Enjoy old Japan in Kyoto, Nara via quick flight from Guam to Osaka

Enjoy old Japan in Kyoto, Nara via quick flight from Guam to Osaka

by Max Deco
Stripes Japan

Recently I took advantage of United Airline’s direct flight from Guam to Osaka (only 2.5 hours by bullet train from Tokyo Station) to get away with some friends from Guam. After a two-day adventure in Osaka, we hopped on a train to Kyoto Station.

After checking into the Hotel Hankyu Kyoto conveniently located in front of the station, we started our much-anticipated sightseeing.

Our first stop was the World Heritage site Nijo-jo Castle built in 1603 on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The castle consisted of a Honmaru, or main part of the structure, and the Ninomaru surrounding it complete with a moat.

Nijo-jo Castle

The tour took us inside through the castle’s corridors where we could view the huge living and reception rooms accented with magnificent hand-illustrated door panels. The castle also has a unique feature which is an ancient security system built into the wooden floors. Special nails were used to assemble the walkways and when walked upon the nails rub together causing a nightingale-like sound which alerts anyone close by that you are coming. Ninjas beware!

Kinkaju-ji Zen Temple

Next, we headed to the famous Rokuon-ji or Kinkaku-ji Zen Temple of the Shokoku-ji school of Rinzai Buddhist denomination dating back to 1397. This temple was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.

The temple’s centerpiece is the three-story Golden Pavilion which sits on a large pond representing the ocean with small pine covered islands in the middle. The top two stories of the pavilion are covered in 0.5mm gold leaf which reflects the sunlight and made the building stand out like a brilliant ball of light when we took pictures. Behind the pavilion, was a giant two-trunk Rikushu pine tree bonsai carefully pruned to look like a ship setting sail.

Kyoto Gosho Imperial Palace

Our next stop was the Kyoto Imperial Palace or Kyoto Gosho, the former residence of Japan’s emperors until 1869 before the capital was moved to Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration.

At 450 meters north to south and 250 meters east to west, the palace is huge. You’ll also notice there is no defensive moat, and the decorative walls are low because nobody dare attack the emperor.

The current palace is the latest of eight reincarnations as each of the previous were lost to fires caused by lightning and other natural disasters. The attention to details on the palace grounds is incredible and as we walked the perimeter, we saw workers on their hands and knees plucking individual blades of grass from the immaculate gravel paths.

Because of the lack of defensive architecture, the palace had several unusual carriage gates that were used according to rank and purpose each with their own individual style of architecture.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The following day, we headed to Fushimi Inari Taisha or the fox shrine. In Japan there are over 30,000 Inari satellite shrines, but the one in Kyoto has been the main branch for the last 1300 years.

The shrine stands at the foot and leads up to the top of the 233-meer-high Higashiyama Mountain, which is considered to be sacred ground.

The path leading to the entrance of this shrine is lined with small shops on each side and because almost everything they sold was fox-themed, it was easy to see where to go. We hiked up to the entrance of the mountain path that was lined with 1000 red torii gates each donated by a sponsor wishing for good luck as people walk through them on the way to the summit.

Although we did not go all the way to the mountain top we passed through several stages of the gates for good luck before descending to our next adventure.

Sanjusangen-do, hall of 1001 statues

From a place with countless vermillion torii gates we next went to Sanjusangen-do or the hall of 1001 statues. This incredible temple houses 1001 hand-carved cypress statues of the Buddhist deity called Kannon (incidentally the inspiration name for the founder of Canon Corp) who evenly flank a giant seated Buddha in the middle.

At Sanjusangen-do, all the statues had incredible amounts of sacred arms flanking the left and right sides of their bodies. Among the statues, 124 were made in the 12th century when the temple was founded and the remaining in 876 when the temple was renovated in the 13th century. On the far right and left sides of the 1001 statues we also saw a dynamic statue of the wind god and thunder god for wishes of good crop. Since Buddhism originally came to Japan from India the design of the figures was decidedly different from other traditional artwork we saw in the previous locations. Unfortunately, Sanjusangen-do does not allow any photographs inside.

NARA: Deer free to roam

Trip to Nara to visit the local residents

After our overnight stay and action-packed day in Kyoto, we headed to Nara, which is about a 45-minute train ride from Kyoto Station.

Our first stop was Todai-ji Temple or the “Great Eastern Temple,” one of Japan’s most famous and a landmark of Nara in addition to being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism.

Todai-ji and the giant buddha

Todai-ji’s main claim to fame, however, is that it houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha standing at 15 meters tall. After a short 20-minute walk from Nara station, we entered the Todai-ji temple grounds and were soon accosted by the wild but tame deer that live in the park.

The deer are considered sacred messengers of Shinto gods and enjoy complete freedom in the city including the right of way to cross any street in Nara.

 As we approached the huge main Todai-ji gate, we passed in between two massive wood guardian kings that flanked the entrance gate carved by famous Japanese sculptors Unkei and Kaikei around the 12th century. The temple itself was originally completed around 752 by Emperor Shomu but due to multiple natural calamities, was rebuilt several times to its present two-thirds-original-but-still-awe-inspiring size.

After passing through the main gate, we crossed the temple grounds and entered the main hall of the temple. The building has a window built into the roof that can be opened so the Buddha can look out. It was raining during my visit, so the door was closed.

After ascending the steps, we entered the dimly lit main hall to pay our respects to the Daibutsu buddha. Because of the darkness it’s difficult to appreciate just how large the statue is until you’re inside. The buddha’s awe-inspiring face loomed over us in serene meditation.

Behind the buddha, one of the big wooden roof pillars has a hole in the bottom reputedly the size of Buddha’s nostril and it is said if you crawl through you will be blessed.


Next on our itinerary was the Kasuga-taisha Shinto Shrine built in 768, which like most other ancient wooden structures in Japan, was rebuilt several times because of natural calamities. The shrine is famous for its many stone and more than 3000 worshipper-donated bronze lanterns that lead up to the top of the shrine. The shrine is also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The birth of the shrine was purported to be when the first god ofthe area rode on the back of a white deer to the top of Mt. Mikasa in 768 and a full size model of a white deer is enshrined at the top.

The forest of Mt. Mikasa is considered sacred and has remained untouched for over 1000 years. We hiked up the lantern lined path and were struck by the red columns of the shrine buildings that contrasted with the white walls and cedar bark roofs.

Throughout the shrine, the sacred deer were sleeping and waiting for handouts that were sold from vending machines. After reaching the top gate, we gave prayers at the red gate and descended back to Nara Station for a ride on the special Aoniyoshi limited express train back to Kyoto.

The Aoniyoshi Express is a luxurious 84-seat train that travels between Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara and features library cars, salon cars, and a snack car that serves Nara craft beers.

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