After saying goodbye to the lovely Hirano family and boarding a train away from Kakegawa, I admit I was keen to feel the vibrancy of a city again. Just as well, in that case, that my next destination was a cosmopolitan hub where modern city life meets traditional Japanese culture: Kyoto. I’d booked two nights here to be able to explore in the daytime and have the evenings to myself to rest.
On my first afternoon, once I’d arrived, found my (budget!) hotel and done laundry while awaiting check-in, I walked to the Imperial Palace Gardens (about 20 minutes) but was too late! I could wander around to my heart’s content up and down the wide gravelled roads within the “gardens” – which I’m sure are very impressive in spring and summer – but all the doors leading to the interesting parts were firmly locked. I didn’t mind too much though; there are other temples scattered all over the place so I enjoyed a brief wander round one or two.
Once back at my (very central) hotel, I pored over the map and realised that the quickest and easiest way to get to most places in the city was by bus. There are dozens, going everywhere! And only two subway lines, with far more limited reach. So I worked out where I wanted to go, figured out which buses would get me from each place to the next, and on the morning of Day 2 I bought a one-day bus pass and then spent a full day bombing around! Thankfully all the stops were announced in English as well as Japanese, both audibly and on a screen at the front of the bus. Phew!
I started by visiting Kinkaku-ji, also known by its former name “Rokuon-ji” or otherwise the “Golden Pavilion”, in the north west of the city. The top two floors of this Zen temple, overlooking a large pond, are completely covered in gold leaf. The temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408.
Legend has it that in around the year 1500 a highly respected Zen monk, Tokuho Zenketsu, placed the rocks in the ideal position to offer guidance toward enlightenment for anyone who spends time gazing upon them. However, this is just one theory of many, it seems... there’s a lot of uncertainty concerning the garden’s origin, meaning, and even its designer! There’s an interesting website about the garden here: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3909.html
The official name of this temple is Rengeo-in, and the structure is registered as a National Treasure by the Japanese Government. It proved to be a bit of a walk away (when I saw the 60-odd people waiting for the bus I’d decided to walk instead). It really was one of the high points of my Kyoto visit, though; the 120-m long temple hall in particular. This extremely sacred space – unfortunately so sacred that photo-taking is prohibited – houses one thousand and one statues of the Buddhist deity.
There are one thousand golden statues (made of Japanese cypress wood) usually referred to as the “Kannon”, in two sets of perfect rows and columns, and separating the two halves is one gigantic golden statue of the seated Buddha. There are a further twenty-eight “guardian” statues placed in a barrier-esque line in front of the Kannon deity statues in order to protect them; this protection is supposed to extend to all pious Buddhists who believe in the Kannon. Most of these guardian deities, many of whose faces are contorted in some mythical expression of vivid passion, originate from ancient India.
The grounds of this temple are very impressive too, in an entirely different way from the inside of the long main hall: so much bright colour!
I had booked a “Twilight Walking Tour” through Kyoto’s historic and traditional districts of Gion and Higashiyama, and turned out to be the only one on it that day! So I enjoyed a personalised experience as my very knowledgeable guide, Masako, took me on a fascinating wander around about a dozen intriguing places in the area.
Our last stop on the tour was the Minamiza Theatre, where for many decades Japanese Kabuki plays were performed. Masako told me, however, that in recent years the building has been considered too structurally dangerous (because of earthquakes?) for this practice to continue safely, so performances have ceased, much to Masako’s disappointment. She’s a big fan of Kabuki and has seen all the “greats” several times. Now, however, she has to go to Osaka to watch one, and is even willing to make the trip all the way to Tokyo if a particularly special show catches her eye.