|I am not quite sure whether it was a good thing to leave Kyoto till last or not. On one hand, we got to see lots of temples all over Japan and treated each one like it was new. However on arrival in Kyoto which has over 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines (16 UNESCO World Heritage temples and shrines), we finally began getting a little bored of temples - even though the ones here are supposed to be the best! I guess if we had done it the other way around we would have found the temples we saw in the other parts of Japan quite boring? So it is a bit if a catch 22 really.
Anyway we arrived at the impressive Kyoto station on Friday midday and quickly found our nearby hostel to dump our bags. It was then back to the station itself to check it out. This building is very modern (1997) and its huge! - 11 storeys high in fact! It is mostly all steel and glass and had a huge big open atrium inside as well as a department store, loads of shops and loads of restaurants. Pretty impressive we thought.
That first afternoon we thought we would knock three temples off the list that were in the local area of the station:
1. Nishi Hongan-Ji - Built in 1591 as the headquarters of a particular school of Buddhism which accumulated immense power and today has over 12 million followers worldwide. There are five buildings - the main one of which is currently undergoing restoration. However Daisho-In Hall was pretty impressive and there were lots of locals praying inside.
2. Higashi Hongan-Ji - Built after Nishi Hongan-Ji in 1602 just down the road. This temple complex was built as competition to the above temple as one of the lords thought it was accumulating to much power and was a threat. This building is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and it was pretty huge - the pillars alone were just solid tree trunks. It also has on display a rope made from human hair from female followers which was used to haul the timber for the reconstruction (it was rebuilt in 1895 after a fire).
3. To-Ji was originally built in 794 to protect the city when it became the capital (which it was until 1868), however the buildings that now remain on the site, date from the 17th Centuary following fires and fighting destroying the others. The two most impressive things were the old Kodo Hall and the five storey pagoda which is the highest in Japan at 57m.
Our next full day in Kyoto was on Saturday and we set off on foot to the Higashiyama area at the base of the hills, along with hundreds of Japanese tourists and foreigners (mainly Spanish and American). Following on from the list above, this is what we saw:
4. Kiyomizu-Dera first built in 798 (the current buildings are all reconstructions dating from 1633), has a huge main hall that juts out over the forested hillside. You can get great views down over the rest of Kyoto from here. Below the main hall is a waterfall which supposedly has therapeutic properties - as such there was a huge queue of locals lining up to sample it. It also had a large red pagoda - quite pretty.
5. Ninen-Zaka and Sannen-Zaka are two roads which house restored houses and buildings - most of which are now souviner shops or Japanese sweet shops. What we could see of the old wooden houses, traditional shops and restuarnts through the hoards of people walking the streets, was very atmospheric and takes you back to the times of old Kyoto. We obviously would have preferred it had it been a little less busy however!
We then wandered through Maruyama-Koen park (famous as it has a huge weeping cherry tree that is the star attraction at hanami (cherry blossom time). Heading north we wandered past Chion-In temple main gate (San-mon) which was huge, and Shoren-In temple which had massive big camphor trees growing outside the front of it. Then it was time for some replenishment - a tempura set for lunch - yum!
6. Gion was next on the agenda...to obviously go geisha spotting. Most of Gion is pretty modern now however there are some streets that really are quite exquisite with old wooden lattice fronted buildings, narrow lanes and 17th centuary traditional restaurants and teahouses. Geisha occupy a lot of these buildings so you can often spot them walking between their various appointments. We concentrated most of our time on some of the prettiest streets - Hanami-Koji, Shimbashi and Shinmonzen-dori - and were quite excited when we saw several 'geisha' walking the streets. We had thought they would be quite hard to spot! They were quite happy to pose for photos etc so we were a little taken aback. However we fairly soon worked out that there was a photography studio in the area where people could get dressed up as geisha and then walk around the old streets getting their photos taken! So they were not real!! We were not too disappointed however as we had seen one earlier in the day and we also saw a couple later on that evening. There kimonos and obis are phenomenol really - absolutely exquisite.
7. We had a quick wander through downtown with all its flashy shops and department stores and also down Ponto-cho. This is a narrow alley lined with restaurants and entertainment facilities adjacent to the river. The traditional buildings are all dark wood and most of then have red hanging lanterns outside the front of them making the street quite pretty - especially at night. However during the day it was quite empty.
That evening after a full days site-seeing we thought we had better try out one of the conveyor-belt sushi restaurants. We were a little nervous as we did not know how much the plates were, so held back to only ten - only to find it was pretty cheap (so we had it another night as well!). Anyway, the sushi here is absolutely amazing. Most of it was raw fish or squid/octopus but there was also eel which happened to be one of our favourites that evening. Neither of us particularly like wasabi so we were a little surprised to find our noses and mouths blown away on some of the pieces as it was hidden beneath the fish! All we can say about this is YUM, YUM, YUM!!!
Our next day of site-seeing took us up to the north-west area of the city known as Arashiyama. There are a number of temples here but we only went to see one which is set in a massive and very impressive bamboo forest (kind of like on the movie 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
8. Tenryu-Ji is one of the major Zen Buddhist temples dating from 1339. The current buildings on the site are not really that old however they are set within quite a nice zen garden which dates from the fourteenth century. This was complete with moss everywhere, ponds, babbling brooks and maple trees that were just beginning to change colour.
It was then further to the west to see two more temples via the local train which we had thought we would be able to get for free with our Japanese rail passes. We had already got up to the area on the train so when the ticket lady said that we could not use them, I got rather annoyed and started to argue with her just like my Dad! I was arguing that we could use the tickets on the last date mentioned on the pass (the 14th), however she then politely pointed out that it was actually the 15th and the passes had run out. Going a little red I then hid behind Shaun feeling a little embarrased (especially as he had worked it out and was trying to tell me to shut up as well)!
9. Myoshin-Ji is a massive temple complex which has over 40 temples within its grounds - it really is on quite a large scale. We went mainly to see Taizo-in garden which is a garden in which to 'stroll'. Actually this was pretty small but it has some typical zen rock formations as well as a pretty waterfall/river running into a pond. The bushes growing alongside it are supposed to represent mountains. Pleasant enough for a 'stroll' as they say!
10. Ryoan-Ji is another Zen Buddhist temple complex founded in 1450. This is set within a landscaped garden which has a huge pond filled with lillypads. The main attraction here is the zen dry rock garden which from photographs looked huge. However on arrival at the 'viewing platform' which was filled with people, we were a little disappointed to find a small rectangle of white raked pebbles with 15 rocks sticking out in odd places all surrounded by a wall. Not really our cup of tea, however the Japanese loved it.
Our last day in Kyoto was spent at one last temple and a food market:
11. Nishiki market is basically a long covered arcade lined with food stalls selling all manner of things but predominantly fish products, Japanese sweets/cakes and pickles. Having just had our last Japanese curry for lunch, we were quite full when we visited here so did not do any sampling whatsoever!
12. Nanzenji Temple contains several buildings dating from 1570 and is a Zen-Buddhist complex. It has a huge entrance gate (San Mon), behind which is the main hall. We entered this temple mainly to see two gardens. The Hojo building is surrounded by zen gardens with carefully raked stones and plenty of moss and streams. The building itself also had a number of beautifully painted screens. The tea-room inside the Hojo looked out onto a pond and mini-waterfall although we were not allowed in unless we were having a cuppa (which at $4 Shaun said no to!). The whole temple complex also has a huge big red aqueduct running through it and the surrounding trees. The Tenju-an temple inside this complex was originally a lovely villa and so has another fantastic zen garden surrounding it - this one even had turtles in the ponds! Actually we both thought that this temple was quite nice and is one of our favourites in Kyoto.
Tomorrow we travel to Osaka to catch our flight to Bangkok which will make a nice change as we have now had our fair share of the temples and gardens of Japan - although a week or two more of their food would be good!