Thursday, February 16, 2012


The bloated Kyoto sky was bleeding rain profusely. All week the weather was excellent, but came Saturday… It poured when I was picked up at my hotel in the morning and only stopped by late afternoon as I arrived at the train station for a ride to Osaka and dinner with friends and thereafter to Itami City for my early morning departure.  On this strictly business and not-at-all-reluctant gourmet food visit to Japan, Kyoto was planned to be the highlight. For days if not weeks I have been looking forward to the one free day and to sunshine. I don’t mind the cold, but rain?

I have been to Kyoto on previous occasions and I will come back again and again. I love this city. It’s the kind of city one can never tire of. It’s a great city, like Rome, for walking. You select an area and you can be visually entertained for hours on end. With 1600 temples and 400 shrines and hundreds of gardens it is an unexhausted indulgence for lovers of architecture, horticulture and the cultural history of Japan. It has it all. It is to be expected if one considers that Kyoto or Heian-kyo as it was previously known was the seat of the emperor and capital of Japan for a 1000 years. And the meaning of Heian-kyo, “tranquility and peace capital” is still so appropriate for modern day Kyoto. I have been to the northwestern hills with Ninna-ji, Ruoan-ji and Kinkaku-ji temples in close proximity. I have been to the eastern area with its Murayama Park and the Higashiyama District, old Kyoto, with its steep hilly, stone-paved streets, narrow lanes, wooden buildings and hundreds of little shops aimed at modern day tourists and ancient pilgrims alike, to the impressive Kiyomizudera Temple and its breathtaking views over Kyoto, and the nearby Yasaka Shrine.

"For whom the bells toll"

This time I came to Kyoto for the autumn colors. Just like the New England region in America is famous for its autumn colors, Kyoto receives thousands of tourists during November. I couldn’t even find a hotel room over the Internet and had to ask a colleague to book me one at one of several hotels on our company’s retainer list. But the tree covered hills that were supposed to be drenched in red, yellow and orange flecks against a dark green canvas of trees were misty and grey and depressing and left me with an image of running mascara on the face of a beautiful girl. I did not want the rock star look. I wanted sunshine. Moreover I wanted light for photography. I wanted to capture the essence of tranquility exhaled by so many temple gardens in a happy shiny light. But I got droopy skies. I got wet jeans and soaked shoes that went swish swish when I walked. But I got lucky. I was alive and well and in Kyoto. It was Saturday. Ticket and hotel and food were paid for. Colleagues were carting me around on their precious time and expensive petrol. What more could I asked for! I was appreciative of their hospitality and their generosity. How truly fortunate I was. I was in Kyoto.


Tourists on the Togetsukyo Bridge which spans the Hozu River

We started off our morning in the Arashiyama area on the western side of Kyoto with a walk over the Togetsukyo Bridge which spans the Hozu River. This was supposed to be one of the best locations for viewing the western hills. It was quickly evident that autumn colors and thousands tourists have arrived in Kyoto. The tourists were semi-visible under a canopy of umbrellas, but the low misty clouds transformed the bright leaves to ghostly crayon splashes behind a shower’s glass wall. While many tourists trudge back across the bridge I was convinced by one of my colleagues to experience a rickshaw ride to a bamboo grove which was our next destination. I have never had a ride in a rickshaw before; Matter of fact, I never would have believed that rickshaws still existed in Japan. I have never associated rickshaws with Japan. Not human-pulled rickshaws in any case. India, yes, but Japan? See my next post about this ride.

Higashi Honganji Temple

But let me first step back a few days. During the week I came from Kusatsu to Kyoto for some market research at the Kyoto-Yodobashi department store in the Kyoto station area and after the completion of the research used the opportunity for a quick traveler’s outing to the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple near the station.

I love wood and the projection of warmth and history that I associate with wood. Hence, the wish to visit the Higashi Honganji complex. It is one if not the largest wooden temple in Japan and its gate is one of the biggest in Kyoto.  The other interesting historical fact about this temple is its origin. At the beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1868), one of the important historical periods in Japanese history when there was peace after decades of internal shogun wars, the first shogun of this period, Tokugawa Ieyasu, donated land for the building of the temple. His goal was to split the increasingly powerful Pure Land Buddhist faith and to create a Higashi (Eastern) and a Nishi (Western) branch of the faith. The Nishi Honganji temple is only a few blocks away from the Eastern temple. The current building does not date from the seventeen century. Through the years several fires have ravaged areas of Kyoto near the current train station and the temple has been rebuilt on several occasions. The current building dates from 1895. The Goei-do or Founder’s Hall has been restored in recent years and the Amido-do or Amida Hall where the Amida Buddha is enshrined is currently closed for restoration. 

Where I come from they don't build gates like these. Entrance gate to Higashi Honganji temple.

Inside, photography is strictly prohibited, the space is immense.  More than 900 tatami mats cover the floor and the massive wooden posts, my guess about 3 meters in diameter, looked to me like solid trees. It might not be because it was rather dark inside.  The grounds are not as beautiful and tranquil as other temples. Some of it is due to the restoration efforts underway, some of it due to its location in the city center compare to the many Zen Buddhism temples located in vast gardens in the hills surrounding Kyoto. Nevertheless, the woodwork was on enormous scale and the carvings beautiful.

Religions of Japan

 Heian Jingu Shinto shrine “Byakko-ro” (white tiger tower)

Japan has two main religions that have coexisted for hundreds of years and compliments each other well. Shinto is an indigenous, primal spirituality in Japan. The way I understand it, and I profess I am no expert on this or even have a deep understanding of Shinto, it is in some ways related to the spiritualties that originated from the Polynesian islands that are based on experience rather than faith, and the connection between the departed and the living and about warding off of evil spirits.  It is not really a religion as defined by Western society standards. It is more a set of practices and rituals to find harmony between man and its environment. Unlike other major religions which believes in a single God, or follow the teaching of a single person (i.e. Buddhism) Shinto does not have a creator or sanctified scriptures; it does not have holiest places for worshippers like Jerusalem for Christians or Mekka for Islam, or Varanasi for Hindus. It does not focus on right or wrong, rather, it emphasizes on man fitting into this world on a daily basis instead of preparing one for the afterlife. It has existed in Japan long before Buddhism reached Japan from India via China and Korea. Shinto is deeply embedded in the subconscious of Japanese society.  

On the other hand, Buddhism is a religion, largely based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha. It’s a complicated religion with its main goal to purify one’s inner self and ending the cycle of rebirths until one reaches Nirvana. I am making it sound simple, but it is far more complex. For sake of simplicity I will continue to say that Buddhism focus a lot on the afterlife, just like Christianity, while Shinto focus more on this life on earth and finding happiness within it. And that is probably why the two religions have coexisted so well for centuries.

During a visit to Japan it is difficult not to, at some or other time, visit a Buddhist temple (a place to worship in) or a Shinto shrine (a place for safekeeping of sacred objects, not for worshipping.) A better understanding of the purpose and what’s behind the purpose gives me a better insight into the understanding of these buildings. In general the temples are less complicated in design while shrines are more complex in design.

Heian-jingu Shrine
Heian Jingu shrine Oten-mon entrance gate

Heian-jingu is a Shinto shrine that was built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of establishing Kyoto or Heian-kyo as the capital of Japan. The shrine is dedicated to the 50th Emperor Kanmu who founded Kyoto as the capital in 794 and to the 121st Emperor Komei, the last Emperor who stayed in Kyoto before the imperial court moved to Edo, modern day Tokyo. The buildings are intended to be replicas of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto that was destroyed by fire in 1227.  The shrine’s torii (heading picture) is the largest in Japan.

Heian Jingu shrine Daigoku-den Main Hall

Unfortunately it was already late afternoon and I had a train to catch for Osaka so there was no time to visit the gardens at Heian-Jingu, which is described as some of the best in Kyoto. More reason for me to come back someday if I am in the Kyoto region again.

Nijo Castle

Our last stop of the day was at Nijo Castle. Built between 1601 and 1626 by the first shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu, we stopped at Nijo Castle only for a short while and did not enter the complex. I only took a few photos from the outside.

Gourmet Food

While daytime was all business, evenings was all food. I don’t think I ever had a bad meal in Japan. Whether it was in one of those tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurant-bars, usually, but not always, close to train stations where they serve flavorful morsels of mackerel or Japanese pizza or dumplings with soya sauce and the proprietor personally comes to the door to see you out and bow you goodbye and thank you for your patronage, or in a classical Japanese restaurant with your table in a private room with sliding walls and a waitress enters the room on her knees and you sit cross leg on tatami mats and get served gourmet tofu or fish in dainty porcelain, or a good old Friday night seafood barbeque where the beer and sake flow by the barrel and the conversation is loud and cheerful, the food always seem to be of the best quality and flavor.

One such dinner was in Kusatsu at the Ume no Hana’, which means “plum flower”. The restaurant specializes in tofu with one excellent course after another. The sake, poured from a bamboo decanter and drank from bamboo glasses was the best I have ever tasted – cold, smooth and utterly "savorable" (my own new contribution to the English language.)

On a Friday evening I was with colleagues at a unique indoor seafood yakiniku, Japanese barbeque, although we also had lamb to grill. What an experience. It was also the evening that I enjoyed, for the first time, a Shabu-shabu, the Japanese version of the Chinese hot pot or Steamboat, shuan yang rou in Chinese, which I wrote about in a previous postabout my visit to Malaysia. Whether I am using the right terms here I am not sure, maybe my Japanese readers can correct me looking at the pictures above, because in Japan slight variations of a dish could have different names. It is possible that we actually started off with a seafood ojiya which turned into a Hokkaido kaisen nabe (rice soup with egg) because they did put rice and egg in the pot at the end after the seafood and vegetables were consumed. Maybe both these terms refer to the same thing. Nevertheless, this is Japanese comfort food and I loved it.

Heading Home

Alas, my stay in the Osaka, Kyoto and Kusatsu area came to an end and early on a crisp Sunday morning I left from Itami Airport for Tokyo.

On the homebound trip, after liftoff from Narita airport in Tokyo and as we made the turn to head out east over the Pacific Ocean I saw this volcanic cone in a haze through the airline’s window. I thought it was one of the volcanoes close to Tokyo, maybe Mt. Asama or Mt. Hakono. But after comparing my photos to photos on the Internet it is my conclusion that it is Japan’s most photographed and revered mountain, Mt. Fuji. Amazing because Tokyo is 100 km / 60 miles from Mt. Fuji and I never would have thought that the small Panasonic DMC-ZS7 camera could take a still picture that far.

My trip to Asia reaffirmed my love for travel, seeing faraway lands, listen to foreign tongues and experience the taste of exotic foods and spices, and I remembered what St. Augustine said: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” I have always loved books and I love to read.

Somewhere over British Columbia, Canada. Brrrr..


BoerinBallingskap said...

This is an excellent piece of writing, accompanied by great photos! I really enjoyed reading it, as I could identify with your experiences in Kyoto. And, of course, the Japanese food is just great.

BluegrassBaobab said...

Dankie Boer.