Visits: 17th, 19th, 20th February 2016
Following on from the previous post about Tokyo and Himeji Castle, today I write about the famous Japanese city of Kyoto and its many historic monuments. The World Heritage Site of Kyoto consists of 17 separate shrines and temples which pepper the city and its surrounds. Kyoto isn’t an attractive city by and large, but is studded with gems that betray its historical status as the capital of Imperial Japan for a thousand years until Tokyo took its mantle in 1868.
The first temple we visited was called Byodo-in, located not in Kyoto itself but in the contiguous city of Uji. We took the Nara line 30 minutes out of town to Uji station, where it seemed that every other shop was a specialist in matcha – a prized powder derived from green tea leaves. We stopped at one such place, a restaurant on a beautifully peaceful spot overlooking the wide Uji river, to order tea and lunch. I had matcha-flavoured soba noodles with marinated herring. Natalie’s bowl of “highest-quality matcha tea” had a rich, bitter taste – quite unlike anything our matcha aficionado had tried before.
Byodo-in temple itself (the first two pictures of this post) is surrounded by a tranquil pool of water. The building in the centre is known as the Phoenix Hall due to its general likeness to a phoenix and to the two phoenix statues that adorn its roof. Also included in the site is a museum housing a collection of priceless Japanese antiquities. This was the first time on our trip that we were required to take off our shoes, which is something you will find very often when visiting Japanese cultural sites. The museum includes 52 wooden bodhisattvas, which seem vaguely similar to angels in Christianity.
We crossed the wide Uji river to Ujigami-jinja. This small shrine was by far the lowest-key and the quietest of the sites we visited in the Greater Kyoto area. So quiet, in fact, that it joined the select list of World Heritage Sites at which we have found ourselves to be the only visitors. This means getting to enjoy a site deemed worthy of preservation for the benefit of all humanity all to ourselves (the others that come to mind have been Ta’ Ħaġrat temple in Malta, Caernarfon Castle in Wales and The basilica of San Salvatore in Italy).
Ujigami was built as a guardian shrine for Byodo-in temple, and is dedicated to the third/fourth century Emperor Ōjin and his sons. Dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) has dated Ujigami as being the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan, putting its construction date at about 1060 – around the time Edward the Confessor was losing his grip on England in his long-running feud with Godwin of Wessex and his son.
After Uji we took the train back in to Kyoto, stopping on the way at the famous Fushimi Inari shrine. It is not included in the 17 sites that made it into the WHS, but we were interested in seeing it because it is one of the famous Japan images – like Shibuya junction and Mount Fuji – that is known the world over for its long paths covered in torii gates.
It seems to be something of a custom for Japanese girls to visit shrines dressed in kimonos, complete with white socks and wooden sandals. On the way back into the centre from Fushimi we were warned of the dangers of selfie stick use and managed to buy a can of warm onion soup thinking it was a refreshing fruit-based drink – not a pleasant surprise!
Located a short distance from Kyoto’s main railway station in the centre of town, Toji temple – known more formally as ‘The Temple for the Defence of the Nation by Means of the King of Doctrines’ is home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. As an auspicious five-story pagoda it stands as a recognisable symbol of Kyoto. The shrine once had a counterpart (which burnt down a thousand or so years ago), and together they stood either side of the gate to the capital city of the powerful Heian empire.
The site features a couple of single-storey buildings too: the Kodo (lecture hall) and Kondo (main hall). Each of these contains a selection of fabulous gilded statues positioned as a physical representation of the cosmology of Buddhism. Photos are not allowed in here, but you can see the sort of thing I mean on Wikipedia or in my soon-to-be-published post on the Horyu-ji Area.
A brisk walk north took us to another temple close to Kyoto station. This site is formally known as ‘Western Temple of the Original Vow‘, and was founded in 1602 by Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate and the same man who built Himeji Castle). The temple was a result not of his kindness but of his sharp eye for power, for he commanded that the Jōdo Shinshu sect split its Honanji temple into two in order to diminish its power.
Free to enter, at Hongan-ji we saw two large decorated halls into which ordinary Japanese would come to pray. The floors are covered with tatami mats, so again one must take off shoes to enter. It was very peaceful inside these buildings, and it almost felt as if we shouldn’t have been in there, being the non-Buddhists that we are. Occasionally monks would wander past, adding to the mystique of the complex.
Before leaving Kyoto that afternoon to head back to our hotel in Osaka we took a trip to the (rather expensive) observation deck at the top of the Kyoto Tower. At 100 metres you get a fine view of this low-rise city. I managed to spy through telescopes a number of the temples that dot Kyoto, as well as the global headquarters of a company I grew up knowing well: Nintendo! We then went back to Osaka for our second visit to the Ippudo ramen chain for a bowl of the good stuff.
Two days later, after taking a day out to go to Okinawa and then a morning at Himeji, we darted back to Kyoto in order to visit another shrine. This time we picked Tenryu-ji, which is on the western outskirts of Kyoto, close to the hills that have halted the city’s almost inexorable sprawl.
We were glad we did, because it turned out to be the best one of our trip. Consisting of a temple complex and a garden with a pond, designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty of Japan. Oh and I couldn’t resist reliving a Homer Simpson moment.
Tenryu-ji is the head temple of the Tenryu branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. There seem to be so many branches of Buddhism that most temples we visited were the head temple of something. This temple was everything a tourist would want one to be: pretty, peaceful, garden, pond, raked gravel, bamboo, tatami mats, paper walls and quiet. The area outside the temple was pleasant to stroll about in, too – outside of the hustle and bustle of central Kyoto.
The following day – which was also our last day in Kyoto and indeed our last day in Japan – I decided to use the few hours we had spare before heading to Kansai Airport for our flight home to shoehorn in another temple. This was probably a mistake, because when we got there the heavens opened. And, unlike some of the other temples in Kyoto, Nijo Castle (another Tokugawa Ieyasu building) is not a small and indoorsy one! Surrounded by a moat, it is a formidable block in the heart of the city. We walked around the maze of corridors inside the Ninomaru Palace, squeaking over the nightingale flooring. The surface was deliberately designed to ‘chirp’ when walked on, in order that intruders would not be able to sneak up on the emperor unannounced.
When the heavens really opened on us as we walked around the castle grounds I threw in the towel and got us a taxi back to the railway station. From Kyoto we took a train to Osaka to pick up our luggage and then a one-hour Airport Rapid Service to Kansai International Airport. This airport is an impressive feat of engineering, for it was built entirely out of the sea. I managed to take a picture of it as we flew past several days before on our way from Itami to Naha – squint and you can see the H-shaped outline of the airport island.
Although we have reached the end of our Japan trip chronologically, I still have two more posts to write on the other WHSs we saw. Stay tuned!