Monday, April 27, 2009

OAT Japan, Sunday, March 29, 2009:

Optional Excursion to Nara and Fushimi-ku

Sidebar: Life at the Hearton Hotel:

The Hearton Hotel was a very busy place while we stayed there. We met participants from other OAT tours either several days earlier or later in the schedule. In addition, student athletic groups and business organizations would gather, probably due to the Hearton’s central location, conference facilities and competitive prices.

The Hearton has two venues for the complimentary breakfast. The more popular by far is the Patio Restaurant, located off the lobby. It is a buffet-style eatery with the widest variety of Western offerings we encountered on the trip as well as a wide assortment of Japanese dishes. The Hamatoku, located on the second level, is a formal, sit down restaurant, with a strictly Japanese menu featuring cuisine of the Kyoto region.

Yesterday, we had no problem finding room in the Patio buffet room at the 7:00 opening. This morning, however, the Patio was jam packed with voracious student athletes before the 7:00 opening bell, so we were told to wait until 7:30 or later. Given we had an 8:30 bus to catch, the two of us opted to try the Hamatoku upstairs. The room was perhaps half occupied, and not surprisingly, we were the only non-Asians there. The quiet Zen-like surroundings contrasted with the racket emanating from the Patio. We were treated to a beautifully presented setting of miso soup, assorted seafood, relishes and tea. We noticed that several Asian patrons were having mugs of beer with breakfast!

The Hearton had three Dell computers available for free public use in an alcove on the second level. We had to learn our way around the kanji (Japanese characters) keyboard, though. Nonetheless, we appreciated the opportunity to clear junk e-mails from our Web-based mail program, and send off a few messages.

Excursion to Nara and Fushimi-ku:

The bus trip took us over bucolic green rural hills accented by the occasional burst of blossoming fruit trees. We arrived about mid-morning in the city of Nara. The downtown seemed little more that the typical bustling tourist spot, as this is a major tourist destination.

Everything changed as we headed into the hills east of town, to visit the two UNESCO World Heritage sites on today’s optional tour.

The famous sika deer greeted us as we entered the park-like grounds of the Buddhist Todaiji Temple complex. Photo #1 shows the Main Gate; Photo #2 shows the Middle Gate. The Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall ) (Photo #3), which is said to be the largest wooden building in the world, contained Daibutsu (Photo #4), one of the largest gilded Buddha statues in existence.
One of the menacing-looking guardians stood along side of the Buddha (Photo #5). Gorgeous blossoming cherry trees graced the lovely grounds (Photos #6,#7 and #8). We walked past a mausoleum (Photo #9 before heading down the picturesque stairs (Photo #10).

The Kasuga Shinto Shrine was also spectacular, as can be seen by the accompanying photos. This shrine is noted for its lanterns composed of stone, bronze and gilt. The sika deer were here, too! Here was a group of monks, dressed in white. We finished the tour of Kasuga Shrine by walking down this banner-lined pathway.

Before lunch, we had a chance to stroll around the pond adjacent to Nara's municipal center. This is a favorite place for wedding couples. Note the turtles on the rocks! This pagoda was undergoing restoration.

We had an amazing tempura lunch in downtown Nara!

After lunch, we headed to Fushimi-ku (Fushimi), where we visited the major highlight for this afternoon, the shrine Fushimi-inari, dedicated to the Shinto god of the forest. An outstanding feature was the series of 10,000 torii (vermilion-painted gates) that led to the inner temple. Portions of the 2005 movie Memoirs of a Geisha were shot here.

We finished the day by visiting an old sake brewery in Kyoto. The management showed us a video of the rather complex process in making sake, then allowed us time to visit the small museum where one can see the techniques were developed over centuries!
We had a chance to taste two kinds of sake, and a plum wine they also specialize in.

Dinner was on our own, so we joined Tom and Marilyn at a Chinese-style restaurant in the Shinpukan Shopping Center where we ate Japanese the first night in Kyoto. We enjoyed generous amounts of spicy pork dishes, noodles and potstickers; we did not leave hungry!

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