Kyoto – Byodo-in, Uji, Kiyomizu-dera

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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

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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