30 January, 2018

Kyoto - coffee, alcohol and more shrines...

A Kyoto bus turns around Gion Corner in front of the Yasaka Jinja Shrine.

Our hotel for 5 nights has been the Okura Kyoto, at the corner of Oike and Kawaramachi Streets, was a taxi ride from Kyoto Station for us and our luggage. The Okura is possibly the best we have stayed at so far on this trip. Our room is a big suite, the bathroom was spacious, the shower was hot and forcefull etc etc. Thanks Alan for arranging this stay! A great buffet breakfast was in the top floor restaurant with a great view to the east across the river, and a leaflet explained what all the landmarks are. The Okura let us check in early, and has direct underground access to a shopping centre and a subway station.

One of the very best hotels on this trip, the Kyoto Okura.

Origami cranes let for us by staff at the Okura.

The Kamogawa River travels in a straight line south down the east side of Kyoto and no doubt helped to define the rectangualr grid of this city.

Earlier crossings of the Kamogawa River have been replaced by modern bridges and even stepping stones.

Early cherry blossoms at a high school in downtown Kyoto.

Most of the tourist hotspots are in the hilly rim surrounding Kyoto, but this shrine is right in downtown on Oike-dori.

Coin laundry we used in Kyoto was tiny, modern, clean & tidy and we had to take our shoes off.

After some exhausting days on Kyoto buses, we decided to have a relaxing, walking day assisted by the subway. Higashiyama Station is only a few stops away from the hotel, and from there we walked to Shoren-in Temple just to look at its very old sprawling camphor trees, and we found a nice quiet little zen garden there too. This is a pleasant spot bypassed by most visitors, it seems.

Ancient camphor trees outside the Shoren-in Temple.

Serene zen garden at Shoren-in.

Virtually next door is Chion-in a huge and popular temple complex where the major shrine Mieido is undergoing a massive renovation and is entirely covered by a huge scaffolding shed which almost dominates the skyline. The works are not discouraging visitors - the place was quite crowded with both visitors and worshippers. Chion-in has yet another massive san-mon gate at the front steps.

Another huge but characteristic san-mon gate at Chion-in.

Bamboo grove at the Chion-in Temple complex.

Mossy ramparts on the hike upto Chion-in.

Created from wasteland only 300 years ago, Maruyama Park is very popular year round.

Under guidance of a walking map, we found Maruyama Park, a wasteland when developed some 300 years ago, now a paradise of a Japanese garden whose cherry trees must be a picture in spring. But our main objective of the walk was a giant buddha backing into the hills that we could see from our breakfast room, and which (from the hotel's annotated flyer) we figured out to be the Ryozen Kannon temple, which doesn't feature much in Kyoto highlights.

Considering the crowds nearby, it was very quiet at Ryozen Kannon, and maybe we discovered why. It memorialises some unleasant truths. The 24m high buddha is "A Tribute to The Unknown (Japanese) Soldier - World War II" according to the brochure, and an adjacent memorial is for unknown allied soldiers who died on Japanese soil or occupied territories during the war. A large card index purports to contain the names, one to a card, of every such allied soldier. And, within the temple, there is a sad memorial to miscarried babies. There are cases of tiny statuettes, which now number just under 5000.

Giant buddha at Ryozen Kannon is a tribute to unknown Japanese soldiers who died in WW2.

This memorial at Ryozen Kannon is for allied soliders who died on Japanese territory during WW2.

Side view of the buddah Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Making wishes at Ryozen Kwan-on Temple.

Many of nearly 5000 statuettes at the memorial to miscarried foetuses.

Just south of Ryozen Kannon we stumbled on a shopping/cafe area which is one of the prettiest we've seen. The main street in this area was labelled Ninen-zaka Path and in that area we also saw the Yasaka Pagoda, apparently the third highest wooden structure in Kyoto.

Unheralded Ninen-zaka Path is one of the most pleasant streets in Kyoto.

We figured we would walk home from here, even though snow was still falling. We passed through the area called Gion, a very popular touristy district, found some lunch, and walked along Shimbashi Street, a reputedly beautiful historical street. It was virtually closed - obviously Sunday is not a working day along here.

These two schoolgirls asked us to participate in a survey about our favourite foods in Japan and at home.

Drip falling from a bamboo pipe at a frozen washing fountain. Note that trapped leaf!

Tasteful craft store near Gion.

The "Happy Bicycle" shop specialises in tiny models like these.

The Yasaka Pagoda overlooks a popular shopping lane near Ninen-zaka St.

Endless selfies by young ladies in kimonos.

On another day we did some socialising and visited friends of Alan Gibson in the Kyoto area of Saiin. Saiin is towards the middle of Kyoto, so well away from the touristy rim, but near the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Eddi (Australian born, Italian by heritage) and his Japanese wife Hiromi own a cafe called Caffellatte in Shijo Street and gave us a great welcome. We enjoyed paninis, espresso coffees and gelato, and great conversation. You can find Caffellatte at http://caffe-llatte.com/index_e.php, we can recoomend it. Thank you Eddi and Hiromi!

Hiromi and Eddi at Caffellatte in Saiin.

In the evenings in Kyoto, when not after coffee, we usually wanted something stronger, but found bars were often expensive and (worse) smoky! We know that Japanese are renowned as heavy smokers, but frankly, have scarcely noticed smoking at all, wherever we have been, until we went into a bar. Smoking is clearly now discouraged in cities, and is outright banned in some streets. Restaurants have no smoking, or at least no-smoking areas. But bars! Well, that discourages us from having another drink, which is a good thing!

Steep cover charges are apparently common, and when you are not drinking that much, makes it an expensive tipple. Frankly, we paid too much for a drink or two in several places. Tourists' dislike of the cover charges must be becoming known - we now notice places advertising no cover charges for foreigners.

On the buses in Kyoto...

Kyoto is a lucky city, a perfect example of "it's not what you know, but who knows you"! It was saved from being the top A-Bomb target by the Secretary of War who had honeymooned here, and had diplomatic commections too. Unfortunate Nagasaki took its place. And because the USA had a policy of not bombing A-Bomb targets, it was spared much other damage too, although it has a long history of domestic wars, fires and earthquakes.

Until Edo (renamed Tokyo) became the capital of Japan, Kyoto was capital for a thousand years from 784AD to 1868AD. It seems that "capital" is an inappropriate term, and it is just taken that the place where the Emperor lives is regarded as the capital, even today. Wikipedia lists dozens of places where past Emperors have lived.

Modern Kyoto has a comprehensive bus network, and downtown, the streets form a rectangular grid. There are really complicated route maps that take some getting used to, but fortunately, ticketing is made easy for visitors by a "day pass" system which covers the inner-city and costs JPY500. The system is truly fabulous. Bus stops routinely tell you via indicator boards where your bus is currently. On board, monitors display the route, the name of the next stop, and a few after that, and what you can do at each stop (like tourist attractions, subway lines etc).

Trouble is the buses are hopelessly crowded. We caught about 18 buses in the two days we bought day tickets, and all of them were uncomfortably full. And often-times, they move very slowly during heavy traffic - it can be an eternity between stops. That said, everyone tries very hard to help people getting off move to the front of the bus to pay the driver. This patience under discomfort is a hallmark of residents in this city. And the drivers routinely tell passengers when they are taking off from a stop.

We've seen that Kyoto is a tourist city, packed (clogged?) with visitors from China and Korea, and more than a few like us from Western countries. It seems half the passengers on those overcrowded buses are tourists - it must irritate the locals that their infrastructure is overwhelmed with visitors, but that is the price paid to live in such a popular destination. This is mid-winter, so it must be a year round thing here, just like Sydney.

Armed with our Day Pass, we headed to the south-east corner of Kyoto to the Fushimi Inari-Taishi shrine. If we hadn't noticed that Kyoto was swamped with visitors beforehand, this place is what brings it home to you. Tourists seem to pour in here continually off JR trains, a subway, local and tour buses, on bikes and in taxis and private cars. This is the visitor destination in Kyoto. The narrow lane leading to the shrine is replete with fast food stalls and souvenir outlets taking advantage of the crowds.

This shrine sits under Mt. Inari (233m), the god of rice, which is represented by statues of foxes holding rice sheaves or keys to the rice granaries in their mouths. But the shrine is famed for having 10,000 plus torii gates packed together and lined up to create the illusions of long, uphill, tunnels. The visual effect is stunning. The crowds are daunting. The pilgrimage to the top is many kilometers, and we didn't go that far. Each torii is paid for by donations from business, and is engraved (presumably with the business name) on the uphill side of each torii. This is a custom dating back to the Edo period from 1603 - 1868 and is a way of getting wishes granted, or to express thanks.

Maybe the most popular tourist attraction in Kyoto, the crowds at Fushini Inara-Taishi were amazing.

Matcha flavoured fast food for the masses at Inara.

This fox with rice grains in his mouth represents the god of cereal.

The start of the tunnels of 10,000 tori gates at Fushimi Inari shrine.

Each tori gate is paid for by a donor.

Maybe these gates haven't grown enough yet? We think they are for smaller donations.

Panoramic glimpse of the 10,000 gates from outside the tunnels.

There are kilometers of tori gates all the way to the top of Mt Inari.

Here's hoping some of the good luck will rub off.

The tori gate tunnels go all the way to the top of Mt Inari.

Hundreds of young women rent kimonos for the purpose of having their photos taken in front of great monuments.

In the north of Kyoto is what must be the most spectacular sight in the city, the "golden pavillion" of Kinkaku-ji. The gods were smiling on us, because on a snowy day, a watery sun poked through a leaden sky and shone a glorious light on the pavillion, just for a minute or two while we were there. This wonderful building, having avoided fires successfully since 1400AD and survived WW2 unscathed, was famously destroyed by arson in 1950AD. The arson is the subject of a 1956AD novel, "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion".

Just that little ray of sunshine brilliantly illuminates the Golden Pavillion.

It's compulsory to take selfies at the Golden Pavillion!

Scary bird atop the Golden Pavillion.

Beautiful gardens and ponds surround the Golden Pavillion.

More sleet than water at the Ryumon Taki (carp rock) waterfall.

Historical Sekka-tei (place of evening beauty) tea room at Kinkaku Temple seen here without the blessing of the afternoon sun.

Three bus stops from Kinkaku-ji is Ryoan-ji (the temple of the Dragon at Peace). The rock garden there is said to be "one of the finest surviving examples of 'dry landscape'", viz: no trees, but distintive rock formations telling a story placed in a raked bed of smooth pebbles. This garden was created somewhere between in 1450-1680AD - the date is in dispute (although the present occupiers prefer the earlier dates), and so are the creators, monks or professional gardeners. Regardless of the controversy, the garden is a pleasant and relaxing view.

Visitors contemplate the Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple.

Each rock has a story to tell.

Pine tree complete with fresh snow.

Exclusive ryokan in the gardens of Ryoanji Temple.

Now on the east side of Kyoto, right where the Takanogawa River runs into the main Kamogawa River, is the Shimogamo Jinja Shrine whose defining feature, to us, was a long tree lined avenue beside a tiny creek leading to the shrine proper. But it is much more important than that: it is one the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, dating back to the 5th or 6th centuries AD, before Kyoto was the capital!

A long tree lined avenue is the defining feature of the Shimogamo-jinja shrine.

Picturesque creek runs through the shrine grounds alongside the path.

Donors can have one of these lanterns hung. Large JPY500,000, small JPY300,000.

A wedding at the Shimogama-jinja shrine.

This bridge is just for show at the Shimogamojima-mae.

Washing stand suitable for bulk visitors, and we saw why. A bus tour arrived moments later.

Snow blossoms on these cherry trees.

You buy a "blank" paddle and make your own enhancements to the preset template.

Shrine shopkeeper keeping her area clean and tidy.

We were lucky enough to witness a wedding at this shrine, and the happy couple agreed to us photographing them. Heavy snow falling at the time did not diminish their obvious happiness. We also noted the massive production involved in having the official photographs taken under rather difficult conditions.

A few bus stops to the west is the Daitoku-ji temple, the "temple of great virtue". This is a huge 23ha complex which started out as a monastery around 1315AD. Somehow all of this got divided up into a suburb of temples and 'sub-temples', many of which seem to be closed to the public, maybe even private property. It was very quiet there - Daitoku-ji was not on the tourist trail today.

Another huge san-mon gate at the entrance to Daitokuji Temple.

A peek inside one of many shrines at Daitokuji.

We wandered around wondering what to do when we came upon sub-temple Daisen-in, "the Academy of the Great Immortals", which was open and happy to receive us. Daisen-in is known for its zen garden and screen paintings, all laid out for us in a carefully orchestrated route that we had to follow (shoes off). We were lent an English translation of extensive interpretative materials to explain the significance of each rock and stone (partly covered in snow) but found it all too fanciful. The serenity of the rock gardens was enough for us, and we did enjoy them. Showing a commercial bent, Daisen-in did not allow us to take photos, but they were more than happy to sell us some. We also said "o-chao kudasai" so we could be served green tea in an 'informal ceremony', and they invited us to buy a box of the dry powder.

No photos allowed in the Daisen-In rock garden, but this shows how they culture trees outside the entrance.

Heading east in a bus again, there is the Ginkakuji Temple (1482). The name means "Temple of the Silver Pavillion" and a more formal name means "Temple of Shining Mercy", and it was intended for the relaxation of the shogun who apparently meditated here while the rest of Kyoto burned in war. Feeling somewhat 'templed out', we didn't spend much time here, but decided to do the nearby Philosopher's Walk for a change of scenery.

Heavy snow falling at Gingakuji Temple.

The tetsugaku-no-michi or "Path of Philosophy" is a walkway along a cherry-tree-lined canal in between the Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji temples, about 2km and is so named because a well-known professor would stroll this way. It passes many shrines, but also a garden cafe where we took afternoon tea, and some quite modern and upmarket private houses.

Strolling along the Philosophers Path

Afternoon tea at the canal-side Garden Cafe.

Just another exquisite water feature - great use of tiny spaces!

Modern and very expensive homes line the east side of the Philosophers Path

Another shrine and mausoleum as seen from the Philosophers Path.