Last Day in Kyoto

Today was a relaxed affair. I briefly visited Tofukuji Temple and Toji Temple to stroll around their respective gardens before wrapping up my sightseeing in Kyoto by visiting the Jonangu Shrine. The gardens of all three were lovely, with my favourite being those of Jonangu Shrine. Instead of going into detail about each of the gardens (there are only so many adjectives one can use to describe gardens and after four days my creativity has run dry) I’m just going to leave a little montage of photos.

Tomorrow I travel down to Tanabe from where I will set out to walk part of the Kumano Kodo. This set of UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage routes is a really beautiful part of Japan and hopefully it will be a nice chance for me to recharge my introverted batteries before continuing with the rest of my trip. I am excited to be visiting the three Kumano shrines over the New Year when there are bound to be lots worshipers doing Hatsumode, the first Shinto shrine visit of the year. Since walking isn’t the most interesting thing to write about, I will most likely leave off covering my journey on a daily basis and instead sum up my entire Kumano Kodo experience in one or two posts after the fact. So, ta ta for now and I’ll see you in the New Year, may it be a pleasant and joyful one for all.

Walking Kyoto

As a tourist it is easy to jump on and off buses or trains, only every seeing the “must sees” and never stopping to look at anything else. To try and combat this, today I decided to walk between the temples and shrines that I planned to visit. This proved to one of my better ideas and, other than the gardens at Ginkakuji Temple, provided the best scenery of the day.

I started by looking around the gardens of the Heian-jingu Shrine. Sadly, while the gardens had the potential to be really beautiful, I felt that winter definitely wasn’t the intended viewing period. There were a lot of bare trellises and empty spaces that were waiting for spring so they could be clothed in greenery once more. This isn’t to say the whole garden was a dissappointment, I felt childish glee crossing the pond via stepping stones and the second half felt a little more winter orientated with a larger selection of evergreens.

From Heian-jingu I past a few minor shrines and temples and walked through a graveyard as I headed in the direction of Ginkakuji Temple. I ended up ambling next to a quaint little stream which was boarded with picturesque houses and shops. Part way along, I came across a little studio that offered the opportunity to try using a potters’ wheel and had a promising amount of English signage. Deciding this would be the perfect souvenir, I attempted to spin a (somewhat wobbly looking) bowl, which will be fired and sent back to Guernsey in due course.

After this little aside, I continued on to my original destination, speeding up towards the end so as to avoid a tour group that had just offloaded from a bus. Unlike the crush of people at the Golden Pavilion, Ginkakuji Temple had a steady flow of people that didn’t get congested around singular points. This immediately won it a few brownie points in my book and then the exquisite landscaping did the rest.

There is very little grass within most of the temples, instead moss covers the grounds and here was no exception. There was a multitude of mosses from emerald to forest green, all creating a lush carpet. The large number of evergreens kept the garden feeling alive and created a mystical air. I was extremely impressed with the attention to detail, from the veined stones used in the pathway to the bamboo grids used to discreetly hide the metal gratings of drains, no step was too far to ensure visitors felt fully immersed in nature.

I next looked around the Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, where tents and awnings were being pitched in preparation for New Years celebrations. The surrounding woodland was very scenic, though I will admit to feeling a little superstitious when a murder of crows started cawing at me.

I wrapped up the day with some rather bland yakitori skewers in the Gion district. I think in the future I shall have to avoid the “recommended for overseas visitors” option on menus.

Christmas in Kyoto

Christmas doesn’t exist in Japan. The few churches might hold a service and every now and then one might see a bit of tinsel, but Christmas isn’t celebrated in Japan. There is no public holiday, no discordant carolling and no celebration. It is, perhaps, for the best. I think that had my first Christmas away from home been full of reminders for what I was missing, I would have ended up curling up in a ball and crying to myself all day. As it was, I had a very enjoyable day and since there was no public holiday, I could continue with my sightseeing.

This does not mean I made no concessions for Christmas. I started the day by heading to St. Anges Anglican International Church of Kyoto for a lovely little service followed by tea and coffee across the road. It was an interesting and though provoking sermon about how we are all bearers of God and the hymn selection bought a lovely bit of Christmas cheer to my day. As everyone headed off to work after tea and coffee, I crossed the road to meander through the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace.

The Palace itself is closed on Mondays so the gardens were very quite. They weren’t the amazingly landscaped gardens that Japan is famous for however there were a few small shrines and walled off gardens which were very pretty and peaceful. Checking my map, I walked over to Nijo-jo Castle, glancing nervously at the sky as it carefully targeted my glasses with rain. Eventually I was forced to give in and get my Umbrella out as I approached the castle.

Nijo-jo Castle is a lasting symbol of the power on the Japanese Shogunate during the Edo Period of Japan and it really lived up to this impressive caption. Many on the interior wall paintings had backgrounds of gold dust and the attention to detail on the brass ceiling bracket was astounding. One thing I would be curious to know is how they kept warm though as I began to feel the chill walking through the gardens. Unlike the more park like layout of the Imperial Palace, the gardens surrounding the castle were painstakingly crafted with exquisite rock and water formations that photos cannot do justice to.

After some tasty matcha noodles, I caught the train to Inari station to see the famous Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine. The photos of hundreds, if not thousands of torii gates leading up the mountain are almost synonymous with Japan. The tunnels of these vermilion arches wind upwards towards the summit and as I ascend, the heaving crowds begin to subside.

My family has something of a tradition of taking photos of wearing Santa hats every Christmas and I had been tasked with getting a photo of myself in one today, despite being on the opposite side of the world. Fortunately, I had found a nice hat in Seoul and so spent the day taking selfies of myself in said hat. It was as I was taking one of these selfies in front of a torii gate tunnel, that someone asked me to take a few photos of them. After returning the favour, we began walking up the mountain together. I couldn’t help but smile at the exclamation of wow my new companion made every time we reach a new flight of stairs.

It was on one such flight close to the summit that we merged with a group of Australians. After a slew of photos in front of the main summit shrine and a good natured argument about who was the best photographer and iPhone versus Android, we all descended together to go our separate ways. Even though I was with a talkative group, above the more tourist saturated areas, the tranquil otherness of the surrounding forest was palpable and I couldn’t help but think that the trees were watching.

After a tasty 7-Eleven meal, freshly heated in the microwave, I concluded the day with a Christmas video call back home.

The Chaos of Kyoto

My Kyoto adventure began with a five minute walk to Kodaiji Temple where I walked around the scenic gardens before continuing on to Kiyomizu Temple. The walk to the temple was along several traditional streets. These beautiful old buildings housed a variety of shops selling souvenirs, food or offering kimono rentals. The whole street was packed with people and I was carried up the hill at a suffocatingly slow speed with the rest of the masses, unable to overtake for fear of colliding with someone coming in the opposite direction.

Kiyomiza Temple is currently being renovated to stop the lower level collapsing and having a new roof put on so was wrapped up in scaffolding. It did offer me the opportunity to read about how the bark of Japanese Cypress trees is collected and used for roofing which was very interesting. I particularly liked the mock up cross sections of the roof that were used to illustrate the interior structure.

Having passed through the temple, I strolled down the path through the gardens before making my way past kimono clothed couples and groups to get to the bus stop. My next stop was Kinkakuji Temple, or as most might know it, the Golden Pavilion. I’m more of a silver person myself but as a tourist, I felt duty bound to visit it. It was undeniably impressive and I would be curious to learn about how the gold plating was added. However, that crowds boarded on being overwhelming as everyone jostled to get first a photo, then a selfie, and then have someone take their photo. I even had my someone use my head like a tripod. I mean I know I’m short but they could have waited for me to move rather than just resting their arms on my head.

Escaping the chaos, I walked along to Ryoanji Temple this was mercifully quieter and I really enjoyed strolling through the beautiful gardens. I was most notably taken with the famous zen garden. While the pictures I have seen of it in the past were pleasant, it was only seeing it in person that I felt that I could comprehend its many layers and true tranquillity.

Carrying this lasting peace with me, I walked through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. With the sun beginning to set and looming rain clouds it wasn’t too crowded and proved to be a pleasant way to end the day before I retreated to my hostel out of the rain.

Snow Monkeys!

From two years ago when I was part of the support team for the World Scout Jamboree in Japan, I have wanted to visit the Japanese macau that live in the mountains surrounding the onsen villages of Shibu and Yudanaka. This troupe of “snow monkeys” are know for bathing in the hotspring waters during the cold winter months.

They originally overran the human onsen (public hotspring baths) of a nearby inn, but due to the unsanitary nature of this, a bath was built for them further up the valley in the national park. Since they rarely enter the hotspring in the summer there was little point in me visiting them last time I was in Japan. Hence, the moment I decided that I was going to be visiting Japan in the winter, snow monkeys appeared at the top of my to do list. Even in December, with snow on the ground it is a little too warm for the monkeys to enter the steaming pool in the large numbers one might see further into winter.

Nonetheless I was determined to go and I was most definitely not disappointed. On the advice of Yoshi, one of the superb hostel owners, I caught the 08:20 bus to the snow monkey onsen. This way I hoped to avoid the worst of the crowds but not have to wait ages for the entrance to the snow monkey onsen to open. This worked well for me and I didn’t see a soul for most of the half hour walk through the national park to the entrance.

The walk was extremely pleasant and aside from being icy, not at all difficult. The snow laden trees were picturesque and the sound of the river rushing below in the valley provided a natural melody. Occasional gusts of wind carried the scent of sulphur and the cries of monkeys.

Initaially at the monkey onsen, I felt somewhat out of place as the only person using my phone camera; everyone else has at least one large, lens heavy camera. This was eventually remedied as more people began to arrive, but for those first ten minutes or so it was just me and those few camera wielding enthusiasts.

As I had feared would be the case, only a few monkeys entered the pool itself while I was there, but watching them sit around the edge and interact with one another was still a wonderful experience. They were undeniably cute and I was impressed by how little they were disturbed by the number of tourists, though I suppose in reality this was unsurprising.

With the viewing area getting crowded I walked back to the beginning of the forest trail. This time my walk was somewhat louder with a constant stream of people walking in the opposite direction. Reaching the end of the trail, I decided to walk back to my hostel through Shibu and Yudanaka on the advice of Seongmi, the other hostel owner and Yoshi’s wife. This turned out to be a really good idea as the views of the distant snow capped mountains were stunning and my walk took threes times longer than it should have because I kept stopping to admire them.

I also had a bit of fun resting my feet in a public foot onsen and after repacking my bag at the hostel, I walked back to Shibu. This time I walked through the onsen area and collected the stamps of all the public onsen in my notebook and tried some delicious soft boiled eggs that had been cooked in the hotspring water. It was lovely to walk through the winding streets and see the drains streaming where hot water gurgled below.

My final stop before dinner was one of the many onsen. I handed over the voucher I had purchased at the hostel and spent the next hour relaxing in mineral rich water and contemplating my day. The outdoor pool was beautifully designed and I can’t think of a better way to unwind after a day’s walking.

Back at the hostel, I met up with the two skiers I’d had dinner with the night before and we headed out for dumplings, grilled skewers and soba noodles. This was yet another delicious meal and a pleasant conclusion to the day.

Today I’m travelling down to Kyoto and I will be sad to leave Yudanaka and the Hostel Aibiya behind. The hostel is built in the traditional Japanese style and has a small store showcasing local artists. Both Seogmi and Yoshi were fantastic hosts, full of advice and local knowledge. The breakfast was amazing, especially the granola, and I truly look forward to a day when I might return, be it for hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter or maybe just to try more of the mouthwartering food offered by the nearby restaurants.

Not Quite Smooth Travelling

I spent my last full day in Seoul purchasing some discount hiking poles and looking around the fabric section of the Gwangjang Market. Or in other words, getting lost in the identical aisles of the Gwangjang Market. I could have passed the same teetering pile of fabric half a dozen times and not known it. This is not to say that all the fabrics were the same, indeed there was a vast variety of colour and composition, it is merely that fabric shops of any reasonable size have an innate ability to become labyrinths to the unsuspecting customer. Thus, it is hardly surprising that an entire market of fabric stores had me without orientation within seconds. Eventually I escaped the maze, sanity and wallet intact (there was a long moment where I debated getting a hambok after the fun I had wearing one). I spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hostel and checking a few last minute details for my next stage of travelling. Because my flight to Japan was an early one, I’d elected to change to a hostel closer to the airport for ease of mind. This is where everything started to go wrong. Well not everything, just one particular thing that impacted on everything else. One very annoying little thing.

Remember how on my first day in Seoul I was complaining about the difficulties of getting money at an ATM? Well it happened again as I tried to pay for my hostel and again and again at the nearby ATMs. I was forced to cancel my hostel, though at such short notice they charged via the internet anyway. Ironic that I was forced to pay for something I could not have when the reason I was unable to have it was that I could not pay.

Having seen the train times, I knew there was no way I would have been able to stay at my previous hostel, where I technically still had a reservation, and make it to the airport on time. Hence I found myself sprawled and trying desperately to sleep on an airport bench while waiting for 04:30 and check in to roll around. It eventually did, and after a pleasant chat with my mother via the beauty of free, unlimited airport WiFi (take note all English airports), I checked in without a hitch.

The queue for both entrances to security was painfully long, so long in fact that the two ends collided out by the check in desks. I was reminded of the days when all the new security measures had only just been introduced and no one knew what was going on. Nowadays it is so streamlined in some airports as to be almost painless. My flight left on time and, other than a little turbulence, I naively thought I had left my troubles behind. More fool me, for in my pocket still lurked the card of doom, biding its time until I needed to withdraw my yen.

Safely through immigration and customs, I head straight for the ATM line up and start working my way down the line. To my utter devastation, not a single one would give me any money. There I was, stuck half way around the world, without a usable penny, or rather yen, to my name. I didn’t have a working sim card and with no money, I could not use a payphone. After a small meltdown and several failed attempts to phone home via Messenger, I found myself once more in front of the dreaded ATMs. This time my goal was only to get enough money for the pay phone. At the third machine along I started low and upon a miraculous success, worked my way up until the I once again got an error message.

This method was by no means perfect and I dread to think of the various bank charges I have incurred but I now had enough money for the train and my hostel, which was a marked improvement. Armed with my newly procured funds I took the JR line to Nagano where I said goodbye to English announcements and continued on to Yudanaka. I carefully monitored snow levels throughout my journey, after all my sole reason for coming to Yudanaka is to see the snow monkeys. Things did not look promising as the train set off from Tokyo. It was not until well after Nagano that dustings of snow began to appear and only in the final stretch, when we ventured in to the shadow of mountains, that any major snowfall occured. End of the line and I walked to my hostel, miraculously not getting lost. I enjoyed an amazing plate of sushi and some tempura with a couple of other guests before retiring for the evening.

An amusing aside observation is how airports and train stations gradually seem to be giving up on forbidding luggage on escalators. In Hong Kong, signs asked that people with big bags use the lifts but when I reached Seoul it was only if one had multiple bags that the lift was required (though the number of stairs in some stations made the lift a tempting option anyway); at Incheon Airport signs showed how to take two suitcase on the escalator; finally, when I reached Narita Airport in Japan, the escalator to the train station was labelled as being suitable for taking trolleys. On this last however, one must note the look of fear on the faces of those standing in front of the trolley.

From Palaces to Prisons

Today was a nonstop day. I hit the ground running and got to Changgyeonggung Palace shortly after it opened. This meant the Palace was almost blissfully deserted. After all, what tourist wants to have other tourists in all their holiday photos? At this point I will admit to feeling a little palaced out, however the grounds were really stunning and it was fascinating to read about the State Council. I also spent a considerable amount of time trying to work out how to read the angbuilgu sundial.

The final palace I visited was Deoksugung Palace. The remaining area of this palace is very small in comparison to some of the others I have visited. What is particularly interesting is the presence of a couple of western style buildings, which are not seen at any of the other palaces. Today’s clear sky meant that the sun was in full winter force and I ended up receiving several very cold drips of snow melt down my neck as the rooftop snow thawed.

My palace adventures over, I got the train to the Seodaemun Prison History Hall. This prison is where the Japanese imprisoned thousands of Korean independence activists during their colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. To walk through the grounds and read about just some of the appalling treatment and torture of prisoners was chilling. While there was a reasonable amount of English in the main building, there were a couple of areas where everything was in Korean. This was a real shame, but merely walking through the echoing halls with the knowledge that people were crammed together in the surrounding cells, unable to lie down for lack of space is a sobering and deeply moving experience. I think the most heart wrenching story for me was that of a young woman who was pregnant when she was arrested and was forced to give birth and the care for her baby in the prison.

Unwilling to conclude the day on such a depressing note, I made my way to Namsangol Hanok Village. Built to celebrate Seoul’s 600th anniversary as the capital, it contains a buried time capsule and five traditional hanoks relocated from around the city. The hanoks have furnished rooms that one can view and I took the opportunity to rent a hambok and take a few photos of myself around the village. This was very nerve-wrecking and I felt like all eyes were on me, especially when I walked past a tour group and they all stopped talking. In the end I opted for the aggressive eye contact approach, which quickly had people turning away. All those staring contests with my cat have clearly paid off.

Shrines and Cable Cars in the Snow

The first thing I realised this morning is that everywhere closes on Monday. And I mean everywhere. Or at least everywhere that I wanted to visit. Hence, Deoksugung Palace, the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Changyeonggung Palace have all been delegated to the future. After over an hour of trawling guide book, map and internet to figure out what was open I set out, revelling in the falling snow.

I walked to Jogyesa Temple via the Bosingak Belfry. The Belfry houses a bell that used to be rung 33 times in the morning to signal the opening of the city gates and then 24 times in the evening to signal their closing. I could not see the bell but there was a wall in the nearby station that explains its full history. The Jogyesa Temple is the centre of Buddhism in South Korea, and was a beautiful splash of colour in the snow. It was extremely restful to walk around and warm myself by the outdoor heaters as I listened to the melodic chants of worship.

I wound my way through snow clad streets, admiring the many hanok style buildings as I left the busiest roads behind on my walk to the Jongmyo Shrine. Arriving at the gates, I was alarmed to see a large number of people milling outside the gate but no one entering. Had perhaps the opening times online been wrong? Or was it closed because of the snow? Heart sinking, I walked closer until I saw a board bearing a list of languages, and a separate time for each. Somehow in all my reading I had missed that entrance to the Shrine was by tour only. This is done to preserve the UNESCO world heritage site. By some wondrous miracle, the next English tour was only two minutes away and within no time I had entered the breath taking shrine. I expect that it is normally picturesque, but the snow laden trees and rooftops were straight from a wintery postcard, if not better.

The shrine was built to house the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings, their queens and some of their most devoted government officials. The central stone path to the main shrine, Jeongjeon, is comprised of three lanes, the two outer lanes are for the king and crown prince, while the centre one is for the spirits to make their way along. The shrines are undoubtedly impressive and just a little imposing but I must confess it is the surrounding woodland that captivates me the most. In Guernsey the world stops at the sight of a single snowflake, but here in Seoul life continues as normal, it is only among this forest that the snow lies untouched and winter reigns.

The bark of the juniper tree is used to make an aromatic incense used in the ancestor summoning rituals held at the shrine every year. The circular island represents heaven while the square pond is Earth.

With the tour over I head to Namsan Park and take the cable car up to Seoul Tower. This is a pleasant way to spend some of the afternoon, just meandering the various attractions, although there were a lot of “coming soon” signs. I particularly liked the Ssentoy Museum which had a large selection of Marvel figurines, models and dioramas. The view from the observation deck of the tower was rather limited but I did get a lovely aerial view of some of Namsan Park and the section of the old city wall that runs through it.

Deciding the to relax for the remainder of the afternoon I head back the to hostel, stopping at an underground shopping centre to browse a some pretty shoes and handbags.

The DMZ

I was the first to board the bus and it was another 40 minutes before we picked up anyone else. I passed the time by admiring Seoul as it began to awaken. Having picked up another five people, we switched to a larger tour bus and made our way towards the boarder.

Outside the entry point to the military controlled area, we looked at the Freedom Bridge, Peace Bell and an old locomotive engine from the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The Freedom Bridge is where North and South Korean POW were exchanged after the war while the Peace Bell and a number of other pieces express the Korean people’s deep desire for their country to be reunited. Unification is a major theme of our tour as our guide points out Unification Village, Unification Bridge and so on.

After having our passports checked, our first stop in the DMZ was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, built by the North Koreans into South Korea. After descending the steep access tunnel, we were able to walk along the main tunnel until we reach the third barrier wall that blocks the tunnel on the South Korean side. At this point I stood only 160m from the boarder and it was most likely the closest I will ever be to North Korea. Here pictures were not allowed so just picture a cold and rough hewn granite tunnel (though warmer than the surface) with a concrete wall blocking it. In the wall is a small window and a rusted door.

Managing not to bash my head on the low ceiling, I retreated to the surface and the tour moved on to the observation tower. It felt weird sitting on a tour bus and being driven everywhere after so long being my own tour guide or only taking part in the occasional free walking tour. Fortunately it seems my poor visibility curse remained in Hong Kong and the observation tower offered amazing views of North Korea. Our guide pointed out the various details, from real and fake villages to two flag poles on opposite sides of the boarder which use to compete to be the tallest until the South gave up.

Out final stop in the DMZ was Dorasan Station. This train station sits on a line that runs through the entire Korean peninsula, eventually connecting to China. While trains do not currently run between the North and South, the rest of the line is in use and it was once again apparent just how much the South wishes to be reunited with the North.

Our final stop was at a ginseng information centre where we were enthusiastically told about the growing process and the various medical benefits of the six year old ginseng, as opposed to less mature ginseng, which can only be purchased in South Korea.

Visiting the War Memorial of Korea

Most people have heard of the Korean war, a war that started in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25th June 1950 and ended in an armistice on 27th July 1953. It was a war between communism and democracy that not only irreparably tore apart a nation but also its people and their families. Entering the grounds of the War Memorial of Korea, one is immediately greeted by the Statue of Brothers.

I cannot give a just explanation to the full symbolism of this moving piece so will give only the text of the accompanying plaque and allow the reader to reach any further conclusions:

“The Statue of Brothers is an 18 meter wide and 11-meter high symbol of the Korean War. It consists of the upper part, lower part and inner part. The upper part of the statue depicts a scene where a family’s older brother, an ROK officer, and his younger brother, a North Korean soldier, meet in a battlefield and express reconciliation, love, and forgiveness. The lower tomb-shaped dome was built with pieces of granite collected from nationwide locations symbolizing the sacrifices made by our patriots. The crack in the dome stands for the division of Korea and the hope for reunification. Objects inside the dome include a mosaic wall painting that expresses the spirit of the Korean people to overcome the national tragedy and a map plate of the 16 UN Allied Nations that dispatched troops to the war. The links of iron chain on the ceiling signify the unbreakable bonds of a unified Korea.

After viewing the rest of the outdoor exhibition, a collection of tanks, planes and boats from the Korean War, I walked in laden silence through the galleries that enshrine marble slabs, each bearing row upon row of names, what will be the final footprint of those who fell as time gradually erases all else.

The museum itself was extremely interesting, detailing not only the Korean War but also some of the Korean Peninsula’s turbulent history and the events leading up to the war. Fortunately there was plenty of English explanation boards and while visiting a museum that documents wars and some of the suffering experienced during them cannot be called enjoyable, it was certainly informative and moving. To anyone else who visits my only advice would be to avoid the times when tours are being led around as they really disturb the atmosphere the museum clearly worked hard to achieve.

“In remembrance of the Korean soldiers and UN military participants who lost their lives in the Korean War, the respect towards the warriors (1,300 identification tags) has been embodied as tear drops. The iron thorns symbolise the horror, suppression and danger of the tragic war. The circle on the sand below represents the wave of the drop.”

Shaking off the cloud that had begun to form over me, I made my way to Itaewon for a late lunch and spent the rest of my afternoon looking around the various shops. I was amazed by the array of items on offer and found myself pining after a good many pair of boots. I think my favourite site though was a little street vendor that sold only scarves, knuckle dusters and nunchucks.

Two Americans, an Australian and a Brit walk into a Korean restaurent…

To finish the day I went out for a lively and enjoyable dinner with three others from my hostel. We ended up in a restaurant that served only one dish, beef on the bone in some kind of broth. It was most delicious and after some confusion over having to pay first, we were even complimented on our chopstick use (I think).