Going around Gyeongju: Part 1- (partially) dawdling during the day

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Being only 57km (approximately 35 miles) from Daegu, today we decided to take a city tour around Gyeongju. Anna’s dad kindly dropped us off at the coach stop where our tour was heading out from, and we soon set off for our first stop- a traditional Korean tomb which was the burial site of King Taejong Muyeorwang (the 29th ruler of the Silla Kingdom). This was one of two tomb sites we visited around Gyeongju.

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The tomb where the king was buried- to put it into perspective, the circumference of the tomb’s mound was 114m and it’s height is 8.5m.

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A tortoise shaped pedestal near the tomb

I labelled this post as partially dawdling because it was at attraction 1 where my travel companion, Anna and I fell behind the rest of the tour group 🙂 we caught them up again, but sometimes you just have that desire to view an attraction without lots of background discussion and I think that’s how we felt earlier on in the day.

Next the coach took us to Tumuli in Hwangnam-ri, Gyeongju. These are a set of tombs scattered around the Hwangnam-dong area, some of which are believed to have been created during the early Silla period.

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The grounds surrounding the Silla tombs

The main tomb in the grounds was nicknamed Cheonmachong due to a flying horse painted on the pendant of a saddle excavated from the tomb. The inside of the tomb was full of history and other artefacts retrieved from the tomb but unfortunately, photography was prohibited in there (and to be fair, I felt weird about breaking the rules somewhere honouring a dead person).  So below is a picture of the entrance to the tomb instead:

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The next stop was my favourite, but one that really comes alive at night (you’ll see what I mean in part 2). Anapji Pond is an artificially constructed landscape that boasts natural beauty- kind of oxymoronic but somehow it works. Built during the 14th year of King Munmu, it was destroyed but excavated in 1974. With some of the original features remaining and historical records, the garden has been restored and is very picturesque:

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Next we went to see the Seokguram Grotto and the Bulguksa Temple.

The Grotto was constructed by prime minister Gim Dae-Seong in 751, the 10th year of the Silla King Gyeondeok.

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Climbing to the Grotto and a water feature you are meant to drink from for luck and longevity

The Seokguram Grotto consists of an antechamber and round main hall, in which sits a large Buddha carved in granite. Again, I was unable to take a photo here but it was tough to see the Buddha properly anyway since it was busy and the statue sits behind a glass wall.

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A prayer room and being able to write wishes to loved ones on slabs, which was a nice touch

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Building works slightly ruined the ambience of the place though

Our final stop was the Bulguksa Temple, which was surrounded by some beautiful lakes and vegetation:

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Above images of areas surrounding the temple and below, the temple itself

We ended the tour part of the day being dropped in an unfamiliar hotel. But as we later found out Gyeongju at night is incredibly different to Gyeongju during the day 🙂

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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 🙂

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