The flight from Seoul was delightfully short -- only an hour and a half until we landed in Osaka. Kyoto is rather far from Kansai Airport, about 60 miles (100 km), but with Japan's rapid trains getting into the city is no problem at all. I was traveling with my Samsung colleague Dave and my friend Eddie from back in the USA, who works now in Vietnam and made the long flight up from Ho Chi Minh City to see the famous Kyoto cherry blossoms! The blossoms are prominent in many parts of Japan during the early spring, I have read, and they are commonly found in Korea as well, but I had heard that they were legendary in Kyoto, which is quite beautiful in its own right.
My first surprising impression of Kyoto, actually, was how hard we had to work to find the beauty of the city. Though dotted with all sorts of old temples, shrines, and palaces, upon arriving at Kyoto Station one only sees the bland, concrete, modern architecture that has replaced much of the ancient stuff in the center city. I had expected something more like Florence, Italy -- a preserved masterpiece where one wanders from plaza to plaza and tries to avoid being consumed by too much of the place too quickly.
But if you arm yourself with a map and board one of Kyoto's convenient buses, you can reach almost any site worth seeing quite easily. Our first stop on a warm Friday was Ginkakuji Temple. The walk from the bus stop had all sorts of cherry blossoms hanging over the sidewalk. I think we missed the well-known Philosopher's Path, instead darting into the temple and breathing in the calm of the large Zen garden inside. Even full of tourists, I felt like I could walk at ease around the grounds and loved breathing in the clean Japan air (Korea, you need to fix the haze that hangs over Seoul). Riding the Kyoto bus was peaceful too, with a driver who seemed to have perfected the art of driving his vehicle smoothly.
We took a long ride across town towards Kinkakuji Temple but missed out once the sun went down. No worries, there was more to see. We migrated to the Nijo Castle, originally the shogun's residence in Kyoto. At nighttime the cherry blossoms inside were lit up inside the large grounds. Spectacular!!! Unfortunately I didn't know how to make best use of my new DSLR camera to take the finest photos, but the visual memory I have will be one of my best from Kyoto. We ate a late dinner at a noodle restaurant, then wandered to our capsule hotel for an early bedtime. The capsule hotel was like a glorified hostel. Beds were larger than I expected but you were definitely in tight quarters and a semi-enclosed space. It felt like sleeping on a spaceship!
We woke up early on Saturday because rain was in the forecast. We stopped at Hirano Shrine on our way back towards Kinkakuji. Also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji was short of the picturesque blossoms but equally Zen as our temple visit the day before. Unfortunately, the forecasted rain arrived on time and umbrellas were out the rest of the day. We viewed Ninnaji Temple on our way towards Arashiyama, a hilly area in the western part of the city. We found more blossoms here and the Tenryuji Temple, which contained a splendid bamboo forest. The Arashiyama area had nice shopping too but the rain had tired us out a bit and we accomplished less sightseeing than one would have hoped. At night, Eddie introduced us to a Japanese gentleman from Harvard who introduced us to a fine traditional Japanese bar in the posh Gion district, followed by a karaoke session!
On Sunday morning, the rain had mostly stopped and we wandered back through Gion's small streets. This is what we had pictured Kyoto looking like!! We moved south and wandered through a large residential district full of temples on our way to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. How amazing it must be to live around so many wonderful temples! The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Japanese fox goddess. One sees dozens of stone foxes and hundreds of bright orange torii gates inscribed with Japanese stories. The grounds are so large that one could wander here all day! But we didn't have such time, sadly. My weekend in Japan passed far too quickly.
The dangerous part about traveling to Japan is that the more I visit, the more I yearn to return! Japan is such a harmonious and peaceful country. It is quite different from any other place I have ever visited and it is wonderful in an inimitable, unique way. Given how close it lies to the Korean peninsula, I am bound to return again to Japan soon.