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City of two thousand shrines

Japan day eight


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Kyoto

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At Kiyomizu-dera

For over a thousand years Kyoto was the capital of Japan and it is probably the best preserved of all its cities.

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Kyoto station

Its historic value saw it dropped from the list of cities to be targeted by air raids and the atomic bomb during World War Two (some say because the wife of a senior US commander had fallen in love with Kyoto when they honeymooned there before the war), and is still treasured today. And while our time here was perhaps too limited for me to also fall in love, that time was packed with wonders.

To Kyoto by bullet train

We arrived in Kyoto on a bullet train from Osaka, a journey of just 15 minutes - but around an hour by regular train! The station is on the southern edge of the main downtown area and is very modern and very large. It is also very busy. It can therefore be a challenge to negotiate when carrying bags and newly arrived, but is impressive enough to merit a separate sightseeing visit another time.

For now though we focused on finding our way out of the station for the short walk to our accommodation at the Heianbo Ryokan. It was too early though to check-in, so we left our bags and hurried out again to make the most of our time, and all decided to catch taxis together to Kiyomizu-dera, one of the city’s most famous temples.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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Preying mantis at Kiyomizu-dera

This Buddhist temple is possibly the most visited in Kyoto – it is certainly up there in the top five. And it’s easy to see why it draws the crowds. It has a lovely hillside setting with views of the town and several other nearby pagodas and temples. It is near enough the centre of town and those other temples to be easily accessible. And it has a unique feature – a sort of platform or veranda that juts out on one side of the main hall, 13 metres above the hillside below. Both hall and stage, and indeed all the buildings here, were built without the use of nails, an amazing achievement. They date from 1633, though the temple was founded much earlier, in 778. Since that foundation, the temple had burned down many times, and thus most of the current buildings were rebuilt by the third Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in the early Edo period. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.

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Japanese visitors to Kiyomizu-dera

By the time we arrived here, at around 11.00 AM, it was packed, but the crowds, who were mostly Japanese tourists and worshippers, didn’t detract from our enjoyment at all. Indeed, I enjoyed watching the many girls who had dressed in kimonos for the occasion, and it was interesting to observe the rituals of washing in the fountain and burning incense, the smell of which wafted on the air and lent atmosphere to the temple complex.

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Nio-mon, Kiyomizu-dera

We entered the complex through the stunning Nio-mon, the 16th century gate that was refurbished in 2003. Beyond this is another gate, Sai-mon, dating from 1631 and famous for its view at sunset, and beyond that a three-storied pagoda. The photo above shows parts of both gates and the pagoda beyond.

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View of Kyoto from the Sai-mon

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The pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera

Off to our left we spotted a small crowd around another building, the Zuigu-do Hall, and went over to investigate. A man was selling tickets, or rather, exchanging them for a ‘suggested donation’ of 100¥, which we were happy to make though we had no idea what we were paying for at that point. We were then asked to remove our shoes and given a plastic bag each in which to carry them as we entered the shrine.

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The Zuigu-do Hall, with Sai-mon in the foreground

We were instructed to hold on to the rope handrail as we entered, and soon realised why. The path through the shrine is constructed in such a way that after a few steps you are plunged into total darkness, unable to see even an inch in front of you. This is the Tainai-meguri. The idea is that the total darkness here represents the womb of a female bodhisattva, so you are returning to a pre-birth state. At the heart of the shrine a little light falls on a large stone, which you spin and make a wish before ascending through more darkness until you emerge, blinking, into the bright light of day.

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Hondo lantern

After this rather special experience we continued on the path to the main hall or Hondo. This houses a small statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon Bodhisattva, the main object of worship here, which is only shown to the public once in 33 years. I found this story of the founding of the temple and the devotion to this statue:

‘In the year 778, Priest Enchin who was inspired by divine revelation in a dream to go up Kizu-gawa river to find a fountain of pure water, travelled up to a waterfall in the foot of Otowa-yama (Mt. Otowa). He met Gyoei Koji, a Buddhist recluse who had been devoted to self-discipline there, and was given a block of sacred wood. Enchin carved a statue of a Buddhist deity Kannon Bosatsu out of the block and enshrined it in the thatched hut in which Gyoei had been living till then. Two years later, a military general, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, came up into the mountain and met Enchin who lectured for him on the merciful teaching of Kannon Bosatsu. Tamuramaro became a pious devotee to the Kannon and he dedicated a hall to the statue. This is said to be the origin of this temple. The name of the temple, ‘Kiyomizu’, literally means ‘pure water’ and came from the above story.’

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Kiyomizu-dera: the veranda

The Hondo has a unique feature which helps to explain the popularity of Kiyomizu-dera for both tourists and worshippers. On its southern side a sort of platform or veranda juts out, 13 metres above the hillside below. The veranda is known as the Kiyomizu Stage; it is supported by huge 12-metre high pillars made from Japanese Zelkova trees, were assembled without using a single nail, and its floor consists of over 410 cypress boards.

So famous is this veranda that it has given rise to a well-known Japanese saying, ‘To jump off the veranda of Kiyomizu-dera’, which has the same meaning as the English saying, ‘To take the plunge’, i.e. to take a risk.

We followed the path above and to the right of the main hall which led us past a couple of other halls that were undergoing major preservation work at that time and were hidden beneath scaffolding and wraps. From this path we could look back at the rest of the complex and see the dramatic way in which the veranda juts out over the hillside. We could have continued to follow the path as it wound round and down to the small group of buildings below the main hall, but instead retraced our steps a little to reach these via a stone staircase.

This took us to a path below the water fountain that gives Kiyomizu-dera its name of ‘clear water temple’. This is channelled from the Otowa Waterfall which falls from the mountain of the same name. There are three separate fountains dropping into the pool below. Drinking the water is believed to bestow special powers, and each fountain gives a different one – a long life, success in your career or in love. It is considered greedy to drink from all three!

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Otowa water fountain, Kiyomizu-dera

The path then led us beneath the veranda, and we could really appreciate the scale of its construction. There were several jizo statues brought here from elsewhere in Japan I believe, and some refreshment booths. It was while walking along here that we bumped into another member of our group, Phil, and decided to stop for a snack with him.

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Jizu statues

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The café

We spotted a little café beside the path and were pleased to see space on its shady terrace. The menu was only in Japanese but luckily had photos, though it was still in part a question of ‘pot-luck’ as to what we would get! I saw someone nearby eating something that looked like vanilla ice cream with a fruit sauce, but peering at the photos I could see that it was probably a dish that came with the sweet red adzuki bean paste topping I’d had and liked at the Edo Tokyo Museum, so I chose that.

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My kakigori

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Chris's noodles

The ‘ice cream’ was in fact shaved ice; I had chosen kakigori, one of Japan's favourite summer sweets. It is served all over the country with a wide range of toppings including syrups and fruits. I really enjoyed this version and found it very refreshing on what was proving to be the hottest day of our trip. Phil had the same shaved ice but with a fruit sauce, while Chris had some gelatinous noodles in a soy/wasabi based sauce, having opted for what seemed to be the only savoury item on the menu.

All the dishes were very good value at just a few hundred yen each. The staff were friendly and helpful, and it was here that we had our best demonstration of the Japanese non-tipping culture. When we sat down Chris noticed a small coin on the bench next to him – a single yen, worth about half a penny or about one cent. He left it lying there, but when we departed the café a waitress ran after us to give him back the coin she thought he had left in error!

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Hondo roof detail, Kiyomizu-dera

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Another roof detail

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And another!

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A torii gate

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View from Kiyomizu-dera

Higashiyama

After our snack we took a few more photos before leaving the temple area to explore the surrounding streets of the Higashiyama district which lies along the lower slopes of the mountains to the east of Kyoto and is one of the city's best preserved historic districts. These streets have been recently renovated to remove telephone poles and repave the streets to increase the traditional feel of the district. This atmosphere is enhanced by the many girls wearing kimono to do their sightseeing – although perhaps less so by the hordes of other tourists who throng to this area.

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Tourists on Chawan-zaka

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On Chawan-zaka

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Our sake cup

The street leading up to the temple, Chawan-zaka, has been given the nickname of Teapot Lane because of the large number of shops selling china goods (as well as other crafts and souvenirs). We bought a pretty little sake cup in one of these – not cheap but very nicely made. We also had a good cup of coffee in the upstairs café of another of the shops, where some large items, we noted, cost hundreds of pounds.

Part way up the street, on the left-hand side if you are facing uphill, we came across a small shrine. I wasn’t able to uncover a name or any other details about this, either at the time or since.

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Shrine on Chawan-zaka

After our shopping and coffee break here we were ready for another temple visit. We met up with the rest of our group and all piled into taxis again to head to Sanjusangen-do.

Sanjusangen-do Temple

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Roof detail, Sanjūsangen-dō, Kyoto

This temple, also known as Rengeo-in, was a complete contrast to Kiyomizu-dera but no less impressive in its way. The main hall is all that remains here, having been rebuilt in 1266 after a fire destroyed the temple 17 years before that. The hall is 120 metres long and is Japan's longest wooden structure. The name Sanjusangen-do (literally ‘33 intervals’) derives from the number of spaces between the building's support columns, which was a traditional method of measuring the size of a building.

Entering this main hall (after removing our shoes) we joined other visitors in filing along one side to view the wonders it contains. In the centre is a six foot tall wooden statue of a 1000-armed Kannon. This was carved by the Kamakura sculptor Tankei in 1254 and is a National Treasure of Japan. On each side of this are 500 more (making 1,001 Kannons in total), made of cypress wood and arranged in tiers (10 rows and 50 columns). They are human-sized and each one is subtly different from the next. People apparently come to Sanjusangen-do to look for the likeness of a loved one among the many statues. 124 of these statues are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 were constructed in the 13th century.

Traditionally 1000-armed Kannons are equipped with 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans, and with 1000 arms to better help them fight the suffering. But you won’t be able to count 1000 arms on them, as in practice they are made with just 42 arms each. You need to subtract the two regular arms to give 40, each of which is said to have the power to save 25 worlds, giving the full thousand. In Buddhist beliefs, Kannon is a Bodhisattva, i.e. one who achieves enlightenment but postpones Buddhahood until all can be saved. The name literally means watchful listening, and it is the task of the compassionate Kannon to witness and listen to the prayers and cries of those in difficulty in the earthly realm, and to help them achieve salvation.

As we filed back to our starting point along the corridor behind these statues we passed 28 more statues of Japanese deities who protect the Buddhist universe. I was disappointed (as I always am) that no photography is allowed inside the hall. This rule is very strictly enforced, with CCTV cameras to supervise and notices announcing that anyone suspected of taking photos will have their camera examined and offending images deleted. You can however see some images of the Kannons on the temple’s website.

Outside there is a small Japanese garden with a water fountain, where we enjoyed relaxing on a shady bench for a while, and where we could take photos. As you can see, I worked off my frustrations at not being able to take photos inside by gorging on the beautiful details of the architecture here, especially the roof!

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Sanjusangendo Temple

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Roof details, Sanjūsangen-dō

After this we went back to check into our ryokan and to rest before another outing planned for later that afternoon. We were staying for two nights at the friendly, family-run, Heianbo Ryokan. Our room there was traditional in style, with futons on tatami mats for sleeping, but with en suite (half tub with a shower over) and air conditioning and other mod cons (such as a TV and hair dryer). We found this to be a great base in the city – very quiet for so central a location, and with lots of character.

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Our bedroom at the Ryokan Heianbo

Gion

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For the most part our Inside Japan tour didn’t include any guided sightseeing (although Andrew was always happy to lead some explorations in each place we visited). This allows for flexibility to do your own thing or go around with some or all of the group, according to preference. But one exception was a guided walk in Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district. This tour was led by a Canadian ex-pat who had previously been married to a geisha. He showed us some of the main sights and told us a lot about the lives of present-day maiko and geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto.

One thing it is important to stress is that geisha are not prostitutes. Some may choose to prostitute themselves, but it is not ‘in the job description’ and is not normal practice. No – a geisha is an entertainer of men, a skilled performer, an expert in Japanese traditions and, probably, an accomplished flirt and conversationalist. To become a geisha a girl must study for some years and will usually start as an apprentice or maiko. The term maiko means dancing girl, while geisha means ‘art doer’, i.e. performer. These days, girls will probably not decide to study as a geisha until their teens – the days when a girl could be apprenticed as young as three or four are long gone. In the geisha school, apprentices learn to play traditional instruments such as the shamisen, to dance in the traditional way, and to perform the tea ceremony. They study literature, poetry and calligraphy. They also learn by following and observing experienced geisha, especially the ‘older sister’ who mentors them. At each stage of her development a maiko will wear the appropriate dress, hairstyle and make-up, and an expert could tell at a glance how long she had been working from this.

We saw several geiko and maiko on our walk around Gion but they move very quickly and, understandably, don’t choose to spend their valuable time posing for photos for tourists! I managed to get a few photos of maiko, but only from behind.

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Maiko in Gion

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A sign in Gion

We also saw the geisha school where all geisha study music and dance (regardless of age and how long they have been working), and a number of ochaya (tea-houses) where the geisha entertain. And although we didn’t have time to go inside while on this tour, we also walked through the grounds of the Kenninji Temple, where I loved the setting among the ‘cloud-pruned’ trees or niwaki. This is Japan's oldest Zen temple, having been founded in 1202, but the temple buildings we see today date from the 16th century when it was last rebuilt. The extensive grounds include sand and moss gardens, and inside there are notable art works, including the most recent addition, a ceiling painting of two dragons by Koizumi Junsaku which was installed in 2002 to commemorate the temple's 800th anniversary.

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Kenninji Temple

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Near Tatsumi Bashi

We passed several spots that featured in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, although our guide told us that the film was almost completely shot on a lot in California as the Kyoto authorities weren't keen to have it made here. One of the most picturesque of these was around the Shirakawa Canal and in particular by the bridge, Tatsumi Bashi, and the nearby Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine where traditionally geiko and maiko come to pray for help in improving their skills. It was dusk by the time we arrived here and the lights were coming on in the houses overlooking the canal, giving it a special atmosphere – a lovely place to end our walk.

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Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine

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Shirakawa Canal, Gion

After we had thanked our Canadian guide, Andrew proposed dinner at one of his favourite conveyer-belt sushi restaurants in the city, about a 20 minute walk away. Most of us liked the suggestion and decided to join him. I and several others in the group were wearying of all the walking so decided to get a taxi, while others walked with Andrew and we all met up again at the restaurant.

Our first evening in Kyoto

Although not fancy, Musashi Sushi is a great example of a kaiten or conveyor-belt sushi restaurant and we had an excellent meal here. We ate on the upper floor where booths radiate out from the central hub where sushi is prepared by the chefs and loaded on to the conveyor. Here the diners at the conveyor end of the table must take the responsibility for grabbing the passing plates not only for themselves but also for their dining companions. We ate with another couple from our group, Sue and John from Australia, and it was John and I who performed this task – with enthusiasm you might say, if you saw the number of empty plates piled on the table by the end of the meal! All the sushi here is handmade. There was a really good variety available and I don't think we had anything more than once, however good, in order to try more dishes. My favourite was probably the melt-in-your-mouth bonito tuna, closely followed by the tempura prawns (I've never had tempura on sushi before!) and crab.

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Plastic sushi in the window

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Sushi chef

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Karaoke room sign

After dinner some of us went to a nearby karaoke room for another classic Japanese experience. Most people know that karaoke was invented here; the word derives from the Japanese for empty, kara, and orchestra okesutora, alluding to the use of a musical track with its main lyrics removed. But unlike in Europe and the US, where karaoke is most often a public performance (or humiliation, depending on your viewpoint and the abilities of the singer!), in Japan it is more usually enjoyed in a private ‘karaoke box’, or small room, which a group of friends can rent for a fixed period of time.

Arriving at the venue we (well, Andrew, as the only Japanese speaker in our group of eight) negotiated the price of a room for two hours at reception. We then headed upstairs to find ourselves in a narrow, very pink room. At one end was the TV screen, round the other three walls low comfortable seating, and in the middle a table on which were two small machines – one for selecting songs and the other drinks. Our price of 2,600¥ per person (based on eight sharing) also included all we could drink, so the latter was as important as the music selection device! There was a wide choice of drinks – beer, plum wine, regular wine, sake and some spirits as well as soft drinks.

We ordered via the machine and a waiter would knock respectfully at the door within minutes, carrying the tray.

But to the main point of the exercise, the singing! The machine thankfully had an English language button for selecting and lots of English language tracks as well as Japanese – certainly more than enough to keep us occupied for two hours. As the drinks poured in, the inhibitions fell, and by the end we had not only enjoyed enthusiastic performances of Japanese pop (by Andrew), Elvis (both Presley and Costello, by Chris) and Pat Benatar (by Sue), but had also joined in with some great group numbers such as Hey Jude and American Pie. To hear just how well Andrew and Sue entered into the spirit of karaoke (and how well they sang) check out my short video.

Andrew and Sue's performances

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In the karaoke room

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Andrew, Sue and Jim

The two hours were up all too soon, and we reluctantly vacated the room and paid our fee back down at the lobby before hailing taxis to take us back to our ryokan. It had been a very full day and we were happy to snuggle down on our futons for a good night’s sleep.

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Ryokan Heianbo at night

Posted by ToonSarah 16:00 Archived in Japan Tagged buildings people kyoto shrines food architecture restaurant japan culture temple history music customs

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Comments

The Tainai-meguri sounds like an incredible experience. Beautiful photos . . . as usual.

by Beausoleil

Wow, Sarah - I love your photographs - very professional :)

by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir

Now you made me want to go back to Japan :)

p.s. comment notification should be working again!

by Peter

Thank you both. And yes, it's working Peter :) And I'm making myself want to go back to Japan, revisiting all my VT material ;)

Sally, the Tainai-meguri was indeed incredible - we were so pleased we'd followed the crowd to see what was going on as we'd never have known it was there otherwise

by ToonSarah

Thanks too to Regina :) Sorry, I overlooked your kind comment when the notifications system wasn't working and have only just spotted it

by ToonSarah

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