When asked what my favorite area in Japan is, Kyoto is usually my first response. This is surprising because, quite frankly, as a twenty-something, I was initially more interested in exploring the hot shopping areas of Tokyo than visiting temple after temple in Kyoto — which is what I expected would be a large part of our tour. There were a lot of temples, yes, but the history and architecture of this region were what told a compelling story of Japan’s culture and main religion.
On April 2, our tour left Nagoya east for Toyota City for a tour of Toyota’s main plant to see how cars are manufactured (sorry, photography was not allowed). It was interesting to see how robots were utilized to assemble various car parts. But I was most impressed with how quickly the factory workers moved to put the car parts together on the moving assembly line. I was starting to get the sense that the Japanese have excellent work ethics; this was just one example.
Leaving the Toyota factory gave me a new-found appreciation for my Camry waiting for me back home.
Shinkansen ride to Kyoto
Our Kyoto adventure really began when Mirubayashi-san (our bus driver) turned the bus back to Nagoya and dropped us off at the city’s train station to experience Japan’s famed high-speed bullet train. The Shinkansen would take us approximately 80 miles northeast to Kyoto — Japan’s former capital — at a speed of nearly 200 mph.
That sounds fast, but the speed didn’t bother me half as much as the mere thought of missing the train and being left behind. Hiro-san (our tour guide) advised us to get on board as quickly as possible because the cabin doors would close promptly within just a few minutes. And judging from the mass of people boarding and exiting the train, I wasn’t so sure I would make it in on time.
Waiting to board the Shinkansen.
Turns out I was just paranoid. The entire group made it on board the train safely. All 39 of us. Phew!
Enjoying the views of patty fields and old buildings whooshing past my window, I was excited to continue my journey to Kyoto.
We arrived at the Kyoto station in the late afternoon where light mist and a somber atmosphere welcomed us: the perfect setting for me to crawl into bed and rest up before a long day of temple traversing.
Todaiji Temple, Nara
The following day, we drove to Nara — another former capital of Japan — about an hour south of Kyoto. On the way, Hiro-san gave us a brief overview of the city as well as Todaiji, one of the most iconic Buddhist temples in Nara.
As we approached the park surrounding the Todaiji temple — called Nara-koen — we were greeted by deer roaming around the park. The fact that these deer were quite friendly led me to believe that they either really liked humans or they were just hungry. I guessed the latter as I noticed them quickly flocking toward the tourists with food.
Like the deer, we all assembled behind Hiro-san, who clearly knew where he was going — toward the Daibutsuden (Hall of the Great Buddha).
The group heads toward the Daibutsuden.
As the name suggests, the Daibutsuden is considered one of the largest wooden structures in the world and home to the Daibutsu, a 15-meter bronze statue of Buddha that towers over the entrance of the hall. The Daibutsuden also holds several smaller Buddhist statues and attractions including a pillar with a hole in its base. Legend has it that anyone who can pass through the opening will be granted an enlightened afterlife.
Yakushi Nyora, also known as the Buddha of healing. Supposedly, if you touch the body part that corresponds with your ailing body part, it will be healed.
It was now time to return to Kyoto to grab a quick lunch before our next temple stop: a turning point for me as this was when I fell in love with takoyaki — wheat flour-based batter filled with tiny pieces of octopus and cooked in a special cast iron.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto
The picturesque Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) — a Zen Buddhist temple — stands at the edge of Kyokochi pond, creating a beautiful reflection off the water. According to the Kyoto Prefecture official website, the building was originally intended to serve as a residence for the retiring Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in the late 1300s but was converted into a temple shortly after his death in the early 1400s.
The temple had been burned down several times due to war and other conflagrations, but restored to its present structure in 1955. Since 1987, major repair work had been made to enhance it with reinstate the gold leaf adorning the temple, according to Japan National Tourism Organization.
Anxious and cold, I fought my way through a horde of tourists vying for the perfect photo of Kinkakuji. It was all worth it after I captured a pretty nice shot of the stunning golden pavilion standing over its reflection.
Our Kyoto adventure didn’t stop there. We were hungry for more history…