Kyoto (17 to 20 June 2024)

Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan for almost 1,100 years, from 794CE until the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869.

In the last days of WWII, it was at the top of the list of targets for the atomic bomb, but US Secretary of War, William Stimson had spent his honeymoon here and had fond memories of its ancient historical sites.  He insisted the city be spared and ultimately Nagasaki was chosen instead.

Lucky for Kyoto, and lucky for the zillions of tourists who flock here to see some of the 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, numerous Imperial villas, palaces and gardens, and the other pre-war historic buildings which remain intact.  It is widely considered Japan’s cultural capital.

There are so many heritage sites, you could spend weeks exploring them all, but temple fatigue would undoubtedly set in.  Better to choose a few across the spectrum of what’s available, and leave some time for modern activities as well.

Sooo, one Buddhist temple, one Shinto shrine, one Zen temple, one castle palace, one Shogunate villa, one rock garden.  Here we go.

Chion-in, which means Monastery of Gratitude, is the head temple of the Jodo-shu, one of the most popular Buddhist sects in Japan.  Enter via the massive Sanmon Gate.   Built in the 1600s, 24 metres tall, 50 metres wide.  It’s the largest surviving wooden temple gate in Japan.

Chion-in is very much a working temple.  When we were there, the main hall was packed with students attending an instruction session.  No pictures allowed inside – the Buddha is a sacred image.  But you can roam freely around most of the complex.

There’s a shrine to the God of Marriage.

The complex also has some lovely traditional gardens.

A view over Kyoto.

And Japan’s largest temple bell, commissioned in 1663 and weighing in at 74 tonnes.

Next, Yasui Konpira-gu, a quirky little Shinto shrine on the edge of the Gion district.

Here you’ll find the Enkiri power stone.  Enkiri is a Shinto concept of ‘severing the connecting threads of fate’.  This large stone is thought to have the power to bind good relationships tighter and bust bad ones apart.  It’s mostly about romantic pairings but can also apply to work relationships or even bad habits or addictions.

Believers write their wish for the relationship on a white paper amulet. Holding the paper, the supplicant crawls through the hole in the stone.  Front to back if they want to strengthen the relationship.  Back to front if they want to break it up.  Then they stick the paper to the rock with glue from a pot handily provided by the shrine.  There’s so many, it looks rather like an English sheepdog in need of grooming.

Cheaper than marriage guidance counselling no doubt.  But we found ourselves wondering what would happen if one spouse crawled through one way and the other did the opposite.

Kennin-ji is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, founded in 1202 by the priest who’s also credited with bringing tea seeds back from China and starting the ritual of the tea ceremony.

Inside, the temple has some particularly beautiful side screens and is famous for these ones of the Wind and Thunder Gods.

It’s also known for its ‘dry landscape’ gardens for which Zen is rightly famous.  In this garden form, plants or rocks are placed in a sea of small pebbles which are raked into linear patterns designed to facilitate meditation.

This impressive depiction of the Twin Dragons was installed on the ceiling of the main hall of the temple in 2002 to commemorate the temple’s 800th anniversary.  It’s hand drawn ink on paper, measures 11.4 x 15.7 metres and took the artist two years to complete.

Nijō Castle was completed in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns.  Ieyusu Tokugawa unified Japan after a long period of civil war.  His government lasted fifteen generations, one of the longest periods of stability in Japan’s history.

With its power finally waning, it was here in 1867 that the last Shogun handed power back to the Emperor as head of state.  The Imperial Court took over the castle, eventually donating it to the state in 1939.  It’s been open to the public ever since as a showcase of the Tokugawa Shogunate era.

The entrance gate is a stunner.

You can’t take photos inside the castle palace.  That’s probably in order to keep people moving through.  It’s one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist sites and even though we arrived shortly after opening time, it was already packed.

The corridors have ‘nightingale floors’ which squeak constantly as tourists shuffle along.  The sound is like a nightingale chirping and is caused by clamps in the floor moving against nails driven into the wooden columns supporting the roof.  The lighter you try to tread, the more they squeak.

We’ve read conflicting information about the floors.  Visitor info for Nijō says the sound is unintentional but at Chion-in it was said that the design is deliberate and is to reveal the presence of intruders.  We prefer the latter explanation.

The rooms are splendid.  Tatami floors and sliding side panels decorated with delicate paintings of animals, cherry trees, birds and other motifs.  We particularly liked the story of the Tiger Rooms.  Tigresses are depicted with both tiger and leopard cubs.  Neither existed in Japan and the images were copied from animal hides and oral descriptions, with a mix of cubs because it was believed a tiger would give birth to both.

Thankfully, the grounds are large enough that once you’re out of the castle building itself, it’s relatively uncrowded.  There’s some lovely gardens here.

Further out toward the hills, Kinkaku-ji, the ‘Temple of the Golden Pavilion’ was built as the retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in the late 1300s.  In accordance with his wishes, after his death it was converted to a Zen temple.  The top two tiers are completely covered in gold leaf.

It contains ashes revered as being some of those of the Buddha but visitors are not permitted to enter.  Like just about every temple in the world, it’s burned down several times over the years, most recently in 1950 when a fanatical monk set fire it to and then attempted to commit suicide on the hill behind. But like the mythical bronze phoenix on its roof, it rose from the ashes and in fact now is covered in thicker gold leaf than before.

This cypress tree in the temple grounds is believed to be over 600 years old.  Its name translates as ‘Land Boat Pine’.  Over decades, it’s growth was shaped around an elaborate bamboo frame so that it came to resemble a sailing boat.  Yoshimitsu believed that on his death he would go to the Pure Land, represented by the Golden Pavilion, and the ship-shaped tree symbolised the journey to get there.

It looked a lot more like a boat when this happy snap was taken back in 1904.

This stone under a waterfall in the gardens represents a carp swimming upstream.  When it gets to the top of the falls it will transform into a dragon.  Looked like something else entirely to us.

Ok, we lied.  Another Zen temple.  But this one is famous for its garden rather than the temple itself.  Ryoan-ji, the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, has what is widely considered to be one of the finest surviving dry landscape gardens in the world.

The rock garden here has been confounding visitors for centuries.   There are fifteen boulders laid out on patches of moss within a rectangle of white gravel measuring just 25 x 10 metres.  Apparently wherever you stand at least one of the boulders is always hidden from view.

It’s been attributed to a few different designers and different construction dates.  But no one knows with certainty who created it or what it means.  Some people, with far more imagination than us, think it represents a tigress carrying her cubs across a pond.   Others think there’s a hidden meaning that’s got something to do with the rules of equilibrium of odd numbers – whatever that means.

We think it’s a bit like the song, American Pie.  After being pestered for years to explain the lyrics, songwriter Don McLean said “It doesn’t mean anything”.  We like to imagine a Zen gardener spending the rest of his life chuckling at people tangling themselves in knots trying to find a meaning when actually he just randomly put fifteen rocks down and surrounded them with stones.  Not very Zen, but rather funny.

For us, the trickier question is exactly how they rake those circles and lines to perfection without stepping on some of it to get out.  Is it via a Tom Cruise Mission Impossible-style harness hanging from a high wire suspended over the garden?

Kyoto is one of only a few Japanese cities with an abundance of intact machiya, traditional merchants’ houses from the Imperial era.  The Higashiyama district is a good place to see them.

Two thoroughfares, Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka are lined with restaurants and shops in restored machiya.  It’s insanely popular and whilst the architecture might be ‘traditional’, the streets are a total tourist-oriented construct, complete with visitors playing dress up in hired kimonos.

When you tire of historical sites, Kyoto is crammed with opportunities for shopping, eating and nightlife.

Nishiki Market is known as Kyoto’s Kitchen.  It’s always packed with people and is much more commercialised than when we visited in 2012 but still worth a visit for the variety of snack foods and, our favourite, the massive variety of pickles.

This next photo is tako tomago, baby octopus with a quail egg inserted in its head.  What twisted mind thought of that?

Nishiki is surrounded by conventional shopping streets and arcades.  And if you are missing your fur babies while on holidays, there’s several cat cafes, a toy poodle cafe and even Mipig Cafe where you can cuddle micro pigs!

Gion is Kyoto’s famous entertainment district filled with ochaya, tea houses where geisha and maiko – apprentice geisha – perform for private clients.  You’d be lucky to spot a geisha in Gion these days.  But you might just see a maiko on her way to work.

More accessible for tourists are the yuka platforms which line the Kamo River, serving tempura, sushi, yakitori and other Japanese specialties well into the night.

Or Pontocho, a narrow alley whose origins as a food and entertainment destination date back to 1670.

Our last day in Kyoto.  John was completely templed out.  But with some cajoling, Julie managed to sneak in one final visit.  How can you skip a temple with 1,001 statues???

Sanjusangen-do, the Temple of 33 Bays, is unique for its hall filled with wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.  No photos allowed so we bought a set of postcards for these images.

There are 1,000 wooden statues of Kannon carved in the 1200s, each slightly different in dress, body shape and/or facial expression.

Twenty eight guardian deities line up in front protecting the Kannon, including the Thunder and Wind Gods worshipped for their ability to control the weather.

But wait, there’s more.  In the centre of the Kannon statues is the Thousand-armed Senju-Kannon.  Despite the name, he doesn’t actually have 1,000 arms.  In accordance with longstanding Indian Buddhist tradition, he has forty-two arms.  Two pressed together in prayer plus forty extras, each of which has the ability to save twenty-five worlds.  40 x 25 = 1,000.  So, really he should be called the Thousand and Two-armed Senju-Kannon.

Whatever way you look at it, that’s a lot of god bothering.  Sums up Kyoto, really.

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1 Comment

  1. Chris Cameron
    July 3, 2024 / 7:34 am

    So many beautiful temples and I loved the story of the Enkiri Stone 😀

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