Kyoto part 1

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It is time for that inevitability of any blog in Japan… The Kyoto trip. To do this, I will just go day by day. My friends and I took off from Tokyo station around 10am and arrived at Kinse Inn in time for lunch. After exploring such an awesome place, we headed toward the Nishiki market and grabbed a little lunch. From there we did a little bit of street shopping before we hit up Yasaka shrine. By that time, the shrines started to shut down as they all normally do at 4:30- 5ish.

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One thing that we all started to do was collect Goshuin which is a special stamp with religious, handwritten calligraphy. These are usually stamped in a special book called a Goshuincho, but something of the equivalent size will do. Different temples have different designs for their Goshuincho, some can be very kitchy and cute, while others can be really nicely done and bound in fabric. I chose mine at Yasakuni shrine almost 10 years ago. A Goshuin usually costs 300 yen, but it varies.

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Once the sun set, we strolled about the area around Shichijo station, which as it turns out would be the central staging area for our entire Kyoto experience. After a little bit of exploration we decided upon a Kushiage place that got good reviews. All seven seats at that restaurant were filled up by the time we got there so we had to scuttle to find a place. The good news is we found a really awesome gyoza place. Ok, so it wasn’t traditional Kyoto fare, but it sure as hell was delicious… especially the cilantro gyoza… After that, we called it a night.

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The next day we started early and met at a nearby neighborhood coffee joint called Aoki coffee. It was run by a sweet lady who actually had a special menu in English, which I wasn’t expecting. There was a special Kinse Inn breakfast there too for quite a bargain. 450 yen for a cup of coffee and an egg sandwich with egg (obviously) cucumber, a little mayo, and a curious butter with a hint of something mustardy mixed in; Wasabi perhaps. From there, we planned our day to hit up the area around Kinukake-no-michi. I actually didn’t know the area had a name, but I remember a few famous temples being clustered together.

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We took JR Sagano line to Hanazono station, and from there it was only a 5 minute walk to the Myoshinji temple complex. The weather on that day was the very definition of perfection, with just a hint of the leaves starting to change. We entered from the south gate and exited through the north gate to make our way to the next temple.

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Next on our stop was Ninnaji temple. Their English pamphlet describes the temple thus, as since I am directly quoting, I am including all the weird capitalization and punctuation:

“Ninnaji was founded by the fifty-ninth emperor, Uda, in the fourth year of Ninna (888). It was formerly called the Old Imperial Palace of Omuro as it served as a residence for the ex-emperor. The temple is now noted as headquarters of Omuro School of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. The headquarters of the nationally known Omuro School of Flower Arrangement is also housed in this temple compound.
Among various noteworthy temple buildings as well as two tea houses, almost all of which are designated as either National Treasure or as Important Cultural Properties, the Kondo and Miedo halls were moved from the Kyoto Imperial Palace and rebuilt here. A major characteristic of the temple structures is that they include Goten, usually seen only in palace architecture.
The temple boasts a magnificent collection of treasure which amount to more than 600 items. It includes sculpture, painting, calligraphy, lacquered works and ceramics, which can be seen at Reiho-kan twice each year: April-May, and October-November. The uniquely low-branched cherry trees called Omuro Cherry is another treasure of the temple and garnishes with an additional scenic beauty in spring. In 1994 Ninna-ji was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.”

Ninna-ji was indeed nice, and I saw all the Omuro cherry trees (albeit in early autumn) and thought to myself how magnificent it must look when they bloom. Then I thought of the crowds… nevermind, I’ll be fine with just a postcard of that. There was some restoration going on, but not enough to make it not worth going to. In their gift shop they had this rather cute cat incense stand and this amazing smelling incense coming out of it. I’m a sucker for a gift shop, and I knew my wife would like that particular holder. I asked the clerk what scent the incense was, and she replied it was Byakudan. I had no idea what it was, but I later found out it was just sandalwood. This wasn’t your average, dorm room pot head, Gonesh sandalwood though, this was very high quality Japanese stuff. It was more expensive but I snatched up a box of it and the cat. Seriously, I go nutso in those places. While looking at the box of my favorite scent, I found that it is Shoyeido brand incense called Horikawa… and yes they deliver to the US… so 3 snaps up in Z formation!

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After Ninna-ji, we started off for Ryoanji. We were getting pretty hungry so we stopped at this place called Café Albo. This place specialized in fresh, handmade soba, and they weren’t kidding. When you order he makes the noodles right in front of you and then gives it to you to examine before it’s taken to the kitchen to be prepared. Too bad I don’t like soba, but my friends enjoyed it quite a bit. The noodle master spoke a little broken English until my friend noticed some McIntosh speakers and commented on it. Suddenly, the noodle master/audiophile became a proficient English speaker and started handing us electrical diagrams and regale us with his exploits in finding bargain prices for the parts. I would have taken pictures of the place, but there was a sign saying no pictures allowed.

On the way to Ryoanji, my back started messing with me so I was really lagging behind the group, but we eventually got to Ryoanji, which is famous for its zen rock garden. Honestly though, it was just a bunch of rocks surrounded by too many tourists. Far more interesting for me were the screen door paintings. The Goshuin from Ryoanji was my favorite in Kyoto too. From the official pamphlet:

“The Rock Garden- This simple and remarkable garden measures only twenty-five meters from east to west and ten meters from south to north. The rectangular Zen garden is completely different from the gorgeous gardens of court nobles constructed in the Middle Ages. No trees are to be seen; only fifteen rocks and white gravel are used in the garden.
The walls are made of clay boiled in oil. As time went by, the peculiar design was made of itself by the oil that seeped out.
This internationally famous rock garden was said to be created at the end of Muromachi period (around 1500), by a highly respected Zen monk, Tokuho Zenketsu.
Ryoanji temple- Originally a country home of the Tokudaiji clan, it was acquired in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto for use as a Zen training temple. It was destroyed by fire during the Onin war and was rebuilt in 1499. It was registered as a World Heritage site in 1994.

A unique wash-basin of stone, “Tsukubai”- Tsukubai, the stone wash-basin for the tea room, has a unique inscription, “I learn only to be contented.” He who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who does not learn to be contented is spiritually poor even if he is materially wealthy. This concept is important in the Zen spirit. The Tsukubai is said to have been contributed by Mitsukuni Mito (1628-1700), a feudal lord and the compiler of the great History of Japan known as “Dai-nippon-shi”.
The Tea-room Zoroku (closed to the public)- The tea room Zoroku is typical of the style favored by Kishuza, a tea master of the early 17C. Zoroku means to contain (or hide) ‘six.’ The six stands for head, tail and four legs. Consequently Zoroku means a tortoise, which is the symbol of Genbu, the guardian god of the north.

Kyoyochi pond- The pond was made in the late twelfth century. Until recent years many mandarin ducks were to be seen on the pond. Hence Ryonaji was generally known as Oshidoridera, the temple of mandarin ducks. The water wells out from around the two rocks in the south. On the islet named Bentenjima is a hall, in which an image of Sarasvati has been housed.”

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Like I said, Ryoanji was nice but it is not my favorite place in Kyoto by far. I didnt bother to take pictures of the super famous things.  If your curious, google it.  Instead I took pictures of the things that interested me.  Next up was my least favorite temple in Kyoto: Kinkakuji, or the golden pavilion. The reason I don’t like it is I hate the in your face aesthetic of it, and I really hate the crowds. It is the number one temple stop for visitor to Japan, and it can get packed. What was particularly odd was that a bus load of Chinese tourists clad in faux kimono were grazing about with a selfie cameras on a stick. I was so ready to be out of there. By the time we finished wading through all the Chinese and Elementary school kids, it was closing time, so that was a wrap for our first full day exploring Kyoto.

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The official Kinaku-ji literature:

“Kinkaku (The Golden Pavilion)/ Rokuon-ji Temple- Kinkaku, the Golden Pavilion, is a shariden, a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha. The pavilion is part of a temple that is formally known as Rokuon-ji Temple, but commonly called Kinkaku-ji Temple or Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Rokuon-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple, in the Shokokuji School of Rinzai Sect. This area was originally the site of a villa called Kitayama-dai and owned by a statesman, Saionji Kintsune. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the 3rd Shogun of the Muromachi period took a liking to the area and acquired it from the Saionji family in 1397. He then built his own villa, which he named Kitayama-den.
The garden and buildings, centered on the Golden Pavilion, were said to represent the Pure Land of Buddha in this world. The villa also functioned as an official guesthouse, welcoming Emperor Gokomatsu (Father of Zen teacher, Ikkyu) and other members of the nobility. Trade with China prospered during the Muromachi period, and the villa reached its height of glory as the heart of what became known as Kitayama Culture.
After Yoshimitsu died, in keeping with his will, the villa was converted into a temle by the priest Muso-kokushi, who became the first abbot. The temple’s name, Rokuon-ji, was derived from the name Yoshimitsu was given for the next world, Rokuon-in-den. In 1994, Rokuon-ji Temple was registered as a World Heritage Site.
Shariden (Kinkaku/ The Golden Pavilion)- Gold foil on lacquer covers the upper two levels of Kinkaku, and a shining phoenix stand on top of the shingled roof. The first level is built in the Shinden style of the 11th century imperial aristocracy; the second level is in buke style of the warrior aristocracy; and the top level is in the Chinese zenshu-butsuden style. Overall, Kinkaku is representative of Muromachi-period architecture.

The Sekka-tei Tea House- The detached teahouse was built during the Edo period, Kinkaku was especially beautiful when seen from here in the late afternoon sun. This view is reflected in the teahouse name, Sekkatei (place of evening beauty). The famous alcove pillar is of nandina wood (heavenly bamboo).

Fudo-do- The temple’s main image is a stone statue of the Buddhist deity Fudo-myo-o. This statue is thought to have been made in the 9th century by Kobo-daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Although normally hidden from public view, the image has long been revered for miraculous poerts. Open-Door rituals are held on Setsubun (in early February) and on August 16.

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