Japan 2015 - Kashihara Shrine and Mount Yoshino

Today I left my hosts in the morning to embark on my own on the Japanese train system! My mission was to make my way to Mount Yoshino, which is a nice climb with beautiful views of the sakura which are in blossom this week and probably only this week for the whole year (good timing, eh?). On the way to Yoshino I would be passing through Kashiharajingu (Kashihara Shrine) which is my Japanese teacher's local shrine so I wanted to stop there too and look around. The trains were super easy to use, once you'd figured out the ticket buying machines. You have to know the fare amount in advance, and then you just hit the button for that amount and the machine accepts any denomination of money and gives you the change. Your ticket just gets scanned on entry and then when you get off, no matter how many transfers you do on the way. Every station works the same, and the names are written in English as well as Japanese so it's really easy.
My first stop was Kashiharajingu, the shrine my Japanese teacher visits from her home. Nara (the region I'm in right now) was like the original capital of Japan or something, so it has a lot of ancient history and is just completely littered with shrines and temples of all sizes. Like literally every street and path has little wooden shrines of varying grandiosity. But Kashiharajingu was a big shrine, if not on the same order as Nara Park where I went yesterday. It had grounds with various areas, and as I entered I noticed some strangely dressed people doing some sort of ceremony. I thought it might be a wedding or something, but I'm not sure. It was interesting to watch, anyway, and a stroke of luck that it was all going on just as I sauntered in at 10am.
To be honest it would probably have been a bit of a boring stop (though it's a nice place and it was interesting to see where my Japanese teacher lives) if not for seeing that ceremony and a kendo competition being held right in the middle of the grounds! Kendo is a Japanese martial art with swords, a bit like fencing but with heavy wooden swords. There was a large crowd of kids and teenagers all dressed up in their gear, and parents hovering around cheering them on.
After spending an hour wandering around Kashiharajingu, I headed back to the train station to take the 1-hour journey to Mount Yoshino. The journey there on the train was interesting as we passed through increasingly rural Japan. There was all sorts to see out of the window, tree-covered hills, settlements of different sizes with their many shrines, people tending to allotments, houses amongst all the hodgepodge of different building styles that looked more like miniature ancient temples with elaborate gardens, and inside the train I was amused to watch the operator bowing every time he entered or left the carriage on his way up and down. Eventually I reached Yoshino, which had been recommended by my hosts as being a nice trip worth it for the views of the cherry blossoms. I forewent (is that a word?) the convenient cable car in favour of slogging up the initial steep walk to reach Yoshino town from the station. The views were indeed beautiful.
There were lots of tourists around and the town, which is sort of clinging to the mountain side along various paths, was full of vendors peddling their wares. Everything seemed to be crazy expensive, so I mostly just looked, except to buy a couple of cheap wooden spinning toy things for Ryuusei and Taku. There was all sorts of food for sale, and I mostly either had no idea what it was or knew what it was and had no intention of eating it - like the stall that was selling whole fish, grilled and skewered and on display next to a tank of their happily swimming brothers.
There were lots of little shrine areas of historic significance up there, and I took a lot of photos before it started to rain pretty heavily in the afternoon. It was very zen wandering around on my own, visiting all these quiet areas all set up to be peaceful and enlightening or whatever.
I was getting pretty hungry by this point, but all the cafes and restaurants were intimidating with their foreign menus and what looked like traditional Japanese seating with short tables and cushions to sit on and a porch where you leave your shoes. Eventually I walked beyond the crowded area and found a restaurant with no customers and thought, hell, they're probably desperate enough to humour a gaijin. I approached the lady at the entrance (every store and stall has someone politely greeting and nodding to everyone who walks past) and declared "Sumimasen! Sen yen ga arimasu!" which means "Excuse me! I have 1000 yen!". I didn't want to get fleeced with some insanely priced, unnecessarily fancy dish after all. She was very happy to suggest something she thought I'd like and explained in a little English that it would have chicken and egg in it. I had to take off my shoes and sit on the tatami flooring like a proper Japanese person, and she served me tea and brought me a very lovely lunch.
Shortly after that I made my slow and winding way back down to the bottom of the mountain and back to civilization. I walked from my final station stop to my host's house without any trouble, and with a "Tadaima!" I was back to entertaining three lively kids. I spent my last evening with them playing games and eating a nice dinner of chicken curry and broccoli salad, and helped Ryuusei beat world 2 on his Mario game which he'd been stuck on.

Tomorrow I'm off to Osaka to spend the day in the big city, and will be all by myself trying to find my various destinations and overnight accommodations! Ganbatte!

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