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Being back in Kyoto is like meeting an old friend. There was a warm sensation of familiarity, cosiness and friendliness engulfing us as soon as we reached Kyoto Station. Japan is generally much nicer when comparing with city like Shanghai but Kyoto takes it to another level. There are stronger senses of history, art and culture yet it is blended well with the modern lifestyle. That makes it more interesting for me.

It has been a year since I last posted the Japan trip Part 2. There has been a lot going on that seems to occupied most of my time from updating this blog. First off, the office held The Art of Architecture exhibition in Bangkok which was a great success. I did pretty much everything from organising, Tour guiding, Lecturing, taking photos, you name it that took six months off my spare time. Then we relocated back to London so everything has to be packed, transported and repacked. Also, we did a lot of travelling around the region just before we left. At this point in time, I still have a lot of photos to go through.

 

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Kyoto Tower in front of the station. Our plan was to drop our bags at the accommodation and head out to Ginkakuji, hang around the city, have dinner and go back late.

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We stopped at Otayan (お多やん)for lunch on the way to Ginkakuji temple. They serve curry udon which was delicious.

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The noodle is mixed with egg yolk and nestled on the side of the thick curry soup. Freshly cut spring onion sprinkled on top. We were fully refilled and satisfied.

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The road leading to Ginkakuji was bustling with snack and souvenir shops.

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There were a few groups of students on a day visit so it was peaceful as it should have been. Nevertheless, the garden and the raked gravel was impressive by itself.

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Unlike the Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji or Silver pavilion has never been finished with silver foils as originally intended. It remains as wooden finished until today. I felt this blended nicely with the landscape. Yes it is not as extravagant as it should have been had it covered in silver but it’s humble and you appreciate the building form more in natural material.

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We decided to go and explore the west area before heading back into the centre. After a short walk, we reach the Kyoto University of Art and Design and discover this café which looks rather nice. Also we haven’t had much coffee since we have arrived so this should cheer us up a little bit.

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In Shanghai the milk is horrendously bad. You can’t get sweet thick milk like in the UK. Mostly they have pasteurised milk comes in carton but these has no taste and texture. We cannot get it to froth. It just stay flat. There are scandal of Melamine contamination. So when we visit “The rest of the world” we tend to drink as much coffee and milk as we can.

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Afterward, we took a bus back to Shijodori area. The sun was setting on such a crisp and clear evening. This give another spectacle that we have not seen since moving to China. The sun would just disappear as high as 30 degree above azimuth due to thick layer of pollution. Here it reflected off the building making the entire street glow.

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There was a shop on Teramachi with automated machine making this ‘London Yaki’. Now, I have lived in London for some ten years I have not seen any London food that is not covered in oil or taste this good.

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We haven’t done much research on the food and places to eat this time round so it is going to be a random pick of restaurant for this evening. Something quick and easy.

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We went street by street and ended up along Ayanokojidori. There are a lot of small but interesting restaurants on this road but which one to pick. Hmmm.  There were too many choices.

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The atmosphere around there was very nice and lively. Was thinking about Yakitori but may be we should try something different.

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In the end we went for this restaurant (Ikkakuji) with a Unicorn over the entrance. They seem to do Okonomiyaki which was a big plus and who doesn’t like Unicorn?

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The restaurant was divided into many small rooms (or stalls would be more appropriate) quarter of the normal size you normally see in Japanese restaurant. I’m barely fit in here with my bag.

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We had a starter of Salad.

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Followed by grill steak.

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And Okonomiyaki of course.

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It was around 8 pm that we finished the meal. We decided it’s time to head back and check in. It is still another 45 minutes bus ride so we will just make the curfew.

Shijo dori was still full of people which is common for the rest of the world but not in Shanghai. By 9pm everything shut and streets were largely deserted. Who said Shanghai never sleep definitely has never been to Shanghai. In fact, Shanghai(nese) sleeps all the time , over lunch, in the car, early in the evening.

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Arriving at our accommodation this time round, we were given 2 rooms adjoining together which made it quite large. Perhaps it’s because we were staying for three nights.

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It’s a different room from last time. Behind the back Shoji screens there was a corridor with glass sliding doors around the perimeter. It’s completely black outside so we shall see the view tomorrow morning.

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Everyone has gone to bed and we can only hear the crickets and occasionally the temple bell.

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Good night.

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We woke up even before the sun rises to attend meditation session. It lasted about an hour and made our mental and physical more awake. We returned to our room to wait to be called for breakfast. During this time, the sun has risen and shone through the bamboo forest at the back. The last time we came to stay here for one night, the Typhoon happened to pass over Kyoto so it rained and rained. This time it is nice and dry but it was a typhoon season so we are in the period between the hit.

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I have dreamt of coming back here many times for one year. The serenity of the setting is just very calm and refreshing. Now standing here early in the quiet morning of September, it is how I always imagine it to be and at the same time it felt surreal. Am I really here?

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We waited in the sun while our breakfast was being prepared. It was a wonderful feeling.

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Ok. Plan for today was to go to Daitokuji temple complex, then Imperial Palace and Nijo castle and if there were any time left, Arashiyama. It’s going to be a long day so we set off walking to the bus stop right after breakfast. Also to avoid the crowd like when we went to Ryoanji Temple so we can view the zen garden in complete quietness, we want to be there as soon as the temple open.

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Daitokuji Temple Complex

Arriving at Daitokuji complex there are almost 20 temples to see. We won’t going to have time to see everything so we need to be more selective of what is interesting. We decided to go to Zuiho-in (瑞峯院) which is one of the sub-temples within the complex.

We arrived at the gate 15 minutes after it opened. There were large tour groups waiting at the coach drop off already. We automatically double the walking speed to get to the temple. Below is the photo from the front of the gate. The path leading to the main hall turns three times to slow the visitor down before entering the main gate.

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As we about to enter the temple, there were quite a few ladies, some in kimono rushing straight inside the building. It’s just opened for 10 minutes, I can’t be that popular, can it?

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It turns out, the ladies were rushing in as they were late for a tea ceremony class which help at the back of the temple.

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But the main point of coming to Zuiho-in is to see this garden. Designed by Mirei Shigemori in 1960 who was considered as a modern and radical landscape designer at that time. His design would not follow what was considered the norm in the traditional Zen garden which is trying to replicate how each elements would look in nature.  Mirei’s design would look more artificial and provoking but certainly more dynamic which is what this garden is demonstrating with the shape of the rock and high raked pattern.

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Further down the gravel and moss edge starts to form an interesting shape interlocking each other.

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At the back the gravel is raked diagonally. This is the Garden of the Cross where the seven stones below are laid in cross pattern.

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The Tea houses behind the Garden of the cross. Beautiful combination of colour on the interior.

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The second temple that we would like to see is the Daisen-in (大仙院) which has a really famous garden design related to the Buddhism teaching. It is a series of small and intimate gardens positioned around the temple. We were even given an english translated garden guide of the interpretation for each elements.  Trouble is visitors were not allowed to take any photograph of the garden. So I cannot show you how great it was. But may be that was why we were really enjoyed the experience there, without  my camera blocking it.

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If you remember, I took a photo of this garden near the tea ceremony museum last year but it was completely green. This time we come just a week later than last year and all the moss started to change into brown before turning red. Guess autumn has arrived slightly earlier this year. I would love to be here in winter but then again, it’s probably not as sunny as it is now.

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We had a stroll around Imperial palace garden afterward. It was a warm and sunny day and the park filled with families bring their kids out for picnic. It’s refreshing but I still need a coffee to wake up. A quick visit to the nearest vending machine helped extending the crave.

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Turns out it was Sunday that we went so the palace was closed. Ok next destination.

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But not before a meal. Since it is a hot day, I decided to have cold soba noodle with mackerel.

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Nijo Castle

Our next destination was at Nijo castle (二条城) not too far from the palace. The castle once was a residence of Tokugawa Shoguns and became an imperial palace before it was opened to the public.

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Inside of the palace was magnificently decorated with the finest craftsmanship whether it is carpentry, painting on the fusama, etc. If it could impress the Daimyo lords, it surely impressed us. Again, no photo allowed inside. We seemed to be picking all the places forbidding photo taking today.

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Inside the castle complex there is a garden by the outer wall called Seiryu-en garden. Completed to today’s form in 1965 for official reception of city guest, it was a combination of eastern and western styled garden. Entry to the garden is only for visitors who order tea at the Waraku-an teahouse.

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There are suppose to be over 1000 stones in this garden, hill, dry landscape, stream and two teahouses. The one we are going is Waraku-An.

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We were served with frothed green tea in a beautifully glazed chawan and sweet Wagashi.

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….with this view to enjoy

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Arashiyama

When we finished at Nijo castle, we still had plenty of time left to go and explore Kyoto. So we chose to go to Arashiyama (嵐山) on the west side of Kyoto. We can take a bus at Hanazono station and transferred to a train to Sagaarashiyama. If you have a bit more time, take a stop further and get off at Hozukyo as the train will pass an amazing gorge. There is also Sagano romantic train which runs along Hozugawa river with open bogies for sightseeing. Our time was slightly limited so may be we shall come back for it next time.

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We got out from SagaArashiyama station. From there, we can walk through the bamboo groves to get to Okochi Sanso villa – kill two birds with one stone.
A shrine with statues of Jizo on the small back road to the grove.

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Okochi Sanso  (大河内山荘) is a mountain villa of a famous Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro. The villa itself is not very big and can only be viewed from the outside but several gardens that surrounding the site were amazing. It can easily take us an hour to walk around the winding path.

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The path led to a small pavilion on top of the hill. We can see Kyoto from this location. Unfortunately the place close for the day at this point and we were ushered out or it could have taken us an hour more to slowly complete the walk.

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On the back you have a perfect view of Hozukyo gorge.

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A quick stop at Nonomiya shrine on the way back. The sun has set and it’s getting dark in the grove.

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We were back at the Sagaarashiyama station. Shame we didn’t allow enough time for this area but we could have easily spent the entire day walking around the temples and crossing Katsura river. This is just a glimpse of what is there. I guess we have to come back on the next trip.

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Back at our temple accommodation. What’s best to finish the day than drinking hot green tea, admiring the zen garden and listen to the sound of crickets.

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 Uji

Speaking of tea, today we are haeding over to Uji (宇治市), a city town between Kyoto and Nara famous for Ujigami shrine, Byodo-in Temple, both are Unesco world heritage sites ,and green tea production.

This trip was pretty much arranged loosely around a few things we would want to do and see. The rest of the programs were made up impromptu depending on what we felt or local recommendation. Today is one of those that there is no script. So we chose to go to Uji just for a change of scenery.

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We arrived quite early before any shop opened. The only thing to do is walk around town and over to Byodo-in temple.

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What we didn’t know was the temple was in a major renovation and closed for public viewing. So we hit the river hoping to go across to the Ujigami shrine. The water level in the Uji river was high with strong current. Presumably, this came for typhoon and heavy rain a couple of days earlier before we arrived in Kyoto. So these lower bridges in front of the shrine were closed.

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The water nearly reach the top of the bank of the island. A quick surge of water could swept people off and down the river so it may be a good idea to close this route off. We didn’t fancy going swimming today in this ferocious current so walking around is alright.

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A Shinto priest giving a blessing at Uji Shrine.

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Lucky amulet or Omamori (お守り) This is the first three dimensional one I’ve seen. 

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After the disappointment at Byodo-in temple, I guess this not our lucky day at Uji as the Ujigami shrine was also undergoing a major renovation. The shrine was covered in scaffolding but it was still accessible for blessing.
At least, we get to see the sacred sand or Tatesuna in front of the shrine.

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A quick lunch break at a cafe by Uji river. Unfortunate they don’t serve any food but european snack here. After a week of Japanese food we were not doing too badly having just one western meal.

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Of course being in Uji which is famous for green tea, it is a key ingredient in all the food here whether it is dessert or food – Matcha ice cream, Soba, Udon, Omochi.

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We had booked a session to have a tea ceremony at Taiho-an teahouse which is located by the tourist information. They charge a reasonably price of 500Y to attend a short session of tea ceremony in a nice tea house. Of course there is no walking through the garden and wash your hand and mouth to purify your spirit as in the full session. But for this cost, you get to watch how the tea is prepared and drinking a cup of Matcha tea with a sweet Wagashi.

 

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Luckily there were only 4 people in our round. We saw a group of 20 Chinese people getting in in the morning. It must be packed in such a small space without being able to see anything. Here it was quite relax to just watch to tea being whisked, hot water poured in. The actual ceremony is trying to do exactly that, slow you down into almost a meditative state.

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And the bright froth matcha was served in Chawan or tea bowl. You should use your right hand to pick it up, place on the left palm. Use the right hand to turn it three time clockwise so the opposite side is facing you. While you drink you tea, you can enjoy the whole experience whether it is the taste of the tea, the calligraphy in the room and the quality of the chawan itself. Slowly finish the tea and turn the Chawan anti-clockwise three time before returning to the host.

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Returning to Kyoto

Our trip is normally packed with events each day. Today was no exception as we return from Uji and went straight back to Kyoto Museum of traditional craft (京都市勧業館) not too far from Heian Shrine. There is a short Maiko Dance Performance every Sunday for visitors to see.

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The museum invites a real Maiko to come in each week and the room can be packed full of people, mostly Japanese men photographers weirdly enough (may be they are the fan club?) but there are quite a number of foreigners who would like to see Maiko upclose.

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The performance is more like a quick introduction of what Maiko does. Then the Maiko also took the tour of the museum.

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The museum was an excellent place if you like Japanese traditional art and crafts. The exhibits includes object like wood works, lacquer-ware, wood prints, pottery, metal works, calligraphy, painting etc. etc. These craftsmanship has been refined over centuries as Kyoto was the capital of Japan and centre of the tradition. So the artefacts on display were really amazing in quality. In the V&A museum in London, there are about 1% of the Japanese artefacts on display compare to here and yet it is full of people trying to get a good glimpse. They should see what’s here. There are also live demonstrations at the museum by working craftsmen and artists.

It is well arranged, packed with interesting and beautiful objects and definitely worth a visit.

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Afterward we decided to walk around Gion before supper time.

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Evening is the time when Maiko and Geiko starts getting to work at different Ochaya (teahouse).

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Salt pile or Morijio (盛り塩) placed in front of a restaurant and is believed to help attracting customer and purify the place.

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As we were wandering around Gion, we saw this Maiko but something is not quite right about her. Normally Maiko would walk really fast and try not to attract too much of the attention. This person is the opposite, she seems to be enjoying the attention and even stop for a photo with the tourist. So I guess she is one of the tourist dressing up as a Maiko. I find it odd to be wearing other people national costume when you don’t know anything about their custom.

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The name of the Maiko lodging at this Okiya (置屋) or boarding house can be seen displaying outside. This Okiya has Seven Maiko.

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This one is the real Geiko.

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As night fell, we went across the river to in search of a place to eat. Sitting on the terrace by the river of one of these restaurants seems like a very good idea. But they all seems too posh and we didn’t see any restaurant that we like.

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On the opposite side of the road however, there is this one restaurant that is very busy and the room was filled with smoke from the grills. Without saying we decided to go for it. One of our general rules is if you see a lot of locals eat there, you will hardly be disappointing. This place fit the profile.

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As we sat down, we were given the menu – all in japanese and unlike other places, without any picture. Great. Pretty much what’s on the wall there was the menu.

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We weren’t so sure how the menu works here. Is everything going to be cooked for us on the grill? so we tried to ask the waiter who can speak a little bit of english coupling with some noticeable Kanji character, it didn’t help much. We know what meat it was but not sure how it was going to be prepared. So we ordered some internal organs and some slice beef.

What we didn’t know that some dishes come is as fresh by mean of no heating involved. Our first dish was raw liver sashimi. I’m quite adventurous on food but I’ve never had any raw internal organ before. I trust Japanese people won’t give me some local tapeworms as souvenir home.  So I dug in. Despite the look, it turned out to be quite delicious and fresh.

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Then the intestines arrived. Luckily, this one is being grilled along with the beef slices. When I had the first chew it was like eating a mouthful of juicy fatty meat. It was really good but I was considering whether I would survive a heart attack after finishing this dish.

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No good thing goes to waste. The pan is tilted with hole in the corner so the meat fat dripped onto your dipping

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The beef was sooo tender I didn’t need to chew much. This was the highlight.

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To help burn the fat from our system, we decided to take a bit of walk around the area. I always find the evening atmosphere in Kyoto very nice and lively.

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Kyoto is a very unique place underlining with deep history and culture. We always enjoy being here. This our last night and we are going to miss this place when we leave.

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Back to our temple. Still have to pack up and prepare for the next move.

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The next morning, we were joined at the meditation by a team from one of the Kyoto travel magazines. They took some pictures around the temple and during the meditation and will feature us in the next issue. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera during these meditation sessions as you never quite sure whether it would be appropriate. Now that the photographer is snapping away may be next time I could bring mine.

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As you may remember from our trip last year, our breakfast was made entirely from vegetables. This type of cooking in buddhist temple is called Shojin Ryori (精進料理) or to progress the spirit [toward the enlightenment].  The temple used different taste and texture in each dish so it was quite enjoyable and doesn’t feel like we were eating vegetarian dishes at all.  

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Our stay here at the temple and Kyoto had been wonderful and it is time to leave again. I will miss it a lot.
Perhaps we get to come back somedays.

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But before we go let us enjoy one more cup of tea and watch the zen garden

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Bags were packed and the room was cleared. We were ready to go.

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Good bye Kyoto. Hello Osaka.

To be continued.