Temples, Gardens and Shrines: Kyoto 2-5.11.2002

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Ask anyone for hints where to go in Japan and you'll probably get an answer "Don't miss Kyoto". To get an idea, my 793 page guidebook "Gateway to Japan" dedicates a whopping 104 pages to this city alone. Kyoto (京都) was the capital of Japan for many centuries until the end of the 16th, both in means of power and cultural activities. It also escaped most of destructive bombing during the second world war so a good number of the landmarks of ancient rulers have survived. Buddhist temples used to be centers of both religious and military power.

Monday and Tuesday after the first weekend in November were vacation from the university so it was a good opportunity for a short trip outside Kanazawa. I had planned to take an early morning bus on Saturday, but unfortunately they were all full-booked about one week in advance. I didn't want to pay double the price for a train and opted for the afternoon bus paying a reasonable 6600 yen round-trip fare. After a 4 hour ride I arrived in Kyoto around 7 o'clock Saturday evening.
aut12003-uno-house.jpg I stayed in a youth hostel called Uno House. For 1650 yen per night you get an about 80x270 cm slice of floorspace in one of the dormitory rooms - just enough to roll the futon on the tatami, put your backpack against the wall and still leave a passage free so that others can reach their own place without stepping on you. You also get the authentic experience of sleeping in a Japanese style house with wood and paper walls.
The hostel had many wonderful peculiarities. One of my favourites was a coin-operated (100 yen) air conditioner in the living room which is in common use of all the guests. In November we were more interested about the heaters which were cleverly equipped with timers to avoid wasting petrol at night - and to make sure that guests remembered to use their blankets...

Don't get me wrong, I liked the Uno House. It may not be the top choice if you want to ensure a comfortable uninterrupted sleep but it has character and a cozy atmosphere. It's also exactly the sort of place where you meet interesting people who love traveling and get the best hints where to go. In the picture Lubi is demonstrating the kitchen.

aut12006-kinkakuji.jpg On Sunday morning I met Anemone, Lubi and Slavka (also exchange students in Kanazawa) who had already arrived in Kyoto on Friday. We went first to see the Kinkakuji temple (金閣寺) which showed it's best side in the morning sun. It was not possible to go inside but the garden around the temple was also quite nice.
aut12011-funny-tree.jpg The Japanese love gardens and put a great deal of effort in building funny-looking supports and snow protection covers (in areas which get snow in the winter) for the trees. This one was in the Kinkakuji garden.
aut12017-shichi-go-san.jpg After Kinkakuji we went to Imamiya shrine (今宮神社) and were lucky to get in the middle of Shichi-go-san matsuri. It's an event where parents dress their seven, five and three year old children in their best kimonos and bring them to visit a shrine. We had great fun watching this mother trying to get her boy stay still long enough for taking a photo - the kid clearly was much more interested to run around and explore the place.
By the way, a shrine (神社 - "jinja" in Japanese) refers to Shintoism and temple (寺 - "tera" or "ji" in Japanese) to Buddhism. These two religions coexist peacefully in Japan and most people actually belong to both of them. Buddhism could perhaps be characterized as more serious and uniform of the two (although there are several different "sects" of Buddhism) while Shinto is tied to the local culture of each area and has many lively and colourful celebrations. However, the Japanese tend to have a quite flexible approach to both and don't mind foreigners coming to see and participate in the customs.
aut12031-zen-garden.jpg Zen is one of the major sects (styles) of Buddhism. It emphasizes simplicity and meditation and this is reflected in the architecture as well. Zen temples are less vividly decorated than others, gardens usually consist mostly of rocks and sand. Here you can see a river flowing into the sea and a ship floating peacefully in the bay.
aut12054-autumn-colors.jpg It was a bit early but in a few places trees had already dressed in their best autumn colors. This is from Ninna-ji temple (仁和寺).
aut12056-shop-26.jpg Japan is full of "convenience stores" and other small shops which are open seven days a week around the clock or at least very late in the evening. But this bookstore must be especially designed for busy people because it's open until 26.00! Me too, I want two extra hours in my day! :-)
aut12057-potatoes.jpg The dinner in a popular restaurant near the hostel offered the next surprise. Slavka is a vegetarian and Japanese restaurants don't tend to have too good selection of plates without any meat or seafood. Here she ordered a small but tasty-looking salad which came with a "gift" of three potatoes in a plastic bag. Yes, uncooked potatoes! We kept joking for a while if we should ask the personnel to bring us a cooker so we could boil them at the table, but eventually didn't.
aut12060-garden-lightup.jpg We had seen a fair number of temples, shrines and gardens but went still to see Shorenin temple (書蓮院) because it was open until late with special illumination on that day. That was a great decision: busloads of tourists hadn't find the place and there weren't any loudspeaker-equipped guides either. Instead there were mostly Japanese people who had come there to hear a short speech by one of the monks and then leasurely stroll around the nicely illuminated garden.
aut12066-bambuforest.jpg The bamboo forest reflecting light back in silver was my favourite.
aut12072-gate-and-bambuforest.jpg There was a small shrine too (in the photo) and a special light setup on the lawn in front of the temple. Most of the time it consisted of circles and once in a while briefly formed a character of ancient Buddhist writing in the middle. One Japanese person explained the symbolism to us - I missed most of it but one belief was that when the character appears one should wish something and it'll become true. The tour ended at the big soft-sounding temple bell which most visitors tolled once and said a brief prayer before going back home.
aut12079-plum-wine.jpg We weren't ready for sleeping yet but walked around chatting and sometimes escaping cold to the numerous 24-hour stores. At this one we bought some plum wine and later Slavka and Lubi came out from another with a bottle of whisky...

(...but eventually didn't drink much and got back to the hostel before midnight.)

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi> 2002.
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Last update 20.12.2002.