Friday, March 4, 2016

Temple Hopping by Taxi in Kyoto : to Ryoan-ji, Shogunzuka and Chion-in

December 30 was our last whole day in Kyoto and I felt that I had not yet reached my temple quota.  So, while everyone else did their last minute shopping,  I hied off to go temple hopping.
As I was standing at the hotel entrance contemplating whether I would be frugal and take a bus or extravagant and splurge for a taxi -- a cab stopped right in front of me and the driver opened the door.  I took it as a sign and hopped right in.
And so this is how I met Kido san, Buddha's gift to me that day.

Kido san retired from an automotive parts company and has been driving his cab in Kyoto for less than five years. 
We started our conversation in Nihongo but I soon realised that he could speak pretty good english.  He was truly sent to me by Buddha!
I asked him to take me to my first stop,  Ryoan-ji and as we continued to talk,  I mentioned that 
I  also planned  to visit Chion-in, which is quite a bit of distance away. 
Kido san offered to wait for me at Ryoan-ji,  and recommended a stop at Shogunzuka to visit the Seiryuden before finally taking me to Chion-in
Taxi fares are expensive in Japan but since I just had a few hours to spare,  I agreed to 
Kido san's time saving suggestion. 

My first stop was Ryoan-ji,  my favourite temple in Kyoto.  I had never been to Ryoan-ji so early in the morning and today, it was a pleasant surprise to find hardly anyone around.

I took my time by Ryoan-ji's beautiful pond Oshidori-ike, basking in the lovely tranquil scene.

The heart of Ryoan-ji is the rock garden where 15 stones await the visitor who will never ever get to see all of them at one glance.  Aside from the temple employees walking quietly around, I was the only one at the viewing balcony and relished this rare solitude -- surely this moment was another gift from Buddha.

It was hard to leave Ryoan-ji but when the first tour group clattered noisily in,  I knew it was time to go.
From Ryoan-ji, Kido san drove to Higashiyama, to a sub-temple of Shoren-in  on Shogunzuka Mound.  He highly recommended that I visit this place because of the view from the observation deck which he said was much better than the view from the balcony of Kiyomizu-dera.
To get to Shogunzuka, we drove up a winding road where no city buses go.  So unless you have
a car or are willing to walk uphill for an hour, a taxi is the only way to get to the top.

This is the Seiryuden Temple Hall on Shogunzuka which is used for religious services 
and ceremonies.

Inside, Seiryuden is cavernous and almost completely empty.  There is a small room at the very end where a large painting of Fudo Myoo in all his fierce and fearsome glory is displayed.

While Kido san did tell me about the observation deck behind Seiryuden,  I was still surprised when I  rounded the corner and came upon this vast wooden balcony that seemed to stretch out into the horizon.

This is the North Observation deck of Shogunzuka.  Amidst the expanse of the unvarnished wooden floor stands an ultra modern version of a classic tea house.  It is made entirely of clear glass with very little metal support.  There are glass benches around it which on this cold winter morning are covered by a thin dusting of last night's frost.  

This tea house is designed by Japanese artist Yoshioka Tokujin was done to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Kyoto and Florence, Italy. This tea house will be on exhibit here until April 2016.

The North Observation Deck is practically empty save for a few visitors -- and almost all are Japanese.  We are all in awe of the view that is laid out in front of us. And what a surprise --
not a single person took a selfie.
I breathed a silent thanks to Buddha for keeping this place free from the tour bus hordes.  But honestly I don't know why this is off Kyoto's tourist track.

It's a gorgeous, nearly unobstructed view of  Kyoto on a bright, clear and cold day.  I wonder if  that mountain on the second to the right is Mt.  Hiei, it sort of looks like it and if my bearings are correct, I could be right.   I felt like I was suspended up in the air,  floating above the city.

This is a scale model of the structure of the North Observation Deck.  Standing more than 200 meters above,   it is certainly the best spot to look out over Kyoto.   And yes, Kido san was right, the view is much better than that of Kiyomizu-dera's.

From Shogunzuka, it took less than ten minutes to reach Chion-in, also known as the "Vatican" of Jodo or Pure Land Buddhism in Japan.  This massive and impressive wooden gate is the temple's official entrance, the Sanmon.  Built in the 1600s, the Sanmon is one of the biggest wooden gates in Japan and is a National Treasure.

It may look like an easy way up but this stone staircase leading up to the temple's main buildings is a challenging climb.  From the photo, it looks like it is neither steep nor high  but I can assure you it is both.  Each stone step is also higher than normal so my thigh muscles were practically screaming when I finally reached the top.  

Once you get to the top, head towards the information booth where you can get a map of the temple grounds. Chion-in has over 100 buildings so it's good to know what to see and where to go. The information booth is also where I got a temple seal for my shuin-cho.

Just past the information booth is a red two story pagoda and beside it is the Amida-do, the hall where visitors can find the statue of the Amida Buddha, who promises compassion and salvation.  I bow and quietly recite the nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu before I continue on my way.

The Miei-do,  Chion-in's main hall is the most important building in the temple grounds.  This is where you can find a statue of the founder of Jodo Buddhism, the monk Honen.  The Miei-do has been under renovation for the past four years and is not expected to be finished until 2019.
I look forward to seeing its full grandeur when renovation is finally completed.

I walk through the grounds to the back of the Miei-do and place an incense stick on the burner that guards the entrance to the Kyozo or the sutra repository.

To the side of the Miei-do is the Hobutsuden where some services are held.

One of the attractions of Chion-in is its gigantic bronze bell, one of the most famous bells in  Japan.  My thigh muscles and hamstrings cringe when they see the stone steps leading up to the bell tower but thankfully this is not as high nor as steep as the staircase at the entrance of the temple.

This is the giant bell called the Ogane housed inside the Daishoro or bell tower.  This bell is rung 108 times  at midnight on New Year's eve, to signify the 108 human sins.  I hope that one day, I can be here on New Year's eve to hear it rung.

Time to leave the centre of Pure Land Buddhism. 
Experience has taught me that for hillside or mountain attractions in Japan,  if there is a steep or difficult way up, there is almost always a gradual and sedate option to go down.
Tucked away on one side near the main entrance is this wide and broad staircase that leads back down to street level.
This will also take you by the Yuzen-en Garden which is open to the public but sadly I did not have time for a visit today.

 Kido san and I said our farewells here at Chion-in.  From the temple,  it is just a 2-minute walk to Maruyama Park and from there a short and lovely stroll to Gion where I caught a bus back to the hotel.
It was a morning well and efficiently spent.  Thanks to Kido san and his recommended route,
I was able to visit not just two temples as I had originally planned but I discovered a third one, with an amazing view of Kyoto.
It was the perfect way to wind down this year-end trip. 
Domo arigato gozaimashita, Kido san! Hona mata!


This is Kido san's meishi or business card.  Next time you travel to Kyoto, you may want to call him to take you around the city.  He knows the temples and shrines of Kyoto very well.
And unless you are using a local phone, don't forget to add +81-75, the country code for Japan and the area code for Kyoto.

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