Saturday, September 17, 2011

More from my O-Bon Trip to Kyoto

Well, it's been a while since my last blog post. I'm only now posting the second part about my O-bon trip to Kyoto and Nara last month. Work has been hectic, to say the least. So much so, in fact, that last night I notified my employer that I would be leaving my job soon. I could stay in Japan and look for similar work elsewhere, but the money I'd lose switching cities and paying key money to landlords is prohibitively expensive, and there's no guarantee that I wouldn't find myself with the same working hours elsewhere. I love being in Japan and exploring its culture, but, as I found out about Hawaii, it's a much better place to visit than to work in. But all of this is boring, isn't it? Let's get back to narrating my week-long trip to Kyoto and Nara. As with the first post about this trip, I'm going to narrate through captions.

Looking out from the steps of Heian Jingu one sees a towering torii of vermilion-painted steel, which is considered the true entrance to the shrine.
Heian Shrine is much younger than it looks. Built in 1895, the shrine complex is modeled after the Kyoto Gosho, the original Kyoto Imperial Palace from 1100 years earlier that has been greatly damaged by fires over the years and remains nearly inaccessible to the public now.

Many shrines have walls of stacked, beautifully designed sake casks, which I believe are used ceremonially.
The shrine precincts, which are spread out beneath a forested slope to the east, are free to enter. The entrance fee to the attached garden (see photos below), however, costs ¥600 per adult.
Every morning, shrine attendants sweep the stony ground of the complex. The entire complex, as you would expect, is kept impeccably clean.

Prayers are written on paper and wooden cards (often with pictures on them) called ema and tied to stands in Shinto shrines.

I've never seen anyone do it, but it seems like these prayers can be read by anyone passing by. Often, the prayers are for success in school exams, or good luck in finding a suitable marriage partner, or, especially now, to wish a speedy recovery for Japan's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster victims.
I'd love to come back here at night to see these lanterns all lit up. I'm not sure if the lanterns are actually lit at night, though, nor am I sure that the shrine is even open at night. I guess I'd have to hop a fence, which would probably result in my breaking a leg, getting caught and arrested, and then deported.

As you can see, those prayer ribbons look like trees from a distance.

Another angle of the entrance gate, this time looking back on it from inside the shrine.

The garden at Heian Shrine is almost easy to overlook. It's not visible from the shrine complex, though there's a small entrance to the side with a poster of what the garden looks like. The ¥600 (US$7.80) entrance fee is a bit steep, but the garden is worth walking through. You could easily spend an hour here if you're not in a rush.

The garden's design is supposed to reflect Heian-period (794-1185) tastes.

There are small wooden vending boxes, run by the honor system, in which you can buy food to feed the koi and turtles that swim beneath the Chinese-inspired bridge.

The garden ends on the other side of the shrine complex, and then you exit Heian Jingu exactly where you came in.

A bowl of kakiudon served from a noodle shop near Kyoto University.
We got a small bowl of warabi-mochi-adzuki-ice for dessert at the noodle shop, too. Warabi-mochi (those green squares) isn't mochi at all, apparently, but is rather made from bracken starch and sprinkled with sweet toasted soybean flour.

For dinner, back in southern edge of the Higashiyama district, we came across a restaurant called Asuka. The photos of the restaurant's menu out front convinced us to go inside and give the place a shot.

I went with fried sardines, which came with pickled veggies, miso soup and rice. Sardines, or iwashi in Japanese, are one of my favorite fish, and these didn't disappoint. The meal, especially with a cold draft beer, hit the spot. But I was still hungry after polishing this off, so I decided to order...

...nametake oroshi, which is simply nametake mushrooms with grated radish.

Here's a photo of the Japanese breakfast served at the hotel where I stayed: rice, seaweed, miso soup, soft-boiled egg, fish, gobo, rolled omelet, and fish cake.
Another site worthy of a visitor's time in Kyoto is Murin-an, a former statesman's villa dating back to 1896. The villa itself is impressive, especially the tearoom that overlooks a garden with small streams and the mountains behind it.

Fall is undoubtedly the best time to come, as the colors in the garden darken and drop to the ground and give some counterpoint to all the green that's visible in the relentlessly hot summer.

Murin-an is only a two-minute walk from the Kyoto International Community House, and it's open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entrance fee is ¥350 (US$4.50).
Early the next morning I headed to Kiyomizudera. I'd intended to catch a bus there from the Higashiyama area of Kyoto, but my bus map was hard to read; I got lost; and I ended up walking the entire way. By the time I reached the temple, I was soaked with sweat. At least, once I got nearer the temple, the streets and walking paths became more picturesque.

The streets here were charming, and there moments when it was easy to think this was how parts of Japan might have looked two hundred years ago.

Young women in summer kimono...and a plastic ice cream cone. Can you guess which of the two I was more interested in photographing?

I liked this place along the Kiyomizuderamichi (Kiyomizu Temple path).

This path, called Chawanzaka (Teapot Land) ends at the top of the hill and...
...this is what you find.

This was my third trip to the temple since 1991. On this day, though you couldn't tell from the photos I've selected for this post, the temple was more crowded than I'd experienced before. There's something special about having a beautiful temple nearly all to yourself, and I never had that feeling on this visit.
Potted lotus plants, lined up in parallel rows.

It was breezy here, and ribbon-strung wind chimes spun and tinkled in the air.

This shrine is near Jishu-jinja, where visitors close their eyes and try to walk a straight line between rocks to ensure that they will find love in the future. I'm not sure what the name of this shrine is, but it seems to be devoted to one or more fox spirits.

Kiyomizu Temple was originally built in 794, though what exists now is a reconstruction of the original. What one is able to see now was constructed in 1633.

A small structure full of Jizo statues wearing bibs and hats.

This veranda is part of Kiyomizudera's main hall. As you can see, dozens of wooden pillars undergird the temple, and it was from this veranda that pilgrims used to make a wish and jump. If you survived, and only about 85% of jumpers did, then your wish was supposed to come true.

Kiyomizu means "pure water." Visitors can drink the water here, at the Otowa-no-taki waterfall. The water is purported to have therapeutic properties and can help bring luck as well.

This woman, in her geisha makeup and kimono--an apprentice or training geisha, I'm guessing--turned a lot of heads outside of Kiyomizudera.

There was something funny to me watching her snap photo after photo of herself with her cell phone. I suppose I'd do the same thing if I were dressed like that, but the mix of old and new caught my eye.

Another impressive temple in Kyoto, and considered one of the "Five Great Temples" in the city, is Nanzenji. Construction of this temple, which is located in northern Higashiyama, began in 1264, but because fires destroyed the complex several times in the past, the version of the temple we see today dates to around 1570. San-mon, pictured above, is the entrance to the temple. It is a huge gate, and one can climb to the second floor and from there view the city and its mountains from all sides.

Continuing further into Nanzenji, one comes across Hojo Garden with its famous "dry garden" depicting tigers crossing the water. (Or, if not depicting this, then interpreted later to show this.)
On the left, visitors can be seen sitting on the porch of Seiryoden Hall, viewing the stones and grouped trees of the garden.

Old wooden bridges lead between the dry garden and Hojo Hall, which was originally commissioned by Hideyoshi Toyotomi circa 1585. The buildings here, as well as the sliding door paintings of tigers they contain, are considered national treasures. Photography inside the building is not permitted, and entrance to Hojo Garden and its grounds costs ¥500 (US$6.50).
Okay, I admit it: this place, which was only a few feet from the bus stop closest to my hotel, got my attention because of the giant ice cream cone...

Walking down that narrow corridor, however, brought me to a gorgeous, tucked-away restaurant.

Apparently, the area here used to be part of an old marina or harbor, and the water was much more expansive than this. It was built upon over the years, and while much smaller than previously it still contains a great many fish and turtles. It was very quiet as well, and one could forget the hustle and bustle of Kyoto easily here.

The indoor seating was nice, too, but outside ended up being my choice.

I ended up ordering a "takikomi rice" set, which came with miso soup, pickled veggies, red bean rice, braised eel in a shallow egg-based stew, and a bit of fish and steamed veggies. The price was reasonable, too: ¥1400 (about US$18). The restaurant, it turned out, was part of the Kyoto Hotel Okura, though it's in a separate building.

On the evening of my final day in Kyoto I was invited to attend a rooftop party to view Dainoji -- the burning of a giant 大 pictograph in the northern mountains of Kyoto. The photo above is of the road outside of Kyoto University; the vermilion torii is the entrance to a path that climbs to a small park and residential area.

The party was quite festive and very international. Overall, perhaps 50 people got together on the rooftop for food and drinks.

Not long after nightfall, the mountain began to blaze.

This pictograph as well as other symbols burned on mountains around Kyoto are meant to help the spirits of the dead, which return every year during O-bon, find their way back to the hereafter.

Although the picture quality isn't great, you can still make out the full moon rising directly over the embers of the burned pictograph. Had it risen ten minutes earlier, it would have been spectacular. Even so, it was still pretty awesome to see.

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