Sunday, November 18, 2012

Gion

Hanami-koji, Gion

My first impression of Hanami-koji was that it was clean and orderly. Wooden machiya merchant houses line this street of ochaya (tea houses) and expensive restaurants serving Japanese haute cuisine. It was late afternoon but the machiyas were still shuttered from the world. It was relatively quiet as I walked up the street hoping to see a geiko (term for geisha in Kyoto) or two.

A side street in Gion

I passed by somnolent alleys where not even a cat stirred. I reached the end of the street and looked up at the houses to check for signs of life. No such luck.  I retraced my steps to Shijo Dori past Gion Corner where one can pay to watch maiko (apprentice geiko) perform traditional Japanese arts like the tea ceremony, ikebana, music, and dance. Then suddenly I noticed a maiko coming towards me from an alley to my right. She was walking fast in her geta sandals. I had to move faster to get that fleeting image. What I saw was an exquisite woman in a beautiful kimono. Her nape was as white as her face and the red collar of her kimono identified her as a maiko.Then all the tourists converged on her like a hound of paparazzis and I genuinely felt sorry for her as she walked past them without looking directly at anyone.

A maiko (apprentice geisha)

"Now I understood what I'd overlooked; the point was not to become a geisha but to be one.  To become a geisha....well that was hardly a purpose in life.  But to be a geisha.....I could see it now as a stepping stone to something else." Quote from Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

Buses 100 and 206 go to Gion area from Kyoto Station.

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Images by Charie

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fushimi Inari

Romon Gate

Fushimi Inari Taisha is the main Shinto shrine of the thousands of shrines in Japan. It is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and sake. With Japan's transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrial state, Inari has come to represent success and prosperity especially for businessmen and companies.

Shinto is an ethnic religion that flourished in Japan from the 12th century. References to Shinto practices have been traced as early as the 8th century. Shinto, unlike Christianity, does not recognize one god but rather believes in a multitude of deities (kami) who demonstrate superhuman qualities. About 46% of the Japanese population profess the Shinto faith.*

Torii Gates

Behind the honden (main hall) is a trail lined with thousands of vermilion torii gates which were donated by individual worshippers and businesses. The cost of a small torii gate is around 400,000 yen. Etched in black on the back of each gate is the name and address of the donor. The trail leads up to Mount Inari which is 233 meters high (764 ft.). It's incredible to behold the sheer number of torii gates (in the thousands) in the midst of such a lush landscape. And it seemed to go on and on as I climbed higher and deeper into the woods. It was a gradual ascent and easy on the legs. I went halfway up past smaller shrines and diminishing torii gates before I turned back.

Names of donors are inscribed on the back of each torii

Fushimi Inari shrine was not on my list of places to visit in Kyoto. I was fortunate enough to have read my hotel's recommendations of the top destinations in Kyoto which included this particular shrine. It is my favorite of all the places I visited during my trip to Kyoto.  

The best way to get to Fushimi Inari is by train from Kyoto Station. It's the second stop on the JR Nara line and right outside the train station in Inari. As of this writing, the fare is 140 yen. There is no entrance fee to the shrine. There's a pedestrian only street outside the shrine with tea houses, restaurants and souvenir shops.

* from Umeda Yoshimi's "Studies in Shinto" (10-23-2009). The figure 46.4% was taken from the Religion Yearbook published by the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs.
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Images by Charie

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion)

Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion)

All that glitters is gold at Kinkakuji Temple in northern Kyoto. Gold leaf covers the two upper floors of Kinkakuji or the Golden Pavilion which was once the retirement villa of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. When he died in 1408, his villa became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism as specified in his will.  It is officially called Rakuon-ji which is also the name given to Yoshimitsu on his journey to the next world.

The Golden  Pavilion represents three architectural styles. The first floor is in the Shinden style featuring a large room with a veranda and wooden pillars supporting the upper storeys.  The second level reflects the samurai style and was used for private meetings. It's completely gilded on the outside. The top floor emulates Chinese Zenshu style of architecture with cusp windows, gilding inside and out, and houses the Amida triad and 25 Bodhisattvas. A bronze phoenix which is also covered in gold leaf crowns the rooftop. These three distinct styles blend harmoniously to create a glittering shariden that houses the relics of Buddha. Kinkakuji was rebuilt from scratch in 1955 when a crazy monk burned it to the ground in 1950. The Golden Pavilion is closed to the public as is the Abbot's House or Hojo.

Kinkakuji is beautiful to behold from across the pond which bears its reflection. The pond and surrounding gardens have been designated as a National Special Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty.

Abbot's House (Hojo)

A stroll around the property could be a relaxing walk in the woods were it not for the hordes of tourists and students who are everywhere.  It's hard to find a spot where one can quietly enjoy the scenery except perhaps in the tea garden where I found a few empty seats behind the foliage. 

Tea House

Crowds notwithstanding, the walk up to the upper pond is pleasurable with much to catch the eye. I especially liked the little fishing deck on the side of the Golden Pavilion. Before leaving the temple grounds, visitors toss coins at these statues for good luck.  

Tossed coins

Buses 101 and 205 stop at Kinkakuji from Kyoto Station. It costs ¥220 for the 40 minute ride. There is an entrance fee.  It's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  

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Images by Charie