High-speed trains whisked away on: 6
Temples visited: 20+
Wedding processions stumbled upon: 2
Bill Murray homages performed: 1
US Navy bases visited: 1
Perfectly planned gardens appreciated: 15
Perfectly planned gardens found wanting: 1
Traditional performances attended: 3
Schoolkids who made me part of their project: 17
New foods consumed: 23
New foods enjoyed: 21
Beatles cover bands watched: 1
Intimidatingly fashionable teens seen on the street: hundreds
Total days spent in Japan: 20
Total money spent: $1,254.60
Average per day: $62.73
Total money spent, minus the rail pass: $629
Average per day, minus the rail pass: $31.45
Gratitude I have for my many hosts: boundless
There are more temples in Kyoto than days on a Japan Railpass, but I did manage to see the Golden Palace, the Silver Palace, Ryoan-ji, and Kiyomizu Temple over the course of a couple days. I can see why people rhapsodize about them.
Ginkaku-ji (officially Jisho-ji) was built in the 15th century, and is probably nicknamed the Silver Palace as it came after construction of the gold-leafed Golden Palace. Possibly it was even going to be covered in silver foil, but that never happened, and it remains a painted wooden sculpture.
The grounds were extensive (I feel like a character in an Austen novel every time I say that, but it’s true). The gardens I visited in Japan were all meticulously laid out, and little arrows pointed the exact path you should follow, both to avoid congestion and to appreciate the gardens according to the aesthetic plan of the designers. The gardens at Ginkaku-ji were flowering beautifully, and the large raked rock garden (it is a Zen temple) was a perfect complement to the leafy trees.
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Palace, was super crowded–it’s one of the most popular destinations in the country, for domestic and foreign tourists alike. There’s a little spot set aside for photos of the gilded palace across the pond. Trying to elbow in for a photo in front of the fence was a bit of work. A Japanese teenager tried to take a photo with me–with me as the tourist attraction. I declined. Was that so different from taking a photo of the women in line with me at the kabuki theater? I like to think it was, since I chatted with the women in line before asking for a photo, but I’m not sure.
The palace a large house on stilts. It was originally the villa of a wealthy man; another man bought it later and then asked that it be turned into a Zen temple upon his death. So he got to enjoy the lavish place for himself and then piously give it over to religion–nice one! The original structure was burned down by a disturbed novice monk in 1950, and it has since been rebuilt. The hill walk here was far less impressive than that of the Silver Palace. I’m glad about that, actually, since I take it to mean that I’m getting a little better at distinguishing among the Japanese gardens I’ve seen, and determining which are more pleasing.
Ryoan-ji is part of the World Heritage listing of Kyoto, and it’s famous for its Zen rock garden, which has kept the same arrangement since the 15th century. The grounds are huge, and they include a large pond with ducks (which are apparently rare here), and a little fox shrine on a tiny island on the pond. Up the hill was the building. Everyone had to remove their shoes before entering, which is actually the first time I’d encountered that in a religious temple in Japan. (I removed them at every temple in Thailand.)
The rock garden is enclosed in a large stone fence. There are 15 rocks, set in carefully raked gravel/gray sand. I couldn’t get a good angle to see the whole garden at once, which is apparently intentional; you’re meant to sit and reflect on the portion you can see, and take meaning from that. You’re also only able to see 14 of the 15 rocks from any one point on the viewing pavilion, because you can “see” the final rock when you reach enlightenment. It would have been peaceful to sit there and reflect, but there were a lot of people and they all talked loudly, so that didn’t happen.
Getting to Kiyomizu Temple was more of a journey than I’d expected. I took a bus, walked up an endless hill, which finally turned into old Edo period buildings, and eventually I reached the shrine. It was a large complex, set around the edge of the hill, so for the first part you stood on the patio and looked across the ravine to a pagoda. (“Jump off the ledge at Kiyomizu” is a Japanese idiom similar to “take the plunge”–if you could jump 13 meters from the pavilion to a spot below, you’d get your wish. Not everyone survived this plunge.)
Then I walked along the rim of the valley to that pagoda and looked back at the buildings there, with the city off to the side and the sun starting to set. It was all picturesque, as just about everything in Japan was. Because I was there at closing, I didn’t get to to see the waterfall for which the temple is named, so, next time.
It rained most of the time I was in Kyoto, which was too bad for seeing the temples, but perfect for attending a tea ceremony and a dance performance one afternoon. Kyoto is famous for temples and geisha, but all these traditional elements are fit into a large, modern city. So I took a bus downtown and then walked down an alley to get to the theater for the dance.
The theater presents shows seasonally, and I was lucky to be there for the spring show by the maiko (geisha in training) and geisha. Kabuki is performed by an all-male cast, and near as I could tell, this show was all women. The first half was a full play, and again I was struck by how stylized every movement was, as it had been at the kabuki show. There was no English translation or program provided here, though, so I couldn’t really follow the story, but it involved thwarted love and I’m pretty sure mass suicide at the end.
After a short intermission, they performed a series of dances, mostly in small groups, with some individuals coming forward for a few moves. All very graceful, small movements, all set to live music from stage right. It was like a ballet in its wordlessness and gracefulness, and it was beautiful to watch.
There are several ways to attend a tea ceremony in Kyoto. I went to the one recommended to me by my hostel; I was the only one who attended this session, so after a short introductory conversation with the host, I sat on the tatami floor for instruction. She explained what a few implements were–the whisk, the serving bowl, the scoop–then said, “Now I will begin,” and walked out of the room.
Everything for the next 15 minutes was silence, as she re-entered and performed the ceremony with precision and grace. She folded a red cloth a certain way and wiped the tea bowl with it, then refolded it and wiped the wooden tea scoop. Water from a small hot coals stove, tea whisked with a bamboo whisk. She bowed when serving me the tea, and I lifted my bowl in respect, turned the bowl a quarter turn, and then sipped.
After she served me the tea, she left the room briefly. When she came back in, she explained some of the symbolism behind it all and had me whisk green tea on my own. The four qualities necessary to any tea ceremony, she said, are respect, harmony, purity, and tranquility. Each quality follows from the other–harmony from respect, etc. I found the ceremony the perfect end to the afternoon, a quiet, lovely time to reflect.
Kamakura was the seat of a powerful shogunate in the 13th and 14th centuries, and it has the impressive number of shrines and temples to show for it. It’s a popular tourist destination for Japanese and foreign tourists alike, and it was bustling when I went there in April. I made it to three of the famous sights, which isn’t bad for a day trip.
A shogun built the approach to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine for his son; quite the birthday present. It’s a straight path up from the sea, lined with cherry trees. It leads to a giant torii (main gate), which opens up to a small bridge crossing a manmade pond, and a long gravel path to a large courtyard.
To the left of the stairs that lead up to the shrine stands what remains of the giant gingko tree that figures in legends of the shrine. The tree was struck by lightning several years ago, but people still pose for photos in front of the massive stump left behind. Behind the shrine is a small museum of treasures–calligraphy scrolls, suits of armor, some painted screens–which I admired but didn’t photograph, since there were lots of “No photos allowed” signs.
Possibly the biggest attraction in Kamakura is the Great Buddha. (Pun intended!) The bronze statue was cast in 1252 and has stood in the open air since 1495. The size did not disappoint; this is one large buddha. It’s also hollow, and you can go inside the base. That was cool, to touch the inside of a statue built 700 years ago.
The best part of visiting the buddha statue was all the schoolkids. They were there on a field trip, and they clearly had assignments to accost every foreigner they saw, because as I sat and admired the buddha, no fewer than three groups of 10-to-15-year-olds came up and asked to talk with me. Each person in the groups (made up of 6 to 8 kids) had to ask a question, and I answered “what is your favorite color?” “what sports do you like?” and “what is your favorite food from Japan?” many times. After I answered, they thanked me and gave me colorful little origami that they’d made, which was sweet, even if it was part of the assignment. The last group wanted to take a photo with me, so I got one on my camera too. Peace signs for everyone!
The final shrine I made it to was Hasedera Temple. It had a beautiful garden, and a giant gold-covered wood statue of Kannon, god/dess (has been seen as both) of mercy. The statue was not allowed to be photographed, and it was clearly an important focus for religious reflection. While I was there, a group of men and women in white half-robes were led in chant while they gazed at the statue, which was lovely to witness.
The temple grounds included a shrine that has become a sort of pilgrimage site for women remembering miscarriages and stillborn babies, a walk to an overlook on the sea, and a cave containing images of various goddesses. It was a large, lovely temple complex.
Takeshita Street is a famous side street in the shopping district of Tokyo. All the latest trends either start here or become mainstreamed here, I’m not sure which. I walked down the street, surrounded by teenagers dressed up in outrageous outfits shopping for even more outrageous outfits.
Shop employees stood up on plastic stools to shout about their wares via megaphones. At least one store was devoted entirely to tights and leggings. I passed what I think was a photography studio, where you and your friends can dress up as pop stars and have your pictures taken with glamorous backgrounds. Or maybe it was just a place selling posters of pop stars.
I went into a Daiso, a chain 100 yen shop (a dollar store), and came out with some souvenirs and travel items. The store is large enough that it has its own directory. Some of the English translations describe items that I couldn’t actually find or couldn’t figure out what they meant (what’s Straps?), so that’s a bad translation, and some of them were just very specific (an entire section for Opera glasses).
My host Junko told me how to get a sweeping city view for free instead of paying for an observation deck at Mori Tower, so one night I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices building. (This is like sending people to the Hancock instead of the Sears when they go to Chicago.) The observation deck on the 45th floor was made up of a restaurant, an overstuffed souvenir shop, and windows all the way ‘round the room. I liked seeing all of Tokyo spread out before me, lit up as far as the eye could see. (One of the downsides of going to the free deck is that it’s not set up well for photos, so there’s a glare on most of these, sorry.)
The Meiji Jingu shrine is named after the last Meiji emperor of Japan and his wife, Empress Shoken. The shrine was built after the emperor’s death in 1912, near the imperial couple’s favorite iris garden.
The government decided to build a Shinto shrine to the deified spirits of the emperor and empress, and they surrounded the building with over 100,000 trees donated by citizens from around the country. I found that a lovely idea, to build a living, natural shrine as well as a painted, manmade one.
The park is large, as you can imagine since it contains over 100,000 trees, and I had a nice walk through the forest, over a pond lined with turtles sunning themselves. I entered the main grounds and took in the large trees hung with paper lightning bolts of power, and saw a wedding party walking across the large gravel courtyard.
Priests in ceremonial dress led a procession through the courtyard to a side yard and around a corner out of sight. The groom wore a dark suit and the bride wore a white kimono with a mushroom-shaped hood. A female attendant carried a parasol over the bride. Friends and family, some dressed in kimonos but most in contemporary clothes, walked behind.
The empress was a big supporter of the Red Cross, so there were collection boxes for the charity around the temple. The emperor was considered quite the poet, and for 107 yen, I purchased a small roll of paper with a short poem inscribed on it.
The torii, the main gate to the shrine, is the oldest of its style in Japan. According to the sign posted under it, the torii was rebuilt in 1975, modeled exactly after the original built in 1920. It seems unlikely all other torii of this style in the country were built after 1975, so this seems to be another instance of something being displayed as an original in Japan, without actually being made of the same materials as the original. I’m so used to the old buildings and sites of Europe and the States, which are venerated for being the very same stones touched by previous generations.
The original is such a prized thing in Western civilization, from paintings to cathedrals, and the materials used are an integral part of that originality. I have not made a study of this, so please do correct me in the comments if I’m wrong, but originality in Japanese culture is less important, or it’s interpreted in a different way; the materials aren’t as important as the precise style and location, perhaps. The London Bridge was moved to the Arizona desert, and people still flock to see it because it’s made of stones centuries old. In Japan, temples may have been rebuilt only a few decades ago, but they imitate the form and decoration of their predecessors so precisely, and inhabit the same space so perfectly, that they are admired as the temple, not a copy.
This is ending up very freshman philosophical, all “what is the you-ness that makes you, you,” but it’s something I pondered several times at the different tourist sites I visited throughout Japan. I admit to a thrill when I see or touch something truly old, but seeing a perfectly symmetrical temple identical to one people admired centuries ago is a thrill of its own. The common thread, for me, is the historical connection to others. Whether it’s the actual building that people stood in, or a replica, the exciting thing is the idea that I might be experiencing the sights and sounds of a place just as earlier generations did.