Kyoto P2 – Temples & Shrines

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Kyoto served as Japan’s capital and emperor’s residence for about a thousand years since the late 8th century, beginning from the Heian Period. At present day, Kyoto is dotted with uncountable temples and shrines, which are the main attractions here, which are also the main features in our itinerary.

It was raining on the first 2 days of our arrival. Didn’t stop us from exploring the city though. Holding a transparent brollie in one hand and a huge green tea ice cream in another, we walked all the way from Shijo Kawaramachi to Kiyomiduzera which is a beautiful temple located up the hill.

Kiyomizudera

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One of Kyoto’s most famous Buddhist temples, built since the 8th century, the name literally translates to “Temple of Pure Water”, as there is a spring in the grounds where everyone queues up to collect its “holy water”, as it is believed to possess divine powers. There are 3 separate flows for different purposes – health and preventing illnesses, excellence in education and successful marriage (I think!)

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This temple is famous for the big main hall which is completely made of wooden structures ala traditional Japanese style, built without a single nail. Notice the throngs of school children on the huge verandah overlooking the cliff. (You can identify them from the different uniform or colored caps they wore.)

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Seems that Japanese schools like to organize temple visits for their field trips; we met groups of school children on every temple we visited every day, without fail. I guess it is a way of educating their young to inculcate respect and appreciation towards the history and culture of their own country. What a marvellous idea. Compared to poring over dreadfully boring history textbooks and memorising useless events and warriors’ names, which is the practice in my own country. It’s no wonder i fared so badly in History. Hmm….

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Higashiyama – the area around Kiyomizu temple, popular walking spot and full of interesting little shops selling local foodstuff, arts and crafts, clothing, souvenirs, etc. You can’t miss this place going in and out from Kiyomizudera.

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Fushimi Inari

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This was one shrine we visited which we see lesser school children and no kindies at all, probably the thousands of steps are too much for them tiny tots. There were even significantly lesser tourists here, which made this place all the more attractive. It was one of my personal favourite, mainly because of the tranquility and the foresty feel; crisp fresh air, rustling leaves from the wind, cool shady treks, and most importantly, no crowds.

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It is in fact a cluster of shrines, (and perhaps tombs too), built and scattered over a large forest space on the slopes of Mt. Inari; to visit them would require about 3 hours of walking up and down long stretches of steps to fully explore this area. Food and drinks get scarce and more expensive as you go higher up. Occasional vending machines dot the journey as you climb the steep steps to satisfy your cravings for cold coffee on the hill top. Yep, vending machines are available everywhere in Japan, even in the middle of forests!

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One of the outstanding unique features of this shrine are the thousands (or 10,000) of striking orange Torii gates lining up all the way through for the first 4 km of the climb up the hill, all written with names of the donors and their families together with their wishes or prayers inscribed onto the gates. This is a rather unusual setting for a shrine. Most others would have only one or two at the entrance. It’s a sight to behold, even if you just come here to see the Torii gates lining up in the middle of the forest in such a manner.

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Plenty of Inari (fox deity) could be observed here all along the way, in various forms and sizes : statues, carvings, drawing images, figurines, and lucky charms. The belief in the fox deity has originated since the ancient times where the Japanese farmers believed the fox to be the messenger of the god of harvest; hence tens of thousands of shrines are dedicated to this animal in modern day Japan.

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Although this temple is open 24 hours, there are no gates, no guards and no registrars, hence it is not advisable to walk after sundown, as there would be no light at all and it would be rather easy to get lost. Heck, it was dark even in the daytime and quite easy to get lost too, as the only directional signboards and maps available at crossroads, are all written in Japanese. It is always useful to learn a word or two of Japanese before coming to Japan, if you are not following a tour.

 

Arashiyama

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This place alone required a one-day trip just to explore (and get lost in its maze haha!) The beautiful scenery here has been depicted in songs and poems since ancient times. Yes, everything in Kyoto is ancient. Arashiyama is famous for its cherry blossoms in spring and the autumn colors during fall. Unfortunately we were two weeks too early for the peak of autumn to witness the full change of colors.

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There are few ways to travel around this area; rent a bicycle, or sit in the ridiculously expensive rickshaw rides pulled by young Japanese boys who will also act as tour guides along the way. But i find the most enjoyable and convenient way of exploring this place is to just walk, and get lost, pretend to study and understand the confusing maps, and then walk some more… how interesting… 😉

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Some attractions of this area include the Tenryuji Temple (Temple of the Heavenly Dragon), the bamboo forest, pleasure boats, the preserved town area, the romantic railway through the river gorge, and many other temples scattered here.

Tenryuji – 14th century Zen temple, largest and most impressive temple in Arashiyama, with gardens with walking paths. Charges for every section of the grounds.

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Bamboo Forest – a nice cool walk in the pathways between the tall bamboo groves on both sides, even better when there is a little wind to sway the bamboos stalks back and forth.

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Saga Toriimoto Preserved Streets – preserved in the style of the Meiji period, many of the buildings are traditional town houses (machiya) which used to be private residences that are now converted into restaurants and retail businesses.

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Sagano Scenic Railway, known as the “Romantic Train since 1991”, passing through mountains, forest and gorges with the raging river running alongside the train ride all along the journey. Kind of remind me of Cataract Gorge in Launceston Tasmania, only this is a bigger version of it.

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After a full day of walking in Arashiyama, our feet felt rather stiff and wobbly. There aren’t many (actually, close to none) public benches available for resting midway. Nevertheless, there is a foot spa at the railway station just for a quick relief to the tired feet. It’s an odd set up at the edge of the train station, almost as though it is specially designed and put up there just for Arashiyama’s fatigued visitors. We stopped by for a 10-minute break here to soak away all the stress and tiredness, before continuing the journey home.

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Ryoanji

Zen temple and World Heritage Site – where we paid ¥500 to see 15 stones… in the hopes of getting enlightened…. Haha! No that was a joke. Hmm…. no chance of enlightenment here. 😉 Well, this particular rock garden is one of the most famous gardens in Japan. OK, for the price of ¥500, it is worthwhile to tell the story here.

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It’s a simple rock garden measuring 25m x 10m, with white gravel and 15 rocks and no trees. The elements of landscapes are symbolised by rocks and raked gravel. It is famous for its nothingness, for nothingness symbolises the essence of Zen. Its simple beauty inspires philosophical meditation. One is supposed to sit by the side of this garden for hours to observe and reflect. It depends on each viewer what he sees and interprets from this landscape. There is also the stone which represents a mommy tiger carrying her cub and jumping across the rock on the river…., but i think i’ll rather skip that part…

 

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)

A small garden compound which charges ¥400 for entry to see a three-storey building from a distance, surrounded by a lake, and 1000 noisy tourists. No entry into the building. Doesn’t sound too attractive? Well, I wouldn’t say that exactly, although it is a tourist trap, nonetheless. So what’s the deal anyway?

The main attraction of this building, other than it is a 14th century villa built by a shogun based on three different architectural styles blended together in harmony, and later became a temple followed by a World Cultural Heritage; is that the second and third floors are completely gilded in gold, both on the outside and inside, with a shining golden phoenix perched on top of the roof.

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Especially on a bright sunny day, this is a real sight to behold, as you stand face to face with something so bright and so big, it hurts the eye to stare at it for too long. The gold is also brightly reflected on the lake, (also known as the mirror lake, as it mirrors the inverse gold image clearly in its waters). Golden shiny ripples on the waters of the lake created an almost surreal image of the entire scenery, somewhat like an exaggerated artwork of a flamboyant painter.

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In the heart of autumn, the picturesque backdrop is further perfected by the colourful autumn leaves surrounding the lake and reflected on the waters too.

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There was also a rather bizarre story which formed part of the history of this building. Not too long ago, there was a young man who became entranced by the beauty of the Kinkakuji and became a priest. Later he developed a vision that grew into an obsession; that to perfect his aesthetic senses there is only one thing lacking, which is to see this building going up in flames. Thereafter, he realized his dream by setting the historical building on fire, razing it to the ground. Hmm….. as i learnt of this story I began to imagine as well, the Kinkakuji going up in flames.. i wonder which would be brighter, the gold or the fire burning it?? It would definitely be a sight to behold!!

More about Kyoto in : Kyoto P1 – A Taste of Japan

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