Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) , a traditional Korean tea and exploring the “most international area in Seoul”- Iteawon.

Many Asian countries have their own identity; though this may be subjective depending on whether you are native or foreign, we found Japan to be traditional and China to be an intriguing mix, a country which sometimes lives up to its first world international persona and other times is languishing behind with marked (but often internationally hidden) third world dimensions.

South Korea, however, is a delightful borrower. It shows off aspects of Japanese and Chinese heritage, yet is influenced by another country as well- the United States.

And as testimony to that influence, we started our day that morning at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. Having never been fortunate enough (or indeed, able to afford) to go the United States, this was my first introduction to the popular American brand. And I enjoyed it- my travel companion and I sat with long onion and garlic bagels and lattes, and Anna had a doughnut and a coffee. Having finished breakfast at this nearby train station (we could have also gone to a nearby Starbucks or Baskin & Robbins if we so wished), we hopped onto the metro to where Gyeongbokgung Palace was located.

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At the nearby train station, the Pullomen langors.

Legend has it that if you walk through the stone arch, you will never grow old.

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Guess who wants eternal youth!!!

Gyeongbokgung had a few surprises in store for us; for one thing, the Changing of the Guards (typically reminiscent of Buckingham Palace) also exists here. And watching the procession was amazing!

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The Korean Guards during the Changing of the Guards

There are some very interesting things to note about Gyeongbokgung. For one thing, it was built in 1395 but it burnt down by fire in 1592 after a Japanese invasion. The Palace was restored in 1867, and whilst there were initially 500 buildings, only 125 now remain (I paid attention to our tour guide on the English group tour).

Also, it is useful to note that if you are a young Korean student, you can get into Gyeongbokgung palace for free provided you have proof of age.

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The gates of Gyongbokgung

The palace was beautiful- adorned with a lake, gardens and buildings made up of colourful materials, most commonly a dusty cinnamon colour.

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We were allowed to walk around the King’s chamber (though, as expected, the furnishings and paintings were behind a rope barrier) but the Queen’s chamber was more closed off to the public.

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Note, the palace also gets a lot of educational visits. Above, a primary school tour group gets shown around

As obedient tourists as we are, we eventually tired of the tour and so crept off to the gardens. Like the palace, these were lovely- made lovelier by the riot of colours that met the eye:

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After we finished exploring Gyeongbokgung palace (경복궁), we moved on to Insa-dong (인사동) to find something to eat.

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Anna had done prior research on a vegan restaurant, called Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) in the area. We headed through the lanes of souvenir shops, including those selling your typical tourist items to those whose windows were filled with marvellous homemade ceramics, paintings and jewellery. As we reached our destination, it transpired that the vegan restaurant was shutting for a little while whilst staff went on a break. We were all very hungry, and a bit unsure as to what to do in the meantime; however, it turned out that we needn’t have worried! Nearby lay a cute, traditional Korean tea shop. We walked around the side and removed our shoes (as is customary when entering a home and some restaurants in Seoul) and climbed some stairs until we entered the tea area.

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In the top right-hand corner, the tea place we went to

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The interior of the restaurant

Here, people were sat on cushions, separated by only a low wooden table. Anna ordered for us and we ended up with, amongst other things:

Sujeongwa/cinnamon punch (cold)- which was lovely!

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Patbingsu (red bean ice dessert)- which I wasn’t keen on but Anna and my friend (who comes from Hong Kong) enjoyed. Perhaps it is just less suited to a Western palate.

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Schizandra berry tea- very different

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AND

A sweet set- full of light rice cookie-esque treats- this was my favourite- so yummy!

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After we had finished tea and let food digest a little, we went on to Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) for a late lunch/early dinner.

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Picture of the exterior of the vegan restaurant.

Note that it says “vegetarian” because it used to serve dairy and eggs before it became vegan.

The three of us had mixed opinions regarding the food but I really loved my dishes, which consisted of a spicy Chinese-style noodle dish and vegetable dumplings. Anna also ordered this really lovely mushroom filled batter dish, served in a moreish sweet and sour sauce.

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The lovely mushroom batter filled dish

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Our table of food! Front right- my beloved noodles

We walked around the many shops and little shopping precincts in the area. In the precinct below, on the top floor, was a poo café. I felt this symbolised a substantial cultural difference. As a Brit, I don’t find poo to be especially cute but clearly some people in Korea view the substance very differently 🙂

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Picture of a shopping precinct

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Pic of poo café exterior

Finally, we headed to Iteawon, somewhere that Anna described to us as being “the most international area” in Seoul, and somewhere with a large variety of nightlife. We headed out with the intention of grabbing some drinks, and after heading into a very international nightclub full of (I hate to say it) creepy Western guys staring at any young female, we made a sharpish exit. We stumbled across a little French restaurant and bar called Un Deux Trois. Since the cocktail menu was impressive here and the restaurant had a lovely, sophisticated ambience, we sat down for drinks and Anna and I shared a gorgeous cheese board (I always have a lot of love for Goats cheese). I also ordered a wonderful blueberry cocktail- whilst I can’t remember exactly what ingredients it consisted of, it was more like a dessert since alongside liquor, it consisted of vanilla ice cream and was topped with chocolate shavings.

Eventually we decided to head back to our hotel and just have a few drinks, chat and chill.

Tomorrow was our final day in Seoul, and we were determined to make it a memorable one.

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A little sample of Seoul: the N-Tower, eating vegan and exploring Myeong-dong

*before I start the post itself, a big thank you/kamsahamnida to Anna for giving me Korean names and reminders of where we went in Seoul- it was a hectic few days and I struggled to keep track of the names of everything at times*

It was time for us to move on to the next country on our itinerary; we reached the airport in good time and had a fairly efficient flight with Air Seoul. My friend Anna, who comes from South Korea, was meeting us at the airport and spending a few days with us in Seoul. Since it had been a few months since I saw her (during our graduation ceremony), I started to feel how a little child might feel on the build up to Christmas as we circled over Incheon International airport.

We waited for a little bit and then hugs were exchanged as two became three. I knew that having another person would change the dynamic, and I guess I was slightly nervous since my travel companion and Anna did not know each other really well prior to this part of the journey. But spirits were high, and Anna and I picked up a quick cold drink before we all took the airport express to a central Seoul station, which cost 8000 won (£3-4).

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The view from the airport express as we headed towards the train station

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The central Seoul station

Getting to the hotel was up for discussion; in the end, we went for the metro system, assuming that it would be fairly direct and pain free. And in terms of expense, it was- a T-money card (the Korean equivalent of London’s Oyster card, Hong Kong’s Octopus card or Australia’s Myki card) cost 3000 won and was available for purchase in a nearby newsagent. We paid 10000 won, keeping an extra 7000 on the card for subsequent travel. Unfortunately my travel companion, who was recovering from a shoulder injury, ended up having to put more strain on his shoulder than any of us would have initially thought since all the stations had a lot of steps and each of us had a heavy load to carry so we couldn’t share lifting. I felt bad at this point- I had suggested a taxi but maybe should have been more assertive about my want for us to get a cab because of the worry that his injury would worsen. Nonetheless, having disembarked at Cheongryangri station (청량리역) and feeling quite tired, we did get a taxi for the final short stint to where we were staying- the Blessing Hotel in Seoul.

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On the Seoul metro

Our room was simple and clean but sparse, and had a halls of residence like feel to it. However, a huge bonus of where we were staying was an incredibly advanced security system, whereby you had to swipe your key to get through to the lift, and swipe magnetically to enter your room. We met in reception (since Anna had a room two floors below ours) and headed to a Vegan restaurant nearby.

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The interior of Gongjon restaurant

This Vegan restaurant was located in DongDaemun-gu- it was called Gongjon (공존), which means ‘Coexistence’ in Korean. It was a light and friendly café with wood tables and seats and very few other diners, located down a road where nearby, groups of people were drinking in bars or eating in other restaurants. You go up to the counter to order and the food received a mixed review from our group; I enjoyed the tomato and burdock pasta (though it was probably the spiciest pasta I’ve ever had and I struggled at times) but my friend wasn’t mad about his fried rice. Anna went for a gorgeous onion-y mock steak, which she really enjoyed, and we drank a Raspberry squash drink.

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The tomato and burdock pasta

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The fried rice

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The onion-y mock steak meal

Post-dinner, we got a cab to the N-Tower. The N-Tower stands for Namsan (South Mountain) tower and is probably a good place for couples to go- if you visit the website, you will see this caption “where your love comes true, now have a happy date at N SEOUL TOWER”. So after declaring my undying love for Anna (hahaha) and being far too ambivalent about the walls/gates on which you can attach a lock- representing the romance you share with your perfect partner and reminiscent of Paris’ famous lock bridge- we headed to the tower itself. The tower was full of restaurants, some shops and a bar area. Though there is a charge to get right to the top of the tower, you get a good view of Seoul simply by climbing some stairs and standing on a viewing platform. It was lovely, but if we are adding comparison into the mix, less impressive than Tokyo Skytree or the Peak in Hong Kong, which provide a similar kind of experience.

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The N-Tower from a distance       The N-Tower up close

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The view from the N-Tower

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Hey Anna!

Finally we hopped onto the Seoul metro system to Myeong-dong; this was my godsend, because like the foolish individual I am, I had packed more in anticipation for Australia than the very cool (yet familiar) climate in South Korea, and had not brought enough jumpers with me (I had one jumper). So we weaved in between familiar high street giants (like H&M and Uniqlo, which were unfortunately shut when we got to Myeong-dong to shop) and located independently owned clothing stores which were still open. I managed to pick up two sweaters fairly cheap with the help of my fashion advisors (a.k.a my travel companion and Anna) and found a great leather-style jacket in a boutique, which was not too expensive but also sold out in my size (c’est la vie).

A little note about Seoul before I sign off of this blog entry; never, in my entire life, have I seen so many skincare/cosmetic shops and coffee shops within such a small surface area. So people who need their daily dose of caffeine, or get excited by some new tea tree/collagen/snail formula whatever skin product- you should get excited for Seoul.

We wrapped up the day exhausted but glad to have had a little taste of what Seoul has to offer. For us, this was the start of a very busy three days in the capital of South Korea.

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South Korea at night      

Oh Osaka: our hotel horror, day trip to Mount Koya and discoveries about Dotonbori

Osaka was our final stop in Japan; to get to the place that some have labelled as a “must see” for food lovers, we got the train from the main Kyoto station to Osaka station, which only took half an hour (fifteen minutes if you get an express train, but we preferred to save a few hundred yen). On the first impressions, Osaka seemed promising- the sun was shining as we approached the region, and the rural surroundings, interspersed with some buildings, appeared much more akin to what I initially expected from Kyoto than the more commercialised Osaka.

OUR HOTEL

All was well and good until we reached our hotel. We’d stayed in a variety of places thus far- some poor (our Ikebukuro place had a hole in the floor and windows that wouldn’t shut properly), some good (the place we moved to when we figured our room wouldn’t withstand a typhoon that was due to hit that night in Tokyo) and some perfectly satisfactory (where we stayed in Kyoto, which was a clean place to rest your head, and did provide Wi-Fi in the lobby area). However, the Livemax Namba (the English name that our Japanese hotel is far less commonly known by) was a tad nightmarish. The reception was cold, barren and (in an attempt to seem upmarket) marble, with two outdated sofas, Japanese T.V playing in the background and a ludicrous set of rules (for example, a 9000 Yen penalty if you lose your room key- they therefore recommend you hand it in at reception every time you leave the hotel). We took the elevator to our room on the 8th floor of an outdoor, stone courtyard which brandished an array of repugnant smells. One day we inhaled L’eau de Manure, another day the scent was more like cat urine and well… you get the drift. The room itself was unbelievably stuffy, but the air conditioning emitted cigarette smoke scented air (in an apparently non-smoking room) so we had a little bit of a catch 22 situation regarding whether to put aircom on or not. They do say that you get what you pay for though (or less in this case, but we were travelling on a budget after all). And with reference to redeeming features of the hotel, there were some: the location was not awful, since we were in walking distance to Sakuragowa station (part of a pretty decent metro network around Osaka) and the furnishing of our rooms was fine too. And remarkably, this was not the worst place we stayed (just you wait until the Guilin blog entries). Hotel aside- food was still a big issue for me in Osaka. What had got 10 x better in Kyoto (though still not easy per se) became 100 x worse in Osaka. We weren’t near many restaurants, and the nearby ones offered no vegetarian options. But we did have a supermarket near us, so I dined on fruit and Kitkats that night (to be fair, there are worse dinners) whilst my friend had a microwaveable meat fried rice and some similar noodles with an egg on top (kudos to the room, we had a microwave since the hotel had no dining facilities). Kirin beer provided us with a mini treat after a long day.

THE HUNT FOR WIFI

The next morning we headed out to find a Starbucks (as nowhere in our hotel had Wi-Fi, which was causing big issues regarding planning and blogging). We got the train from Sakuragowa and changed onto the Midosuji line at Namba station to get to Umeda and Osaka. We found a Starbucks… but this one had no Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, a mushroom and mozzarella tartine and coffee provided me with my veggie-safe lunch and the hunt for wi-fi began. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but eventually we headed into a large electrical shop with my travel companion locating a free International Travellers’ Hotspot Wi-Fi sign. We headed to the basement floor whereby it transpired that simply showing your passport could give you a username and password that would allow your to access internet publicly in places like train stations and McDonalds (it didn’t always work in train stations, but worked at other times). This was something that Osaka offered which really impressed me, so should you find yourself without Wi-Fi whilst there, take advantage of the scheme.

THE POKEMON CENTRE, OSAKA

Like Tokyo, Osaka has a Pokemon Centre. Though I watched it a bit when I was younger, I am by no means a Pokemon expert. However, my travel companion was keen to go and sure enough, I was really impressed by the store. Whilst I’m sure some of the memorabilia and souvenirs were lost on me, the shop impressed by selling everything from traditional (and rarer) trading cards, to Pokemon Macaroni and IPhone cases. The shop itself was a riot of primary coloured souvenirs amongst a cream backdrop and consisted of some excited adults who were clearly lifelong fans. And being here gave me the chance to pick up two birthday presents for my travel companion, who celebrated his birthday on the 5th November in China (blog on that day coming soon).

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The entrance to the Pokémon Centre

MOUNT KOYA

During day 2 we took a trip to Mount Koya; there is one big reason why I won’t go into this too much- Mount Koya, compared to somewhere like Arashiyama, did less for me in terms of attractions and was somewhere I found to be less fufilling. However, parts of the Mount Koya area were interesting, so below I’ve compiled a visual album and brief description regarding what we got up to while we were there:

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Pictures from Shojoshin-in temple, on the way to Koyasan Okunoin Osaka previous day 037

A pathway going through the Okunoin Cemetery/Koyasan Okunoin

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The temple which consisted of the Hall of Lanterns

THE FINAL DAY- DONTONBORI

Today was a day for shopping (and to be fair to Osaka, quite a few good purchases were made) and the opportunity to visit Dontonbori, the area of Osaka renowned for its street food; this included Takoyaki (dashi flavored batter filled with octopus, tempura, green onions, and pickled red ginger, usually served with takoyaki sauce and Japanese mayo), something my friend was keen to try. After doing some shopping in the Osaka station region, Anthony and I went somewhere to try okonomiyaki, a pan fried dish consisting of batter and cabbage (the other ingredients vary depending on what you order it with). My friend ordered pork, spring onion and mayonnaise and I went for tofu, cheese and egg. We watched the food being cooked on a griddle in the centre of the table. A note for vegetarians- although the okonomiyaki I ordered was completely veggie safe, the girl cooking the dishes sometimes went to use the same utensils for both the pork and tofu oknomiyaki if we didn’t remind her in time, so keep tabs on the cooking of the dish just in case 🙂

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The restaurant we ate at

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Our okonomiyaki being cooked

It was okay taste-wise for me- my friend chose to top his with BBQ sauce and mayonnaise, which would undeniably add a stronger hit of flavour but I refused the additional sauces on the basis of “better safe than sorry.” Nonetheless, the experience itself was really cool- I enjoyed watching the okonomiyaki being made right in front of us, hearing the sizzle of it cooking and inhaling the scent of the spring onion in both variations of the dish.

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Dontonbori at night

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My friend’s Takoyaka

Next we went on to Dontonbori, the place famous for all its street food and a key reason as to why my travel companion wanted to visit Osaka. Lit up like a Christmas tree, and full of street food vendours, my friend soon found himself in front of a Takoyaka stall (ocotopus and egg pancake balls described earlier). Despite the promising smell, he said it tasted disappointing (he binned it) and so we walked down the stretch looking for other things we might want. We were let down by a lack of variety (despite many vendors selling similar types of food) and in hindsight, what lowers my opinion of Dontonbori a little bit more was that some of the food markets we saw in Xi’an, China, were less famous yet more impressive. We mucked around in a small arcade down the Dontonbori stretch for a bit before inadvertently stumbling into an area where many massages were being offered alongside lots of hotels. We doubled back on ourselves and tried to find the Ezaki Glico marathon runner, a picture which was meant to be popular with tourists, and is owned by the same company (Glico) which owns popular Japanese snack foods- Pocky and Pretz amongst other things. However, we were tired at this point, and subsequently unsuccessful. So for us, Osaka was a bit of a let down. Granted, we didn’t see everything the area has to offer, but we did what we could considering our location and the fact that our primary reason for going there was food. On that front, both of us were underwhelmed. I guess I wanted to write this blog entry to show that as much fun as we had when travelling, not everything runs smoothly and you won’t necessarily love everywhere you go (but if you do, I’m incredibly jealous). As a reader of other blogs, I know that positive cheerful blogs are normally the more fun read, and I do love writing those blogs personally, but I also want to record experiences as accurately as I can. Thanks for reading my Japan blogs- next I’m going to upload posts on the South Korea stretch of our trip, which was very different from Japan! We got the chance to see Seoul, Jeju Island and Daegu. As always- your continued support means a huge amount so thank you for reading!!!

Amazing Arashiyama: the day that put a permanent smile on my face

Located on the Western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is a beautiful scenic area, with some cute and inviting shops and restaurants, the magnificent Bamboo Groves and the ornate Path of Kimonos. Apparently there is also a romantic train, but needless to say my best friend and I were not particularly interested in that! From what is written on paper, Arashiyama seems like the perfect tourist destination but what really elevates it from just another attraction to something really charming is the ambience; amongst the sea of tourists are a good number of locals with ready smiles on their faces. School children weave in between us at the end of their day, queuing for street food and chatting animatedly. And any right turn from the main stretch leads to the more residential areas lined with houses (some of which have the most beautiful front gardens- there is a sense of pride in the way the owners are treating where they live).

But Arashiyama doesn’t deserve a brief description, or a rough bullet pointed list of what makes the place a good attraction to visit, so I’m now going to go into more depth about what we did, and why we enjoyed it. After lunch at Apprivoiser again (with it only 3 minutes’ walk away from our hotel, it was too convenient and the food was too tasty for us not to make a return visit), we walked to Kawaramachi Station (in downtown Kyoto) and got the Hankyu Kyoto Line towards Umeda, disembarking at Katsura station. I’m pretty sure the station name has some anime reference, since my travel companion stopped to snapchat the station name, but I unfortunately have no idea what it is 🙂

We then got the Hankyu Arashiyama line to Arashiyama itself (note that there are multiple ways to get here, you can also take the a line to a different Arashiyama station, nearer to the Bamboo Path). Where we disembarked, we were only 5 minutes walk from the park and we greeted by bright sunshine and blue skies. So after removing the thick jacket and the thinner jacket I’d worn after a cold start that morning, we trundled merrily towards the park (I’ve no idea why I’ve used the word trundled, I think I just like how it rolls off the tongue).

Walking through the park was a joy; the Oi River glistened from afar, many people were out and about, basking in the sunshine and Mount Arash was standing dominant in the background.

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The River Oi and Mountainous backdrop

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Near the entrance of the park

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Another photo of the park from a different angle

We crossed a bridge (allowing for both cars and pedestrians) to reach the other side of the river, where the main Arashiyama café/shop promenade was present. We found the Bamboo Path very quickly, owing to my friend recognising the Mandarin character for Bamboo (apparently the same or similar to the Japanese one) and following the relevant signs. Though busy (as was to be expected) the bamboos were abundant and spectacular. Walking through the path, with the light peeping through the tall stalks and emerald leaves, was beautiful.

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Note that everything in Arashiyama shuts down by 4.30/5pm. I felt it prudent to mention this at this point because we planned to return to the Bamboo Path later on, when it had quietened down, but when we returned, it was pitch black and the central Arashiyama area was virtually empty. We therefore decided to head back to the train station instead.

But I digress, back to the path- we passed a temple called the Tenryu-ji temple (which translates to the Sky Dragon temple) and my friend said that this sounded promising. So once we completed the Bamboo Path (and came across a beautiful and largely ignored landscape a bit further down from the path) we doubled back on ourselves and entered the temple gardens.

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The largely ignored landscape at the end of the path

The gardens were pretty- full of a variety of trees (all with Wooden name plaques informing the visitor of breed) but did pale into comparison when thinking about Zenrin-ji Temple (see the Finding #Zen-rinji blog post for more information).

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An example of a wooden plaque giving information about the trees

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Some of the trees in the Tenryu-ji Temple Gardens

Nonetheless, we found a very charming wishing pond full of coins and decorated with stone frogs, and right by the temple building, a large lake landscape which was gorgeous (and provided absolute justification as to why Tenryu-ji gardens are a world heritage site).

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The wishing pond                                               A temple building

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The lake at the end of the gardens

There are two slightly cheeky things about the attraction to note; Firstly, it costs 500 yen to enter the gardens and an extra 100 yen for the temple (which you have to pay separately). You can see into the temple from when you are viewing the lake, and since the temple itself wasn’t world heritage (just the gardens were) we decided against this (being the budget travellers that we are). Secondly, this was the only place I found that was charging 100 yen for toilet roll (that’s why tissues in a rucksack/handbag are such an important tool). With the amount of tourism the temple was getting, I felt this charge was a bit unnecessary.

Next we went to Arashiyama station (different to the Arashiyama Hankyu JR station we disembarked at) which was a tourist attraction in its own right. This was the prettiest train station I’ve ever seen, with a walkway called the Path of Kimonos next to it, which consisted of kimono patterned pillars in red, pink, purple and orange lining the pathway. At the end of the Pathway was the Pond of Dragon, whereby:

“Wishes are granted if the dragon that landed in Arashiyama is prayed to. If you immerse your hands in the water springing from Atago, your heart will be filled with peace and you will be lead to happiness”.

So I did (being the superstitious type that I am, but also because I thought the sentiment of the water feature was nice) while my friend amusedly abstained.

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The train station                                                  The Path of Kimonos

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Holding water in the Pond of Dragon

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The descriptive sign next to the pond

We got hungry so I hunted for something to eat and… I failed (as was the norm in Japan at times). But my friend had a meat filled steamed bun, which he enjoyed, and I was in too good spirits to let the lack of vegetarian food get my mood down.

We browsed some shops, where I picked up a larger travel sized purse and we collectively looked at some souvenirs made from bamboo wood (nice, but a tad overpriced). We ate at an Italian restaurant called Akamanma that evening (just a bit further down from the main promenade of shops and cafes). The pasta was okay, but note that there are only two vegetarian options from a vast menu and the food is overpriced for a) what it is and b) the portion size. Nonetheless it filled us up. Walking back across Arashiyama, most of the district had been plunged into darkness bar a few lights, twinkling in the distance. It is definitely a place for the day as it sleeps by early evening but we didn’t mind- we’d covered a lot of ground that day. I found the place to be amazing, somewhere that set a very high benchmark for subsequent day trips we did from that point onwards. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, hop on a train there. I don’t think you’ll regret it 🙂

The tea ceremony that didn’t matcha up to our expectations and our visit to the “number one attraction on trip advisor” in Kyoto- Fushimi Inari

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The tea ceremony was something that I had been excited for prior to Japan. Hailed as a personal ceremony in which we would acquire knowledge and be able to experience how Japanese tea is typically prepared and consumed, expectations were high. Our day started off fairly slowly- we looked for a vegetarian place called Mumokuteki Café and Foods to eat lunch but were unable to find the place, so ended up at our old safety net (where I was guaranteed at least one type of vegetarian food)- Starbucks. Following our over-sugary stint in what had become our saviour of a coffee shop, we changed into warmer clothing (since the weather had cooled substantially during the early afternoon) and went to the Kiyomizu Gojo Station, where we took the Keihan Main Line towards Demachiyangi and got out at Gion Shijo Station.

Organised under a company called EN, finding the tea ceremony could have been easier. Though informed on our tickets that access to the ceremony would be near the side entrance of the Chion-in temple, the problem arose in that a) we had no idea whether the entrance we were at was the main entrance or the side entrance and b) passing locals and tourists also seemed to have no idea. In the end, we arrived at the ceremony 3 minutes late, but were fortunately let in since we would have otherwise had to wait a further 45 minutes to attend the next ceremony. In our mind, the “intimate” ceremony we were told tea-making would involve would consist of 4-6 people. Instead, picture 16 of us crowded and sitting cross-legged in a narrow, dark, Japanese-style room. My travel companion and I were sitting against the door, and a couple of Asian tourists in the centre of the room were more interested in sniggering at certain points than the ceremony itself. The woman holding the ceremony was knowledgeable and clad in traditional attire, which was a positive. But I did not enjoy making the tea, and drinking it was adequate at best. Before preparing the tea, we were supposed to eat a cube saccharine-tasting jelly sweet dusted with sugar but not everyone chose to complete this instruction. I also had a poor whisking action apparently, whereas my travel companion mastered it. The moral of the story is- never ask me to make you a cappuccino… I can make you a decent cup of English breakfast tea (I hope) instead though 🙂

During the ceremony, my emotions transgressed from grumpy (when I saw how busy the ceremony was), to incredulous (tea-making was clearly an art, and the way it was presented to us was doing no testimony to this fact) to amused (at how some of the other attendees were reacting) to finally exasperated. The thing that I had such high hopes for was a bitter (and bitter tasting in terms of the tea) let down.

My friend and I were sitting outside Chion-in temple trying to decide what to do next; we hadn’t finalised plans for that day so it was up in the air as to what we should do at that point. I suggested we get the train to where the Fushimi Inari Shrine lay, since this was awarded the accolade of number 1 attraction on Trip Advisor and that site has been my kindred spirit online whilst travelling (alongside Happy Cow- love you Happy Cow). We got on a train again from Kiyomizu Gojo Station and ended up at the wrong station since we accidently took a lim exp (limited express) train compared to the local train we needed. However, doubling back on ourselves was easy enough and in no time, we ended up back at Fushimi Inari. We arrived in fairly good spirits and, when walking past a tour group, my friend exclaimed “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream”, leading an older British woman to remark “Gosh, I haven’t heard that in years”. Amused, we carefully skipped past the tour group and approached the walkway leading up to the shrine entrance. To our left, stalls were selling grilled meats and pineapple sticks, and every few metres, a green flag proudly waved at us, reminding us how the shrine had been voted the number one attraction on Trip Advisor.

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Some of the meat kebabs on a stall                                         The flag acknowledging Trip Advisor

I’m not really sure what my first impressions were- my friend said “stunning but ridiculously touristy”. The entrance consisted of a number of large pillarbox red buildings.

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The top of a Fushimi Inari building                                    A shrine located near the entrance of the attraction

We ascended up a number of stairs before our eyes met the start of the Fushimi Inari gates and the subsequent footpath that followed.

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The beginning of the Fushimi Inari Path

At this point it was early evening and as we progressed through the makeshift tunnel of red arches, people were starting to leave the path, passing us in the opposite direction. It became more peaceful, easier to take photos and more mysterious, even slightly eerie. The now dark red (when light was absent) columns were majestic, stacked continually into the distance. We kept walking and climbing and walking again until we reached 15,500m on the path.

Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 141       Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama 191

Fushimi Inari at night

Though we were by no means at the end of the path, by this point we were losing light rapidly, some areas around us had been plunged into darkness and we hadn’t had anything to eat since midday.

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A list of heights that the Fushimi Inari Path can reach

We followed a different route to leave the path and though this was poorly signposted, we discovered other statues, shrines and monuments along our route. Part of the way there, a cat started walking in front of us and stayed with us for a while (a number of cats are present around the various shrines in Fushimi Inari). Although we knew we were close to the entrance, we were a bit unsure of where to go at one point but my friend’s years of watching Japanese anime and general aptitude for languages meant he was able to ask a local and understand the Japanese word for left, leading us back in the correct direction.

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The Hacherei Shrine (which we found during our alternative route back to the entrance)

Was this one of my more inept days? Probably.

Was this one of our more fun days? Definitely.

Dinner that night was at the glorious Maharaja (see my veggie bites blog post for a summary of the restaurant). To access this Indian Food haven, hop onto the Kiyomizu line again and disembark at Gion Shijo Station. We ended the day back at where we are staying watching a few episodes of the trashy reality youtube show we’ve become hooked on (don’t ask what it is- you will become addicted and time is too valuable) and, for me, writing diary entries.

I like days that go well, but my appreciation soars when a day starts sour and gets progressively better as it continues. Kyoto was not just matching Tokyo but overshadowing it by a considerable amount, and our impressions of the place (with Zenrin-ji yesterday and Fushimi Inari today) were becoming more and more favourable.

Finding #Zen-rinji Temple: initial impressions of Kyoto and exploring our favourite attraction

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When Japan was mentioned to me as a potential travel destination- my mind envisaged this image of absolute solitude in a beautifully sculpted Temple garden. And visiting Zenrin-ji temple provided me with that opportunity, though achieving this golden silence was not exactly easy, as I’ll explain later on. And choosing where to go is something that can also eat up a large amount of time- Kyoto itself is akin to a giant buffet when it comes to temples, which makes the situation especially problematic if you only have time for a couple of main courses 🙂

We started our first full day in Kyoto visiting Apprivoiser (see my veggie bites post for more information). Having left the restaurant feeling nicely re-energized, we made tracks to the downtown area of Kyoto, situated only 15 minutes walk away from where our hotel was located. The vibe in Kyoto is very different from that of Tokyo- for a start, the number of fellow tourists increases but not exponentially. You also need a state of permanent vigilance when it comes to bicycles racing across pavements, something which is not necessary in Tokyo (because everyone mainly walks their shorter distances). In addition, Kyoto fashion is far more “sexy casual” (as a floor advertising clothes in a Kyoto department store described) than Tokyo. Fashion in Tokyo is more diverse, but perhaps overarching more conservative. In Kyoto, it was more the norm for girls to wear knee high or thigh high boots, stylish cowl neck sweaters, cute mini dresses/skirts and brightly coloured but well-tailored mini coats. Perhaps this is a good time to note that both the Tokyo and Kyoto undergrounds carry signs like this one:

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A sign warning girls to beware of people looking up their skirt

So despite fashion being (in my opinion) really nice- I’d be lying if I said that such signs didn’t unnerve or concern me slightly. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t walk around with my travel companion saying “I love what she’s wearing, but I couldn’t wear that on the London underground” multiple times. However, by and large, Kyoto had an air of youthful vibrancy that the region of Tokyo we were staying (Ikebukuro, the business district) unsurprisingly lacked.

But I’m going to stop myself before I digress anymore- we were heading to downtown Kyoto in order to hop on a bus to get to the Eikando Zenrin-ji temple. The temple itself was the headquarters of the Jodo Sect Seizan Zenrinji Branch, and is a still fully functioning temple amongst the Jodo Sect of Shingon Buddhism, with the still fully-functioning temple element being important to us when choosing which temple to visit.

We got a bus from the central downtown area- with the temple name clearly displayed on the list of bus destinations. It cost only 230 yen for our entire journey, with our stop being something like the eighth stop on the line- but the experience itself was not particularly pleasant. It was bumpy, crowded and jolty, but it meant that I was clinging on to the handle falling from the ceiling with such intent that I realised my upper arms had received a complimentary workout. And in that respect, every cloud has a silver lining.

When we disembarked from the bus, we realised we had no idea where we should be heading. Despite there being a board nearby, nothing said “Zenrin-ji” only “Eikando”, and since trip advisor hasn’t posted the full name of the temple (Eikando Zenrin-ji temple), this confused us as we were worried we’d be heading to the wrong temple. Reassured by the fact that there would be at least one temple in the area we could visit (since the map was full of them), we nonetheless decided to ask around in a few shops before one lady guessed what we were getting at and pointed us towards the correct place.

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The sign which also helped us. A lot.

The part of Kyoto where Eikando Zenrin-ji temple was located fit my prior expectation of what Kyoto would be like far more than downtown Kyoto- this area had emptier roads, smaller dusty coloured houses, shops and cafes (although more of the former than the latter two options) and generally an incredibly communal, village-y feel that downtown Kyoto lacked.

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Entry to the temple was 600 yen each and it was absolutely stunning! Autumnal coloured leaves, majestic trees, sparkling water with little stone bridges above, a small fountain by the exit and beautiful brown and white temple buildings. Below are some of my favourite images from the temple.

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A temple building                                                       The bridge leading over the lake

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The view from the bridge                                         Another bridge leading to a shrine

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Autumnal leaves framing the lake

We enjoyed the peace (a school was nearby so we still had some background noise of children but this wasn’t disruptive per se). What was disruptive, however, was that we’d only been inside the temple for twenty minutes or so when what seemed like a tour group of Japanese businessmen arrived, completely killing the ambience with chat and noise. Like the other tourists present, we were not best amused, and we felt especially cheated since the same thing happened in Happoen Gardens in Tokyo (we had 10 minutes of peace before it was interrupted by a wedding). And I’m fully aware that I may sound a bit like the Grinch (in spite of it not being Christmas) but for many of these gardens in Japan, it is the silence that makes the place magical and ethereal, and allows you to feel a million miles away from reality but absolutely in harmony with nature.

We decided to move on from the Temple at this point. I’m not sure whether Zenrin-ji Temple has a marvellous policy whereby tickets allow for re-entry once you’ve left or whether the lovely women who sold us tickets simply recognised me and my friend and waved us back in (upon seeing our previously brought tickets) but after the Philosopher’s walk, myself and my friend walked back past the temple to get to the bus stop and saw the group of Japanese businessmen boarding a coach and leaving. We felt triumphant since this meant that we did get to return. But more on that later 🙂

The Philosopher’s walk was a pathway my friend wanted to try and had been signposted before we entered the temple. It was a long, gravelly walk, surrounded by grass, water and dark khaki trees, but we did see some interesting things along the path- a lady surrounded by cats who jumped for the ball when she held it up for them, an elderly man who drew the most amazing ink sketches of landscapes and then a coffee shop, mainly filled with locals eating mizo and noodles. We stopped there as we were in need of a little perk-me-up at this point; my advice is don’t- it wasn’t too great. My friend went for strawberry shaved ice (too artificial tasting) and I had an incredibly watery hot chocolate. I don’t actually think the name of the coffee shop was overly visible from the outside or I would have taken a photo but just avoid it if you are doing the Philosopher’s walk- I think it makes more sense to bring your own snacks.

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The view at the beginning of the walk                    The cat lady we saw on the Philosopher’s walk

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Moggy                                                                  The work of a Japanese artist sketching as we walked

Upon seeing the businessmen leave as we walked back, we returned to Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple and climbed up to a pagoda which was absent of people; I had a brief nap on a wooden bench (probably responsible for the subsequent insect bites on my leg despite having smothered myself in insect repellent). And I could do this, because the peace was magnificent- all we could hear was the birds tweeting merrily and, when we descended from the Pagoda, a gong being hit at regular intervals (about 4.30pm), symbolising the monk’s prayer time.

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The view from the Pagoda                                    Another view from the Pagoda

You may need luck on your side to obtain peace in the temple gardens but if you get it, than wow- be prepared to be amazed. Hearing the monks during prayer was an additional unexpected bonus and I left the temple feeling more mentally relaxed and calm than at any other point in Japan.

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The landscape at the exit of Eikando Zenrin-ji temple