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Sorry for the long wait for this post! It was a bit daunting, especially after the Nikko one, so I sorta kept putting it off. But here I am with time on my hands (and a new road trip that needs to be posted), so I am going to get this post finished and, well, posted!

We didn’t really plan this road trip. I mean, we had a very general idea of where we wanted to go, but no hotels booked, no routes mapped, nada. We had two guide books, an iPhone, and occasional internet. It went mostly as expected, which is to say, it was REALLY FREAKING AWESOME GUYS! *cough* Sorry. It was a very fun road trip, and the no-planning thing mostly worked out for us. (Note the “mostly”… more on that later.)

We left in the evening and stayed in Nagano on the way to our first stop, the Kiso Valley. Although there are several towns in the valley, we only were able to see one, Tsumago. The Kiso valley follows the route of the old Nakasendo, a main transportation road from old Tokyo (called Edo then) to Kyoto, and Tsumago is the best preserved post town of the set. We spent several hours there, including lunch, before continuing our way south.


Some nice scenery on our way


Some cherry blossoms still bloomed here!


Our first view of the town was mostly of crowds. Well, it WAS Golden Week!


A preserved water wheel


Ladies sweeping the leaves away at a ryokan


These little horses were super cute; Kenji and I both bought one!


Trying the local beer


And I had to get a shrine visit in for my Shuuin book!


Lunch, udon and the local specialty, a miso-covered rice food. It is similar to mochi, but the rice isn’t as pounded, so there is more texture.


Finally, a shop with the old hiragana character for “ye”. It doesn’t exist anymore (it is pronounced “e” now). My keyboard won’t even write it!


Also in the area were some famous waterfalls. Unfortunately, the best one required a bit of a hike, and it was getting late and raining a bit, so we reluctantly decided to save it for another day.

Next up we headed into Hikone, which is a castle town on the shores of Lake Biwa. Hikone (not to be confused with Hakone, the famous onsen town near Tokyo), wasn’t on our original “to see” list, but turned out to be a great idea, mostly because of the mascot… more on that in a second.


Swans and boats in the moat around the castle


The castle walls and the things growing on them

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The castle


As usual, Kenji takes the better picture.


At the wall


The view from one of the other towers. The castle itself had a long line to get into, and we didn’t want to wait, so we just walked around the grounds. It was good enough!


Around the castle. It was very crowded, but we finally found a Chinese food place for lunch. Yum!


The shores of Lake Biwa.

It being Golden Week, everything was very crowded. The castle was cool, but the best part of Hikone is their character, Hikonyan. Kenji bought a Hikonyan plushie, which became our trip mascot.


How can you not love that face?!

Anyway, next on the list was Nara. Nara is famous for deer and temples, of which we saw copious amounts of both. I liked Nara, except for the fact that Nara is the subject of a joke Japanese people and Kenji seem to find the epitome of humor, but which actually gets rather old about the 10th time you hear it. So here is the one and only time I will ever say this joke. (Context: “Onara” means fart in Japanese)

What did the foreigner say when he went to Nara the first time?
Foreigner-san: “Oh Nara!”

Hilarious.

Moving on.


The deer can be pushy. They want those deer crackers and they want them NOW!


Unsuspecting tourists.


One of the little devils-in-training


On the way to one of the most famous temples, Todaiji


The gate leading to Todaiji


Our first glimpse of Todaiji, and some info in English for reference


This is the temple, but it doesn’t give you any sense of how frikken HUGE this temple is. And here is the kicker… when they rebuilt the temple, they made it smaller. It is only about 2/3rds the size of the original. So take that picture and increase it another third… WOW!


Us.


Incense offerings outside the temple


The giant buddha on the inside


More deer.


The next temple, Kofukuji, is under serious construction for quite awhile. (We seem to run into that a lot…)


But the pagoda is very nice!


And on to Kasuga Taisha Shrine, which has hundreds and hundreds of stone lanterns leading up to it


As well as some really beautiful wisteria


Even the shrine maidens wear wisteria!


More lanterns line the outside of the shrine


Originally made of gold and other metals, they soon turn dark


Kenji’s families mon


There was a darkened room where we could see what they looked like lit up


Other forest shrines near the main one


From there we took a road up to the viewpoint of the city, to Wakakusayama.


The day wasn’t very clear, but we could see enough of the area to make it worth it!


And more deer.


Finally, coming down off the mountain, we got a brief glimpse of the reproduction of Heijo Palace. After that, it was on to our next destination.

Our last plan was to see the most sacred shrine in Japan, Ise. It is a little confusing, because there is an inner shrine, and an outer shrine, but they are about 10 minutes away from each other. We went first to the outer shrine, Geku, then drove to the inner shrine, Naiku. Ise shrines are very simple, traditional Japanese style, not the fancy shrines like those of Nara. You also aren’t allowed in, so really you only catch glimpses of the inner buildings.


The entrance to Geku. Note the wood is very unadorned and basic. The effect was really beautiful and peaceful with the surrounding forest however, despite the crowds of people!


An outer building on the way to the main area


The gate fencing off the inner shrine area


As far as you could get into the shrine, although when the wind blew you could see into the inner courtyard.


On the way to the inner shrine is a great area with lots of old style buildings, food, and souvenirs.


The inner shrine area, Naiku.


Next to the shrine itself is an empty lot. Actually, all the Ise buildings have this, as the shrine is rebuilt completely every 20 years.


An outer building with a traditional thatched roof


This was the cat shop. It was filled with cats, cats, and more cats. Kenji had to drag me out.


Our last stop was Meoto Iwa, or the wedded rocks.


They are actually a lot smaller than they seem. We had just missed the changing of the rope to a new one!


Shells and frogs


People buy these woven hoops to leave at the shrine to take away troubles and bad luck


That’s us! Again! Hi!


Cute little stone froggy


Once a year, the sun hits the right point between the two for some awesome pictures!


Ema at the shrine

So from Ise, we drove home. Only we accidentally took the wrong highway (well, continued on the wrong leg of the highway instead of merging to the right one), which took us toward Tokyo instead of Gunma, which meant we really look the LOOOONG way back. But other than minor mishaps like that, the trip was a fun one!

Oh Nara, I will be back!

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