Himeji Castle – majestic stunning castle

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Like so many of the places I found in Japan, Himeji Castle was found by chance.  Frankly, I could have stayed in and around Kyoto for weeks as I’d had only scratched the surface of what to see and do.  Feeling guilty I’d only seen two locations in Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto), I decided to look around for day trips.  Nevertheless, I have no regrets staying in Kyoto for as long as I did, if only it could have been longer.  My guilt drove me reluctantly to explore further afield.  With my original plan (before arriving Japan), long blown out of the water, nevertheless things turned out perfectly.  The only part still in tact was going to Hiroshima, I’d be doing that tomorrow.

My previous post was my last on Kyoto (Gion, Geisha anecdotes), this post will be followed by my last on Japan, Hiroshima.  Following Japan I headed to Sydney, New Zealand then Peru (Bolivia, Bogota etc. etc.), the latter another on my wish list since I was a child (of course Machu Pichu!).  I’m dreading to write about my time in Peru, with so many places and highlights not forgetting a few hiccups thrown into the mix too!  First things first, Himeji Castle, a fairy-tale looking castle fit for any Japanese fantasy movie or dream!  Suffice to say I saw a picture of Himeji Castle, it looked too perfect to be a real castle hence my decision to go take a look.  Something you would expect to see on a postcard or cover of a book advertising a Japanese version of Disney World.

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Getting to Himeji Castle

There are a few options you can use to get to Himeji; I used my JR Pass, jumped onto the Shinkasen taking just over 40 minutes (limited frequency service to Himeji).  Other options are to take the normal trains, the express train (limited service), bus or buy a ticket for one of the other Shinkansen’s (not part of the JR Pass).  Alternative routes are longer (bus, normal train) taking up to 90 minutes, so even these are good options; JR Pass access.

Arriving at Himeji

Himeji Castle is possibly one of the easiest places to find.  Arriving at Himeji, you exit the train station which leads onto the main road running through the town.  Look to the right and castle bares down at the city from its vantage point on top of Himeyama hill (which is 45m high).  All that waffle is my way of saying, the castle towers over everything, watching the town like a guardian samurai warrior.  No doubt the main road was built (my guess), to showcase the towns star attraction…make no mistake, it is well worth showing off!  It was one of Japans first UNESCO World Heritage Sites, registered on 11th December 1993.

Even from the distance of the train station, first impressions, WOW!  Looking like an elaborate five-tiered samurai helmet, each tier finished off with crested tops and flared bottoms.  The whole structure perched on top of a gargantuan plinth with flat sides of stone walls.  From ground level to the roof is 92m!  There have been many comparisons to the castle resembling a bird taking flight, I can see why.  With its spectacular positioning, colour and movement created by architecture this is a masterpiece of art and not just a building.  No wonder the castle is often referred to as Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō (“White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle”).

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle viewed from near the main train station

Himeji Castle

By the main entrance to Himeji Castle complex, part of the remaining exterior moat

Far from being a pretty princess, Himeji Castle may look like a paper tiger or the lavish spending project of some power-hungry King or Prince.  Himeji Castle isn’t the Versailles of Japan either.  Oh no, Himeji may look like a delicate flower, it is in fact a purposeful stronghold and has been tested through time…many times over.  It’s a sprawling complex, with a circumference of 4.2 kilometres.

Some facts and figures about Himeji Castle

Returning to the nature of the castle, it was built as a stronghold and residence of powerful clan members – I’ll get into that shortly.  Little has changed from the original design, the main changes are the moats.  With the outer moat now covered, the middle moat partially exists, only the inner one is still intact.  These moats served two purposes; first, as a defensive mechanism (they range from about 20m-34m wide and 2.7m deep).  Second, as a fire pool; considering how many ancient Japanese buildings have burnt down (many several times!) this is a prudent addition.  To give you an idea of size, the inner moat covers an area of 2,500 meters square.

A windy maize takes you from Hishi Gate (main entrance) to the main keep, taking you through gate, upon gate, upon gate, 21 to be precise – there used to be 84!  This maze increases the direct distance from the gate to keep from 130m to 325m.  The pathway irregularly changes elevation, direction and width, which would funnel and control the pace of any invading force.

Himeji Castle

The “Three Country Moat” (sangoku-bori) in the centre of the complex – used for water storage and fire prevention –

Viewed from the outside you’d be forgiven for thinking the keep has five floors (that’s what I thought) – in fact it has six and a basement.  Floor two and three (from the top) are made to look like one when looking from the outside.  The keep, it goes without saying, is the centre piece of this magnificent structure.  It’s a huge complex with 83 buildings, 74 of which are designated as Important Cultural Assets, including 11 corridors, 16 turrets, 15 gates, and 32 earthen walls

Honda Tadamasa made some major additions to the complex, mostly purpose built for his daughter-in-law, Princess Sen.  These additions included 240m of corridors as part of the Princess living quarters.  These living quarters offer some of the best views of the main keep, yet still offer privacy and the best of luxury of that era.

Himeji Castle

Part of the 240m of corridors. Simplistic but beautiful woodwork – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Thick chunky internal doors, part of the corridor system of the Eastern side of the complex – Himeji Castle

Senhime

Part of the castle complex built for Princess Senhime – Senhime

The Main Keep / Daitenshu

Constructed around two pillars which stretch from the ground floor to the roof.  Two joined Japanese cypress trees make up the Easter pillar, which used be be a single fir tree – changed during restoration (1956-1964).  The West pillar is the original, a single Japanese cypress.  Both are great chunks of wood forming the main substructure of the keep, just like the elevator shafts of modern buildings.

The main keep is 46.4m high and surrounded by three smaller keeps called, kotenshu.  The basement houses some of the functional rooms such as toilets and the kitchen.  Each floor of the keep has a set purpose, all with defensive mechanisms – at its peak, the keep had 280 guns.  Floor 1, often referred to as “thousand-mat room” because of its 330 tatamimats and has walls lined with weapon racks.  The first floor is 554 meters square, the second 550, third is 440 with the fourth floor of 240.  Floor 3 and 4 also have “stone-throwing platforms (ishiuchidana); raised platforms by the windows allowing defenders to attack wanted intruders from above.  The keep includes special hiding places called (mushakakushi); used to hide and attack intruders by surprise.

Himeji Castle

The original East pillar, a single fir tree, a huge chunk of wood! Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

The central staircase in the main keep, with the replacement Eastern pillar – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Inside the main keep; very functional with massive timbers and quite bright too – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

…another view of the beautiful Himeji Castle

Timeline of Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is a survivor.  From wars, fires, bombs, economic downturns, demolition, rebuilding and additions.  It now stands with all the history and pride it deserves.  The first known construction was a fort built in 1333 at the behest of Akamatsu Norimura.  Himeyama as the town was then known, was chosen due to its strategic position against a backdrop of conflict within the region between feuding clans.

Here is the shortened timeline of Himeji Castle (I haven’t even included everything!):

  1. In 1333 a fort was constructed on Himeyama hill by the ruler of the ancient Harima Province, Akamatsu Norimura. This was the first of many construction projects on the hill spanning over six centuries
  2. His son Sadanori demolished this fort and built Himeyama Castle in its place in 1346
  3. The Kuroda clan was ordered by Kodera clan to be stationed here in 1545. Feudal ruler Kuroda Shigetaka remodelled the castle into Himeji Castle,
  4. Work on the construction of Himeji Castle was completed in 1561
  5. In 1580, Kuroda Yoshitaka presented the castle to Toyotomi Hideyoshi
  6. Hideyoshi significantly remodelled the castle in 1581; building a three-story keepwith an area of about 55 m2
  7. After the Battle of Sekigaharain 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu granted Himeji Castle to his son-in-law, Ikeda Terumasa, as a reward for his help in battle
  8. Ikeda demolished the three-story keep that had been created by Hideyoshi.  He completely rebuilt and expanded the castle from 1601 to 1609; adding three moats and transforming it into the castle complex as we know it today
  9. Ikeda died in 1613, passing the castle to his son, who also died three years later
  10. Himeji Castle was inherited by Honda Tadamasaand his family in 1617.
  11. Honda added to the castle, most notably a special tower for his daughter-in-law Princess Sen (more about Princess Sen later)
  12. The Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) saw many Japanese castles destroyed.  Himeji Castle was left to deteriorate and was abandoned in 1871.
  13. The new occupant was the army; they destroyed some of the corridors and castle gates to make way for army barracks.
  14. Himeji Castle was put up for auction after the han feudal system was abolishedin 1871.  A resident of Himeji bought it ¥23!  In today’s money that’s about US$2 260.00!!!
  15. The new owner was going to demolish the castle to plant fields, however, he couldn’t afford the demolition costs
  16. After the feudal system the Government demolished many castles throughout Japan, Himeji was on that list.  Thankfully it was saved from destruction due to the efforts of an army colonel, Nakamura Shigeto
  17. During World War II, the city of Himeji was destroyed twice, yet the castle was left unscathed.  A firebomb hit the castle in 1945, it failed to explode, leaving the castle as the only standing building in Himeji town!

…yes I know, that’s a very long short timeline!

This grand castle has seen change and destruction across its lifetime that one could only imagine.  Including the devastating earthquake (Great Hanshin earthquake) that hit Himeji in 1995, destroying large parts of the city, the castle was unscathed.  Through hundreds of years of Japanese architectural evolution their ancient building methods have adapted, making their buildings earthquake proof.  Most of their ancient buildings have no nails, using their master carpentry skills and the natural properties of wood to move and flex.

Needless to say, I’ve become a huge fan of Japanese craftmanship in almost every category I have seen.  I’m guessing during the castle’s prime the interior would have been decorated and filled with only the best that money and power could bye.  Now, only the beauty of the structure is on display.  It needs no frills and decorations for the splendour of this magnificent structure to be admired.  I spent a few hours ambling along through its corridors and halls, trying my best to take in and observe every detail – failing dismally ?!  This is one of those places you could visit a thousand times and see something new every time.  I can only imagine how the setting changes through the seasons!  Obviously, the gardens within the grounds are beautiful, but the castle steals the show.

Himeji Castle

The main keep perched on the hill top – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

On route through the maize that leads to the main keep – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

The beautiful and elegant flared roof corners – Himeji Castle

The Princess Story

Princess Senhime or Lady Sen has become a bit of a legend.  As with legend stories it is not always know what is true, fiction or and embellishment of the truth – I’d call it a tragic love story.  Her first marriage was to Toyotomi Hideyori, the successor to the Toyotomi clan.  Together they had a son and lived in Osaka Castle until it was besieged by Lady Sen’s grandfather.  With the fall of Osaka Castle it was custom for the “looser” to commit seppuku/harakiri along with his mother and seven year old child Toyotomi Kunimatsu.  Princess Senhime was able to escape along with her stepdaughter.

Folklore says Lady Sen was saved from Osaka Castle by  Sakazaki Naomori, who was of a social lower rank.  When he heard that Lady Sen would be remarried to Honda Tadatoki, he planned to capture her and marry her instead.  Sakazaki’s plan was foiled and he was forced to perform seppuku.  It seems her marriage to Honda was cordial, they had a son and daughter.  Unfortunately her son died at the tender age of three, Honda died five years later.  As per custom of the time, Princess Senhime cut her hair short, changed her name to Tenjuin, living out the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun.

Himeji Castle

The elegant roof top tips; a flared iron fish type creature – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

View from the keep overlooking part of the castle complex and Himeji town – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Near the base of the keep, I think the construction of the building especially the roof is beautiful – Himeji Castle

If you are ever in the neighbourhood, I can highly recommend visiting Himeji Castle.  In fact, even if you are not in the neighbourhood, I’d suggest a long detour to visit it!  Next post will be on Hiroshima, a poignant visit and relevant in today’s times of conflict throughout the world.  At least this post on Himeji Castle has lots of photos, I hope you like them.

 

…..Just a few more photos! 🙂

Himeji Castle

The majestic Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

View of Himeji Town from the castle, the outer wall of the castle complex visible – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

A model depicting the wooden skeletal structure of Himeji Castle

 

 

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

My Son, serene Vietnamese Hindu temples

Gallery

About 40km inland from An Bang are the ruins of My Son, once the spiritual capitol of the Cham people.  Public transport isn’t great in Vietnam so I arranged a taxi to take me there and back, agreeing on a 2 hour visit – I have no idea how much it cost but nothing costs much in Vietnam.  The drive there was pleasant enough, the roads are in good condition and not that busy, it was on a Saturday.  One thing I did notice was that may of the houses were blaring local music from their disco speakers either from the porch or lounge.  That’s something I hadn’t mentioned in my previous posts; many households have large nightclub/disco speakers, usually in their lounge – just what purpose they serve I have no clue.  Even if no one is there visiting the volume is above casual listening.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruin complex

 

Brief History & Background

During circa. 4th – 14th century Vietnam as we know it today was broadly divided into four regions:

  • North, ruled by the Chinese
  • Middle (region of modern Hanoi), ruled by the Viet people (not yet known as Vietnamese)
  • South (Hoi An along the coast to current Southern Vietnam), was the Champa empire of the Cham people with Đồng Dương as the capitol till the end of the 10th century, moving further South to Bình Định Province afterwards
  • West, the Angkor/Khmer empire

Before and during the period 4th – 14th centuries there were many clashes between the regions primarily between the Cham and Chinese, the earlier part of that period was dominated by the Cham, the latter by the Chinese, after that period by the Viet.  The rise and abandonment of My Son runs parallel to the fortunes and fall of the Cham.  That is as shorter history and background as you can get!

My Son these days is in an isolated area, arriving there I questioned just how worth the visit would be, that’s how isolated it felt.  The entrance to this UNESCO World Heritage site is odd, the first seems quite ordinary with a few nondescript shops and a small but nice museum.  From there you cross a river by a semi-ornate bridge at which point I thought the main site would begin, I was wrong.  The next stage reminded me of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, a well tarred road with a shuttle service on a golf-cart train (the best description I can think of) taking about 10 minute.  Third and last is a 20-30 minute walk to the actual My Son archaeological site, more about this walk shortly.  The second part of the entry is world class compared to the other places I’d been to in Vietnam, I was impressed.

My Son

“Second” entrance to My Son temple ruins

My Son

One of the many little streams running through the area – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

 

Reverting back to the third part of the entrance, the walk to the actual My Son site.  Well, located in dense jungle, the well paved footpath the only reason you know you are not lost as it weaves through the trees, carpet and walls of green vegetation.  There is an ever presence of water from numerous small streams to the regular trickling of water hidden by the thicket.  Whilst in Hoi An my attire was shorts, t-shirts and flip flops (closed shoes when riding), it was always hot and humid, My Son brought this to a whole new level, especially the humidity…swimming in the sea felt drier!  The walkway is about 2km, by the time I got to the site my t-shirt was drenched, the heat and humidity was relentless.

My Son

My Son was used for more than a thousand years, the site was used prior to the 4th century for what some say hundreds of years, the site was at its peak around the 10th Century – it is a Hindu religious site dedicated to Shiva.  Throughout the centuries Kings, Priest and the wealthy build temples dedicated to Shiva at My Son, in total there were over 70 temples.  I use the word “were” for a few reasons, firstly after the 14th century the site fell into neglect and by and large abandoned, the jungle and time taking over.  Interest in the site was rekindled by a Frenchman in the late 19th century which lead to restoration of the site beginning in the 1930’s.  Of this restoration work it included the main and most spectacular temple called now referred to as temple A1, build in the 7th century.  Secondly, during the Vietnam War the Americans carpet bombed the area over one week in August 1969 destroying most of the temples and obliterating temple A1.  The remnants of the bombing still very evident today with craters and blackened brickwork, the centre of the complex was least affected but did not go unscathed.

My Son

Stele, pedestal and temple – My Son temple ruins

My Son

Stele and remains of a temple – My Son temple ruins

My Son

Entrance and remains of a temple – My Son temple ruins

 

There are 14 classifications of temple groups at My Son (of the original 70+ temples) in 6 architectural styles.  Of the remaining structures all are thought to be religious:

  • Kalan- a brick sanctuary, typically in the form of a tower, used to house a deity
  • Mandapa – an entry hallway contiguous with a sanctuary
  • Kosagrha(fire-house) – a construction, typically with a saddle-shaped roof, used to house the valuables belonging to the deity or to cook for the deity
  • Gopura – a gate-tower leading into a walled temple complex

The site itself is well marked but with grouping and styles I got confused, especially when revisiting my photos months later and trying to link them to which group etc.  It’s not a small area to cover either, not massive but with many temples being propped up, falling apart and many not more than a foundation remaining I’ve decided not to attempt to label my pictures with group &/or style unless I’m 100% confident!

My Son

What remains of a temple bombed during the Vietnam war – My Son temple ruins

My Son

The A1 temple and associated structures, restored in the 1930’s not totally destroyed after carpet bombing in August 1969

My Son

Destroyed temple complex, centre of the My Son temple complex in the distance

My Son is serene, ancient buildings fighting back the jungle (with a little help from us humans), there shapes of mostly sharp edges somehow compliment their surroundings.  The structures are large but not overbearing, they have a symbiosis with their environment; whether this was the case when they were constructed I don’t know, I think they would have been. Their red brick an earthly colour now blackened due to recent history and coloured by green vines and moss, the gentle slow struggle between nature and man in unison.

My Son

One of the many destroyed temples during the Vietnam war – My Son temple ruins

My Son

One of the temples now used to house some of the finds that are not in the museum – My Son temple complex

My Son

I believe this was part of the A1 temple – My Son temple ruins

The exact construction technique is not known except that the sculptures are cut directly into the brickwork – when in the process of building is not known.  There is no plaster or render, nor is it known what was used as mortar; the current hypothesis is that a resin was used in conjunction with the same material used as the bricks.  When you look at the structures now it looks as if the bricks are stacked on top of each other with nothing between.  It is also not known when the bricks were fired (before building or in situ) and when the carvings were done (pre-building or in situ).  One of the reasons so little is known about these structures is because the Champa never left any writing behind, sure there are stele but these are used for religious purposes.  They had and kept written records but wrote on degradable materials, combine that with the climate, these records perished long before any archaeologist visited the area.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple complex ruins

My Son

Good view of the carved brickwork – My Son temple ruins

One thing I must admit whilst walking around the area, I kept thinking of the many Vietnam war movies I had seen over the years (my three favourites being Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter).  Not to get political, I felt sorry for the young Americans sent here to fight in such inhospitable jungle environment that must have been foreign from where they came from.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like in full army gear marching through this wet, thick forest, not to mention during the rainy season.  Without local knowledge there was no way the Americans would succeed.  You could have thousands of Vietnamese hiding around the circumference of My Son and you wouldn’t even know, that’s how impenetrable the vegetation is, it gets even worse the deeper you go.  To some degree the only respite the locals would have had was that they knew the area, for them living and fighting in the tunnels and jungle must have been treacherous too.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple complex ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

This is a beautiful place to visit, with that beauty comes the unforgiving jungle will all its danger and peril.  Visitors come here every day to see the sites, not always remembering the killing fields around it.  With the indiscriminate nature of carpet bombing nobody really knows who or how many people would have died at My Son and the surrounding areas.  Maybe the only consolation to the killing that occurred here is that now this area has a serenity, an equilibrium between man and nature, I hope making it an acceptable last resting place for all those who died here.

My Son

The once red bricks now blackened, remnants from the carpet bombings – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

Yes, I was sweating like a waterfall, the conditions were uncomfortable, but I left My Son with many thoughts running through my mind war, the cruelty of man, beauty of nature, dedication of ancient civilisations and the lost knowledge of old cultures.  I walked back to the shuttle cart in a solemn mood with and underlying current of joy, joy to be able to experience these things in life.  I only waited for the shuttle for about 15 minutes, I filled my time watching a dog in total bliss playing for some toilet paper.  Who knows where he got it from, but he was having the time of his life playing with it…it’s the little things in life that makes us happy – not a bad lesson to learn.  I headed back to An Bang.

My Son

The area where the most restoration has been done – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

Not much but foundations and low walls remaining of some of the temples after carpet bombing during the Vietnam war – My Son temple complex ruins

My last 2 days in Vietnam were spent on the island of Lao Cham before I headed off to Kuala Lumpur etc. etc.  Lao Cham will therefore be my last blog about my time in Vietnam which I’ll post a few days after this.

My Son

Damaged remnants of part of My Son temple complex

My Son

One of the many little streams (this was one of the bigger) around the area – My Son temple complex

My Son temple ruins

The area where the most restoration has been done – My Son temple ruins

My Son

A dog having the time of his life playing with some toilet paper