Japan Part II: Kyoto and Okinawa

IMG_5438I’m finally almost recovered from the worst case of jet lag I’ve ever had. It’s a cool, sunny day, and I’m facing the window, people watching, and coincidentally, eating a chicken teriyaki special as I begin to write this. Kyoto and Okinawa needed their own space because they were incredibly different from the Tokyo area. Anyone who knows me understands that I’m not much of a city girl, so as exciting as it is to hang out and experience the crazy awesome that is Tokyo, these two places were more my speed. They’re also very different from each other. Now, onto the adventures of Japan Part II!

Kyoto / Fushimi Inari Shrine / Gion Geisha Quarter

Tokyo to Kyoto station is about a 2½ hour ride via Shinkansen, also referred to as the Bullet train. If you recall from my last post, a reservation on most Shinkansen is free with a JR Pass. Uncertain if we’d get a decent lunch on the train (the answer is yes, for purchase), we picked up rice balls (yum!), snacks, fruit, and drinks beforehand in the nearest grocery store… because even sushi is mega delicious and fresh in the grocery stores in Japan. The train ride was fast, pleasant, and spacious, and I got a lot of reading done. Bonus!

IMG_5416We arrived in Kyoto station in the early afternoon, so after dropping our stuff off at the hotel, we took the rail up to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Now, I follow National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and a few other travel and nature feeds on Instagram and other social media. The photos and articles are dream-making and incredible, but NOTHING beats the real thing.

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With at least a few hours of daylight to spare, we were able to experience this out-of-this-world place at sunset. What we didn’t realize was that the 4 km trek up a mountain was the hike we’d been hoping for. The orange-red shrine and sub-shrines devoted to Inari, the God of Rice, stream through the area. The Kitsune, mythical foxes that serve as messengers, guard them. (Sidebar: The MTV show, Teen Wolf, has an interesting take on the legend of the Kitsune as warriors that yield electricity.)

 

We climbed and climbed until it got too dark for safety. I’d say we were almost at the top, but it got a little confusing where to go next. The signs were scarce, you see, and… maybe a little hard to follow. Not that it stopped us from getting through almost the entire thing. Needless to say we earned that night’s sushi dinner in Gion, the Geisha quarter.

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While we didn’t see any geishas, the town, which oddly resembled a dusky road in a western flick, was full of hurried people looking for a bite to eat. We ended up finding a tiny, hole-in-the-wall for our desired sushi dinner and were treated to an eclectic mix of western music from the 80’s and 90’s, ala our waiter’s iPod playlist. A bit tired, a tad weary, maybe slightly delirious… but the combo of all these things made for a rather unique night.

The running joke is that we accomplished all of Kyoto in a half day. The shrine was THAT amazing and, by the way, also a World Heritage site.

Tenryu-ji Temple / Path of Bamboo (Kyoto cont’d.)

IMG_5530To get to the Path of Bamboo from our hotel, we took the metro to a station where a trolley picked us up. (Trains, planes, cars, buses, and trolleys… the only mode of transportation we didn’t utilize on this trip was a boat.) At the very end of the rail (literally, the very end – there were no more tracks), the trolley drops you off in a station that is more like a gateway to the town. It welcomes you with delicious ice cream booths, scrumptious street food, and of course shops.

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We followed signs through the district of Arashiyama to our first stop, the Tenryu-ji Temple. According to the history, the temple was once the emperor Go-Daigo’s villa, which was converted to a Zen Buddhist temple in the 14th century.

IMG_5511Walking through the different open passages of the temple was cool, but I most appreciated the gardens surrounding the old villa. Since it was February (winter in Japan), few flowers bloomed, and yet we were treated to a preview of nature to come. My only “regret” was that we didn’t see the gardens in all their spring glory.

IMG_5523IMG_5515After the temple we walked to the Path of Bamboo, which somehow just snuck up on us. “Oh, we’re here… whoa.” Trees towered over us on both sides. Winding paths led us who knew where (the end, of course), and artists and street vendors along the way boasted beautifully crafted images of Japan, glass dragonflies, and other unique trinkets. Sunlight filtered through slender trunks that grew very close together. We were fortunate to have a few minutes of empty path to bask under this interesting canopy of shaded light. I imagine hundreds of super tall warriors standing attention and guarding the patrons who traveled through here. Sentinels, if you will. (I’m a big fan of sentinels… and not of the X-Men variety.)

IMG_5583Okinawa / Naha / Okinawa World

Extremely early the next morning we took a flight from Osaka to Okinawa. While we arrived just in time for lunch (hooray for taco rice!), we were EXHAUSTED from the activities of the previous couple of days. Wassup, 4 km hike up a mountain! I’m looking at you, Fushimi Inari Shrine. And don’t think you’re getting out of the blame, 4 am wake-up.

We took some time to explore a little bit of downtown Naha, which was an unexpectedly delightful surf town. Of course! We were in Okinawa after all. Oh, and the temperature was in the high 60’s / low 70’s… splendid!

Different in its more laid-back atmosphere from our previous travels in Tokyo and Kyoto and its openness altogether, we took our time observing some of the shops, eating taco rice (totally making this at home now), and grabbing a cup of coffee to just absorb it all. We still had our bags on us, so walking down the street wasn’t exactly a traipse. Still, it would be another half hour cab ride to our resort, which is located south of downtown Naha, so we wanted to take advantage of the area while we were there.

IMG_5620Our resort was located on the beach. We finally arrived and checked into our room in the afternoon, but with little energy for a proper adventure, we opted for massages. My traveling companions chose the Lomi-Lomi massage, while I picked the Thai massage. Note: If you’ve never had a Thai massage, prepare to be rendered flexible and ninja-like. It’s great for the muscles, but it is by no means, a regular service. I imagine that’s as close as I’ll come to performing for the Cirque de Soleil. It was awesome.

IMG_5610Because of our somewhat isolated location, meals were restricted to the resort’s buffet, which consisted of a plethora of different kinds of food, including plates specific to Okinawa. We had a little bit of everything. And all was well.

We spent most of the next day (our only full day in Okinawa), at Okinawa World where we walked through Gyokusendo, a 5000 meter exploration of caves, as well as a scenic village of old time Okinawa, where we shopped among artisans and attended a fun and energetic Eisa dance performance. Heads bobbed, feet stomped, and smiles stretched from ear to ear. The caves were gorgeous, though extremely HUMID! Great for the skin, I guess. The artisans were incredible. We witnessed the outdoor glass-blowing facility, and I got to weave a bookmark with a loom!

We opted out of the third attraction, Habu Center, which featured pit vipers native to Okinawa. Yup! Good ol’ poisonous snakes. Actually, the microbrewery on the premises (yes, we stopped in for a refreshment), boasted Habu sake, made with pit viper venom. “No thanks! We’re good!”

Shurijo Castle / Bibi Beach (Okinawa cont’d.)

IMG_5602After a short exploration of Shurijo Castle (it was under a lot of construction at the time), we returned to our resort and walked onto Bibi Beach. Another beautiful sunset, another wonderful time to breathe, and a lovely chance for quiet and reflection. The wind had picked up, so it was a little chilly, but armed with windbreakers and fingerless gloves (I needed to take pictures), we had the beach and the ocean almost all to ourselves. Off season offers such opportunities, and there were only a few other people on the beach. It was a moment to feel tiny in a good way, to feel the remnants of a setting sun on your face, to hear the familiar, comforting swish of the ocean, and to remember that the world is both vast and humbling.

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We finished our last hours in Okinawa with food and a cocktail. Awamori alcohol (distilled from indica rice) is no joke, folks. Okinawans… they don’t play games with their drinks. A few sips of awamori will make the universe seem to shift in wonderful ways. An unforgettable cheers to a fantastic vacation!

There you go. We visited a few other places I haven’t mentioned in these posts, but these are my personal highlights. So, if you ever find yourself in Japan, maybe you’ll see what I’m talking about, or, better yet, you’ll discover your own unique adventure.

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