Kyoto (Day 4) – northern Kyoto

Chizuru and I took a night bus from Tokyo back to Kyoto. I remember it was a conversation on the night bus that made me decide to visit Hiroshima and Tottori on my own. Somehow when life is led spontaneously, things fall into place very nicely. 🙂 I was feeling quite tired from the relatively poor quality of sleep on the bus but there was no time to lose. There are simply too many things to see in Kyoto and I don’t have enough time to see everything! I decided to visit northern Kyoto where 3 beautiful temples registered in the UNESCO World Heritage list are located in rather close proximity to one another. On this note, there is something very special about Japanese temples – no two temples look alike even though there are so many of them. I visited 4 temples in succession on that day: Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, Ninnaji and Shimogamo Jinja. Even though more than a month has passed between the time I saw them and now, I still remember the distinctive features of each of them.

My first stop was the most touristic temple in northern Kyoto: Kinkakuji. I did not get to enjoy Kinkakuji as much as I like to because there were simply too many students and tourists in the temple.  I promised myself that I should spend a minimum of 1 hour at any temple just so that I would slow down and enjoy the temple. But at Kinkakuji, there were so many people that I did not stay more than 30 minutes. There was absolutely no space for quiet contemplation. Kinkakuji was built by a Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the grandfather of the guy who built Ginkakuji, as a retirement villa. It is most famous for the golden pavilion – top two floors are gold-plated. It was my first time seeing a gold-plated building and the pavilion, together with the surrounding scenery, literally took my breath away. It was an awe-inspiring view –  the reflection of the golden pavilion and the islets on the pond in the water makes the pavilion seem harmonious with the surrounding nature. I must digress, this harmony between nature and man-made structures is what I truly love about Japan. In many places, buildings are built to stand out. But in Japan, buildings are built to blend in with the natural environment and enhance the beauty of nature to a certain degree.

Prior to visiting Japan, I read “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” by Yukio Mishima which was loosely based upon a true story about a fanatic monk who burnt down the golden pavilion in an attempt to commit suicide in 1950. In the end, the monk chickened out and fled but the golden pavilion did not survive the fire. The golden pavilion was re-built in the late 1950s. It is a book about how beauty led to destruction. The book is a fairly complex and philosophical one, I had quite a hard time following some of his arguments.

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Kinkakuji, Kyoto

Ryoanji was two bus stops away from Kinkakuji but the atmosphere was surprisingly very different from Kinkakuji. There were very few people in Ryoanji and that came as a surprise to me because it was also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I guess Kinkakuji is famous not just for the UNESCO status but probably also by its gold-plating. Ryoanji is also another retirement villa which was converted into a Zen temple. Ryoanji has a big park with many maple and cherry trees and a big pond but it gains popularity because of its rock garden. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that the garden was built to make the space appear bigger than it actually was. Apparently, from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer. That is really quite cool because the garden is actually rather small! At Ryoanji, I did one of my favourite activities in Japan – sitting at the ledge of the temple grounds ,staring blankly at the garden and thinking about life. There are so many people, Japanese and tourists alike, who also enjoyed the temple in the same way. I miss doing that.

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Ryoanji, Kyoto

Ninnaji is located a few bus stops away from Ryoanji and it is probably the quietest temple out of the three temples in northern Kyoto. While Kinkakuji is famous for its golden pavilion and Ryoanji for its rock garden, Ninnaji is famous for the former residence of the head priest in the southwest corner of the temple. I guess the former residence is famous because it is built in the style of an imperial palace. It is very difficult to visit the imperial palace in Japan so perhaps a visit to Ninnaji will suffice for those who are curious to find out how a Japanese imperial palace looks like. The buildings are elegantly connected and the complex is surrounded by beautiful pond and rock gardens. What impressed me most in Ninnaji was the fusuma in the building. If this is not regarded as art, I don’t know what is art. Somehow because of the way the doors are angled to one another, the natural scenery depicted on the fusuma seems to possess some depth. I would love to live in a room like this!

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Ninnaji, Kyoto

The rock garden is very different from the one in Ryoanji but they are both beautiful in their own ways. I must say it is easier to appreciate the beauty of the rock garden in Ryoanji though because it bears more resemblance with a normal garden. I remember I sat on the ledge of the buildings and admired the garden all on my own for quite a while and that was quite an incredible feeling. It felt as though I had the beauty of the temple all for myself.

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Ninnaji, Kyoto

On my way to Shimogamo Jinja, I decided to stop by Kyoto Imperial Park. To visit the grounds of the Imperial Palace, it is mandatory to make a booking in advance. I didn’t have the chance to visit the Imperial Palace this time round, I guess I need to visit Kyoto again. The Kyoto Imperial Park is very large and it is a space for various recreational activities such as morning exercises, jogging and yoga. It is quite funny to hear a Japanese say, “I usually jog in the palace.” Palaces around the world tend to be so touristy such that residents don’t usually frequent them, let alone conduct recreational activities there. Another special thing about Japan and Japanese. 🙂

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Kyoto Imperial Park, Kyoto

Kyoto has two Kamo shrines: Shimagamo Jinja and Kamigamo Jinja and they are both recognised as World Heritage sites and are the oldest shrines in Kyoto. When Kyoto served as the capital of Japan, the imperial court frequented these two shrines to pray for the safety and prosperity of the city. These two shrines host the Aoi Matsuri festival – one of the three largest festivals in Kyoto. I would love to see the festival one day. I chose to visit Shimagamo Jinja because Kamigamo Jinja is undergoing renovation until 2015.  Shimagamo Jinja is surrounded by Tadasu no Mori – a forest that was protected when the city underwent modernization. The forest is said to have trees that are at least 600 years old and apparently you can spot fireflies there at night. It is quite a amazing feeling to walk through the forest towards the shrine. The forest surrounding the shrine is a different type of harmony between the man-made temples and nature as compared to the gardens built on the temple grounds.

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Shimogamo Jinja, Kyoto

My last stop was Gion. I always wanted to visit Gion ever since I read The Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I visited the Shirakawa Area and saw the canal lined with willow trees, teahouses and high-class restaurants. I later found out that the Shirakawa Area was off the beaten path and that probably explained why it was quite quiet. I took a slow stroll and tried to imagine how the place looked like 100 years ago. Kyoto is truly blessed with so many forms of beauty. 🙂

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Gion, Kyoto

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