A Walk through Nara

Tokyo is widely known as Japan’s modern capital, while Kyoto is widely known as Japan’s ancient capital for more than 1,000 years. But it was not the country’s first capital — that title belongs to Nara, a small city about 35 minutes away from Kyoto by train. Especially compared to Kyoto, Nara was the capital only briefly, from 710 to 794.

During it’s heyday, Nara was called Heijo-kyo, and it was made capital during the period that Buddhism was becoming a popular religion in Japan. Buddhism was imported to Japan largely from Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of ancient Korea. Many Baekje artisans were sent to Japan to assist with construction of the city’s religious temples and monuments. Nara was built to resemble the city of Xi’an, the old capital of China.

The history of Nara intrigued me, so I made it a priority to go there as a day trip during my stay in Kyoto. I visited in September last year, during the Chuseok holiday. I only had a few days off, so I only had time for a day trip. Fortunately, I discovered a tour company that did walking tours to the main attractions of the ancient city.

The company is called Narawalk, and they have a few options for tours. My friends and I chose the Classic Tour, since it covers the main sights of Nara. The tour lasts 3.5 hours, and I thought it was a good way to explore the best of Nara and learn the history while still having the time to cover the other sights in Kyoto. Plus, it was pretty reasonably priced at 2000 yen.

We met our tour guide at JR Nara station in the morning, and found out that the three of us were the only ones on the tour that day, which was nice. Our guide was quite friendly and she took us to the bus stop, where we got off at the Nara deer park and then preceded to walk to Nara’s main attractions.

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The deer at the Nara park are quite bold and not afraid of humans at all. The deer in Nara are considered sacred because of a Shinto legend where a god appeared on a mountain riding a white deer. Killing a Nara deer was a crime punished with death until the 1600s. The deer in Nara can be very polite when offered food. In that case, they bow in order to receive the treat.

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However, many of the deer are quite naughty and will try to eat tourist maps, so it’s important to be careful. According to our guide, one boy went to Nara to interview foreigners, but lost all of his work because a deer ate his homework.

The next stop after the deer park was Kasuga Shrine, a Unesco listed shrine located in the deer park. The shrine is home to several lanterns.

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One of the sacred trees at the shrine, according to our guide.

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Another sacred tree.
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Kasuga shrine love wishes.

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After the shrine, the next stop was, in my opinion, the most impressive part of Nara, the Todai-ji temple. This temple’s main hall is the largest wooden structure in the world and contains the Big Buddha, a large broze Buddha that is indeed very big.

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The big Buddha was originally covered with gold leaf according to the tour guide, but has since eroded.
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Although Todai-ji is the world’s largest wooden structure, the original temple was much bigger than the remaining one.
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Todai-ji was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, but this lantern is the only remaining part of the temple dating back to the 700s.

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After Todai-ji, we made our way to Kofukuji, a temple with the second tallest pagda in Japan, behind Kyoto’s Toji.

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The last stop was Nara Old Town, a street of traditional buildings with plenty of shops and restaurants. Our tour guide showed us a geisha school in the area (didn’t see any actual geisha though) and then had a lunch of beef with us, which was delicious!

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I found Nara to be a very interesting place with many attractions to see. The Classic Narawalk tour doesn’t even cover all of Nara’s attractions, but it’s great way to see all of the main points of interest with limited time. It’s quite easy to get to Nara from Kyoto and the trip is short. In my opinion, Nara should not be missed on any trip to Kyoto.

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Ulleungdo Adventure

Ulleungdo island had been on my Korea travel bucket list for quite a long time before I finally got the chance to visit in May. It looked stunningly beautiful in photos, and now that I have been there, I can certainly say even the photos don’t do it justice. There’s never a dull bus ride there because the scenery is so amazing.

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Part of the reason why I didn’t get to Ulleungdo until last month, despite wanting to go there for more than a year, is because I wanted to go during a three day weekend, but ended up too busy to go during the few three day weekends I had last year. I tried going over the past Buddha’s birthday, but the ferry was all booked (I checked a month in advance). I was disappointed, but it turned out the next week was my students’ exam week so I had no classes. I decided to take that Friday off and go to Ulleungdo that weekend.

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View of Dodong-ri town from the Dokdo Observatory.

Booking the ferry and accommodation ahead of time for Ulleungdo requires a Korean speaker, so I asked my co-teacher to call the ferry service leaving from Gangneung, as it was the easiest port for me to get to. The other ports for Ulleungdo are in Donghae and Pohang. I gave her the name of a motel located in the main town of Ulleungdo, Dodong-ri, and she called to reserve a room. The motel is called the Blue Motel, and it’s a very nice and new motel walking distance from Dodong port, and an easy taxi ride (about 10 minutes) from Jeodong port, the second biggest port. The ferry from Gangneung goes into Jeodong port. The ferry was fairly comfortable, as long as I was sitting down I didn’t feel too seasick, but I did take some seasick medicine (called 멀미약) which is sold at the ferry terminal. I believe it was 1,000 won for a small bottle but I’m not totally certain. The ride was a little less than 3 hours. My passport was required in order to board the ferry.

Once I arrived in Jeodong port, I ate a lunch of cold noodles, then went to the information counter and picked up an English language map and tourist brochure of the island, and hopped in a taxi to my motel. All of the taxis on Ulleungdo are SUVs, and even in the short ride I noticed how curvy and steep the roads are there. They frequently go up the mountains on the coast of the island which provides beautiful views.

When I asked my coteacher to book my motel, I asked if she could ask for a room with a bed, rather than sleep ondol style on the floor. They told her that they only had ondol rooms available, so I took that since I don’t mind ondol (but prefer a bed). However, someone who booked a Western style room cancelled their reservation, so I was given a room with a bed.

Not too shabby...
Not too shabby…

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The Blue Motel was 60,000 won per night. For people who want a cheaper room, there are two hostels on Ulleungdo that I am aware of, the first being Attack Camp and the second Sum Guesthouse. I can’t personally vouch for either however. Minbaks cover the whole island as well. The motels in Dodong seem to book up ahead of time (one motel I considered staying in was booked when my coteacher called) so probably best to get a reservation rather than just show up if planning to stay in a motel in town.

After checking into my motel, I went to some of the attractions around Dodong. The first being the Dokdo observatory cable car. As most people living in Korea know, Dokdo, or Takeshima to the Japanese, or the Lioncourt Rocks to neutral parties, are two small islets that both Korea and Japan claim are theirs. The islets are being administered by Korea, and the only way Koreans can reach them is through Ulleungdo. I decided not to go to Dokdo/Takeshima/the Lioncourt Rocks since I wanted more time on Ulleungdo, and the ferry from Ulleungdo takes 3 hours round trip.

I didn’t go on the Dokdo observatory cable car to see Dokdo, but rather to get a view of Dodong-ri. Supposedly Dokdo can be seen from the observatory on a very clear day, but I couldn’t see it. But here’s another picture of the view from the cable car (the other posted above).

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Right next to the cable car station is Yaksu park, a park with a small spring of water with supposed medicinal properties. It tasted like regular water, but then again I’m not sure what medicine water is supposed to taste like. There’s a small temple on the way to the park.

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Past the temple is a forest where the spring is located.

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After Yaksu park, I went to the waterfront to do the coastal walk from Dodong to Jeodong. The walk was very nice, but ended up turning into a hike in the mountains, which wasn’t that difficult but a bit steep at parts.

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The water around Ulleungdo is amazingly turquoise!

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I’m not a big hiker, so I was really happy when I caught a glimpse of Jeodong-ri from the mountains.

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From Jeodong, I caught a taxi back to the motel and grabbed dinner. One food Ulleungdo is known for is it’s beef, known as “medicine beef” because the cows are grass-fed healthy herbs. I had wanted to try this, but beef restaurants only serve the particular dish to two or more people. So I ate at a standard Korean restaurant and got some galbitang, which was really good. I had been a bit concerned that Ulleungdo would have limited dining options besides fish (information I had read made it seem this way, anyway) but it actually is not difficult at all to find non-seafood Korean food. After that, I decided to relax in my hotel and get to bed early.

The next morning, I took a ferry to Jukdo. Jukdo is a very small island close to Ulleungdo, pictured here.

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A ferry plus the entrance fee to Jukdo cost about 15,000 won. Ferries go from Dodong port at 9 am and 2:30 pm.

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The ferry took around 20 minutes I think. I bought a ticket an hour before boarding. Seagulls tend to swarm the boat because passengers feed them. Since I do not like seagulls at all, I eventually went to the lower deck.

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Once on Jukdo, there’s a long flight of stairs to climb before getting to the top of the island, where there’s some beautiful farmland and views of Ulleungdo.

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On the way up…

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The name Jukdo means “bamboo island” and Jukdo has small bamboo growing all over the island.

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Jukdo and it’s views were gorgeous and I was really glad I made the trip there.

After arriving back on the main island, I grabbed lunch and got on a bus to Taeha. Taeha is a small town on the northern part of Ulleungdo, which has a monorail leading up to an observatory of the Taeha cliff. Songgot bong, a large mountain on the edge, and Gongam, or elephant rock, are visible from here. Elephant rock got it’s name because it looks like an elephant dipping its trunk into the water.

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The monorail is pretty easy to find from the bus stop in Taeha. There’s a sign nearby that can be easily followed, as well as a map of Ulleungdo where the bus drops off.

After Taeha, I had planned to go to Nari basin, which is the only flat land area in Ulleungdo, but for some reason the bus turned around and went back to Dodong. I probably should have gotten off and waited for another bus, but I wasn’t sure of the bus schedule in the small villages and why the bus I got on even turned around in the first place. So I stayed on the ride back to Dodong (which was about an hour) and then tried to decide what to do. I figured I could go to Jeodong and see Bongnae falls, or head back to the northern part and try to get to Nari basin or at least get a better view of Songgot bong.

Since I wanted to see as much of Ulleungdo as possible, I decided to get on a bus headed for Cheonbu, a village on the northern part which had a good view of the Songgot bong rock and a sunset observatory according to my brochure. So I went on the same hour long bus ride to Cheonbu, the last stop on the bus. I was quite hungry for dinner, but restaurant options were pretty limited. Eventually I found a restaurant and ordered bibimbap. The lady who owned it was quite friendly but didn’t speak English. My Korean is very limited, but I did understand when she asked me where I was staying. When I told her Dodong-ri, she informed me that there was no bus to Dodong from Cheonbu after 7 pm. It was already 7:30. She told me the only way to get back was hitch hiking.

I panicked and didn’t finish my meal. I had to be on the ferry at 8 am the next day, and my coteacher had left a text saying that I had to be at the terminal by 7. My options were to either hitch hike or stay in a minbak for the night and catch the earliest bus back. I kicked myself for not reading the bus times carefully and not staying in the Dodong area. I didn’t really want to stay in a minbak without my stuff, and I was more comfortable being near the ferry terminal since I had to be on the ferry early. I waited for cars to pass, but the area was quiet. I did get some nice pictures of Songgot bong, and one of the sunset (not the best but I cared more about getting back to my motel at the moment).

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After a little while an older man asked me what was wrong and offered to take me back to Dodong in his van. To be honest, as a woman alone I wasn’t fully comfortable with that situation, but I really, really wanted to get back. Thankfully, I made it back to the motel safely and in one piece, and to the terminal the next day.

That morning I had some Ulleungdo pumpkin bread for breakfast, which is pretty good (not as good as homemade pumpkin bread but still good). I also bought an extra box for my coteacher as a thanks for her help. I was really glad to be on the ferry safely after my faux pas the night before.

Overall though, it was an excellent trip and I highly recommend anyone living in Korea to visit Ulleungdo at least once. The scenery is stunning and well worth the effort to get there. I attracted quite a bit of attention from both the mainland tourists and locals alike for being a foreigner alone, but everyone was quite nice. I got a free bag of tomatoes from a lady sitting next to me on the bus on Ulleungdo as well as a canned coffee from a man on the ferry. The people from Ulleungdo were really friendly despite not knowing English. Ulleungdo is one of my favorite places in Korea and I hope this blog post can help someone planning to go there.

Toshugu Shrine

Tokyo, Japan’s bustling capital, is well known for it’s crowds, it’s neon lights, it’s modern gadgets, and it’s quirkiness. There’s (overpriced in my opinion) maid cafes, manga cafes, and anime shops and video stores galore in Akihabara. While Tokyo is also well known for it’s more traditional areas, such as Sensoji temple and the Meiji Shrine, it generally feels quite modern, and really does not have the historical feel of traditional cities such as Kyoto and Nara. I had visited Japan twice before this recent trip to Tokyo. The first trip was a tour of the Kyushu island area, and the second was a trip with friends to Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara. Kyoto and Nara are amazing places and one could probably spend weeks exploring them and never get bored (I only had a few days, unfortunately).

Tokyo, on the other hand, was a bit underwhelming compared to Kyoto and Nara. I was looking forward to finally visiting Japan’s famous metropolis, but to me it was basically another big city, with anime and manga thrown in. It’s a fun place to explore for a couple of days, but after two days there I was ready to escape the city and explore more of Japan’s world heritage.

Entrance to Toshugu shrine.

Nikko, a small town located about two and a half hours north of Tokyo, is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle. Nikko is home to two shrines and one temple listed as Unesco world heritage sites. Unfortunately, the large and beautiful main gate of Toshugu shrine is being renovated, as is the main hall of Rinnoji temple. However, there are several buildings that can still be enjoyed at Toshugu, so it is still very much worth the visit. The entrance fee is a bit steep, at 1300 yen, but I thought it was worth the price. It’s considered to be the mostly lavishly decorated shrine in Japan, as it boasts amazing detailed carvings in the wood and several buildings are covered in gold leaf. It was built as a resting place for a ruler during the Edo period, but originally the mausoleum lacked the grandeur it has now. It was in the 1600s when the ruler’s grandson expanded the shrine that it became as ornate as it is today.

What Rinnoji temple currently looks like.
What Rinnoji temple currently looks like.
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Shrine pagoda, which is of the same altitude as the Tokyo Skytree.
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The famed hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil monkeys.
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What the main gate of Toshugu looks like under renovation.

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The location of the shrine, a beautiful cryptomeria tree forest, is just as impressive as the shrine itself. In addition to Toshugu, Nikko is home to beautiful mountains, forests, and rivers. I wish I had more time to explore Nikko’s national park, but unfortunately I was only able to manage a day trip with the time I had. I visited Tokyo and Nikko during a 5 day break from labor day until Children’s day, so I only had three full days in Tokyo. Even for a short excursion, Nikko is very much worthy of the two hour train ride. It’s very easy and relatively inexpensive to get there. The train from Tokyo’s Asakusa station on the Tobu railway costs 1700 yen.

Korea Year 3

A few months ago, I began my third year living as an English teacher in South Korea. I have been in Korea for quite some time now, so I am quite familiar with the different Korea blogs out there. “Life in Korea” blogs, travel blogs, photography blogs, food blogs. As a former English major, I recognize that I should be writing, but was never sure if I wanted to publish anything online. This past weekend I have been sick in bed, unable to eat anything except for rice and crackers due to a stomach bug. During that time, I decided to open up and share some of my travel experiences. This blog will be mostly travel focused (both within Korea and outside) with bits and pieces of whatever I feel like thrown in. I’ll travel, I’ll learn, I’ll write. Enjoy!