It was a weekend of castles in Osaka.
And, they were magical.
But, after being traumatized by ominous crows at the Osaka Castle and by the treacherous fire-breathing dragon at Hogwarts, it was time to escape to safer territory. So, I decided to swap castles for temples and shrines, the bustle of the city for peace and quiet, and crows and a fire-breathing dragon for a park overrun by deer, and made my way to Kyoto and Nara.
I underestimated Kyoto. A lot.
One day to explore the city that perfectly epitomizes Japan – with all of its rich culture and history and architectural marvels, certainly felt like I had cut my trip short. There is so much to experience in Kyoto, and I barely scratched its surface. With the limited time I had, I put my little legs to work, and marathoned my way through the city. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I last played Temple Run.
I’ve been temple-hopping my way through Asia for almost a year. But, between all of the temples I have visited within the 6 Asian countries I have traveled to, Japan’s Kiyomizu-dera (one of Kyoto’s seventeen UNESCO World Heritage sites) continues to be one of my favourites.
When I pictured Japan in my head, this is exactly how I imagined it would look like.
Between the vibrant red and orange colours, the 1200 year-old buildings oozing with traditional Japanese character, and the incredible view of Kyoto in the backdrop, I felt like I was caught in a panoramic Japanese dream.
Despite the large crowds also admiring the impressive complex, I felt a wonderful sense of calm making my way through. I am almost certain that this temple held some sort of mystic powers within its grounds, as I have never felt so at peace while being whacked across the head with a selfie stick.
But, really – how could anyone be disturbed by something so harmless (OK, this may be debatable) while overlooking this stunning panorama?
HOW TO GET THERE:
Forget the main entrance! Take the back road through the graveyard behind Otani Hombyo temple.
I mistakenly accessed the temple through another temple, Otani Hombyo. This was an impossible accident, with an unbelievable 1600 temples scattered throughout the city. To put this in perspective, there are 1400 McDonald’s locations across all of Canada.
And, I ended up in a graveyard as a result. It may be an unusual recommendation, but I suggest you do the same. I mean, I think the hoard of tourists at the main entrance was spookier than the graveyard itself.
The walk up through the graveyard took my breath away (no pun intended). From the top of the hill, where the entrance to the temple is, I marvelled at the modern city below me and the lush mountains surrounding it.
10,000 Torii (traditional Japanese) gates wrap the pathways through the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine. Yes. An unbelievable 10,000 gleaming, vibrant red gates make up the extraordinary complex of the 1300 year old shrine. This number still makes my head spin when I think about it.
Each of the gates tells a story, with the engraving of the name of a local business that donated it. I couldn’t help but feel ridiculously small while passing under the maze of archways above me.
HOW TO GET THERE:
I will definitely be making a trip back to Kyoto.
And I will definitely be staying longer than a day. I mean, I still have to uncover and explore the remaining 1597 temples and shrines scattered throughout this magical city.
Before moving to Asia, I had never interacted with so many animals in my life.
Between visiting a whole village dominated by cats in Taiwan to sipping coffees alongside monstrous tortoises and aggressively over-enthusiastic meerkats and raccoons at animal-themed cafes in Seoul, I am definitely starting to feel like an off-duty Ace Ventura.
Continuing with my new found alter-ego, I set out from Kyoto to Nara, to be one with the legendary deer of Nara Park.
When I was eight years old, my father took me to a petting zoo. I tried to initiate a new friendship prematurely by feeding a goat pellets. Even from a young age, I understood that the way to another being’s heart was through its stomach. We became friends. For 15 minutes we shared conversation over pellets and frolicked freely together through the pen. Well, this friendship was promptly terminated. That goat threw me to the ground with a swift head-butt and swiped the rest of my pellets.
What I learned from this experience: never trust a goat.
Were deers any different? Could I overcome my fear of being surrounded by animals that could potentially head-butt me and run off with all of my pellets and dignity?
Nara Park has a staggering 1200 deer who roam freely through its grounds. This number is a significant increase from the 20 goats circling their prey (me) at the African Lion Safari petting zoo, just outside of Toronto. An interesting name choice, considering there are more goats than there are “African lions.” Although, I don’t think the name “Canadian Goat Safari” has the same ring to it. I’ll let you be the judge.
Even before entering the park, I couldn’t help but notice all of the signs and markings on the roads for pedestrians and drivers to be alert of passing deer. With every step I took closer to the park entrance, I shuddered. The vivid memory of the notorious head-butting, pellet-stealing goat kept resurfacing.
When I entered the park, deer were swarming those who had bought deer feed. I wasn’t going to make that same mistake twice. So I stood for a while observing, at a safe distance, away from all of the commotion.
I felt a light tap on the back of my leg and looked beside me to find a deer grazing by. Unlike Canadian deer, who bolt at the first sight of a person, these deer strutted through the grounds with an absolute confidence about them – these were magical deer.
I decided to test my luck. I spotted a sleepy-eyed deer, resting underneath a tree, and approached it with Ace Ventura-like stealth. I crouched down beside it carefully, mentally preparing myself for the 100-metre sprint I was about to make when it head-butted me. But, it didn’t even flinch. This was a friendly deer. I sat down beside the deer, without a pellet in hand, and smothered it with the same kind of affection I do my cat. Now, I was one with the magical Nara deer.
What I learned from this experience: never trust a goat, trust a Japanese deer instead.
HOW TO GET THERE:
What other magical things have you seen and done in Kyoto and Nara?
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