Kyoto - Temple City

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April 14th 2018
Published: April 15th 2018
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I am getting a bit of a fixation on the history of Japan, those shogun families and the castles and shrines that mark where they walked, lived and impacted the people of this country. Dangerous for blog writing, cause I can wax long and painfully deep into the weeds. And then find out I misunderstood something or other.

Given Kyoto has over 1500 temples, shrines and some castles on top of that, I’m going to skip the endless historical tidbits that strike me as interesting, to save you the bore-factor.

One bit that clicked into place for me here was the relationship between the Imperial emperors (established in the 4th century and still exist today living in the imperial palace in Tokyo) and the shogun crowd. In 1185, the first samurai government took over political power and the imperial court granted him a long title, shortened to ‘shogun’.

That said, here are my highlights of Kyoto:

Best sight: For my bus time and ticket investments, the Ninjo-jo Castle entranced me most. This was built by the first Tokugawa, and it was here that he announced to the daimyos (feudal lords) of his appointment as shogun. Though based in Edo (Tokyo), this castle was his home while in Kyoto. It was also the place his grandson and the last shogun met with his daiymo to propose he return political power to the emperor.

The history made it - I wonder if its a record that Kyoto has 17 UNESCO sites, this being one. Ignoring the usual history of buildings being burnt and replaced numerous times, these buildings were fascinating in their simplicity - and their repetition. The main rooms were all greeting rooms for the shogun to hold court with various audiences. Others were rooms for those people to wait for their audience. Each reception room was large with a foot-high raised floor on half of it, for the shogun to sit cross-legged on the reed mats under a slightly domed ceiling. The lower floor was were his audience would sit and bow before him. The biggest had the most elaborately painted walls and was the place to greet daimyos; the next size with more modest paintings was for the next lower echelon of important folks. And on, till the smallest and simplest was for family to be greeted. I continue to be amazed by no furniture - the panels and roof paintings are the ornation. The reed mats (tatami) are plain and ubiquitous in every building, temple and residence building we’ve visited.

I overheard a guide calling this the castle was known for 800 tatami and 1000 sliding doors. I believe it.

Prettiest Temple: The Golden Pavillion, known as Kinkakuji was built by an early shogun as his retirement home, and upon his death in the early 1400s, he willed it to become a zen temple. The top two floors were originally finished in gold leaf and the beauty of it suspended over a pond is quite stunning. No entry allowed into this one, but crowds walked around the pond and grounds to catch the beautiful views.

Most Pressure-to-see Temple: Kiyomizu-dera is the locals‘ favourite temple apparently, and listed as one of the must-do things if your time is squished. It’s in the city, up on a hill and built on stilts. The narrow streets that lead to the temple are lined with ice cream stands, sweet treat sellers, stores selling religious talisman, incense or offerings and packed with crowds shuffling together to either get up or down the hill. At the nearest bus stops, a number of kimono rental shops are busy. Many young people especially are fully geared up with kimonos, little hand bags, wooden shoes with toe-socks, and their fellows are in the partner set of paraphernalia. Pretty and striking - amazing to tourists but not so to locals.

Prettiest garden: All the temples and castles have hectares of gardens and other buildings on their grounds. In retrospect, by far the most glorious gardens we have seen were at the Kanazawa Kanazawa.

Fav Temple in Kyoto: A stop at the Tenry-ji Temple was just a visit of opportunity - it was nearby the bamboo walkway. This temple had something charming and tranquil about it. The room spaces were large for great crowds of worshippers, yet bright and open too. The gardens, and zen-raked gravel surrounded the temple buildings in a way I found calming - even the visitors there seemed to adopt its calmness, moving slower and reflecting a little more.

Bamboo Walkway: The bamboo walkway a chance to soak in a copse of bamboo, tall and straight and so green. Lovely.

The City: Kyoto is not what you’d expect. The city itself has been hit hard economically since the downturn in the 90s and has not rebounded. No construction sites are seen, and the buildings

around the core seem functional, dated and lacking in artistry or audacious architecture. The Kyoto Accord which is what so many associate with this city is a no-show here. No particularly strong commitment to green programs are seen. Like every city in Japan, garbage cans in public places are rarely seen - but no one tosses their trash on the streets (even ciggy butts) more from social discipline than from recycling efforts. Our hotels recycle plastic drink bottles but nothing else.

The transportation system stands out in Japan everywhere, and in Kyoto as well. Multiple train lines and bus lines converge at Kyoto Station. Military discipline on departure and arrival times is wonderful - at first you’re amazed to see the punctuality, and quickly you start to count on it.

The crowds at the historic sites are enormous. The push and dodge of people trying to get ahead, take a picture without anyone else in it, cut across the machinery of bodies moving together in the same direction Is a palpable experience. Visiting a temple or sacred place while experiencing the physical pressure of a mass of people confuses my psyche. It felt sacriligious at times - I rushed through places and really didn’t explore all the richness as a result.

And finally, John: My dear hubby caught a cold about a month ago, leading to increasing breathing difficulties. A visit with the hospital here brought with it an interpreter over an iPad to translate John’s situation and also the questions of the nurses and doctor. That was cool. A few prescriptions and a Japanese herbal remedy of some sort have helped him turn the corner...but caused him to experience Kyoto through my pictures, taken while he was sleeping at our hotel in the Kyoto train station. I missed him.

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