Land of the Rising Sun – Part 1

I’ve dreamed about going to Japan for a long time. I don’t remember the very first impulse, but my love for anime and manga only made the wish stronger. Finally, this year the dream came true. It was Saturday 1st of September 7 a.m., when I was sitting with my wife at Prague Airport waiting for a plane. Nearly 23 hours later we arrived to Kansai, Osaka and after another hour or so to Nara – our first destination. There we found the guest house, rinsed the dust from the road and went out to city with the goal to stay awake till evening and avoid jet lag if possible. It helped, but we woke up pretty early the next day anyway – just little bit more tired.


Nara

Our first stop after breakfast was Kofukuji (興福寺, Kōfukuji) temple. The first thing we noticed was a five-storied pagoda which is (at 50 meters) Japan’s second tallest. Sadly, the Central Golden Hall was still under construction so we could visit only the Eastern Golden Hall (with large wooden statue of the Yakushi Buddha) and Kofukuji’s National Treasure Museum (with many statues and Buddhist art). We discovered there, that something called “Goshuinchou” exists. It literally translates into “Honourable red-stamp notebook”. It’s a unique souvenir you can get from Japan. As you visit shrines and temples, you can ask to put commemorative red stamp accompanied by calligraphy into the notebook for (usually) ¥300 apiece.

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Kofukuji Temple, Eastern Golden Hall & five-storied pagodaPhoto: Stinolez

Our journey continued from the temple to Yoshiki-en garden and Isuien garden. Both of these gardens were well managed, split into several parts to accent different things. Sadly, early September is not autumn yet, so trees were still green and it was too late for flowers to be still in bloom.

Isuien gardenPhoto: Stinolez

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After relaxing time in gardens, we continued our journey through the Japan’s temples. Next on the list was yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Tōdai-ji (東大寺, Eastern Great Temple). We were welcomed by The Great South Gate (nandaimon) before we got into the Great Buddha Hall. There sits the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana with its height of almost 15m.

Todai-ji, The Great BuddhaPhoto: Stinolez

From there through Tamukeyama Hachiman Shrine (手向山八幡宮, Tamukeyama Hachimangu) we went to see Kasuga Taisha shrine (春日大社). It’s one of Nara’s most celebrated shrines, established at the same time as the capital, famous for its stone lanterns donated by worshipers. They line the shrine approaches, but sadly they’re lit only twice a year – early February and mid-August.

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine, stone lanternsPhoto: Stinolez

This concluded our day in Nara. We spent our evening in Ryozanpaku (a classic Japanese restaurant), where we enjoyed delicious food and even tried to chat with locals using our broken Japanese. There we learned about typhoon Jebi coming the next day. We had to postpone our plans for a day and stayed in a hotel as Kansai region was hit by the biggest typhoon since 1993.


Hōryū-ji

On our fourth day in Japan, we woke up into nice morning. After the typhoon the sky cleared and everybody started to count the damage. Most of the trains in the area were suspended or delayed for several hours – not great news for us. We wanted to visit Hōryū-ji temple (法隆寺) which we planned for the previous day and on top of that we had to move to different city to get to our next accommodation. Luckily very soon after coming to the station a bus arrived and we were off to another UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Hōryū-ji templePhoto: Stinolez

Whole complex of Hōryū-ji temple is split into two main parts; the Sai-in (西院) in the west and the Tō-in (東院) in the east. The western part of the temple contains the sanctuary hall and the temple’s five-story pagoda – widely acknowledged to be the oldest wooden building existing in the world. The other area holds the octagonal Yumedono Hall. The rest of the complex also contains monk’s quarters, lecture halls, libraries, and dining halls.

Hōryū-ji templePhoto: Stinolez

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With half day almost over, trains were partly running again. We still had trouble decipher the train system, but we were able to go back to Nara, pick up our luggage and through several connections (different from original plan) we managed somehow to arrive to Himeji.


Himeji

Next morning was cloudy, but with it the temperature dropped at least little bit. The day before, while walking to the guest house, we saw the Himeji Castle, our main attraction for that day. The castle is frequently known as Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō (“White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle”) because of its white exterior and is the largest and most visited castle in Japan.

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Himeji CastlePhoto: Stinolez

To have a break from the history lesson we got from our guide, we visited Kokoen (好古園, Kōkoen) garden opened on the former site of the feudal lord’s west residence. The garden consists of nine separate gardens divided by walls. Each of them is in different style of the Edo Period – garden of the lord’s residence with pond and waterfall, tea garden, pine tree or bamboo or flower garden.

Kokoen gardenPhoto: Stinolez

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After the garden we just aimlessly walked through the town, looking for place to eat or temples and shrines to get the stamp from. Next day our host took us to the station and we caught a train to Kyōto, but you’ll have to wait till next week to hear about it. By then, farewell…