More temples than you can poke a stick at….
Greetings fans! Today was our first full day in Kyoto and we spent it sightseeing around the Eastern side of town – just across the Kamo River from where we’re staying. This part of Kyoto is a temple-spotters dream; we counted no fewer than 18 of them, each with its own rich history and particular claim to fame. I won’t even try to describe them all, but have included a few select photos below for your viewing pleasure. You’ll get the general idea: big, wooden buildings with incredibly ornate carvings and gold inlays; lots of beautiful gardens; and that characteristically Eastern architectural flavour to them.
For me, more than the temple buildings with all their grandeur, it is the small things that have stuck with me. Rounding a corner and seeing a small clump of moss-covered rocks underneath a cherry tree, with the summer sun shining through the impossibly green leaves. Or walking through a temple garden, over a gently arched bridge that spans a pond filled with turtles and koi fish, and looking back to see an old Japanese gentleman sitting on a bench under a weeping willow, simply enjoying the morning sun. There were so many moments like this as we were strolling through the various temple gardens, moments that stopped us dead in our tracks for their simplicity and beauty. That for me is the real majesty of Kyoto.
Don’t get me wrong, the temples and shrines are pretty awesome too, but for me the epitome of the Japanese aesthetic is not in the biggest of things, it’s in the smallest. They have an eye for detail and for finding the perfection in the smallest of details. The best example I can think of this was when we were walking through the Konchi-in temple complex and stumbled across the most beautiful little rock gardens – completely unexpected, and one of the best sights of the day.
By midday we had walked about 10 km and it was pretty hot and humid so we were relieved to finally find the Philosopher’s Path. This 2 km long paved path runs along the side of a small rivulet at the base of the wooded hills that demarcate Kyoto’s Eastern boundary. The 19th century Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro reputedly used to take his “morning constitutional” along this route every day, hence it is now known as the Philosopher’s Path. For us the paved pathway provided us with some welcome shade and relief from the worst of the heat. Did it inspire us to philosophise about life? Not really. I think the most profound thing either of us said for the 2 km stretch was “Why the bloody hell did we walk all this way?? Why didn’t we just catch the bus?”. It seems Shane and I have a nasty habit of misinterpreting scales on maps, you see. We’ll plan out our day’s activities, check out the map and one of us with inevitably say something retarded like “Hey, that doesn’t look that far. Let’s just walk it so we can enjoy the scenery along the way”. Seems that even after a whole week of this kind of behaviour, we still haven’t learnt to CHECK THE SCALE. End result for today: another 15 km day, in the sun, at 30 degrees Celsius. Continue like this and we’ll either get well fit, or die of heat stroke in Japan.
The end goal for the day, the final temple to top off the day, was Ginkaku-ji (translation = The Temple of the Silver Pavilion). Despite what its name suggests, the Silver Pavilion is not covered in silver. Some say this is because the young shogun that commissioned it in the 15th century had intended for it be covered in silver, but then ran out of funds; others say it was named the Silver Pavilion because of the way the moonlight gleamed silver on the buildings’ formerly black lacquer exterior. Either way, the name has stuck and though the temple itself is very modest compared to many of the others we saw today, its surrounding gardens were spectacular. Ginkaku-ji was definitely the highlight of the day for me.
We decided at this stage to do the sensible thing and caught the bus back to our ryokan for a shower and a well-earned break. And this is when we learnt about a unique little thing called Being a Human Sardine. The bus was PACKED. Like nothing you would ever see is Australia because we would have some OH&S law against it. The thing that we couldn’t believe was that every time the bus pulled over to let more people on, we thought the prospective passengers would take one look inside and decide to wait for the next bus. But no, they quite happily shoved their way in and everyone dutifully squished up some more. Next bus stop, the same thing. And we’re thinking “Surely we’re full now. No? How about now? No? STILL not full? But there’s no AIR LEFT back here people!” It truly felt like the Human Sardine Experience.
The Japanese are obviously used to it they just accept that the only way everyone can get to where they need to go is to just suck it up, deal with it and embrace the fact that you are going to have LOTS of people in your personal space. Not that they seem to have the same sense of personal space. At least, as Shane points out, here I don’t have the problem of being at armpit height with everyone (this is one of the main reasons I HATE being stuck in crowds at home – being short makes for one stinky experience when you’re in a crowd of Aussies) – I’m actually quite tall in Japan. *BIG GRIN*
The Human Sardine Experience did not completely deter us however as we set off after a shower and a nap for an evening of exploration around the Gion district. Gion is Kyoto’s “down-town” district, full of restaurants, bars and traditional teahouses were geisha and trainee maiko still entertain customers to this day. Made famous by Arthur Golden’s book “Memoirs of a Geisha”, Gion has been Kyoto’s entertainment district for hundreds of years and is a great place to spend a few hours, meandering your way through all the tiny little cobbled streets, admiring the wooden-fronted buildings and trying to guess what might be behind the secretive entries. We even got to see a couple of genuine geishas walking the streets – too cute! We had dinner there in one of the tiniest noodle shops ever and then repeated our Human Sardine Experience to once again return home. More from Kyoto tomorrow!