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.

Shrines and Cable Cars in the Snow

The first thing I realised this morning is that everywhere closes on Monday. And I mean everywhere. Or at least everywhere that I wanted to visit. Hence, Deoksugung Palace, the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Changyeonggung Palace have all been delegated to the future. After over an hour of trawling guide book, map and internet to figure out what was open I set out, revelling in the falling snow.

I walked to Jogyesa Temple via the Bosingak Belfry. The Belfry houses a bell that used to be rung 33 times in the morning to signal the opening of the city gates and then 24 times in the evening to signal their closing. I could not see the bell but there was a wall in the nearby station that explains its full history. The Jogyesa Temple is the centre of Buddhism in South Korea, and was a beautiful splash of colour in the snow. It was extremely restful to walk around and warm myself by the outdoor heaters as I listened to the melodic chants of worship.

I wound my way through snow clad streets, admiring the many hanok style buildings as I left the busiest roads behind on my walk to the Jongmyo Shrine. Arriving at the gates, I was alarmed to see a large number of people milling outside the gate but no one entering. Had perhaps the opening times online been wrong? Or was it closed because of the snow? Heart sinking, I walked closer until I saw a board bearing a list of languages, and a separate time for each. Somehow in all my reading I had missed that entrance to the Shrine was by tour only. This is done to preserve the UNESCO world heritage site. By some wondrous miracle, the next English tour was only two minutes away and within no time I had entered the breath taking shrine. I expect that it is normally picturesque, but the snow laden trees and rooftops were straight from a wintery postcard, if not better.

The shrine was built to house the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings, their queens and some of their most devoted government officials. The central stone path to the main shrine, Jeongjeon, is comprised of three lanes, the two outer lanes are for the king and crown prince, while the centre one is for the spirits to make their way along. The shrines are undoubtedly impressive and just a little imposing but I must confess it is the surrounding woodland that captivates me the most. In Guernsey the world stops at the sight of a single snowflake, but here in Seoul life continues as normal, it is only among this forest that the snow lies untouched and winter reigns.

The bark of the juniper tree is used to make an aromatic incense used in the ancestor summoning rituals held at the shrine every year. The circular island represents heaven while the square pond is Earth.

With the tour over I head to Namsan Park and take the cable car up to Seoul Tower. This is a pleasant way to spend some of the afternoon, just meandering the various attractions, although there were a lot of “coming soon” signs. I particularly liked the Ssentoy Museum which had a large selection of Marvel figurines, models and dioramas. The view from the observation deck of the tower was rather limited but I did get a lovely aerial view of some of Namsan Park and the section of the old city wall that runs through it.

Deciding the to relax for the remainder of the afternoon I head back the to hostel, stopping at an underground shopping centre to browse a some pretty shoes and handbags.