The best things to do on your first trip to Kyoto (Part 1)

Over the past few months I’ve explored the rural northern parts of Kyoto including the fishing town of Ine and the beautiful beach of Amanohashidate, but in this post I’d like to highlight the main tourist spots from my earlier archives just for reference.

I first visited Kyoto in 2013 during my study abroad trip in Japan, and returned in late 2015 for a visit during my epic job search.  I now visit Kyoto 3-4 times per year for music events (mainly at Metro) and also for eating aesthetic food.

The longer I live in Japan, the more I come to appreciate this peaceful city.  From nearly anywhere in Kyoto you can see the mountains and be reminded of the beautiful terrain this country has.  As the former capital of Japan, Kyoto has almost everything you could want in a place to live; shopping centers, street food, temples filled with years history, and a variety of night clubs.  Not to mention Nintendo HQ!  Though Tokyo has the most opportunity for foreigners, I often fantasize about what my life would be like if I lived here.  It definitely would be an exciting one~

Here are my recommendations on things to see during your first trip to Kyoto:

The Golden Pavilion

Out of all the building structures I’ve seen in Kyoto, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is by far the most breathtaking.  Built overtop a pond, you can see it shining elegantly with its gold leaf coating during any time of the year.  I first came here in Autumn when it shone with a beautiful contrast to the leaves that were turning a bright shade of red.  The best time to come is during the golden hour (5pm) because the lighting is optimal and you can see a perfect reflection of it on the water.  Though you are not allowed to enter the pavilion, you can still admire its impressive design from afar.  I learned from the pamphlet I was given the gold lacquer is thought to dispel and purify pollution and negative thoughts.  Being here definitely put my mind at ease and I think it’s somewhere that everyone should visit at least once.  I have never seen any other place that’s as gold as this besides the Golden Buddha in Nara.

Access

From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Line to Kita-Oji Station then Bus 205 to the Kinkakuji Bus Stop.  This costs 490 yen and takes 30 mins.

Entrance Fee: 400 yen

Fushimi Inari

The best way I can think to describe Fushimi Inari is “a shrine of shrines”.  If you want to experience one of the biggest shrine networks surrounded by nature in Japan, then all travel guides will point you here.  Similar to the Golden Pavilion (but much more red in color), there is really no place quite like here.  You will be stunned by the thousands of red torii gates and trails that lead to the summit of Mt. Inari.  The climb takes about 2.5 hours to reach from the base.  You will notice that there are many fox statues here which are said to be the messengers of the shrine.  Though this place is a tourist hotspot, I definitely recommend it.  If you are looking for a less crowded shrine, you can try going to Daigoji in Kyoto too because it is similarly red and historical.

Access

From Kyoto Station, take the Nara Line to Inari Station.  This only takes 5 mins and costs 150 yen.

Entrance Fee: 300 yen

Nintendo HQ

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Where it all began.

Before I came to Japan most of my time was spent gaming or watching anime. I have some of my best adolescent memories and have met many friends through Nintendo games and events. So coming here—to the main HQ building of Nintendo in Kyoto—was surreal to me.  Of course you’re not allowed to enter, but you can walk by the building and are free to take pictures.  There is not much else to see in this district, but this building is definitely worth seeing if you’re a Nintendo fan.

Access

From Shiokoji Takakura bus stop near Kyoto Station, you can take Bus 205 to Kyoto Shiyakushomae and walk 3 mins there.  You can also take a cheap taxi or rent bikes to get here.

Address: 11-1 Kamitoba Hokodatecho, Minami Ward, Kyoto, 601-8501

In Part 2 of this article I will be talking more about the touristy things I did in Kyoto when I first moved to Japan.  Often people look down upon tourism, but it is essential to the economy of most Asian countries and also has been valuable in my understanding of the culture here.  You should never feel ashamed for being a tourist.

A Lovely Day Trip to Kyoto’s Heart-shaped Temple: Shojuin

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A look through the heart-shaped window at Shojuin Temple in Ujitawara, Kyoto.

Immortal HeartI’ve been to Kyoto many times in many different seasons, but this month was the first time I’ve ever been to the remotely located heart-shaped temple called Shojuin in Ujitawara.  Amidst the fear of the corona virus, I was worried this temple may be closed like many other facilities in Japan, but I was fortunate to travel during a time when it was still open.  Located in a rural area accessible by bus from Uji Station, you will find that the view through the window is well worth the trip.  Even though I visited during the winter, I managed to take a lot of quality photos and learn about its history with only a few other Japanese tourists around me.

I arrived to the temple around 2pm when I predicted there would be optimal sunlight.  The weather was raining on and off but due to the way Shojuin is constructed, the light always falls through the heart-shaped window.  The temple consists of a few small building complexes but everything can easily be seen within 40 minutes.  Tea and a light snack are provided with the entrance fee as well as an explanation of the history as the inome window.  The word “inome” refers to a heart shape motif commonly found in Japanese temples and Buddhism.  The definition literally means “eye of the wild boar” in Japanese (which is said to be heart-shaped so it makes sense in theory).  It could also refer to the lime trees with heart-shaped leaves that are closely associated with Buddhism.  I have uploaded the English explanation I was given for reference if anyone wishes to investigate it further.

The inome window is also nicknamed the “Window of Happiness” making it the ideal place to pray for peace and love.  Though I do not consider myself a religious person, coming to this temple was a truly bright experience to me.  In addition to the window, there are also over 160 art tiles on the ceiling painted in brilliant colors.  While I was taking pictures, it started snowing for a brief period through the window.  This was my first time all year seeing snow in Japan, so it is a special moment I’ll never forget:

Though I was only here for around an hour and a half, I feel like I had the chance to witness this temple during all four seasons.  During my time here it rained, snowed, turned overcast, then sunlight came out right before it closed.  It was amazing!  The people around me couldn’t believe it either.  Just like my Quest to the Tower of the Sun, this also felt like an experience pulled straight from a video game.  I highly recommend this temple to everyone visiting Kyoto, because it’s not nearly as touristy or crowded as the Golden Pavilion or Kiyomizu-dera.

During the summer there is a wind chime festival here as well.  Please check the official Kyoto Tourism website for more information.

Access

294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862
Entrance Fee: 400 yen (includes tea and sweets)

Directions: From Kyoto Station, ride the Nara Line to Obaku Station, then ride the Uji Line to Uji Station.  From Uji Station, take the Keihan Bus to Ichumae Bus Stop.  Please note that Google Maps will suggest you to take a taxi to Shojuin Temple from this point, which I did on the way there for 2000 yen, but there is a “community bus” (which actually a small white van) that I missed which is free.  On the way back, I walked with some friendly Japanese girls from Hyogo to the free bus stop.  The bus stop looks like a shack that belongs to someone’s backyard because Uji is very rural, but we managed to find it with teamwork.  Keep your eyes out for the iconic heart-shaped bus stop that leads you to the magical heart-shaped temple (this is the best travel advice I’ve given anyone):

A Quest to The Tower of the Sun (Osaka, Japan)

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The Tower of the Sun stands proudly in Osaka representing the evolution of life.

Over the weekend while attending a unique club-turned-campsite event at Club Daphnia, I decided to stop by the Tower of the Sun (太陽の塔) because it’s one of the few attractions in Osaka that I haven’t been to yet.  The Tower of Sun is located in Osaka’s Expo ’70 Commemorative Park among flower gardens, museums, and other recreational facilities.  There’s even a “Dream Pond” with pedal boats (much like Tokyo’s Ueno Park) and a foot bath you can use.  This area is truly a unique place and feels like it’s part of an RPG map with the Tower as a dungeon surrounded by fields of flowers.  It’s also far away enough from the city that you can leisurely relax here, but you can easily access it by riding the Osaka Monorail.

The tower itself is 70m tall and was designed by the artist Taro Okamoto for the 1970 Japan World Exposition.  The design was a hit success and attracted millions of visitors so it still stands in the exact same place today.  According to the Official ’70 Expo Website, the three faces of the tower each represent a different phase of life:

The “Golden Mask” located at its top, which shines and suggests the future, the “Face of the Sun” on its front, which represents the present, and the “Black Sun” on its back, which symbolizes the past.

From the front it looks like it only has two faces, but if you walk around to the rear of the tower you can see the black face of the past and enter the museum. Unfortunately due to the effect of the corona virus, the museum was temporarily closed.  However, the gift shops and cafes were still open and there was a lot of sightseeing for me to do in the park.  There is a 4th face within the tower as well as intricate sculptures demonstrating the evolution of life (from the dinosaur age until the present) so I hope to come back to see it in the future when it’s open.

This tower has become somewhat of a meme in Japanese society due to its unique design.  I’ve seen a number of people cosplay it on Halloween and apparently it has somewhat of a cult-like following.  Some Japanese people around me were describing it as “scary-looking” but it just looks like something out of a NieR game to me.  I honestly think what it symbolizes is truly wondrous and I’m happy that they kept it as the mascot of the Expo park.  The souvenirs they sold at the gift shop were hilarious too!  You could buy anything from $100 action figures and plush dolls to $5 dollar keychains.  I liked the design of the T-shirt too.  I bought a keychain because I thought it was very cute.

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Friendly Tower of the Sun takoyaki man.

On my way back I saw a takoyaki store that had Tower of the Sun action figures next to it.  As I was taking a picture, the man gave me a thumbs up sign.  I really love Osaka and am excited to write all about my adventures here!  Despite the fear of the virus, life in Osaka seems to be carrying on as normal which is relieving.

Access

1-1 Senribanpakukoen, Suita, Osaka 565-0826
Entrance Fee: 250 yen (the cheapest I have paid to enter a tourist attraction in a while)

Taking the Tradition of Hatsumode to Taiwan: Exploring Songshan Ciyou, Confucius, and Dalongdong Baoan Temples

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Visiting Songshan Ciyou Temple on the first day of the 2020 and wishing for another year of adventure.

After eating hotpot out of a toilet bowl, I decided to spend my first night of the new year in Taipei stopping by the local temples and shrines like the natives do.  In Japan there is the tradition of hatsumode (初詣), which is the first trip to a Shinto or Buddhist shrine on January 1st.  I asked my Japanese friends what they normally wish for, and they said they usually wish for necessary things like good health, success in their career, and happiness in life.  I am fortunate to have all of these things, so I usually wish for more adventures and exciting encounters.  Essentially, I wish to never grow bored or complacent in life.  I want to keep exploring the world and advancing at a steady place.  Though I will admit, a little love would be nice too!

The majority of Taiwan residents observe the Chinese New Year which occurs later in the month (this year it starts on January 5th, 2020).  However, I noticed there were a lot of people here that still visited to the shrines in order to pay their respects.  I have mentioned before here that I am not particularly a religious person; I believe we are all our own gods and what we perceive the world as is our customs or religion.  Despite this, I enjoy visiting temples and shrines all over Asia.  You get a sense of peace and clarity from being outside a temple versus crammed in a western church.  I enjoy seeing the intricate architecture and learning about the culture as well.  That is why you will see me at a lot of shrines despite me being an atheist–I enjoy immersing myself in culture as much as possible.  And in order to fully grasp a culture, you must start at its origin.

Songshan Ciyou Temple

Songshan Ciyou Temple was by far my favorite temple in central Taipei.  I loved how the lighting captured the beautiful illustrations on the temple walls at night, and there were multiple floors that you could climb and see different deities.  The temple is dedicated to Mazu who is the goddess of the sea despite it being located near the heart of the city.  Many people pray for her divine protection and it is a great place to witness Taiwanese tradition:

I loved the unique carvings of the pillars and the beautiful gold statues inside.  I was really overcome with awe since this was my first time ever exploring a temple in Taiwan.  The temple even had a tiny mascot!  It felt a lot like exploring a temple in Japan, but it had a slightly different atmosphere.  I spent quite a long time here soaking in the culture and trying to read what I could about its history.  It really is an amazing place to see!

Conveniently located next to this temple is the Raohe Street Market.  This is a great first street market experience as well because it is one of the biggest in Taipei!  I found a lot of interesting foods there like stinky tofu fries, dinosaur hamburgers, fried squid with mayonnaise… the list goes on and on.  I have been to a number of night markets in Asia already, but I like seeing the unique foods and characteristics each one has!

Confucius Temple

Confucius Temple was the 2nd temple I visited during my stay in Taipei.  I came here during the morning of January 2nd and was surprised to see people dancing and doing yoga here!  It reminded me a lot of what I had seen in Vietnam actually.  This temple had a more open feel than others that I have been to in Asia and is really worth visiting.

As many people know, Confucius was one of the most influential teachers in Chinese philosophy.  I took a number of Asian studies classes in university and actually agree with some of his theories; such as we should make education widely available and cultivate ourselves.  The quote: “If you want to change the world, first change yourself” is a good example of Confucian theory.  I try to practice this when I travel abroad so I can improve my life and [ideally] the lives of others.  I believe that change is something that usually comes with dedication and time much like the ancient sage does.

The most interesting part of this temple is there is actual a chariot driving simulation game you can play in one of the chambers!  This is the first time I had ever seen anything like this at a religious ground, and I fully support the use of interactive technology:

Dalongdong Baoan Temple

Right next to the Confucius Temple is the Taiwanese folk religion temple Dalongdong Baoan.  It is dedicated to the Taoist saint Baosheng Dadi who sadly I do not know much about.  However, I loved the aesthetic of the temple.  It had an outdoor garden and a beautiful dragon statue that spits water into a pond full of koi fish:

Right around the corner is street lined with palm trees, lanterns, and tiny shops.  Even in January this town had an extremely tropical vibe to it that made me happy to be here!  I will be writing more about Taiwanese culture in my future posts.  Please look forward to reading them.

Exploring Hikone: A Castle Town with a Mythical Island and Fierce Cat Samurai

Over the weekend I made the amazing discovery that samurai cats are real!  About an hour east from Kyoto lies a quiet castle town called Hikone with the adorable samurai cat mascot you see here: Hikonyan.  Hikone is in Shiga Prefecture and borders Lake Biwa, one of the most famous lakes in Japan due to its lovely scenery.  I decided to start my trip by taking a ferry from Nagahama Port, which is just a few stops north of Hikone Station on the JR Tokaido-Sanyo line, and visit the mythical island in the middle of the lake called Chikubushima.  See the ferry schedule for reference–a roundtrip ferry ticket is around 3000 yen.

Chikubushima is known as the “Island of the Gods” and is said to be imbued with magical powers.  Though I am not a religious person, I appreciate going on journeys like this because it gives me the chance to see rare parts of the world!  You can walk around the whole entire island within 30 mins and see shrines, a beautiful view of the lake, and also try some local cuisine at the cafes (though the selection is very limited).

The main point of interest here is visiting Hogonji Temple and making a wish with a daruma doll.  Daruma Dolls are a special kind of talisman here that you can write your wish on a slip of paper and put it inside the doll for good luck.  The Japanese people at the shrine were extremely kind and helped me do this.  Though this island was tinier than I expected, it was a very nice way to start my trip!

After the pleasant ferry ride back (which only takes 30 mins), I then decided to go directly to Hikone Castle to see the Hikonyan Show!  During this time, the fiercely adorable samurai cat will come out before the castle gates to greet his visitors.  Hikonyan is treated as a celebrity by Japanese people.  I was surprised to see a line of people with cameras out waiting to see him, but he is definitely worth the hype!  He appears every day and you can see the timetables here.

In addition to Hikonyan, you can walk through the Hikone Castle, see the Genkyu-en Gardens, and also visit the Yume Kyōbashi Castle Road that has shops and souvenirs.  I visited all of these places by foot from Hikone Station, but you can also take buses around the city!  By 6pm, I was exhausted from all the travel so I decided to go back to my capsule hotel in Kyoto.  Hikone makes for the perfect day trip from Kyoto because it is easy to access and full of history.

Exploring Singapore: From the Utopian Center to the Graffiti Streets

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The brave Merlion Statue is a symbol of good luck in Singapore.

Singapore is a vibrant and and multicultural country off the coast of Malaysia with a gorgeous bay, beautiful gardens, and picturesque beaches on its southern resort island, Sentosa.  Similar to Hong Kong, the island capital Pulau Ujong is highly condensed with shopping districts and bars which means you can easily travel to a lot of destinations on foot.  Though it is somewhat expensive to live here due to the cost of fuel and electricity and lack of natural reserves, there are many backpacker hostels and cheap transport options (buses, Grab, and the MTR) that are readily available.  I would recommend staying 2-3 days here to see the major attractions.  You do not need any special visa to enter Singapore for the purpose of travel, and almost everyone in this country speaks very good English.

What fascinates me about this country is the center of the city is really futuristic and looks liked something out of a Utopian society, but the suburbs (where I stayed at in Spacepod) have a huge Turkish and Indian population, so all the temples and shops look like structures from another planet.  Each part of the city has extremely intricate architecture everywhere you look.  There are clear influences of Japanese culture here too; you can tell by the way some foods are prepared and the interior decor of certain places.  When traveling here you’ll truly find a fascinating blend of cultures!

Here are the four main areas of Singapore that I recommend exploring, and I will be writing a guide to Sentosa Island as well.

Worldly Temples

From my hostel, I decided to walk towards the City Square Mall to the public transit and stop by the nearby temples.  I saw a variety of Hindu and Buddhist temples including Sri Srinivasa, Leong San, and Sakya Muni Buddha.  It was surreal to see so many different worldly temples in such close proximity together!  They were absolutely beautiful and only required a small donation to go fully inside.

Since I went here during the obon season where people believe their ancestors’ souls return to Earth, there were a lot of ceremonies and decorations around.  Anyone is welcome to enter the temples as long as they follow the dress code.  For those wearing short sleeves or dresses, there are usually cloths available for cheap rental so you can cover yourself up appropriately before you go inside.

Singapore’s Chinatown, which you can reach by the MTR, also has a number of Chinese temples worth seeing.  I recommend checking some of them out because they don’t take that much time to see.

Haji Lane

After seeing the temples, I decided to continue walking south to Singapore’s Hipster Street: Haji Lane.  This neighborhood is full of beautiful graffiti murals, shopping boutiques, as well as restaurants and bars popular for day drinking.  This is definitely an exciting place to come and mingle!  I stopped at Pita Bakery for some delicious bread and hummus, then walked to Singapore’s popular outdoor art gallery: Gelam Gallery.  There were so many gorgeous hand-painted and graffiti-sprayed original works of art there that I felt as if I had entered a wonderland of psychedelic colors.  I recommend walking though all of the little streets and back alleys because you’ll never know what you’ll find!

Sultan Mosque

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At the end of Haji Lane is the Sultan Mosque, which was originally home of Singapore’s first sultan.  Its gold roof gleams beautifully in the sunny weather and looks almost tropical facing the palm trees!  There are visitation hours where you can enter and go inside the glass domes that are a unique part of Muslim architecture.  There are also a lot of Middle Eastern restaurants around for those who are interested in trying some local food.  This was my first time seeing a mosque and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about a new culture.

The Merlion

The Merlion is a half-mermaid, half-lion mascot that watches over Singapore and is said to bring good luck!  The head of the Merlion represents Singapore’s original name, Singapura, or ‘lion city’ in Malay.  Its four teeth represent the four main ethnic groups that reside in Singapore: Malay, Chinese, Indian & Eurasian.  The Merlion just may be my favorite mascot in the world because I love how much symbolism was put into its design.

I rode the MTR from the Sultan Mosque to reach Merlion Park.  From Merlion Park, you can get a beautiful picture with the Merlion jetting water out of its mouth, and also eat Merlion ice cream from the shop nearby!

There is also a Merlion Observatory Statue you can see on Sentosa Island which I will be writing about in my next article.

Gardens by the Bay

When the sun finally set, I decided to go out again and see Singapore’s famous gardens illuminated at night.  Gardens by the Bay was designed by professional landscapers and engineers boasting over 100 gardens housed with state of the art technology.  My favorite garden was the Supertree Grove, where you can see the giant trees with dazzling lights that Singapore is famous for.  There is also a Skyway available so you can see a great view of the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the surrounding area.  This area is quite large, so I recommend giving yourself at least an hour and a half to see everything.

Gardens by the Bay is located near the Merlion and stays open from 5am – 2am.  You can easily access them by riding the MTR.  The entrance price is $28 at the door, but you can get cheaper prices online or by asking most hostels.

As you can see, Singapore is influenced by many different cultures and is definitely worth traveling to for this unique experience.  I was happy I started with the historic temples and ended with the futuristic gardens, because it really gave me the chance to see everything.

For more information on Singapore’s nightlife, please see my Favorite Bars in Singapore article.

A Lovely Time at the Godai Rikison Ninnoe Festival at Daigoji, Kyoto

Recently Japanese citizens, tourists, and foreign residents alike are saying that temples in Japan are becoming overly crowded.  I, however, am not one to complain!  In every town, there lies a hidden gem or area off the beaten path that you can discover.  Since I have been to all the major temples in Kyoto already, I decided to check out Daigoji for their yearly festival in February: The Godai Rikison Ninnoe Festival.

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Daigoji is a beautiful Buddhist temple located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, approximately 30 minutes from Kyoto Station.  It is famous for its red architecture (which looks most alluring in the fall with the autumn leaves), and also the golden Buddha statue you can see in one of the smaller pavilions.  The Godai Rikison Ninnoe Festival is held on February 23rd every year (I was lucky because this year it was on a Saturday), where monks pray in a public ceremony for “peace, health, and happiness of the country and people”.

What I liked about this temple was that it wasn’t overly crowded, and most of the people there were Japanese families praying and partaking in the festival activities.  Traveling here felt like a journey because the temple itself was located approximately 15 mins uphill from where the station is.  Though it wasn’t a long hike, it is just the right amount of time for people who want to go multiple places in the city.

I arrived around 11:30am and was just in time to see the monks delivering their prayer ceremony!  I was very happy to witness such an event.  Though I didn’t fully understand the cultural significance of everything, people treated me with a lot of kindness.  One monk asked (in English) where I was from and what I thought of the festival.  I responded that I had been to a similar festival at Mt. Takao, but it was refreshing to get out of the city and be at peace here.

Though this is the biggest event at Godaiji, there are numerous seasonal events too!  I recommend this temple for those who want to get away from the crowds.