Memorable Kyoto: 8.10.2013

Today has been incredible, and I’m so excited about the fact that it was all possible because of couch surfing. It was a wonderful chance to spend time with new friends and end our time in Kyoto on a high.

Karim, Jacob and I all woke up feeling pretty gnarly after last nights mammoth ramen; all that oil, fat and salt left us dehydrated and with grumbling stomachs – even Yudai and Hiroki felt a bit rough around the edges. We attempted to remove the garlic taste from our mouths with copious amounts of toothpaste and breath mints and empty our stomachs of those ramen demons; that noodly beast left us feeling as though we’d had a big night out on the booze… in reality, it had been a big night out on noodles, bean shoots, garlic, stock and chunky fat. I’m still not sure what’s worse for the body….

It’s Yudai’s day off today so the four of us are spending it together exploring this amazing city and it’s surrounds. First stop was Doshisha Univeristy – Yudai’s University – where we had the opportunity to see what a Japanese university looks like; in particular, how amazing a Japanese university food hall is. With all of us still suffering as a result of last night’s ramen explosion, we passed on the food and took advantage of the free water.

Semi-hydrated, we moved on from Doshisha and took a bus to Nijo Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage castle that is famous here in Kyoto… and probably in Japan now that I think of it. The castle was very beautiful and pretty spectacular, really. I was certainly impressed, but then again, I’m always impressed by Japanese architecture. It’s pretty awesome.
We spent a while wondering through the castle and the surrounding gardens; it was beautiful and we had a lot of fun taking photographs and strutting about in our little group, even if it did start to rain a little.

Following on from Nijo Castle, we headed by bus to Shijo Street again where we had lunch – wait for it… not at Yoshinoya!… Instead we went to Karim’s budget Japanese food chain of choice, Sukiya, where meals are similar in both price and content to that of Yoshinoya. I ordered the usual beef bowl but was evidently still too full from the ramen to eat it.

Another bus ride took us out of Kyoto to  the suburb of Arashiyama, which is a pretty spectacular place and probably good for at least a half-day visit, if not a full day. Unfortunately we’d arrived pretty late in the afternoon and had just enough time to visit the beautiful bamboo forest area and take a short stroll around the area. Judging from the number of temples and sights to see on the tourist map, the many cute shops and the countless beautiful looking food stalls and eateries, you could really go to town here. If I wasn’t dying as a result of ramen poisoning or on a tight-ass budget, I may have treated myself to some hand-made yuba tofu… or a green tea ice cream… or maybe even a mix of the two – who’s to say?

As a group, the four of us had a lot of fun. There was always something to talk about or laugh about, a stupid pose to be made in front of someone’s camera and a lesson to be learned. We had great conversation and it was brilliant to explore Kyoto with new found friends. It’s fantastic being able to spend time with locals – it opens up this country to us in a completely different way, and I really am grateful for this opportunity.

As the sky turned to dark the four of us hopped onto another bus and traveled back to Kyoto, back to Shijo street, where we visited a traditional Kyoto sweet house and enjoyed more free tastings of yatsuhashi as well as bought a few as gifts.
Yudai took us a few doors down to visit a “plum shop” where we tried sour and sweet plums and plum juice that was oh so delicious!!! Again… if I wasn’t on a budget… Oh Japan, why must you always tempt me?

We walked through Pontocho street – the famous street in Gion – which was lit up and busy with people; the street lined with spectacular houses and traditional buildings, as well as many bars and restaurants with high, high prices. Looking out from Pontocho street over Kyoto’s Kamo River, we watched as couples sat along the banks – somehow leaving the same distance between each of the couples, making it quite a sight to see. It’s quite romantic really, and the sound of the river is beautiful at night…

Eventually night time got the better of us and we headed back to Yudai’s by bus, once again stopping by the supermarket for discounted sushi and instant cup noodle soups. We spent our last evening in Kyoto chatting and laughing; this couch surfing experience has been absolutely wonderful and we have really loved every moment of being here. Yudai has been such a wonderful, generous host and we couldn’t have had a better experience. As well as also having Karim to share it with, making a new friend whilst traveling is always a wonderful experience. It feels as though our travels have been made all the more richer through couch surfing and spending time with locals; whilst I’m sad we have to say goodbye to Yudai, Karim and Kyoto tomorrow, I’m so happy there’s more of this to come!

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The Ancient Cities: Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa – with lots of monkeys.

“Hello! Where from?”

Travelling on from Anuradhapura to Mihintale, a sacred area 13km away, we prepared ourselves in the early morning for a massive climb to the top of the Mihintale hill – a sacred area associated with the first introductions of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
This place is a really big deal; particularly for a nation whose state religion is Buddhism.

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

1843 (and the rest!) steps up, 4 hours and way too many scary monkeys later, we’d done an exhaustive climb whilst our guide had given us an equally exhaustive history lesson.

Cute from a distance

Cute from a distance

Standing at the very top, after climbing bare-footed up tiny steps carved into sheer rock, we looked out over the mountain whilst trying not to be blown away by huge gusts of wind. This is a place that looks damn good from up high – it’s good to be the king.

The final climb to the top

The final climb to the top

It's good to be the king!

It’s good to be the king!

….

Moving on from Anuradhapura and Mihintale, we took the local bus to Polonnaruwa – another ancient UNESCO heritage city, 3 or so hours drive away.
Oddly enough this bus ride was rather event-free; besides a few horn happy moments and a few too many pot holes, it was rather empty (only a few people had to stand for the journey) and the driver maintained a reasonably safe speed most of the time.
We’ve been making a list of all the different vendors who make their way through the buses here in Sri Lanka – it’s amazing what people sell, and how they go about selling things on the bus. Need a lottery ticket to get you through the journey? What about some faux-gold jewelry? If so, you’re in luck!

Traveling in comfort and style

Arriving into Polonnaruwa, we could barely make it off the bus before a tuk tuk driver had taken our backpacks and stuffed them into the tiny storage space behind the seats. You quite often don’t seem to get a choice – it can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your mood.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the Old Town area, stumbling upon an impromptu fresh market where the locals all yelled “hello” or tried to shake our hands. One man would not let go – things got a bit weird.

“Hello! Where from?” is a saying we are now very used to. Even more so, the response that follows our chorus of “Australia” is getting very predictable. It goes a little something like this:

Locals: Hello! Where from?
Us: Australia
Locals: Australia!…. Ah! Ricky Ponting!/ Shane Warne!/ Gilchrist!/ Ah! Good cricket!/ Ah, cricket team very bad in moment!/ “……….” (insert something cricket related here).

We have to smile. Thank goodness Jacob has an interest in Australian cricket and can hold up a conversation – I just sit there like a stunned mullet, smiling and nodding. I’d hate to confess to them that I actually hate cricket and have no interest, nor any idea of what the hell they are talking about… Who is this Shane Warne person they speak of? I thought he was just some guy who liked getting married a lot, or some guy they just decided to make a musical about.
They say ignorance is bliss – I guess if I have the choice between cricket and bliss, I know which one I prefer.

Our guest house, Leesha Tourist Home, served home-made dinner for the guests, and we enjoyed an incredible feast of traditional Sri Lankan curries and rice. I’ve been on – am on – the hunt for the “best vegetarian Sri Lankan curry” and so far, this place wins hands down. We spent our first night feasting, drinking Sri Lankan Lion beer and chatting with fellow travelers; it’s a hard life, but we love it, and someone’s got to do it.

Feast!

Feast!

We spent our only full day in Polonnaruwa exploring the ancient ruins and historic sites, marveling at the archeological wonders that have remained for more than a thousand years.

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

We walked through structures that had once belonged to royalty, our bare feet standing upon intricate stone carvings of elephants, horses, lions and bulls.

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

It was simply incredible.

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

We wandered about the sites, through old monastery complexes, around dagobas and amongst sacred crematorium.

A snippet of a Monastic Complex - 'Monk Cells' in Polonnaruwa

A snippet of a Monastic Complex – ‘Monk Cells’ in Polonnaruwa

The old Monastic Hospital was incredibly interesting to see; a medicinal trough still stands in place in one of the ‘rooms’ of the hospital, and the Polonnaruwa Archeological Museum displays many ancient surgical and medical tools found there during excavations.

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

And if these ancient sites couldn’t get any more stunning; we literally had the areas to ourselves. Where are the tourists? I wonder what this place will be like in years to come…

Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Spectacular Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Our time in Polonnaruwa was brief, but incredible. We saw an enormous amount in a short space of time, and furthermore, we managed to scrape through without any monkey bites – winning! (No need as of yet to carry a “monkey stick!”)

Next we’re off to Sri Lanka’s cultural capital Kandy, leaving the ancient cities behind us – but probably not the monkeys – they seem to be everywhere.

Snippets of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Our time in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, has been a brief but wonderful two days. We spent time exploring the ancient city on bike and by foot, and took in the spectacular sites of the enormous dagobas, temples, spiritual sites and ancient ruins.

Our slick wheels

Our slick wheels

Riding our bikes in the sweltering heat, we rode through the city centre – past people and animals, cars, buses, trucks and tractors. People were constantly smiling, waving and yelling “hello” as we passed them. The ride was often really peaceful: around rice fields and lotus ponds, through empty stretches of road and path, and past remnants of ancient monasterys and palaces. At other times, you could feel the breeze of the passing bus or truck as it honked and whizzed past, only centimeters away from our bikes.

Lotus Pond

Lotus Pond

We bought a ticket that allowed us entry into the historic areas, and spent time riding between each site on our maps.

Lankarama

Lankarama, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st Century BC

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st or 2nd Century centerpiece of monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery – a ruined 9th Century school for monks

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery – 8th Century guard stones

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Thuparama Dagoba - constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

Thuparama Dagoba – constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

The Royal Palace, Citadel - 12th Century

The Royal Palace, Citadel – 12th Century

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba – 3rd Century

Cycling through the 'Buddhist Railing'

Cycling through the ‘Buddhist Railing’

Vessagiriya - Remains of cave monastery complex  (4th and 5th Century)

Vessagiriya – Remains of cave monastery complex (4th and 5th Century)

Isurumumiya Vihara - Rock Temple

Isurumumiya Vihara – Rock Temple

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Sri Maha Bodhi - the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Sri Maha Bodhi – the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba - (140 BC)

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba – (140 BC)