Kyoto – temples, kimono rentals and mystic Gion district

Did you ever see the 2005 movie “Memoirs of a geisha”? Or have you ever been fascinated about the ancient traditions of a country that is so different to ours? If you want to experience the mixture between tradition and modern life, I will give you a little insight into a city shrouded in mysticism – Kyoto.

For much of its history Kyoto has been the capital of Japan. Many people connect Kyoto with the Gion district, known mostly for the secret geisha culture. It’s sited east of the kamogawa river and is characteristic for its traditional, plain wooden buildings. Almost impossible to get to meet a geisha, many tourists walk around this district to catch a glimpse at these white-faced and kimono-clad women, who look like perfect porcelain dolls. Against some western beliefs geishas are not nor have they ever been prostitutes. They are entertainers, who during the evening play traditional japanese instruments like the shamisen, perform the complex tea ceremony with all its strict rules, dance and sing and they play little games with the guests to keep them from being bored. It is a bit sad to see that when the clock hits 6 pm, tourists flood the Gion district to spot some geishas and force their cameras in the poor womens faces. So please, please, if you are interested in the culture and seeing a real geisha, please don’t stand in their way and keep proper distance. Mostly they are on their way to work and don’t want to be bothered… keep in mind they are not animals in a zoo!

Fushimi Inari-taisha

This shinto shrine is the head of kami inari, which is the godess of fertility, rice and foxes and famous for the red-orange torii-gates, that are lined up all the way to the top of the hill. The torii are donations from families to either wish for something or to thank kami inari for making a wish come true. The trail up the mountain is 4 kilometres, takes about two hours and is really worth it. To take some good photos go there early in the morning or do the hike all the way up, because the higher you go the less crowded it’s going to be. I was amazed to see the huge amount of people walking around dressed up in kimonos and wearing traditional wooden flip flops (or geta), that I find really uncomfortable. They’ve earned my deepest respect, because I know how hard it is to walk around in a tight kimono (though the ones from the kimono rentals aren’t “real”, however its still uncomfortable) with these shoes. Kimono rentals are everywhere. Sometimes two to three different shops in one building.

Yasaka Shrine

To end the beautiful day, we went to the Yasaka shrine, also known as Gion shrine, between Gion and Higashiyama district. The shrine is located behind a sweet park-like path, has a main hall and in the middle of the court is a dance stage with hundreds of lanterns around looking even more beautiful in the evening when they’re being lit. I decided to pray in front of the main hall. For those who aren’t familiar with praying at a shrine, I’ll give you a little instruction (that’s how I’ve been tought to do it): There’s always a torii gate marking the entrance to a shinto shrine. Before walking through it you stop and bow. While through make sure you stick to the pillars and do not walk in the center. This rule also applies when walking up the sando (the path to the shrine), because the center is reserved for the gods. In order to pray at the shrine you must be clean. To cleanse yourself, there are vessels called temizuya with wooden ladles on them. You take one into your right hand, fill it with water, clean your left hand, switch the ladle to your left hand to clean the right hand, then back to the right, fill water into the ladle again, put the water into your left hand and cleanse your mouth with it (don’t have to drink it!). When you’re done, you clean the ladle by letting the remaining water run down the handle. To pray in front of the shrine I’ve learned to donate money first, then you ring the big bell that is hanging from the ceil, you bow deep twice, then clap your hands two times with your palms meeting and your right hand being a little lower than the left (you ring the bell and clap attract the spirits attention), you then pray, bow deep again and that’s it. After praying you can pull a fortune or write a wish on a wooden block and hang it in specific areas. Surrounding the shrine there is a beautiful big garden with wonderful ponds and old stone bridges passing over them. It was very peaceful given the fact, it’s neither Sakura nor autumn and tourism right now is very low.

dance stage
main hall of Yasaka

After visiting Yasaka I walked around the Gion district to see the traditional wooden houses and little shops with handcrafted ceramics, tea and snacks. Most of the teahouses are very private and have a sign saying “only for club members” on the front door. It is very hard to get access to a teahouse, mostly you have to get invited by a member, which will introduce you. Still then, most club members wouldn’t bring their friends, because it takes family generations to set foot into these societies. To me, it was very fascinating to see this district, even though from outside most of the tea houses and restaurants seemed to be shut due to its privacy.

Day 2: shrines, shrines and food…

The second day of Kyoto started with Ginkaku-ji (silver pavilion), a beautiful zen temple with a big, wonderfully arranged japanese garden. It is also a perfect location to start walking the famous philosopher’s path (Tetsugaku no michi), a picturesque path with cherry trees next to a little canal, that led me to Reikanji Temple, where many years ago members of the imperial family have lived.

Ginkaku-ji
Ginkaku-ji

Ending the philosopher’s path, you will walk straight towards Eikan-do or also known as Zenrin-ji temple complex. It’s very famous for its autumn colors with the illuminations in the evening. Though it was very cold to walk around without shoes and february being a very blossomless time of the year, it was very calm and gave me lots of time to walk around and see everything properly. This made sightseeing so much easier and more enjoyable.

After Eikan-do I took the bus to Kiyomizu-dera, the pure water temple. It was founded in the wooden hills East of Kyoto and is best known for its huge wooden stage, that was built without usage of nails. Behind it stands Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love. In front of this shrine are two big stones placed at a distance of around 18 meters. If you find you way from one stone to the other with closed eyes and no help from others it will bring you luck in finding your true love. If somebody helps and guides you towards the other stone it means that you’ll need an intermediary to find the love of your life. Well I’ve been in Kyoto with my brother and it’s needless to say that as a good big brother he didn’t tell me that he could’ve helped me and so I ended up failing, which led to my brother mocking me during my whole Japan visit, saying that my love life will forever be ruined. But thankfully I pulled so many good fortune notes in other shrines that I think it will reverse its curse, so I’m good! But hey, thanks for the help, Bro! Unfortunately the wooden stage, known for its wonderful view was under renovation, it looked horrible! But I get that they have to renovate things from time to time and again, February is very low in tourism. Still I had a blast and took some nice pictures of it.

Torii of Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizu-dera park

In the afternoon I went to see the Heian shrine, built for the city’s 1100th anniversary 1895 honoring the spirits of the first and the last emperor who reigned the city, Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei. Heian is also one of the former names of Kyoto. Due to the variety of cherry trees, plants and lots of ponds the garden behind the shrine is one of the best spots in Kyoto for the Sakura, the cherry blossom.

Torii of Heian shrine

Although it was raining a lot as you can see from the Heian photo, I decided to go to the imperial palace and walked around the huge park surrounding it. Unfortunately the palace was closed, so I went to the Toji Buddhist temple instead. Toji temple literally means “East temple” and was one of the capital’s guardian towers. It has two halls, Kondo Hall and Kodo Hall. Kondo, the main of both halls, was reconstructed after a big fire in 1486. It’s main object of worship is a large wooden Yakushi Buddha and his two attendants Nikko and Gakko Bodhisattvas. Standing right next to it, Kodo Hall was built as lecture hall and inside you’ll find 19 statues from China. On the other side of the temple court you’ll find the tallest wooden pagoda in japan, housing a little Buddha. It’s 57m tall and has five stories.

Toji

Of course exploring Kyoto in two days is an impossible mission, but unfortunately I was in a little hurry and couldn’t spend more days there. I will however come back very soon, maybe during a more vivid and colorful time of the year.

More on my Japan trip on my next blog post. For now, stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling. Life is good, god is good.

Yours truly,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

Hanoi – motorbikes, coffee and phở gà

Hanoi, capital of and with a population of around 7.8 Mio. people the second largest city in Vietnam. To be honest it was either continuing in Cambodia with a huge bus ride, flying to the Philippines with islands being shut down due to corona panic (no, not the beer) and 3 flights until arriving at my destination or going to Northern Vietnam (2h flight and no stress plus the country where it would be easier to get to my next destination). So, guess what I’ve decided to do… easiest option, here I come!!

Flying to other countries right now is a bit of a pain in the you-know-what… airport security staff is carefully watching out for signs of corona (nope, still not talking about beer) virus and let me assure you it’s not helpful when you’re right in the middle of getting a tonsillitis with a bad cough involved. Thankfully no fever but I had to try not to cough while immigration, which was unbelievably hard. I even tried to suppress it during the flight but telling by the disturbed and worried looks I got from other passengers I think it didn’t work out too well. But staying positive, I managed to get through immigration without any problems (still don’t know how, though). Also, I think that I am somehow meant to run into the weirdest of all grab drivers. A while ago I’ve had a car ride to the KL airport with a female driver who started to give me a private concert with the very best of the Backstreet Boys (the classics, not the new shit) and Mariah Carey (I clapped and cheered to make it less awkward for her. Although, giving it a thought right now I have to admit that me playing along might made it become exactly that). At Hanoi Airport I happened to run into the next grab driver with a special love for music. He had a huge screen placed on the dashboard showing me the very best ballads of a Vietnamese singer (always accompanied by women looking dramatically towards the horizon while shedding a tear or two). After half an hour of live performances in an empty disco room singing different songs that in all honesty sounded like the same song being played over and over again, I finally got dropped off in front of my hotel. And yes, this time I picked a hotel, because all of the hostels were either fully booked or didn’t have single Rooms. With my tonsillitis and cough I didn’t want to be around people and risking them to get sick, too (you’re welcome).

On the first day of my Hanoi experience I got introduced to phở gà, a traditional breakfast chicken noodle soup (you can also have it with Beef in it), mainly served with fresh limes that you can add for a more sour taste. It became my favorite dish in Vietnam. Another thing they are good at is coffee. I mean Hanoi is not Seattle (or everywhere in Italy) but their coffee is by far the best I’ve tasted in South East Asia. For example they serve Cà phê trứng aka. egg coffee (I know, I know it sounds awful! I was sceptical at first, too) which is a coffee made with condensed milk, sugar and egg yolk. It tastes like tiramisú, a big reason why I fell in love with it. Coconut iced coffee aka. Cà Phê Cốt Dừa is the other delicousness I’ve had the chance to try. It’s coffee with sweetened condensed milk, coconut milk, coconut pulp and ice cubes. I don’t have to tell you that my caffeine level went through the roof. Totally worth it…

phở gà
Cà phê trứng
Cà Phê Cốt Dừa

Traffic in Hanoi is crazy! If you ever want to have worse near death experiences than in Bali and be exposed to terrible exhaust fumes… here’s the place to knock yourself out! The best choice of transportation is a motorbike/scooter and they basically drive on both sides of the roads. If you ever have time, sit in a café and observe the streets. You’d be surprised what they are able to stack on a small scooter. Families of 5 plus 2 dogs, 3m long wooden slats or a complete fruit market for example. Fascinating when you consider that I can’t even get my few belongings into my backpack without having a fight with the zipper for several minutes. On the other hand there is something really calming about observing the traffic, a symbiosis of chaos and harmony. And while I’m talking about the vivid streets I have to tell you about how stores work. There are specific streets for any purpose. For example there’s a single street only for pots, pans and kitchen utensils or one street for party decorations. It’s hilarious and yet so useful, if you’re looking for something specific to buy or an easy way to get beers or coffee… there’s always one specific street for it.

As I remembered that C., an american friend I’ve been in the same hostel in Siem Reap with, was currently in Hanoi, too, I gave him a shoutout and we’ve met up for some Bánh mì (a sort of Baguette Sandwich), walked around the streets of Hanoi and ended up in train street, one of the most picturesque places here. It’s a very narrow street with train tracks, where several times a day a Train used to pass through. There’s a special trick involved to get on that street because, since it’s not allowed to walk on train tracks, it’s being controlled by police officers. However, on the other end of the street, there are some people behind a barrier telling you it’s prohibited to get on the tracks. At first, it made no sense at all and we kept wondering how tourists still managed to walk around there. Here’s how it works: if you want to walk on train street and take photos, you’d have to go with one of the café owners (the ones who stand behind the barrier and tell you not to pass), order a drink and after that you can do whatever you please, as long as you watch out for the police officer.

After a fine afternoon, I went back to my place, where I was really hoping for a good nap. You might know, that things happen to me and here’s a Story for you… I was falling asleep when I heard a loud siren. I opened the door to the hallway and noticed that it was coming from the hotel, it was the fire alarm. Well, still too young to burn to death, I went downstairs and closed my door. Apparently, I didn’t have my key with me. Downstairs I was told, that it was a false alarm, just a moron Smoking on the hallway. Well, as it turns out, I’m a moron,too. Confessing that I forgot the key while storming out I was hoping for them to give me the spare key. The friendly lady assured me that they would send me someone to open the door with the key for me. About 10 minutes later a janitor walks in with around 200 keys on a keychain. So far looking very promissing – spoiler alert: No, it wasn’t! He looked at my door, looked at all the keychain with billions of keys (slightly exaggerating here) and mumbled something in vietnamese, before leaving me in front of my still closed door for some minutes. He then came back with a thin metal bar and no keys and started smashing it into my door. Basically he broke into my room like a criminal and completely fucked up my door. Lovely! Between the loud hammering my brain tried to figure out how the hell they did their housekeeping, if they couldn’t find at least one spare key. But hey, how dare I ask myself these stupid questions… Door finally open again, I got in and noticed that now I was inside but couldn’t lock the door anymore. However it worked in the evening when I decided to meet C. again at his hostel… Just gave the door a very enthusiastic pull that shook throughout the whole hotel and voilà (By the way story didn’t end there. The following day I reported that due to this incident my door got destroyed by the janitor and that it would be impossible to lock it without risking further damage. Of course the nice lady would tell me that they’d fix it. They did, door still looked like it’s been part of a crime Scene, though. In the end they even thanked me for reporting that the door miraculously lost the ability to be locked. It was hilarious)!

Without a nap and all stressed out about what they did to my door and how I was going to explain this at the check-out, I got to C.’s hostel, where I met two of his dorm mates. Of course also there I first had to excuse myself for my innocent non-corona cough. Not sure what to do, we’ve decided to join the pub crawl. Funny, weird and disturbing Things happened that night. A whole group of about 20-30 people in Banana pants, Banana hats and Banana shirts, a guy dancing in his hoodie (with what felt like 40°C on the dancefloor) while having the biggest and also creepiest smile on his face, a pole that invited people to do stuff I don’t even want to put into words (men as well as women), singing until we had no voice and endless dancing (+ C.’s fist waving dance move, we should name it!). God, how I’ve missed to move myself to no matter what kind of music with my eyes closed and every cell of my body responding to the melodies surrounding me, being present in the very moment with all my senses. Life is so good, I mean, I’m in fucking Vietnam, I’m doing what I’ve always felt I needed to do and it gives me so much energy and positivity.

Next day’s heading is best entitled as “the sore throat hell”. American C. took a bus to leave Hanoi some hours after the Pub crawl, so I was left with British C., who turned out to be my personal care giver, as I was getting sicker and sicker (wasn’t very clever to dance and sing all night long with swollen tonsils). Basically the remaining days I gave my body some rest to heal and get better but still managed to do some sightseeing.

Halong Bay

After hearing that some Islands were shut down for foreigners, we were very happy to hear, that it was possible to book a 1-day-cruise around Halong Bay. With my cold finally getting better (thanks to my dear friend C.!! I am still not over the fact you even talked to me considering how terrible I must have looked, not to mention my terrible cough) it was the perfect excursion to escape the loud and air polluted city and set foot into nature. I’ve missed the sea, one of my sources of energy and narrator of all the good stories. Basically every cruise they offer you has the same structure. They pick you up at the hotel/hostel, drive you to the Harbour to get on the boat. You’ll be then served a seafood lunch and then you visit a cave, hike or go swimming and then you go back. To be honest I did not care about the lunch nor the cave. However sitting on the upper deck of the boat, let me tell you, seeing all these little islands, the water, a mixture of different shades of green and blue… it is magical! We’ve been told the best time to visit Halong Bay is September when it’s sunny. Who cares, it was pretty cloudy and windy and I didn’t mind it. You have to take things as they come.

Getting a cold and tonsillitis wasn’t what I was aiming for during the trip, but that’s life, it had a purpose. My body maybe wanted to tell me to slow down and focus on myself, now that my trip was coming to an end (it’s actually just a break due to corona panic everywhere and some things I have to take care of). Focusing on what I’ve learned and what I’ve been through, what I’ve seen and experienced and what shaped me and my way of thinking, reacting to and interacting with other souls.

Vietnam, thank you for kind and constantly smiling souls, beautiful memories, new friendships and for your immense hospitality. Also for being the first country during my south east asia journey that had strong coffee that I didn’t have to get from a western overpriced coffee place. Oh and for chicken noodle soup!!

Stay safe wherever you are, you are always loved and never alone. Keep smiling, because life is beyond good, even if you might not feel it right now. God is good.

Yours always,

ElinaAria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

Siem Reap – dust, tuktuk and Angkor what?!

Angkor – home of Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction Angkor Wat. It was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, which ruled the region during at the time and contains hundreds of temples. A national pride to the people who are still struggling with the traumatic past. The most famous temple of the complex is Angkor Wat (Angkor what?!). Encompassing an area of around 200 hectares and originally a Hindu temple that was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments worldwide and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

With only 3.5h of sleep and meeting at 4:30 outside of the hostel – oh and without any coffee!!!! – some people from the hostel and me drove to Angkor by tuktuk. I didn’t expect it to be this cold, after walking around KL at 5am and for it to still be around 30°C. Spoiler alert: my cold came back accompanied by tonsillitis – Yay!

After buying the ticket (1 day for 37 USD, 3 days for 62) the driver took us to a place right in front of Angkor Wat temple to watch the sunrise. It was very crowded due to one of the two ponds being closed at the moment. Shortly after arriving and finding a good spot the sky started changing. Different shades of violet and pink suddenly turned the black sky into a colorful scenery. Unfortunately lots and lots of cameras and phones were blocking the view as they were all trying to get that perfect shot.

As I’d purchased the one day pass I tried to see as many temples as possible. It might have been the lack of sleep but I have trouble to remember them all by name. The ones I do remember 100% were: Bayon and Baphuon, Preah Khan, Prasat Neak Pean, Ta Phrom, Neak Poan, Ta Som, Banteay Srei and Pre Rup for sunset.

Bayon Temple

Though the sun was tirelessly shining on us and we walked around all day I must admit that at the end of the day I was exhausted but more than content to have been able to see this mystical historic beauty. I definitely recommend Angkor to everyone who’s planning on going to Cambodia! You won’t regret it.

Whenever you make your way to the temple you will always walk across a little market or food stand or people will try and sell you postcards and magnets. Unfortunately you’ll see a lot of small children, too. I know it’s what the parents do to get more money from tourists out of pity. But isn’t it a grotesque to walk around with your big cameras and the newest phones while you try to shake off barefoot 3- to 5-year-olds who want to sell you 10 postcards for 1$?! I knew these things would be presented to me and I know that it’s something you should ignore as a tourist in order to not encourage the children’s parents with their behavior but they are kids!! It’s tragic and the poverty shook me to the mark.

Same feeling occurred when seeing mine victims with amputated legs or arms crawling around the dirty streets to get some money or even when they were playing traditional music at the entrances of some of the temples. Knowing someone in the family with an amputation and working in the medical field it left me speechless how many people were affected by the war and how they still can’t afford any help or prosthetics. I guess these are the sides of a country that aren’t shiny and glorious but need to be mentioned as well as the beautiful picturesque ones.

Stay safe wherever you are and keep smiling. Life is good – god is good!

Yours always,

Elina Aria aka. ChickenMonkeyBackpacking

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