Tag Archives: Kyoto

Travel: May 25, 2014: Keep Walking

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We left Hostel Kanouya the next morning. Our hostess followed us out into the street and just as we were about to turn the corner, we turned around to share a wave. “Wait. It’s tradition,” I said, before turning. After we’d turned the corner, Kari told me that it was in fact traditional to see guests off like so. 

We went to Kyoto Station, checked all of the coin lockers, and eventually settled for putting our luggage in the luggage room downstairs for a little more money and a bit less stress. There are fifteen floors in the JR station. We climbed as high as we could go through a series of staircases and escalators for the view from the top of the building. Plexiglass kept us from a dizzying fall but also obscured the view a bit. There was a small garden on the rooftop. There have been buildings I’ve regretted not climbing, however, so I’m glad this cannot be one of them.

A train then took us out to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, easily one of the most photogenic architectural pieces I’ve ever seen. I have a wealth of pictures of the complex, which ranges across the mountainside along 2.5 miles of trails (let me tell you, it felt like much more than that). Trying to cull them down to the best to put on this blog has been a challenge.

We spent very little time by the main shrine itself. It was a breezy day however, and the breeze made the streamers flutter, so those pictures are worth including.

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Then we left the main complex to strike out for the trails, and perhaps you will recognize the site from this first picture.

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There are two branching trails beneath rows of these orange torii. The crowd thins the farther you go along the trail, but even so it was difficult for me to take pictures that would not include fellow travelers.

The trail wound and branched and deposited us at minor complexes, abandoned save for us—or maybe they belonged to men or women who lived on the mountaintop. One just off the path backed up against a house, which we discovered only by accident by taking narrow, greenery-lined trails. I can only imagine that the shrine was there first, for the stone has an ancient feel to it—but perhaps that is the my Western mindset speaking, where a standing stone is a thing of ancient wonder, no one knowing how long it’s been there, how it came to be there, or why it was set so. Still, there’s moss on the steps of this shrine complex.

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Kari had told me that this particular shrine sports feral cats among its patrons and inhabitants. I lost Kari briefly following one beautiful tom down a narrow path.

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There too I shared a moment with a pair of Japanese women over arachnophobia when I spotted a spider dangling not too far in front of me. Some things truly are universal.

A little farther on and higher up, past at least one way station where refreshment and talismans could be found, we passed a passel of kittens among the azalea bushes. I rested a long while, watching them. By that point in our hike, Kari and I were flagging, but then began the litany of “Just a little farther” and “I just want to see what’s around that bend” and “I just want to see the view from there.”

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That litany, joined by the occasional rendition of VeggieTales’ “Keep Walking,” took us the rest of the way along the mountain trails, with a few setbacks.

A man at a map of the trails told us to take the trail to the left after the way station that we would come to, claiming it would be the quickest way to our destination (I’m not sure we had a destination, but apparently, we did).  We found the next way station, which boasted a lookout area as well. We rested a bit.  We thought that we’d turn around, and with the thought that we might leave, I decided to climbed a steep set of stairs on the right. They led past a small house and to a mazy collection of shrines.

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As I wandered the narrow paths between stone torii and upright markers, all dotted in orange torii-shaped petitions and red bibs for the kistune, the man from the house came out to his porch to play his wooden flute. It was a magical moment I wouldn’t have missed it for nearly anything.

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The rest changed our minds, and we thought that we could go a bit farther.  We thought that we took the leftmost turn, but we were mistaken. We went a ways and turned around, lured back to the way station by the promise of soft serve ice cream. I’m still puzzling whether soybean flavored ice cream provides more than the usual protein found in soft serve.  (It was delicious, sort of sweet and salty at once.)

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Kari found the third trail that we’d missed, the leftmost. We followed this beneath orange torii that opened up in occasional glades of stone and orange torii and upright stones. As we were following this trail, we passed a couple who were pausing before the shrines.  I’d heard a strange trumpet earlier in the day, and had wondered, and I witnessed this man now blowing a long note on his conch shell. If you’ve read Lord of the Flies, you’ll recognize the importance of the conch shell. It is a magical thing. I thought then that these were perhaps genuine pilgrims, travelers here for the shrines and not for the trails or to check another feature off in sight-seeing bingo. Now I wonder if this man was a priest, having learned that conch shells are sometimes used in Shinto religious ceremonies.

This trail took us most quickly too to the peak of the trail. I think this was the destination to which the man referred.

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The trail from there, of course, went downhill—and we began to worry how long the trail might be and whether it would loop or whether we could wander too far from the gate and be stranded in the dark woods overnight.

We waited on a steep flight of stairs for a passerby, and Kari asked if the trail did in fact loop and whether we would find an exit if we continued downward; neither of us had much desire to climb the steep steps upwards.

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Having learned that we in fact were on a path towards and exit, that we weren’t likely to be lost in the wood, we continued downwards with a little more enthusiasm. We stumbled into more glades of shrines, including one that featured a small waterfall that could be found down a very narrow and by then quite dark trail, its stones dark with runoff, but was out of sight above or outside of that cleft. I wish that picture had come out more clearly.

Eventually we met up with a familiar path and familiar friends.

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We also met up with a woman who seemed to live on the mountainside, carrying her groceries up the path. The cats were following her. She wanted to practice her English and gave us gifts, including a paper crane.

Having found the exit, we had to catch a train to Tokyo, where we had hostel reservations for the night.

Inari was a great way to end our stay in Kyoto, and for only having been there three days, we saw a great deal.

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We arrived in the new city late at night and in a heavy rain. We decided to call a cab rather than risk being lost and confused in such a situation. The drive was short, but our cabman was amiable.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

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Travel: May 24, 2014: More Temple-Hopping in Kyoto

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We’d always planned that our time in Kyoto would essentially be spent temple-hopping. On our first day, we visited two temple complexes. On our second day, we visited another two, and in fact, spent the entirety of our day—or all but—in temples or wandering the city streets in search of dinner.

This time we used Kyoto’s public buses.

The first stop was the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. A bit of quick Wikipedia research tells me that the official name is Rokuon-ji, the Deer Temple Pavilion, however, and that the distinctive gold leafing of the main temple of the complex might’ve been added when the pavilion was reconstructed in 1955 instead of when the complex was built nearer 1397. The complex actually has a pretty interesting history that might be worth a read: a powerful family, casualties of war, an attempted suicide….24goldenpavilionThis was the first Buddhist temple that we visited. There did seem, though, to be several Shinto shrines too on the grounds—or else there were also Buddhist shrines in the complexes that were mainly Shinto—or else the practices and architecture are extremely similar (I think it’s the first of those situations).

The complex was quite crowded, Kinkaku-ji being one of the better-known sites in Kyoto and the park being small compared to most of the others that we visited. We shuffled along with the crowded past the Golden Pavilion itself, making our way around a wide pond at the end of which sat the temple. The irises here seemed to be collected, I don’t know for what purpose—probably for sale?—but I do wonder how one becomes an iris farmer at a temple. Doesn’t that sound like an interesting character?

24goldenpavilionirisesThe path then wove us into the wooded gardens, past many ponds and smaller shrines. There were several springs that seemed to be shrine sites.This is the Galaxy Sprin, Ginga-sen, and the Ryumon Taki.(This is the Galaxy Spring, Ginga-sen, and the Ryumon Taki.)

We passed several collections of small statues, Jizō statues. The Jizō are guardians of children particularly, particularly children who have died before their parents. The coins and pebbles that sometimes gather around the feet of the Jizō and bibs that sometimes adorn their necks are left by parents—or family or friends—in hopes that the donation will shorten the sentence of their children’s souls in a sort of Limbo, stuck on the wrong side of the river—or sometimes left to thank a Jizō for protecting a child during a serious illness. They also protect travelers and firefighters.24goldenjizoAs we came towards the exit, we entered a sort of complex of its own—of mostly Shinto shrines, I think. The atmosphere was festive. Here among the shrines were stalls of food, stalls of amulets and talismans.24goldenfestiveJust as we were deciding where to go next, we were approached by a group of middle school students on their school trip. Well, their chaperone approached us first and asked if we would mind talking to them. We let the kids—a group of young boys and girls—interview us, I speaking as I normally would mostly, and Kari easily slipping into what she had learned from teaching English herself. I hope we were a good pair for them to talk to. They presented us each with an origami crane to say thank you, and we waved them goodbye.

We wandered the streets around Kinkaku-ji for a bit before finding the bus again and taking it to Kiyomizu-dera, another Buddhist temple complex on the other end of town. Kinkaku-ji cost a small fee for entry but Kiyomizu was free. Kiyomizu is built upon the mountainside with views overlooking the city.kiyomizu124kiyomizuviews24kiyomizuarchThis too is a major attraction in Kyoto, and was again crowded, but the area is so much larger that we were able for the better part of our visit to wander out beyond the crowds. In fact, I think that we found the waterfall for which the temple is named down, down the mountain along paved paths and stairs through the woods that wound and twisted.

24kiyomizulowerwaterfallOr perhaps the waterfall is this one that has been diverted into fountains where patrons drink for health, longevity, and success.24kiyomizuwaterfallBut that was near the end of our adventure in Kiyomizu, when we were becoming quite worn down from our days of travel.

We entered with the crowd. The climb to the complex itself is up a narrow and steep road lined mostly with small, wooden shops selling tourist goods, and food. On both the climb up and the climb down my eyes were too overwhelmed and my body too involved in both climbing and then avoiding running into anyone for me to take pictures. I only snapped this one, just as we were leaving the complex.

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I’m pretty sure that the women in front of us were tourists and not maiko.

Here was a more active, more festive temple than Kinkaku-ji. We passed people at prayer, taking in the incense that rose from a great vat, bowing before the altar to pay their respects, cleansing themselves at the tsukubai…. There was some sort of game or challenge to lift a heavy iron weight. We wound our way beneath overhanging roofs and out to terraces to gawk at the city below and the temple grounds far below. We climbed a set of stairs and found an area with shrines dedicated to various gods: Okuninushi and his messenger rabbit; Daikuko whose bronze stomach one was supposed to pat to have her prayers answered; Okage-Myojin, who would answer only one prayer and for whom women used to nail straw dolls to cedars to put a curse on their enemies; there were two love stones, of which it is said that if a woman could walk between the two with her eyes closed, the wish for love will be granted soon. This is particularly difficult with herds of people crowding by the various shrines, but we did see two young women make it to the far stone with eyes shut, led by guy friends, who also called out to others to clear the way. I don’t know how that affects the fortune.

We took a far path out through the woods, clinging to the hillside, that brought us to the pagoda that can been seen across the narrow valley that the temple complex surrounds.24kiyomizupagodaandviewWe then wove our way back down the mountainside, eventually ending up at that waterfall.24kiyomizutrailviewsAfter dinner, we snuck back to the streets. Night had truly fallen when we snuck into the Imperial Palace Park. We didn’t stay long. The park was not quite silent and not quite empty, but darkness kept us both from seeing much of the park itself or any of its inhabitants. We did find an impressive gate, my picture of which didn’t come out well. Then we walked for a bit along its better lit outer wall, ducking into the dry moat to keep out of the way of cyclists and because I’ve found that I like walking dry moats, having fond memories of another in Dubrovnik.

We ended up beside Nijo Castle too a little later, and though the attraction was shut down, we walked the outside of its long outermost walls and admired the architecture of the gates and what of the castle we could see over the walls.24nijoThen it was time to return to the hostel.  But we covered a pretty good area during our brief stay in Kyoto, and the following day, we would add one more attraction to the map….

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All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

Travel: May 23, 2014: Checking the Heartbeat of Kyoto

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Our first day in Kyoto, we decided to visit the Kyoto Handicraft Center, and we decided to walk there. The walk was longer than we thought and our map not as detailed as we could have hoped, but we passed several tourist sites along the way and, to borrow a phrase from BBC’s Sherlock, got “the heartbeat of the city” (oh sure, not as intimately as Sherlock does, but I could feel its pulse a bit through observation) by going on foot than by bus.

Along our route, we passed the Imperial Palace Park, peering up the slanted stonewalls to the foliage and into entrances to see winding pathways and people relaxing in the sunshine.

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We crossed the river, I think the Kamo River.

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I don’t think that the Handicraft Center was quite what either of us had imagined. It was a sort of enclosed, high-end marketplace for specialty craftsmen with staff members more than craftsmen to talk to. But we enjoyed looking at all of the pretty finery and the clever creations. It all being for sale, I took very few pictures (I often feel a twinge about taking pictures instead of purchasing things—especially when the items come from independent sellers).

Apart from selling items, the Center also offers the chance to make your own crafts. We opted for one of the more expensive but more unique and uniquely Kyōto of the crafts: damascening, the craft of (in this case) overlaying bits of gold and silver to another metal.  (Perhaps it sounds a silly thing to learn, but I wear necklaces all the time so it’s a keepsake that I can carry with me easily, and I have several fictional blacksmiths clamoring to give damascening a try already.)

Kari and I were taken into the next-door building where there were worktables for both the professionals and amateurs. We didn’t get to talk to any of the professionals (I’m not sure that I’d have wanted to interrupt them besides), but we were matched with Hiroshi, a young man, maybe a few years our elder, who spoke very good English so that even I was able to communicate with him easily (which I have to admit was a breath of fresh air after a week of smiling and bowing and letting Kari interpret). We watched a video in English first to give us a little background in the craft then were set loose with the tools and pieces provided. We were each given a circular pendant of shakudō, an alloy of copper and gold, on a block. Our pieces of shakudō had already been inscribed with the appropriate crosshatching to make the bits of gold and silver stick. It was invisible except through a magnifying glass. We used a tool a bit like a stylus, wet the tip to make the flakes of gold and silver stick to it to be moved to the pendant, and then hammered the pieces into place on our crosshatched shakudō. The flakes that we used were precut into figures and symbols, making art easier.

We left the steel pieces in Kyoto to be finished. The gold and silver overlay should shine out on a black patina, the gold and silver flush with the pendant.

While we played at craftswomen, we talked with Hiroshi about Kyoto, Japan, America, and American, teaching one another and enjoying the opportunity to learn from one another, I think, quite a bit.

Leaving the Handicraft Center, and saying goodbye to Hiroshi, we went just around the corner to the Heian Shrine. I promise we weren’t playing favorite eras.

Through the gate was a wide, pebbled area with the buildings of the shrine fencing.

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Perhaps because this was my first formal visit to a shrine complex, and also because the entries were guarded by docents or maybe by religious adherents, and because photography was prohibited, we didn’t climb any of the steps. Now, looking back through the photos that I took, I can see how much more impressive is the Heian Shrine than the Heian reconstructions at Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park, how much more detailed. Most of our time at the Shrine was spent not with the architecture, however, but in the garden paths behind.

The irises were in bloom here and water lilies and rhododendrons too. The path wound us through a forest of ornamental trees and then past ponds, back into a more wild woods, and over some skipping stones on another pond, before coming to a great pond over which a great bridge stretched. While we crossed this, I saw a water snake in the still water, but I couldn’t get its picture; it was gone too quickly.

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Leaving the shrine, we decided to try to find Gion, a neighborhood of Kyoto known for its old-style architecture and as a haunt for geishas. We passed a hole-in-the-wall crepe stand and relaxed by a smaller river—maybe even a moat more than a river—to eat our dessert.

As twilight was falling, we came upon the Yasaka Shrine complex. This complex was magical—perhaps mostly because of the time that we arrived. The lanterns were all lit and a good number of the tourists had cleared and were crowding the well-lit sidewalks and shops of Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue) instead.

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The shrines at Yasaka were mostly small, wooden, whitewash, black latticework, and that red-orange paint. It was quiet enough that I approached several to peer through the glass at the glittering gold. The main shrine was lit by probably near a hundred lit lanterns and was a wondrous site to see at the rise of a flight of steps.  Neither of these pictures captures it well.  I don’t think that sort of glow can be captured by a camera.

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Beyond that shrine, the crowds thinned still further till we could hear the fall of water from fountains, till we were alone in whole avenues of shrines with no one to fault us for wonderingly approaching, for snapping a picture where pictures might otherwise be less welcome. (I always feel a bit awkward taking pictures of shrines or altars, recognizing these as places of high holiness that others might recognize as more than some beautiful art piece.)

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Leaving the shrine complex, we joined the crowds on Shijō-dōri, wandering the brightly lit sidewalks, past shop windows, the enticing smells of restaurants, the lure of tourist shops, the music of street performers, and artists selling their wares. We ducked down several darker side roads, coming ultimately to the river again (the same river, I think, that we’d seen that morning). All through Kyoto, there are lots of women dressed in geisha costumes. It’s one of things that tourists do, rent kimonos and wander the city. I think, though, that we did see one true geisha on Shijō-dōri. I only suspect so because the Japanese men in their business suits were excitedly sneaking photographs of her. I wish I taken a far away picture just to have those men’s reactions. It was as if they were children again.

We bought ourselves warm drinks before climbing back aboard the crowded train towards the hostel.

We never found the old-style streets of Gion, but I didn’t mind much. We’d seen a lot and traveled far. In all, we covered nearly 5 miles on our feet that day just walking between the various sites (not counting wandering the sites or backtracking). Certainly makes you proud of your feet, looking at the figures.

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All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

Travel: May 22, 2014: Trains to New Horizons

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The 22nd was a travel day. We got on the train in Koma, switched to the shinkansen in Morioka and rode it to Kyoto.

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We crossed several rivers like this, wide and shallow, though I don’t think that these were the mouths of rivers.  Perhaps they were.  I spied the sea several times from the train windows, though I never could get a pictures of it.  I showed itself only in flashes, past cities and towns that soon themselves disappeared behind steep mountainsides.

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A full day of travel and an unfamiliar city leaves one pretty disoriented, and though Kari had looked at the map, and we’d both seen that it ought to be pretty easy to find our hostel, we had the look of tourists—and not just because we were lighter-haired than the majority of the population.

Another cherished memory of the goodness of people remains a boy maybe our age who, while we were looking at a map, went out of his way to come up to ask if we needed help—in English even. He pointed us in the right direction then sped back the way that he had come, which is how I know that he changed his course to help us.

Our hostel, Hostel Kanouya, was in a traditional style house down a quiet side street surrounded by other traditional homes. The owner of the hostel greeted us and helped us up a very steep set of stairs to our room. The area was wide. It was only the two of us, so there was room for both futons and a small table with comfortable floor chairs.

Having settled ourselves and our bags a bit, we went out in search of dinner, and found a nearby restaurant nearer the traditional Japanese style. We took off our shoes and settled onto seats that let our feet hang into almost a trough below the countertop. It was late. There was only one other patron in the restaurant, a middle-aged man, who seemed to be friends with the restaurant’s owner. They were chatting amiably while he ate his dinner. We ordered a favorite of Kari’s, Kansai-style okonomiyaki, which Kari described to me as something like a hearty Japanese pancake, but I would say is some wonderful combination of hash browns and omelets with several sauces drizzled over it as well as red ginger to give it a really delicious and pleasantly varied zing. While our hostess mixed ingredients and cooked the okonomiyaki on the hot griddle that ran the length of the countertop, she kept chatting with her friend, and I let my attention wander to the crime drama that was playing on the TV beside us. Kari and the two friends exchanged eager questions and answers while I smiled and bobbed my head and waved hello when introduced.

It was a wonderfully pleasant way to end the evening.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.