Location: Kyoto, Japan
Weather: Snowing and 30 F
Hello again from Japan!
I’ve been busy over here seeing as much as I can so I thought it was a good time to share with you! I spent some additional time exploring Kyoto and have seen quite a bit!
Here in Kyoto, the temples and shrines are virtually everywhere. Part of that is due to each neighborhood needing access to shrines and temples and they other part of it is that Kyoto has not been as affected by the numerous wars resulting in the destruction of temples throughout Japan.
I meandered over to Shosei-en Garden here in Kyoto. Shosei-en was originally was constructed as a retreat of the chief priest Sen’nyo (1602-1658). The garden is what is called a Chisen-Kaiyu-Shiki teien (pond stroll garden) with buildings such as tea-ceremony houses arranged here and there. The garden has somewhat different atmosphere than usual Japanese gardens. The gardener for Shosei-en says that the garden looks like a park more than a garden probably because of the large lawn and the pond next to it.
The gardens are large and it was truly peaceful to walk around the pond. Virtually everything was picturesque here, but I chose a couple of pictures that I liked to share with you. I also decided to bring you your moment of Zen a little early because this particular garden was so Zen-like!
Just a brief walk from Shosei-en Gardens was the biggest wooden structure I had seen (up to this point) in the form of Higashi Hongon-ji Temple Complex’s Founders Hall. This is where the image of the founder Shinran is enshrined. It is the center of worship for the Shinshu Otani-ha branch of Shin Buddhism.
This hall is one of the largest wooden structures in the world, being 76 m (250 ft.) in length, 58 m (190 ft.) in width, 38 m (125 ft.) in height. The most recent construction of this hall began in 1879 with its completion in 1895. I don’t think my pictures can do the scale of this place any justice, but it was a MASSIVE structure.
The grounds were spread out and a big area of the complex was under a large restoration tent. I can’t capture this place in its entirety, but I can show you the details of it. That’s what really made me stop and appreciate the amount of time and effort that went into building this huge structure.
The grounds were quite large and I walked around for quite a while before deciding it was time to call it a day and headed back to the subway to go home.
One of the toughest things here in Japan has not been finding things to see, it has been deciding what things I won’t be able to see. There are more temples, shrines, gardens in this country than one person could see probably in a lifetime! So I hit the most prominent sites here in Kyoto and picked a handful of cities around the area to take train day trips. Keep in mind that I need to be sure to make it back to Kyoto every evening so that I can take care of the kitties, so I have to stay somewhat regional.
I decided to start small and head to nearby Uji, which is located between the two ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408) promoted cultivation of green tea in the Uji area. Since that time Uji has been an important production and distribution center of superior quality green tea. Just a short walk from the subway stop you start to see that Uji is a beautiful little city. The city is split by the Uji river giving it a serene feel and several beautiful bridges. I happily strolled across the river to see some of the historical sites in the area.
One of the major sites that brings me to Uji is Byodo-in temple. This temple was originally built in 998 as a rural villa and changed to a Buddhist temple in 1052. The most famous building in the temple is the Phoenix Hall constructed in 1053. It is the only remaining original building, surrounded by a scenic pond; additional buildings making up the compound were burnt down during a civil war in 1336.
The Phoenix Hall consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Though its official name is Amida-do, it began to be called Phoenix Hall, in the beginning of the Edo period. This name is considered to derive both from the building’s likeness to a phoenix with outstretched wings and a tail, and the pair of phoenixes adorning the roof.
Inside the Phoenix Hall, a single image of the Amitābha Buddha (c. 1053) is installed on a high platform. The sculpture is made of Japanese cypress and is covered with gold leaf. I paid a few hundred Yen extra to get the tour of the inside of Phoenix Hall so I would be able to see the Buddha. It was breathtaking, but alas, they did not allow pictures to be taken. The main statue measures about three meters high from its face to its knees, and is seated. Applied to the walls of the hall are small relief carvings of 52 Bodhisattvas riding clouds. Right next door, the Byodo-in museum stores and displays most the temple’s national treasures, including the wooden Bodhisattvas, the temple bell, the south end Phoenix, and other historically noteworthy items. Again, no pictures allowed. Poo.
I should note that Japan commemorates Phoenix Hall’s longevity and cultural significance by displaying its image on the 10 yen coin.
Just walking around the city you get a feel for how beautiful it was before modern-day. Not to say that it wasn’t beautiful now, but much like Kyoto, all around each of the most historic sites there are constant reminders of modern living like convenience stores, apartment houses, or cars. I took a few minutes to sit by the river and picture what it would have been like a thousand years ago. While I would have probably been killed or enslaved if I actually showed up, I would have loved to have a time machine. After letting my mind drift to all the places I’d go and things I would go see, I decided it was probably time to catch a train back to Kyoto.
On my way back across the river I was reminded about something I read in a guide book. I recalled reading that one thing listed as a “can’t miss” in Uji is the green tea ice cream. So I decided to stop by a cafe on the water to try it out. I know I haven’t treated you loyal blog readers to many Japanese culinary delights, so here is one that I felt was worth trying. Now to further my argument that eating out is not the best value here in Japan, this little bowl of love was 950 Yen, which equals $12.50 in USD. Ouch, this stuff better be good. It didn’t disappoint. I was greeted by delicious flavors and some interesting textures. One of the cubes in the bowl was like a really thick jello. Not sure what it was, but it was covered in what tasted like powdered peanuts! The take home message is that green tea ice cream is delicious (but expensive) and I am glad I decided to splurge on the treat. My full belly and I headed back to the train station for the quick ride back home to Kyoto.
The next morning was COLD. But I decide to put on my big girl pants and head out for more sight-seeing. I was glad that I did for the majority of the day until it came to walking home after dark in the frigid cold, but that’s a story for another day. My target destination this time was Nara. Nara is home to many important scenic and historical sites, and today preserves its main sights much more attractively than Kyoto within Nara Park.
Nara Park is a large nature area known for the tame deer that roam there. According to legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came to Nara riding on a white deer, so the deer enjoy protected status as envoys of the god. Based on their current behavior their new job is to take an extremely passionate interest in eating biscuits from tourists and harassing shopkeepers. But they certainly weren’t shy!
I started my sightseeing in Nara with the Kofuku-ji Temple. It is known for it’s tall pagodas and octagonal halls. It was quite beautiful, but this is where I realized that I have become a little blasé about Japanese temples. It didn’t seem remarkable despite being as picturesque as many of the other temples I had seen previously. I know, poor baby.
My next stop was the Nara National Museum where I was treated to some amazing Buddhist sculptures and artifacts. No pictures allowed, but there were Buddhas from throughout history including some from China, Korea, and India. I spent a couple of hours wandering through all of the historical artifacts. Many of them were take from nearby Todai-ji Temple, which was my next stop.
Todai-ji Temple is the jewel of Nara as far as I am concerned. The grounds were well groomed and clean despite what is obviously a heavy volume of tourists. Just adjacent to the entrance of the temple grounds was a parking lot full of tour buses.
The sheer magnitude of the temple is what first grabs your to attention when you first enter the grounds. Just like the Higashi Hongon-ji Temple in Kyoto, pictures will not do justice to this temple’s size.
After you put the camera down long enough to actually go inside of the temple, you are given a second blow of awe when you are greeted by the largest Buddha statue in the country. It sits around 70 feet tall seated.
I snapped about two dozen pictures of the Buddha, and then I was politely told that it was closing time by one of the monks there. He politely bowed and shooed me towards the doors. I took that as my cue and made my way back to the train station to return to Kyoto.
So thats all for now! I took another R&R day to get caught up on blogging and laundry, but tomorrow I plan to head back out to see more! I am tentatively planning on going to Himeji, Matsumoto, Mayajima/Hiroshima, and Hikone. I have four days left on my Japan Rail pass, so that should keep me busy!
Take care friends!
Miss you all!