A surprise at Himeji Castle

On November 30 we arrived in Himeji City, home of the fine Himeji Castle.

We love Himeji City! There is plenty of wide, open space in Himeji and the city isn’t too crowded. The area where our hotel Dormy Inn Himeji is, right opposite JR Himeji, has countless izakayas that open till early morning.

From our hotel, Himeji Castle is just 20 minutes away on foot. It was a pleasurable stroll down streets lined with golden ginko trees.

Although the main castle keep is under refurbishment now, the rest of the castle grounds and the surrounding park remain open to the public.

ImageImageImageIt was a Saturday when we visited Himeji Castle, so there were many families and youths – many of these youths were dressed in colourful yutakas. There were also performers dressed in exquisite costumes, mimicking the royalty who once lived in Himeji Castle.

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ImageIt is worth exploring the castle’s interior, where one would learn about Senhime, or Princess Sen, the eldest daughter of shogun Tokugawa Hidetada. She led a bittersweet life during those warring times, and her life gave birth to many legends.

Visitors are shown where she lived in the sprawling castle, where she prayed for her family and where she dressed herself. In the room where she supposedly loved playing cards with her closest attendee, I caught this spectacular sunset.

ImageThe castle’s interior was about to close by the time we exited Kesho Yagura, the tower where the princess is said to dress herself, so we made our way out. Along the way, in a quiet courtyard, we saw a bald tree with tiny, white buds on its spindly branches.

Curious, we went closer and were surprised by what we saw.

ImageCherry blossoms in bloom!

What luck to find cherry blossoms in autumn! This unexpected sighting inspired the husband and I to plan a trip to Japan again next March/April when we can truly appreciate the beauty of cherry blossom season.

 

Off to Kurama and Kibune

The husband and I love escaping the big city, and a trip to the rural town of Kurama to the north of Kyoto City seemed like a mighty good plan, especially since all the tourist hotspots in the city were packed.

Kurama can be accessed by train from Kyoto Station, but a few line transfers are needed. From Kyoto Station, take the JR Nara line to Tofukuji Station (about two minutes), then transfer to the Keihan Main Line to get to Demachi-Yanagi Station (about 10 minutes). Go to the platform for the Eizan Railway from here, and take the train bound for Kurama Station (about 30 minutes).

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Now, this service comes once every 30 minutes and uses a short train, so be prepared for large crowds and to stand in a very tight space throughout the journey.

The train ride is popular after sunset, as the tracks cut through a maple tree groove that gets lit up come evening, creating a wonderful vision for passengers.
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It was mighty cold – by my standards – in Kurama when we were there on November 29. Despite having two layers of thermal pants on, my knees were chilled to the bone. So before we started our hike up Mount Kurama, we slipped into one of the few noodle huts close to the train stations for a hot meal.

We realised that meat wasn’t featured on the menu at many eateries at Kurama – perhaps because Kuramadera, a revered temple on the mountain, and Yuki-jinja, a smaller Shinto shrine, are frequented by pilgrims.

The closest option I got for meat was ebi tempura, served in a heated metal pot with udon and soup. It was wonderful.The husband ordered the restaurant’s most popular dish, a soupy soba with sticky rice balls.

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With our tummies filled, we started off for Kuramadera. Its entrance sits at the foot of Mount Kurama, but the main temple complex is higher up, accessible by the temple’s own cable car service.

Alighting from the cable car, one still needs to walk some 10-15 minutes to get the the main temple complex. Despite the cold, my body warmed up with the exercise and I eventually peeled off my outer layers.

Stone steps lined with vermillion floor lamps loomed into sight when we got closer to main temple complex. Pressing forth in spite of our burning thighs (perhaps more me than him!), we were eventually rewarded with a lovely view from the top of the stairs.

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The main temple complex is huge, with plenty of open spaces and benches for visitors to sit and enjoy the surrounding greenery and contemplate how tiny we are in this enormous universe. There is a solemn prayer hall in the centre where the pious went to pray quietly to a large, imposing statue of the resident god. Standing in this prayer hall calmed my mind.

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The good husband and I climbed on further where we found a museum that showcased the history of this sacred mountain and its indigenous wildlife. We settled onto a bench to rest and had some tea we brought with us, because our next journey would take us higher up Mount Kurama before we descend into the scenic village of Kibune at the other side.

Although there are steps cut into the ground for the convenience of hikers, many of these steps were broken by tree roots that had grown out of the earth, so one must walk with caution.

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It wasn’t an easy hike for me, as my back is weak and plagued with a chronic pain and I had done quite a bit of walking the past few days. Thankfully, the husband knows this and was extremely patient. We made several stops along the way up to rest.

After what seemed like a long time, we found ourselves at the peak of Mount Kurama. Signs advised us that Kibune is 1,026m away. Well, at least it would be a downward trek from then on!

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Along the way we came across several places of worship and from within came prayer chants. I’m impressed that the locals continue to make their journeys deep into the mountain just to pray.

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The species of trees changed as we got closer to Kibune, and I imagine how nature lovers would love trekking through this mountain.

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It was 4pm when we reached the foot of Mount Kurama, on the side of Kibune village. The sun was starting its descend over the horizon. If we were half-an-hour slower, we would be hiking through darkness. With the sort of legends of powerful tengu and mountain spirits surrounding Mount Kurama, I really did not want to be in the forest after dark!

Kibune is a quaint village of traditional houses – these are ryokans and restaurants – along the crisp Kibune River.

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In warm summer, the restaurant would build platforms over the river and diners could enjoy a leisurely meal in the open. In autumn and winter, kawadoko – the art of dining outdoors on a platform over a river – is impossible due to the cold.

Walking down the narrow streets of Kibune, we came upon Kifune Shrine, another landmark in the rural north of Kyoto. The shrine is dedicated to the god of rain and water, the protector of seafaring people.

Kifune Shrine is beautiful, and again requires worshipers and visitors to climb up many steps to reach the complex.

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We hung around Kifune Shrine for quite a while, watching visitors getting their fortune told by strips of paper, called omikuji, that reveal messages when dipped in water.

When the cold started to get to us – it was 2°C) by then – we got back on our feet and went in search of food.

Now, most of the restaurants in Kibune serve pricey kaiseki meals. We found it funny that the hosts of such restaurants would politely explain that their meals are special and urged us to move along to other eateries further down that sold “cheap waffles”.

I wouldn’t have minded a kaiseki meal, as it was an experience worth the price. But the husband was not quite willing to fork out 10,000 yen for dinner for one.

We walked on and was greeted by an enthusiastic lady in front of a traditional house. She urged us to take a look at her menu and kept saying “yudofu”. Her fingers directed our attention to pictures of tofu cubes simmering in soup in a claypot.

Hurrah! I’ve always want to try Kyoto’s tofu cuisine. That was my chance!

Kibunechaya serves several set dinners, and the one we chose was priced at 3,500 yen per person. It comprised of a pot of silken tofu cubes boiled in a plain broth, which we ate with fresh spring onions and ginger paste, as well as small, pretty dishes of cold shellfish, yasai tempura, boiled vegetables and a small fillet of grilled fish.

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I love tofu, so dinner was most satisfying. However, the carnivorous husband suggested that we go for supper once we got back to Kyoto City. Haha, poor chap!

Kibune was completely dark when we emerged from Kibunechaya, and much more colder. It could well be under zero now that the sun has set. So imagine our delight when we passed this fireplace outside of Kifune Shrine. :)

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To return to the city, we took a train from Kibune Station, which was by then surrounded by illuminated red maple trees.

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The return journey brought us through the illuminated maple tree tunnel, and the train captain turned off all lights to enhance the vision. It brought out many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. :)

Anyway, we did have another meal back in the city to satiate the husband’s lust for meat. We found a restaurant close to Shijo Station, just one train stop from Karasumaoike Station where we usually alight to get to our hotel.

I don’t know what this restaurant is called in English, but it serves a type of pork from pigs that were raised on the leaves of green tea. We had it as a shabu shabu, and the meat was amazingly tender and fragrant. Good luck identifying this restaurant through the photo below. It opens till 2am every day.

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Kitty wonderland in Kyoto

Enough of autumn foliage for now.

Let’s talk about kitty cats.

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There is a cat cafe a 15-minute’s stroll from our hotel in Kyoto – we stayed at Hearton Hotel Kyoto, accessible by Kasasuma Oike train station – and it is a place where cat lovers go and hang out with some of the city’s most adorable felines.

Cat Cafe Nekokaigi is home to 10 kitties that get to prance, parade, play and snooze in a spacious room littered with fun cat towers, toys and cushions.

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Us humans get to sit on comfy cushions along the wall and be one with the cats. Fruit juices, coffee and tea are on the menu, but visitors are not obliged to buy one. One instead pays an entrance fee of 800 yen for an hour with the lovely cats, and every subsequent 30-minute blocks costs 400 yen.

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If you love cats, you will find that is money well spent. Being among cats is such a serene, uplifting experience, and watching the little ones go about their things makes me think of how Squibby was when she came to us as a mere month-old kitten in 2005, abandoned at our doorstep and left to die.

These cats general go about their business on their own, with nary a hoot about us humans. But that’s just the way they are! As the saying goes, one never owns a cat; it’s the cats that own us. :) 

However, while we were there, some got curious enough to sniff our fingers and feet, while others stepped over us to get to that cosy spot on our cushion.

I guess if one visits Cat Cafe Nekokaigi frequent enough to form a bond with the kitties, one would get more affection out of these aloof felines.

Visitors to Cat Cafe Nekokaigi can purchase kitty treats at 200 yen a pack – limited to one pack per group of visitors per visit to prevent over-feeding.

These cats are smart. They know a treat is coming when a cafe staff heads for a cage in the corner of the cafe, and they drop whatever they are doing and follow her.

Once the packet of treat is placed in the visitor’s hand, that visitor immediately gets elevated to BFF status among every cat.

So when the husband and I got a pack of treats, we got swamped by kitties who commanded our complete attention, which we were too happy to give.

ImageCats are truly just too cute.

We enjoyed Cat Cafe Nekokaigi so much that we visited it twice during our four-day stay in Kyoto.

Hello again, Arashiyama

Two years ago in mid-December when the good husband and I first visited Arashiyama, a district west of Kyoto that is famous for lush autumn foliage covering the mountains framing Oi River, we were met with a single shade of brown – we were too late and the trees had shed their leaves.

This year we planned our autumn vacation earlier to ensure we will not be disappointed again.

And we were rewarded with a better view of the mountains, although some trees along the river and streets were already bald.

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Funnily, photos of the lush mountain sides did not turn out as beautiful as those I took of the bleaker parts along Oi River. The image immediately below is of Togetsukyo bridge, a landmark in Arashiyama. It was crowded the day we were there, making it tricky to stop on the bridge and take in the views. One just had to keep moving.

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As Arashiyama is a hit with tourists, the area is filled with eateries and souvenir shops. There are even make-shift food stalls along the Oi River, selling popular Japanese snacks such as takoyaki, grilled octopuses and mochi balls. Great! The cold weather gets me hungry very quickly.

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Arashiyama is also home to the impressive Tenryuji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and beautiful bamboo grooves. We skipped these as we had already enjoyed them two years ago. We chose instead to explore areas that are farther away from the bustling marketplace, on the other end of Togetsukyo bridge.

When we were satisfied and exhausted, we trekked back to Arashiyama’s nerve centre and found yummy things to eat and warm our bodies.

It was a pretty decent way to spend an afternoon in Kyoto. :)

The beauty of Autumn

Being a girl who lives in tropical Singapore where it is summer all year round and trees are always flushed with green leaves, destinations with autumn and winter offer a refreshing and exciting change in landscape.

I love it when trees start to prepare for winter, ceasing photosynthesis and turning their leaves into enchanting hues of gold, orange and red. Come winter, trees turn bald and give their surroundings an air of mystery.

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Somehow, autumn in Japan is especially beautiful. Streets lined with Ginko trees turn into gold, while parks and conserved temples filled with maple trees transform into a sea of red. The view is even more spectacular up on the hills and mountains, where different trees change into their own autumn dress and offer a technicolour vista.

Kyoto is one of the destinations of choice for viewing autumn foliage, and on this trip the good husband and I spent four fine days seeking out some of the best views.

First stop, Tofukuji.

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The Buddhist temple was packed with people on a weekday morning, most of them being tourists on group tours. While the temple is a magnificent piece of architecture, the star of Tofukuji during autumn is in fact Tsuten-kyō bridge and the vast park that sits on its other end. The park is home to a variety of trees, so imagine the dazzling display of colours during autumn!

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From Tofukuji we walked on to Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine propelled into international stardom by the movie, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Fushimi Inari Taisha isn’t quite known for spectacular autumn foliage but we wanted to walk through the thousands vermilion torii gates, each donated by grateful devotees.

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After all that walking, one will surely get hungry. No worries. There are plenty of food stalls and traditional eateries surrounding Fushimi Inari Taisha, most selling soba, udon, inari sushi and grilled quail and fish.

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The sun was just about to set by the time we were done at Fushimi Inari Taisha and had filled our tummies with hot udon and tasty inari sushi. It was time to make our way back to Kyoto city and head for Kiyomizu-dera.

Kiyomizu-dera sure knows how to make the most of its renowned autumn foliage. For a certain period in autumn, the magnificent temple lights up after dark, literally putting its best trees in the spotlight. The result is a dark temple complex bathed with spots of red and gold highlights.

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The experience could be quite romantic if wasn’t for the massive crowd – be prepared to join a snaking queue to get entrance tickets and then jostle shoulder to shoulder with everyone else inside the temple complex.

The all-day drizzle started to intensify by the time we got our tickets, and became a proper shower when we were half-way through the temple. It was not funny being squashed by so many people while trying to dodge umbrellas that threaten to poke my eyes out. It was hardly enjoyable and we were out as soon as we could. What a shame.

But we are sure of better days tomorrow when we head to Arashiyama!

A walk in the park

But not just any park, my friends.

The good husband and I took a long, leisurely stroll through the sprawling park surrounding Kyoto Imperial Palace. As it isn’t quite a tourist attraction, the park was nicely serene and the only other few people there were elderly folks out for a pre-dinner stroll, residents walking their dogs and photographers trying to get the best angle of a single scenery.

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To our surprise, the park turns out to be quite the spot for taking in the rich colours of autumn foliage. What a treat!

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Hike up Wakakusayama

Visitors to Nara are often drawn to the majestic Todaiji Buddhist temple and its surrounding Nara Park, home to more than 1,000 deers.

For us, the one thing we wanted to do while in Nara was to hike up Wakakusayama, or Mt Wakakusa. Rising 350m high, with a 560m trail from the bottom, Wakakusayama is popular during Cherry Blossom season and in autumn when the leaves on the surrounding trees turn an enchanting shade of amber and gold.

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Getting to Wakakusayama will require one to walk through Nara Park anyway, so we had the chance to marvel at Kofukuji’s and Todaiji’s architecture and feed some of the deers that roam around the sprawling complex.

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560m may seem like a short distance to cover on foot, but it was an uphill trek on steps cut into the earth and I’m a very inactive person. My legs screamed bloody murder as I made my way up, while my lungs, unused to such activity, worked fast and hard to take in more air.

Thank goodness for the brilliant scenery along the way up, which made the hike less painful. It was great to stop whenever I needed and I took time to enjoy the sounds of rustling leaves and view of Nara spilling out below while I caught my breath.

Some 40 minutes later, we found ourselves at the peak of Wakakusayama, a grass-covered plateau where one could enjoy a picnic and take in the city view.

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Although we packed a picnic basket, with the intention of enjoying a quiet mid-afternoon tea atop Wakakusayama, rain had pelted down during the hike. At the top, strong winds whipped cold rain into our faces, making it quite challenging to eat.

Furthermore, it was about 10°C that day, and being wet and cold was a bad idea.

So we walked the length of the plateau and hung around as long as our bodies could bear the cold, and then descended from Wakakusayama. Going down was far easier! :)

There are some tea houses at the foot of Wakakusayama, and we sought out one of them for hot tea and to warm ourselves.

The rain refused to let up even after an hour, so we exited the tea house and made our way back to our hotel slowly on foot, cutting through a different part of Nara Park. Along the way we found a most charming tea house tucked among the trees.

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It was such a beautiful scene, almost like something you would find in fairytale land!

We didn’t stop for a snack there though, as we wanted to get out of Nara Park before the sun set and we still had a long way to go. In autumn, Japan falls into darkness soon after 4.30pm.

We were completely drenched by the time we reached Kasuga Hotel, where we stayed for two nights. Thank goodness our western-style room came with a bath, and in there we soaked ourselves in hot water to warm up. I love how the hotel provides a foot massager in every guest room – the machine was a life-saver for my worn feet!

A sweet end to an eventful day came in the form of a snack of hot matcha and local sweets, courtesy of the hotel.

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Goodnight now. I’m exhausted!