Friday, September 8, 2017

Kansai Diaries, Day 3: Horyuji, Hokkiji, and Some Japanecdotes in Ikaruga Town

For people who love visiting historic places, Nara and Kyoto cities are some of the places in Japan teeming with history. Not only are these two cities previous capitals of Japan, but also these are home to many UNESCO World Heritage sites. Most people (or at least those that I know that have been to Japan) only do a day trip to Nara from Kyoto or Osaka to see the deer and Todaiji. But being a World Heritage Site nerd, I spent two whole days in Nara.

November 25, 2016
Friday
AM

I arrived in Nara the night before and settled in in Hiloki Hostel. I had already bought my bus pass at Nara Station and had gotten the schedule for the bus headed out of the city, to the town of Ikaruga, where I plan to start my day of World Heritage site hopping.

The first bus to Horyuji doesn't leave until almost 9AM, quite late for me because I am an early riser. I decide to leave around 7AM, taking the train from Nara Station to Horyuji Station, and warming up my legs by taking a 20-minute walk from Horyuji Station to my first stop: Horyuji.

The main streets in Ikaruga Town are still and deserted this early in the morning. I walk through narrow residential areas and main streets and I am surprised to find directional signs under my feet. A kilometer and a half or so later, I reach a simple 300-meter lane with trees on both sides and the temple straight ahead—I am almost there! But a sign warning me of bees (the sign was in English) stops me and I do not make a beeline to the temple. Instead I backtrack and find a parallel street free of bees—no shortcuts, no bees.

Nobody out and about yet at 7AM in this town


Beware of bees in this area

Horyuji
法隆寺
8AM to 5PM (430PM November to February)
Admission fee: 1500 yen (includes entry to Saiin Garan, Daihozoin, and Toin Garan)

I arrive at Horyuji about 15 minutes before 8AM and enter through Nandaimon (south main gate), but the Saiin Garan (western precinct), which is a paid area, is still closed. An elderly man in overalls is sweeping outside. I stand and wait near the entrance ramp of Saiin Garan. The only sound I hear is of the man's broom, swish swish swish.

A Japanese grandma who is passing by smiles and stops to talk to me. She talks to me oh so animatedly in Japanese and I tell her I cannot understand Japanese, but she goes on, trying her best to convey her message with hand gestures. In the middle of our "conversation", I sniff (my body was adjusting to Japan's low temperatures causing my nose to run), and she points to me then to her nose, makes an X with her forearms, then covers her nose and mouth with her palm. She isn't telling me I stink, is she? (I am sure I brushed my teeth this morning.) I think she's telling me I should wear a mask because I have colds! Aside from that, I understood two other things from our "conversation": that Horyuji won't open until 8AM and there is another temple, called Chuguji, just east of Horyuji. I thank her with a smile and she goes on her way. I love these old Japanese folks!

 Horyuji's Nandaimon (south main gate) was restored in 1438

8AM and Horyuji's Saiin Garan opens. The worker in overalls gestures for me to go in. In the temple grounds are beautiful wooden buildings connected by pathways, the open space between buildings covered in gravel.

Horyuji was built by Prince Shotoku in the year 607 to fulfill Emperor Yomei's vow to build a temple and an image of Buddha as a prayer for recovery (the emperor died before he could fulfill his vow). Horyuji is home to the world's oldest surviving wooden structures (no destruction at all, just renovation works): Horyuji's Chumon (central gate), Kondo (main hall), and Gujo-no-to (five-storied pagoda).

Left to right: Gujo-no-to (five-storied pagoda), Daikodo (Great Lecture Hall), and Kondo (Main Hall)

I do not get to see Japan's oldest (8th century) clay Kongo Rikishi, the guardian deities that stand guard in Chumon, because the gate itself is hidden under scaffoldings and covers for renovation work. I proceed instead to the two buildings on the center: the Gujo-no-to and the Kondo.

Kondo (main hall) and Goju-no-to (five-storied pagoda)

I look inside Gujo-no-to and see four ancient clay statues of Buddha. In the Kondo are three ancient bronze statues of Buddha for which Horyuji is dedicated, wooden statues of guardians, and wooden statues of gods. And along the walls of Kondo are murals. (No photos allowed inside Gujo-no-to and Kondo.)

 Goju-no-to

Across Chumon, behind the pagoda and the main hall, is the Daikodo or the Great Lecture Hall. This was where monks would study and also where memorial services were held. The original hall burnt down in the year 925; the current hall was built in the year 990.

 Daikodo (great lecture hall)

I leave Saiin Garan to go to Daihozoin or Gallery of Temple Treasures, where I see many of Japan's cultural and historical treasures (ancient statues of Buddha, relics, paintings, etc). On the way to the gallery, I pass by Shoryoin or the Hall of Prince Shotoku's Soul, which enshrines a statue of the prince.

 Shoryoin

I move on eastward towards Toin Garan (eastern precinct) where the octagonal pavilion called Yumedono (Hall of Visions) is. Yumedono stands where Ikaruga Palace used to be. In Yumedono are ancient statues (8th to 12th century) of Prince Shotoku, of Buddha, of the monk who built the eastern precinct, and of a monk who supervised the repair of Yumedono.

 Path to Yumedono

Yumedono

Chuguji, the temple the Japanese grandma mentioned, is in another enclosed area behind Yumedono. I go there to take a peek but decide to skip going inside (separate admission fee of 600 yen).

As I exit Horyuji's Nandaimon (south main gate), I see a bus approaching and I run like the wind to catch it. I heave a sigh of relief as I sink on the bus seat and the bus starts to roll away. We travel for a kilometer or so and stop at Horyuji Station. I remain in my seat and the driver looks my way and asks me where I am going because this is the last stop. I can see a smile dancing on the corners of his mouth and I want to laugh myself—I have taken the wrong bus (#72)! I tell him I want to go to Hokkiji and he fiddles with something by his side and produces a printout of directions on how to go to Hokkiji (I guess I am not the first one to have mistakenly gotten on his bus!). Showing me the printout, he tries his best to explain to me in a handful of English words how to go to Hokkiji. He gestures for me to remain seated and he drives the bus out of the station. On the third stop he tells me that we're now at the stop where I have to take bus #97 that's scheduled to come by at 10:09AM. I thank him as I alight. He gets off too and goes inside the small office of the bus stop for a minute then goes out and drives away.

I stand outside and it is a bit chilly. The bus station staff goes out of his office and politely tells me, in Japanese and by pointing to his wristwatch, that the bus will come at 10:09. (I guess the bus driver advised him that there's a lost man outside and to make sure this lost man gets on the right bus.) And like the curious elderly Japanese in Koyasan who have stopped to talk to me, he too asks (still in Japanese) where I am from, if I was traveling alone, etc. Then he remarks, while rubbing his arms, that it is さむい samui (cold) and he leads me inside the waiting room and turns on the heater. I thank him and take a seat in the waiting room.

After a few minutes, a bus arrives and I see the bus station man signal to me through the office window. I get out of the toasty waiting room and wave a thank you to the man and get on the bus. The bus idles for a few minutes, waiting for the clock to tick 10:09. Tinkering with my phone, I have my head down and in the periphery I see blue pants and hear, "Magandang umaga! Kumusta?" I glance up and I am surprised to see a Japanese man. He shakes my hand and explains that he knows a bit of Tagalog because his wife is Filipina. We chat for a minute more and when the bus driver gets on, we say our goodbyes and the Tagalog-speaking Japanese man gets off. And I am on my way to Hokkiji.


Hokkiji
法起寺
830AM to 5PM (430PM November to February)
Admission fee: 300 yen

Hokkiji temple grounds is small. It only has four buildings (five if you include the ticket office by the entrance) and a pond. I am the only visitor in Hokkiji.  The staff at the reception gives me my ticket and a printout of Hokkiji's history (in English).

Hokkiji is a Buddhist temple and was also known as Okamoto-dera. The area used to be Okamoto Palace. There is an inscription found in the pagoda (I didn't see it, but this is what I read from the printout) that on February in the year 622 Prince Shotoku left a will for his eldest son to convert the palace into a temple.

Hokkiji's Shotendo Hall or main hall (left) and three-storied pagoda (right)

Lecture Hall

The three-storied pagoda, Shotendo (main hall), and the lecture hall are closed, and can only be admired from outside. Beside the lecture hall is a small repository where a wooden image of Kannon (goddess of mercy), an important cultural property, is housed.

Three Japanese ladies arrive and they admire the pagoda, the oldest three-storied pagoda in Japan, having been built in the year 685. The pagoda, to me, looks like a shorter version of Horyuji's pagoda, with it being all wood with white walls.

Three-storied pagoda

Ikaruga Town's manhole cover features Hokkiji's three-storied pagoda

I wander around some more and as I am about to leave I see the three Japanese women looking at a tree near the ticket office. I go closer and notice a small wooden plaque with these characters 貝多羅葉樹 バイタラヨウジユ. I have no idea what it means. It must be something important. They pluck some leaves off and bring it to an open rest area and proceed to write with a wooden stick the temple staff had lent them. They see me watching and one of them gives me a leaf and motions for me to write on my leaf too. I thank them and do as I am told and they look at what I had written (I just wrote my name) and give me an approving smile. (I find out later, through research, that the characters on the wooden plaque reads as baitarayoujyu, a pattra tree, the leaves of which were used for writing on.)

What does it say?

I leave Hokkiji and go out to the bus stop. The street is deserted. The benches at the bus stop are bathed in sunshine. I see the three ladies leave the temple and we wave goodbye to each other. I sit on the bus stop bench and wait for the bus that will take me within Nara City's boundary to my third World Heritage site for the day: Yakushiji.



Japan
Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger
An Ignoramus in Japan: Vending Machines
An Ignoramus in Japan: Bathrooms and Toilets
An Ignoramus in Japan: Manhole Covers
I Spy With My Little Eye: Japan's Fashion Contradictions
I Spy With My Little Eye: On the Go in Japan

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima
Tokyo Accommodation: Shinjuku Airbnb
Tokyo: Memorable Tokyo Eats
Tokyo: Odaiba
Tokyo: Doing Touristy Things in Tokyo
Toyama: A Hamlet Called Ainokura
Kyoto Accommodation: K's House Hostel Kyoto
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Wisdom from the Road: On exits #2
Kyoto: By the Thousands (Kyoto Imperial Palace, Sanjusangendo, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove)
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Turning Japanese
Kyoto: Braving the Crowds at these UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji)
Hyogo, Japanecdote: If Only I Could Speak Nihongo
Hyogo: Day Trip to Himeji: Himeji Castle and Shoshazan Engyoji Temple
Hyogo, Japanecdote: Am I an Alien?
Hiroshima: Strolling and Snacking in Miyajima
Hiroshima: Remembering the Past in Hiroshima
Osaka, Japanecdote: How to Lose Friends
Osaka Accommodation: Osaka Airbnb
Osaka, Japanecdote: Where is Bentencho Station?
Osaka: Osaka Adlaw, Osaka Ako sa Osaka
Osaka, Japanecdote: Learn From Your Mistakes

Kansai Diaries (2016)
9D/9N | Wakayama, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kansai Region
Osaka: Day 0: Arrival
Osaka Accommodations: Hotel Raizan, Hotel Mikado
Wakayama: Day 1: Going to, Sleeping in, and Eating in Koyasan
Wakayama: Day 1½: West Side of Koya Town
Wakayama: Koyasan Sidewalk Shorts
Wakayama: Days 1¾–2: Okunoin, Three Times
Nara: Sleep, Eat, and Explore Nara City
Nara: Day 3: Horyuji, Hokkiji, and Some Japanecdotes in Ikaruga Town (you're here!)
Kyoto Accommodations: Guesthouse Wind Villa, Shiori Yado

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Nara: Sleep, Eat, and Explore Nara City

The next stop on my itinerary: Nara! But first, some essentials such as where to sleep, where to eat, and how to go around (or rather, where I slept, where I ate, and how I found my way around).

Sleep

1-22 Omiyacho 1, Nara 630-8115
+81 74 287 2390
hilokihostel@gmail.com
Facebook page: Hiloki Hostel

I found the perfect hostel for my 2-night stay in Nara: Hiloki Hostel, just a 3-minute walk from JR Nara Station, which is also where buses to all the sites in Nara I planned to visit depart. I was lucky to have been one of Hiloki Hostel's first few guests. When I stayed there, it had only been in business for less than two months!

The hostel is small with the reception, common area, and kitchen on the ground floor (I think a washing machine and dryer are also available for a fee); three private rooms on the second floor; and two dorm rooms on the third floor.

Let's talk about the dorm, because that's where I stayed. There is one 6-bed mixed dorm and one 4-bed female dorm. The ladder to the upper bunk was inclined making it easy to go up/down. The bed was comfortable and I was grateful for the lamp and outlets (two regular and two USB outlets) provided for each bunk bed. There are small lockers provided in each dorm room. The dorm room floor has two toilets (one for each gender), two shower rooms (one for each gender), and two sinks. The dorm room did not feel cramped and there was enough space for luggage. Keys to the room and to the hostel are provided for each guest. Hiloki, the owner, being a traveler himself, has thought of all the necessary things a traveler might need in a hostel (well, except for the towel—no bath towel provided so bring your own).

The only downside (which wasn't a problem for me, but might be for others) is that the hostel reception is only open from 830AM to 1130AM and 330PM to 830PM. I made sure to arrive after 330PM for check in (if you arrive early in Nara, you could just leave your luggage in a locker in Nara Station). And when I checked out after two nights, Hiloki was kind enough to let me leave my luggage at the reception and I just came back for it when the reception opened in the afternoon.

If I have the chance to go back to Nara, I would definitely stay at Hiloki Hostel again!

Price:

Dorm beds start at 2500 yen.
Private rooms start at 4500 yen.
Book Hiloki Hostel through booking.com

* All Hiloki Hostel photos were taken from booking.com.

 Common area and kitchen at the ground floor

6-bed mixed dorm

4-bed female dorm


Eat

1-1-10 Omiya, Nara City 630-8115
Weekdays 10AM to 11PM
Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays 9AM to 3PM

Maysunoya is a Japanese fastfood restaurant serving rice bowls (beef, pork, chicken), curry, and set meals. There are four branches of Matsunoya in Nara City and several around Japan, and the one I dined in was just outside Nara Station and a few steps from Hiloki Hostel.

I had the oyakodon (chicken and egg rice bowl) which includes a bowl of miso soup for 490 yen. It was a delicious and filling meal, and cheap (for Japan, I would think).

Oyakodon (490 yen)

やよい軒
1-1 Sanjo Honmachi, Nara City
Daily 7AM to 11PM

Another good restaurant I found was Yayoiken, a restaurant serving teishoku (traditional Japanese set meal). There are many branches around the country and I discovered it at Nara Station. There was no English menu outside but the food photos and the shokuhin sampuru (plastic food samples) looked good. And indeed the food was delicious! I was so glad to have walked in and tried the irodori (790 yen) which had six different kinds of food on a tray plus a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup.

Irodori (790 yen)

16 Kasugano-cho, Nara City 630-8212
Daily 11AM to 630PM

Tenpyoan Cafe is located in Yume Kaze Plaza near Nara Park. There is another branch in Nara City but quite far from the city center, and another branch in the neighboring city of Yamatokoriyama. I had lunch at the branch near Nara Park and being in that location, it was very busy, with a long queue of tourists.

Their menu consists of only five items, and only two of which were meals. I was grateful for that because by the time I had a seat, I was so hungry and did not need a long list of dishes to mull over. So I had two choices: chicken and rice set, or noodle set (choice of hot or cold noodle). I chose noodles (miwa soumen set), hot. The taste was okay. And for 1230 yen, I thought it was too expensive.

Miwa soumen set with drink (1230 yen)


Wander

There are trains in Nara but the best way to get to the many sites in Nara City is by bus. The bus network serves all sites a tourist might possibly want to visit, including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites waaaayyy out of town: Horyuji and Hokkiji. (Within Nara City are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Yakushiji, Toshodaiji, Heijo Palace Remains, Kasuga Taisha, Gangoji, Todaiji, and Kofukuji.)

The 1-day Bus Pass costs 500 yen, while the 1-day Wide Bus Pass (which can reach Horyuji and Hokkiji) costs 1000 yen. A 2-day Wide Bus Pass costs 1500 yen. The bus passes can be bought at the Bus Information Centers at JR Nara Station and at Kintetsu Nara Station. A bus route map will be provided with the pass. To use the pass, you just need to show the pass to the bus driver when you get on/off the bus.



Japan
Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger
An Ignoramus in Japan: Vending Machines
An Ignoramus in Japan: Bathrooms and Toilets
An Ignoramus in Japan: Manhole Covers
I Spy With My Little Eye: Japan's Fashion Contradictions
I Spy With My Little Eye: On the Go in Japan

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima
Tokyo Accommodation: Shinjuku Airbnb
Tokyo: Memorable Tokyo Eats
Tokyo: Odaiba
Tokyo: Doing Touristy Things in Tokyo
Toyama: A Hamlet Called Ainokura
Kyoto Accommodation: K's House Hostel Kyoto
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Wisdom from the Road: On exits #2
Kyoto: By the Thousands (Kyoto Imperial Palace, Sanjusangendo, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove)
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Turning Japanese
Kyoto: Braving the Crowds at these UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji)
Hyogo, Japanecdote: If Only I Could Speak Nihongo
Hyogo: Day Trip to Himeji: Himeji Castle and Shoshazan Engyoji Temple
Hyogo, Japanecdote: Am I an Alien?
Hiroshima: Strolling and Snacking in Miyajima
Hiroshima: Remembering the Past in Hiroshima
Osaka, Japanecdote: How to Lose Friends
Osaka Accommodation: Osaka Airbnb
Osaka, Japanecdote: Where is Bentencho Station?
Osaka: Osaka Adlaw, Osaka Ako sa Osaka
Osaka, Japanecdote: Learn From Your Mistakes

Kansai Diaries (2016)
9D/9N | Wakayama, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kansai Region
Osaka: Day 0: Arrival
Osaka Accommodations: Hotel Raizan, Hotel Mikado
Wakayama: Day 1: Going to, Sleeping in, and Eating in Koyasan
Wakayama: Day 1½: West Side of Koya Town
Wakayama: Koyasan Sidewalk Shorts
Wakayama: Days 1¾–2: Okunoin, Three Times
Nara: Sleep, Eat, and Explore Nara City (you're here!)
Nara: Day 3: Horyuji, Hokkiji, and Some Japanecdotes in Ikaruga Town
Kyoto Accommodations: Guesthouse Wind Villa, Shiori Yado

Monday, September 4, 2017

GPSmyCity: Article Upgrade Giveaway

GPSmyCity is a free travel app for iOS and Android, containing thousands of travel articles for hundreds of cities all over the world. These articles are written by fellow travelers (like you and me!), not travel agencies who want to sell you their tours. The app will have suggestions on where to go, what to see, and where to eat in the city you are visiting.


Download the app, search for the city you will be visiting, click on an article that interests you. If you want to review these articles later on, these articles can be downloaded for free for offline viewing. And for a minimal upgrade fee, you can access the GPS-aided maps. All of the places mentioned in the article will be pinned on the map. In addition, tour routes will be displayed, and turn-by-turn directions between places will be provided. With this app and the map upgrade, you can do away with old-school (and often inaccurate) paper maps.

Some of my blogposts are already up on the GPSmyCity app and four more have been chosen by the GPSmyCity Team for publishing:
Hooray! For the release of my new articles on GPSmyCity, the upgrade (to access its GPS-aided map) to my Doing Touristy Things in Tokyo iOS article app will be given away for FREE from September 4 to September 10! Please click on the link and try it out! (If you haven't already downloaded and installed the GPSmyCity app, it will prompt you to do so.)