Kyoto – My last day

The last day arrived way to fast. I had the train booked back to Tokyo at 3pm and the flight back home at 8pm. Soo, plenty of time to get a full day of sight-seeing in. Right?

Since I had since recovered almost entirely from my foot and the jet lag, I was motivated to hop on the bus and visit yet another temple. The Nanzen-Ji temple that i had missed on my first day due to left-righ-issues. It was a good decision, even if I had seen plenty of other temples over the last four days, this temple from the 13th century, is still very nice. The “highly recommended” little shrine at a source a bit up in the mountains, turned out to be totally oversold. But the path up was quite cute and I was happy to have gone, even though not particularly because of the shrine. It showed me, once again, that the Japanese have a very relaxed relationship to their old holy buildings. Resting their red plastic shovel, against an old lantern or leaving the blue plastic bucket in the moss covered fountain. Another “first” for me were the steaming roofs. Due to the rain the night before, the roofs were completely soaked and the sun hitting them now, made steam rise into the air. At first I was a bit concerned, but I quickly realised that it must be normal. 

The next visit was  going to be a temple I had already seen. The Yasuka-shrine. The previous evening we had had dinner at a very lovely, small, Japanese bar with great staff and customers who wanted us to experience as much Japanese culture as we possibly could. They started by serving us Ginko nuts. They were delicious! Finally something these smelly trees are good for.

Then they told us, that the next day was culture day. That’s right. Japan has a national holiday that promotes culture, the arts and academics. I think that’s awesome. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn honor of this day, there would be plenty of cultural activities throughout the city and, in particular, there would be a traditional dance on the plaza of the yasuka shrine at noon. I couldn’t miss that!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo I was on my way to the Yasuka-shrine and I was running late. Almost 20 minutes and I was starting to worry that I would miss the spectacle. But the most incredible thing happened (for Japan) and the presentation ran late! I arrived at half past noon, just in time to see the celebration start. Of course, I had to stand at the back and I was a bit sad about that, because I wasn’t sure I would get a good look. Until I realised that I had a completely clear line of sight..

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Sometimes it’s good to be tall!

 

The national holiday also brought out the beautiful kimonos, of course, and a lot of street food. One last chance to try octopus on a stick, the fish shaped pastries and the little balls filled with octopus. I wanted to try it all, but I couldn’t possibly eat more.

A bit sad, but also very satisfied with all I had seen and lived, I boarded the bullet train and started my way home.

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Kyoto – Fushimi Inari Taisha

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the pulsing life in Tokyo it took me a few days to truly calm down and get the mood (of some) of the zen temples. The first one where I really felt relaxed was, ironically, not just a buddhist temple but also a shinto one. Unfortunately it was also my second to last day in Kyoto.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I think a part of it was also that I felt like I had to hurry to see it all and this day was more of “let’s check what’s left on the map and go look at” that day. Unfortunately it was also the only day where it was really raining, so I found out the hard way that neither my (winter) shoes nor my (rain) jacket are actually water proof. Luckily, it wasn’t very cold, so being soaked wasn’t a life threatening or even health threatening problem.
In actuality the day started of quite poorly. I had organised to meet a friend in front of Fushimi Inari Taisha, the large shinto shrine on a hill in southern Kyoto. Unfortunately my internet access was sketchy and I didn’t get his email from 2am that he wouldn’t make it by 9, let’s meet at 9:30. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAQuite the contrary, I was up early and arrived 15min ahead of time at the train station. After waiting for 45min, I decided that he wouldn’t be coming and made my way  from the train station to the temple. Effectively missing him by 1 or 2 minutes. The wait did pay off in so far as I could, once again, watch the temple workers leave their prayer hall and walk through the rain to their buildings. Sheltered by pretty bamboo umbrellas. The shrine itself is very similar to other shinto shrines you may have seen, and as all these places in Japan, it’s bustling with life (and tourists) even when it’s raining. After having taking a tour around the buildings, I attacked the climb on top of the hill. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the true attraction of Fushimi Inari Taisha. The path up the hill takes roughly 40min and leads to thousands of Tori gates. Smaller and larger ones and several occasions the paths split up. As the path is uphill, it is a bit tiresome to walk it. This means that the further you go the fewer people you see. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe further up you go, the better the view onto Kyoto is as well and so it came that I was standing on a step looking out over Kyoto and, surprisingly, my friend who had correctly figured that if he walked up the hill fast enough he would eventually catch up to me!

We walked up the remainder of the stairs together and inspected every shrine and cemetery on the way in detail, though I only figured out on the way back down that the cemeteries were actually cemeteries when my friend pointed this out to me. I was just looking at them as mystical places which gained their beauty from the contrasting bright red of the gates and the dark green of the wet moss. They needed no more reason to exist.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent the entire morning in the areal of the temple and took way too many photos.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Afterwards we had to decide what to do.. I had had my mind set on visiting an Ontsen, relaxing in the hot water, doing nothing. But there’s little fun in going to an Ontsen together, if you’re not allowed to actually be in the same bathtub afterwards. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo we looked around. There was one temple close by, that was being recommended as “not so overrun, but very pretty”. The Tofuku-ji . We decided to stop by and it was a real treat. The vast complexed offered several large buildings and three beautiful raked gardens. Some of the prettiest that I had seen in Kyoto, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERApossibly because they were actually quite new and modern, only a hundred years old. They were quite modern in a certain sense, incorporating some stone steles and a check pattern in moss and gravelstones. Possibly, however, it was also due to the somewhat more creative raking in the gardens. I don’t know if this was due to the rain or just coincidence, but most of the gardens showed the concentric circles overlaid on top of the straight lines. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor me this clearly symbolised rain and I thought it a very nice touch. The last thing in the temple compound we visited was a long, covered bridge, from which you could look down onto a tiny streamlet of water and the autumn foliage turning red. After spending many hours in temple relaxing and gettnig in touch with our inner self, we decided that the next thing to do was some more shopping.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Our street ended in the small streets of the food-quarter of Kyoto, where we took a look at the nice lanterns and then walked 20min straight away from it, to leave this high-class foot quarter and find something that we could actually afford. In the end we found a small, very lovely restaurant that made it their task to have us try local specialities recommending us the seasonal items, such as ginko nuts that I’ve never seen on a menu for and likely won’t see again either.

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Kyoto – Arashiyama

               The next day I attacked west Northern & Western Kyoto.. While the main sights are all concentrated in Higashiyama, there’s still a few very nice temples and sights that are distributed all over the city. The first temple I visited was the golden pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) whose real name is Rokuonji. This led to a short moment of confusion on my part, as I had failed to realise that “golden pavilion” obviously not the name of a temple, but just a popular way to describe it.
The golden pavilion, contrary to the silver pavilion is actually covered in thin gold foil and mirrors beautifully in the lake surrounding it. Nowadays the two upper levels are covered in gold after a mad monk burnt the pavilion down in 1950 and it was decided for the reconstruction that the two upper levels would now be covered in gold, not just the upper most. It is hard to make two steps without wanting to contemplate the new perspective onto the lake & the pavilion. However, it is also hard to take two consecutive steps due to the masses stampede through the lower part of the temple. Actually, traffic must be so bad at peak times that all paths are one way streets and you’re lead on a big loop through the gardens from which you can not deviate. Luckily for me, I arrived in the somewhat early morning and while the main spot for viewing the temple was quite busy, the path itself was in no way packed (but also no way empty). The none-emptiness was of benefit to me as I would’ve been unable to identify the carp trying to swim up a waterfall in the gardens (pictured on the side) if there hadn’t been a guide conveniently standing next to it, explaining his tourists what it was. From Rokuonji I continued on to Ryoanji. There I was surprised that this temple is actually called Ryoanji as well, there’s no method to the naming at all! It is famous for its gardens, as are many of the temples in Kyoto. It is also very old, the first temple dating back to the Heian period about 1000 years ago.
Most temples have two typical styles of gardens: One being what we traditional expect of a garden, gras, trees and landscaping designed in a way that the garden incorporates seamlessly the mountains in the distance. You can’t see the temple walls and get the impression of a vast garden, even if it may just be a few square meters. Ryoanji doesn’t just have a few square meters. It has 120 acres and a giant pond in the front where the autumn colours where in full blow. The second type of garden you will typically see in a Japanese temple is the rock garden. Where a number of large boulders are placed into sand, expressing something deeper that eluded me. The sand or gravel is then raked into forms depending on the mood and day. I must admit that the traditional zen gardens did not really impress me much. I guess the deeper meaning mostly eluded me and I appreciated the ‘modern’ interpretations a lot more than the traditional ones. Another thing that was particular about Ryoanji was that one was actually allowed to take pictures of the paper walls inside the temple. Something that is forbidden in most temples or more or less impossible due to poor lighting.
From there I went to Arashiyama, where I would visit Tenryu-ji Temple, the bamboo gardens and the walk through the woods and a small village to the next bus stop.Luckily my foot was mostly recovered by then. The temple offered a lovely garden, incorporating the mountains in the background as scenery for the turquoise pond which featured some huge, hungry kois. Towards the back of the garden, grew the bamboo forest. I must admit that I was never a big fan of the bamboo forest, already when I saw it at other temples. I had been ready to skip it, in case I didn’t feel well, but I went ahead and walked through it. It was a good decision, the bamboo itself isn’t particularly spectacular, but it gives you a good idea of your own smallness, when you consider just how much this gras outgrew you. The path leading from the forest to toriimoto was also very pretty. Something that is no secret and so I was accompanied by many people along the way and, apparently, even Japanese try to take advantage of their tourists. Roughly at the half way point, I came across a sign telling us, that solicitation is illegal and waiting around until someone shows up that can be solicited as well.. I had barely passed the sign, I saw the first people waiting at a corner, trying to convince people to grab a tea in their ‘garden lounge’.
The path ended in a lovely little village consisting almost entirely of wooden houses, many of which had since turned into shops. I stopped at one and bought some chop sticks. While calculating the price the shop owner shorted himself by almost 1000 yen (roughly $10), so I pointed out that the price is wrong. The emotions displayed on his face where quite scary: First came the disbelief that I would be so rude as to point this out, then the shame at others thinking he’ would abuse a tourist, then the worry about what to do if he hadn’t been mistaken and I was going to start an argument over the price and finally the demure somewhat submissive attitude, that you find a lot in Japan. I felt quite bad to put him through such a range of emotions over a mistake that would’ve benefited me. He recalculated the price on his calculator, showing me every step and I could feel how eager he was for me to agree with everything. When he saw that the final price was higher than the original one, he gave me a broad smile and I firmly believe that the original scare was quickly forgotten.

He thanked me profoundly for pointing out the mistake (or so I assume as I don’t speak Japanese) and I left his shop to continued my shopping. This I did in Kyoto’s large central market, the historic center today still sells food in form and consistency that leave me without the slightest idea what it might have been originally. I walked past with fascination and looked at all the marinated and breaded items that I couldn’t quite identify.. I did, however, not dare to try them. Mostly because I could not make out whether the food could be eaten as it was or still needed to be cooked.

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Kyoto – Northern Highashiyama

The afternoon I went out to follow the philosopher’s path in northern Higashiyama. But first I wanted to visit the two large temples Naznen-ji and Eikando. Due to my awesome sense of orientation however, I missed Nanzen-ji and ended up directly at the Eikando temple. This was a real treat, the leaves were already changing colours and the gardens were laid out beautifully with lots of lakes and small turquoise rivers. The individual buildings were connected by small covered wooden paths, that wide from one to another. From there, I originally wanted to head for lunch, however the lines ended up being too long, so I skipped lunch and continued on to the philosopher’s path.

Unfortunately I had hurt my foot in the morning and was limping quite badly by the time I reached the path. I was also in a hurry because I didn’t know when the temples at the end of the path would close and didn’t want to miss it. This is a typical case where less would’ve been more. Instead I tried to ignore the pain and rush down the path, which certainly took my focus away from the view and onto the pain and, I must admit, I was also a bit disappointed.

The philosopher’s path came highly recommended by friends an family for its peaceful atmosphere and enjoyable views. But I think, I visited at the worst possible time, though. Most of the leaves of the bushes had already lost all their leaves, but the trees hadn’t gotten their fall colours yet. It was a mix of browns and some green mostly. In particular in the first half. If I had been able to stroll, it probably would’ve been nice still.

There’s certainly a lot of people strolling on the path. There’s artists sitting on the benches and bridges drawing and the water is flowing in a small canal next to it. The entire business with my foot was very unlucky, especially since I still don’t know how I hurt it, it just suddenly started in the bus. I did, however, also get lucky on several occasions that day. First, I did arrive at Yasuka shrine to see the end of a procession and all the monks (I’m assuming that’s what they were) and temple workers filing through the court yard, for me to observe and enjoy and then, on the philosopher’s path, I did a small detour into  … temple and just as I arrived a newly wed couple exited the temple, giving me the opportunity to see what a Japanese bride & groom look like. Not something I did expect to have the fortune to see.The temple itself was pretty, but not exceptionally so. What made it special to me is that I was almost by myself once the couple had left. It was very peaceful.

At the end of the path is a temple with a silver pavilion. The last of the main sights in Higashiyama. The real name of the temple is …, but mostly it is known as the silver pavilion. So, given this name, I was kind of expecting a silver pagoda. However the name is purely describing the intentions of the builder, not the actual reality. Therefore the pagoda is covered in a simple layer of white paint and the silver was deemed unnecessary. In reality the story goes as follows:

The shogun (the de facto leader of Japan, the emperor was just a puppet) Ashikaga Yoshimasa wanted to build a relaxing house for his retirements. He had a plan to cover the pavilion with a silver foil once it was finished building. Due to several unforeseen events (meaning wars) the building process was delayed and he died before the silver foil was applied. His successor did not see much of a reason to finish the expensive covering and therefore the temple today is as Yoshimasa last saw it. With no silver attached.

And finally, after that, I could have lunch. Sure, by now it was almost 5pm, but the long lines at the restaurants I had passed, had been so discouraging, that I had put off eating until the end of the sightseeing. It was the right decision (if you ignore my growling stomach), as I got a place right away in a small noodle shop, that had been recommended by my guide.

The noodle soup was exquisite and very nicely presented too in a ‘make your own soup’ kind of way: I got the clear soup, the noodles in a separate bowl and an entire plate of different ingredients to add to my soup as I prefered.

I was advised to not just make one soup, but rather put a few noodles with 2-3 ingredients into the bowl and eat that. Then repeat with a different selection. In that way I had ginger-sesame soup, eggplant-muhsroom soup, onion, sesame, radish soup and so on.

Kyoto – South Higashiyama

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From Tokyo, I took the bullet train to Kyoto. After arriving at the train station late at night, I rushed into a full day of sightseeing the next morning. My first stop was the Higashiyama district which hosts many of the best known temples in Kyoto.

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I had read that those well-known temples would be very busy during the day, so that it would be good to visit, for example, Kiyomizudera in the early morning.

Arriving at the bus stop ( After 40min of travel during rush hour.. full buses are not fun), I saw the small road leading up to the temple. While the shops weren’t open yet, the visitors sure were up.  School class after school class seemed to walk by while I stared in amazement. It would definitely not be a lonely or isolated experience.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Kiyomizudera has existed over a thousand years, even if the temple in today’s form was ‘only’ build some 400 years ago.

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The name of the temple means “pure water temple” and describes the spring on the temple grounds whose water is supposed to give you a long life. Given the line, I did not stop to drink of that water so I will never know if it would’ve brought me long life or not.

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I’ll just have to hope for the best. The most famous view onto the temple shows it from slightly below, exposing the large wood trunks that hold up the six story high terrace.

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The best view from the temple is probably from said terrace out onto a little pagoda and then Kyoto. While I did find the tempel structure imposing, I did not stay long due to the large crowds and the fact that part of the temple is being renovated and closed. From Kiyomizudera I went on down the streets of Higashiyama, into Sannen-Zaka, a very cute little street with plenty of old houses and, I got very lucky, some real Geishas, or Geikos as they’re called in Kyoto out for a stroll.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFollowing the street you cross many temples, too many to visit, but I did stop at Kodai-ji temple, built slightly before Kiyomizudera by a woman mourning her husband.

The temple is quite small, but has a nice dragon picture on the ceiling in the main hall and I saw my first raked zen garden there. It also has extensive gardens with a nice little covered path going up to the traditional house in an elevated position. On the other side of the street, there is the Entokuin temple, which is joint to the Kodai-ji temple and features more nice gardens. Though I must say that, while I enjoyed visiting them that first day, I liked some of the later temples’ gardens a lot more than these.

 

 

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Continuing down the street leads you directly to the Maruyama park and the Yasaka-shrine, my first shinto schrine. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, in Kyoto at least. It is still a place of worhip and very busy at all days of the week. I returned to it on Tuesday, as they had special events for the national holiday and saw some traditional japanese dancing there, which was very cool but also very slow for dancing. From there, my last stop in the morning was to be Chion-in. I arrived at the lower entry and looked at the gian gate. What an impressive sight! And, contrary to Kiyomizudera, much less crowded even though it’s another of the top sights.

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I was soon to find out why,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the main temple hall and gardens are currently partially or entirely blocked due to renovations. The main hall, can’t even be seen because they’ve built a large metal box around it for the duration of the renovation. It was a bit unfortunate. The same will be true for Kiyomizudera soon. Right now, one of the neighbouring halls is already being renovated and the main hall, with the terrace is going to be renovated in the coming years. So make sure to check what’s open before you go.