After Kyoto, we spent the next couple of days in four different towns. The first town was Arashiyama, a beautiful district an hour west of Kyoto. I highly recommend visiting Arashiyama, even just to walk around for a bit, especially if you’ve spent most of your trip in urban cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. You can take river boat tours, bike through bamboo forests, or ride a scenic railway that runs along the Oi River.
We walked past the postcard-perfect mountains and rivers to visit Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. After purchasing cheap tickets from the entrance, we had a fifteen-minute uphill hike. It should have been simple, but that day was extremely humid, and we were drenched in sweat in no time. Fortunately, along the trail were huge fans that sprayed mist at us. Once we got to the top, we were greeted with frozen towelettes and an air-conditioned hut. What service! The monkeys are native to Japan and called macaque, or “snow monkey”. The monkeys are free to roam the forest, while humans must be inside the hut to feed them. We bought some nuts and fruits from a vendor and fed the playful monkeys through a wire fence. If you recall from my Tokyo post, I had learned that I was terrified of owls, but these monkeys were too adorable to scare me. As soon as I’d give them a nut to eat, they’d put it in their mouth and then place their hand out for more. Just like spoiled children.
Fushimi, just a five-minute train ride from Kyoto, was our next stop. Anyone who’s been to Kyoto has to visit Fushimi Inari, perhaps the most famous shrine in the world. The Shinto shrine was dedicated to the god of rice and sake in the 8th century and sits at the base of a mountain. The shrine includes over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind up a mountain. It’s breathtaking to walk through, even with the crowds of tourists.After Fushimi, we made our way to Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794. We stayed at another ryokan in Nara, but it was very different from the traditional ryokan we stayed at in Kyoto. The ryokan was called Seikanso, and it’s a great alternative if you’re on a limited budget. For about a third of the price of our Kyoto ryokan, Seikanso gave us a much larger tatami bedroom with a balcony view of the immense courtyard below, as well as kaiseki breakfasts every morning, unlimited tea, and access to an onsen. The reason Seikanso was so much cheaper than Kikokuso was that it’s nontraditional. Seikanso had more than twice as many guest rooms, didn’t offer dinners, and felt much less personal than Kikokuso. The dining rooms were not private, so for breakfast, we had to eat in the same room as another guest (gasp!). It was nice to have both experiences of a traditional ryokan and a more mass-produced ryokan. However, if you only have the chance to do one, definitely splurge a little and go with a traditional ryokan.
There are tons of things to do in Nara, but most people come to see the spotted deer that wander around town. According to legend, a god named Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the capital. Since then, the deer have been regarded as sacred animals. We walked from our convenient ryokan to Nara Park, the best place to see hundreds of deer. Multiple vendors throughout the park sold senbei (Japanese rice crackers) for visitors to feed the deer. We bought a couple of packs, and as soon as the deer heard us unwrap them, they ran toward us. It was intimidating! I had read that if you bow to the deer, they’ll bow back to you, but it didn’t seem to work for me. Anthony loved feeding them so much that he ended up buying five packs of senbei.
We only spent one night in Nara, and the next day we continued our journey and stopped at the Himeji Castle. For those of you who don’t know my husband, he builds intricate Metal Earth 3-D models on his free time. He gets really into them, using tweezers and magnifying glasses, and then hogging counter space in our cramped Brooklyn apartment for his growing collection. He built a model of the Himeji Castle, so of course we had to do a side-trip to the city of Himeji.
Himeji Castle is considered to be Japan’s most beautiful surviving feudal castle and is designated as both a national treasure and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the largest castle in Japan and has 400 years of history. The graceful white hilltop complex resembles a white heron taking flight, which is why its nickname is the “white heron castle”. It comprises 83 buildings with advanced feudal defensive systems.
As soon as we exited the station, we could see the castle looming in the distance. It was another hot day when we were there, so we greatly appreciated the mist fans scattered outside. It took us a couple of hours to walk through, and we even skipped some sections. We found thousands of loopholes throughout the castle, which allowed warriors armed with archers to fire on attackers without exposing themselves. When we entered the castle, we had to take off our shoes and walk around barefoot. Coincidentally, Anthony was wearing his Himeji Castle socks.
We could tell how well Himeji Castle was designed because the entire structure was filled with natural light and felt cool without air conditioning. It’s a stark difference from the clumsy construction of European castles. After steep staircases, we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the entire city.
The castle was stunning, but my favorite part of Himeji was our lunch. We were starving, and after a quick Google search, I found us an udon restaurant called Menme. Normally not a huge fan of udon (I’m more of a soba girl), my mind was quickly changed as soon as we entered. I knew the udon would be good because it was a tiny, family-run restaurant that’s been dedicated to making fresh udon for 30 years, and we could watch the two chefs hand-make everything from the open kitchen. Hole-in-the-wall places like these are exactly why I travel.
Stuffed with unbelievable udon (fortunately, it didn’t make me cry like the sashimi in Kyoto), we walked back to the train station and headed to our final stop in Japan. Konnichiwa, Osaka!
Tips for future travelers:
- Wear comfortable clothes when going to the monkey park. While it’s a short hike, it is a jungle. You will get sweaty and dirty, and it’s not completely paved.
- Try to get to Fushimi Inari as early as possible. When we went, it was completely packed, and we had to wait a few minutes to get decent shots of the shrine.
- Drink everything matcha you can find. The matcha trend has been huge in New York lately, but of course it’s still nothing like Japan. I had the most amazing matcha milkshake outside of the Fushimi Inari shrine, as well as an iced matcha from a vending machine in Himeji. Both items would have been four times the price in New York.