Temples Everywhere

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Monday, September 17, 2012

If you want to see temples in Japan, you must go to Kyoto. There are literally thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto. We started off at the Zen Buddhist temple Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion (which was covered in gold leaf) which, of course, meant we had to head across town to visit Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion (which didn't seem to have anything to do with silver??).  To round out our multi-day temple trekking marathon we stopped in to see the great temples of Nanzen-ji, To-ji,Tenryuji, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Tofukuji, and Sanjusangendo. Like Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines are places of worship- in Shinto, millions of gods which can be found everywhere are worshiped. Looking back on our exhausting temple trekking, DH tagged the Golden Temple as her favourite (quel surprise??) and I had to go with Fushimi Inari Shrine (granted it was essentially a long uphill walk through 10,000+ lookalike Toris but there's something to be admired in the folks that thought the one thing that would make Kyoto complete was a hillside covered in Tori gates). I might have ranked Sanjusangendo a little higher but they wouldn't allow photographs and what good is a hall filled with eerie sentinels if I can't legally capture digital evidence?

And at some point we even managed to slip in a visit to Nijo Castle. I don't know why but I really like the concept of floors designed to ensure that no one could sneak up on you-  the planks make a squeaking sound (apparently akin to a nightingale's song) when walked upon. A priceless example of the architectural style of that period and my lasting memory is the squeaking floorboards??

We also did the obligatory pilgrimage to the Gion district for the obligatory geisha spotting. Gion has a high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Due to the fact that property taxes were formerly based upon street frontage, the houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street. And according to the promo literature pumped out by the Kyoto tourism types, this may be the last known habitat of the true geisha. DH had read that there were only about 200 legitimate geisha's left which would qualify them for endangered species protection. I doubt there's even that many left but it made for a good excuse to explore the streets and alleys of Gion- the tourism types also seem to promote the story of a lucky photographer who happened to catch a few pics of a geisha as she dashed from a home to a waiting cab, and as a result, every time a cab slowed down, tourists were prepping their cameras like a bevy of snipers lining up a target. There were a few shops offering to give tourists the full geisha makeover so I suspect any photos you might see are just the results of these un-natural sessions.

At the other end of the scale, Ninja were the spies of Japan's feudal ages, gathering information about the enemy and conducting various other acts of espionage. The Iga School of ninjutsu (art of stealth), based in Iga Ueno, used to be Japan's leading ninja school so one of our day trips was to this mysterious Ninja birthplace. It was some distance from Kyoto and we knew this was going to be a logistics challenge but DH had always fancied herself as a Ninja crime fighter back in her policing days (and what the Princes wants....). This was about the only time to date that the Japanese train system let us down- we needed to use four different trains to get to Iga, but because of heavy rain in the previous days, trains were late/delayed which caused us to miss previously reliable connections. It took us four hours to get there (most of it spent on benches at the stations) and just about that long to get back- we did get to meet 'Jimmy' a train station groupie who seemed to look for foreigners to talk to. He was very friendly and his English was better than most (which isn't saying much) but he wasn't actually going anywhere and I think his overall harmless objective was to get foreigners to send him a postcard when they got home to add to his current collection. The town of Iga was obviously very proud of it's Ninja heritage- the last little train that took us into town was covered in cartoon ninjas, the station itself had ninja dolls, the sidewalks displayed ninja stars, ninja banners hung everywhere, but the highlight was the museum itself.  Museums can be hit and miss but this one was set up around a ninja house complete with false doors, hidden panels, spy holes, and weapon stockpiles. We were given a complete tour of the house by a girl who spoke zero English (I don't know why, but I'm really loving this quirk of Japan- in hotels, restaurants, museums, etc, whoever you are dealing with with usually carry on a rapid-fire, complete dialogue with you, smiling the entire time, knowing full well you can't speak a word of Japanese- I was very close to initiating an adoption process when a little cutie working at McDonald's explained at length the items I had ordered, the change she was giving me, and where to get the napkins and straws, bowing and smiling through the entire exercise without once uttering an English word). I'm sure that our Ninja tour guide gave us the same descriptions of the house that she would have given anyone who did speak Japanese and with the physical demos of hidden doors and the like, we were actually able to follow along. DH wanted to buy a pair of the 'shoes' that enabled Ninjas to 'walk on water' (or at least the mucky swamps that typically filled castle moats in Japan. And she was most impressed with the exercise of lifting bales of hay with their thumb and forefinger that would then enable them to hang secretively from the ceiling rafters... or pinch somebody really hard!

Another of our day trips was to Uji to see the traditional cormorant fishing up close and personal. It turned out to be one of those bad-luck is good- luck stories. We arrived in plenty of time per the schedule but while we were standing on the banks of the river trying to figure out which boat we were supposed to jump on and whether or not we could squat on these boats for 45 minutes before the fishing was supposed to begin, a number of less confused Japanese tourists blew by us and squeezed into the last couple of seats. The fishing started early (very un-Japanese), so we followed the fisher people along the river bank (manpowered so it wasn't hard to keep up) and because they operated close to shore, and  we could move around and weren't caught in the traffic jam on the high seas, we actually got a better view of the whole event. I would love to have met the dude who, probably sitting under an apple tree one day, had the epiphany to tie a rope leash snugly around the neck of a cormorant so they couldn't swallow any big fish, stick a basket filled with burning wood out in front of the boat to attract the fish, throw the cormorants in the water to do what cormorants do- dive for fish, reel the birds back into the boat when they catch something, and squeeze the fish back out of their necks into the waiting fish basket. With that kind of creative and bizarre thought process, he was probably the Steve Jobs of his day. It was fascinating to see how one person could control six or seven birds on a leash at any given time.

Anyone visiting Japan has to visit Kyoto- the plethora of temples, ninja's and fishing cormorants all made for an outstanding experience.
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