One of the highlights of our 2012 trip was the morning we spent at Kitano Tenmangu. We visited in late March, hoping to see some cherry blossom and then realising that the shrine is famous for its plum orchard!
We went on a day when the monthly flea market was being held, so the shrine was very busy. It was great to wander among the stalls. We even made a purchase of a pretty ceramic plate showing a bamboo grove. I don’t think it was particularly old, but it caught our eye and now sits in our little Japanese ‘beauty alcove’ at home. I took this picture of it in the living room of the machiya we were staying in, alongside the origami cranes our hosts had made for us.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The day started with a plan. We intended to walk from the machiya to Horikawa Dori, close to Nijo Castle, where we would catch the 101 bus north. Of course, it was a Sunday and it was flea market day, so the queue for the bus was pretty big. One bus approached and sailed past, crammed to bursting with passengers. Another bus arrived and a few people managed to get on board, but not many. A third bus approached and it, too, was much too full. We decided that a 40 minute walk would be better than waiting until a bus arrived that might have enough room for us. As well as being the healthier option, both in terms of exercise and not being exposed to germs, it was the better choice for seeing a side of Kyoto we hadn’t seen before and taking photographs.
We walked towards Nijo Castle and passed a shop selling samurai swords, which were cruelly beautiful. Lots of people carrying picnic bags were heading in the same direction as us, perhaps to do some hanami in the castle grounds. We had already decided to go there for the night blossom viewing instead. Along Horikawa Dori, we passed a variety of shops. One sold nothing but old cameras, and I was tempted, but not enough to pay the prices on the labels! Another shop managed to lure us inside to look more closely at its fabrics, bento boxes and clothes. I came away with a tenugui in bright yellow calico decorated with giraffes, a gift from my husband. Further up the street there was some eye-catching architecture, perhaps dictated by land prices, perhaps by space. The pair of buildings made me think of Dutch houses, which are equally tall and narrow because of the frontage tax residents and shop owners were once forced to pay.
The most striking thing about the building on the left was the huge plate glass window on the second (or is it third) floor. Almost the width of the building and a third of its height, I would have been paranoid about it shattering if I were the owner. As we paused to take photographs, we drew curious looks from local people, for whom the building must be an everyday sight.
As we turned to continue on our way, I spied a gathering in the window of another building.
Are they kami? I don’t know, but they make me think of nativity scenes at home. I couldn’t tell whether the building was a shop or someone’s home. The figures made me smile, though.
Our next photo opportunity was a tree in bloom on a bridge that crossed the Horikawa river. The petals seemed too dark a pink to be cherry blossom, but the tips of the petals had the notches that I associate with cherry. I decided to count it as my first legitimate bit of hanami!
The area seemed pleasant for a stroll or to sit beside the river on a sunnier day than the one we had, but we needed to press on for Kitano Tenmangu, so we didn’t linger. As we crossed onto Imadagawa Dori, we realised we must be getting closer to the shrine. The shops were more touristy and lots of people were marching in groups in the same direction as us. We got caught up in a gaggle of teenage girls who eventually crossed the road to join a gaggle of teenage boys outside a Lawson, where much giggling ensued. Outside one of the Imadagawa buildings I spied this shiny building mascot.
The sun came out to make him shine even more.
A little further along the road and we finally reached the shrine. The flea market was in full swing. Most of it seemed to be food stalls, which smelled delicious but were largely pork or octopus based. Street food in this kind of environment is more risky for a pair of vegetarians.
Instead of joining the crush among the stalls, we indulged with others in a little hanami. These frothy blossoms were definitely plum blossom, but we didn’t work it out until later when we read up on the history of the shrine!
The shrine commemorates Michizane Sugawara, who is venerated for his scholastic ability. The shrine attracts lots of teenagers around the time of exams, hoping to be blessed by Michizane so that they achieve success in their studies. The reason there are so many plum trees at the shrine is because Michizane is believed to have loved them. One legend says that when he was exiled by his political rivals, a flying plum tree followed him from Kyoto to Kyushu. Michizane died in exile and his spirit is said to have been so vengeful that lots of Tenmangu shrines were built to appease it. A plum tree stands in front of the offering hall at each Tenmangu shrine.
At Kitano Tenmangu there is a plum orchard, as well as plum trees planted around the shrine precincts. We made our way through the crush of people at the flea market, past arcade games and food stalls, an experience that reminded me of the Easter fairs at Daisy Nook Farm when I was a child. At the top of the street leading to the shrine, we paid the entrance fee for the orchard and joined the other strollers admiring the blossom. Another visitor kindly took our photograph together (using my husband’s camera!) and then offered us a ginger flavoured throat sweet which was delicious. She was as taken with them as we were, so delighted in her discovery of them that she wanted to share them with us. This is one of the things I love about Japan – for all that the Japanese are supposed to be reserved and hard to get to know, they are contagious in their enthusiasm for the little things in life and we have always found people to be surprisingly open and willing to chat.
After the plum orchard, we bought green-tea filled doriyaki to stave off our hunger, then headed into the shrine precincts. People were offering up prayers with a clatter of five yen coins and clapping hands in front of most of the small shrine buildings as well as the main building. At one side shrine, a shrine maiden was performing with a silver fan to the beat of a taiko drum.
The shrine grounds were full of plum trees, many a delicate shade of white, others the more familiar hot pink.
Cows also dot the shrine precincts. These stone representations of the sacred beast are considered to be messengers who carry students’ prayers for exam success to Michizane. We saw people queuing up to stroke and be photographed with one cow in particular.
Another cow was less inundated. She seemed unbothered by this state of affairs!
The weather took a turn for the worse, so we decided to head back to the centre of Kyoto to pay a visit to Nishiki Market. The 101 bus was as full heading away from Kitano Tenmangu as it had been on the way there, so we took a 59 instead and got off at Kawaramachi Dori. Regular visitors to this blog will know that this bus journey led directly to my encounter with Japanese cold remedies!
We had a great time at Kitano Tenmangu. I’d like to go back on a quieter day, and maybe have a look round nearby Kamishichiken hanamachi.