Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – Hike 1 mile under thousands of ionic orange tori gates and spot locals wearing kimonos. This is an easy established hike, surrounded by dense forest and tori gates (this took Nick and I about 40 minutes total). There is a small overlook before the summit and you can take an alternative route down. After hiking in 99-degree weather, enjoy fresh fruit, shaved ice or mochi at the bottom.
Sanjūsangen-dō – This building holds 1,000 Buddhas from the 1400s (that’s before the U.S. was even discovered by Europeans!). These Buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities come from a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism. Although historic and beautiful, there are many other worthwhile things to see in Kyoto if you have limited time.
Kyoto Station – Get lost in the Kyoto Station! Explore shops, noodle restaurants, drug stores, bakeries, clothing stores, cosmetics and more! If you plan to purchase a JR pass or take the train as your primary mode of transportation (highly recommended) search for a hotel/hostel near the station.
Golden Pavilion – Walk around a short loop and enjoy the view of a golden pavilion. This took us less than 20 minutes and is not a highly recommended stop, although the pavilion is very beautiful (a remake from when it was a victim of arson).
The Rock Garden of Daisen-In Temple – Although the extensive rock gardens were astonishing, the Zen Buddhist mantras written on the walls will stick with me for years to come. 490 years ago, Kogaku- Zenji, not only founded this temple, he wrote compassionate words that we can help guide every individual. The characters below are translated to the following: Have a long mind, soft heart, no anger (sideways character for stomach), small mouth (do not speak too much and never speak poorly of others) and this will lead to a long life.
A variety of this mantra ends with 2 different characters: you (written largely) and me (written extremely small), signifying the importance of always putting others before yourself.
Nijo-jo Castle – Built in 1603, this was the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun or samurai. The elegant and simple architectural style and art was favored among the warrior class and today is a world heritage site.
Here, I learned where the phrase “not my cup of tea” came from, and it was not what I was expecting. The Shogun of the time would have hundreds of concubines and when a concubine brought him a cup of tea that he was not interested in, he would simply say “not my cup of tea” and another concubine would be sent to him…
Bamboo Forest – Walk for a half mile surrounded by near hundred foot tall bamboo stalks. Although this tourist stop was crowded, it was a pretty site to see. Each of these stalks grow to their maximum height within a month and die within 20 years. Did you know an entire matcha whisk is made from a single piece of bamboo?
Gion Distrcict – In the evening we explored the Gion Distrcict where we got a glimpse of the old city and searched for geishas. This is a beautiful quaint area where old geisha schools and homes have been turned into restaurants and stores.
Hot Springs – The town of Hakone is known for it’s natural hot springs. Stay at any hotel and enjoy a variety of hot spring pools overlooking lush green mountains. The pools are always nude and divided by gender. Make sure to follow others, as there are many traditions involved in this process! Wear a kimono to the bath area, the left side should always be on top before you tie it closed, sit on a bench and use a bucket to rinse your body before entering the pools, do not bring a large towel into the pool area, etc.
While in Hakone we decided to take the public bus to Lake Ashi, where we took a boat ride to Tokaido. The lake, volcano and old cedar forest were beautiful, however could have been enjoyed in other more outdoorsy ways.
Harajuku Street – This “fashion district” is about 7 blocks long, extremely crowded and is must see while in Toyko! This was everything I imagined and more! Wander inside shops with pink fluffy platform sneakers and full leather/ chain costumes. Spot girls dressed head to toe in the weirdest styles with hair extensions and fake contacts. All in the name of fashion, right? This was extremely fun and the street was lined with sweets, including: crepes, boba and mochi.
Head to Shibuya, the busiest intersection in the world. Hack: Starbucks (of course) is located on the corner of this intersection and if you walk up to the second floor you will have a overview of the hundreds of people crossing from every direction. Explore this area for food and young culture.
The best meal I had in Japan and the best sushi I’ve had in my life. We went to Sushi Aoyagi, which is inside of the Tokyo Station Hotel and indulged in real sushi (not cheap!). If you have ever seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this was a similar experience. You order combinations that include matcha tea, miso soup, and x number of pieces. I assume the fish served is based on the season and availability at the market. Most pieces are served individually and you are advised how to eat it. For example, “This piece of squid has a pinch of seasoned salt on it, so do not eat it with soy sauce.” Although a vegetarian, the only fish I have come to enjoy is raw tuna. Nick enjoyed a variety of fish but I only had the tuna, which was the richest, and softest tuna I have ever tasted. It literally melted in my mouth.
Despite having to wake up at 2 am, my only regret is not having a chance to see the fish market. This is just another reason to return to Japan, right? Nick and I used our JR passes to get to the Tokyo Station where we hopped onto the Narita Express Train, which took us directly to the airport. Besides the Burlington or Harrisburg Airport, this was the easiest commute to an airport we have ever experienced. The train runs almost every 15 minutes and is easy, clean and efficient.
Now we are off to Mongolia. I am so excited to embark on a new adventure but am nervous, as I have no idea what to expect. My mind is open and my fingers are crossed.