Category Archives: Temple Japan

Hanami in Ueno Koen

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The cherry blossoms have been blooming all over Tokyo for the past few weeks, and despite the supposed numbing effects of photo saturation one might assume would come with that, they really are quite breathtaking. Locations around my neighborhood that I’ve now been familiar with for months have transformed, quite literally overnight, into stop-and-take-note type views, pictures worthy of sending back home or putting up on instagram.

This season in Japan is called Hanami, and is often filled with feasts and parties held beneath the Sakura trees, celebrating the temporary beauty of the sakura, as they only last for a week or two, as well as the return of the nice weather. In many parts of Japan, the blossoms line up with the beginning of school or work vacation, timing which lends itself well to the festival like atmosphere.

Hanami parties at night are called Yozakura, and some of the larger parks in Tokyo, most famously Ueno Park, put up temporary paper lanterns for this purpose. Last Friday night we decided to head to Ueno and see for ourselves.

The park was insanely crowded, and in a way that was strange to see in Japan: kind of a mess. Not necessarily in a bad way, it just looked like there had been a massive, multi day party going on there, which of course, there had been. All of the spaces under the cherry trees were packed, covered in tarps and groups of friends, families, and coworkers, eating, drinking, listening to music, and celebrating. The trees themselves were gorgeous, and being offset against the grey, 8pm sky gave them a far more dramatic feel than they had during the day. We walked around the park for a bit, watching things unfold in the light of the paper lanterns, before deciding to stop by some of the food trucks and stand that had been set up near the temple for dinner.

We must have walked around looking at the food on sale, debating where to eat for about thirty minutes, at least for long enough to realize that some of the stands were starting to close, so we’d better decide fast. Settling on a massive portion of Takiyaki, or octopus inside of fried dough balls covered in fish flakes and different sauces, we sat down on a bench and people watched for the rest of the evening.Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 12.13.45 PMScreen Shot 2017-04-07 at 12.13.31 PMScreen Shot 2017-04-07 at 12.13.22 PM

Enoshima

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I’m a little late with this post, but a few weeks ago, in order to properly celebrate the beautiful weather we had in Tokyo on the first day of spring, my roommate and I decided to get away from the noise of the city and instead spend the day around the noise of the tourist filled, yet strikingly beautiful island of Enoshima.

Enoshima is a small, rugged island about an hour by train south of Tokyo’s Shinagawa station, off the coast of the beach town of Fujisawa. An easy and incredibly popular day trip, the island is home to numerous small restaurants and bars, shops, ancient shrines, a massive cave (inside of which is the ancient-ist of all the ancient shrines), and best of all, in my opinion, some incredibly breathtaking views out over the Pacific Ocean.

From Enoshima station, the island is accessible by a crowded pedestrian bridge that takes you to the small, shop filled town at the base of the small mountain that covers most of it. From there we decided to take the central staircase up to the first shrine, from which, when you turned back to look out over the bridge, gave an impressive view of the town and the bay. The weather was impeccable, clear and cool, and while seemingly all of the Tokyo area had the same plans as us that day, we honestly couldn’t have picked a better day to go.

My favorite part of the day came when we climbed up to the very top of the island. From there, on the east side, we had an incredible, unobstructed view of the ocean, standing up on the edge of the cliffs that led down to the water. At the bottom of the cliffs, large, flat rocks jut out into the Pacific, making it look like the edge of the Earth, or the classic cover of Shel Silberstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. There was a steep staircase that led down from the top of the island to the rocks, which we climbed down to go walk around and stare out at the sea. The waves would crash against the rocks, throwing spray down the backs of all the families posing for pictures.

Eventually, we got hungry, but instead of trying the overpriced food on the island, we decided to walk into town to go to what looked like an incredible burger place we saw on the way from the station. The sun was starting to set, and with that the temperature started to drop, reminding us that, although it was the first day of spring, it was only just. As we walked over the bridge to the mainland at sunset, Enoshima began to look just like Hawaii, with the shadows of the palm trees on the coast being thrown out over the bay. Altogether, it was a very successful and refreshing trip outside of the city.

Day Trip to Yokohama

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The port city of Yokohama

This past week, Temple University was closed on Friday and Monday, giving students an extended four-day weekend. My friends and I used two of our four days off to travel Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan. Yokohama is only an hour and a half away from Tokyo and sits on the waterfront, a notable port city throughout Japan’s history.

My group of friends arrived in Yokohama on Sunday afternoon to explore Minato Mirai, a major business and shopping district in the city. We saw numerous ships docked in the harbor and the pale blue ocean stretching out towards the horizon. Minato Mirai wraps around a concave docking area, so we were able to see the ocean from several vantage points, as we strolled across oceanside bridges and over piers. Most notably, we climbed up Osanbashi pier, a large futuristic, metal and wooden structure with grand decks and outdoor staircases. We also visited the Red Brick Warehouses, historical buildings renovated as a high end shopping mall, theatre, and convention center.

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Evening falling on the Minato Mirai area

A huge tourist attraction in Minato Mirai is the Cupnoodles Museum, dedicated to invention and growth of the Cup Noodle instant ramen brand. We saw timelines of the company, learned of the resourcefulness of Cup Noodle’s company founder, and sampled noodles from around the world. We were even able to make our own Cup Noodle cups, complete with unique toppings and permanent marker decorations.

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Cupnoodle Museum’s instant ramen timeline

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The small theater where we were shown a film on the founding of Cupnoodle

We paid a visit to Cosmoworld, an amusement park in the center of the Minato Mirai area. During the day, the park seemed to contain only innocuous pastel-colored rides, but at night the park glowed with fluorescent electric energy. My friends and I made sure to ride the Cosmo Clock, a giant ferris wheel in the center of the park, with a giant digital clock at its center. The ferris wheel was so large, one rotation took fifteen minutes.  From the top of the Cosmo Clock, we could see the entire city, lit up. Cars looked like crawling ants and small clusters of lit up boats slowly made their way across the pitch black sea.

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The Cosmo Clock at Cosmoland

My favorite place in Yokohama was Chinatown, roughly a fifteen minute walk from Minato Mirai. As someone of Chinese descent, I felt both relief and nostalgia as I recognized the food and atmosphere present in Yokohama’s Chinatown. The tacky linoleum floors, the greasy pan-fried food, the gold-trimmed red signs in doorways promising luck and wealth all seemed familiar to me. My friends and I ate family-style–sharing the same meal from several large dishes–at a Chinese restaurant and then bought cha siu bao (steamed or baked pork buns) and jian dui (fried rice flour balls with sesame seeds on the outside and red bean paste on the inside) from streetside vendors. Red lanterns lighted our way as we shuffled our way through the hot, crowded city streets back to the metropolitan Japan that waited outside of Chinatown’s gilded entrance.

TUJ Campus Life

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When I tell other Temple students I’m taking four studio classes and a Japanese class, I always receive the same response. “Oh no, that’s so hard! Good luck! You’ll need it.”
Indeed, my four art classes take a significant amount of time. While most classes at Temple last an hour, studio classes last roughly three hours. I only have two classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays but I still need to be at school from 9am to 4pm.
Though studio art classes take a lot of time, I enjoy the in-class work, the casual atmosphere, and the interesting teachers I have. I’ve been able to experiment with mediums and subjects I never would have considered before. For instance, I never thought I could create a mask with chicken wire and paper mache. However, I’ve been able to make a decent cow-shaped mask worthy of hanging from the classroom wall.
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My Cow Mask Proudly Sits on the Wall

I’ve become accustomed to the long hours in class, but I’ve also adapted to the daily commute from the Temple dorms to campus. Everyday, I spend 100 minutes, traveling from my dorm in Takadanobaba to Temple campus in Azabu-Juban. The trip includes two subways, one transfer, and a lot of walking. I initially found the route extremely confusing but after two months it has become an easy and routine part of life.
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Waiting on the route to school

The Temple campus in Azabu-juban is a large black-tiled office building with 12 floors. Though the first five floors are part of Temple campus, the top seven floors hold offices for Japanese companies. Students often run into Japanese businessmen in the building, usually in the elevator.
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Temple University Japan Campus Building

The fact that our school is in an office building can be easily forgotten during lecture-based classes but becomes painfully apparent during art classes. The carpeted floors don’t mix well with clay and paint, and the rooms are often too narrow to store large canvases or sculptures. The offices for three of the art teachers are humorously jammed together in one small supply closet and not all of the art classrooms are on the same floor. The setup is strange but amusing.
Possibly my favorite aspect of Temple University is the collection of vending machines on the second floor. The machines serve a large variety of products, from hot chocolate, to energy drinks, to tiny cups of pudding. My personal favorite is the strawberry milk box, which tastes excellent midway through drawing class.

Spring is Here!

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The weather here in Tokyo has been insanely nice for the past couple of weeks. Although it’s technically still winter, the end of February and the beginning of March have been absolutely beautiful, in the mid to high sixties. In Japan, this means the blooming of the iconic Ume trees, or Japanese plum: the bright pink flowering trees that closely resemble the more famous Sakura, or cherry blossom, which blooms a few weeks later, in April.

Very close to where I’m living in Shinagawa, the Ume have been in full bloom in Rinshi no Mori Koen, something I discovered by accident while out for a run. The park was packed with people picnicking under the trees, taking pictures and spending time with their families. The park itself is gorgeous any day, full of winding trails and one of the most diverse collection of trees in Japan (it was formerly a government run arboretum), but the blooming trees really made it look picturesque, the kind of platonic ideal people think of when they think of Japan.

The other day, we had an undergraduate holiday in the middle of the week. After sleeping in, which was much needed, midterms are in full swing here, I decided to take my bike and head out to Setagaya to see the Todoroki Ravine, the only ravine within Tokyo, tucked away in the quiet residential neighborhood of Todoroki. It took about an hour by bicycle to get to from my house, but it was a very easy and pleasant ride that basically stayed on the same major road the entire time, something which I was incredibly excited to see when I pulled up the directions on Google. Even after living here for (almost) two semesters, navigating unknown parts of the city on a bike is still very daunting.

The park is easy to miss; hidden from the street, you have to go down a steep flight of steps that lead down the side of the cliff to a path below. At the bottom of the ravine is a small river, and the path follows along, crossing here and there, leading to a waterfall capped with stone dragon heads and a small shop selling Japanese snacks and sweets at the end, all in the shadow of a large temple.

The ravine is gorgeous, filled with lush green trees and shrubs. Like many of these secluded green spots within the city, I have trouble remembering that I’m in the most populated metropolis on earth. These places definitely do not fit the image I had of Tokyo before I came over here, all hellishly crowded commuter trains and Blade Runner-esque neon cityscapes. Tokyo, of course, is full of those, but also so much more. I read recently in an article published by the Guardian that “Tokyo is a million different cities”, something that I’ve come to agree with wholeheartedly, and not just because of the way the different wards are incorporated. The city can feel like a world in and of itself.

How I’m Spending My Food Budget

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Though my days as a study abroad student are largely dedicated to schoolwork, commuting, and learning about the country I’m living in, cooking and buying food is central to my daily life in Tokyo. Temple University in Japan has no meal plan and no facility for making students meals, so Temple students are required to find food for themselves. While some students are provided meals through homestay, the majority of students eat from the same, extremely cheap, restaurants, grocery stores, and convenience stores.

Like my peers, I frequent the Lawson’s and Seven Eleven convenience stores that appear on every city block in Tokyo. Unlike those in the the United States, convenience stores in Japan are known to carry a variety of Japanese food, both healthy and unhealthy. Frozen Slurpees are replaced with nikuman, a steamed bun with meat filling. Cans of Coke are substituted with cartons of strawberry and matcha-flavored milk. I often go to my local convenience store to grab a pre-packaged lunch or a quick snack. My personal favorites are egg sushi trays and onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with a small amounts of mayonnaise, fish, veggie, or egg in the middle. Food is sold at a reasonable price, usually between 100 to 500 yen, roughly 1 to 5 U.S. dollars.

The Seiyu supermarket a block away from my dorm is also a great source for inexpensive meals. Seiyu is literally the Japanese equivalent of Walmart, as both store chains owned by the Walmart Corporate Company. I have been able to find pre-packaged meals of slightly higher quality at Seiyu between 10,000 and 300 yen (10 to 3 U.S. dollars). I often use these meals for lunch or a last minute dinner.

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Last minute dinners from Seiyu are pretty satisfying

Japanese supermarkets hold daily sales on pre-packaged meals, so the store can restock on fresh meals for the next day. The sale at Seiyu starts at 9pm and goes until 11pm, so I often go by the market late to grab discounted meals. I’ve been able to find some very nice entrees, such as a full sushi tray or chicken karaage meal at discounted price.  

I also buy raw ingredients at Seiyu to cook back at the dorm. I eat dorm-cooked meals twice a week with my friends. The kitchenette in my dorm room is very small, so my friends often find themselves cutting vegetables on my desk and cooking rice on my floor. We eat dinner while sitting on my bed or at my desk, and I often find dishes people left in my room the next day.

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Cooking at home with friends is the best!

We have tried a combination of Japanese and Chinese recipes, and the Japanese recipes are much easier to cook in the dorm kitchen. Japanese dishes often involve boiling food and adding various sauces and spices for flavor, while Chinese recipes call for pan frying. I don’t want to buy another pot or pan, as I have no way of taking such a thing home. However, stir frying in one small cooking pot has proven difficult, and has occasionally ended with me scraping blackened bits of food from the bottom of my once-silver appliance.

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Chinese food can be a little tricky–but it’s pretty worthwhile

Extreme Sight-Seeing in Osaka and Nara

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Crowded streets in Osaka

From Kyoto, my friends and I took a bus and then a train to Osaka. We arrived late in the evening and headed over to our modest Airbnb apartment.

For dinner, we went to a nearby restaurant and ate okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake with cabbage and meat. The okonomiyaki restaurant was my first experience with traditional Japanese-style dining. The floor was covered with woven tatami mats and guests were required to remove their shoes at the door. While eating, we sat on cushions instead of chairs, and the tables were much closer to the floor.

We spent most of the following day at the Universal Studios theme park in Osaka. Though the Japanese park was very similar to American versions of Universal, the park had additional attractions based off of Japanese media. For example, the park contained an Attack on Titan area complete with larger-than-life statues of various titans. McKenna invited her Japanese friends, Kei and Yudai to join us at Universal. I was able to practice Japanese with them and we played both Japanese and American time-passing games while waiting in line for rides.

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Everyone posing in front of the Titan statue at Universal

After leaving Universal, Kei and Yudai were kind enough to show us around Dotonbori, a street in Osaka, known for its hodgepodge of Japanese restaurants. Giant, animatronic statues mounted on restaurant fronts beckoned to us and the air was filled with the smells of fried meat, seafood, and smoke. We finally stopped in front of a restaurant with a statue of an irritated Japanese chef to eat kushikatsu, or deep fried food on skewers.

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One of the unique storefronts on Dotonbori

My friends and I ended the day by going to an onsen near our Airbnb apartment called Spa World. The onsen, or Japanese communal bathhouse, was just what we needed after a day of non-stop walking and sightseeing. I was initially embarrassed to bathe with others, but my nervousness slowly wore off as I napped in a hot spring pool with hot white steam rising around me.

We headed home the next day, but made a quick stop at Nara Park to visit shrines and feed deer. The Nara Park deer are the hallmark of the city, roaming the famed park freely and bowing to visitors. Park guests can buy crackers to feed the deer, though the deer are known to be somewhat aggressive when spotting a package of crackers.

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Feeding a deer at Nara

I ended my weekend deeply satisfied. I had seen and explored so much of Japan. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see so many beautiful, interesting places and have such fun experiences. I’m extremely grateful for this trip and the people I spent time with during my four-day weekend.

Second Semester Update

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Second semester, as it always does, is flying by. It feels like literally last week that classes started, and I near panicked the other day when I realized I only have two months left in Japan, and that my midterms are approaching fast. I’m not sure which bothered me more.

At this point living here feels so natural that I’m almost worried about the reverse culture shock of transitioning back to life in Philadelphia. Things that used to seem so daunting just a few months ago, like ordering in Japanese at a restaurant, or reading street signs while navigating Tokyo traffic on bicycle are now second nature to me. I’ve been working my part time job, have started to recognize some of the other locals in my neighborhood (and they definitely recognize me; my roommate and I are seemingly the only foreigners in our area of the city), and have even befriended and hung out with some of the guys who work at our local Konbini.

I am definitely glad that I decided to stay in Japan for the entire year, instead of a single semester. During my first semester it seemed daunting, and there were a few times when I had no idea what I was thinking, but it has been worth it, and I would very strongly advise any future study abroad students who can to do so. I especially see the benefit reflected in my Japanese, which, while still objectively awful (I speak, as David Sedaris described his own grasp of French, like an “evil baby”), has improved so much from the constant exposure. While the Japanese courses I’ve taken at TUJ have undeniably been a huge part of my improvement, the month off we had in the winter, where I was forced to essentially fend for myself and practice on my own did so much for my confidence with the language.

Being here for a year has also given me the luxury of being able to explore at my own pace, and not feel that tourist-like rush to see everything before my time is up (though that deadline is getting closer and closer, which I am painfully aware of).

Tokyo is so massive that there is no way for anybody to see all of it in a lifetime, let alone an academic year, but I really have been to some incredible places in and around the city over the past few months.

One of my absolute favorites, which I went to a week or two ago, was the Chinatown in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, the reason being the food, of course. My roommate and I went into a very tiny restaurant in an alley so narrow we could barely stand shoulder to shoulder, and ended up hanging out with a few old Japanese men all night. They kept buying us dumplings and beer, and I got to practice my Japanese, so the night was an undeniable success.

Kansai!

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A few weeks ago, undergraduate students at TUJ had a long weekend, as an undergrad holiday on a Friday came on the heels of a national day off on Thursday. Excited to make the most of our time away from the classroom, my friends and I decided to take the weekend and go down to the Kansai region of Japan, about an eight-hour bus ride south of Tokyo. We booked the overnight bus and met up at Tokyo station at eleven thirty, bags of clothes and McDonalds in hand.

It took all night to ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, and I don’t think I slept at all. I can’t sleep in cars or buses (or trains or planes for that matter) at the best of times, and the incredibly cramped seating arrangement just exasperated my insomnia. Not that I cared. It was actually a fairly enjoyable night spent watching the lights of the highway fly through the mountains, and then, best of all, seeing the sunrise as we pulled into Kyoto.

We got into Kyoto at around seven in the morning, and because we were all tired of sitting on the bus, we decided to walk the four miles from Kyoto Station to our Air BnB, right by Ginkakuji Temple. Walking through Kyoto that morning, the first thing I was struck by was how different the atmosphere was from Tokyo. There were no impenetrable crowds, even though it was a weekday morning at rush-hour, no tall buildings in every direction, creating the sense that one is in a glass and concrete canyon. Instead, the streets were wide and lined with trees, and the buildings were low and spaced out, and there were temples everywhere. I’d read that Kyoto was famous for its number of shrines and temples, but it still amazed me just how many I saw. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but there really did seem to be one on every block.

Once we dropped off our bags, our first stop was Ginkakuji. The temple is famous for the intricate gardens that overlook the city, and rightfully so. Next we headed to the old Imperial Palace, but by that point, around three in the afternoon, the overnight bus ride on which none of us got any sleep was starting to take its toll, and we spent most of the time at the temple stumbling around in a zombified daze.

The next night we took the train to Osaka. One of the friends I went with grew up there, so we spent the night being shown around Dotonbori, a crowded nightlife area known for being extravagantly lit up at night, as well as the canal that runs through it. Tokyo may seem crowded and wild at times, but in my experience so far in Japan, Osaka probably beats it any time.

The next day our group split, leaving my roommate and I to continue touring around Kansai, while some of our other friends headed back to Tokyo. We continued to walk around Kyoto for a little while, seeing the famous Gion district, but the highlight of that last day was getting out to Nara just as the sun set. We headed directly for the park from the station, but by the time we found it, it was dark. Not sure of what to expect next, we walked into the trees slowly, and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of deer, completely fearless, and almost indifferent to our presence.

Overall, it was a great trip, and a great way to see a different part of Japan.

Extreme Sight-Seeing in Kyoto

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When Temple University Japan gave students a two-day undergraduate holiday, my friends and I took the opportunity to go on a weekend-long trip to Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. The experience was simultaneously exciting, frustrating, tiring, and incredibly fun. I feel extremely lucky to see and experience so much of Japan, and I know the memories of this trip will stay with me for a long time.

Our group left for Kyoto Friday night, boarding a Shinkansen bullet train. The Shinkansen runs at around 200 miles per hour and brought us to our destination within three hours. We arrived, in freezing snow and surrounded by closed storefronts, though the time was only 8pm. For roughly an hour, my group of friends and I attempted to find our Airbnb apartment room before realizing it was on the fourth floor of an apartment across the street.

We woke up early the next morning, bought bus passes, and attempted to squeeze the maximum number of Kyoto tourist attractions into a 9-hour time frame.

Kyoto is Japan’s most popular tourist destination, with numerous temples, shrines, and important landmarks from Japanese history. Our itinerary for Kyoto included one palace, one museum, one park, three temples, and one general district. We had a lot of ground to cover in two days.

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We had to hit the road early to see everything in Kyoto.

The day started off with us boarding a bus in the wrong direction and making an unplanned visit to a temple along the incorrect bus route. Toji Temple was a quiet way to start the morning, with its carefully kept gardens and old wooden structures. The signs around its premises were written completely in Japanese, so we were unsure of the temple’s significance, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

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Checking out the gardens around Toji Temple with McKenna and Nikki.

We then paid a visit to Arashiyama park, where we were able to feed monkeys, visit shrines, and walk through the famed Arashiyama bamboo forest. Our visit to Arashiyama was fun, but overwhelming, as the park was very crowded and we struggled to find important landmarks without English signs or park maps guiding us. Still, we were able to see much of the natural and man-made beauty in Arashiyama, from the Tenryuji Temple lake to the charmingly old-style souvenir shops lining the streets.

After spending most of the afternoon in Arashiyama, we visited Ryoan-ji temple, which contained several shrines and a rock garden. The rock garden was actually inside a large Japanese-style house, so we were asked to take off our shoes and put on slippers before viewing the area.

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Viewing the simple, yet elegant rock garden at Ryoan-ji with McKenna, Nikki, and Ben

From Ryoan-ji, we raced to the Kinkaku-ji temple, a Zen temple which is covered in gold from the second floor up. We were concerned that we would not be able to visit the temple before closing time, at 6pm. However, we managed to get to the temple with time to spare. We took pictures, and explored some of the surrounding gardens.

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The famed Kinkaku-ji temple with gold covering its upper floors.

The next day, we headed to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and were able to tour the palace grounds with an English-speaking tour guide. The Imperial Palace grounds are massive and hold incredible amounts of history and tradition. Every gold-leafed parking structure and red-painted gate was a significant in the lives of early Japanese royalty.

From the Imperial Palace, we walked to the Kyoto International Manga Museum. The museum held particular significance to me, as my first exposure to Japanese culture was through Japanese comic books, or manga. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, as the place is filled with volumes upon volumes of published and copyrighted manga. However, visitors are allowed to touch and even flip through Japanese comics, some of which are over 30 years old.

We ate lunch in Gion District, an area historically known for geisha entertainment, and then headed over to the Fushimi Inari Temple.

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Walking up Inari mountain through the torii gates.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha is dedicated to the Shinto diety, Inari, the god of rice and agriculture. The temple is famous for its red torii gates which line the trail up Inari mountain. Though we were unable to hike the trail in its entirety, we still had a good time eating snacks, pointing out fox statues, and watching the Shinto religious rituals which are still performed at the temple.

From Fushimi Inari, my friends and I took the train straight to Osaka. Our two days in Kyoto were exhausting, but extremely enjoyable.

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What would an epic trip across Japan be like without a group picture?