Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Getting Out of Town - Kansai Weekend

I've fallen behind on writing about my travels but it's going to take a while to work through all my China pictures, so that post will have to wait.

A couple weeks back, I got sent to a meeting in Osaka, which is about 2.5 hrs from Tokyo on the bullet train. It wasn't a terribly important meeting but someone from Tokyo had to attend and nobody else wanted to go. Thus goes life at the bottom of the food chain. The one saving grace was that the meeting was scheduled for 4pm on a Friday. Given that I wouldn't be able to get back to Tokyo until 9 or 10pm, I was well within my rights not to return to the office afterwards. With the company picking up the tab for my train ride, it was the perfect chance to spend the weekend wandering around Osaka and Kyoto.

Saturday was spent in Osaka. Though generally considered Japan's second largest city, I think it's absolutely fair to say it is a very distand second. It's a bit rough around the edges compared to Tokyo and being there feels a little like time travelling back 5-10 years. But it's not without it's charms: the food there is awesome and cheap. Osaka is well known for "kuidaore", which literally means to eat until you drop. It's an activity sort of like bar hopping but focused on food, going from restaurant to restaurant, eating a bit here or there. The city is also famous for a number of foods perfectly geared for such adventures: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and kushiage. None of it is very healthy food but I've somehow managed to drop about 5 kg in the last few months, so I had some leeway to work with.

And so I ate.
A lot.
And it was glorious.
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Sunday morning, I packed my bags and made the quick trip over to Kyoto. Kyoto can be a tricky in that it is a big tourist destination for both foreigners and the Japanese. It's temples are gorgeous but nothing ruins the experience like being overrun by hordes of tourists. Case in point: Kiyomizudera is a really cool temple but is also so popular that it's often too coated in visitors to really appreciate. I imagine it would be great really early on a weekday morning. As it was, I arrived in Kyoto around 10am on the weekend and there were already long snaking lines for the buses to the temple.

Fortunately for me, my favorite spot in Kyoto is a bit out of the way and much less popular with tourists. Nanzenji is tucked away near the North-East corner of the city and is a bit inconvenient to get to compared to some of the other temples. While there are always a small number of people there, you will never have to fight your way through crowds. There is nothing quite like wandering around a quite temple on a cool clear morning to make your soul feel at rest. There is an aqueduct near the back that you can get up and several places to wander off the path in the forest up into the mountains.But for me, the best part of Nanzenji is the giant gate, one of the three great temple gates in Kyoto. The current gate was built in the 1600s and you can go up on it for 500 yen, which seems like a lot considering that there's not much to do, but I think it's absolutely worth it. You are required to leave your shoes at the entrance, leaving you to walk around in your socks. The wood has all been worn smooth and you can't help but wonder how many have touched it over the years to make it that way. The gate is huge and you can see out over Kyoto to the West. I bet it would be fantastic at sunset. It's quiet and calming. It might be one of my favorite places in all of Japan.
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I spent the rest of the day wandering around Kyoto, stopping by Chion-in and the Nishiki food market. I think my favorite thing about Kyoto is that the city is so unashamedly Japanese. Tokyo is big and modern, all nice and shiny and full of neon lights, but Kyoto reminds you of where this country comes from. Walking around, it reminded me of just how different Japan is from the US and made me realize that there is a lot I will miss about this place.

I took a good number of pictures over the weekend which I've uploaded on flickr. I'll try to add little descriptions to them over the next few days to give them some context.

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