Written on: Thursday November 15th, 2007
A journal entry from: Japan
So, the week before last I headed out of town and took the Shinkansen (the bullet train, which is great) to Kyoto. Kyoto is one of the places that visitors to Japan really should see, regardless of your tastes in travel destinations. It was the imperial capital of the country for many years before Tokyo, and is a major cultural centre for the country. It's also chock-full of temples, including some of the best-known, iconic temples and buildings in the country. The most popular times to visit Kyoto are when the cherry-blossoms are out, and when the autumn colours are in full swing. And since the leaves had just starting to turn red here, everything was sprinkled with the first red leaves of fall.
I stayed two nights in a ryokan - a traditional-style japanese inn. I love ryokan! I loved getting to my room after the train journey and having a little tea set and hot water ready on the table, and the smell of tatami mats, and coming back after spending hours walking around the city to soak in a Japanese-style bath, and the Japanese breakfast in the morning.
The first day I spent in Kyoto just happened to be one of the few days of the year that the Imperial Palace is open to the public. Most of the time, you need to make a reservation in advance, sometimes way in advance, although foreign visitors usually don't have to wait as long. It was crowded, but not so bad, really, about the same as you would expect at any major attraction, and the gardens were very pretty. You couldn't enter any of the buidlings, but many of the slide doors were open so you could see inside. I also had lunch in the cafeteria-style cafe there - a great bowl of noodles and broth for very cheap!
I headed out to Nanzen-ji temple after that, which was very spread out and surrounded by many other temples. Most of the temples I saw had a lot in common, but they all had very different and very beautiful gardens. Also, most did not allow you to take photos indoors, only outdoors. Nanzin-jin also had a famous, huge gate at the front. After wandering around for a bit, it was starting to get dark, so I started to head out. Around the corner from Nanzen-ji was another smaller temple (Konchi-in), with an apparently famous rock garden (according to their material) called the Turtle and Crane Garden. It was actually a very beautiful temple, and I was able to walk through the gardens and contemplate the rock garden in solitude and silence. I thought it was interersting that this apparently well-known and not exactly hidden place, a few steps away from a famous temple, was empty except for me almost an hour before closing.
After that I decided to go for a walk in the Gion distirict of the town, which is famous as the "entertainment" area of the city - restaurants, shops, and a lively nightlife. I strolled down one of the historic old cobble-stone streets, and even saw a geisha, although I'm certain she was actually a maiko - an apprentice geisha. It's funny, but all of the Japanese people that I've chatted with about visiting Kyoto have been very interested in whether I saw any geisha.
The next morning I headed out to Ryoan-ji to see one of the most famous zen rock gardens in all of Japan. It wasn't the most zen experience, of course, given that the platform held about forty people all chatting and visiting and enjoying it, but I still enjoyed sitting there for a while contemplating it and chatting with my neighbour. This temple had a large beautiful garden with a huge pond, and I ate lunch at their small reataurant in another part of the garden. It was a beautiful room in traditional Japanese style, with open sliding doors and a gorgous garden steps away. I had yudofu, a specialty of Kyoto consisting of large chunks of hot tofu and vegetables dipped in sauce and finely grated ginger. It was definately the most aesthetic meal I've ever had.
I had planned on heading to another temple to go for a walk along the "Philosophers Path", but earlier, on the way to Ryoan-ji, I had met a pair of young men visiting from Singapore, and chatted with them for a while. One of them strongly recommended another famous temple, Daitoku-ji, so I decided to check it out. Daitoku-ji was founded in 1319, and consists of a few acres of land with inter-related temples of the same school of Zen buddhism. There are 23 of these temples, but only four are open to the public. Again, absolutely beautiful gardens, and strangely, very little in the way of crowds.
Finally I started to head out to my last destination of the day, Kiyomizu temple. This is probably the best-known temple in Japan. There is a famous waterfall there that is believed to give either long life, wisdom or beauty to those that drink the water; people flock here to drink from the water using long-handled metal cups. (Kiyomizu means "pure water".) I wasn't expecting Kiyomizu to be different from any of the other temples I had seen over the past two days, but it really was beautiful and worth making a trip for. It's at the top of a hill, and the view of Kyoto is great; you have to walk up a long, narrow street, lined with shops to get there. It had been overcast all day and the clouds had started to get blacker; by the time I reached the temple at the top of the hill it was getting dark early and it had started to drizzle. Also, it was the most crowded place I had been to yet, just so many people. Still, it was fun. I did drink from the waterfall, and there was also a famous shrine just a little up the hill. (A temple is buddhist; a shrine is shinto). This shrine featured two rocks set apart along a walkway, and it is said that anyone who can walk from one to the other with their eyes closed will find love. I didn't try this, as the place was crowded thick with teenagers in school uniforms, so that it was impossible to walk in a striaght line for more than two steps anyway.
Although it was all solidly on the beaten path, it was still a great weekend, and the temples and gardens were all gorgous. I didn't even scratch the surface of Kyoto, though. I definately want to go back for another weekend sometime.