Kokura, city of anime, a snazzy castle, strange pasta-headed statues, and, supposedly, one of the best nighttime harbor views in Japan. This last was not true, at least not in any way we could discern. Yes, it’s a harbor, and yes, it has cool flames from off gassing. But it’s dark and quiet with a very industrial feel. Maybe the locals dig it more than we did.

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A claw machine with Neko Atsume cats! Yes, we tried it.

The anime related things were fun. There’s a manga museum and a toy/books/everything-else mega store. There’s statues of anime characters dotting the train station, and statues of figures with pasta for heads on the city bridge.

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The castle is a restoration of an older building, and now it houses a museum on how the city was founded and what life was like before. It seems like every castle-turned-museum in Japan has the same theme, but it’s still interesting to see. The moving diorama is pretty unique.

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The real draw to Kokura (for us) is actually the tiny seaside town of Mojiko. It’s less than half an hour by local train and it is the home of fried Japanese curry. It also has a charming dock-side promenade and interesting drawings of squid by the station, but the curry is what we came for.

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Japanese curry is fairly well known around the world. It’s about as thick as some of the Indian curries, thicker than the south-east asian curries, and it is usually not anywhere near as spicy. It’s very commonly served with breaded fried chicken or pork – katsu kare or cutlet curry.

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Kid’s drawings of squid decorate the outside wall of the station.

In Mojiko they have what they call “fried curry” as their regional specialty. A dozen shops near the station – the center of town – serve it, and from what we could tell they all smelled great. We tried two of the restaurants and they were both amazing.

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The basic idea of fried curry is to take a small dish, chop up vegetables, meats, and whatever other additions you want, cover it in a deep layer of curry sauce, cover that with cheese, and then broil the whole thing until the ingredients cook and the cheese starts bubbling and crisping.

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It’s a great idea. We love the taste of Japanese curry dishes, and this style is right up there with the best of them. It becomes a more varied dish with different flavors and textures mixing and melting together. Sort of like the difference between pasta and lasagna – the same ingredients, but the preparation style changes everything.

You can find recipes for this style of curry online by searching for ‘yaki curry’ or ‘yaki kare’ recipes. This one looks good, but different from what we tried.

If I were to try and recreate what we had that night, I’d go for the vegetarian version. Get together :

2 potatoes
1 eggplant
2 carrots
1 pepper
1 large onion (yellow or white)

Prepare a box of Golden Curry, whichever spicy level you prefer. This is super simple, just follow the instructions on the box. Dice the vegetables and cook them with the curry as the box says.

Take the cooked curry and pour it into a 8×12 ovensafe dish. Some people will put a layer of steamed rice under the vegetables, but ours came with rice on the side, so it’s entirely optional.

Cover the curry with a few oz of shredded mozzarella (and/or cheddar).

Set the oven to broil and put the pan in for five minutes. This will give the cheese a chance to bubble and brown a bit.

Remove from the oven before the cheese starts turning black, let cool for just a minute, then serve frighteningly hot. Our curries came out bubbling and trying to eat them without burning ourselves was part of the experience.

Happy cooking!

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Summer fun at Miyajima Island

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A few hours by train out from Hiroshima is the city of Miyajimaguchi, which Natalie tells me means Entrance to Miyajima. It’s mostly true. The only reason most people visit this city is to get to the nearby island of Miyajima. It’s real name is actually Itsukushima but for some reason everyone calls it Miyajima.

IMG_5601 Miyajima has five things going for it, and that’s not even counting the ferry ride. Ferry rides are awesome. IMG_5612

First and foremost, the biggest attraction on (really off) the island is the absolutely massive Torii gate literally right off the coast. It’s base is submerged in water at high tide so it looks like the date is floating on the ocean. At low tide you can flock to it, along with all the other tourists. You can get a really great shot of it from the ferry, but try to do the boat at high tide, the shot is much more impressive.

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As soon as you land on the island, almost first thing outside of the boat terminal, are deer. Entirely unafraid, food seeking deer. They’re pretty cute and only a little annoying, but they will eat anything and they have no problem asking for it very directly. If you give them an inch they will try to bite a mile, so watch your fingers. Ignoring them and moving your food out of their way is the best thing to do if you don’t want your snack eaten. You can pet them, they’re pretty harmless.

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After the gate and the deer comes the tchachki gauntlet. A long, covered marketplace holds shop after shop of souvenirs – delightful bells, rice paddles, chopsticks and Torii gate paraphernalia. There you will find the largest rice paddle I have ever seen.

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The other biggest draw for this section is the Momiji Manju – maple leaf shaped egg dough treats with sweet filling, usually red bean, custard, or chocolate. They’re made in these fantastic machines that you can see operating all day long.

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We tasted a whole bunch of them and left with the impression that the chocolate ones are usually the best. It’s entirely worth it to buy an individual one at a particular shop before going for the box. Some are sweeter, others dryer, some have more filling, others have tastier dough. There’s maybe a dozen vendors to try so leave some room for dessert.

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You’ve taken a picture of/with the giant gate, fed the deer, and stuffed yourself on Momiji. Next up at Miyajima, climbing Mt. Misen! It’s the highest mountain on the island and it has a fantastic trail. The trailhead is a bit hard to find, and even with the tourist map it’s a bit of a puzzle.

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Here’s a link to the starting point on the map. To one side is a temple, to the other the trail.

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We wound up getting lost and finding a large shrine near the trailhead where we tried the local healing tea, enjoyed the sound of a hundred or so bell chimes, and listened to a very loud monk prayer chant.

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Just below the shrine were statues of childlike monks with beanies and scarves. We found out they are taken care of by parents who have lost a child, an outlet of grief and parental affection.

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To the side of the temple is the actual trail. It’s wonderfully maintained and wanders through some amazing hillside nature. It goes up and up and up, a climb of at least two hours or so.

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There’s a waterfall along the way, and at the very top is an observational platform and building.

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On your way up you might encounter this riff on the classic rock cairn.

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The views are great and in the building is a small souvenir store supporting the maintenance of the trail where a lovely old man will give you a stamp for climbing to the top!

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On the way back down you can pass by the cable car landing – the other favorite way to get to the top of the mountain and, after passing through more forest and picnic grounds, arrive back at the town market for a well deserved treat.

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At this point you can enjoy the relaxing seaside and try to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Staying on the island can be a pretty expensive ordeal and the ferries do fill up during peak hours, so try to be early.

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We had a great, sunny day running and hiking around the island. It was even a Sunday, right in the middle of summer, so it was as close to busy as it gets. There were plenty of people enjoying the island with us but it never felt crowded. So go, enjoy the standard island-town setting with a few unique Japanese twists, it’s well worth your time.

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And let us know if you find any sandwiches!

Hiroshima

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The crane is Hiroshima’s symbol representing peace.

The scars of Hiroshima’s traumatic past are well healed over and without knowing the history of the city you might think it’s just a city that has taken great lengths to welcome and accommodate the modern world. Unlike other cities in Japan, Hiroshima’s streets are wide, built for cars rather than pedestrians. It is not an unfriendly city to walk around but the distances are large and the old-style architecture of Kyoto and smaller villages is missing.

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The famous Peace Arch memorial.

This is unsurprising. The atomic bomb dropped on the city during WWII by allied forces leveled 70% of the structures in Hiroshima. Most of them were wooden, unable to withstand the heat and pressure of the atomic explosion. What remains of the pre-bomb structures today were the very few concrete buildings and those that were outside the blast radius. The most famous of the pre-bomb buildings, the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, stands now as it was left after the devastation. Exposed concrete, rebar, and empty window frames make it seem like a building under construction, from a distance. Up close it is clear that half of the building has fallen down and the now-crumbling walls are never to be rebuilt.

IMG_5538 The hall makes up one of the central monuments in Hiroshima’s famous Peace Park. Built as a monument against war and nuclear weapons, the Peace Park commemorates those lost in the war and the united efforts to rebuild, recover, and return to a normal life. Of the 350,000 residents of the city, 70,000 were killed in the immediate impact of the bomb, with radiation sickness, injury, and lack of basic resources killing nearly twice as many, upwards of 150,000 by the year’s end. This is an unimaginable number of people, a event of true horror. The peace park holds a museum displaying pictures of the damage and a history of events before, during and after the bomb. It is a mostly forgettable display because of what follows afterwards. In the last room there is a short film running on loop. If you stay for the fifteen minute showing you witness the lives of a half dozen survivors of the event, told as they wrote of it. As incomparable as a film is to the terror of being there, it manages to capture and make relatable the extreme human costs of the atomic bomb. Where statistics become unmanageable, the lives of individuals and their family members – their pain, grief, and loss – become very real. It is not a happy film. It does not leave you with a feeling of catharsis, nor of release. It only documents the horrible effects of war on an extremely personal level and left us shaken. Mercifully, there is a ‘static fountain’, a white noise generated from running water, just outside the room, that provides a space and moment for contemplation and relief.

The rest of the Peace Park is beautiful. Green spaces abound with large promenades and monuments of every sort. Several of them are world famous and the park as a whole attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Hiroshima every year. The major theme of the park and the city is an end to nuclear weapons. You may even meet university students collecting signatures opposing the future use of atomic bombs. Other signs of dedication to peace are the glass rooms filled with origami cranes, bundles and bundles of them, each made with the hope and promise of peace.

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Outside of the park the city offers quite a bit for tourists. There is an incredibly large shopping complex in the center of the city that is worth a visit, and nearby is Hiroshima castle.

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Built in the early 1500’s, the original castle was destroyed by the bomb. A replica was rebuilt in 1952 and houses a museum of Hiroshima as it was pre-WWII. Most attractions are reachable by a special bus line dedicated for tourists, or by the city’s expansive metro transit.

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Unique in Japan are Hiroshima’s trolley cars which were running before WWII and were put back into service shortly after. Along with buses, metro, and rail, they cross and connect the city.

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As a final attraction Hiroshima has a local delicacy – okonomiyaki, a layered, grilled meal consisting of noodles, cabbage, eggs, meat, and a variety of sauces. The Okonomimura building holds an incredible twenty five okonomiyaki restaurants in three floors. As with most regional specialties, you can get them in Tokyo, but there’s nothing like going to the home city.

Hiroshima is a great stop on any tour of Japan. It offers opportunity for reflection and stands as a living witness to the ravages of war. Through its modern success it shows how a city and a people can recover and prosper even after great tragedy.

Kyoto temples : Fushimi Inari-taisha

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Fushimi Inari is probably Kyoto’s most famous temple, at least judging by the crowds on an off day and the number of pictures of the shrine’s tunnel of torii gates there are online. The major portion of the shrine, the large temples and the densest torii gate tunnels are nestled in the base of a mountain named Inari – the god of rice and business. Outside of that cluster, the shrine has over four kilometers of trails leading up into the mountains and towards hundreds of smaller shrines. It takes about two hours to walk all the way up, but there are plenty small caretaker/teashop shops which will sell you water, snacks, and religious supplies.

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One of the symbols of this temple is the fox. They’re everywhere around the grounds and up into the mountain, as statues, paintings, and carvings. The shrine sells fox-luck charms, and if you want to make a wish, you get to draw one one of these :

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Alongside the more traditional house-shaped board you can buy and decorate a fox head. One side gets an often funny face, and on the other side is your prayer.

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This temple gets so many visitors each day, it’s hard to believe. We went specifically on an off day, kind of early. Nope. It’s popular with tourists, locals, school groups, selfie-takers, well wishers, people getting married, people praying for good luck and health, pretty much everyone makes their way here sooner or later.

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If you were hoping for an easy clean picture of the gates, you have to come in maybe absurdly early? Or when there’s a sports match going on that day? I don’t know. We got our best shots farther away from central area of the temple and far, far away from the famous there-and-back loop of gates. It’s very, very crowded in there, almost to the point of not being able to move.

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Once you get away from the crowds though, the park-within-the-temple is really a gorgeous place to be. There are shaded trails that run across and around the main torii-gate trail, and lots of little temple offshoots to either side. The trail within the shrine is well shaded and built to blend in with the surrounding nature very well, often we didn’t feel like we were in a maintained area at all. The temple’s trail actually connects with a larger trail, the Kyoto Isshu trail, which encircles the northern half of the city. It’s very important to pay attention to which way your trail is going, and to look for the signs to various waypoints, because in certain areas the trails criss-cross haphazardly and it’s easy to go somewhere you weren’t intending.

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Here are two examples of the small altars – the first has two fox guardians, and the second has a pile of miniature torii gates, a sign of devotion.

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Generally these smaller altars are housed within little shrine subdivisions – I’m not sure if each of the several altars within a smaller shrine are devoted to a separate deity or family, or if the whole shrine is towards one cause.

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Some of the larger, more ornate shrines have their own large red gate at the entrance. The larger the gate, the more devotion, and the redder, the newer. Some of the shrines are family shrines that receive a lot of attention as their family flourishes, others are still well maintained but significantly older and not as recently renewed.

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If you’re wondering what it takes to build a torii gate in your name on the trail, here’s the price list. As with most things related to religion and money, this isn’t a bribe but a sign of devotion – the money goes to maintaining the temple and is considered an offering to the gods.

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For those of us less fortunate or devoted, some of the shrines sell tiny torii gate charms for luck and protection.

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If you climb all the way to the top you get a lovely, somewhat challenging hike, and a great view of the city down below. The torii gates are beautiful and vibrant, their long stretches forming mesmerizing tunnels of red timber, beckoning both creativity and meditation.

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Kyoto temples : Kiyomizu-dera

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Kiyomizu is a Buddhist temple in the east of Kyoto, nestled in the mountain range that juts into the city. Since it’s in the mountain slopes there’s a bit of a climb to get into the temple proper. That street is full of slightly overpriced souvenir shops and fairly steep but it has a nice view of the city.

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Though we were there on a Thursday the temple was packed. It’s a very popular tourist attraction and a highly visited holy site. It would be better to get there early – less heat and less crowds. Visiting the temple seems to be a common school trip and we saw several student groups led by slightly exasperated teachers.

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The temple buildings are amazing. The bright sun and close viewing distance really makes the iconic multi-tiered temples in all of their gloriously vivid red stand pop out from the rest of the scenery. It’s almost impossible to not stare up at their impressive height and finely crafted ornamentation.

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This temple is known for its large open terrace supported by extremely tall wooden poles, but unfortunately this part of the temple was under reconstruction and covered with a cloth so it didn’t make for great pictures when we visited. The view of the city is quite nice though and is another one of the must-sees while you’re here.

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I particularly loved the bright, ornate details in the roof and corners of the buildings. I don’t imagine they’re paid too much attention by most of the visitors who are here for the view of the city and the activities of the temple, but I found the colors and carvings especially eye-catching.

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One of the must-do rituals, which we didn’t do due to the very long line, is to drink from the naturally running water in the center of the temple complex. Metal cups on long poles are provided to snatch the water as it falls, and washing your face and drinking it is said to be a cleansing experience. I was a bit worried about germs, but it turns out the water is sanitized with UV light before it reaches the edge of the fountain.

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At the very top of the temple complex is a small garden featuring several devotional activities. In some areas you can leave offerings and written wishes, in others you pray to various gods, and in the middle you can try to move between two far-apart rocks with your eyes closed. If you reach the other rock, it is said you will find true love.

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While you’re there you might notice that some of the rocks and trees have large white or brown cords around them. These are yorishiro – sacred objects that can house spirits, or kami, giving them a physical space to occupy. They are demarcated by the cord as holy and are used in festivals and prayers. While this is a Shinto tradition, it seems to be found in Buddhist Temples as well.

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Down the back of the temple and all around it are the lush, tree covered hills. There’s a lovely walking trail that loops around and back, an opportunity for sun-dappled meditation.

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Our day was especially sunny and hot, and on the way down we got an ice cream treat – ramune and cherry blossom!

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Bonus temple! After lunch we decided to try and catch a temple cleansing ceremony going on at Chishaku-in, a Buddhist temple a bit to the south. It’s famous for its beautifully painted sliding walls and meditation garden. Otherwise, it’s not really on the tourist-trail of the more famous temples.

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We arrived too late to see the purification ceremony, which featured a pyre and chanting to cleanse and renew the temple.

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We did get to see this amazing moth though. And on the upside, the temple was not at all crowded.

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And of all things, the temple had a stamp collection activity! Stamps are everywhere in Japan, people just love collecting them. The idea was to visit each of the main buildings in the temple where a monk would carefully and precisely place a stamp on your sheet. The more important the building, the bigger the stamp is what I gleaned from this, understanding no Japanese. At the end, if you collected all the stamps, you got a small pouch to put the paper in, though we didn’t really want to fold ours up. If you bought a temple charm – a way of giving donations in exchange for a good luck token – you also got a raffle ticket to win a prize, featuring such disparate things as : children’s toys, packets of curry paste, candy, and household cleaning supplies. Raffles and small forms of gambling are very popular everywhere in Japanese culture, apparently even at temples.

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Next time : Fushimi Inari-taisha!

Kyoto Japan

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Every country, or sometimes even state, seems to have two cities locked in a particular relationship. The first city is sometimes the larger, it is a working city, a city that gets things done, where tourists are unexpected and the facilities for tourism are relatively underbuilt. The second city is the city everyone recommends you go to when you say you’re going to visit that country. There’s Moscow to Saint Petersburg, there’s Jakarta to Yogyakarta, there’s Warsaw to Krakow. If Japan could be said to have two cities in this relationship, it would be Tokyo to Kyoto. Tokyo is the bustling megacity powerhouse to the more laid back, quieter, and tourist friendly Kyoto. For them though, it’s a bit of a stretch. Yes, Kyoto is a tad more tourist friendly, but the difference is not in how ready either city is to accept tourists, but rather the experiences it has to offer.

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In answer to Tokyo’s seemingly endless shops and malls and eateries, Kyoto has temples. It also has shopping and a huge central mall and wonderful food, but really it has temples. The internet seems to agree on just about two thousand all together, 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines according to Wikipedia. We visited not nearly that many, but they are everywhere, big ones taking up entire streets, smaller ones tucked away in between houses. A big reason for such a plethora of shrines and temples is that the city of Kyoto, former capital in all the glory and grandeur that that entailed, was mostly spared from harm during WWII. Kyoto was spared the firebombing that engulfed Tokyo and was removed from the nuclear target list by a general who went on his honeymoon there. By luck and circumstance, Kyoto is around now in its beautifully preserved historic state, grand temples and charming alleys alike.

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While the temples are the main attraction, I loved Kyoto for its own charm, shrines aside. Especially compared to Tokyo, Kyoto feels much more intimate. Despite its size it feels like a city you can actually know, a far more approachable density and pallet than the unending districts and zones of the current capital. Its streets are small and charming, traditional wood buildings being highly valued and well preserved. The aesthetic is very strong – outside of the downtown buildings taller than three stories are rare, lanterns are common, and structures bunch together, their multiple awnings creating a varied and continued cascade of wood and color.

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Like the rest of Japan, rail and bus are highly connected and readily available. The JR company does not have as many lines in Kyoto as in Tokyo, which made our JR passes less useful, but there were enough to get around. Bicycle and scooter are also common forms of transit, not only through the narrow streets of the residential areas but also in the down town. There seemed to be far less traffic when we walked through the city center, the streets were wide and open.

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On our first day, we walked from the central rail station to the city shopping complex. Even this multiple-block spanning mall was in the style of old, covered but with narrow walks crossing larger promenades, wood and paper walls abundant.

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It turned out we were hungry and walking through snack alley. The mochi called to me, but it wasn’t until we found a ‘pop-our-own’ mochi stand that we took the plunge. Over the course of ten minutes we watched the mochi expand and puff open like popcorn. It took much less time to eat them – they were very good.

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Inside the mall area were several temples, the largest of which greeted us with sake barrels and lanterns on the outside, and this amazingly vibrant display on the inside. This was new to me, but it turns out to be fairly common – people make tons of origami cranes or flowers and string them in massive bundles, usually for some wish or to express a strong desire or emotion. They hang them in temples as an offering, and the theory being that the larger the bundle, the more dedicated the asker is to the cause. This is pretty often done by students hoping to pass an important test or get into a good school.

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We, the onlookers, get to enjoy the beautiful display of color.

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Outside we encountered a massive crab-mascot for a seafood restaurant. The claws on this behemoth moved up and down creating an interesting and slightly unnerving display.

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Nearby to the crab-shack was a series of gachapon machines, toys in a plastic ball served up for 100-200 yen, though some of them went as high as 500 yen. We couldn’t resist the Gudetama machine, but it was broken and we had to get our yen back from the person who ran the store.

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Our path to the hostel led past one of the larger canals in this part of the city and we got a glimpse of reconstruction of a larger, more ornate building. The noise in this part of town continued to be surprisingly low, despite the cars and construction and people.

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Night fell pretty soon after that, and we only got a brief glimpse of what might have been a major tourist stop, but we only saw the prices on the menus and moved on. It was charming beyond belief though, lanterns a glow and tiny restaurants crowded into a small alley.

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For dinner we chose an equally charming ramen shop, a bit closer to our hostel and further out from the central shopping area. Their specialty is ramen served with black sesame broth. Its taste compares with regular ramen the same way a plain bagel compares to a sesame seed bagel. The sesame adds a deep nutty undertone to the mix along with a bit of sweetness. The restaurant’s name is Musoshin and we can highly recommend it.

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Next time.. temples!