Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kyoto: Shrine-a-thon

Two posts today. You should read the one before this (lower on the page) first.

Quick non-fact – Kyoto is home to over a million billion shrines. Some of them are the size of mailboxes. Some of them are the size of city blocks. Each is unique and brings something to the shrine table. Some of them are Shinto shrines with their elaborate gates, fox gods and fortune tellers. Others are Buddhist, with incense censures and candle houses, towering golden Buddhas and contemplative monks. Still others are a fashionable amalgam of the two. Shinto and Buddhism live hand-in-hand in Japan, creating a unique blend of religion and superstition.

Phil had quite an agenda set for the day, since we only had one full day in Kyoto within which we had to get a vast majority of our sight-seeing done. We started at the south end of the eastern Kyoto “shrine row”, at a temple complex called Kiyomizu-dera. The walk up into the foothills of Kyoto was rigorous, but the path to the complex led through the most exquisite graveyard, where offerings of flowers and incense, alcohol and food had been placed on family graves to honor the dead. It was a sea of graves.old and new; the rolling foothills were covered with them.

At the end of the path was Kiyomizu-dera, a temple complex that sports an impressive pagoda and several buildings. The main temple holds a hidden treasure that one pays 100 yen to see. Phil and I, curiosity piqued, paid the 100 yen, removed our shoes, and descended into darkness with our hands leading the way along a banister. This was darkness utter and complete, my friends. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, save for being in a cave when they shut off the lights. This was different however; as it was very unexpected, and the passage we were traveling in was narrow, with stone floors and blind turns. We felt along the banister in the blackness for about 2 minutes, until the treasure was slowly revealed with a single light from above. It was a large circular stone with carvings in the middle, and it was the only thing one could make out in the blackness. The whole experience was very surreal. We only discovered after we left that the stone was supposed to be rotated clockwise and wished upon. Ah well.

The next stop along the way was not exactly scheduled, but as we were heading for the next stop, we saw signs for what we guessed was an impressively sized statue. Our suspicions were affirmed as we entered the grounds of the “Shrine to the Unknown Soldier”. The obvious attraction of this site is the 80 foot tall Bodhisatva that looms over the grounds.

Next was Kodai-ji, another Buddhist shrine that we had planned on visiting, but didn’t seem particularly impressive, and charged a high admission cost, so we skipped it.

We then headed back to Yasaka-Jinju, where the restaurant from the previous night was situated. Also there, which I did not mention in the previous post, is an enormous Shinto gate which straddles a staircase leading up to the grounds. A lot of these structures are hard to grasp, scale-wise, from pictures. We had to stand pretty far back from most of them to get them in frame for picture-taking. The temple at Yasaka-Jinju is otherwise not particularly noteworthy, other than being a big draw at New Years. Outside of the grounds we did find a nice collection of street food vendors, so we availed ourselves of lunch there. Phil and I decided to get some Indian tandoori and naan at a stall run by a really generous and amiable pair of Indian fellows, who spoke to us in precise English and guaranteed our enjoyment of their food. How could we say no, really? Anyway, it really was quite good. We then decided to try some more takoyaki, which has quickly become the snack-food du jour of the trip. We ate our fried squid dumplings in front of the food vendor that sold them to us, and after we finished them, they insisted we try, free of cost, their konyaku and beef stew. It was pretty decent, though konyaku is definitely an acquired texture. We thanked them profusely, bowing awkwardly, and rolled down the hill after a larger than expected lunch to the next shrine on our list.

The main feature of Choin-in, the next temple on our path, is a vast bell. The bell is so big, and so heavy, it takes seventeen priests working together to ring it. Sadly, it didn’t look like they would be dropping the hammer any time soon. Impressive bell though. Big. Iron. Very authoritative.

Next on the path was Heian-Jinji, which was a pretty standard large temple complex. We were unfortunately growing a little jaded by this point on large temple complexes. It’s important to note here that while I am pointing out the most memorable of our stops, we saw dozens more smaller shrines, some very pretty, but we are talking about a town where you can't throw a pebble without hitting a shrine.

The last complex on our pilgrimage was at the end of a 3ish kilometer hike along a gravel road called the “Philosopher’s path”. Apparently a noteworthy monk used to walk the path and contemplate the meaning of existence every morning or something along those lines, so we decided, arms folded behind our backs and tongues planted firmly in cheeks, to walk the path and discuss the nature of man as tabula rasa or noble savage. Also, my feet were about to rebel at this point and wander off on their own to find a tub to soak in, but people don’t want to hear about my physical short-comings, so onward!

The Ginkaku-ji, or “Silver Shrine” is so named not because it is covered in silver as the “Golden Shrine” is covered in gold, but because it’s not quite as nice as the golden shrine. It seems the 17th century Japanese were not entirely without a sense of humor. The one thing the Silver Shrine does have going for it, over the Golden Shrine, is its grounds, which are bigger, nicer, and more diverse. The grounds sport a very nice view of Kyoto, a few small waterfalls, a bamboo forest, and a zen rock garden that contains a huge near-geometrically perfect rick pile with a flat surface that is meant to represent Mt. Fuji.

By the time we had finished wandering the grounds of Ginkaku-ji, we estimated that we had walked at least 10 miles that day, and my feet could not handle the walk back, which was a good 3 or 4 additional kilometers. So we walked several blocks, and then hailed a taxi to get us back to the hotel. There we rested for an hour while our batteries charged enough to walk downstairs to the Chinese restaurant in the hotel.

The evening meal here is worthy of a mention too. Chinese food in Japan is not Chinese food in America. No sir. While there are some similarities, it is the difference between…well…let’s say a hamburger in the US and a hamburger anywhere else in the damn world. Chinese food in America is like a bad photocopy of real Chinese food – the impression is there, but it’s slightly over-exposed, and the image is kind of ugly. I managed to check off a few more things on my “list of food to try” here, including shark’s fin soup (it was good, like an upscale egg-drop with more complexity), and shou-chu, which is a distilled spirit popular in China and Japan with a very smooth mouth feel and a kick like a mule.

That night we all slept like the dead, having done more walking on this day than any given three days during the rest of the trip. Tomorrow we would wrap up Kyoto and take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo to meet up with Xavi and Shelly for the remaining 3 days of the journey.

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