AnneMarie and Andrew

Annemarie and Andrew – Trekking Asia

Kyoto: Part 2

Day 4

Today, we were going to visit at least 3 world heritage sites. First we needed to change hotels again, back to the original hotel. This was because we were unsure how much there was to see in Kyoto before we got bored and when we found out there was a lot more the original hotel we’d booked was quite s lot cheaper than the one we were staying in. So back to the original hotel we went.

After we swapped hotels, it was another late start of around 11am. This was a common theme throughout our time in Kyoto. We were always tired, Andrew more so than me, we never made the 9am starts that I had hoped for! We bought a bus pass from the hotel, a single ride costs ¥230 or ¥500 for a day pass. The bus stop was right outside the hotel so we didn’t need to wait long, which was good as it was very hot again with a real feel around 40′c. Our destination was Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. I knew this place was actually gold unlike the Silver Pavilion. The bus ride took around 35minutes and the lady I was sat next to was going for lunch. We chatted a bit, I say chatted but I speak no Japanese and her English was similar to my French, very basic. Nonetheless, another friendly Japanese person.

Kinkakuju is a small compact temple complex, officially known as Rokuon-ji Temple. There is a beautiful golden Buddhist hall sat on the shores of a lake, meaning on a sunny day you get glistening photos of the temple and its reflection in the pond. It used to be the site of a villa owned by the local Shogun before becoming a temple on his death. This complex is again based on the ‘Pure Land Buddhism’. For me it shows the wealth and power of the Shoguns of the 14th century as the pavilion is covered with gold foil on the upper two levels.

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

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On top of the pavilion sits a golden phoenix.

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We were then asked for an interview by the local school children, who seem to be at every temple complex we went to. It wasn’t really an interview as the questions consisted of ‘do you like Japan’ and ‘ what food have you eaten here’. I received a thank-you card anyhow.

Then further along was a small wooden teahouse, we haven’t taken part in a tea ceremony as yet. Most places offer this for ¥500 but we are always so hot it doesn’t seem appealing. Teahouses were very popular with the aristocracy and this Tea-House is called Sekka-tei, the place of evening beauty.

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The pavilion offers an opportunity to take a nice photo. Then we were done. It was a small but very well formed garden with little islets and some well placed rocks. More rocks were to be seen at our next place, the rock garden. A lunch stop and then an 800m walk and we arrived at Ryoan-ji. Whilst Andrew went to the loo he told me to try the tea from the lady nearby, I did and thought it was horrible. Salt and tea are not a combination that I like. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make a purchase.

We wandered around the pond from the 12th century. It used to be known as the pond of Mandarin Ducks but they appear to have been eaten. We walked onto an islet that contained a little hall before going to find the famous Zen Rock Garden.

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The garden is 25m long and 10m wide. It is surrounded by a wall made from boiled clay, designed in such a way as to make the clay oils leak out. In the 1500s, around the time the garden was made, most noble gardens were filled with trees. This Zen garden has no trees, no blades of grass just 15 stones sat on moss with raked gravel. (You can see trees behind the was but they are separate from this garden). At the time it was a very individualistic choice, going against the accepted norms and culture of high society. Soon to be repeated across Japan though.

Ryōan-ji Rock Garden

Ryōan-ji Rock Garden

Ryōan-ji Rock Garden

The meaning of the garden is unclear, some believe it represents a tiger carrying her cubs across islands or the sea. Other people argue the garden represents infinity. The garden has also being arranged so you cannot see all 15 stones at once; 14 stones at the most, well unless you view it from above. If you gain enlightenment then you’ll be able to see all 15 at once. I saw 14!

Around the back of the main temple, there was a stone wash-basin. The inscription says ‘I learn only to be contented’. To learn for learning’s sake is to be spiritually rich, to be ignorant or to not learn is to be spiritually poor even if you become materially rich.

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This Zen garden is a very popular place to visit, we were lucky as it wasn’t very busy. We spent some time wondering what is showed or represented so I guess it achieved its goal – and I learnt to be contented but I had no Zen moment. Another site crossed off the list though.

Another 900m up the road was another world heritage site called Ninna-ji. The original 9th century buildings caught fire so most of the ones we saw are from the 1600s. Ninna-ji is also known as the Old Imperial Palace because a member of the Imperial Family used to be Head Priest here. We wandered around the outer buildings and found another pagoda.

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And some nice vermilion shrines.

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Thinking that was it, we then spotted a other path and came across the Goten, usually only seen in the Imperial Palaces. The Goten is the former residence of the head priest and is surrounded by a very pleasant garden. As you wander through the covered porch you can smell the tatami mats, a woody smell. We also enjoyed the paintings on the walls, which were more complete than other places we had visited. The rooms we saw were devoid of any other furnishings. It seems that Japanese houses did not have seating. Visitors sat on the mats whilst the shogan had a pillow-like object to sit on, ensuring he was higher than everyone else.

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Then we spent a long time admiring the garden. We spent a long time trying to get a picture of us in focus with the background but the lighting was crap and we couldn’t quite achieve what we wanted.

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It didn’t matter as the covered walkways of the Goten meant we stayed dry. Plus we enjoyed the rock garden and the pond. We thought this design of building was a very good idea. Shame we couldn’t afford to just buy the place as the tranquillity and serenity of this place, led it to being my favourite attraction so far.

We hoped we had enough time to get the bus to Tenryu-ji, but a combination of spending too much time in the last place and the fact the bus route we were on was irregular meant we arrived at 5.05pm and saw the ‘closed sign’. Ah well, annoying but we were close to Arashiyama, which has a bamboo forest that the Lonely Planet raves about. So much so that it’s on the front cover of the most recent edition of the Japan Lonely Planet. We wandered up a small road to be greeted by some bamboo and also a power line. It wasn’t spectacular at all and yet it is listed in their 25 must do activities in all of Japan! We keep learning that the authors of the guide are not always on the same wavelength as us.

Bamboo at Arashiyama, Kyoto

Bamboo at Arashiyama, Kyoto

Bamboo at Arashiyama, Kyoto

We jumped on the next bus and an hour later were back at the hotel. After a bit of wandering we ended up in the train station, which has a good eating area. We had fish and chips for tea at only ¥600 or £3.

Our first fish and chips of the trip and the first time ever with chopsticks. The tartar sauce was very nice and they had proper malt vinegar.

Day 5
The weather had predicted the typhoon that hit Okinawa was going to head north and bring heavy rain plus gusts of 60mph. Andrew decided to write a blog post until 2am thinking that we’d be sitting around in the hotel blog writing the next day. Instead when I woke up at 8.30am, the rain wasn’t too bad. At 10am Andrew planned a slow day to see a couple of sites. We eventually left at 11.30am and headed to the train station to go to Daigo-ji.

Daigo-ji is another centre of Buddhist teaching. It has a very long history being set up in 874AD by a monk who was the student of the founder of Shingon Buddhism. The monk then built a hermitage on the mountain side and the complex expanded from there. With a gang of fellow devotees’ the new school of Buddhism then built many halls and shrines as well as a five story pagoda, completed in 951AD and known as Goju-no-to.

We entered a large hall called Sambo-in. The hall was the place of residence for the Archbishops of Daigo Temple. The garden was the main draw though. It is the archetypal Japanese garden with a large islet in the centre connected to smaller islets via bridges. The trees in the garden are Japanese White Pine, said to be more than 500 years old. The islands are said to look like a giant turtle. Annoyingly we were not allowed to take any photos in here and we couldn’t buy any either. Yet, despite its size this is the garden you would want. A nice water feature, some, pretty trees, a bridge to some islets, a little Zen rock garden and a veranda to view it all. Oh, and it had some rather lush moss in it.

The tiny rock garden has a deeper meaning to it. It consists of three big stones and some gravel, devoid of grass. The first rock looked very smooth and so represented ‘fast water’, the second was called ‘stagnant water’ and the final one was eroded and represented ‘breaking water’.

Leaving the garden we walked past a Karamon or Chinese gate (these are all the huge entrance gates we’ve been taking so many photos of). It had recent being restored. It is coated in black laquer and then decorated with four crests of chrysanthemum, topped with gold leaf. Quite an entrance to the garden and hall.

Karamon

We then headed up to the pond with the lovely vermilion shrine. On the way we saw another pagoda. This is Kyoto’s oldest verifiable building, being built in 951AD. It was the original, having escaped the many devastating fires. A wooden building from the same period as the Anglo-Saxons.

Goju-no-to

Goju-no-to

We wandered to another shrine and took some photos of the Buddha statues in their aprons.

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Finally, at the pond we took a quick photo then headed off to get out of the rain and also from the rather large hornet that kept following us.

Bentendo Hall

We then went to get food from the nearby supermarket. I decided to try some sushi as well as salad and Andrew had noodles with chicken and rice.

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Then back on the train to our next destination. Reliably informed it we open until 5.30pm we spent some time looking at the Sanmon (gate) near Nanzen-ji temple. Up some steep stairs to reach the top. Inside the gate there is a shrine but you couldn’t go in. We spent some time looking at the temples sticking out from behind the trees.

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We wandered around the surrounding area and came across an aqueduct and then spent an age trying to get some photos, which failed. I need a 6 foot tripod! We then wandered to our end destination of Eikando Temple. It was 4pm and there was a big sign saying closed. I pulled up the Lonely Planet on my phone, it said it was open until 5.30pm. Slightly annoyed I remembered there was something going on at Yasaka Shrine in readiness for the Gion Matsuri festival. It started at 4.30pm. We arrived around this time and sat down to wait, we had no mobile data so we weren’t sure what else to do. We waited for 30 minutes and decided that we had missed it when some men chanting appeared.

We followed them into the shrine expecting some big ceremony to follow. Instead everything stopped and the main guys got out there phones.

One hour later there was an announcement and the men heaved the Mikhoshi onto the main Shrine area. It looked heavy and took about 20 men to lift it.

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15 minutes later and they brought the other Mikhoshi.

At some point between 6pm and 8pm the portable shrines would be blessed and washed ready to be sent out to purge Kyoto of plagues.

We wandered down the main shopping area trying to find Nike shop, which were two a penny in China. Now we wanted one we couldn’t find one. Here’s why we wanted one.

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I finally managed to make Andrew bin the t-shirt as it had succumbed to sweat and suncream. We wandered back to the hotel, tried to find where it was and headed back out. No luck.

To cheer us up I had read good reviews about a restaurant near the subway station. I decided to give the Japanese set dinner a try. Andrew ordered a 10 veg variety salad dish, salmon and avocado dish, plus a red snapper in a tomato sauce dish.

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I think Andrew had the nicer meal, but my tempura was quite nice and the fermented fish wasn’t too bad. The rice was nice as well and it only cost £8 or ¥1500.

Day 6

Today, was going to be a slow day. We were supposed to be going to Nara but for some reason we have been really tired. Maybe it is our recent diet? Most days we have a yogurt and some cereal for breakfast with fresh orange juice. Salad and noodle ready meal with fresh juice for lunch. Tea is often the same or we have had a curry or chicken. We are trying to detox after China and all the oil coated food. Our alarm went off at 8am but I had not slept well again and was feeling rather sleepy. Andrew slept through the alarm, twice and then decided we should sleep for another hour. He slept and I read. After breakfast we decided we must see the number one attraction, according to TripAdvisor. This is Fushimi Inari. It is a large complex of Torii gates that run up the side of the mountain. The vermilion gates lead up through wooded trails to Mount Inari.

Fushimi Inari Gate

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Vermilion Shrine

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Fushimi Inari

The shrine is an important part of Shinto culture and is the most important Inari Shrine in Japan. It is dedicated to the God of rice. Throughout the trails we found lots of statues of foxes carrying something in their mouths. We later found out that the foxes are the rice god’s messengers.

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The torii gates have been donated by many Japanese businesses and looked very beautiful even in the overcast light. We went up to the top and arrived soaking wet from sweat as usual.

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Our next stop is one of the most famous sights in Japan. The Byodo-in Temple with the Phoenix Hall, also known as Hoo-Do Hall. The hall has just undergone restoration and the scaffolding has only just been taken off. The hall was built in 1053AD and has two phoenixes sat on the roof, and as a result has since been known as the Phoenix hall. Such is the high regard of the temple that it is on the ¥10 coin.

The temple is 962 years old and was built to reach nirvana by a Regent to the Emperor. At the time people thought Buddhism was dying out and Byodoin sought to reverse this. The hall is very small but even in it’s current state of renovation it is beautiful. No photos were allowed. I’ll try and describe it. At the centre of the room there was a beautiful Buddha statue. It was carved from Japanese cypress and uses a technique called yosegi-zukuri so that you cannot see all the joins. The Buddha was then coated in lacquer before gold foil was added. The Buddha was sat on a wooden waterlily in the lotus position with a trellis behind, on which sit 52 brightly coloured floating figurines. Each one is sat on a cloud, each one is different. Some carry musical instruments including drums and a violin-like instrument. Others are meditating or praying. The entrance door is painted with an exquisite landscape scene and every inch of wall in the hall is brightly painted in red, green and blue. The area was probably around 10m in length and 6m wide, small but highly decorative.

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After the hall, we went to take the obligatory photo of the front. We had our ¥10 coin at the ready as it has the hall imprinted on one side. The ¥10,000 note has the image of the phoenixes that sit on the hall, but we didn’t have one on us. A rain shower followed and we had to wait an age for Andrew to try and take a panorama shot but it kept cutting out the top. The screen on our camera shows it perfectly aligned but then chops parts off when you take the shot. Luckily, I took over, swapped lens and stood right at the front of the crowd of people.

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The Phoenix Hall, Kyoto

Then we went in the museum, which has a few exhibits from hall. Inside, there was a full-size replica of what the hall would have looked like in it’s heyday, but no photos were allowed here either. We wandered into the shop and bought something, 3 postcards for ourselves. We rarely buy anything from the shops as they generally have nothing to do with what you have just seen. But we wanted some reminder of Byodoin Hall.

After waiting for the rain to stop we headed for the exit to find a heron wandering. It seemed to be waiting for a fish.

Heron in Byodoin Garden

Only two places today but the first was free and the contrast between the red torii and the green trees was extremely good. Then we followed it up by seeing the highly decorative phoneix hall and there was no queue, which all the reviews had referenced.

Thoughts on Kyoto

There are many cities in the world that people say you have to go to. On arrival in Kyoto it looked like a generic Japanese city. Styled in the 1960s it didn’t look like anything special. However, Kyoto is a fantastic city and you can spend days exploring the temples and the shrines. There are a handful of museums as well, which we didn’t have any time to see. On top of that it is a foodie paradise. Japan has the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants in the world with many in Kyoto. There are restaurants everywhere and they are of a very high quality. Even the cheap curry place we went to tasted good. Bakeries are plentiful and they are not the same type as in China with strange bread, here they have proper French bakeries using butter and making real croissants.
The transport system is also good and you can get day passes for the buses and trains or a combined pass. Because it is a big tourist city, English is prevalent and many people speak enough to be able to help you. Signs are in English and there are major transport hubs around the city. Online information about Kyoto is also very good, making it an easy city to navigate around. I really liked Kyoto, it was clean and the people were friendly. The major attractions were very quiet and peaceful. I want to come back in the Autumn as the gardens and temples will be spectacular. I am coming back at some point and I think everyone should consider visiting Japan too.

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