The 3776 meter high Mt. Fuji has captured the imaginations and sparked creativity in the Japanese people since the beginning of settled life all the way through present times. It is thought to be sacred and its monstrous eruptions over the centuries (most recently in 1707-8) have definitely helped in maintaining this idea. Many famous Japanese paintings depict the mountain, which is visible as far away as Tokyo, in the background.
Since the first time I visited and totally fell in love with Japan in 2012, Tokyo had been on my to do list. Normally, I tend to gravitate more towards ancient ruins and the like, but there was something about the Japanese capital that kept calling to me. I don’t know if it was the lights, the anime, the technology, or the weird subcultures, but once again Japan has managed to amaze me and completely threw my preconceptions out the window. Here are five things I expected which surprisingly were not so. Let’s get started!
This is the Shuri Castle in Okinawa, Japan. The original was destroyed during World War II and this one is only about two decades old. What makes it a marvelous World Heritage Site is its significance as it is the home of the ancient Okinawan Ryukyu Federation. While we tend to think of Japan as always being homogenous, this island was not only once independent, but a key naval power that spread across the seas in eastern Asia during the 15th-19th centuries.
During the early part of the 1400s, what is now Korea, Japan, and China actually consisted of 2 more powers: Ryukyu and the Manchu (present day Manchuria, China). Ryukyu was independent for a while and traded with its four neighbors. It was later secretly annexed by Japan and used as a pawn to facilitate trade with China. Much like Hawaii in the United States, Okinawa has its own culture and language (1 million speakers) which is completely independent of Japan.
When I first decided to come to Japan, it wasn’t the anime, the subcultures, the seemingly inexhaustible amount of video games, or the massive metropolitan areas that peeked my interest. While those are all reasons why I love Japan, first and foremost, I wanted to see Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital for over a thousand years and as such, is widely considered the historical and cultural center of Japan.
Upon exiting that surprisingly quick train ride from Osaka, I headed for the first site. The first thing I noticed upon entering the so called ‘Golden Pavilion’ was the serenity, that feeling you get when everything is slow, the wind is blowing in your hair, and you are in no hurry. It felt like I was stretched out on a hammock, sipping on a coconut on a tropical island! Don’t be silly, I hate coconuts.
Anyways, where was I…? Oh yeah: This was very surprising, considering how busy Osaka seemed. Don’t get me wrong, having lived in Seoul for three years now, I happen to be a big fan of a busy city with lots to do, but every now and again, it is nice to be left with ones own thoughts. There were quite a few people, but since Kyoto’s highlights are scattered throughout the city, no one place is overwhelmed with tourists.
Next, I headed from Kinkaku-Ji (Golden Pavilion) to Ryoan-Ji, the place made famous by its stone garden. According to legend (read: some lady at the gift shop), no one is sure of the meaning of the garden, but it has some power to induce meditation and clarity. I don’t know if I buy all that mumbo-jumbo, but I did experience something strange here. I was in a hurry as there is way too much to see in Kyoto, but for some reason, I felt compelled to just sit and… think. I really don’t know how long I was there as I opened and closed my eyes for long periods of time, but oddly enough, many people around me (Japanese and foreign) were doing the same thing. I left feeling good inside, so I guess the temple did its job.
I decided to trust Google Maps on this one and despite not being named one of the top places to see, I headed to Ninna-Ji (if you haven’t figured it out yet, ‘ji’ means temple). Although I have seen many since, this was the first place I saw statues of the Four Heavenly Kings, guardians of the world. They have human-like bodies with beastly faces, each assigned to protect a cardinal direction (north, south, east, and west). Although it was a bit expensive, it was very quiet and calm, where I again stopped, sat down, and took it all in.
I did make it to the Nijo Castle but arrived at the Imperial Palace a bit late. Despite this failure, I am glad I didn’t rush things and took it one step at a time. I did manage to look around the palace for a while and spotted a lot of Japanese style gardens and small shrines. Overall, Kyoto was everything I expected and much more.
Evaluation: (Criticism Time!)
1) Completeness and Originality (15 out of 15): At the insistence of American Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Kyoto was removed as a potential target for the atomic bomb. It remains one of the few Japanese cities that has many pre-WW2 buildings.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (15 out of 15): In a day, I would say I covered about 30% of the highlights in Kyoto. However, the site includes the remains in the cities of Uji and Otsu and would take the greater part of a week to see it all. This might be one of the most massive sites on UNESCO’s list.
3) Cultural Significance (13 out of 25): There is no doubt that the flourishing of Japan influenced world events. They tried to take over a third of the planet for heavens sake. But, take away Kyoto and you still have a pretty awesome country.
4) Personal Impact (12 out of 15): I still think about Kyoto a lot and hope to come back some day. Seeing how I went on this trip alone, I probably took more out of it than I would have otherwise.
5) Logistics (6.5 out of 10): Incredibly easy to reach and walk from temple to temple. The prices of some of these places can add up though. Every temple charges 400-800 yen and even extra to view ‘additional rooms.’
6) Uniqueness (13 out of 20): As much as I’d like to say I’ve never seen anything like it, that is only part true. Given, the scale of Kyoto and difference between the things to see is amazing, but most are temples and temples are a dime a dozen in eastern Asia.
Combined Score: 74.5/100
Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.
The Imperial Palace
Don’t feed the fish. Okay fine you can feed them.
I like how ever castle needs to have multiple moats.
Seriously, how many shades of green do you see here.
[FUN FACT: Kyoto’s sister city is Guadalajara, Mexico, where I was born!]
The last thing a person wants to see when exiting an airplane is a long queue at immigration. That particular line feels like a rite of passage, a sort of “do you really deserve this vacation?” test that you must pass before the fun can begin. Every time I have been to Japan it has been the same long waits, rude staff, and unnecessary amount of questioning.
Something I have been asked before is “Why don’t you ever blog about your trips to Japan?” The short answer: Immigration. You read right, but it is not what you think. Read more →