Monday, October 29, 2012

Excellent views at Kinkakuji - Our Week-end in Kyoto : Part 9

After leaving Ryoan-ji, I was ready to call it a day.  I had fulfilled my long held wish and had a touching and unexpected experience.
I was at peace.
But ... the bus we were on stopped right in front of the entrance to Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto's famous Golden Pavilion and another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This was the very place we were on our way to yesterday when we had gotten completely lost. 
Now that we were right on its doorstep, it seemed a gift from Buddha -- a second chance.

It was almost closing time when we arrived and there were not too many tourists who were lined up at the entrance.  We walked past this large and impressive building but had no time to stop.

This magnificent sight came as a total shock.  Jay had visited Kinkakuji many many years before and somehow he vaguely remembered how it looked like.  For a first timer like myself, it was incredible, amazing and completely impressive.
Very different from the effect that Ryoanji had on me -- while that was a silent and serene gift -- this was an exuberant and over the top present.  I could not stop smiling.

This Zen temple formerly belonged to a wealthy and powerful shogun who willed it to the Rinzai sect upon his death in 1408.  Unfortunately, this structure that we see today is no longer the original as it has burned to the ground many times.
The most famous destruction occurred in the 1950s when the building was set on fire by a fanatic monk.
Rebuilt in 1955, the gold leaf covering has actually been enhanced from the original layer, to make it even more golden, even more impressive.

The Golden Pavilion is the highlight, the be-all and end-all of Kinkakuji.  After the initial wow moment,  you slowly come down from the visual high as you walk through the rest of the well laid out temple grounds.    We were captivated by this heron, who stood in the pond's shallows.

Across Kinkakuji is the head priest's quarters, known as the Hojo.  While it is closed to the public, you can peep through and see the beautiful and traditional Zen garden -- of painstakingly raked sand, moss and well placed shrubbery.

A small waterfall pours into a pond creating a never ending sound of running water.

I came upon this man throwing coins at these statues.  Apparently, if you hit a statue or better yet, if your coin falls into the cup, luck will smile on you.

The sun has almost set and visitors are being politely but firmly led out ...  it's closing time.
I take a last look at the Golden Pavilion.  From this far point, it looks so small and ordinary -- the gold has faded to a plain yellow color.
Beauty can be extremely striking -- but it is also quite fleeting.

In Ryoan-ji, Buddha made me cry

Ever since I first read about Ryoan-ji, I knew I wanted to see it someday.  If there ever was a place that I wanted to see on this first visit to Kyoto, it was this symbol of Zen Buddhism in Japan.
It is also perhaps the most famous and photographed Japanese rock garden and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. 

We reserved Ryoan-ji for our last afternoon in Kyoto.  Since it would be our final destination for the day,  we could linger and stay as long as we could.  The minute we entered the temple grounds, we were greeted by this serene pond.  Branches green with late summer's foliage dipped into the waters.  Lotus and water lily pods floated languidly.

Even if there were tourists around that afternoon, a peaceful quiet seemed to descend on everyone. As we walked towards the rock garden, we could only hear the crunch of our footsteps on the gravel.  Each step unfolded scenes of quiet beauty such as this small bridge with a vermillion torii peeping from behind the trees.

Ryoanji's rock garden is meant to be viewed from the wooden viewing deck of the Hojo pavilion.  Since the floorboards are centuries old, everyone has to remove footwear before entering the building.

And finally, here it was.  Ryoan-ji's treasure.  A rock garden of fifteen stones, of varying sizes and shapes, all laid out amidst swirls of finely raked sand.  Only the green moss that grow on the stones breaks the color of slate and gray.
The artist who designed this garden skillfully placed the stones so that from any vantage point that you sit on the viewing deck, you will never see all fifteen at once.  There will always be one or a few that are hidden from view.

Scholars have attached different meanings and interpretations to its puzzle -- why can we not see the fifteen stones? What did the artist want to convey?

As I sat there on the deck, all the people around me seemed to slowly disappear.  I found myself in a space, all by myself and amazingly, I felt the tears well and slowly fall.
I distinctly heard a voice -- "Nothing is ever completely attainable, as long as you keep searching, it will be elusive. Perhaps, stop. And it will come."
It felt like like a gentle rebuke but a rebuke nonetheless -- impatience, stress, desire -- all these stand in the way of attaining real and lasting happiness.
Buddha reminded me.  Buddha made me cry.

As a postscript -- for those who will perhaps say that the garden does not have fifteen stones anyway, for the unbelievers -- here is the lay out, in miniature.  From the top view, count them -- there are indeed fifteen stones.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kiyomizudera, The View from the Top : Our Week end in Kyoto Part 7

We woke up to a chilly drizzling Sunday, our last day in Kyoto.  Today's itinerary included Kiyomizudera, a Buddhist Temple halfway up the hillside of Mt. Otowa and one of Kyoto's UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The regular bus from Kyoto Station dropped us off 750 meters away from the temple.

It's an uphill 750 meters walk through a charming residential street lined with houses and small stores.  Even if it was cloudy and cool, I still found myself out of breath and perspiring once we got to the top. Talk about being out of shape!

You continue to climb once you get on the temple grounds.  We stopped for a while at one of the pavilions that offer a sweeping panoramic view of Kyoto below.  Amazing that such an old and historic landmark can be so close and convenient to the city.

This is the famous viewing deck of the main temple of Kiyomizudera.  The rest of the temple buildings have been under reconstruction for the past years so you can only stand on this balcony and look down at the temple grounds below. 
The balcony is made wholly of wood and it spans the treetops, a good 13 meters above the ground.  
It is supported by giant logs, in a grid like structure.  Such a marvel of design and architecture!
The viewing deck was so crowded with tourists and pilgrims that we could hardly find a place to stand. 
The best view though is right across -- from this point, you see the full majesty of Kiyomizudera.
It's really incredible that this temple has been around since the 8th century.  

Still within the temple grounds, we came upon this small restaurant offering light meals of soba and udon.  Since we were still not quite hungry,  we weren't sure if we wanted to just wait and eat somewhere in the city.

What clinched the deal though was that the waitress led us to this empty booth right across -- made of wood, open and airy, with tatami mats and a low lacquered table, it hung suspended above the hill. 
It would be like lunching in a tree house.   What a unique and charming idea!

It didn't matter to us that the only items left to order were the tsukimi soba and tsukimi udon -- we would have that.  Anything would have tasted good in this setting!

Here is my bowl of tsukimi soba -- noodles in a soy based broth with a poached egg on top.  Very simple yet  perfect for this cool, slightly wet day.

Leaving our "tree house", we passed these viewing platforms set amidst the tree tops -- for viewing the red and gold leaves of autumn, due in a month's time.

Kiyomizudera really means "pure water temple".  It gets its name from the waterfall found on Mt. Otowa. 
At the base of the temple grounds, we saw a long line waiting to get a drink from the waters of the falls -- there are three streams flowing and you choose which stream you want to drink from depending on the prayer or wish that you want granted.
One is for long life, another for a happy romance and the third stream is for success in examinations.

We're back at the street that leads down to the main avenue, 750 meters away.
The walk down is always easier, always faster.
We walk off with happy memories -- of a stunning view above the trees, an unforgettable lunch hanging from a hillside and this charming sight of young kimono clad women, come to pay their respects and perhaps get their wishes granted, at Kiyomizudera.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Pork In the Road discovers Go'o Shrine, dedicated to the Pig - Our Kyoto Week end Part 6

Who would have thought that I would find, in genteel, traditional, old world Kyoto -- an actual Shinto Shrine dedicated to the Pig?  A celebration of the virtues and qualities -- and I don't mean the edible ones -- of that often maligned, often ridiculed creature.  Porkintheroad was just so proud!

Go'o Shrine is located right across the Imperial Palace Park.  It's one of many shrines in Kyoto and probably not on your top ten or even top twenty list but it's got a very interesting back story.
This is where Lord Wake no Kiyomaro, an adviser to the emperor in the 8th century, is enshrined.
Legend has it that when Lord Kiyomaro fell out of favor from the emperor's conniving family, he was sent out to exile from the palace.
On his way, he hurt his leg but was "escorted and protected" by a herd of wild boars who saw him safe on his way.

The shrine is thus also popular with those who have hurt their leg.  This marble "wheel" at the entrance, inscribed with "footsteps" is spun by visitors to protect them from leg injuries.

Instead of the usual lions guarding the shrine entrance, we see a pair of stone boars.  This is just the first of many pig statues that can be found in Go'o Shrine.

Pig iconography comes in the form of painted figures ....

And those made of stone ....

There are pigs leaping through the air...

And jumping down at the purification fountain.

And here is a most unusual specimen -- I named him "Twiggy the Pig" .  He could also pass for a large hedgehog.

Here is another purification fountain with yet another pig -- in cast iron and kneeling before you as you wash your hands.

Lord Kiyomaro's footsteps?  He certainly had big feet!

Go'o Shrine boasts of hundreds of pig figures -- many of them are displayed in this small museum.
It's attached to a  gift shop where you can buy all sorts of pig souvenirs (naturally, I bought a small horde).

This is Lord Kiyomaro.  His remains are said to be enshrined in the grounds. Still watched over and guarded by his legion of protective pigs.

And here is the scroll that tells of Lord Kiyomaro's passage to safety, borne by the herd of wild pigs.
Go'o Shrine was just a short stroll away from Hotel Brighton.
If we didn't stay so close to it, I would never have come upon this unusual and loyal homage to the pig.
Porkintheroad is grateful to Lord Kiyomaro who undoubtedly sent out his herd and led me to this place.

Chilling by the Kamogawa, Strolling through Shinbashi - Our Kyoto Week end Part 5

After the frenetic but fascinating Nishiki Market, it took us a 600 meter walk to cross the invisible line between busy and bustling Kawaramachi to serene and quiet Gion.   
You make a turn into Shijo street and just walk across the bridge.

This is the Kamogawa or the Kamo River. As we walked along the bridge, it was tempting to see people sitting by the banks, just hanging out and enjoying the mild September afternoon.

I can never resist the lure of a truly local experience.  If relaxing by the Kamogawa was what locals did on a Saturday afternoon -- well, who was I to pass up this opportunity to do the same thing?

I would have wanted to slide down the embankment and get my feet wet.  The river was running quick but shallow and there were children actually playing in the water.
But age (and good sense) prevailed and I decided to stay put, take off my shoes and just chill .....
But not for long.

The sun was setting fast so we had to cut short our people and river watching if we wanted to walk through Gion District --Kyoto's most famous area for geisha watching.  

This is the famous kabuki theatre Minamiza, centuries old and still very much in use today.  Maybe next visit, we can watch a kabuki or noh play here.

Here we are, in this small alley leading to Shinbashi, one of Kyoto's most beautiful streets and right in the heart of Gion.  Would we get to see a geisha?  I hated to think we were stalking them as if we were on a geisha safari -- these are regular women after all, with regular lives like yours and mine ...
but still, it would be nice to see one in the flesh.

Then, as if on cue, this young lady glided by -- she looked quite young so I surmised she must still be a maiko or an apprentice geisha.  Probably walking on her way to work.  This unexpected sighting,  of this young girl all decked out in her geisha kimono was definitely a gift -- thank you, Kyoto!

And as if that serendipitous encounter was not enough to seal the evening's charms -- here was another charming tableau -- a small heron or was it an egret -- posing for everyone in this clear little stream called the Shirakawa that runs right through the area.  So picture perfect!

Shinbashi is not called Kyoto's prettiest street for nothing.  It's cobblestoned, has the Shirakawa, a clean and burbling little stream running right through it and has old traditional buildings that run from end to end.  A small shrine is right in the middle of the street -- with the traditional red torii and lit up for the evening.

We were lucky enough to have witnessed this newly wed couple garbed in traditional wedding attire posing by the small bridge.  I took this discreet photo from across the street but a lot of tourists didn't seem to worry about intruding on their privacy and were  happily snapping away.

We walked through Hanami koji, which runs parallel to Shinbashi.  The evening crowds had not yet arrived and we had this normally crowded street to ourselves.  Traditional architecture, cobble stoned streets -- a combination that never fails to please, no matter where you are.

As we strolled along, we saw many small and old restaurants like these -- definitely hiding the culinary secrets and treasures of Kyoto.  Next time, I may gather up the nerve to actually walk in and have dinner.

Shinbashi dori is a short, lovely walk -- we reach the end and look back to see the street lights now lit up, wrapping the evening in a soft, warm glow.

I had to tear myself away and leave this place that seems to exist in another time -- I literally calmly exhaled all the tiredness of a long day of sightseeing and yes, the frustration of getting lost... I felt that slipping away from me too.
Kyoto was continuing to slowly unfold her irresistible and varied charms to me and I was slowly being put under her spell.