Kyoto, Gion, Geisha anecdotes

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I’m including Kyoto, Gion, Geisha and other “forgotten” bits and pieces in this blog post.  It is going to be a jumble of all the ad hoc things I haven’t included in my previous posts; the.  I could have incorporated some/all of these the topics into my previous posts, but that would have made them even longer!  In between all of this, I had to move hotels again.  Luckily, Kyoto Inn Gion has a sister hotel only a few hundred meters way, aptly named Kyoto Inn Gion the Second.  I underestimated how popular Kyoto is, with Kyoto Inn Gion fully booked hence the forced moved.  My new location was even better than the first (second in Kyoto), and there was nothing wrong with the first.  I combined my last two full days in Kyoto into one post, Kyoto – Bamboo Forest, Kinkaku-ji, Fushimi Inari Taisha, take a look if you like.

I must give a shout out to the hotel staff at both Kyoto Inn Goins.  Moving can be a chore, as I was moving to their sister hotel, I didn’t need to do any paperwork at all.  Seems trivial, but it’s the little things that count.  Adding to their efficiency they were always super friendly, and helpful especially when I asked for help or clarification with my enunciation.  To top it off the sister hotel’s room was much bigger, the biggest I had had in Japan.  A big room is never high on my list of priorities still, a little more space is always welcomed.

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My morning coffee in an artisan cup and saucer – Kyoto Inn Gion the Second.

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My room at Kyoto Inn Gion the Second – the biggest room I had in Japan, great service too – Gion, Kyoto

My favourite parts of the city

Kyoto is a cool city with something, or maybe that’s just me…I doubt it though.  The outer areas are packed full of shrines and temples, especially at the bases of the mountains, no matter which direction.   Thinking about it, no matter where you are in Kyoto you are never far from a temple, shrine or historical site.  I cannot tell you how many places I walked past that in the very least I would have loved to poke my head into.  In the city centre Gion, Shinkyogoku-dori Street and Pontocho-dori were by far my favourite areas.

Gion – Crossing the Kamo River you could be mistaken for thinking you’re in a different city. Filled with traditional shops, the heart of Gion still glimmers with the distant past.  Gion offers up its best when you get of the main roads and into the narrow backstreets.  If you took away the paved roads, Gion is like taking a step back in time.  Wooden houses with bamboo fronts, I’m so glad I moved hotels, and lucky to have stayed in Gion for most of my time in Kyoto.

Shinkyogoku-dori – Not that shopping is my thing, but it’s a nice alternative to walking through the many malls in Kyoto. I’d say it’s a mix of market stalls with a few high street shops too, worth a visit or just a walk through.

Pontocho-dori – Running parallel to Kamo River on the West side only a block from the river, this is the second-best place to spot Geisha/Geiko/Maiko. It’s a narrow road, more like an alleyway, packed with quaintness and authenticity.  From curio shops to high-end traditional restaurants, it’s a great place to amble about at night.

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The main road that runs through the heart of historical Gion – Kyoto

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Pontocho-dori, the second-best place to spot Geisha/Geiko/Maiko (Yes I have used this picture before) – Kyoto

Geisha, actually Geiko

First things first, the differences between Geisha, Geiko and Maiko:

Geisha and Geiko:

  • They are the same thing. A Geiko is a Geisha from Kyoto, and a Geisha comes from Tokyo
  • Their hair is elaborately made up, with little and very understated accessories
  • Kimonos have less patterns, if there are patterns, they will be on the bottom half of the kimono
  • Their leggings are often pink or a light colour with no patterns
  • They were flatter sandals
  • The above are the easiest to remember and spot quickly. There are quite a few other visual differences, but I won’t get into all of them

Maiko:

  • They are apprentice Geiko/Geisha
  • Their hair isn’t as elaborately made up compared to a Geisha/Geiko, however they do have more (and larger) decorative and colourful hair accessories. Many of them have what looks like a small wind chime on their right-side of their head
  • Kimonos have more colours and patterns throughout (top to bottom)
  • Their leggings are red and often have a white floral pattern
  • Junior Maiko’s top lip does not have lipstick and is instead white
  • Their sandals are thicker like platforms

Most of the time people, including myself, mistake Maikos for Geisha/Geiko.  There I was snapping away at Maikos thinking they were Geikos.  Whether it is true or not I don’t know, but Geishas are not often seen walking to work so naturally they are spotted less.  During my search to capture them I only saw seven of them.  One two occasions, a Geisha (not Maiko) was getting into a taxi.  She was too far away, with it happening so suddenly I didn’t get the chance to take a picture.  Another two occasions I say Maikos at a distance, then disappearing into buildings, again I was too slow.

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Finally saw a Maiko coming from a distance, but couldn’t get my camera settings sorted before she whizzed past! – Gion, Kyoto

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…like I said, this Maiko whizzed past! – Gion, Kyoto

Two things I observed when out looking for Geishas.  Firstly, they walk silently.  You would think with all that clothing and those shoes they would make a noise, not at all, they are as stealthy!  Secondly, they walk bloody fast!  Living in London I learnt to walk fast, but the Maikos and Geikos walk very fast.  Considering how restrictive their clothing looks, and none that I saw were particularly tall, wow they move like the wind!  Even as they speed through the street you cannot escape how elegantly they do so.

There is a decorum to taking Geisha’s/Maiko’s pictures.  Yes, you can do so when they are out in public.  Don’t block their path in order to get a frontal picture.  Never try to stop them to ask for a picture nor talk to them i.e. try to distract them.  It may be a novelty to tourists, nonetheless they are on their way to work so stopping them would be rude and inconsiderate.  In the end I managed to capture two Maikos (ok pictures) and one Geiko one the move.  I call the latter an action shot a.k.a. not a very good photo that is out of focus ?

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Me acting like the paparazzi, snapping a passing Maiko – Gion, Kyoto

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My “action hot” of a Geiko/Geisha. The only Geiko/Geisha I was able to capture – Gion, Kyoto

Gion Corner Yasaka Hall

It’s the Kyoto Traditional Musical Foundation with the show broken into seven segments.  Each different, with a separate unrelated topic.  Cost is ¥3150 per adult, but they do have group discounts.  I tried getting in twice, on the first occasion the queue was so long I decided not to go.  A tip from the hotel staff was to get there at least 1 hour before the show starts; they have a limited number of seats meaning it’s first come first served.  The whole show only takes 50-60 minutes, something I would recommend going to see if it fits your budget.

Chado / Tea Ceremony – Watching any skilful craftsperson is interesting, and that’s exactly what the tea ceremony is all about.  Tea tasting was brought to Japan by Zen Buddhist priests during the Heian Period (12th Century).  A sombre ceremony yet intriguing, and embodiment of Japanese culture; striving for perfection, purpose and beauty even in the most mundane tasks of life.

Koto / Japanese Harp – A unique sound that reverberates the soundtrack of ancient Japan and China.  An eerie soulful resonance that penetrates the heart and mind.  It echoes and yearns for the past and found the sound to be solitudinous.

Kado / Flower Arrangement – Interesting, with the use of different and beautiful flowers.  However, this was my least favourite part of the show

Gagaku / Court Music – More of a theatrical performance with traditional music, Gagaku means “elegant music”, but includes dancing and singing.  Originating in China circa. 7th century it made its way to Japan in the 8th Century, slowly fading out of popularity in China.  Today it can be classified as authentically Japanese.

Kyogen / Ancient Comic Play – It’s amazing how comedy transcends language and culture.  Kyogen is akin to slapstick, so not knowing the language really makes no difference at all.  Alcohol often works well in these situations, and here sake plays a key role.  These sorts of plays have been popular since the 16th century

Kyomai / Kyoto Style Dance – Performed by a junior Maiko and Maiko, I enjoyed this part of the show the most.  Maybe not for the reason would think…finally get close to a Maiko without them zooming past me with their quick little steps ?.  They perform a traditional dance using slow, graceful and elegant movements done with precision and purpose.  The performance was moving and emotional, to me it had a tinge of melancholy.  I’d like to see more Japanese traditional dances, very interesting.  I’ll leave it at that.

Bunraku (Puppet Play) – Watching it made me reminisce of the puppet shows I saw in Vietnam (Hanoi and Hoi An), without the water.  I suppose it is the equivalent of watching a short Shakespeare play.  With an underlying story parallel to true accounts hundreds of years ago.  Like Romeo and Juliet, two star crossed lovers have a wedge forced between them by a protagonist.  In the end they are reunited to kindle a love which is shunned by society.

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An art instillation by Yayoi Kusama outside Yasaka Hall Gion Corner (by the theatre) – Gion, Kyoto

Restaurants and food displays

If you like steak then Japan is the place for you, especially Kobe and Kyoto.  It’s not just the top-end restaurants that get booked up, they all do!  There is a restaurant to match everyone’s purse strings, I opted for the middle ground.  With a plethora of restaurants to choose from, I sought the advice from the hotel staff at reception.  Always happy to help, they suggested a restaurant called 1596, called and book a table for me.  I’m pretty sure 1596 is not the Japanese name for the restaurant.  For some or other reason I struggled to find the address when writing this, however this link will take you to it (address for 1596).  It goes without saying, the menu for steak is quite extensive and the results was a meaty meal I had been craving!  Easily in the top 10 best steaks I have ever had, the glass of red wine (two) went down just as well too.

At first, I thought the waiters were not very good.  I kept looking up to grab their attention, except they seemed to be ignoring me.  Only after watching the people next to me did I have my eureka moment, silly me!  Waiters here leave customers alone; my guess is they see it as intrusive.  If you want help/service, you call them.  I doubt whistling or clicking your fingers would be accepted, but a respectful call out is all they need.  Once I adapted the service couldn’t have been any better – though at first, I was a little embarrassed.  Personally, I much prefer the Japanese style.  You get to eat in peace, without someone constantly coming over to ask you how the meal is…invariably when your mouth is full of food.

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1596 steak restaurant in Gion – Kyoto

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Part of the steak menu at the restaurant 1596 in Gion – Kyoto

Again, another recommendation of my hotel, a soup and noodle restaurant called Musoshin; around the corner from Kenninji Temple.  Considerably cheaper than the steak restaurant, yet just as tasty and a different experience too.  As a rookie to Japan I didn’t know what to do when I arrived.  It’s a very small restaurant, more like a café in size; with only two employees, including the chef.  In order to make a convoluted story succinct I’ll summarise.  Before taking a seat there is a ticket vending machine at the entrance; you select what you want, including drinks, pay and it prints out your order and receipt.  You give this to one of the employees when you sit down, and they get one with preparing your food.  If you want something else, you go back to the ticket machine and repeat the process; you cannot order &/or pay to anyone.

To make things more interesting, the ticket machine is entirely in Japanese, except for rice.  The confused look on my face caught the attention of the non-chef, thankfully he helped me order.  There were a few pictures of dishes that looked interesting, I pointed to which one and he in turn showed me which buttons to press.  For the price, and I honestly cannot remember how much it cost, it was a full heart delicious meal (and beer) and cheap!

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My dinner at the restaurant Musoshin in Gion, ordered from the vendor waiter machine 🙂 – Gion, Kyoto

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The “vendor waiter” at Musoshin – Gion, Kyoto

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Might not seem like much, but Musoshin is a great little restaurant with excellent prices – Gion, Kyoto

I ate at a few other places, a suchi restaurant which was fantastic, just cannot remember the name.  Another restaurant was just like eating at a family member’s house, not far from the hotel too – heap as chips!  Although Kyoto (Japan as a whole) is expensive there are many cheap ways to eat out without breaking the bank.  Looking back, I can’t recall every having a bad experience with the restaurants or food.  Ah yes, almost forgot!  Many restaurants have window displays of their food.  Only thing is, the displays are plastic moulds!  Most of them look extremely realistic, they can really help know what food is sold without needing to read Japanese.

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Plastic food displays in the windows of some of the restaurants in Kyoto

Kyoto

I think this was a green tea matcha latte (may have been a keto). I had mine with no sugar, tasted excellent – Kyoto

Black Kites

Kyoto surprised me in many ways. For a city of such size and population you are never far from nature.  Whether it’s the beautiful gardens at shrines and temple to the surrounding mountains.  Even inside the city there are canals full of fish and ducks (click on the link and scroll down to the second last picture).  The Kamo River cuts through Kyoto from North to South, with many bridges frequented by tourists and locals just taking in the sites.  One thing you are almost guaranteed to see every time are Black Kites.  I tried my best to get some clear pictures, a rather challenging task with a moving target in the sky…if only they would keep still for a second or two! ?

Kyoto

One of the many Black Kites flying over the Kamo River right in the city centre. They seem to hang around near the bridges – Kyoto

Vending Machines

Kyoto and Tokyo are full of vending machines one the pavements/sidewalks.  Tokyo surprised me by the sheer number of them, I reconciled this with the fact of it being such vast and populated city.  Seems vending machines are the norm, with Kyoto no different.  In Gion they seem to stick out like a sore thumb.  Gion for most part is very traditional, from restaurants to architecture. It even has a different vibe to the West side of Kamo River.  Anyway, I just found it interesting at the number of vending machines, most of which sell drinks…of any and every kind you can think of.  Why so many vending machines, I don’t know?  It’s not like there aren’t any shops around, and with so many machines it’s unlikely you’ll die of dehydration from one road to the next.

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Random I know! There are so many vending machines throughout Tokyo and Kyoto, these were in Gion – Japan

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Yup, another vending machine in a random place, they are everywhere. This was over the road from the Kyoto Inn Gion the Second – Kyoto

Haircut

Another quick shout out and thanks to Koichi Ikemoto, the owner of Yoshida Barber shop Kewpie.  Around 100m from my hotel at 434 Minamisaikaishichō, Higashiyama-ku, 東山区 Kyōto-fu.  A real Japanese barber with a Rock ’n Roll/Rockabilly styling.  Koichi was super cool, his English considerably better than my Japanese, which is near nonexistent.  Even so, he cracked up a conversation and the haircut results were excellent, even if I say so myself.  No, I didn’t take a photo, pity.  You may have guessed I’m not one for selfies, a shame not to have shown off Koishi’s stylish work.  Thanks Koishi!

Toilets

I imagine it’s not to often to have a section in a blog about toilets. Come to think of it if I include all my experiences, I could easily write a whole blog post on toilets.  Don’t worry, this will not be a crass paragraph.  I’ve included the photo below, which was the simplest toilet device.  From heated toilet seats, different types of sprays and strengths, they do almost everything.  I even had one that blows air (various cool to warm settings) to dry you off instead of using toilet paper.  At my first hotel in Tokyo, the toilet must have had close to 10 buttons!  That, along with Wi-Fi and power to plug your phone into…why leave the bathroom at all! ? Ps. at all my hotels in Japan the bathrooms mirrors were heated so they don’t steam up, love that!

Kyoto Inn Gion

My on-suite at Kyoto Inn Gion the Second. Small, compact but with everything and more than you need. Spotless too! – Gion, Kyoto

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Love the toilet controls in Japan, this one was the least sophisticated – Kyoto, Japan

Transport

Arriving in a new country or city can have its challenges, especially if the local language is different to your own.  What can exacerbate the anxiety, is if the written language has no resemblance to your own.  Getting around Japan was a doddle, I’d go so far as to say pleasurable.  Google Maps is a godsend, but if your mobile/cell phone doesn’t work overseas it doesn’t matter – mine was.  My hotel was always willing to help &/or give guidance and suggestions.  The JR Pass was definitely cost effective for me.  Had I not bought one my travel would have been close to double what I paid!

The customer service and help from staff at the Metro’s were always very helpful, the language was never much of a problem.  And, within the major/large towns/cities the signage is in Japanese and English.  I think I many have mentioned (a few times ?), that the busses, trains and Metro’s are spotless – the cleanest public transport I have ever used.  On one occasion I got onto a bus on the wrong side of the road, really no harm done, losing 30 minutes of my day…hardly the stuff to write about.

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Public transport is super efficient and spotless! – Kyoto

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The Shinkansen (bullet train), with plenty of leg space even with my lying at an angle. Grrrrr don’t know where the rest of my photos of the Shinkansen are – Japan

Manga Museum and Samurai Museum

For me there were only two disappointments in Kyoto, firstly the Manga Museum and secondly the Samurai Museum.

  • Manga Museum – This is in all probability because of my expectations instilled by Western “Manga”. Manga is huge in Japan, but “my style” of Manga is more the warrior type.  At the museum it covers all the spectrums of Manga, which I’m not as au fait with.  If Manga is your cup of tea, don’t let my opinion deter you
  • Samurai Museum – It’s not a museum per se. I’d say it’s more like a tourist attraction, where you can dress up in samurai clothing and get your photo taken.  I was very keen to find out more about the samurai, finding it odd there was little to nothing to accommodate it – except for the “museum”.

That’s the end of my mix-match Kyoto blog post.  I know the photos are not cool or unique, but they hold fond memories for me.  Sure, seeing the popular sites is great fun, yet it’s all the little moments that are special and leave a lasting memory. Kyoto was awesome, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute, just wished I had seen more.  I learnt loads about Japan, the Japanese people, their history and religion, but only scratched the surface and would love to learn more.

Additional random pictures from Kyoto

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Shijo-dori (street) – Kyoto

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Back streets of Gion a little deserted during the rain (I was out looking for Geisha/Geiko – Kyoto

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The narrow back streets of Gion – Kyoto

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One of the narrow alleyways in Gion. These are one of the best places to experience Gion – Kyoto

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Entrance to a house in the historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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One of the narrow streets off the main road in the historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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Historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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In the historical quarter of Gion, this type of shopfront is common – Gion, Kyoto

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Rickshaw rides are common in Gion and any of the main tourist attractions – Kyoto

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A typical side street in Kyoto

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Walking back from 1596, stomach full after a great meal! Don’t know why I like this photo, just do – Gion, Kyoto

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Some random photo of a shop in Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto – Bamboo Forest, Kinkaku-ji, Fushimi Inari Taisha

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I’m combining day four and five, covering the Bamboo Forest, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Fushimi Inari Taisha.  This wasn’t my plan, but day four’s schedule had a hiccup.  Day four was going to be Katsura Imperial Villa and Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.  Owing to my fantastic planning, I assumed Katsura Imperial Villa could be visited as easily as Kyoto Imperial Palace.  Not so!  Another reason for combining these days is because I’ve missed all the other bits and pieces for each day in the previous post.  So, following this post I’m going to do one on the food, people, theatre, Gion and Geishas.

Returning to the subject of my hiccup on day four, it was my fault.  Taking a small detour to see Katsura Imperial Villa as my first stop of the day.  Going against my better judgement, I did find it peculiar when leaving Katsura station there were no signs to the Imperial Villa.  As a result of the lack of signage (and me not looking at my Google Maps properly ?), I took a detour finally getting to the entrance.  When I finally got there, a very polite lady told me I needed to book a ticket in advance…with a minimum 3 week waiting list!  There was a small possibility that if I came back the next day, I may have been able to get a ticket if someone cancelled.  That would mean me getting there at 10:00 and waiting till 14:00.  Hmmm, that wasn’t going to happen.  So, I dragged myself back to the train station and headed to stop number two, which became stop number one.

Arashiyama / Storm Mountain

One and a half hours of the day wasted made me mildly disappointed whilst heading to Arashiyama. I was going to Arashiyama to see the Bamboo Forest.  You only need to Google the bamboo forest and you will see why I wanted to go.  That, and many Japanese movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have scenes in bamboo forests had me sold.  There is a lot more to see in Arashiyama which I didn’t because I didn’t know about, much like Uji.  Well, that’s not totally true.  My Kyoto map covered the city and surrounding towns sites extensively.  Like I’ve said before, it’s just not possible to see everything so you just have to prioritise.  Sometimes I’ve been luck, other not, but overall, I’d say I’ve been very lucky throughout my travels.  Considering how long I spent there I’m still surprise (only a little) by how little I saw – I’ll explain shortly.

Popular or famous picturesque sites are often very different in reality!  Of course, you can wake up before the birds start singing to be first in line just so you can get that perfect photo.  That’s just not me, nor do I travel and take photos just to get “that” shot.  If I was a professional photographer sure I’d only want the perfect photo, but I’m not.  I want experiences and my photos are for my memories.  Yes, I have woken up before the crack of dawn, but never with the sole purpose of an obligatory picture.  I want the experience of the moment to be the dominant factor not the social media reaction.

Arashiyama

Taken from the Togetsukyō Bridge; Mt. Arashi on the left with Ōi River – Arashiyama, Kyoto

Arashiyama

Traditional flat-bottom boat on the Ōi River, Mount Arashi behind – Arashiyama Kyoto

Arashiyama

Mount Arashi on the left, with a little house/temple/shrine hidden in the forest – Arashiyama, Kyoto

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest – Arashiyama, Kyoto

Needless to say, the zen like pictures of the bamboo forest on Google/Instagram etc. are not what you see in reality…like so many other places.  Walking five to six abreast most of the time in a looooong queue!  It goes without saying, the bamboo forest is beautiful, interesting and different.  Would I have gone if I knew it would be that busy?  Honestly, likely not.  You couldn’t even hear the wind rustling through the treetops with so many people.  Such a place (in my opinion) should be quiet and serene, where you feel more in touch with nature.  Not where you wish you brought your headphones.  You may have already guessed, I was disappointed with the visit ?!

For that reason, I didn’t spend much time at the bamboo forest nor Arashiyama.  Just to clarify, I didn’t storm in and out leaving in a huff.  After walking through the bamboo forest, I wondered about the area following the troves of people.  Following people as if on a conveyor belt passing lots of places that would have tickled my fancy.  Here I’d be interested along with thousands of others (a sure way to wane my interest and curiosity).  Queuing up wasn’t high on my list, so I headed back to the train station.  I really don’t want to deter anyone from visiting the bamboo forest.  My suggestion would be to go early or very late.  Either way I cannot promise solitude.

All in all, I spent a few hours in Arashiyama, hence my surprise about how little I saw, or paid attention to.  Therefore, I ask you to please excuse the lack of “WOW” photos!  As I alluded to, I have none of the clichéd pictures you see online.  That really was most of my day, which drove my decision to include the next days’ stops into this post.  On the agenda would be two locations on opposite sides of Kyoto, well worth it!

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest – Arashiyama, Kyoto

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest – Arashiyama, Kyoto

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest – Arashiyama, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Famous for its torii paths entwined up Mt Inari, Fushimi Inari Taisha is located in South East Kyoto.  It took me less than 30 minutes to get there from my hotel (short walk and train).  Nezu Shrine in Tokyo was my introduction to torii paths, but Fushimi Inari Taisha is on an industrial scale by comparison.   With my usual lack of foresight, I decided to go without much research about the place…the pictures on the net look cool, so that was thorough enough research for me. The visited ended up being excellent, despite my first impressions being reminiscent of the bamboo forest.  My litmus test, would I go again, definitely!

Arriving at Fushimi Inari Taisha, I was taken aback; to say the place was busy is a serious understatement – far busier than the bamboo forest!  Yes, I was disappointed.  Oh well I was here, so why not fall in with the crowd, spend a little time there then head off… oh ye of little faith!  The entrance was packed, that’s no lie nor exaggeration!  Like zombies scuffling aimlessly to an unknown destination, you have a choice or two paths to take at the bottom of the hill – both full of people.  Either way they are the same path, the one is the beginning of the other’s end.  The paths twist through, around and up the Mt Inari like a vermilion serpent.  About half way up the two paths join, from there on wards the crowds dissipate more and more the further up the hill you go.  That is why I say the visit started off disappointingly but ended very well.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

One of the temples at the base of Fushimi Inari Taisha – Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha

At the base of Fushimi Inari Taisha starting the ascent of Mt Inari. Loads of people! – Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

History and background

  • Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine to the god Inari
  • Inari is the god of rice, and the benefactor of business. I guess rice was the main industry hundreds of years ago, so seems a natural evolution.
  • The shrine dates to the Heian Period, the earliest structures dating to 711
  • “Ina” is the Japanese word of “rice”
  • All 10 000+ torii were donated by businesses – this practise started in 1603
  • Mt Inari reaches 233m above sea level
  • There are around 30 000 Inari shrines throughout Japan
  • During the 3 day celebrations of the Japanese New Year the shrine gets over 2 million visitors
Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha – Kyoto

torii

Senborn torii, one of the many torii tunnels – Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Foxes and Fushimi Inari Taisha

Throughout the entire complex you cannot escape the image of the Fox.  Foxes are a common attribute of Inari shrines, often with a key in their mouth, representing the key to the rice granary.  It’s not only keys they grasp in the mouths, sometimes is a jewel, a sheaf of rice or even a cub fox.  I’m guessing they all symbolise the same thing, though I don’t know if this definite. The foxes are messengers and represent a kindred spirit of Inari Okami. There are foxes that roam Mt Inari, but they have nothing to do with the metaphorical invisible foxes.  They call these revered kindreds “byakkosan” (white foxes).  The fox can also symbolise both benevolence and malevolence.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

One of the many shrines up Mt. Inari with byakkosan” (white foxes) holding jewels in their mouths – Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha

A byakkosan (white foxes) drinking fountain at one of the shrines on Mt Inari – Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Torii

If it’s torii you like, then Fushimi Inari Taisha would be your heaven.  Rows of torii are known as Senborn torii, and Mt Inari is the personification of this.  Something I hadn’t known until writing about this is the significance of vermilion red.  I’d seen the colour used throughout my time in Japan, from palaces, temples and shrines but it hadn’t crossed my mind to ask why.  Vermilion red has mythical powers and used as protection against evil forces.  At Fushimi Inari Taisha it also represents a bountiful harvest.

Getting back to my visit, the first half was frustrating and a little irritating.  It’s like trying to enjoy the Mona Lisa with a 7 foot tall person standing in front of you.  The loop around Mt Inari is about 5km and can take anything between 2-3 hours to complete, including stopping for pictures.  It’s an easy walk/hike, but there are lots of stairs and I saw many people huffing and puffing, most only go halfway…their loss.  Actually, I take that back, most of the paths are flat and paved, even when going uphill.  Nevertheless there are a reasonable amount of stairs (nothing like Petra, Portugal etc.), so not everyone’s cup of tea.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Going up Mt Inari at Fushimi Inari Taisha, much quieter the further up you go – Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Senborn torii – Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha’s torii path (the second half ?) curves and winds gently up and around the mountain.  Walking through the tunnels of torii is almost hypnotic, the continuous repetitive red vermilion occasionally broken by a concrete torii.  Leaving the crowds below I finally found the solitude I was craving.  Nothing but the sound of nature around me, walking through these tunnels of red like Alice down the rabbit hole.  The higher I went the more content I became, forgetting to take photos, forgetting the hustle and bustle at the base of the mountain.  These torii, standing individually become one with each other, all standing firm with a sense of permanence and purpose.

I’m not going to pretend I had some spiritual experience, not at all. However, it was the soothing experience I had been missing over the past few days.  From a morning that started out with low expectations, it turned out to exceed my expectations.  My 5km (maybe a little less) loop, up and around Mt Inari was done.  Although the crowds were still at the bottom when I got there, this time round it didn’t bother at all.  Next stop would take me to the North West of Kyoto, about an hours’ journey to Kinkaku-Ji also known as the Golden Pavilion.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Patience paid off, it got quieter and quieter as I ascended up – Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha – Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Yes, more Senborn torii, couldn’t help myself taking so many pictures – Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji / Temple of the Golden Pavilion / Rokuon-ji

It wasn’t that easy getting to Kinkaku-ji from Fushimi Inari Taisha; a walk, train, bus and short walk again.  Only reason for this was because of my starting point and making sure I got on the correct bus…on the right side of the road.  Something I didn’t do when I left Kinkaku-ji heading back to my hotel.  Enough about that.   Officially known as Rokuon-ji, Kinkaku-ji means Temple of the Golden Pavilion and it is as picturesque as you could possibly want.  Even with the sky clouding over in dark grey and the imminence of rain, nothing couldn’t tarnish such a vivid temple.

Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji with some of the representative islands – Kyoto

History and background

Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist Temple, but started out as a villa called Kitayama-dai owned by Saionji Kintsune, a statesman.  The Temple of the Golden Pavilion dates from 1397 when the villa was bought by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who turned it into the Kinkaku-ji complex.  Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was the grandfather of Ashikaga Yoshinari (Ginkaku-ji Temple / Temple of the Silver Pavilion).

As expected in Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji has not escaped untouched by fire in its history.  During the Ōnin war everything in the complex except the pavilion was burnt down.  You would think that was the Golden Pavilion’s lucky break, not so.  It eventually succumbed to fire when a junior monk burnt it down in 1950, after which he tried to commit suicide.  He was sent to jail, due to mental health illnesses he was release not long afterwards.  In 1955 Kinkaku-ji was rebuilt.

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji on the edge of the Kyōko-chi (Mirror Pond) – Rokuon-ji, Kyoto

Golden Pavilion

Some interesting facts about Kinkaku-ji:

  1. It is 12.5 meters high
  2. The 1955 reconstruction has a lot more gold leaf than the original
  3. The word “Kinkaku” is derived from the gold leaf used to cover the pavilion
  4. Gold has a symbolic meaning of purifying any negative thoughts and feelings towards death
  5. Ground floor is called The Chamber of Dharma Waters, designed in the shinden (Shinden-zukuri) style
  6. First floor is called The Tower of Sound Waves, designed samurai (buke-zukuri) style
  7. Second floor is called Cupola of the Ultimate, designed in the zen (zenshū-butsuden-zukuri) style
  8. Kyōko-chi (Mirror Pond) is the name of the large main pond
  9. The islands on the pond represent famous Chinese and Japanese places, the largest represents the islands of Japan
  10. Kinkaku-ji is used to house relics of the Buddha (no one was allowed inside when I visited)
  11. Rokuon-ji Temple’s name comes from Rokuon-in-den; the name given to Ashikaga Yoshimitsu for the next world after his death
Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji with the Daimon-ji hill behind – Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji – Kyoto

Back to my visit

Lets just say my calm demeanour from Fushimi Inari Taisha carried through to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.  Yes, it was bloody busy!  The photos may not show how busy it was, but I’ll take that as a sign of my improved photography skills ?.  But seriously, the place was busier than Fushimi Inari Taisha; not as a total number of people, obviously the area is much smaller but certainly less personal space.  Even so, I would go back many times over.

If someone told you about a gold leafed temple you might think kitsch, ostentatious or pretentious, at least that’s what I would think.  This, however, is a Japanese Zen Temple.  Shimmering gold on the edge of a pond, surrounded by gardens, still, not a hint of extravagance nor pomp.  Kinkaku-ji is a beautiful building, with gardens that compliment and accentuate the temple and vice versa.  In my opinion the setting of Kinkaku-ji is perfect, with all that perfection reflecting off the mirror pond. Manicured gardens of what I’ve come to call giant bonsai, look picture perfect down to every leaf.

Kinkaku-ji

Just one of the many beautifully manicured trees at Kinkaku-ji – Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji – Kyoto

An additional separate pond sits behind and above Kinkaku-ji, with a White Snake Pagoda perched in the middle of a solitary island.  I’ve included the link to the story of the Legend of the White Snake (White Snake Pagoda) – a Chinese mythological story dating back hundreds of years.  Another thing I spotted along the main path, is a tree called Rikushu-no-matsu.  It’s not just any tree, it’s a 600 year old pine tree which has been shaped since planted whilst Ashikaga Yoshimitsu lived at Kinkaku-ji.  Manipulated into what they call a dwarf tree, it has been fashioned into the shape of a boat.  Such patience, care and skill let alone the continuity of these traits for 600 years!  Traditions like these and the commitment to Zen are exemplified in this unique living sculpture.

Kinkaku-ji

The White Snake Pagoda – Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji

Rikushu-no-matsu, the 600 year old dwarf pine tree in the shape of a boat – Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji

Rikushu-no-matsu, dwarf pine tree sculpted and cared for over 600 years – Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

As a final point, I hope you like the photos and I hope they do it justice.  Next post will be a mix of the little things I didn’t include in the previous posts about Kyoto, including Gion and Geishas.  That will be followed by my last two post on Japan, Himeji Castle and Hiroshima, then on to Sydney etc. etc.  If you are reading this, and like reading my blog you can sign up to email alerts on my home page.   Thank for reading.

Kyoto – Byodo-in, Uji, Kiyomizu-dera

Gallery

Kyoto day 3, Byodo-in, Uji and Kiyomizu-dera were my main sites for the day.  Not that much for a full day, but most of the morning was taken up by changing accommodation.  I checked out of my hotel and into my new one in the centre of Gion, as early as possible.  My first hotel was fully booked so extending was not an option, forcing the decision.  If possible, I prefer not to move within the same location/city.  Just as in Tokyo and others (Aswan) when I have, it has been for the better – Gion is an excellent location in Kyoto.

Kyoto Inn Gion is less than 100m from Maruyama Park, my room came with all that I had become accustomed to from a Japanese hotel room and my biggest room yet (not big for European standards).  It reminded me of a little boutique hotel, which made me feel at home compared to my previous larger establishment.  As always, the staff were super friendly and courteous – my booking was for 3 night.  Enough about the hotel for now, I’ll refer back to them every now and ten over the coming days.

Uji

Getting to Uji and Byodo-in Temple from Kyoto (from my hotel), took about 45 minutes in total.  Using my JR Pass, I took the Keihan Main Line (Red) from Gion-Shijo Station, changing at Tofukuji Station onto the Nara Line (brown) getting off at Uji.  Again, even with the language barrier working out the metro was easy.  When I wasn’t sure, it was easy finding someone working at the station who could help in English.  As I’ve already mentioned many times, the staff at the hotels where always more than willing to help.

Even with my time constraints for the day, I could have planned a little better giving me more time in Uji.  There is a lot more to Uji than the Uji River (also called Yodo River and Seta River) and Byodo-in Temple.  Had I planned better (wasted less time swapping hotels), I could easily have spent the whole day there.  That may have come with an opportunity cost, in retrospect I don’t mind having missed some of Uji’s other sites.  More reasons to go back to Japan! ?

Uji

Jusanju sekito stone pagoda on Tachibanajima Island on the Uji River. This 13 tiered pagoda at 15m high, is apparently the highest stone pagoda in Japan (don’t know if that’s true).

Now, the station is only a few hundred metres from the river.  My hasty planning the night before meant I missed a raft of monuments on the bank of the river, including on Tachibanajima Island.  My assumption was that everyone was only there to visit Byodo-in Temple, and taking in the site of the river.  Nope, I was wrong.  Not to get into all that I missed, however next time I’d like to see Hashi-dera Hojo-in Temple, Kosho-ji Temple and Eshin-in Temple.  With Mimurotoji Temple Garden on the top of that list.  Known for its gardens with flowers all year round.

Byodo-in Temple

Stemming from the Heian Period, it serves as both a temple of the Jōdo-shū (Pure Land – Nishi Hongan-ji) and Tendai-shū sects of Buddahism.  To understand Byodo-in Temple’s significance to the Japanese you need look no further than some of its money.  The temple is imprinted on the ¥10 cent coin, and a phoenix on the ¥10 000 note.  I’ll explain about the association with the phoenix shortly.  Not to mention, Byodo-in Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and that it’s been on postage stamps many times too.

Byodo-in

Phoenix Hall, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Byodo-in

Phoenix Hall, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Background

Byodo-in started off as a rural villa for the high-ranking politician Minamoto no Shigenobu.  Fujiwara no Michinaga, another high-ranking politician and powerful member of the Fujiwara clan, bought the villa after Minamoto no Shigenobu’s death.  Fujiwara no Michinaga’s son, Fujiwara no Yorimichi, converted the villa into a Buddhist temple in 1052.  The complex used to consist of other buildings, which burnt down in 1336, the only original building is Phoenix Hall.

Officially named Amida Hall (Amida-dō) after the celestial Buddha Amida (Amitābha/Amitāyus), around the 17th Century it became more commonly known as Phoenix Hall (Hōō-dō).  This change of name was organic not deliberate.  A combination of the ceiling phoenix painting in the main hall, and the metaphorical shape of the temple resembling a bird/phoenix.  Ps. “hōō” is the Chinese phoenix.

Byodo-in

Jodo-in Temple (approx. 17th century), part of Byodo-in Temple complex – Uji, Kyoto

Byodo-in

Picture taken from the back of Phoenix Hall, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Back to my visit

It’s one of the smaller temple complexes I’ve been to, and in perfect condition owing to restoration work in 2014.  Simply put, Byodo-in Temple is a beautifully executed architectural metaphor.  Two symmetric corridors span out on either side from the body of the central hall.  Like a phoenix stretching out its wings to the fullest.  Behind the body its tail fans out long and low.  Three colours dominate the temple, a mixture of terracotta-vermilion for fire, white and grey for the plumage.  The terracotta-vermilion conjuring up flames surrounding the phoenix against its sparse white feathers.  The flames from the underbelly topped by grey tiles with gold crests.

Byodo-in Temple represents the antithesis of harmony through symmetry. Such a contrast, a fiery bird perched on an island in the middle of a pond.  A slight breeze glancing off the water breaking the temple’s reflection into a mirage.  With the gardens surrounding the temple, Byodo-in represents the four elements through architecture – earth, wind, water and fire.

Byodo-in

Phoenix Hall, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Byodo-in

Wisteria blooms hanging like grapes, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Byodo-in

Hanging wisteria looks almost like upside-down lavender, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Owing to my self-imposed schedule for the day I didn’t venture into Phoenix Hall.  They only allow about 30 people every hour and I had just missed my chance.  I thought about waiting (plus paying the additional ¥300), but its just not possible to do and see everything.  In retrospect, I wish I had waited another hour.  For the rest of my visit I wondered around the gardens.  Flourishing greens of all shades and shapes accessorised with scattered reds, dashes of white and canopies of amethyst flowers.

I tried different photo styles with little success.  With my limited photography skills it does help when the subject/s are so perfect.  If I had to visit again (and I wouldn’t hesitate) I’d prefer going either ever very early or late.  The phoenix taking flight into the sky with fiery showers of red and orange melting into the rising or setting sun.  As with so many of these temples, visiting when there is nobody around must be a moving experience.

Byodo-in

Not sure which building this is, beautiful garden though, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Byodo-in

Yes, more wisteria : ) Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Byodo-in

Phoenix Hall, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Back to Kyoto

Next, I had to go back to Kyoto to get to Kiyomizu-dera.  I could have caught a bus from Kyoto Station to Kiyomizu-dera or nearby, instead deciding to walk.  Glad I did.  Taking the route less travelled is my moto (most times).   When possible I try take routes used by locals, or even detours to see where people live.  Any opportunity I get to get away from “touristy” norns I try to take.  It normally gives me the chance to see normal living of local residences.  Most tourist sites throughout the world are to some extent tainted.  The lesser visited/seen areas are more authentic…unfortunately these seem to be becoming fewer and fewer.

Otani Hombyo Tomb and Otani Cemetery

Accidentally I took a detour heading to Kiyomizu-dera.  I thought I must have taken a wrong turn because I found myself heading up a long stairwell through a large cemetery.  Much later to find out it was Otani Cemetery.  Going arse about face, I walked through the cemetery before arriving at Otani Hombyo Tomb.  In fact, the only reason I found the entrance of the tomb, was because I was trying to get out of the cemetery!  Ending up at the entrance by chance!

Anway, Otani Hombyo (also known as Nishi Otanji) is the tomb of Shinran Shonin, ultimately the founder of Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shinshu).  I had no idea what I had stumbled upon because I was a tad lost!  Had I known I would have spent more time there instead of just pocking my head in to nose about.  Adjacent to Otani Cemetery is the biggest in Kyoto.  Surrounded by the forest on Mt Otowa, with thousands of mini obelisks following the lay of the land like undulating waves of granite.

Otani Cemetery

Only a very small part of Otani Cemetery, which has about 15 000 burials – Kyoto

Otani Hombyo

Entrance to Otani Hombyo Tomb – Kyoto

Otani Hombyo

Otani Hombyo Tomb Shrine – Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera is perched on the side of Mt Otowa, and renowned for many reasons.  One being its spectacular views!  Its famous massive veranda offering panoramic views over lush forest and the city beyond.  Not during my visit though!  What a pity, I arrived towards the back-end of the afternoon, hoping to see the sun set.  Unfortunately, this was not possible…I say that very selfishly!  Kiyomizu-dera was under restoration when I visited.  The entire building, from top to bottom was cocooned in scaffolding and protective plastic, only the tiniest sliver of veranda was open.

Kiyomizu-dera

Niimon (main gate), its current incarnation dating to 1632, but originally built in 847 – Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

Triple Tower in its bright vermilion – Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Background and Interesting Facts:

  • Kiyomizu means “clear or pure water”, in reference to the waterfall and stream that runs behind and under the temple
  • It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Not a single nail was used in its construction
  • The original temple dates back to 778, with the current temple dating to 1633 at the order of Tokugawa Iemitsu (same person who finished Edo Castle
  • It used to be associated to the Hossō Buddhism sect, but severed its affiliation in 1965 to now be part of the Kitahossō sect.
  • If you jumped off its veranda (13m high) and survived, your wish would come true. 234 recorded people had jumped during the Edo period, around 35 died!  Now it is forbidden to jump off…health and safety gone mad! ?
  • Jumping off the veranda coined the phrase “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu”, similar to the English expression “to take the plunge”

Neon bright vermilion structures bring the mountain to light since Kiyomizu-dera is under a blanked of grey.  Unlike most other temples I’d seen, here the terrain of Mt Otowa scatters the structures on different levels.  Each one on a pedestal terrace cut into the mountain, as if on display in a gallery.  The stark contrast of vermilion against a backdrop of green forest accentuates the colours like a flower in the desert.  Somehow the concrete steps feel at home as they blend into the stone retainer walls and foundations.

Kiyomizu-dera

Ximen Gate with the spire of the Triple Tower behind – Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

Inside the Kiyomizu-dera with its massive pillars – Kyoto

I have two disappointments about my visit to Kiyomizu-dera, the first I have already mentioned.  The second, I must have messed around with my camera settings by accident, because many of my photo’s came out terribly.  There were so many pictures that were out of focus, how I just don’t know!  Weeks later I went through them, I was so disappointed.  Oh well, photos aren’t the be all an end all.  My travelling is about learning and experiencing, though having nice pics as memories is also a nice thing to have ☹.

Compared to other temples and shrines, Kiyomizu-dera has by far the most colour, hmmm, maybe with the exception of Heian Shrine.  I’m beginning to sound like a stuck record, but the surroundings make the difference.  Getting to Kiyomizu-dera, you are surrounded by forest, houses, even if you take my route via Otani Cemetery, the scenery monotone most of the time.  Then, before you know it, you look up, your eyes are dazed with garish colour!  I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.

Kiyomizu-dera

Kan’an Tower built around 1500 – Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

Ximen and Triple Tower – Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Because of the restoration work being conducted some of the temple complex was closed, not just the main building.  Even so, there was enough there to keep me interested and perplexed.  Writing about all these Buddhist Shrines and temples has been a bit of a challenge.  Firstly, I know very little to nothing about Buddhism.  Secondly, I have almost no tangible knowledge of Japanese history prior to the 19th century.  This lack of knowledge both culturally and religiously has meant I’ve had to do so much research to for me just to understand the basics.  So, if anything is incorrect please let me, and if what I write seems to be all over the place please forgive me!

Kiyomizu-dera was my last visit of the day, so I’ll leave things there and include most of the photos afterwards.  One of the most challenging things I find it to whittle down my photos.  From the onset I’ve never wanted batnomad to be a picture gallery, but sometimes I find it very difficult not to include lots of photos.  It’s so easy to take 40+ pictures per site, then trying to limit it to 20-30 pictures per post if bloody difficult!  Considering I can go to multiple places on one day that could be 100+ pictures to choose from.  Of course, many pictures are not worth using, there are also many pictures I don’t include which only have meaning or relevance to me.

Anyway, I hope you liked the read, or at least the pictures ?

Pps. On my way back to my hotel for dinner (I’ll write separately about some of the food etc.), I passed the Yasaka Pagoda and Shrine.  An imposing elaborate pagoda nuzzled between the houses in a maze of narrow streets.  Officially called Hokan-ji Temple, but locally called Yasaka-no-to/Yasaka Pagoda.  Dating from 592, as with so many buildings in Kyoto it has been destroyed by fire many times – the current building dates to 1440.

Kyoto

Hokan-ji Temple, locally called Yasaka-no-to/Yasaka Pagoda (46m high) – Kyoto

 

Phoenix Hall

Phoenix Hall, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Byodo-in

Phoenix Hall, Byodo-in Temple – Uji, Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

The Ximen gate in front with the Triple Tower peaking out behind, Kiyomizu-dera – Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

Kan’an Tower like a beacon in a sea of green (one of my badly focused pictures GRRRR) – Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Kyoto

A small window through the garden looking out onto Kyoto – Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera

The Triple Tower in the background, it was coincidental catching two Japanese tourists in traditional dress 🙂 – Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

At the main entrance landing, with the Ximen on the right and the Triple Tower behind – Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

A lovely stone pagoda hidden in the garden, Kiyomizu-dera – Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

Beautiful copper dragon drinking fountain. Also for washing your hands before entering the temple, Kiyomizu-dera – Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera

I couldn’t find out the relevance of this dragon statue, still think it’s cool, Kiyomizu-dera – Kyoto

Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Temples, Geisha – Day2

Gallery

On the agenda for the day was Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Nishi Hongwanji, Higashi Honganji and some of Gion to try spot a Geisha or two.  I had planned to see Sento palace and Omiya palace, but was unable to, I’ll explain why later.  Yesterday had been my first full day of exploring in Kyoto (Day 1), it did not disappoint.  Day two would be spent within the centre of Kyoto.

I’ve tried wracking my brains about what I did the night before, including dinner, but I have no recollection what so ever.  The only thing I do remember, was that I didn’t venture far from the hotel and had yet to fully explore the local cuisine.  My agenda for the second day came about the previous evening, that I do know.  With so much to see within central Kyoto, you really don’t need to venture far.  In addition, I would have to be checking out of my hotel UNIZO Inn Kyoto Kawaramachi Shijo the following morning.  Staying close to base would make things easier to get back and find alternative accommodation (&/or speak to my hotel to extend my stay).  Yes, I have already decided to extend my time in Kyoto…that was the easiest decision ever made.

First things, where to find a good cup of coffee to kickstart the day.  Less than 50m from the hotel (as you exit the hotel turning right) I found the coffee shop recommended by the hotel.  If they hadn’t told me about it, I doubt I would have gone in.  I’ve tried finding the place’s name on Google, even running through Streetview with no luck.  Nothing wrong with the place, it just looked more like a small bar/restaurant.  Their coffee, great taste and bloody strong, just how I like it.  With the contraption they make it with, it looks more like a science experiment than coffee maker!

Kyoto

My morning coffee – Interesting contraption – Kyoto

Kyoto Imperial Palace

The palace is in a park about 1km North of the main shopping district in central Kyoto.  This park used to be part of the palace grounds measuring 1.3km long and 800m wide.  By far the largest park within central Kyoto, and within it there are two separate enclosures.  Firstly, is the enclosure of Sento and Omiya Palace (I’ll explain more later).  Secondly, is that of Kyoto Imperial Palace, which was my first stop for the day.

As expected, the park is well maintained, but what struct me was how wide the internal walkways are.  Some are at least 10 cars wide if not more, made of coarse gravel that kicks up into your shoes when you walk.  I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what to expect from an old Japanese Palace.  Having been to many European palaces, I guess I was expecting something similar, with a Japanese flavour of course.  Elegant, yes, but so far from the ostentatious of European counterparts that it may be from a different planet.  It is ornate, but like so many things in Japan it has an understated presence too

Imperial Palace

Kenreimon – one of the main entrances to Kyoto Imperial Palace

Background

Wood and fire have never been friends, which is aptly demonstrated throughout Kyoto’s historical monuments.  Many monuments, Shrines and temples have been burnt down and rebuilt, some many times over.  Kyoto Imperial Palace is a perfect example, having been rebuilt eight times, six of which was during the Edo period – during a time of peace.  This is one of the reasons that its current location isn’t the original which was South West for where it stands today.  It has been in its current location since the 12th century, having been in its original location since 794.

Kyoto Imperial Palace officially superseded Heian Palace (Heian Shrine) as the official residence of the Emperor after it burnt down in 1177 (may have been 1227).  For over 1000 years Kyoto Imperial Palace remained the primary home for the Emperor, only to be moved to Tokyo Imperial Palace during the Meiji Restoration in 1869.  Saying that, Kyoto Imperial Palace as it stands today is a reincarnation built in 1855 (with a few additions afterwards).  This rebuild included changes to included more architectural resemblance to the Heian Palace.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Palanquin porch (carriage porch). Used exclusively by envoys of the Shogun and high ranking courtiers when visiting the palace – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Known in Japan as Kyoto Gosho, Kyoto Imperial Palace is like visiting Buckingham Palace but with more access, but not everywhere (no photos inside either).  Other than being an Emperor/King/Queen’s residence that’s about the only similarity to Westerns Palaces.  Of course, this would have been the epitome of elegance, money whilst adhering to traditions and decorum, but not ostentatious.  I can’t go through every little detail of every room, so I’ll try mix it up with highlights, thoughts and pictures…in the hope of doing it justice.

Whilst Europe was at the beginning off its Gothic and Renaissance era, Japanese architecture seems to be on the opposite site of the scale.  Naturally each Japanese era had its own style, but there seems a distinct similarity.  More like a gradual change with only a few tweaks here and there.  To me their inspiration and motivate in their buildings is near the opposite of European buildings.  Whereas Europe seemed to be driven by being more grandiose, here being part of nature and the earth is the inspiration.  I’m struggling to find the words, without diminishing the artistry, ingenuity and craftsmanship these building exude.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Smaller jomeimon (inner gate) leading to the inner courtyard which leads to the Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Main jomeimon (inner gate) leading to the inner courtyard which leads to the Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den, with massive Zen gravel garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

From a distant, many of the buildings look alike, quite long, as they get longer the squatter in appearance.  The devil is in the detail, which can only be fully appreciated and admired when you get close-up.  With the most complicated rafter system I have ever see, allowing the building to move, making them earthquake resistant.  Their roof tops either thatched or tiled, both fraying out like wide hips to the gutters.  I’ve tried to describe historical Japanese style and architecture, but I’m yet to find the words that match my thoughts.

The pitched roofs seem disproportionately high in relation to the living/worshipping spaces below.  From the front and back, the roof splays out elegantly like a starched apron curling up ever so slightly at the tips.  The sides of the roof almost always vertical and exposed, but understated ornately decorated.  These decorations in muted colours of different woods, copper, bronze and gold.  Granted gold isn’t a muted colour, yet somehow it is used with the right proportions.  A contrast against the dark wood, reflecting the sunlight so that these rooftops can be seen dotted throughout Kyoto.

Imperial Palace

Ingenious network of roof timbers – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Seiryoden (Hall for Rites and Rituals). Prior to 1590 it used to be the Emperors living quarters. The Emperor sites between the two lions – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Shishinden (Hall of State Ceremonies) from the side – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Having waffled on I haven’t said much about the palace.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, taking my time strolling the corridors, courtyards and of course the gardens – they are beautiful as I had become expectantly accustomed to.  Much of inside the palace is/was closed to the public, but that didn’t dilute the experience at all.  From the waiting chambers painted in accordance with ranking in society:

  1. Room of the Cherry Trees – everyday visitors
  2. Room of the Cranes – for intermediate visitors of good social standing
  3. Room of the Tigers – for the most senior in society, royalty, envoys, ambassadors
Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Cherry Trees – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Cranes – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Tigers – Kyoto Imperial Palace

NB. An interesting fact I learnt. If you look are early Japanese depictions of tigers, they seem embellished and anatomically incorrect. This oddity seems to contradict the precision of Japanese art, calligraphy and everything else they did.  The reason for this inaccurate portrayal is simple.  Tigers are not indigenous to Japan, the first time they saw them was from tiger hides/skin brought to Japan for Asian.  It is from these skins that they tried to piece these creates together in their paintings/drawings – like a reverse taxidermist.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Oikeniwa garden with Keyakibashi bridge – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

I hope the pictures and the descriptions do the Kyoto Imperial Palace justice.  If I had to opportunity to visit Kyoto again, obviously I would like to see the hundreds of other things I missed first-time around.  Though, if I got the opportunity to visit the palace again, I wouldn’t hesitate in doing so. Concluding, I’ll stop blabbering on without saying much.  The weather had started to turn with a murky grey sky.  It wasn’t the coldest of days, though not shorts and t-shirt as the day before.  From palace to castle, my next stop of the day was Nijo Castle.

Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace

Beautifully decorated balustrade ends – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Ah yes, I almost forgot!  Next on my list was to be Omiya and Sento Imperial Palace, within the same park grounds as Kyoto Imperial Palace.  I tried to entre, however you need to book in advance and they only take a few visitors per day.  Plus, it is only open (with a booking) during specific times of the year.  Like I said, it was open though fully booked.  Although nothing except foundations remains of Sento Palace (finally burnt down in 1854), Omiya Palace was rebuilt in 1867.   Omiya Imperial Palace is the official residence for the current prince and princess when they visit Kyoto.

Nijo Castle

I’ve said so before, but I like castles, and Nijo Castle even looks interesting from the outside.   Of the many castles I’ve visited (primarily in Europe), I categories them into two criteria. Firstly, those situated on a vantage point, using the lay of the land as a natural defence.  Secondly, building fortifications as protection – normally on flat land.  Nijo Castle falls into the second category (in my thinking of categorisation ?).

Located between Kyoto Imperial Palace and downtown Kyoto (where the shopping area and Nikishi Market it), except it’s a few blocks West.  The lay of the land surrounding the castle is as flat as a pancake.   The first thing that struck me was the light grey stone walls of the inner circumference of the moat.  The long walls built at a gentle inward slope of smooth large stones that seems to grow out of the water.

These long spans of walls broken by three gated entrances on the North (Great North Gate – Kita-Ote-mon), East (Great Eastern Gate – Higashi-Ote-mon) and West (West Gate – Nishi-mon); the latter what looks like a disused small drawbridge or service entrance.  The only other break in these sleek moat walls is a tower on the South-eastern corner called a yagura – one of the more regular photos taken of Nijo Castle.

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle, exterior moat with fortification (South East corner) – Kyoto

Layout of Nijo Castle

In order to make things a little easier to understand (for me that is), I’ll explain the general layout of Nijo Castle.  In fact, there isn’t a “castle building”, instead it houses two palaces.  Crossing the first outer moat gives you access to Ninomaru Palace.  Once inside the complex you cross an inner moat to access Honmaru Palace.  This second moat too is surrounded by high fortification walls.  Both moats have square corners adding to its austere uniformity, almost like concentric squares.

Honmaru Palace

Inner moat with fortification walls of Honmaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Background

Nijo Castle was the brainchild of Tokugawa Ieyasa (January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616), with construction completed in 1603.  Tokugawa was a unifier of Japan, after a prolonged period of civil wars.  This unification brought about peace and prosperity for nearly 260 years.  Starting with bringing together all the feudal lords and building Nijo Castle.  The Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan until 1867 when the Meiji Restoration brought back Imperial Rule.

1601 – Tokugawa instructs in feudal lords (diamyo) of Western Japan to build Nijo Caste

1603 – Completion of the castle

1614 – Tokugawa conquers the Toyotomi family (the previous rulers of Japan) during the Siege of Osaka.

1624 – large scale renovations done to the castle as preparation for an Imperial Visit by Emperor Go-Mizunoo

1750 – Lightning strikes the keep tower and it burns down

1867 – In October, Tokugawa Yoshinobu calls a meeting with all the heads of the clans at the Great Hall (Ohiroma) of Ninomaru Palace.  Yoshinobu announces at the meeting that he will be restoring Imperial Rule to Japan

1884 – Nijo Castle becomes Nijo Rikyu (Nijo Imperial Villa

1915 – Nijo Castle is used for the coronation of Emperor Taishō.  In a purpose build banquet hall, now the location of the Seiryu-un Garden – on the North side between the two moats.

1939 – Imperial Household Ministry gives Nijo Castle to the City of Kyoto

1994 – Nijo Castle becomes listed on UNESCO World Heritage

2011 – Full restoration of Nijo Castle

Ninomaru Palace / Ninomaru-Goten Palace

Access to Nimomaru and Honmaru Palace was mostly restricted to walking around its exterior, where you could go inside no photography was allowed ☹.  I’m not going to pretend I remember the details of the inside, it was understatedly impressive, a composed ambience.  Suffice to say I enjoyed my time there, spending a few hours – I hope that says enough.

Both a highlight and frustrating moment was walking through the “nightingale corridor”.  As you walk on the wooden floor the creaking creates the distinct sound of singing nightingales.  These floorboards were intentionally made to creak, and calculatedly the creaks made to sound like nightingales.  How on earth this was deliberately achieved I have no idea, remarkable and ingenious craftsmanship.  This sound was created as a security feature; in order to hear anyone walking in the corridor; so that no one could sneak up on anyone in the rooms.

 

At first, it’s as if there must be an aviary filled with nightingales behind one of the walls.  Singing nightingales fills the corridor as more people walk through.  My frustration came with people talking loudly as they walked through.  Instead of enjoying and just listening to this unique experience, some people just don’t think or consider other people – well that’s my theory.  I’ve attached a recording, unfortunately it is dominated by people speaking, but if you listen carefully you can hear the creak of nightingales (near the beginning and the end).

Nijo Castle

The karamon (main gate) to Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru Palace

Entrance to Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru Palace

Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Kyoto

The intricate and detailed roof tiles – Ninomaru Palace, Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Ninomaru Garden

It was altered as part of the 1626 Imperial Visit.  Of course, it’s in immaculate condition, that goes without saying.  A pond with three islands linked by low stone bridges is the focal point.  The beams of each bridge a singular piece of stone stretching from one side to the next, no handrails.  They look like monoliths, cast into place by nature, lying there for thousands of years.

Nothing in these gardens are down without purpose.  The largest island is a Horai-jima Island which represents “paradise”, then there is a crane island and turtle island, both metaphors for longevity. All the trees look like they’ve been pruned like large bonsai’s, accentuating their colours and forms.

Nijo Castle

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru Palace / Honmaru-Goten Palace

Crossing over the moat on the Honmaru East Bridge you entre through the Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate.  The fortification walls ever so slightly smaller that the exterior walls, making you feel like you’ve walked into a safe inside a safe.  None of Honmaru Palace was open to the public, with the best views from the elevated base of the burnt down keep tower (1750).

This vantage point gives a great lay of the surrounding land with Honmaru Palace and Honmaru Gardens below.  Now that I had become a Japanese garden snob, I didn’t spend much time Honmaru Gardens.  Had it been anywhere else in the world, I would have likely admired it deservingly, but from what I had already seen in Kyoto this garden was below par.  Added to my low grading of the garden (I’m just being facetious), Honmaru Palace was closed, so I exited on Honmaru West Gate crossing the moat.

Nijo Castle

Honmaru Bridge and Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate. Crossing the second moat to Honmaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru Palace

Taken from the base of the keep (South West corner) with Honmaru Palace and Honmaru Garden ahead and below – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Almost the entire Western half of the whole complex is made up of various gardens – between the inner moat and the outer exterior fortifications.  From cherry trees in their last bloom, small grassland meadows with wild flowers, to manicured shrubs with rich red and pink flowers.  These gardens are distinctly more natural to the others, like walking through fields or parks.  From meadows to the Seiryu-en Garden (moving clockwise around the garden), a more traditional garden with the symbolic islanded (I hope that’s a word) ponds.

Honmaru Palace

Honmaru Palace carriage porch – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru

Taken from the base of the keep, the moat surrounding Honmaru Castle and gardens beyond – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

Nijo Castle Gardens

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

A small pottery exhibition and a separate one on kimonos was taking place.  The palace grounds are big, I found both exhibitions quite by chance whilst on my way to the exit.  Small exhibitions, then again big isn’t always better.  I’m always on the lookout for pottery as you may have gathered by now, because my mother is a potter.  As for the kimonos it reminded me the Yohji Yamamoto exhibition I saw at the V&A Museum in London in 2011.  Styles, shapes and colours so different to what I’ve grown up with.  Not much else to say about either topic, it was just cherry on top of a lovely visit to Nijo Castle.

Kyoto

Kimono exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Kimono exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Pottery exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Pottery exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Nishi Hongan-ji

I may have already mentioned but the weather wasn’t great.  As the day passed the already grey clouds where thickening and turning deep grey.  Not that it deterred me, I lived in London for 20yrs.  It was late in the day, but to early to call it quits.  Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji were only a short distance away.

Nishi Hongan-ji

The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

 Both Nishi Hongan-ji and Hongan-ji are Jōdo Shinshū temples, a school of Pure Land Buddhism, with Nishi Hongan-ji the “head office” temple for Jodo Shinshu.  Making the complex a combination of temple and much newer administrative buildings.  The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, dating back to 1321, but only at its current location since 1591.  When I got there, as with so many other places, I had no idea of its significance.  With time against me before they closed for the day, I only skirted about the complex without giving it much attention.   Most of my time and attention was given to the 400yr+ old gingko tree outside the Goeido (Founders Hall).

Nishi Hongan-ji

400yr+ old gingko tree at Nishi Hongan-ji

Nishi Hongan-ji

The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Going inside the Goeido lost its relevance without understanding the significance nor context of the temple.  Like seeing the Giza pyramids without knowing they are circa. 4500 years old.  Even so, I enjoyed taking a look around, but at the back of my mind I knew I had to leave to get to Higashi Hongan-ji before it closed too.

PS. I only got to see at most 30% of the complex, realistically missing the best bits…to my regret

Nishi Hongan-ji

Inside the Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Nishi Hongan-ji

The pitched rooves are always interestingly decorated. The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Higashi Hongan-ji

Just like Nishi Hongan-ji my stop over at Higashi Hongan-ji was fleeting, even more so.  Higashi Hongan-ji dates to 1602, like so many other buildings in Kyoto it burnt down only to be rebuilt in 1895.  Here I was rushing around aimlessly because of closing time.  In all honesty the visit was a waste of time because I gained nothing other than ticking it off my list – not the way I like to do things at all.

Higashi Hongan-ji

The Founder’s Hall Gate at Higashi Hongan-ji

Higashi Hongan-ji

The Founder’s Hall of Higashi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Gion

My day had been great, I really enjoyed everything I had done and seen.  Still feeling I could squeeze more into the day I thought I’d walk to Gion to try spot a Geisha.  Now before I get into this, I’m going to leave Gion and Geishas to a later blog post.  My next hotel was in Gion, and I explored the area and tried to catch a glimpse of Geishas many times.

Whilst heading to Gion, the heavens opened, and I was caught for the first time without my raincoat in my day pack.  Why exactly I had taken my raincoat out of my back I don’t know, its never happened since!  Anyway, I got to Gion soak to the bone.  The sun was almost set, and the street lights cast a hazy glow shimmering against the wet surface of the road.

Yes, I got to see a Geisha, more to do with luck than anything else.  I’ll leave things here, so much more to say about Gion and Geisha spotting and this post is already much longer than I had wanted.  Picking up from what I have just said, I would move hotels the next morning.  This ended up being a great decision, moving into the heart of Gion.

Kyoto

My first excursion of many into Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto

Typical side street in Gion (lots more about Gion to come) – Kyoto

Kyoto

Little side street in Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto

Traditional entrance to an old residence in Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto – Temples, Beautiful Gardens, Zen

I had a busy first full day in Kyoto (my second day in the city), visiting the Heian Shrine, Konkaikōmyōji (also known as Kurodani Temple), Ginkaku-ji, Philosophers Walk and Hōnen-in Continue Reading →