From Kyoto With Love

Kinkaku-ji

If visiting Tokyo feels like going to the future, visiting Kyoto is going back in time. The train station is sleek and modern but as soon as you leave it you are in the land of temples and shrines, and women wearing kimonos around town. That also means tourists and people speaking English and places that take credit cards – all things that I can appreciate while travelling but that I had gotten used to doing without in Tokyo. I wrote in my journal, “It feels so weird to be in Gion district with souvenir stores and trash cans. Today I actually saw some (extremely uncomfortable looking) benches. Also an older woman sitting on the floor! Mind blown.”

Nijo Castle

After my Kamakura temple tour, I had my work cut out for me. On the first day I went to Kinkaku-ji temple (the Golden pavilion) then Ryoan-ji (with it’s serene rock garden), and then Nijo Castle but somehow I just wasn’t feeling it. Kinkaku-ji is amazingly beautiful but it seems strange to me that a Buddhist temple would be gold-plated. I couldn’t get my head wrapped around the irony of that. And the Ryoan-ji rock garden, set up in such a way that you can never see all 13 stones felt like a good place to sit and meditate or read but it was overflowing with tourists. Nijo Castle was neat and I was grateful to be able to go inside after the fly by of the Imperial castle in Tokyo but there is not much to see other than the building structure, the moat and the “nightingale floors” which were designed to creak musically and deter intruders. All of the furniture and original screens have been moved to another museum.

And I was getting tired by this point. It was hot and humid and my feet were killing me. I had Tom’s with me to Japan, because I had prioritized having cool feet and being able to slip them on and off several times a day but my feet couldn’t stand up to the endless walking with no support. I tried to buy some insoles but I’m sure the Japanese manufacturers couldn’t even conceive of my size 10 feet and so they only came 2/3rds of the way up. By the time I got to Nijo Castle in the afternoon, I had taken to calling them my nightingale shoes because they were squeaking all kinds of different notes.

Gion

In the evening I put on a dress and went to visit the Gion and Pontocho districts, both historic “geisha” districts (although Gion is the more notable) that are laid out with red lanterns and bamboo slatted storefronts with so many beautiful shops and restaurants as well as the historic teahouses.

“Geisha” actually means ‘art person’ in Japanese – including males – and in Gion they prefer the term geiko, ‘a woman of art’. Maiko (‘dance child’) are geiko / geisha in training and are identified by higher platform heels and extra hair ornaments. Several photographers were hanging around the main teahouse, trying to get a glimpse of the women on their evening rounds But I was both bored by that exercise and feeling weirded out by the theme park level of tourism in the area so I wandered up and down the narrow alleyways checking out all the things. I overheard one man saying to his wife, “yeah, but even if we stayed here for a month you couldn’t eat at ALL of them,” and I knew exactly how she felt. Taking shortcuts and back alleys, I actually ran into both a geisha and a maiko with their entourages, trying to avoid the crowds. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo but I was pretty satisfied with that experienced and went off to find some Kyoto-style sushi.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The next morning I climbed a sacred fox mountain. I had considered visiting Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine with its ten thousand orange torii gates the day before but changed my mind when I read in my guidebook that I should allocate 2-3 hours. Why on earth?! The shrine is a bit south of Kyoto but other than the time needed to get there I couldn’t understand why I would need so much time to get my calligraphy book signed, throw some coins, ring the bell and pay my respects – as I had done in all of the previous shrines. But when I arrived and set off (through a side door again, I am always missing the main gate), I saw people walking their dogs and doing landscape maintenance. I walked for ten minutes or so, wondering where the famous Pi-shaped gates were or even a map and then I found both – the shrine sits on Inari mountain which has four main shrines and thousands of sub-shrines, spanning about 4 kilometres. The orange Torii gates cover the entire mountain in all sizes – corporations sponsor large structures that form an archway over the trails and smaller versions are sold as emas that visitors can buy and leave at the shrine. As if this weren’t enough to cover the whole mountain in orange, as I walked up the mountain I passed huge stacks of “used” emas, collected from the shrines to be burned as an offering to the gods.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The god in this case are Inari, the god of rice but foxes are the messengers of the gods and highly represented here. The main gates feature a pair of fox statues, one with a key to the rice storeroom in its mouth and the other with a jewel that represents the spirit of the gods. This iconography is repeated all over the mountain, with some fox statues wearing red aprons and toques and with fortunes tied around their feet – clearly recently cared for – while others were many years old, broken and eroding. Some of these were also dressed in deteriorating red aprons and toques and in addition to the statues, fox-shaped emas were also for sale so the effect was hundreds of fox eyes staring out at you which gave the mountain a vaguely creepy air. I was there early in the morning and there were a few hikers but the udon shops weren’t open yet and I saw no crowds until I was almost all the way down again. I did pass one man who was off to the side of the trail surreptitiously brushing the long blond hair of a doll. I thought it must be for an offering but when he saw me coming he turned away and hid it in his jacket.

As I climbed up and up, the landscape alternating between orange Torii gates and landings full of foxes and shrines, I had plenty of time to think about my time in Japan and how this year has changed me as a person. I wouldn’t call it a meditation per se but when I arrived at the shrine at the top of the mountain, it was so anticlimactic to make it obvious that the journey was the reward (and maybe an udon soup if the shops were open – the sake for sale is to give to the foxes).

When I got back down to the main gates it was late morning and the busses had started to arrive. School children were all over the main shrine area, taking selfies while they rang the bell to wake up the gods, hanging strands of origami cranes and giving carrot offerings to the horse shrine. An older woman who had been sweeping the plaza with a wooden broom when I arrived was now sitting in the shade watching her work being recreated for her. On the way down I had been thinking that it would have been nice to bring a book and maybe spend a few more hours there but I probably wouldn’t have come for a mountain hike in my bad shoes if I had known what I was in for in advance. I’m glad I did though because it turned out to be one of my favourite places in Japan.

Nishiki Market

Since I missed out on kitsune (fox) udon soup on the mountain, and since it was on my way back into town, I decided to stop in at Nishiki Market instead of pressing on into the countryside to visit the Suntory distillery. People kept telling me that I would like Kyoto better than Tokyo and I can see why it would be a popular sentiment. It has the tourist infrastructure, the beautiful temples and shrines, the decades of ex-pat writers coming to study, etc. All of the Americans I met on my flight from Korea were headed there. But I’m not so sure. Tokyo is far more closed to outsiders and that makes it interesting to me; I want to learn Japanese so that I can hang out in the yakitori bars with people after work and I want to learn what all the things in the depachika department stores taste like. When I was planning my trip, I chose Japan because I wanted to explore somewhere that I could lose myself, struggle and grow. Tokyo floored me in that regard but Kyoto is different. I spent the entire time I was there making (what felt like) huge decisions – should I eat lunch or go drink whisky? Should I spend the day at the fox mountain or go to the Arashiyama bamboo forest? Should I go to a Maiko show or stay in a traditional Japanese inn? – but other than getting lost on the bus, it didn’t challenge me in the same way that Tokyo did. I love that the Japanese literature books I’ve been reading (some written a very long time ago) take place in the spots I was visiting, and I could have easily spent a month there and seen everything that I wanted to – maybe even found my way into the local culture – but Kyoto felt closer to vacation than travel, as my husband likes to say.

And even though I agonized over some of my decisions, I regret nothing. Nishiki Market was lovely and has at least one of every Japanese delicacy; seafood (both dried and fresh), tea, dessert, fresh produce, snacks, all kinds of pickles, knives, and lunch. I wandered through the stalls and sampled matcha tea flavoured warabi mochi (a softer, looser version than the traditional rice cake…something like a savoury marshmallow), tai yaki (the fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste), and kasuzuke (pickles made with fermented sake lees) but then I tucked into some udon noodles with grilled mochi wrapped in nori and a beer. So delicious after my hike! In the evening I had burnt miso ramen from Gogyo so it turned out to be a day of noodles and soup – a very good day.

Kyoto

The next day I spent in eastern Kyoto, visiting Kiyomizu-dera temple and the Higashiyama area around it with its ancient shops and restaurants, some having been catering to tourists and pilgrims for hundreds of years. Kiyomizu-dera is a wooden temple (unbelievably, no nails are used in the entire building) high up on the hill so it has survived many of the fires that ruined other wooden temples from the same era. It also meant that it was a bit of a hike, my second mountain climb in as days with my terrible shoes. But other visitors were walking up the trail in traditional kimonos and sandals, so I kept my grumbling to myself. In any case, the view from the top was worth it. Kiyomizu-dera is celebrated in all seasons because of the beautiful view out over the cherry and maple trees to the city below.

Kiyomizu-dera

It was extremely busy but I spent some time wandering around the main hall, and drinking from the Otowa waterfall where you can choose a stream for longevity, success at school or luck in love. There is also an entire shrine dedicated to the god of love and that might have explained all the teenagers. Like all the shrines, there were charms and fortunes for sale but the main draw are two stones that you have to walk between with your eyes closed in order to find love. I laughed at the idea of this, clearly conceived in a time with way less tourists crowding the platform but I didn’t stay long.

Yuzuya Ryokan

I had been on the fence about staying in a ryokan but they are expensive and many ban tattooed people from the public bath – an important (in some cases necessary) part of the experience. But the exquisite seasonal kaiseki set menus (another important and necessary part of the experience) are planned ahead so they unable to cater to dietary needs. Meaning that I could plan to do it on some future trip, but not with Matt. I decided to book into Yuzuya Ryokan and at times it was strange – basically eating a tasting menu by myself, in a yukata (Japanese pajamas) but the food was incredible and I managed to avoid the public bath experience and offending anyone so that was good.

I crawled into bed, full from my amazing dinner and fully prepared to go to sleep at 9 PM when I heard drums outside. I knew it was a full moon because I’d seen notices for various full moon festivals around town (the September Harvest full moon in particular is very special) but it hadn’t occurred to me that one would be happening at the Yasaka Shinto shrine right next door. I ran right over and got to watch the Taiko drummers and shrine maidens, grinning like mad at the unexpected experience – especially just a couple of days after happening upon a Shinto wedding!

In the morning, I went back to the shrine to get a stamp for my calligraphy book and then continued on to Chion-in temple next door. It has a beautiful winged Buddha but more importantly, it gives out 3 stamps – one for the temple, a poem and a Buddhist sutra – so that made my day and then I was ready to hop on the train for Mount Koya.

Kamakura (Japan)

Kamakura

In Spain almost all of my journal entries started with “OMG, it’s so hot” or “I’m melting!” and when I think back to riding around the country on motorcycles in thick leather, the heat in Japan shouldn’t even phase me but OMG, it was so hot! I now understand why every shop sells tengui – beautiful but also highly functional handkerchiefs – and why every woman in Japanese art is holding a fan. What I don’t understand is how they manage to hold it together in real life, wearing stockings and carefully coiffed hair in weather that made me want to stay in my air-conditioned hotel room all day. But for all the chic people walking around Tokyo without noticing the heat, at least some of them were with me on the train to Kamakura, a beach town about an hour and a half south.

I wasn’t going for the beach though – I wanted to see the Great Buddha. Some things never change. When I was a kid I was obsessed with Greek culture and desperately wanted to go to Athens but my mom was afraid I would just party the entire time so she sent me on a home exchange to France instead. You have to try pretty hard to have a party vacation in Kamakura but I feel like my mother would have been satisfied. In the 2 days I was there, I saw 5 temples and 3 shrines and the only time I even saw the sea was from the top of the Hase-dera temple complex. The sad fact is that that is actually the only time I saw the sea the entire time I was in Japan.

Kamakura Buddha

That was too bad but I had better things to do; the Great Buddha was smaller than I expected but beautiful and serene and sitting out in the open (after a tsunami destroyed the Kōtoku-in temple in 1498). This was my first step back into the history of Japan. In Tokyo almost everything is new. Even the Asakusa temple complex that I visited was mostly rebuilt after the war and the city itself seems to be in a constant state of regeneration but Kamakura has been a temple town since about 700 AD.

Hase-dera

Next I went to the Hase-dera temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon (goddess of mercy). The literature I was given says that, according to legend the monk Tokudō found a camphor tree so large he thought he could carve two statues with it. Once went to Nara and the other was launched into the sea, letting fate decide where it would end up. It washed ashore close to Kamakura and the temple was built for it. The statue of Kannon was impressive but what struck me even more were the statues of tiny buddhas lined up everywhere like a little army. They are statues of the Jizo Bodhisattva who helps the souls of dead children to reach the paradise and they are everywhere, covering all the landings as you climb up and up and up, with potato chips and flowers and candles left for offerings.

Kamakura

That night I stayed in a traditional guest house with gorgeous post and beam construction, a traditional sand pit stove and teakettle and tatami mats. At night we unrolled our soft futons in a communal female room and lay out pillows that are stuffed with adzuki beans. There was no air conditioning and I thought I was in for a sleepless night but it’s amazing what can be done with air flow in a house made of screens and both the pillow and the bed turned out to be completely comfortable. I was amazed to see so many women travelling by themselves too. Japan is notoriously safe (and one of the reasons it won out over other destinations for me) but the only man in the guesthouse was one that worked there. The rest were solo women travellers, some on the road for months at a time, through many countries, others travelling in groups from relatively close by in Japan.

It was wonderful to be in such a welcoming space after the masculine no-nonsense business hotels of Tokyo and I would have loved to stay for a few days to get into the rhythm of it but there were temples to see and I don’t honestly know if I could have lasted much longer without A/C.

Hōkoku-ji

The next day I went to Engaku-ji, Kenchō-ji, Tōkei-ji (the “divorce temple”), Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, and Hōkoku-ji (the “bamboo temple”). Engaku-ji and Kenchō-ji are the darlings around town, huge monastery complexes rated #1 and #2 for Zen temples in the area. I was impressed by the many outbuildings and gardens but without having an opportunity to sit for a meditation session, most of it was lost on me. Instead I preferred Tōkei-ji which got it’s start as a refuge for battered women and was instrumental in cementing Japan’s divorce policy because they considered women to be officially divorced after staying there for three years. Hōkoku-ji is called the “bamboo temple” because it is housed in an grove of enormous bamboo. Most of the grounds are closed off but there is a teahouse and sitting drinking a bowl of bitter matcha tea while the green light filtered through the bamboo down was worth the trip in itself. I felt closed off from the world and so calm – which I imagine is the point of a temple.

Lotus

Most of the temples I had been to so far are Buddhist (including the one I went to in Richmond) but Meiji-Jingu in Tokyo was Shinto and I loved it and now  Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū was my favourite site in Kamakura. In Japan, Buddhist temples are noted by the -dera or -ji appended to their names, and shrines are jinja. I love the orange Torii gates and flags leading up the path, the shrine maidens in their white robes and the various activity stations. At Tsurugaoka I wrote a prayer for peace and happiness on a horse ema – a wooden plaque that is hung up with the wish on it for the gods, and I bought a fortune by shaking a cylinder with numbered chopsticks in it – the number of the one that falls out corresponds to a drawer with your fortune in it. Fortunately mine was both good and in English so I kept it with me. If you get a good fortune you’re supposed to save it and if not then you tie it to a fence and say a prayer. Next that I perused the amulets and purchased one to ward off senility. Later I learned that each shrine and temple has its own stamp and calligrapher so I bought a calligraphy book and had it inscribed as well. I was tempted to back track to the temples I had already been to that day but instead I worked on filling it up in Kyoto and Koyasan and it is one of my most treasured souvenirs from Japan.

Calligraphy

But I still wasn’t ready to enter the shrine. There is some crossover in the history of Shinto and Buddhism and there is also a lot of similarities in the way people behave at the sites. Most have a purification area near the entrance where bamboo ladles are laid out on a fountain. To purify yourself, first you pour water onto one hand then onto the other, then rinse your mouth from the water in your hand and pour the remaining water out into the drain (not back into the fountain). Inside a Shinto shrine you swing a heavy rope pull to ring the gong get the god’s attention, then throw a coin into the (insanely loud) offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. For someone who was raised to be as quiet as possible in church this all feels quite noisy and public and jovial and I loved all of them.

I found out later that I had effectively come in the back door, that this shrine was the darling of Kamakura and a wide tree-lined street leads up to it from the train station, but I am used to nosing around and I see everything eventually. But I wasn’t expecting to see a wedding!

Wedding

As I came up to the main pavilion I saw the groom wearing a kimono and the bride in white wearing the traditional hat that my guidebook says is designed to hide the woman’s horns until after the wedding. The musicians sat on the side of the pavilion and were dressed in turquoise robes but everyone else stood outside, many dressed in beautiful kimonos – although there seemed to be as many professional photographers as guests at the wedding. Apparently part of the ceremony includes a shrine maiden dance which I missed but I did get to see the procession down to the main street where their rickshaws were waiting and that was pretty neat. Conveniently, the promenade led out to the train station and since I had checked my bags there in the morning, it made it easy to hop on the bullet train to Kyoto.

More photos from Kamakura are here.