July 17, 2017 – The Kyoto Gion Matsuri Festival Parade and Fushimi Inari Shrine

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See more photos and a video of the parade here.

The Gion Matsuri Festival is the most famous festival in Japan and occurs over the month of July. During this time, many different events take place, including the parade on July 17th. It dates back to 869 as a religious ritual. Some of the floats are up to 25 meters tall and are pulled on wheels larger than humans.

The parade was unlike any one I had witnessed before. Instead of being a joyous and enthusiastic event, it was somber and quiet. Only men participated in the parade, wearing traditional clothing including woven grass sandals and hats. They play a part in the parade by playing instruments (drums and flutes), walking, and chanting. The main street was shut down and crowds lined the entire sidewalk. The parade ran for over an hour and a half. After a while, it got a little monotonous so Jessica, Cameron (a guy we met at our hostel), and I left for the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Fushimi Inari Shrine, located just south of Kyoto, is one of the most important shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. It was very touristy but lovely. Many Japanese tourists wear their yukatas to take photos there. The three of us walked through its thousands of vermilion tori gates that arch over a series of trails behind the main buildings. You can also stumble upon some beautiful bamboo groves while walking around. Jessica, Cameron, and I loved hiking and getting lost along the trails. By the end of it, we finally reaching a mountaintop with a scenic view. I had been wondering why there were so many fox sculptures around and this is because foxes are Inari’s messengers.

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July 16, 2017 – Nijo Castle, Manga Museum, and the Gion Matsuri Festival

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According to the information pamphlet:

“Nijo-jo Castle has witnessed some of the most important events in Japanese history in the 400 years since it was built. The castle was completed in 1603 on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867). Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan after a long period of civil war, and ushered in a period of over 260 years of peace and prosperity.”

Inside some of the buildings were pictures of tigers that looked slightly off because the Japanese painters had never seen real tigers before and had copied them from Chinese artwork. The castle and grounds were quite extensive and gorgeous.

Next, Jessica and I headed to the Manga Museum, which was definitely worth a visit. I never knew that France was the second largest reader of manga until then. There is a bit of manga for everyone there!

In the evening, Jessica and I attended the evening activities leading up to the Gion Matsuri Festival. We decided to wear our yokotas (summer kimonos) that Jessica had brought with her from Vancouver. We had received them as a gift from the Ciba City government on our first trip to Japan I am thankful that I kept mine. During the festivities, the two of us almost got run over by a float and flute players! Again, the streets were entirely packed. It was difficult to move and the food stalls were set up for another night of celebration!

 

 

July 15, 2017 – Shitennoji Temple and our First Night in Kyoto

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The Shitennoji Temple is a famous Buddhist temple that was established about 1400 years ago upon Prince Shotuku’s request to worship Buddha and benefit mankind. It was beautiful and very few tourists were present when we visited. Unfortunately, there is no view from the top of the pagoda but there are beautiful murals in the building adjacent to it.

After eating Osaka style okonomiyaki for lunch, Jessica and I headed to Kyoto.

After checking in, we headed to Shijo-dori Street to see some of the evening events leading up to the Gion Matsuri Festival. There was a huge street festival with hundreds of food stalls. Everyone was dressed in their yokota (summer kimono) and walking around trying different foods and looking at the different floats and displays.

July 14, 2017 – Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, an Exotic Petting Zoo, and a Reptile Cafe

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Jessica and I love animals… so a day comprising of a visit to an aquarium, petting zoo, and reptile café felt out-of-this-world. It was a toss-up for us to go to the Aquarium or see Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. Because our budget was tight, we decided to visit the aquarium, which was nothing short of spectacular.

For 3000 yen (about $30 Cad) we got a day admission to the aquarium which included a free ride on the Tempozan Giant Ferris Wheel (a few minutes’ walk away). Most aquariums are quite spread out, however, the one in Osaka is built vertically with 8 floors in total, displaying wildlife from the geographical zone known as the “Ring of Fire”. The aquarium is particularly famous for its baby whale sharks, which are enormous. Some other species it includes are the Asian small-clawed otter, Japanese giant salamander, California sea lions, penguins, capybara, and more. I also got to pet a baby shark and manta ray while I was there.

The Tempozan Giant Ferris Wheel provides amazing views from Osaka City to Akashi Kaikyo Bridge and to Kansai International Airport. If you have time, take a relaxing ride on it (if you’re not afraid of heights, which I discovered that Jessica is).

On our way back to the train station, we happened to pass by an exotic petting zoo in a mall and had to stop. It was really cool to be so close to capybaras, kangaroos, alpaca, tortoises, jackrabbits, and iguanas. They also had dogs and bunny rabbits too.

Before heading out on the town, Jessica and I stopped for dinner at the Reptile Café Rock Star. It also doubled as a place where reptiles are sold and a tattoo parlour! We had the best time handling large lizards and snakes. We even held one reptile that was shaped like a snake (with no limbs) but was technically a lizard. How bizarre!

July 13, 2017 – The Museum of Housing and Living, Osaka

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The Museum of Housing and Living was one of my favourite stops in Osaka. Make sure to get the audio guide before heading into the life-sized streets to explore what life was like during the Edo Period in the 1830s. The Museum features an apothecary, meeting hall, bookstore, bathhouse, fabric shop, and more Japanese style rooms, well, and public toilet. While Jessica and I were there, we also explored an exhibit on Tenugui (a Japanese cotton craft) and a section on the more recent history of Osaka.

Later on, we walked around more of Dōtonbori, Shinsaibashi, and shopped along the famous Ebisu Bashi-Suji (one of the largest shopping districts in the world – 350m in length). We also decided to try the famous “Mount Blanc Parfait” dessert which looks like spaghetti (but it’s actually chestnut flavoured ice cream!). It tastes a little weird and I still can’t decide whether I like it or not.

We kept walking and just reached the Kuromon Market before it closed. The seafood there looked delicious!

July 12, 2017 – Osaka Castle with Yenni and Dinner in Dōtonbori

 

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After spending so much time in Hiroshima, Osaka seemed like a bit of a letdown. I anticipated it to look more like Kyoto, however, it has a very big city vibe to it which I took me by surprise.

Jessica and I took the metro to Osaka Castle which was the official residence of the “Joban” who was one of the Tokugawa Shogunate ministers during the Edo period. Construction began in 1583. The castle grounds are extensive and you can see the remains of the castle walls and where the moat had been once been. I met my friend Yenni there, whom I had previously met in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It’s crazy how you can continuously run into the same travelers around the world! Afterwards, we tried some delicious takoyaki. I was too eager to eat it and ended up burning the roof of my mouth very badly. Lesson learned: let it cool before trying it!

In the evening, Jessica and I walked to Dōtonbori, a neighbourhood famous for nightlife and entertainment. It looks exciting with all of the illuminated sign boards, however, the streets were almost empty. There was hardly anyone there, nonetheless, we enjoyed walking around and taking everything in.

July 11, 2017 – Onomichi

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Jessica and I ended up taking the wrong bus in the wrong direction for about an hour before we realized we were in Kure and not Onomichi. However, the bus ride was so lovely we didn’t mind too much, and we enjoyed our spontaneous trip.

On our second try, we got on the correct bus headed for Onomichi, a small picturesque port town. Onomichi is known as a town of hills, literature, and movies. It also features ancient temples and former residences of writers, and it has been the setting of many novels and movies (such as Tokyo Story). Moreover, it is also the Shimanami Kaido, the “holy land” for cyclists in Japan.

We caught the Mt. Senkoji Ropeway (a gondola) to the top of the mountain where you can look out at the spectacular view of the town, ocean, and nearby islands. There was also a cute statue at the top of two cats in a heart called “Yumi Katsura Lover’s Sanctuary” which declared the land as a “Lovers Sanctuary”. We walked down the mountain along the Path of Literature. Unfortunately, Jessica and I couldn’t read any of the signs because they were in Japanese. Near the bottom of the path leaving Senkouji Temple and Tennoji Temple, you enter a residential section, where you can find many cats along the narrow streets. This street is better known as “Cat Path”!

We nonchalantly explored the sleepy town in search of food. Unfortunately, most of the restaurants were closed on Tuesdays, even along Onomichi Hondori Shopping Street. We did finally come across one café that served pancakes! We had to stop and try some!

July 10, 2017 – Miyajima Island

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Jessica and I got to Miyajima Island in about an hour from Hiroshima. Miyajima Island has been regarded as an “Island of God” since ancient times and is famously known for the O-torii Gate and Itsukushima Shrine. According to my ticket:

the Itsukushima Shrine was first built in 593, then rebuilt by Taira-no-kiyomori in 1168 on the same scale as it is today… It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in December 1996… Miyajima Island has been worshiped as a divine island since ancient times. This is why the shrine was built on the seashore where the tide ebbs and flows. The contrast of the blue sea, green hills, and the vivid vermilion-laquered shrine is breathtakingly beautiful.”

Upon reaching the island, we were greeted by the semi-wild deer that live there. After seeing the famous O-torii Gate and Itsukushima Shrine, we climbed up Mt. Misen and saw several other temples along the way. As we walked up the path, we got some great views and were wary of the poisonous snakes residing on the island. The top of Mount Misen was spectacular as it encompassed a 360-degree view. There are also some famous boulders at the top. According to legends, the largest rock is called “Iwakura-ishi” on which God sits for guarding the island.

On our way back down the mountain, we did spot a snake but we believe it was not poisonous. We continued our walk over a couple bridges with gorgeous maple trees on either side. Once we got back to the town we spotted the “largest rice scoop in the world”. Produced between 1980 and 1983, today it is regarded as a lucky ornament which scoops up happiness, good fortune, and victory, as well as being practically useful.

Jessica and I tried the local specialties including oysters and maple cookies. Yummy!

We went back to the O-torii Gate again to see it during low tide. Make sure to check when high tide and low tide are to ensure you can see it at both times!

July 9, 2017 – Bird Cafe and Sukkien Garden

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Jessica loves birds and I’m a little afraid of them, so I thought it would be great to visit a Bird Cafe! We had lunch there and then had the option of holding two birds each. I choose an African parrot and a cute owl! I’m not sure what species they were specifically because all of the displays were in Japanese. It was a lot of fun just hanging out there and the staff were lovely.

In the afternoon, the two of us walked to the Shukkeien Garden, which literally means Shruken Scenery Park. Construction of Shukkeien was begun in 1620, the year following Asano Nagaakira’s installation as Daimyō (feudal lord) of Hiroshima. It expresses the idea of collecting and miniaturizing many scenic views. It is also famous for beautiful flowers. The garden presents the four seasons and is designated as an outstanding beautiful spot by the government. I loved it there and even spent some time meditating.

July 8, 2017 – A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, and Hiroshima Castle

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For breakfast, we stopped by my favourite Japanese bakery called “One Coin Bakery” because everything costs about 100 yen (about $1.00 CAD). They offer many delicious sweets along with Japanese style buns with hot dogs, fried chicken and potatoes, and even one with noodles inside!

The A-Bomb Dome was designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel and was completed in April 1915. At 8:15 am, August 6, 1945, an American B29 bomber carried out the world’s first atomic bombing. It exploded 600 meters above the city. It ripped through the building (and most of the city) killing everyone instantly. In 1996, the A-bomb Dome was registered on the World Heritage List, as it is one of the last remaining building from that time, which is now preserved. It stands as a memorial to the bombing. Standing outside the decrepit building, I can’t even imagine how the survivors must have felt after that day.  It’s an odd juxtaposition against the modern city skyline.

Afterwards, Jessica and I walked a few minutes away to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The park is a symbol of hope for perpetual world peace and total abolition of nuclear weapons. It indeed feels peaceful. There, we visited the Bell of Peace, the Children’s Peace Monument, and the Memorial Cenotaph, Peace Flame, and Peace Bell.

At the far end of the park lies Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (200 yen) which holds many artifacts from the bombing and describes the war in detail. It also collects and displays belongings left by the victims, as well as photos and other materials that convey the horror of that event. In total there are three levels which include sections on Hiroshima’s history, video testimonies from survivors, the dangers of nuclear weapons, and more. I find it truly baffling that nearly 92 percent of the city’s 76,000 buildings were destroyed or badly damaged and by the end of December 1945, around 140,000 people had died. According to the museum, “Hiroshima’s deepest wish is the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the realization of a genuinely peaceful international community.” I highly recommend this museum.

Next, the two of us visited the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. Established by the Japanese Government in 2002, it is a place where one can remember the atomic bomb victims and think about peace. Guests can also search and view photos of the deceased and read a list of their names. It was very somber, yet peaceful.

On our way to Hiroshima Castle, we stopped at the Hypocenter, the exact spot where the bomb exploded 600 meters in the air. Just signified by a plaque, today, it looks like any other street in town.

Hiroshima Castle was established by Mori Terumoto, one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s council of “Five Great Elders”. It is representative of a flatland castle. It is also known the “Carp Castle” since the area where the castle was built was then called oi-no-ura and “Koi” means carp in Japanese, the castle was given the nickname “Carp Castle” in later years. The observation tower at the top is lovely to look out from. You experience a great view of the city. The preceding floors have several displays about the history of the castle as well as some weapons and armour.

In the evening, we stopped at a Jazz club and enjoyed the jam session that was taking place.