Sunday, February 14, 2016

Finishing my Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Sites Bucket List #17 Ujigami jinja

A few days before the year ended,  one of my "quests" ended too.   I was able to accomplish my goal of visiting all 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto. It took me more than three years but I finally did it ... and yes, it was all worth it.

Ujigami jinja,  the last remaining site that I needed to visit is located in Uji,  11 kilometres
or twenty minutes away from Kyoto Station via the Rapid express.  Uji is also home to 
Byodo-in, another UNESCO World Heritage site that I had visited last year.

From the train station,  it's a pleasant 15 minute stroll to Uji-bashi, the bridge that spans the
Uji-gawa.  At the foot of the bridge is a statue of Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote what many
say is the world's first ever novel,  The Tale of the Genji.
I find it fascinating that the first ever novelist was a woman, and an Asian at that.
Uji is the setting for much of the last part of the novel so you will see many references to
The Genji as you walk around the town.

A wooden marker by the bridge talks about Uji-bashi's history.  This is one of the oldest bridges in Japan. It was originally built in the 600s but because of floods, earthquakes, fires and other calamities, it has been re-built many times.  It's too bad that the bridge is undergoing repairs this time so I was not able to take a nice photo.

Wooden handrails line the sides of the bridge.  Uji-bashi links the north and south sides of Uji 
and is an important thoroughfare in town.  Our destination for today is located on the north side of the river. 

I see familiar looking ornaments on the handrails.  These are called giboshi and can be seen
only in historical and culturally important structures like shrines, temples and bridges. 

To get to Ujigami jinja you walk through another shrine called the Uji jinja.  
You might be misled into thinking you have reached your destination because of the name and the impressive red torii that marks the long and rather grand entrance.  But, this is a different place altogether.

There is signboard in English that will tell you where to go. Ujigami jinja is further on.

It's a short walk along a quiet and empty street -- everyone must be busy preparing for oshogatsu or new year.  Another large red torii is up ahead and this time, this is indeed the entrance to Ujigami jinja.

Time to stop and take a photo of this "momentous" (to me, at least) occasion.
This is Meiko san, my dear best friend who lives in Kyoto.  I am grateful that despite her busy schedule, she makes time to see me.  Her friendship and time are generously shared and a day spent with her is always a happy and enriching experience.

The UNESCO World Heritage site marker is placed by the shrine entrance.
You can see from the map that the shrine occupies a rather small area.  Ujigami jinja sits right at the foot  of Mount Mitaku. 

This is the haiden or worship hall where shrine visitors can enter and pray to the deity.  
This haiden is the oldest existing example of this type of shrine building in Japan.  If I did not know about its world heritage status,  I would not think that this simple and rather plain wooden structure would be so culturally and historically significant.

On either side of the haiden are perfect cones of sand used in the shrine's purification rituals.  These remind me of the ones that I  saw at the Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto, also a UNESCO World Heritage site.  
The cones are enclosed with rice straw ropes called shimenawa from which shide or zigzag cut paper are hung.  The shimenawa and shide designate sacred areas and are also meant to ward off  evil spirits and demons.

Ujigami jinja is blessed with a free flowing spring which Meiko san told me is the shrine's temizuya or purification area.
You enter the small shed to perform misogi or the traditional purification ritual.
First, scoop the water using the ladle conveniently provided. Wash your left hand first,
then your right hand then rinse your mouth.  The water is crystal clear and bitingly cold.
Misogi is a ritual I have performed many times but this is the first time I have done it while standing directly over the water source itself.  I am careful not to slide on the slippery stone steps and fall into the spring.

Behind the haiden is the Kasuga Jinja Honden built a few hundred years after. 
This small shrine building is also designated as an Important Cultural Property.

And here is Ujigami jinja's honden or main hall.  Along with the haiden,  this honden is the oldest example of this type of architecture, dating back to the Heian period.  These two buildings are what have earned the shrine its  World Heritage Site status.
Unlike the haiden, visitors are never allowed to enter the honden, as this is where the deity 
is enshrined and is the most sacred and holy place in the shrine.  Visitors can climb all the way to the top of the short stone steps and pray to the deity but that is as far as one can go.
As you can see from the photo, the honden is not very big and it is almost backed up all the 
way to the edge of Mount Mitaku -- there is nothing but trees and woods behind it. 

In Shinto, the deity is not a saint or a figure like Buddha.  Shinto deities are called kami 
and are parts of nature such as wind, sun, trees, mountains ... and yes, rocks and stones.
Near the honden, we found this shimenawa enclosed rock with many small pebbles
piled up on top.
It brought to mind the "stones of sorrow" that pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago
would place on the roadside cruceiros or crosses.   They were meant to symbolise a burden
or problem and by "leaving" them behind,  it meant that you starting anew and leaving past heartaches behind.

I told Meiko san about the "stones of sorrow".   We decided to place our own little 
pebbles on the rock but instead of "stones of sorrow", we said we would call them "stones of remembrance".

Here is the pebble I placed on the rock (encircled in red)  -- more than a "stone of remembrance",  it signifies gratitude.  Apart from the many blessings in my life,  I am
thankful that I have accomplished my Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage sites bucket
list.  It also seems appropriate and noteworthy that my task ended here in Ujigami jinja,
in one of Japan's oldest Shinto shrines.

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