Kyoto’s Plum Blossoms and Iga’s Ninjas

 Hello all!

At the end of February, I visited Kyoto and Iga with my friend Megan, who was visiting from New York! :) I’ve known Megan for a long time, and was excited to hear that she was in Japan looking for some jobs and sightseeing!  I was EVEN MORE excited to hear that she was interested in meeting up for a few days!

Our first stop was Kyoto, which I visited once in these two posts (Kyoto Day 1Kyoto Day 2), and I took Megan to one of my favorite spots, and explored some new ones with her.

First stop was Arashiyama, an area known for a monkey park, temples, and the bamboo forest that I visited during my last trip! :)  After walking around the temple a bit, we had lunch at the vegan restaurant on the temple grounds.  This was the same restaurant Justin and I visited on our first trip! This time, however, the menu was changed!

Our food came with a cute little instruction pamphlet… in ENGLISH! :)
A delicious meal! :D
After the meal, we explored the grounds, which were barren, for the most part, with the exception of plum blossoms! First of all, cherry blossoms (Sakura) are a a HUGE thing in Japan.  There are Sakura blooming forecasts, parties, local festivals, etc. Plum blossoms bloom a few weeks ahead of cherry blossoms, however.  We were in Kyoto just as they were beginning to open!
After walking through the gardens, Megan and I headed to the Bamboo forest path, where we saw a group of monks!
After the bamboo forest, we headed back and stumbled a upon a shrine area. We think it was a shrine having to to with love because of a large heart under an awning, but we are not sure!  I really like seeing the wooden message charms that people fill in and hang up in large clumps around shrines and temples.  Most of them are in Japanese, so I cannot read them, but sometimes I spot English or a language I can read and it makes me smile. :) I have yet to write one though! Mostly because I usually don’t know what they are for. D:
After this, we tried to see Nijo Castle, but it ended up being closed so we changed plans and headed to Nishiki Market.  Nishiki Market is a pedestrian covered street with many, many food shops and stalls along its length, with everything from seafood, to candy, to dried fruit.  Most of the food in the market is local, and it actually started off as a seafood market in the 1300s.  Many of the shops even have samples out!
Little squids? Or octupi??

That night we headed to our hostel, where we wanted to get an early start on bed. Little did we know that we would be talking to a very interesting lady who was originally from the Ukraine, but lived in the UK for a while before deciding to teach English in China. It had been a while since I had met somebody as interesting as her, and I really enjoyed listening to her stories.  First of all, she was a very tall lady with short, crazy messy hair.  She had an interesting way of speaking as well, in that if she wanted to, she would say something, but she would kind of sometimes leave the conversation and space out a bit thinking about things.  I forgot what her name was, it’s such a shame! We shared the room with her and two girls from China who were pretty sweet and gave some interesting insights on our topics of conversation. We got less sleep than we wanted but she was such an interesting person that I didn’t mind haha!

 The next day, Megan and I split up for the morning, and I went to Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine, which is supposed to be a great spot for viewing plum blossoms. They had a whole section where you could pay to enter and walk through plum blossom groves as well.  I JUST missed the plum blossom festival at this temple (it had been on Feb 25th) but it was still beautiful!

After this shrine, I decided to take the long route and walk to the spot where I would meet Shovel. I ended up walking for over one hour, but it ended up being a really nice walk! I found some tiny shrines, a karate studio, a delicious bakery where I bought AMAZING snacks, and much more!  It was really nice walking through quiet small side streets and passing by people’s homes. It was a really welcome break from the rush of tourism.
I even found a small shrine filled with tiny Buddha statues!
On my way to meet Shovel, I passed through a park with a pretty high vantage point. I could see a big Japanese character shaved into the hillside! At the time, I wasn’t sure what this was, but I looked it up and found out that the character is 大, and it is lit up in fire during a festival called  Daimonji (大文字) in August.
I met Megan again at Daitoku-ji Temple, which is supposedly known for its gardens.  I didn’t know what to expect walking in but honestly I have to say this was really a great place to go exploring.  It was much quieter than other Kyoto tourist spots, and had many smaller temples that you could enter and explore (for small fees).  The gardens were also very beautiful! They could be found outside the temples as well as hidden inside the smaller temples… There were rock gardens, sculpted plants, neat little paths along closely cropped grass… It was really a great get-away! I highly recommend it to people who feel like they are going to lose their minds if they have to battle one more tour group to get a picture with the Golden Pavilion.

Toutekiko (Stone Garden)
Said to be Japan’s smallest rock garden, it is elegant and quite famous, despite being extremely small. On the right side of the garden, there is a flat sheet of rock, and the circular wave designs represent falling drops of water. Just as one drop of water becomes a small river, and then a large river, and finally a large ocean, this garden expresses the preciousness of one drop, and the fact that one drop leads to a big sea.

The “Sleeping Storehouse”

Minzou/Menzou (“Sleeping Storehouse”)
This building was used to store things and let them “sleep;” today it would be called a storage shed.

I just really liked the title of “Sleeping Storehouse”! :) Where things went to sleep!
This sign was so cute! <3
These rocks were so interesting! They were tied together with a piece of rope. I saw this repeated in a few places. I am sure it means something!

I really liked Daitoku-ji! We couldn’t take any pictures inside the main temple, but it was still a wonderful experience! We went at the end of the day when there was a really chill vibe. Again, highly recommend! I can’t speak highly enough of this place. :)

 Our next stop was Nijo Castle which we ended up speeding through because we came through a bit late…  The grounds were really big but it was cloudy and started to drizzle a bit towards the end.  I think that if we came back a little later in the spring or the summer, the grounds would be much more spectacular. Anyway! We still had a nice time! We got to go through the castle, which we could not take pictures of.  Inside, though we learned that this castle, as well as the main Daitoku-ji temple, were built with Nightingale floors!

 Nightingale floors were built into castles and other important locations in Japan to prevent people from sneaking through corridors unnoticed.  The floors made a chirping sound as you walked over the floor, kind of as though there were a ton of squeaky swings. This may have been my favorite part about Nijo Castle!

Guidance protection against the climate of cycads (Japanese Sago Palm)
We cover the trunks of the cycads with the sheet of rice straw called “Komo” to protect from the cold at this time of year.  In Nijo-jo Castle, a special ornament which is visible like many umbrellas pile up on this sheet. The beauty of cycads dressed in rice straw has become the Ninomaru Garden’s winter scenery.

And that was it for the Kyoto part of our trip! It was nice to see some different parts to the city!Next was Iga, the Ninja City! Iga is located about three hours or so south of me in Mie Prefecture. It is not actually that far, but between the changes in trains, it took a while. At one point, we took this tiny train that was only ONE CAR LONG. I wish I had gotten a picture of it! We were winding through some mountains, so I guess it was necessary!  When we got to Iga, we found the trains painted like ninjas! :) I guess they really know what they are famous for!

The ninja touches didn’t stop there! We could see them throughout the city, from little stuffed ninjas in trains to bathroom sign ninjas!
Initially this FREAKED ME OUT haha!
The first thing we did was go on a tour of an old Japanese house full of ninja tricks.  Some of the cooler ones included escape doors, hidden compartments for swords, and flipping wall panels!  But I won’t spoil everything… It is really something to see for yourself! :)
After the demonstration tour, we entered the museum, which had a lot of really fun tidbits! One thing that I found fascinating was that ninjas would create their weapons out of seemingly ordinary everyday objects. For example, they created an anchor by binding four sickles together.  By using a common farming tool, they were able to avoid suspision!
Something else that I found very interesting was that ninjas are believed today to have worn a completely black outfit. However, in reality, they wore working clothing similar to what farmers at the time wore, and these close were usually a dark blue.  This type of clothing did not restrict their movement, and was sometimes even discretely modified to better suit their needs.
Pretty cool run down of the tricks we saw!
The museum even had a few different displays of secret codes ninjas used! This one, using colored rice grains in particular formations, was especially interesting!
After the ninja museum, we went on to visit Iga Ueno Castle.  The castle was three floors of displays, which were mostly in Japanese.  However, there were some interesting things on display, like a helmet with what looked like gigantic dragon fly wings!
After the castle, we headed to a cafe, but the walk to the cafe was also very nice! Even though it was raining, it was still beautiful!
A teeny shrine in a wooded area near the castle.
The cafe we went to was called Murai Bankoen Ninja Cafe, and it was a very friendly place! The owner and a lady we presumed to be his wife ran it with their two cats.  They served many green tea snacks, and had a little section

On our way home, it started to snow! It was beautiful to be taking the train home while looking out the window at snow. However, by the time I got home, the snow disappeared.  I guess it was only like this in the mountains!

Anyway, it was a fun few days! :D I got to see a lot of new things, and even though the weather didn’t cooperate towards the end, I enjoyed my time with Megan! Megan, thank you for visiting, and for letting us take you around! :D  I am glad you were interested in onsen and Yamachan’s and everything else. :) You were a chill guest to have and I am sorry we didn’t get any pictures of the two of us together. D: I hope you remember Komono and Mie fondly!



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