Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cherry blossoms in Japan on a budget

CHERRY BLOSSOMS OR SAKURA at the old rail tracks in Kyoto.

It’s springtime once again and my countrymen stricken with wanderlust are off to their new-found favourite destination at this time of year – JAPAN!

Well it’s really understandable why: apart from the fact that Japan is just about four hours by plane from Manila, and the Japanese embassy in the Philippines has relaxed its visa restrictions for Filipinos, the springtime spectacle in Japan that is the Sakura or the cherry blossoms is simply irresistible.

For the tropical fish that I am, who’s not too familiar with the changing of vegetation (as we only have to seasons here in the Philippines – hot and hotter, that is!), the sight of cherry blossoms is simply surreal.

Believe me when I say that my first sighting of a cherry tree with whitish-pink blossoms at a centuries-old temple in Osaka, and the seemingly never ending rows of cherry trees along Kawaramachi St. in Kyoto is worth every cent that I have spent for this eight-day trip.

Speaking of spending, for the Filipino budget traveler, a trip to Japan could be double the price as compared to the most common destinations such as Hong Kong or Singapore. For instance, usual round trip fares to Singapore could range from P8,000-P12,000, Manila to Tokyo trips could be about P16,000. And we haven’t talked yet about the hotel rates and prices of commodities in Japan, which is way higher compared to those in the Philippines given the higher standards of living in what is deemed as the third largest economy in the world.

But based from my experience, budget of P50,000 is way too much already.

Let me share with you my eight-day Sakura-sighting trip in Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara:

Day 1: Shopping around Osaka

I went around Osaka where the trio of myself, my colleague and friend Cristina, and her hubby Martin went around for temples, shrines, and shopping and eating!

The first order of the day was Osaka Castle, and rightly so. The way to the castle is already a treat  as you will be greeted with rows upon rows of cherry trees! Photo ops abound, and your choices range from the bridge, the castle grounds, or by the moat! The castle, an architectural spectacle by itself, houses a museum that tells of the rich history and culture of Osaka. Head to the topmost floor to see a 360-degree view of Osaka!

After the Castle, head to Shinsaibashi Suji, a covered arcade of stores that range from designer items, department stores, thrift shops, and what have you. We also found a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop here after attempting to talk to several Japanese wait staff from other restaurants (and failing) on the food that they serve. It’s from there that I tasted possibly the best chasu ramen ever. And oh, what did I get from an afternoon’s worth of stroll? Several pairs of socks and a couple of tops from a popular clothing chain. Martin, on the other hand, scored some sporting goods and Asics trainers for cheaps.

GIGANTIC NEON SIGNS at Dotonbori, the most notable of which is Glicos.
The rest of the evening was spent strolling around Dotonbori, which, aside from being a popular place for food tripping and shopping, is where the colourful neon signs are. Most notable among them is the Glico sign showing an image of a running man, which shines brightly over the Dotonbori River.

Day 2: Temples and more of Osaka

We’ve just continued walking around Osaka for more sightings of Sakura around temples while on our way to the other highlights of the City.

MY FRIENDS, real-life sweethearts Martin and Cristina Lazo, make a wish at the shrine.
I WAS STILL single at that time and third-wheeling with my friends. Hence, this photo.
Ohatsu Tenjin or Tsuyunoten, one of the most popular spots in Osaka, is famous for lovers as this is believed to strengthen the bond between couples. The site is where Ohatsu and Tokubei pledged their eternal love, thus prompting superstitious lovers to either put their hands on the marble fountain or buy heart-shaped ema where they are supposed to write their wishes.


We’ve strolled around Shinsaibashi and checked out Amerikamura, another famous shopping spot, before we headed to the Umeda Sky Building, an architectural wonder in Osaka for its twin towers and a circular sky garden in between. Access to the floating garden is 700 yen. But the cheapskates that we are contented ourselves with the topmost floor that can be accessed for free where we are rewarded with photo ops at the escalator as well as shopping time for souvenirs.

Day 3: Kyoto at Night

I was alone by this time as the friends headed to Tokyo while I pushed for Kyoto.

Got the chance to see Kawaramachi Street for the long line of cherry trees while looking for my hostel.

Spent the evening geisha-hunting at Gion district. Be aware, though, that geishas are not tourist attractions and they have the right to refuse to be photographed. It is impolite to just ask them to stop for photos!

Day 4: Philosopher’s Walk in the afternoon, Gion at night

Head to the Philosopher’s Walk and bask under canopies of cherry blossoms!

While at the Philosopher’s Path, check out the temples and shrines along the way, counting among them the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji). Otoyo Shrine, Honen-in, and Eikan-do Zenrin-ji. The Silver Pavilion is a must-visit for the sights and the peaceful ambience.

GINKAKU-JI, also known as the Silver Pavilion.
Walk a bit farther and you will see the Nanzen-ji temple. Still a bit farther, there’s the old rail tracks that also make for dramatic photo ops, one of the best in Kyoto during the Sakura season!

Come evening, join a walking tour of Gion (1,000 yen), perhaps the most famous geisha district in all of Kyoto aside from Ponto-cho and Miyagawa-cho. The walking tour will show you a brief history of Gion, those quaint machiya or wooden houses where geishas live, a school where geishas are being taught of the arts that they should learn, and the so-called tea houses where geishas entertain. My favourite spot in Gion is the Shirakawa Stream, which gives fans of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha a lot of giggles, like myself.

MY FOLDING BIKE outside an okiya or machiya in Gion, those wooden structures that house geishas.
Please note that canopies of cherry blossoms are quite dramatic at night in Gion.

Day 5: A walk into the bamboo forest in Arashiyama

One of the most popular spots in Kyoto is the bamboo forest in Arashiyama. From Kyoto station, Arashiyama could be a 45-minute train ride, making it a bit out-of-townish.

RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of Arashiyama bamboo forest.
Arashiyama, however, isn’t just about the bamboo forest. From the train station, the bamboo forest itself is still quite a long walk but on the way there, one of the must-see sights is the Tenryu-ji temple, which was designated by the UNESCO as a world heritage site for having a beautiful structure, a beautiful zen garden, and for being merely old as it was erected sometime in 1255.

NONOMIYA SHRINE in Arashiyama, famous for having been mentioned in The Tale of Genji.
I also took the time to drop by the Nonomiya shrine as well as check out the commercial and eating places around Arashiyama.

KIMONO FOREST, Arashiyama, Kyoto.
Head to the so-called Kimono Forest for some photo ops with patterns of kimonos encased in acrylic pillars on display.

WANNA SEE GEISHAS in action without having to pay a fortune or the hassles of having to stalk them? Join a tea ceremony at Gion Corner before the Miyako Odori show. 
In the afternoon, head back to Gion and watch geishas in action sans the hassles! Go to Gion Corner and check out the Miyako Odori, a presentation of 50 or show geishas of dances and music, which only is only shown during springtime. Before the show, guests are treated to a tea ceremony led by two geishas, where everyone’s given matcha (Japanese green tea) and a mung bean pastry. The small ceramic plates used for eating the pastry can be taken home as a souvenir!

Day 6: Narra Day

Nara's Todaiji Temple.

THE GREAT BUDDHA inside Todaiji Temple.
Head to Narra, about an hour by bus from Kyoto station. Join the walking tour to get a sneak preview of what the place has to offer aside from the free-roaming deer!

LOOK FOR THIS PILLAR inside the Todaiji Temple and see for yourself if you're gonna fit the hole and how's your chances of entering heaven going to be.
Don’t miss the Todaiji Temple, said to be the largest wooden structure despite the fact that it was scaled down to two-thirds of its original size after being burnt down.  This is a must-see primarily for the Great Buddha housed within its walls. Check out that one pillar, the hole underneath of which is said to be the size of Buddha’s nostrils, and anyone who can pass through it is said to be eligible for entry into heaven.

THE FIVE-STORY pagoda in Nara.
Also head to the Kohfukuji Temple for the five-story pagoda beside it. It might also be of interest for anyone to check out the temple and the forest with lots of shrines for the departed, the small geisha district in Nara, the Seismic Museum for the experience of simulation of great earthquakes that hit Japan, as well the traditional stores selling Japanese pastries and biscuits on the way back to the train station.

Oh, when in Nara, enjoy the deer!

Day 7: Gion and Fushimi Iinari

MY FOLDING BIKE by the bridge over Shirakawa Stream. 
I still can’t get enough of Gion so I went back to see how the place is at day. I then took the train going to Fushimi Inari.

SOME OF THOSE vermilion-coloured torii gates at Fushimi Inari in Kyoto.
The place is full of vermillion-coloured torii gates, each one sponsored by a company or a family. The rows of torii gates extend up to the top of the mountain which is considered as a sacred site. I went on top, and even bought coffee and hard-boiled egg on my way up to sustain my energy, but I think the tori gates at the bottom of the mountain should suffice.

And when in central Kyoto, don't forget to drop by Nishiki market where you can buy lots of food items.There are also souvenir items here but best to buy your staples such as keychains, ref magnets, or even traditional Japanese cloth at the Kyoto Station.

Day 8: Head back to Osaka

OSAKA'S Tsutenkaku Tower.
Explore Dotonburi for some street food and beer, particularly the Janjan Yokocho Alley. Don’t miss the nearby Shinsekai, which looks like a colourful amusement park for the colourful signages and shop displays. Don’t forget to pose by the Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka’s take on the Eiffel Tower.

THE WONDERLAND that is Shinsekai.
FOOD TRIPPING in Osaka? These are just some of the fares.



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