Japan part 2. Kyoto: city of temples
For our stay in Japan we decided to go back to Kyoto. When we first visited this city 5 years ago we totally fell in love with it. There is culture, history, food and drinks, shopping,… You name it, Kyoto has it. Plus we had some unfinished business with the local famous Fushimi Inari shrine… Five years ago, just before leaving Kyoto, we visited the shrine, not knowing how big the grounds were. Naturally we didn’t make it all around in time. Therefore this time, we were determined to explore this shrine from top to bottom.
Our journey from Nara to Kyoto was an easy one. Take the train, try not to fall asleep for 45 minutes (fail miserably at that) and voila: Kyoto Station. From there it was but a 15 minute walk to our first stay. We quickly settled in our washitsu (Japanese style room with tatami and futon) and went out for some quick food. We spend the rest of the evening updating the blog and checking out what and when we would visit temples. In a city like Kyoto a little planning is in place since there is so much to see and do. Paying attention to the weather forecast also became important since autumn in Japan had started (though this didn’t mean the weather was suddenly bad). The next day would be a bright and sunny day followed by another so-so day and then a weekend full of rain. The last one was thanks to typhoon Hagibis.
So not beating around the bush, the next day we visited the Fushimi Inari shrine. The shrine is a beautiful example of shintoism. It is red, it has toriis, it has foxes (lots and lots of em, e-ve-ry-where!). It is truly exemplary and really one of the most beautiful shinto shrines we had ever seen. Thing about the Inari shrine is that it is open 24/7 and totally free to visit! Naturally all these factors make it also an immensely popular shrine to tourists. If you are ever in Kyoto and consider visiting this shrine, we highly encourage you to visit it 2 times. Once during the day and once in the evening/ at night. During the day it’ll be chockfull of tourists but all different paths will be open and accessible. During the night though you get to enjoy the peace and quiet, but not walk every single path since not all of them are illuminated. We recommend visiting the shrine right before sunset. Make your way up the stairs until you come upon crossroads towards the top (you’ll recognise it when you see it, it’s the only place with benches to sit). It has one of the best views ever with the setting sun over Kyoto and the mountains.
Our evening at the Fushimi Inari was enchanting. The shrine was almost deserted and we pretty much had the place to ourself. Some areas also look like great spots for horror movies haha! Also the later it gets, the less people you’ll meet but the chances of seeing wild animals, such as boars increases. We saw plenty, some of which small and some fully grown ones. Although they were just chilling and eating right next to the pavement, we were still very careful. Unlike some Chinese tourists who were throwing food and taking pictures with flash… idiots. On our way down again we met some other lovely denizens of the night… cats! We approached them carefully to try and say hello. The second Haythim sat down to try and pet one,… he was adopted by the cat. Almost instantly the furry friend went for his lap and claimed her spot. Pretty sure cats up there think we all come to worship them! It didn’t take long for another cat to adopt me as well. I guess We’ll have to live at the shrine now…
Since the following days were big question marks with typhoon Hagibis heading towards Japan, we made the most out of the following day. We headed towards the Toji temple and afterwards to the Gion district to nose around the little shops and just relax in general. The Toji temple is one of Kyoto’s guardian temples, and one of the most important Shingon (branch of buddhism) temples. The grounds consist of an impressive pagoda and 3 big wooden halls filled with a big wooden Buddha and other statues (of bodhisattva’s and guardians). The five storied pagoda is nearly 60 meters high and therefor the biggest wooden pagoda in Japan. The whole temple complex sits in in a pitoresque garden full of momiji trees which colour a nice shade of red in autumn, sakura trees which are famous for their blossoms in springtime, and small ponds which reflect all the colours. I could certainly take a nap here… I was taken out of my daydreams by two little schoolgirls (age 10ish), who under guidance of their teacher wanted to exercise their English with a small interview. I had a difficult time switching back to English and not Japanese since I on my part wanted to be easily understood too. I was thanked warmly and handed some neatly folded origami as gifts for my cooperation. I must say their English pronunciation was impeccable. Keep it up Japan!
We enjoyed the rest of the day just browsing through the Gion district, a part of Kyoto that is always hustling and bustling with the lates new trends for as well food as fashion. A small word of caution. It is always dangerous to go shop in Japan. Not literally though but there is so much cool stuff you will almost always (for real) end up buying something. This time was no different since Vans had just launched a Nightmare Before Christmas collection… Yes you guessed right, we made an awesome addition to our wardrobe…
And then typhoon Hagibis happened. Typhoon Hagibis was originally meant to come ashore near the Kyoto area so we were weary and kept one eye on the news and one on the weather forecast. But suddenly, it veered off and went straight for Tokyo. Few, we were “saved” but it would still get really rough for the people in and around the Tokyo area. Things in Kyoto went its normal way and if you looked in the streets you wouldn’t say a typhoon was looming over Japan. Yes, there was a lot of rain and the occasional gust of wind but apart from that it was ok. But of course, the rest of the world, including home, was focussed on “the biggest and most dangerous typhoon in X years to threaten Japan”.
Gee, thanks all you disaster loving assholes. You’re really just hoping for more misery in the world and, for the love of Cthulhu, I don’t know why. During one of those rainy days we took the opportunity to go eat at a ramen-ya where, day or night, always stood a waiting line of 20 people outside. But due to the gloomy weather there was not a soul in sight, and we were able to enjoy a big tasty full bowl of ramen for only 800 yen (about 7 euros). What else can you do on days like that besides trying to comfort worried family? Since the whole world had to be such a dramaqueen, and some people taking pleasure in worrying our families even more, it proved quite the task convincing people of the fact that Japan is actually one of the safest and most nature-prepared countries in the world. You’d probably risk more crossing the street than being in Japan during a natural disaster…
The following day is what we called a “wasted“ day. We had to check out before 11 o’clock in the morning but could not check in at our next place before 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Luckily we were able to stay in the bar area and kept ourselves busy with photo editing and blog writing. Ever so often we checked the weather outside but alas, it kept raining. Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon we made our move to our next spot through wind and rain. Although this day was a dud, the next one was very promising. Weirdly enough the day ,after the typhoon passed by, turned out to be one of the best days during our stay in Kyoto. Sunshine ahoy and almost no clouds! Remembering the huge crowds of tourists at the templegrounds in Nara, we decided to (again) wake up at the crack of dawn. For this sunny day we really wanted to try our best to beat the crowds to the different temples we had planned to visit that day. If all went well we would see some typical Japanese little streets, temples and shrines!
Waking up… was hell. You know, nobody would think that Haythim is one of those people who, when needed, can just wake up and be ready to go in less then 10 minutes. Meanwhile I’m basically dying and barely functioning and cursing everything and everyone who comes into view. I really need like an hour to wake up, have breaky, drink some juice or a cup of coffee and then I’ll be a bit ready to face the day. But hey, no rest for the wicked right?
First we headed towards the Kiyomizu-dera. This is an 8th century famous temple build on a foresty mountainslope with gorgeous views in autumn, with all the leaves changing colours. Saying that this was highly anticipated is an understatement. Going up the hill was already like a dream come true. Yet we were briefly confused when we first encountered a brightly red-coloured shrine… not the buddhist temple we were expecting (remember bout those 2 living closely together? this was a prime example). But then just a little further was the entrance to the temple and after paying the fee we entered the templegrounds… to discover that the the temple was in scaffolding. They were renewing and restoring the temple in anticipation of the summer olympics of 2020. I was sooooo bummed out! Of course the rest of the templegrounds were accessible and beautiful and still worth it but dammit, I really wanted to see the Kiyomizu-dera in all its glory, with the autumn colours and all. Except even those weren’t there yet and everything was still fresh and green. Again unfinished business in Kyoto! Guess we’ll have to come back again... ;)
After this, we headed for the next temple. The Kodai-ji. The road towards this Zen temple took us through some pitoresque little streets filled with little shops selling everything from furikake (spices to put on rice, yummy stuff) to umbrellas. It it weren’t for our busy planning we could have spend the entire day checking out this area. The templegrounds consisted of multiple smaller buildings throughout a stunning and peaceful garden. We made it to the temple, which was build in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his wife Nene (who also had her mausoleum there). Not only the templegrounds and the temple are bliss to behold but it also stands out as a haven of peace and quiet. We relaxed completely while we strolled through the zen gardens, visited the main hall and the mausoleum. The gardens had small ponds, cute bridges and smaller buildings scattered throughout. We didn’t see much tourists, which is always a bonus. I can totally recommend this temple, if you’re looking for a resting spot.
The next temple on our list was also an absolute pearl. The Kennin-ji. Known for multiple things: its zen garden, a ginormous ceiling painting of dragons intertwined, and their goldleaf painting of Raijin and Fujin (thunder- and windgod). Of course due to its popularity there were more tourists here, it was still quite peaceful and still enjoyable. I kept in mind that we were already heading towards the end of Oktober so seeing less tourists was logical. At this point I can’t even imagine anymore what it would have been like during high season. And I must admit I don’t feel inclined to ever travel again during the high season. Because nowadays everybody goest travelling, it’s getting more and more crowded everywhere near sightseeing spots/monuments/… And even a lot of the off-the-beaten-path spots have become tourist attractions now, which makes it really difficult to still find untouched spots, or affordable spots (since tourism drives up all the prices everywhere). And you notice that the big swarms of tourism are taking their toll on the visited areas. There is more maintenance needed to for example clean up after the crowds (because some shithead tourists can’t just be respectful and take their garbage with them) or restore buildings/items/… (because some asswhipe tourists can’t stop touching stuff that is not supposed to be touched). And you see the people living around the areas getting grouchier with the crowds of tourists as well (and I can’t blame them for that).
Right after we had left Kyoto to go and visit Kobe we read in the newspaper that in certain parts in Kyoto it was now prohibited to take pictures. A big area around Gion and near the temples with those beautiful little streets are now off limits because too many tourists trespassed, littered, were rude,… I can not stress enough how important it is to at all times be humble and respectful when in another country. I wouldn’t want the locals to say “Oh no, another Belgian, they are real pigs” but rather say “Oh Belgians, those are really polite respectful people”.
Back to our story of the Kenninji though! (got a little sidetracked there, sorry for that). We entered the temple and I quickly passed my Shuincho (templebook) to the temple monks for signing, after which we strolled through the corridors in our slippers. In one of the first rooms stood a big room panel fully covered in goldleaf, on which in the left corner Raijin, and in the right corner Fujin were painted. I understood there and then why these were the favourite gods of one of our best friends. The way they are painted and the way they look is hard to put into words, but it is one of the most beautiful pure paintings I had ever seen. The other rooms also showed beautiful room panels, yet more in a sumi-e simplistic kind of style. And a beautiful Zen garden in the midst of it all, where people sat all by each other to enjoy that special spot. A little further, our slippers took us to a bigger hall that almost seemed forgotten by the other tourists. Inside it was dark, with just the light from two narrow doorways and a couple of candles. We thought it to be just another Buddha or bodhisattva statue before discovering the whole ceiling (11,5 on 15,7meter) was painted with two enormous dragons! The painting took the artist about two years to finish and was painted on Japanese paper (washi). Impressive is an understatement for this work of art. Jawdropping and again a beautiful example of hard work and persistence. This temple is maybe not the prettiest on the outside, but sure carries some of the prettiest things on the inside.
Not too far from there is also a beautiful park full of momijis that colour red in the fall, or sakura trees that colour pink in springtime. We took a small break there, before noticing a superbig templecomplex right next to it. The Chionin temple. On a hill which you can reach, climbing a huge stone staircase stood a huge buddhist hall, which was unfortunately closed at that moment. It seemed really worth it so I guess this goes on the future bucketlist as well. We rounded up that day visiting a shrine we only saw the outside of, last time we were in Japan. The Yasaka shrine, lying right behind a superbusy crossroads near the Gion district. Taking pictures here without other tourists walking in the frame was impossible, but we did enjoy our time there, and witnessed a couple of traditional Shinto weddings while we were there (so beautiful!). This is a typical shinto shrine, and the evening sun really brought out the warmth of red/orange paint. It was such a pleasure to behold.
Because the next day would also be a dry and sunny day before some gray and rainy days, we again made it our goal to visit a couple of shrine/temples. We found a path that took us along several temples. Visiting all of them would be a bit overdoing it, but with a little research we selected out a couple we thought were worth it. The path I mentioned is called the philosopher’s path. It starts about half an hour walk northwards above the Kiyomizu-dera (for the people who wondered). While heading there, we passed through a huge torii, that indicated the beginning of a huge shrine. The Heian Jingu shrine. Beautiful, and almost not a soul in sight. So of course we paid it a visit, getting our Shuincho (templebook) stamped and doing a small prayer. Heian use to be the name of this city before it was changed to Kyoto. This had been the capital for a very long time before it was moved to Tokyo. Naturally the main shrine of the capital couldn't be a small one. It also has a huge garden full of beautiful pathways, and plants and flowers that colour beautifully in every season. But because of our busy itinerary we decided to pay that one a visit next time we'd be in Japan. Thus we continued our way through the tiny streets of Kyoto. You can recognise the philosophers path as a thin pathway alongside a creek with sakura trees. It’s a real hotspot in the springtime, when the pathway is swallowed by the pink flowerpetals of the sakura trees.
Our first stop along this path was the Nanzen-ji, which we solely selected for the funny fact that this temple, had an aquaduct! When entering the templegrounds we already noticed that paying this temple was certainly worth it. The beauty of the buddhist buildings in the neatly arranged gardens was already a sight to see. And continuing down the templegrounds, the buildings sort of went up into the flank of the mountain. And embedded in the forest of the mountain flank stood like a bridge, an aquqduct. A somewhat Roman sight we thought. It didn’t take us long before our adventurous spirit took us up a small path into the forest on the mountain flank so we could see the viaduct from above. Yes there was really water running through it! We continued a little further into the mountains and found a mausoleum of an emperor after which we decided to make our way down again and leave the place in peace.
After leaving the Nanzenji we headed towards the most Northern stop of the path: the Ginkakuji, also known as the Silver pavilion. Not to be confused with the Kinkakuji (the Gold pavilion). And though the Kinkakuji is painted with goldleaf, the Ginkakuji is not silver, but rather has sober colours. This look makes the pavilion stand out even more in the beautiful garden it is placed in. Similar to the Kinkakuji though is the pond it stands in, with all the small rocks for islands in it. The garden is very mossy and pitoresque and of course arranged neatly in an almost perfectionist way. Of course due to its name, it attracted enough tourists to make the small garden feel even a bit smaller. Nevertheless I was still happy to scratch this temple of my bucketlist. Though perhaps not one of Haythim’s favourites, I still found it pleasurable visiting this small cute pavilion. Feeling a bit exhausted of the many kilometers we already walked that day, for our last temple we decided on a small one on the mountain side, that was characterized by some really oldfashioned gate and totally covered in moss. It’s like stepping into time with these tiny ones. It’s definitely worth visiting one of these if you ever get the chance.
One of the next days we moved to the next airbnb, near the trainstation of Saiin. A hotelsize building where we stayed on the 8th floor. And right next to a Coco Ichiban restaurant! I’d call that a total win!! The room also had everything. Besides obviously a bed, we had a private bathroom, small kitchen with microwave and fridge as well. And a tv, which I always like, since this helps maintain my listening and reading (japanese subtitles) skills. We were also located about a 30 minute walk from Gion, so plenty of entertainment if we didn’t know what to do. But first we gave ourselves a break. Taking a day off just sleeping in, having breakfast in peace, and just taking a stroll around town can do miracles.
With halloween approaching fast, we saw all sorts of food and snacks in the halloween theme. We tried some delicious red night coffee and pumpkin coffee at Starbucks. Some black grapeflavored icecream at Rolly’s and some spooky donuts at the Mister Donuts. Even the local combinis sold tiny pumpkinpies, of which I tasted one for breakfast (yummy!).
The real reason why we stayed at this airbnb was so that we were already one step closer to the mountain flanks on the West side of the city. There we planned to visit just a couple of temples such as the Ryoanji, the Tenryuji and the two Nenbutsu-ji (Adashino and Otagi), the Arashiyama bamboo grove and the palace/mausoleum of emperor Saga.
The first day we thought to visit the most remote one called the Ryoan-ji, a buddhist temple very close to the Kinkakuji (golden pavilion). Let me already say that we have visited the Kinkakuji in the past, and though it’s a total cutie, didn’t feel like visiting it once more. For the reason that no matter what weather, it’s always choked with tourists (hordes of em really). And we didn’t feel like paying another entrance fee. Very few temples offer a discount ticket if you buy an entrance ticket to two temples, most don’t. And the entrance fee can really vary depending on how famous the temple/shrine is. All the shrines we visited so far we free or low fee of charge to enter. The temples though can vary from free to 300 yen (~2,5 euros) to even 1500 yen (~13 euros). And it has nothing to do with the size, but solely with their quota of tourists they get/year. The most beautiful ones we have visited so far were actually the cheapest ones!! Plus, these are also often less visited/ touristy. There really is nothing that takes the charm of a peaceful temple complex away than hordes of tourists coming out their buses and storming the premises. They only visit the “famous” temples, and by doing so, they miss out on a lot of pearls that didn’t make it to the internet or tv. Japan is one of the safest, cleanest countries in the world, with kind and helpful people. So it’s really ok and fun to just stroll down the streets and see where you end up. You’ll never get lost, there's always enough police officers or just locals that are willing to help out when needed. All the signs with placenames are subtitled in English, on the streets and in the stations. So there really is no reason to pay extra for a tourbus or a guide in our opinion.
So, first day under the promise of no rain, we headed towards the Ryoanji to see their beautiful Zen garden. We weren’t a street away from our Airbnb and when suddenly it started pouring… We were so happy we brought an umbrella with us. You know, just in case. We needed to walk a few blocks to catch a bus, and luckily we had a bus that took us up to the entrance of the temple. Funny thing with the buses, is that you get on through the back, and only pay once you get off. Such trust. I know that wouldn’t work if we’d implement that system in Belgium for sure. By the time we reached the entrance of the Ryoanji, the weather had only gotten worse. There is a beautiful garden inside, surrounding a lake, but the bad weather drove us into the main hall to try and dry ourselves a bit. We strolled trough the halls and chambers. There were pretty chambers with minimalistic painted wall panels, some with dragons painted on the room panels, some chambers had micro moss gardens in bottles, and other artworks. Of course the Zen garden was beautiful, but the rain had tainted the neatly drawn patterns in the small pebbles. When the rain died down a bit, we took a stroll through the gardens that showed a bit of autumn colours. I bet it’s nicer if everything’s red and orange, and dry… We headed home afterwards and just stayed in to enjoy the coziness of our room.
The next day was more promising! We headed out early and stood waiting at the side entrance of the Tenryuji temple before opening hour. Us and some other groups tourists… This is never a good sign. To be honest, besides the beautiful garden they had inside, this was not one of our favourite temples. Not only was it expensive getting inside, They also charged an extra fee to enter the temple. Seriously? We had a stroll through the pretty garden, had a looksy at the pretty pond with the pretty fishies, and beat a hasty retreat. Honestly, this temple is famous but… if you ask us, definitely not worth it.
That’s what happens when some temples get too popular. They get swamped with tourists and then they charge more money and it sucks for people who want to try and travel on a budget. So we exited the premises and through a bamboo forrest, also full of tourists, we made our way towards the first Nenbutsu temple, the Otagi. We didn’t think the bamboo forest as pretty as all the pictures on the internet showed, so we paid it little mind and carried on. We also thought we saw only a tiny bit of it, while in fact that was the whole so-called forest.
We made our way through some tiny streets and went more into the flanks of the mountain where we ended up at a tiny temple complex almost completely covered in the greenest moss we ever saw. Paying a small fee and handing over our temple book, we set a foot inside and were immediately greeted by lots of stone disciple buddha faces laughing at us from the mountain flank. They were everywhere, lined up or crisscross between the trees, in sizes varying from as small as a chihuaha too as big as a child. With faces showing various expressions and in all kinds of postures. We read that every single one was handcarved and had its own character put into. Apparently it’s important to give it your own characteristic when you plan to sculpt and donate one to the temple. They counted over 1200 of these!! There were also three tiny pavilions there, with each their own buddha and bodhisattvas inside. We even saw a wood sculpted Buddha holding a ‘christian’ cross in its hands. The message read that the creator had dedicated it to the victims of WWII, and that no matter what religion or nationality, that everybody in the world could enjoy peace. This temple definitely climbed up my list of favourites. Of course my favourite part about it was to see all the different interesting faces of the buddha disciple statues. It was as enjoyable as seeing little smiling children playing up the mountain. The purity of it really connected with us.
Next we visited this Nenbutsu temple’s big brother, the Adashino Nenbutsu-ji. A bit more spacious than the Otagi, this temple complex carries a bit of a darker history. The Adashino lands, used to be burial grounds. With people laying their dead: buried, in open graves or just abandoned, in the mountains. The founder of the Buddhist Shingon sect, Kukai, buried the bones and erected a temple for them (the Nyorai-ji). The buddhist monk Honen followed, building a dojo (called the Nenbutsu-ji) where people could recite buddhist prayers to lay the souls to rest. At the beginning of the 21st century, the tombstones were all collected and put down at the Adashino temple, where the souls were finally given a final resting place. The temple complex has a modern site of new graves that you can reach by walking through a perfectly tended bamboo forest. I had the feeling that the famous bamboo forest pictures were actually taken here. Though it was a tiny forest, with no tourist in sight and taken care of so beautifully, this one was unforgettable! Not too far from there, there was a smaller walled section, with at the entrance a big bronze bell. Near it a monk was finishing his prayers and ringing the bell. Inside the walled area lay thousands various, small stone buddha statues. To think that each represents a soul of a person that was buried in these mountains is sad yet touching and oddly romantic. I’m happy they were all given a final resting place, and I hope they rest there in peace.
After that, we headed towards what looked like the entrance of a templecomplex, but was in fact the imperial palace of emperor Saga, before his daughter Masako turned it into a templecomplex called the Daikaku-ji. The complex is quite widespread, with all kinds of halls and buildings connected through roofed bridges. In between lay neatly arranged gardens, which makes it a pleasure strolling from one room to another, and enjoying the scenery in between. There were almost no tourists there when we visited. Which was rather strange we thought, since this had more historical value (the temple had also become a retirement home for many emperors!), was bigger, and certainly more interesting in views/scenery than for example the Tenryuji… The Osawa pond we saw on the premises was also a sight worth mentioning here! Created under the reign of emperor Saga, the lake is 2.4 hectares big which makes it one of the biggest artificial lakes ever made. The garden surrounding it is also a pearl. With lots of momiji, sakura, chrysanthemum and lotusflowers (in the lake), it is no wonder the temple was the birthplace to an Ikebana school (Japanese art of flower arranging).
At the entrance of Saga’s palace we were able to buy a combined ticket, that allowed us entrance in a very tiny temple, with a moss garden. While heading into the direction of our trainstation, we thought why not finish our day up there? But not before we found some food. It was getting near 3 o’clock, and our tummies we’re growling. So we decided to give a local shop a try. It certainly smelled good, and we saw a lot of locals come queuing up. Apparently they had just opened up, and it didn’t look bad either! It appeared to be a kitchen specialised at all kinds of baked, filled and fried tofu. We just randomly picked out some things, and I can’t say it disappointed!! With a little rough salt and a drop of soy sauce, the normally tasteless blubbery consistence was actually a nice chewy snack and great of taste!! And with renewed strength we finished up our day at the moss garden, where we were treated to all kinds of soft green or bluegreen kinds of moss. Though so brittle, I would’ve loved to take a nap in the soft mossbeds!