Travel and Tourism

Nara and Kyoto: Cities that are as old as time yet upbeat as the modern rhyme

RENDEZVOUs - Christine Dayrit - The Philippine Star
Nara and Kyoto: Cities that are as old as time  yet upbeat as  the modern rhyme

A beautiful clash of contrasts is experienced in Japan. Take Nara and Kyoto, for instance, and you will see the startling disparity of the old and the current. They breathe the air of a conservative past that also overlaps heavily with modernism. These cities are big on traditional mood yet they exist in a progressive mode.

That’s how my family and I felt — the distant past meeting the persistent present — when we discovered Kyoto and Nara recently.

From our Airbnb in Osaka, our amiable guide Hiroshi met us for an exciting discovery of Nara and Kyoto. We boarded a family bus full of excitement and a bagful of snacks for the trip. (My family’s first destination when we are together abroad is the local grocery store. Our first discovery of any foreign culture is through its food — that’s how we were taught by our late parents. Or maybe that’s our excuse because we are afraid to get hungry. So, yes, there’s always, always food with us — in our bags, and even on the bus, where there’s a portable cooler of refreshments — when we travel.)

As we left the bustling city of Osaka, the landscape began to change. It was more of rural Japan and less of city life. We admired the outskirts of Osaka as well as the Japanese home architecture. We knew we were in Nara as soon as we spotted the deer and all the bus passengers began to scream in joy. Here, we learned from Hiroshi that deer are allowed to roam freely because they are sacred; if cows are considered sacred in India, it’s deers in Japan. We fed and tried to pet the deer that we met along the way as we walked through the Todaiji, a Buddhist temple complex that was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples located in the city of Nara.

We found ourselves walking into the great Buddha hall that houses the world’s largest Buddha known as Daibutsu. As we stared up at the Buddha, we felt so small. The temple also serves as the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism. The temple is UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed as one of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara,” together with seven other sites including temples, shrines and places in the city of Nara.



We boarded the bus for our next stop: the Kasuga Grand Shrine, known as Kasuga Taisha in Japanese, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has a long history and importance to Nara residents and Japan as a whole. While the shrine is spectacular, an equally amazing view to soak in is the 3,000 lanterns located in Nara Park along the walk to Kasuga. We stared dreamily at the Gold Pagoda and the pine tree shaped like a ship. The landscape was an easy walk as we noticed that the gardens were impeccably maintained. To think it was built years and years ago but remains magnificent. We also chanced upon the charming teahouse with its various ceremonies to view.

Japan’s first permanent capital was established in the year 710 AD at Heijo, the city now known as Nara.

Kyoto, on the other hand, was also a mesmerizing discovery for us. And our discovery of the city began, of course, with the local food.

In Kyoto, Hiroshi had us try a local hotpot lunch perfect for the cold weather. It was a special Japanese set for each of us. There was beef, pork, mushroom and tofu dipped in a sweet savory broth complemented by a choice of mild or spicy sauce with steamed Japanese rice. 

After lunch, we proceeded to Kinkakuji or more popularly known as the Golden Pavilion. Profoundly covered in gold leaf, this is a very attractive sight. According to Hirosan, “The temple here was the retirement villa known as Rokuonji, of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.”

We were all extremely excited to visit the Golden Temple. To get to this magnificent structure, you must walk through well-manicured gardens. This temple may look picture-perfect today but it actually survived many fires in the past.

In the periphery of the Golden Pavilion, bonsai lovers will have a field day. The ancient art of bonsai can be seen in the Rikushu-no-matsu Ship Pine Tree, one of three famous pine trees in Kyoto. We observed that the ship design is very evident with the mast and bow organized in the branches of what appears to be a design like old sailing ships.

The Kinkakuji Temple was inscribed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1994.

Our only brother Mark, who loves bamboo, was so eager to visit the famous Bamboo Grove found in Arashiyama in Kyoto. So, we all went. We fell in love with the Bamboo Grove and its charming street full of food shops and young ladies walking around in pretty kimonos. We enjoyed trying all sorts of goodies like ice cream, Japanese croquettes, ginger cookies, crepes and matcha tea. We were still in Kyoto and my family was already scheduling a future return trip to this city. That’s how much we fell in love with Kyoto.

 Planted between Tenryuji Temple and Nonomiya Shrine, one can walk through the 500-meter-long forest paths where bamboo trees grow so thickly. Japanese people compare the strength of the bamboo to that of man. It is not often we get the chance to see bamboo trees in their natural state that grow thick and line the path like they ones at the Bamboo Grove.

A most magnificent view awaits when you gaze at the bamboo trees, all neatly arranged in rows and rows. By the entrance of the Tenryuji temple, where bamboo groves grow further apart from each other, we experienced total bliss as we watched the tallest grass dance, as though prancing to the symphony of the wind. That scene, that moment was Zen poetry. And what added color to this scene of poetry in motion was the promenading lovers walking through the paths and cyclists enjoying the warm sunlight throughout the groves.

The Sagano Romantic Train ride, magnificent in spring cherry blossoms or mesmerizing in autumn for the kalaidescopic colors of the maple leaves and other trees, brings more romantic hue to Arashiyama. A landmark bridge is where we also took photos. Here you can explore and experience its other charms like the Mount Arashi and the big Oi River.

Truth is, there is another “forest” in Arashiyama. Although it is not as famous as the bamboo forest, the Kimono Forest certainly will be a delight for the eyes.

We saw several women in their kimono outfits and watched them walk serenely past us. Hirosan shared that there is actually what they call the  Kimono Forest — a collection of gorgeous cylinder-shaped pillars framing the lane way to Randen tram station on Kyoto’s Keifuku Arashiyama line, which was installed as part of the renovation in 2013. It was interesting to observe that the installation is called a “forest” since the pillars are framed like a forest and the kimono is displayed on each of the pillars. The Kimono Forest consists of pieces of textile displays dyed in the traditional Kyo-yuzen style.

In the Land of the Rising Sun, we found ourselves in places where one can find some of the oldest Japanese treasures existing. Nara and Kyoto are as old as time, yet as upbeat as a modern rhyme. They are ancient but they look to the future with innovative fervor.

We will be back soon.

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