Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto

Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto – One of the most important Zen temples in Japan, Nanzenji Temple is located in eastern Kyoto amidst very spacious and picturesque grounds. Sanomon Gate is the enormous gate which greets visitors and the gate leads on to the many sub-temples and gardens in this temple complex. A definite “must-see” Kyoto temple, in my opinion, and a great place for photos and videos.

Murin-an, Kyoto

Murin-an, Kyoto – Murin-an is a villa located near Nanzenji Temple in eastern Kyoto. It was built during the years 1864-1896 by senior statesman Yamagata Arimoto. The design and construction of the garden was created by Ogawa Jihei who was a leading Kyoto landscape architect. It is a beautiful garden and villa and a highly recommended place to visit. A very tranquil retreat from busy Kyoto.

Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), Kyoto

Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), Kyoto – This festival takes place on October 22 which is the anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. It is a parade of approximately 2,000 people dressed in traditional costumes ranging from the Heian Period (794-1185) to the Meiji Period (1868-1912). The Jidai Matsuri is one of Kyoto’s 3 most famous festivals, along with the Gion Matsuri (July) and the Aoi Matsuri (May).

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto – this famous Shinto shrine is located in southern Kyoto. Visitors wind their way through the orange torii gates up sacred Mount Inari. The shrine is dedicated to Inari who is the Shinto God of rice.  A number of statues of foxes appear at the entrance, and they act as messengers for Inari.

Heian Shrine, Kyoto

Heian Shrine, Kyoto – Heian is the former name of Kyoto, and this shrine was built in 1895 on the 1,100 anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. The main buildings are a smaller replica of the original Imperial Palace from the Heian Period (710-1185).

Daitokuji Temple, Kyoto

Daitokuji Temple, Kyoto – here are some photos I took at Daitokuji Temple which is a temple complex in northern Kyoto. There are a large number of temples as well as a variety of Zen gardens at Daitokuji Temple – a great place to wander and explore.

Arashiyama, Kyoto

Arashiyama, Kyoto – here are some photos I took in November in Arashiyama which is just west of Kyoto. Despite the crowds of tourists, the fall leaves were gorgeous and it was a very pleasant warm, sunny day.

Public Washrooms

Probably the most angst-ridden experience you may have in Japan is using a public washroom. No, I don’t mean you will have an unpleasant experience. I mean you may have a “unique” experience.

Squat vs. Western
In many public facilities visitors will have a choice between using a Western toilet (“yoshiki”) or a “squat toilet” (“washiki”). Many squat toilets can be found at local railway stations, temples, schools, and other public places. The squat toilet is slowly disappearing but sometimes you may find yourself stuck and be forced to use one. Hopefully, you will have a choice and can use the alternate Western toilet located beside the squat toilet. If not and you are forced to use a squat toilet, well, it isn’t that tough – especially if you are like me and was born and raised in rural Canada and had to “go outside” once in a while – ha, ha! There is usually a sticker inside the squat toilet showing the visitor how to use it. It is a very simple process; just squat and do your thing. The only difficulty is the balancing act since many Canadians are not used to squatting. The trick is to hold on to the pipe in front of you to give yourself some balance. Hey, you wanted to experience the “real Japan,” well now is your chance!

Tissue Packs
Kidding aside, the squat toilets are not tough to use but the only thing you have to be aware of is to pack some tissue paper with you. The squat toilets rarely come with toilet paper so you have to bring your own. Tissue packets are handed out everywhere and it is a very good idea to grab one or two just in case you get stuck. Yes, just like the Boy Scouts, when using a squat toilet is important to always “be prepared!”

Another good idea is to always carry a handkerchief. While there are sinks and faucets in public washrooms, most facilities do not have any paper or blow dryers to dry your hands. Many Japanese carry handkerchiefs to dry their hands and this is a good idea. Remember, use your handkerchiefs to dry your hands and keep them clean and dry as possible.

Today the toilets have gone high tech and the only discomfort you will face is how to use them. Japanese love comfort, especially bodily comfort, and the washroom facilities are simply astounding at times. Built in to the toilets are a variety of buttons which will provide some of the most pleasant toilet experiences of your life – I kid you not! The high tech Japanese toilets are called “washlets” (in English, “bidets”) and in 2010 they were reported to be installed in approximately 72% of Japanese homes. The washlets are also found in most hotels and department stores, and these places are the best place to go to the washroom when you are shopping or sightseeing. The washlets look just like a Western toilet except they have a number of buttons such as blow dryer, seat heating, massage options, water jet adjustments, automatic lid opening, automatic flushing, wireless control panel, room heating and air conditioning for the room—included either as part of the toilet or in the seat.  I will shortly include a diagram to show you which buttons to press for which feature.

Sushi !

Oh yes, sushi! Everyone loves sushi! Sushi is the staple food of Japan so everyone in Japan must eat sushi everyday, right? That’s what I thought too until I moved to Japan. No, rice is the staple dish, not sushi; and unfortunately for most Japanese sushi is expensive and there is no way most people could dine on sushi everyday. Like Canada, sushi for dinner is only eaten once in a while but it is eaten as a snack more often than not.

What kind of sushi is served in Japan? Do they eat California rolls? Do they have the conveyor-belt sushi bars? Well, a lot of different kinds of sushi are served at sushi restaurants, much more than most sushi restaurants in Canada. As for California rolls, no, they are a North American creation and not a native Japanese sushi. And yes, the conveyor-belt sushi bars (known affectionately as “kuru-kuru zushi”) are just as popular especially among the young children. Sushi is for everyone too; families, singles, young and old. At the kuru-kuru zushi restaurants, it seems everything under the sun can be found on the sushi plates as they saunter by – fruit, cakes, veggies, meat, you name it. The tea taps are my favourite. Small dispensers send steaming hot water into your Japanese cup and nearby is a box of green tea bags. There is nothing like going into a sushi bar in winter and warming up on hot green tea before diving into plate after plate of mouth-watering sushi.

The big advantage of eating sushi in Japan, of course, is Japan has the best sushi around! I’ve had some incredible sushi in Japan, simply unbelievable. I have heard, however, that the sushi restaurants in Vancouver are good and some of them compare favourably to their Japanese counterparts which is saying a lot. I am not a sushi connoisseur but I have found the best sushi can be found outside of the big cities in coastal towns (unless you are in a very, very expensive sushi restaurant in a city) or at the smaller, out of the way restaurants where the owners take great pride in serving fantastic sushi.

On a final note, the sushi souvenirs are a lot of fun. If you go to certain souvenir stores or department stores with souvenir sections, a variety of sushi souvenirs can be found. For example, sushi t-shirts, sushi fridge magnets, sushi key chains, and sushi erasers. A great souvenir for the sushi fan back home!


Tokyo is not Japan

Try and imagine everything centred in Toronto…I mean, e-very-thing. The population of Toronto double, triples in size and Toronto is now much, much, much larger than any city in Canada. Everything the federal government does in Ottawa is suddenly moved to Toronto and Toronto suddenly becomes the capital of Canada. Toronto becomes the centre of business in Canada with every major business relocating to Toronto; in fact, Toronto becomes the centre of everything in Canada.

Well, this is what Tokyo is to Japan. Tokyo is the largest city, the capital city and the centre of business in Japan. The population of Tokyo is, what, around 13 million (no one has an exact figure, it seems) with the outlying metropolitan area exceeding 35 million. With the population of Japan around 126 million, this means between 1/4 and 1/3 of the population of Japan lives in or near Tokyo. With such a huge proportion of the population living in this area, you would think that Tokyo is Japan or, anything associated with Japan probably resides in or near Tokyo.

This is a mistake. While it can be argued that Tokyo has a huge presence in Japan (and in the world for that fact), it is not the centre of Japan and spending your time in or near Tokyo and thinking that this is Japan is a mistake. In terms of history and culture and sightseeing, Tokyo is just one part of the Japanese picture. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tokyo and it is a wonderful place to visit and explore. However, if you want to discover Japan you have to get out of Tokyo and see what lies beyond.