Friday 13 September 2013

The old capital - Kyoto (part 2)

Day one in Kyoto had surpassed expectations but was day two going to be as good?  I was about to find out....

One of the people I work with is a great lady called CJ from Canada.  CJ has lived in Japan for a number of years, and similar to me, in two separate visits.  She had lived in Kyoto for a number of years too, and spent some time as a tour guide.  As fate would have it, she was going to be in Kyoto at the same time as SJ and I and she had very kindly offered to show us a few places on day two.  I have to say here that because CJ worked as a tour guide, she is incredibly knowledgeable about Kyoto, and I can not even begin to remember all of the information she gave us as we were looking around during the day, but I will do my best.

We met up with CJ outside our hotel at about 11:30 and walked just up the street to our first destination for the day, Yasaka shrine.

Yasaka shrine dates back to the year 656 (as an Australian, I find things this old simply amazing!) and as the second picture shows, in 869 the small shrine (mikoshi) was paraded through the city to repel a wave of illness that had struck the city.  This was the first ever Gion matsuri (festival), an annual festival that has continued to this day.  The shrine is so historical and important in Japanese history that it stands at the highest rank of government supported shrines.

At the entrance of all shrines there are usually two animals stationed as guardians to keep evil spirits away.  Usually lions or foxes, upon close inspection you can see that one has its mouth open and the other closed.  This has an interesting story.  I will quote wikipedia here "The open mouth is pronouncing the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is pronounced "a", while the closed one is uttering the last letter, which is pronounced "um", to represent the beginning and the end of all things. Together they form the sound Aum, a syllable sacred in several religions".  CJ had put it as clearly as this but I couldn't remember it all so I had to enlist the help of wikipedia.

Here are a couple of the examples of the guardians at Yasaka shrine.

To walk through a place this old is quite incredible.  You can't help to imagine the sights that this place has witnessed, the events that have unfolded here throughout it's history.  You also wonder what statues like this one represent.

It is obviously representing something that has happened in the past.

With a last look around the shrine

we made our way out the back of the shrine

and into Maruyama park.

The park is quite popular at cherry blossom time and food and drink stalls line the path pictured in the photo above as friends, coworkers and couples enjoy the beauty of Hanami.

Just inside the park is this structure.

It is actually a radio receiver and back when not every household had a radio, people would come here to listen to the government sponsored NHK radio station.

There is not a lot of grass in Japanese parks, but it just shows that you can still have a beautiful park with no grass.

It really challenges your idea of what is "normal".  Normal for me can no longer be normal because I am in a different country.  I am able to, however, adjust my thinking and see beauty in what I would not have considered normal before.  Ok, that's got the philosophy out of the way, let's continue on the tour.  As we were leaving the park, we passed what looked like a massive temple that I would have loved to visit but it was undergoing renovations at the time, so we continued past on to our next destination.

We were walking to a nearby train station and if it wasn't raining as heavily as it was, I would have done a bit of exploring......

The rain was really coming down hard now, and some of the rivers were flowing very rapidly.

We arrived at the station and caught the subway to our next stop, Ni-jo castle.  Ni-jo castle was home to the Shogun and was built in 1626 and served as the Shogun's residence and place for meeting visitors.  

I have to say here that the taking of photos inside the castle is prohibited, so I am not able to show any shots of inside.

Important visitors were greeted in the inner sanctum where as guests who were not so important were greeted in one of the outer chambers.  The interior has been amazingly preserved and you can feel the history of the place permeating the hallways and different rooms.  One of the incredible features of the castle, and one of the highlights of the Kyoto visit for me, is what they call "Nightingale floor".  The floor all around the castle is a wooden floor and each step on the floor lets out a chirping sound like a bird.  The floor was intentionally made like this so that the Shogun was aware whenever anyone was approaching (no surprise Ninja attacks!).  I was walking around the castle with a silly grin on my face fascinated with the floor.  I wonder if the Shogun walked around the castle with the same silly grin on his face enjoying the floor as much as I did?....

Again, sorry I don't have any photos to show you, as it is a really impressive place, but I guess that just means you will have to visit and have a look for yourself!

We finished our visit and caught a taxi back to the Gion are and filled up on food before starting the next adventure of the day.

We headed off up the hill toward Kiyomizu temple (clear water temple), through the small streets that were lined with shops and residences.

Just really beautiful traditional architecture.  I felt like I had been taken back in time!

Next we came to a set of steps that CJ referred to as "two year steps".  The belief behind the name is that if you slipped on the steps and fell down, you would have two years bad luck.  Being that it was raining and that the steps were extra treacherous, I took the steps one at a time.  I think a couple of 70 year olds went past me as I was climbing the steps!

Reaching the top of the steps in one piece, the shopping street continued.

We then came upon a compound which CJ motioned us to enter.  Inside the compound were three buildings.  She explained that they were tea houses.  The first was a casual place, the second, slightly higher class and the final one, very high class.  For each one, your dress code had to follow the level of the tea house.  The grounds, again were simply stunning.

Pushing on, CJ put the pressure on by explaining that we were now coming up to some steps called "three year steps".  You guessed it, one slip and you were cursed with three years bad luck!

Getting down on my hands and knees I crawled safely up the steps happy that, while I might not have good luck for the next 5 years, at least I wouldn't have bad luck.

CJ and SJ both made it up safely (although on two feet, rather than hands and knees.....).

We soon arrived at Kiyomizu temple.  

Kiyomizu temple dates back to 798 BC and one interesting fact about the temple is that there is not a single nail used in the entire structure!

This dragon was pretty cool too!

There is one area just before you get to the main shrine where you pay an extra 100 yen, take off your shoes and head underground.  The object is to work your way to a prayer stone that you turn around in a circle and say a prayer.  Sounds pretty straight forward until you factor in that you are underground, there are no lights and it is as dark and black as you will ever be able to find.  I held my hand up centimetres (at least I think it was centimetres!) in front of my face and I could not see it!!  There is a hand rail that you hold on to with your left hand that guides you in the direction you need to go.  You need to hang on to the rail at all times or you run the risk of walking straight into a wall.  Once you have found the rock you then make your way up some stairs to the surface again.  It was an incredible experience.  It gave me a real understanding of what it must be like to be blind, and a real respect for blind people.  I swear a turtle would have beaten me to the prayer stone!

We then reached a display that was given to the shrine as a gift from a local blacksmith.  It is two priests staffs and a set of shoes.

The challenge is to see if you can lift the staffs.  I grabbed hold of the smaller one and lifted with all of my might and it lifted a few centimetres!  What chance did I have of lifting the large one?  Not much!  I tried anyway!  No chance as I just about strained a whole heap of muscles.  By this time a couple of Chinese guys were watching.  I motioned for one to grab the other side which he did and we lifted together........nothing!  By this time we had a bit of an audience and I motioned for his friend to come in and help too.  On the count of three we all lifted and finally the staff lifted off the ground.  The three of us high-fived each other as the crowd gave us a gentle round of applause.

Continuing on, we moved around to an observation area.  The views were incredible!

Moving around and away from the shrine we were then able to get some shots of the shrine itself.

Breathtaking, and CJ explained that in autumn, it is even more spectacular as the leaves on the trees change colour and the trees are a beautiful blood red colour!

We walked down and away from the shrine and we cam across a group of small statues dressed in bibs.  

I asked CJ what the meaning of these were.  The statues are to remember children who have died during, or soon after birth.  They are there so that parents have some physical symbol of their children to look at and offer prayers to.  CJ then told a story that explained the bibs and the clothing.  It was a Christmas eve and a tailor was waiting in his shop for customers.  It was a very cold night, and no-one was out, but he continued to wait.  Finally he decided to head home and be with his family.  On the way home, he came across some of the statues of the deceased children.  He stopped and taking some of the clothing that he had made, dressed the statues to keep the spirits of the children warm.  He woke up the next morning to find all of the towns people at his front door with food, sake and presents in thanks of what he had done for their children!  A lovely and heartwarming story!

We had come down from the heights where we had the spectacular views to the foot of the temple and had come across the place where Kiyomizu temple draws its name from.

 As mentioned earlier, Kiyomizu translated into English means "clear water".  The following photo shows the spring from where the clear water is drawn.  The water is sourced from the mountain that lies just behind the temple.

I can confirm that the water is indeed clear, and on a humid day, went down very well!

We got to a point at the base of the temple that we could look up at the stage in front of the temple.

There was a period during the Edo period where it was believed that if you jumped off the stage and fell to the ground below (13m) and survived, you were granted a wish.  With this motivation, 234 people attempted the jump, and as Wikipedia says, "85.4% survived.  The practise is now prohibited"!

We then left the temple and started making our way toward the Gion shopping street.  Walking through the little side streets, we stumbled upon something that I completely had not expected to see.

Kyoto was continuing to surprise me!!  I had to try it as I had not had a meat pie in 7 months!!

How was it?  Pretty good!  It was a Shepherds pie, and the mashed potato in it was some of the creamiest mashed potato I had ever eaten.

We next walked past a beautifully majestic Pagoda.

Heading further down the hill we came across a shrine that CJ wanted to show us.  This particular shrine (I forget the name) is visited by people who are looking for love.

The idea behind that white structure is that you crawl through, say a prayer to find your perfect match and then crawl back through again.  Is it a coincidence that there are a number of love hotels nearby?......

Finally we got to Hanamikoji street and I was let off my leash and allowed to go wandering!

Classic traditional architecture.  I was loving walking down this street.  The street actually had a few alleys leading off of it, and you know how much I like wandering around alleys!  This one

was actually considered big enough to have its own street name!

So I wandered through the back alleys enjoying trying to find my way out the other side again, not sure what lay around each bend.

Finally, at the end of the street, we came across a very old tea house that, as CJ explained, was the most exclusive tea house in Kyoto.  Not only did you need to have an invite to attend, but you pretty much had to be a head of state to be given an invite too.

I briefly considered poking my head through the curtains to take a photo before thinking better of it, and continued walking past.

We were to meet a couple of friends of CJ's for dinner that night, so we set off to catch up with them.  Walking past the river that runs through Kyoto, the water level and ferocity had risen due to the rain that had fallen all day.

We set off through some back alleys lined with bars and restaurants to get to our destination  for dinner.

Our restaurant a kushi katsu restaurant on the banks of the river.  Kushi katsu is crumbed, deep fried food.  It consists of seafood, vegetables, cheese sticks, eggs etc.  Nothing is spared, and anything that can be crumbed is crumbed and deep fried!

Our day was drawing to an end, and feeling quite tired, SJ and I left CJ and her friends and walked back to the hotel for an early night before catching the bullet train back to Tokyo the next day (which would bring another adventure, but more on that in the next post!).

Kyoto had surprised, amazed and thrilled me, and I was sorry to be leaving this beautiful city, but as with Hiroshima, I left vowing that I would one day return and spend some more time here.

Well, that's it for Kyoto and its marathon posts!  I hope you enjoyed reading and looking at the photos.  Thanks, and see you again next week.


  1. Hi Jason,this walk in Eastern Kyoto has so much to offer and is possibly the number 1 walk you could take in this fine city.Chion-in,which you were not able to visit,was where I left my camera and when I discovered my camera missing, I went back to the place I left it, some 20 or so minutes later and there was a Japanese man standing next to it on the steps keeping and eye on it for me.How lucky was I...he gave me a nod and smile and I thanked him for watching over it...just as well I was not in Italy, or many other countries for that matter!I went up the first set of steps under the huge gate and then to another longer flight of steep steps until I reached a large hall where a "mass" was taking place.I went inside for about 30 minutes and watched the priests do their thing.Fascinating.Like you, I drank the water at Kiyomizu dera and not only did it taste cool and sweet,but I was told it had medicinal properties as well.The cobblestone streets of Sannenzaka with their traditional wooden town homes and shops:I think one could spend a half day investigating and it is a great place for people watching as well. It has a great atmospehere I feel,although it is a little bit touristy as well...but not enough to take away the ambience of the place..Pity about the rain though.No doubt you will return, as there is still many more places I am sure you would like to see.The picture of the man behind the bar in the casual restaurant,brought back memories of these very personal and friendly eating establishments,which were a delight to eat in...even if at times you did not know what you were eating.Although your time was limited,let's hope the shinkansen can take you there again,when the opportunity arises.Well,Port went down to the Cats tonight,but they did give them a run for their money.Good luck and all the best,Noel.

    1. Hi Noel,
      thanks again for leaving your thoughts. I certainly enjoy reading them.
      Kyoto is a special place, and one that I do want ot go back to, and also visit Nara as well, to experience the less touristy traditional city.
      I agree, some of those traditional streets, I would enjoy getting lost in! Just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere and vibe of the area would be really amazing!
      The man who was watching over your camera, that just sums up Japan doesn't it?
      I had checked the scores in the AFL tonight. It was a close game, so Port should feel proud they pushed one of the all time great teams to the brink.
      Again, thanks for always commenting Noel. I enjoy reading your observations as I know a lot of other people do too.
      Take care,

  2. Hi Jason!
    I enjoy reading it!
    I don't know various informations from CJ as I'm japanese though...
    ''It really challenges your idea of what is "normal".Normal for me can no longer be normal because I am in a different country. I am able to, however, adjust my thinking and see beauty in what I would not have considered normal before.''
    It remember me that I talked with you about normal once.

    Anyway,I think that you had really nice trip!!
    Thank you for your interesting blog.
    Take care.
    Mariko Suzuki

    1. Hi Mariko,

      yes, I remember us talking about normal once before. We were talking about the title of the blog right?
      You are right, it was a great trip, but I was sad to hear that Arashiyama had some flooding problems after the recent typhoon. I hope it is better now.
      Take care,