Though we are becoming more experienced travelers, there is still a magic about discovering a new place. The rush of nerves and anticipation just before arrival, how everything little thing is interesting just because it is new and different. This rush is my own little addiction from which I hope to never recover. Kyoto did not disappoint, and I was delighted with all the city had to offer!
Our itinerary offered up a lot of temples and shrines. We saw at least a dozen either Buddhist Temples or Shinto Shrines. I’ve discussed basic Buddhist principals here, so here are a few notes on Shintoism. Shinto is an ancient Japanese belief system that centers on gods and kami, ancestral spirits. After death, each human becomes a kami. Shinto shrines are the homes of important and revered kami. Unlike many other religions, there are no sacred texts, or a single, all-powerful god. Shinto followers believe that humans are innately good, and impurity or evil is caused by evil kami. Therefore, the purpose of their various rituals is to purify one’s spirit. In Japan, Shintoism functions alongside Buddhism; one does not have to follow only Shintoism. It is more similar to Greek or Roman mythology, than to what most would consider a “religion.” Since it is very deeply rooted in Japanese tradition and culture, it has simply become a part of Japanese life. Many Japanese consider themselves to be Shinto, even though they are not strict practitioners.
Our very first stop in Kyoto was Japan’s most famous Shinto shrine, Fushimi Inari Taisha. This shrine is over 1,300 years old and continues to grow today. Fushimi Inari Taisha is a shrine dedicated to worshipping Inari, the god of rice, sake, and prosperity. The shrine is made of over 10,000 torii gates, each in a bright orange-red color. Each gate is donated by worshipers who hope for Inari’s blessing; today many gates are from businesses who hope for entrepreneurial success. The gates snake their way through a forest and up a mountainside. The path becomes less crowded the further up the mountain you venture. At times, the gates stop and there are various monuments and altars along the path. The repetition of gates was mesmerizing. Even though I knew I would just see more gates when the path curved, I was excited to see what was beyond each bend in the path. We did not go all the way to the top of the mountain, but we were far enough along that we often had the path to ourselves. It was my favorite spot on the trip, and I recommend it to anyone who is traveling in Japan! A warning though, we were there in the late afternoon, and I emerged with my first five mosquito bites of the trip.
We saw most of our temples and shrines when we spent several hours walking the Philosopher’s Path. The path, location in Northeastern Kyoto, follows a small canal and has numerous shrines, temples, galleries, and museums that shoot off to the side. We started at the Northern end of the path at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. This Buddhist Zen temple is not silver, but received this nickname as it was originally meant to be covered with silver foil. When you enter, the pavilion is immediately to the right, and there is a small pond in front of the building. You can follow the path along to get different views of the building, and there is even a route up a small wooded hill that gives views of the city. The forest floor is completely covered in moss and a small stream runs across the property. Sounds peaceful, right? No. Not at all. Unfortunately, we arrived just as hundreds of Japanese school children were there. I think they were middle school aged, and I know they were everywhere. We were lost in sea of screaming plaid teenagers. We were able to get a few quick pictures in between groups, but I was glad to leave.
The best thing about the Silver Pavilion is that I got my first shuin-cho stamp there. I had read in my tour guide that at many temples you can collect a stamp and calligraphic signatures to commemorate your visit. This is typical throughout Japan. You can buy a special book, shuin-cho, for your stamps, but I chose to have all my stamps put in my travel journal. I was very excited about collecting my stamps, but was unsure about how difficult it would be to collect them. You can usually get your stamp at the ticket office, or a booth when you leave the shrine/temple. Some places just do a red stamp, but most of the ones we went to included calligraphy stating the date, formal name of the site, popular name, and another phrase. Each stamp cost 300 yen, about $3.00. That does add up after awhile, but I think it is a wonderful souvenir. Jared and Rob were so inspired by my first stamp at Ginkaku-ji that they purchased their own shuin-cho and began getting stamps as well!
We followed the Philosopher’s Path for several hours and saw the Honen-in Temple, Anraku-ji Temple, Otoyo Shrine, Kumano Nyakuou-ji Shrine, Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple, and Nanzen-in Temple. We like the Eikan-do Temple the best. It was a very large complex, and wooden walkways led along wooden walkways past gardens, halls with old silk screens, and the ornate Amida Hall. This contains the unique Amida Buddha statue. Legend has it that the statue came alive and spoke to Eikan, who the temple is named for. When the statue froze again, it remained looking toward the left instead of forward. There are various interpretations on the meaning of this; it might mean to look back for others who are left behind, or to reflect on the past. This temple also has a pagoda located high on a hillside and offers a scenic view of Kyoto. We were least impressed with Nanzen-in Temple. Part of this may have been because it was the last temple on the path, and we were getting a bit tired. However, there were several different areas of Nanzen-in, and each section required a different fee. A fee for the garden, a fee for the gates, a fee for the temple. Also, they only provide a pre-stamped card instead of actually writing in the shuin-cho. We were stamp snobs by this point, and we refused to purchase a stamp if they wouldn’t even write it in our books. It is one of the most important Zen temples in Japan, but felt like a tourist trap with all those fees. All in all, we loved the Philosopher’s Path as it gave us the opportunity to see so many places, but it took a lot longer to walk through than we expected. All those stops and stamp collecting really add up!
On our way to Gion we happened by the Yasaka Koshin-do Temple, associated with the Koshin faith. This belief system is a Japanese folk faith, and focuses on the worship of Shoman Kongo, who helps believers be good people. Most people know this faith by the three wise monkeys who “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” The temple has hundreds of Kukurizaru, colorful cloth monkeys that represent an individual’s playful, desire driven side. Followers purchase the Kukurizaru and place their desire inside, hoping they will be able to overcome what troubles them. On the same street as this temple was Yasaka-no Pagoda, an ancient pagoda that was most recently rebuilt in 1440. Though we were unable to enter, this beautiful five story pagoda supposedly contains a reliquary storing Buddha’s bones. We had no idea that the pagoda had such history. We were walking down a main street, looked up, saw a five story pagoda, and said, “oh, let’s go look at that!” We took pictures of the outside, but I saw no entrance and didn’t learn its history until after we returned from the trip. I like that we just happened upon a site and just appreciated it for it’s architecture, not because it was an important tourist site and a place to check off our list.
Our final temple destination, however, was on our list! We saved Kinkaku-ji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, for our last full day in Kyoto. Our friend was especially excited to see this temple; “Dude! I’m going to take so many pictures!” Kinkaku-ji definitely lived up to the hype. It was originally built in 1393 as a retirement home for Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga. What a place to retire to! The pavilion is covered with gold leaf, and is serenely reflected in the pond below. The building was turned into a temple after the Shogun’s death, but was burned by a monk in the 1950s (there is a book, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion that tells the monk’s story). Even as a tourist site with everyone snapping pictures, the pavilion is impressive. We were there during midday and the building glowed in the sunlight. Though it is a huge golden building, I felt that it fit into its natural surroundings well. Rather than being ostentatious, the pavilion brightened the pond and trees with its golden light, and the natural setting made a building covered in gold a little less flashy.
I am sure that by now you are tired of reading about temples; we got a little tired of seeing them! They were beautiful, but there were just so many! Jared and I felt the same way when we were in Spain and Italy. At first we wanted to see every cathedral we could, and would spend a long time exploring each one. However, after awhile there are only so many statues you can see. At least, that’s how it is for us. I’m glad that we saw so many, because when we return to Kyoto we will have more time to see other things! Stay tuned for more details about our trip. Bamboo forests! Japanese dining! Our transportation adventures! And more!
Want to see more pictures of Kyoto? Check out my Flickr site!