Last Day in Kyoto

Today was a relaxed affair. I briefly visited Tofukuji Temple and Toji Temple to stroll around their respective gardens before wrapping up my sightseeing in Kyoto by visiting the Jonangu Shrine. The gardens of all three were lovely, with my favourite being those of Jonangu Shrine. Instead of going into detail about each of the gardens (there are only so many adjectives one can use to describe gardens and after four days my creativity has run dry) I’m just going to leave a little montage of photos.

Tomorrow I travel down to Tanabe from where I will set out to walk part of the Kumano Kodo. This set of UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage routes is a really beautiful part of Japan and hopefully it will be a nice chance for me to recharge my introverted batteries before continuing with the rest of my trip. I am excited to be visiting the three Kumano shrines over the New Year when there are bound to be lots worshipers doing Hatsumode, the first Shinto shrine visit of the year. Since walking isn’t the most interesting thing to write about, I will most likely leave off covering my journey on a daily basis and instead sum up my entire Kumano Kodo experience in one or two posts after the fact. So, ta ta for now and I’ll see you in the New Year, may it be a pleasant and joyful one for all.

Walking Kyoto

As a tourist it is easy to jump on and off buses or trains, only every seeing the “must sees” and never stopping to look at anything else. To try and combat this, today I decided to walk between the temples and shrines that I planned to visit. This proved to one of my better ideas and, other than the gardens at Ginkakuji Temple, provided the best scenery of the day.

I started by looking around the gardens of the Heian-jingu Shrine. Sadly, while the gardens had the potential to be really beautiful, I felt that winter definitely wasn’t the intended viewing period. There were a lot of bare trellises and empty spaces that were waiting for spring so they could be clothed in greenery once more. This isn’t to say the whole garden was a dissappointment, I felt childish glee crossing the pond via stepping stones and the second half felt a little more winter orientated with a larger selection of evergreens.

From Heian-jingu I past a few minor shrines and temples and walked through a graveyard as I headed in the direction of Ginkakuji Temple. I ended up ambling next to a quaint little stream which was boarded with picturesque houses and shops. Part way along, I came across a little studio that offered the opportunity to try using a potters’ wheel and had a promising amount of English signage. Deciding this would be the perfect souvenir, I attempted to spin a (somewhat wobbly looking) bowl, which will be fired and sent back to Guernsey in due course.

After this little aside, I continued on to my original destination, speeding up towards the end so as to avoid a tour group that had just offloaded from a bus. Unlike the crush of people at the Golden Pavilion, Ginkakuji Temple had a steady flow of people that didn’t get congested around singular points. This immediately won it a few brownie points in my book and then the exquisite landscaping did the rest.

There is very little grass within most of the temples, instead moss covers the grounds and here was no exception. There was a multitude of mosses from emerald to forest green, all creating a lush carpet. The large number of evergreens kept the garden feeling alive and created a mystical air. I was extremely impressed with the attention to detail, from the veined stones used in the pathway to the bamboo grids used to discreetly hide the metal gratings of drains, no step was too far to ensure visitors felt fully immersed in nature.

I next looked around the Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, where tents and awnings were being pitched in preparation for New Years celebrations. The surrounding woodland was very scenic, though I will admit to feeling a little superstitious when a murder of crows started cawing at me.

I wrapped up the day with some rather bland yakitori skewers in the Gion district. I think in the future I shall have to avoid the “recommended for overseas visitors” option on menus.

Christmas in Kyoto

Christmas doesn’t exist in Japan. The few churches might hold a service and every now and then one might see a bit of tinsel, but Christmas isn’t celebrated in Japan. There is no public holiday, no discordant carolling and no celebration. It is, perhaps, for the best. I think that had my first Christmas away from home been full of reminders for what I was missing, I would have ended up curling up in a ball and crying to myself all day. As it was, I had a very enjoyable day and since there was no public holiday, I could continue with my sightseeing.

This does not mean I made no concessions for Christmas. I started the day by heading to St. Anges Anglican International Church of Kyoto for a lovely little service followed by tea and coffee across the road. It was an interesting and though provoking sermon about how we are all bearers of God and the hymn selection bought a lovely bit of Christmas cheer to my day. As everyone headed off to work after tea and coffee, I crossed the road to meander through the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace.

The Palace itself is closed on Mondays so the gardens were very quite. They weren’t the amazingly landscaped gardens that Japan is famous for however there were a few small shrines and walled off gardens which were very pretty and peaceful. Checking my map, I walked over to Nijo-jo Castle, glancing nervously at the sky as it carefully targeted my glasses with rain. Eventually I was forced to give in and get my Umbrella out as I approached the castle.

Nijo-jo Castle is a lasting symbol of the power on the Japanese Shogunate during the Edo Period of Japan and it really lived up to this impressive caption. Many on the interior wall paintings had backgrounds of gold dust and the attention to detail on the brass ceiling bracket was astounding. One thing I would be curious to know is how they kept warm though as I began to feel the chill walking through the gardens. Unlike the more park like layout of the Imperial Palace, the gardens surrounding the castle were painstakingly crafted with exquisite rock and water formations that photos cannot do justice to.

After some tasty matcha noodles, I caught the train to Inari station to see the famous Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine. The photos of hundreds, if not thousands of torii gates leading up the mountain are almost synonymous with Japan. The tunnels of these vermilion arches wind upwards towards the summit and as I ascend, the heaving crowds begin to subside.

My family has something of a tradition of taking photos of wearing Santa hats every Christmas and I had been tasked with getting a photo of myself in one today, despite being on the opposite side of the world. Fortunately, I had found a nice hat in Seoul and so spent the day taking selfies of myself in said hat. It was as I was taking one of these selfies in front of a torii gate tunnel, that someone asked me to take a few photos of them. After returning the favour, we began walking up the mountain together. I couldn’t help but smile at the exclamation of wow my new companion made every time we reach a new flight of stairs.

It was on one such flight close to the summit that we merged with a group of Australians. After a slew of photos in front of the main summit shrine and a good natured argument about who was the best photographer and iPhone versus Android, we all descended together to go our separate ways. Even though I was with a talkative group, above the more tourist saturated areas, the tranquil otherness of the surrounding forest was palpable and I couldn’t help but think that the trees were watching.

After a tasty 7-Eleven meal, freshly heated in the microwave, I concluded the day with a Christmas video call back home.

The Chaos of Kyoto

My Kyoto adventure began with a five minute walk to Kodaiji Temple where I walked around the scenic gardens before continuing on to Kiyomizu Temple. The walk to the temple was along several traditional streets. These beautiful old buildings housed a variety of shops selling souvenirs, food or offering kimono rentals. The whole street was packed with people and I was carried up the hill at a suffocatingly slow speed with the rest of the masses, unable to overtake for fear of colliding with someone coming in the opposite direction.

Kiyomiza Temple is currently being renovated to stop the lower level collapsing and having a new roof put on so was wrapped up in scaffolding. It did offer me the opportunity to read about how the bark of Japanese Cypress trees is collected and used for roofing which was very interesting. I particularly liked the mock up cross sections of the roof that were used to illustrate the interior structure.

Having passed through the temple, I strolled down the path through the gardens before making my way past kimono clothed couples and groups to get to the bus stop. My next stop was Kinkakuji Temple, or as most might know it, the Golden Pavilion. I’m more of a silver person myself but as a tourist, I felt duty bound to visit it. It was undeniably impressive and I would be curious to learn about how the gold plating was added. However, that crowds boarded on being overwhelming as everyone jostled to get first a photo, then a selfie, and then have someone take their photo. I even had my someone use my head like a tripod. I mean I know I’m short but they could have waited for me to move rather than just resting their arms on my head.

Escaping the chaos, I walked along to Ryoanji Temple this was mercifully quieter and I really enjoyed strolling through the beautiful gardens. I was most notably taken with the famous zen garden. While the pictures I have seen of it in the past were pleasant, it was only seeing it in person that I felt that I could comprehend its many layers and true tranquillity.

Carrying this lasting peace with me, I walked through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. With the sun beginning to set and looming rain clouds it wasn’t too crowded and proved to be a pleasant way to end the day before I retreated to my hostel out of the rain.