Tag Archive: east asia

Recently I made my yearly pilgrimage to Kyoto and the Kansai area. From the end of April to the beginning of May is known as “Golden Week” in Japan, because there are 4 national holidays that let people out of work and school. It’s one of the busiest travel times of the year, and if you’re traveling from outside of Japan it’s probably a good idea to avoid this week, unless you love crowds. I used some of my vacation days so I could travel mostly on non-holidays and tried to avoid the worst crowds. I still met with crowded buses, long lines, and expensive trains. I did this trip on my own this time, too. Traveling alone is never as fun as traveling with friends, but on the other hand I did everything at my own pace.

On Saturday I took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. I arrived around 11 am and quickly stashed my bag in a coin locker before they were all taken. My first stop in Kyoto this time would be Ginkakuji – The Silver Pavilion.

The Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

The Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

While the Silver Pavilion is not a must-see stop in Kyoto, it’s a good visit for anyone interested in Japanese traditional culture. This pavilion influenced later architecture, being the first to have a tokonoma, a small alcove in the wall for hanging scrolls and displaying flower arrangements. The beginnings of the Japanese tea ceremony started here, and the understated beauty of the pavilion and garden became the standard for Japanese aesthetics.

To complement my visit to the Silver Pavilion I intended to visit Ryoanji next, a zen temple with a famous rock garden, but I got on the wrong bus and ended up in completely the wrong direction. Timing is everything in Kyoto because most temples close around 4 or 5, and taking the wrong bus meant losing the chance to see Ryoanji that same day. Instead I got my bags from the coin locker in Kyoto station and checked into my hostel.

Day 2 in Kyoto I headed to Ryoanji first thing in the morning. If you’re already visiting Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion), Ryoanji is a 15 minute walk from there and I highly recommend it. There is a bus service available too, but the walk is pretty as you get closer to Ryoanji.

The highlight of Ryoanji is the zen rock garden. There are 15 stones/boulders expertly placed to help you meditate as you look at the garden. What’s interesting is that no matter where you sit or stand while looking at the garden, you can’t see all 15 stones. At most I counted 14. They say that the only way to see all 15 stones at the same times is to reach enlightenment.

Rock garden in Ryoanji

Rock garden in Ryoanji

How many can you count?

After enjoying the gardens of Ryoanji, I decided to spend the afternoon in Arashiyama, which is in the western part of Kyoto. I think everyone else had the same idea, because it was extremely crowded.

My first stop in Arashiyama was Tenryuji, a temple with a famous dragon painted on the ceiling (the eyes follow you!) and beautiful garden. My main reason for the visit though was for the restaurant in the garden at Tenryuji. The restaurant serves shoujin ryouri, Buddhist cooking. Buddhists are vegetarian, so the entire meal was meat-free. I discovered this place when my vegetarian friend Allison visited last year. I had to go back and have another delicious experience there. I learned too late that the menu was the same as last year though. At least I knew what everything was!

The set meal at Tenryuji

The set meal at Tenryuji

After lunch I explored the Arashiyama area. There’s a bamboo forest, and a picturesque bridge over a river with mountains in the background. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon shopping for souvenirs and grazing at the food stalls.

A lazy afternoon in western Kyoto

A lazy afternoon in western Kyoto

My third day in Kyoto I took a train to the southern outskirts of the city to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha, a temple that is famous for it’s thousands of torii gates.

Thousands of vermillion gates lead visitors on a path up the mountain

Thousands of vermillion gates lead visitors on a path up the mountain

Honestly I went to Fushimi Inari just to see these gates, and they’re as beautiful in real life as in the pictures. I had to wait a while to get a good picture free of other tourists, but the wait was worth it!

At many shrines and temples across Japan you can see the protectors of the shrine sitting on either side of the gates as you enter, and Fushimi Inari is no exception. Fushimi Inari is protected by foxes.

A fox holding a key in its mouth

A fox holding a key in its mouth

Here’s some trivia for you: The fox on the left of the entrance is holding the key to the granary to protect it from the mice!

The foxes are so popular that there are many fox themed souvenirs and fox related dishes that you can eat on the mountain. For example, kitsune udon (fox udon) is a noodle dish made with fried tofu, because foxes (supposedly) love fried tofu!

To finish my stay in Kyoto I went back to one of my favorite temples, Kiyomizudera. I already wrote about this great temple after my first visit, so I’ll end my Kyoto story here.

A final message about traveling in Kyoto (or anywhere in Japan) during Golden Week: It’s possible, but you must be prepared for the crowds and very patient if you want good pictures. I made it to two or three sites a day using the Kyoto bus system, which was cheap but slow.

Happy travels!


Part 3/3

On my last day in Seoul, I got up early again and started the day off at the War Memorial of Korea.
Korean War Memorial

Both of my grandfathers fought in the Korean War, so I knew I had to see the memorial.

Korean War Memorial 3Korean War Memorial 4

It was a very moving memorial and museum. From the exhibits I could tell that the South Koreans were grateful for all the help they received from other countries during the war, and that they long to be reunited with North Korea someday.

I couldn’t help but wonder if my grandfathers were friends with some of the men who died during the war. I left very grateful that they both made it home safely.

Korean War Memorial 2

After spending the morning at the war memorial, I decided it was about time to go look for souvenirs before I had to head home. First, I tried going to Namdaemun Market. I was disappointed when I got there though. The market is very similar to Dongdaemun and Myeongdong. There was a lot of clothing, accessories, jewelry, and some big department stores. It wasn’t what I was looking for. I didn’t waste my time there so I headed to the last market on my list, Insa-dong.


Despite Insa-dong being a tourist trap of souvenir shops, it was my favorite market. The street was lined with shops selling all kinds of different hand-made crafts, art galleries, and of course some souvenir shops. If you only have time to go to one market in Seoul, you should make Insa-dong your priority. I got all of my Seoul souvenirs there.

The side streets had a lot of restaurants and I had difficulty choosing one for lunch because they all looked delicious.For some reason this cracked me up:

Fire Beef Sushi

“Fire Beef Sushi”

After lunch (I chose bulgogi) I had some time on my hands. I decided I wanted a chance to see the traditional Korean houses, hanoks, a little better, so I went to the Namsangol Hanok Village in Chungmuro. There are 5 restored hanoks that visitors can visit and look inside of.


I’m lucky that I went on a Saturday, because there were student volunteers there to give tours in English! The tours were free and I could tell that the students were doing it to practice their English. It was an informative tour and I would recommend it.

To finish my last day in Seoul I went back to the Gyeongbok Palace area to see the Cheonggyecheon stream light up at night. I was expecting the river to turn different colors like blue or red, but I saw something completely different!

river lightsriver lights 2

Light was projected onto a wall of water to make a show. It was pretty neat. Also some cool designs were projected on the wall by the stream. I think they moved around with the people looking at them.

My last picture of the night, a panorama of the area around the stream.

Seoul at night

The next day I took a plane back to Tokyo. Seoul was great and I would love to go again. There was so much that I didn’t get to see!

Thanks for reading!

Part 2/3

On my first full day in Korea, I got an early start around 7:30 am. I checked out of the jjimjilbang (Korean all-night spa) and headed to Dongdaemun station. That day I was meeting a friend from America who happened to be in Seoul at the same time for work. We were going to meet at Gyeongbok Palace when it opened at 9 am.

I was worried that I would get lost on my way to the palace, but the Seoul subway system was very easy to use, even during the morning rush hour. It seems like there is a train every 3-5 minutes. I got there in plenty of time and got to see the palace in the early morning light.


When my friend got there we bought our tickets and took a look around. There were English signs in each area to tell us what we were looking at. I was very happy to see that Gyeonbok Palace was the birth place of the Korean alphabet (Hangul) and the first place in Korea to get electricity. It was very beautiful. I could also see that it was heavily influenced by Chinese architecture.


There was a large garden at the palace, but it was too early in the year for any of the trees to be blooming. I’m sure it would have been beautiful a few weeks later.


Gyeonbukgung pavilion

Near the palace grounds there are two museums, the National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea. I had time to tour both. The National Folk Museum had a lot of English explanations posted around and was educational and enjoyable. The National Palace Museum had very little English, but the exhibits were beautiful. The National Palace Museum provides free guided English tours. I didn’t arrive in time to go on one, though.

My Chinese zodiac animal is the rabbit.
Rabbit statue

Before we left we were lucky to catch a reenactment of the changing of the guards at the palace gate.

Gyeonbukgung Palace Guards

After Gyeonbuk Palace, I said goodbye to my friend and headed over to Changdeok Palace. This palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace buildings were a little similar to Gyeonbuk Palace, but the layout was different. There was also an even bigger garden, but it can only be viewed on a guided tour. I didn’t think it would be very nice this time of year, so I skipped the garden.


I saw a palace building with a parking space for cars for the first time here.

Changdeokgung building

After touring the palace grounds I walked over to the Bukchon Hanbuk Village that was nearby. This is an area of Seoul that has very old traditional houses that are still being lived in. Many of the houses were surrounded by high walls however. The area was perfect for a quiet stroll, and the streets were lined with shops and restaurants. I enjoyed this peaceful area.

Bukchon Hanok Village

After getting some bibimbap (vegetables and an egg served on rice in a hot bowl)for lunch, I decided it was about time to check into my youth hostel. I booked a hostel in Dongdaemun so that I could stay close to the action. Dongdaemun is close to many of the big tourist attractions, so I think it was the perfect area to stay.

I came across some performances in Dongdaemun that night. It looked like a dance competition.

Dongdaemun dancers

That night, I decided to check out another night market in Myeongdong. I really liked Myeondong a lot. It felt a lot like Shibuya or Shinjuku in Tokyo. There were vendors lining the streets selling clothing, jewelry, handbags, souvenirs, and food. There were also regular stores like H&M and Zara. From Myeongdong you can see the N Seoul Tower, which lights up every night. I explored a lot of side streets and thought about buying some souvenirs, but I had a feeling they were overpriced. This night market wasn’t open as late as Dongdaemun. Shops started closing around 9pm. I had Korean style barbecue for dinner and then made my way back to the hostel for some much needed rest.

Part 3 is coming soon!