Posts Tagged ‘shrines’

Along the Kamogawa (鴨川)

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Our first encounter with the Kamo River in Kyoto was on honeymoon in 2009. On a hot, sunny day, we headed east from our apartment to visit some temples and wander round Gion. We walked along Marutamachi-dori, past the Imperial Palace gardens, until we reached the Kamogawa. Standing on Marutamachi-bashi, we watched a kettle of black kites swooping down to pick up food from the river, menacing passersby and a lone heron as they went. It was both beautiful and slightly frightening.

The picture above is the first one I took of the Kamogawa. We are looking north towards Kojin-bashi, one of twelve bridges that cross the river today.

As I understand it from this guide to the bridges across the Kamo, Marutamachi-bashi is the site of the first bridge built to cross the Kamo. Before its banks began to be reinforced by concrete, the river was prone to severe flooding, and a wooden bridge was constructed to enable people to cross over.

The kamo in Kamogawa is currently written with the kanji for wild duck (鴨), but the river is named for the Kamo clan that used to live in the area. They spelled their name 賀茂, and in older texts about the former Japanese capital, the same kanji is used in the name of the river. Two shrines close to the river also share the Kamo name – Kamigamo and Shimogamo-jinja. We’ve yet to visit these shrines, but with our next trip less than three weeks away, I might put them on the itinerary.

We’ve spent more time wandering along the Kamo on other trips to Japan. In 2013, we stayed near Toyokuni-jinja and joined the river at Shomen-bashi to walk north to Gojo-dori. We were there in April, and it was a perfect time to enjoy some late cherry blossom along the river.

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There’s also usually plenty of wildlife to see as you stroll along the river bank. In 2013, we saw some pretty birds, but in 2015 we saw a coypu close to Gojo Ohashi and a crane close to Kamo Ohashi.

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Later on the 2105 trip, we spent more time walking along a stretch of the river to the north of the city. We had been to a festival at Kami Goryo-jinja and walked north to find somewhere to eat. Kami Goryo-jinja is west of the Takano river, which we also walked along.

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We ate at Mamezen and then rejoined the Kamogawa at Kita-Oji, walking south until we reached the point where the Kamogawa joins the Takanogawa close to Shimogamo-jinja. Here the rivers can be crossed by the Kamo Ohashi bridge or by using the turtle stepping stones.

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Further downtown, between Sanjo and Shijo-dori, there are clusters of restaurants that front onto the river. Some of them form part of Pontocho. In the summer, large wooden platforms called yuka are built to extend the restaurants out towards the river.

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It must be lovely to sit out in the evening, enjoying the cooling air coming up from the river, seeing the lights across the river in the hanamachi of Gion and Miyagawacho.

You never know what you might find when crossing one of the bridges over the Kamogawa, either. On our 2015 trip, we encountered a mikan leaning against one of the finials of the Shichijo Ohashi.

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Back in 2013, at Shijo Ohashi, we came upon the statue of Izumo no Okuni, former shrine maiden and later influence on kabuki theatre.

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I really want to walk more along the Kamo river. There’s a walk in the Deep Kyoto book that I fancy doing. Or maybe I should just go for a wander and look around at what goes on down by the river. Autumn might be an interesting time to do that.

Ueno (上野)

Ueno is located in the old Shitamachi (下町) area of Tokyo, along with Asakusa. We have visited the area a couple of times on our trips to Japan, but have only scratched the surface of what the district has to offer.

The most famous part of Ueno is, of course, Ueno Park (上野公園), located alongside Ueno Station and famous for its cherry blossom in Spring.

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Our first visit to Ueno was in October 2010 when, on a particularly rainy day, we decided to follow our visit to the Drum Museum in Asakusa with a trip to the National Museum of Nature and Science.

I work in a science and industry museum and I’m always interested to see how other countries approach science in their museums. By far my favourite science museum is Miraikan, which seems to get the balance between learning and fun just right. The National Museum of Nature and Science is a mix of the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London. It’s an integrated museum with a satellite site out at the Tsukuba Research Centre. We only visited the main museum building in Ueno Park, but I want to visit the Centre for the History of Japanese Industrial Technology as well, one day.

The main museum is split into two galleries. The Japan Gallery presents the natural history of the Japanese islands, as well as an introduction to the scientific instruments used to observe nature in Japan. The Global Gallery presents natural history across the planet, mixed in with a celebration of Japanese scientists and an exploration of how science and technology has progressed in Japan, compared with other nations.

We mainly explored the Japan Gallery on our trip. It was interesting to learn how people have adapted to the environment in Japan over the centuries, and how they have used science to understand the nature of Japan. I particularly liked the chronometers, celestial globes and seismographs, one of which preserves a recording of the Great Kanto Earthquake.

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The natural history displays were interesting, particularly the displays of flowers, fossilised plants and insects.

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The museum is pretty big, and we were running out of time, so our visit to the Global Gallery focused on the Science and Innovation display. This featured similar objects to those collected and displayed at the museum where I work. The space seemed a little stark, and a lot of the interactives were broken. It was interesting to see the industrial machinery, aviation and computing displays, though, and particularly nice to see the Manchester Mark I computer given a name check!

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There was also a display of dinosaurs that we visited at the end. It was in a really small room, but the curators had done their best with the space. The path through brought you up close to the skeletons and replicas, so you got a sense of scale. It did feel cramped and jumbled, though.

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There are other museums in Ueno Park, including Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, neither of which we have visited yet. There’s a zoo in the park as well, if captive animals float your boat.

We did a bit of cherry blossom viewing in Ueno Park, in April 2012, and had a wander around Shinobazu Pond. The Park is beautiful and very busy in cherry blossom season. The April day we visited was a sunny one, but not particularly warm. The park was filling up with people by the time we arrived. At the southern entrance to the park, close to Ueno Station, there is a cherry tree with a large inscribed rock sitting under it. It seems to be something to do with a Rotary Club.

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We took the tree lined path north from this stone, past a display of lanterns for the Ueno Sakura Matsuri (Ueno Cherry Festival).

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We somehow missed the statue of Saigo Takamori, one of the generals who fought in the Battle of Ueno which destroyed most of the buildings previously on the site the park now occupies. The Battle of Ueno was part of the brief civil war that followed the Meiji Restoration. Supporters of the overthrown Shogun fought the army of the restored Emperor in the grounds of Kaneiji Temple, which was a family shrine for the Tokugawa Shoguns. Most of the temple was destroyed, and the land became the property of the city of Tokyo. Ueno Park was established in 1873 and was gifted to the people in 1924 in celebration of Prince Hirohito’s marriage. The park’s official name is Ueno Onshi Koen (上野恩賜公園), or Ueno Imperial Gift Park.

The walk up through the cherry trees was very pretty, and full of Tokyoites and other tourists taking photographs. I particularly liked the starkness of the branches against the froth of the cherry blossom, and the way the branches seem to have been trained to give a zigzag effect.

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There were plenty of people having blossom viewing picnics, and tarpaulins were laid out and marked with names ready for evening picnics. On group of people had an enormous banquet – plate upon plate of food, arranged in the middle of the tarp, with the people sitting in a ring around it. I would like to be more organised and have a picnic under the cherry blossom in Ueno Park!

After we’d walked the length of the avenue, we turned back and headed for Shinobazu Pond. Kaneiji Temple was modelled on Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, which overlooks lake Biwako, which Shinobazu Pond is said to represent. An island in the middle of the pond is home to the Bentendo, or Hall of the goddess Benten. It’s the green-roofed structure in the picture below.

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Part of the pond is reserved for the preservation of wildlife, but most of it is used as a boating lake, with swan shaped pedalos for hire. It being cherry blossom season, there were plenty of food stalls around, so we treated ourselves to a cup of salted sweet potato chips, which were delicious.

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On our walk around the pond, one of the nicest sights we saw was a man feeding the birds from the nature reserve. Some of the birds were bold enough to eat straight from his hand, and he was whistling to them to bring them to him. We stood and watched him for a while, and he happily let me take a photograph of him.

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On our trip to Ueno Park in 2010, we paid a short visit to the Ameya Yokocho shopping street. It was disappointingly like Oldham Tommyfield market. I was expecting something more vibrant from the descriptions I’d read, but it was quite grey and drab. Perhaps because it was a wet day. I didn’t take any photographs because of the weather.

Our most recent visit to Ueno was on our walk from Akihabara over to the Sky Tree in May 2015. We decided to go to Asakusa via Iriya so that we could make a reservation for dinner at Bon. This walk brought us up alongside Ueno Station, across a pavement in the sky. It was another aspect of Ueno to what we had seen before, and we discovered a chiming piece of public sculpture.

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There is still lots for us to see and do in Ueno, and it is one of my favourite parts of Tokyo. I’m sure we’ll head back there one day and take in some of the other museums in Ueno Park, and explore more of the other sights the area has to offer.

Kanda Myojin (神田明神)

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I recently read Marcus Jansen’s history of modern Japan and learned that Kanda used to be a mountain, but it was levelled by Ieyasu in order to provide the earth needed to infill Tokyo Bay to create the modern port. We’ve wandered around Kanda and Jimbocho a couple of times on previous visits to Tokyo, and in 2014 our Akihabara apartment was a short walk from Kanda Myojin. The hill that the shrine stands on is still pretty steep.

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We visited the shrine on a sunny Sunday during Golden Week. Before we headed up the steps in the photo above, we watched two lads race each other to the top. We walked up after them, and I think we were more out of breath when we got to the top than they were!

Kanda Shrine started its existence in the Otemachi area of Tokyo. It was originally built in 730AD, but ended up in the path of Ieyasu’s planned expansion of Edo Castle. So, in 1603, the shrine was moved to the Kanda ward. It moved again 13 years later to the top of the hill where it still resides. The current structures on the site aren’t original. It suffered extensive fire damage in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake and was reconstructed in 1934.

I thought the shrine was beautiful, with its bright vermillion woodwork and its lion dogs, nestling on the hilltop amidst the urban sprawl.

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The frieze pictured above is on the Zuishin Mon, the copper-roofed main gate to the shrine. It depicts a blue dragon and a black turtle-snake, which are two of the four Shijin (Taoist gods) alongside the red phoenix and white tiger.

The shrine is home to three kami – Daikokuten and Ebisu, who are both members of the 7 Lucky Gods crew and considered to be particularly lucky for business people, and Taira no Masakado, a Heian-era samurai who led a rebellion against the government in Kyoto and whose head was brought to Tokyo. Local residents in the Shibaraki area, the destination for Masakado’s head, respected his defiance so much that they enshrined him at Kanda Myojin.

There is an incredible statue of Ebisu at the shrine.

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Instead of Ebisu being depicted in his usual form as a fisherman, this statue refers to Ebisu’s childhood. Ebisu was the son of the gods Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the many islands that make up Japan. He was born without bones and, unable to walk, he was put into a boat of reeds and cast adrift on the sea. The statue shows Ebisu in his boat riding on the crest of a wave, surrounded by turtles and fish. He washed ashore in Hokkaido and was adopted by an Ainu fisherman. His bones grew and, aged three years old, he became a god. I didn’t know that story before I visited Kanda Myojin.

The shrine, perhaps because of its proximity to Akihabara, is also associated with IT and with manga. We saw a couple of lucky charms in sticker form on sale that you could affix to the back of your tech to ward off system failures, data loss and identity theft.

More spectacularly, though, the shrine is full of ema plaques decorated with manga.

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In 2012, an anime/manga/idol project started, called Love Live! which is set around Akihabara and features Kanda Myojin as one of the key locations. It’s quite something to walk through the stands of ema and see the creativity of visitors to the shrine. Some of the ema are pre-printed, but the vast majority look hand drawn and coloured. It was one of my favourite things about the shrine.

My most favourite thing, though, was the miniature pony.

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Because we love Parks and Recreation, we named this pony L’il Sebastian. It turns out she’s a girl pony called Akari, and she is the shrine’s sacred horse. She’s there to carry the gods if they want a trot out. I expect that Baby Ebisu is fine riding a miniature pony, but I’m concerned about Daikokuten. Let’s not even think about how the severed head of Taira no Masakado gets on the back of a miniature pony. Akari can’t be expected to carry him in a mikoshi, surely?

I bet she takes part in the Kanda Matsuri every May, though. We were in the wrong year for the big festival and also too early in the month. The big festival, which is one of the biggest shrine festivals in Japan, takes place in odd years, with a smaller festival in the even years. In the big festival, 100 mikoshi and 300 people parade through the streets of Tokyo, around Kanda, Nihonbashi, Otemachi, and Marunouchi.

I would love to see it. Maybe one day!

Goryo Shrine, Kyoto (Kami Goryo Jinja/上御霊神社)

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In May 2015, we were staying in a machiya in the East of Kyoto and were thinking of things we hadn’t done in Kyoto before. My husband has long wanted to visit a flea market at a temple. The only time we’ve sort of done this before is when we went to Kitano Tenmangu, where a very small flea market was being held among the food stalls and plastic tat aimed at children.

I read up on shrines in Kyoto that hold regular markets, and discovered that Kami Goryo Jinja in the north of the city had a monthly market that fell while we were in Kyoto. I wish that the information I’d found had included this site, because then I would have known that the flea market isn’t held in May!

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Instead, the 18th May is the date of the shrine matsuri, which is one of the oldest continuously held matsuri in Japan. The shrine has a long history, dating back to 794. It was built on the site of a former Buddhist temple which had served the local population as a family temple until the imperial court moved from Nara to Kyoto and Emperor Kammu ordered that a Shinto shrine be established on the site. Kammu dedicated the shrine to eight spirits of people who had died violently, and Kami Goryo Jinja became the guardian shrine of the Imperial Palace. The role of the shrine became one of protection, with the kami driving away vengeful spirits which threatened the safety of the capital.

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Things didn’t work out so well with the kami, as the 15th century Onin war started in the forest around the shrine, and the shrine itself was burned to the ground during the decade long battle. (We’d learnt a little about the Onin war as a result of our visit to Ginkakuji.)

A century later, the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi rebuilt the shrine. Under the Shogunate, Kami Goryo Jinja ceased to be the guardian shrine of the Imperial Palace and reverted to being a family shrine, protecting the local population.

The matsuri has been held at the shrine since 863, and features three mikoshi, a variety of ox carts, taiko drummers, dragon dancers and local children dressed in Heian era costume. The spectacle more than made up for the lack of a flea market!

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We arrived just as things were getting started. Small trucks and wagons were parked up in the street in front of the shrine entrance. Among the wagons was a beautiful ox cart. A couple of men were inspecting the cart to make sure it was ready for the procession.

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The man on the right noticed us taking photographs and walked over to chat. One thing we learned about the Kami Goryo Jinja matsuri is that the local people are incredibly proud of the festival, and were pleased to see tourists visiting. We had a short conversation in Japanese about what was going on, and he gave us some advice on where to stand to see the mikoshi pass by once they left the shrine precincts. We thanked him and then made our way into the shrine, because we could hear flutes and bells, so thought something must be happening.

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How right we were! The purification ceremony was just beginning, and we joined the local people in watching as the shrine priests waved a willow wand over the mikoshi and then offered sake, mochi, fish, vegetables and fruit to the kami in their temporary homes.

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The ceremony was beautiful to watch, executed with solemnity and grace. It felt like a privilege to be there, witnessing it. We only saw three other Western visitors, which interested me because the shrine is located not far from Kyoto University. When we’ve wandered briefly around the Demachiyanaga area, we’ve noticed a reasonable number of Western students, but perhaps they don’t live in the area near the shrine.

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After the blessings and offerings, the shrine carriers started to prepare. They were dressed in dazzling white happi coats. Among the crew for one of the mikoshi was a Western man. What an honour to have become such a part of the community around the shrine that he was part of a mikoshi crew! I think he’s on one of the videos I recorded, but I didn’t get a photograph of him, unfortunately.

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Around the other side of the shrine to where we were standing, musicians sat and accompanied the ceremony.

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I always think that traditional Japanese music has an eerie melancholy about it. It fitted well with the ceremony, somehow.

Also standing around the shrine, watching the mikoshi crews get ready, were children dressed in Heian era costumes. The head priest passed through the crowd with his willow wand and blessed the children.

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Less benign were the dragon dancers who snapped their mouths and threatened to bit the heads off the children. One small boy burst into tears at their antics, but the two young ladies dressed in red took the abuse stoically!

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At one point, while I was wandering around, I got a little too close to the ropes that would be used to tie the mikoshi to their carrying poles. One of the mikoshi crew warned me not to step too close. When I stepped back and said, “はい、わかりました,” (yes, I’ve understood what you’ve told me) he nodded back to me and gruffly said, “ごめん”. Judging by the expression on his face, I think he meant that he was sorry that he had scolded me!

Suddenly the mikoshi were ready, and with a lot of call and response, the mikoshi crews put on a great performance of bouncing the portable shrines off the main shrine platform and out into the street. The mikoshi are decorated with bells, so there was a lovely jingling to the movement, and this mixed with the shouts of the men as they bounced the shrines on their poles. It was amazing to see.

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The mikoshi were carried out through the East gate, so we headed back through the South gate to the spot pointed out to us by the ox cart checker earlier that morning. He was right about it being a good place. We saw the ox arrive and be harnessed to the cart, then a parade of costumed people, followed by the first mikoshi, which was put onto its wagon right in front of us. That was a precision operation, getting it to sit right.

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I really loved this matsuri. It felt cosier than the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa that we stumbled upon during our honeymoon. As we left the streets around the shrine and started to walk towards the river, looking for the vegan restaurant Mamezen, we could hear the procession making its way along the streets that encircle the shrine. As we crossed a bridge over the river, a man cycling the opposite way shouted over his shoulder to us, “祭り、祭り!” (matsuri, matsuri!) and gestured at the parade behind us. “はい、見ました、凄いです!” I replied. (Yes, we saw it, it’s amazing!) He seemed to be satisfied with that response, and cycled on his way. How lovely, though, that he was so proud of his local festival that he stopped some random strangers he thought might be missing out and urged them to turn back.

If you’re in Kyoto on the 18th of May, any year, then this matsuri is definitely worth a look. We took the Karasuma line on the Kyoto subway to Kuramaguchi station, then walked through back streets to reach the shrine. The circular flat fare 201 bus will drop you off at the Karasuma Imadegawa subway station as well, and you walk north from there. 楽しんで下さいね! (Enjoy!)

A Return Trip to Uji (宇治)

Mr Hicks and I first went to Uji on our honeymoon, and loved it so much that we went back for a second visit at the end of March 2012.

In 2012, we were a bit more organised than we had been on our first trip, and made sure we had most of the day to wander around, see Byodoin properly, and explore parts of the city that we hadn’t had time to see first time around. After using the station stamp, we followed the sign pointing us to the Town of the Tale of Genji and headed out of the station.

Outside the station building we found the Tourist Information centre, where a helpful lady gave us a map, circled places of interest in pink highlighter and pointed us towards a big green gateway across the road, telling us to follow the signs into town.

At the traffic lights by the gateway, we spotted a pod on a pole which contained a marionette pretending to pick tea while some music played. It was so bizarre that I had to take a photograph of it, while my husband filmed it on his camera.

How we had missed this weird delight on our first visit, I will never know. As we headed into town, we spotted an array of decorated manhole covers lining the street, bearing images of fire engines.

 

 

A little bit of internet investigation later revealed that this is a bit of a thing in Japan, and we have seen plenty more covers with artistic designs on them since our first spot in Uji. According to this site, the practice started in the 1980s as a way of reducing public resistance to the new sewer systems. There are all kinds of designs, including some that celebrate local sports teams like the Hiroshima Carp!

Onwards, though, to Uji, past a late (or super early) Santa Claus in a display case outside a shop. Because what tourist destination isn’t complete without a Dude Santa wearing oven mitts?

 

When we reached the end of the street, we paused to visit the RAAK store, owned by a family which has been making and selling furoshiki since 1615. Photography inside the shop isn’t allowed, so here’s a picture of the history plaque outside the front door.

 

The family is keeping traditional fabric dyeing skills alive by reprinting traditional furoshiki and tenugui designs. We bought quite a few samples and were given free souvenir postcards as a thank you. It’s a really lovely shop and you can buy a range of products including tissue holders and spectacle cleaning cloths as well as the traditional furoshiki and tenugui. There’s also a branch in Kyoto, close to Gion.

Across the road from the shop is the Uji bridge and the statue of Lady Murasaki. I paused to pose with my literary heroine with the bridge in the background.

From here we headed down the street lined with tea sellers towards Byodoin. We were hooked in by one shop where free samples of tea varieties were on offer. Having tasted a couple, it felt rude not to go in and buy something. It helped that the tea was delicious, of course!

We came away with sencha, genmaecha, matcha, green tea chocolates and wafer cakes filled with azuki bean paste and matcha custard. Further along the street another shop was selling sencha in washi-decorated caddies which were too pretty to resist.

All tea-ed up, we headed down to Byodoin for a wander around the gardens. This visit we had enough time to visit the Phoenix Hall and the museum as well, spending a good three hours looking around and trying to dodge the sun by finding shade under the trees. The gardens are beautiful, and the views of the Phoenix Hall across the pond really stunning.

 

 

The Phoenix Hall was an interesting experience. The tour is conducted entirely in Japanese, so we spent most of it just gazing around the hall. The ticket office for the tour is just inside the garden as you come in through the main gate. There is an additional 300円 charge for the tour. The ticket you are given shows the start time of the next slot (the tours run every 20 minutes) and you are told to assemble a few minutes beforehand in a shaded arboretum close by. It was a hot day, so we decided to sit in the shade anyway. A few minutes before the tour was due to start, as if from nowhere, lots of Japanese people appeared and a queue began to form in front of the small roped off bridge that leads to one of the wings of the Hall. We joined the queue quickly, not wanting to miss the tour and have to wait for the next one!

Across the bridge is a large genkan area where we removed our shoes, and then the guide led us into the Phoenix Hall. No photography or sketching is permitted in the Phoenix Hall. As well as the ticket, we had a sheet of information in English about the Hall, telling us that, in 1052, Fujiwara Yorimichi, a high up advisor to the Emperor, converted a villa he had inherited from his father, Fujiwara Michinaga, into a temple. 1052 was thought to be the year in which Buddhism would die out and the world would enter an age of decadence. Fujiwara Yorimichi wanted to create a temple to persuade the gods to admit believers to the land of eternal bliss. The Phoenix Hall was constructed in 1053 to house the Amitabha Buddha. Originally called the Amitabha Hall, it became known as the Phoenix Hall, or hodoo, in the Edo period, because the shape of the Hall resembles a bird with outstretched wings.

 

The Amitabha Buddha measures around 5 metres in height and is made of cypress wood. Its creator was a revered Buddhist carver of the Heian period, Jocho, and has been a model for Buddhist statues since its creation. Around the walls of the Hall are 52 Bodhisattvas riding on clouds, some dancing, some playing instruments, all worshipping the Buddha. Some of the statues have been removed for display in the museum. The walls and doors are also painted with scenes of Amitabha and his Bodhisattvas welcoming the souls of the deceased to the land of eternal bliss. The paintings on the doors are replicas, but the wall paintings are original.

The Hall is beautiful and well worth a visit. The museum is located across the gardens from the Hall, and is partly an underground structure, to minimise its impact on the rest of the site. It is interesting enough, but I felt it became a bit repetitive after a while. Once you’ve seen a bunch of Bodhisattva statues and replicas of the Phoenix statues from the top of the Hall, you’ve pretty much got what they’re about, I’d say! There is information about how Byodoin was built and various examples of National Treasures related to the site, and entry to the museum is covered by the general admission fee to the gardens, so you might as well visit it. I’m not really selling it, here, am I?

After our time at Byodoin, we headed to the Taiho-An municipal teahouse again. This time we shared a tea ceremony with two young Japanese women. The geisha who was serving us was very chatty, and complimented me on my Japanese. When I said “ままです!”, the two other women laughed. As we ate our sweet and drank our delicious bitter tea, the geisha explained a few of the things in the room. There was a scroll in the alcove by a Chinese master that represented a pure heart. My husband was drinking from a bowl depicting a matsuri that happens in Kyoto on 20 March, while my bowl had plum blossoms on it. The water boiler on this visit was suspended from the ceiling on a chain over the fire pit. The geisha explained that this would be put away at the end of March, and the fire pit cleaned out and covered with tatami. From April, the water would be heated in the corner where the tea is brewed, which is what happened when we visited in May 2009. All of this was explained in Japanese, so I might have got some of it wrong, but I think I got the gist of it!

After our refreshing tea, we headed for Uji-jinja (宇治神社) across the river. The shrine seemed to be closed, so we only wandered around it for a short time.

The original shrine used to be bigger, but split into two separate shrines in the Meiji era, the smaller Uji-jinja and the larger Ujikami-jinja further along the hillside. The original shrine, centred on Ujikami-jinja, is believed to be the oldest surviving shrine in Japan, and is believed to have been built before 1060. We didn’t visit Ujikami-jinja, as we were getting a bit tired and wanted to catch the train back to Kyoto in time to head out for dinner.

I liked Uji-jinja, with its rabbit motif. According to legend, the deity enshrined at Ujikami-jinja was led there by a rabbit, known as the ‘Looking Back Rabbit’, or mikaeri usagi, when she became lost on the hillside.

On our stroll back along side the river to Uji Bridge and the train station, we spotted something we haven’t seen anywhere else in Japan – a vending machine specifically for Uji tea.

For some reason, we didn’t buy anything from the machine, and I can’t remember why!

Uji is still one of my favourite places to visit in Japan. If you’re in Kyoto, it’s only a 20 minute train ride down the JR Nara line, and there is plenty to see and do there, so why not give it a try and treat yourself to some delicious Uji-cha?

Kiyomizudera (清水寺)

Kiyomizudera (きよみずでら/清水寺) is a Buddhist temple in Eastern Kyoto. Those are the basic facts. Kiyomizudera is also a magnet for tourists because of its setting and the charm of seeing it at cherry blossom time or during the autumn colours season.

We first visited Kiyomizudera in late March 2012. We had been hoping for some early cherry blossom, but the winter had been so cold that the blossoms were late opening and the branches of the trees were mostly bare.

It was also pretty cold halfway up Otawayama. We enjoyed looking around the temple grounds, though. Our second visit, in April 2013, was warmer and we caught the tail end of that year’s cherry blossom.

As well as the main hall, shown in the two pictures above, there are plenty of other buildings to visit in the temple precincts. On our first visit, we approached Kiyomizudera via Matsubara-dori.

Matsubara-dori is a crowded shopping street lined with souvenir shops, pottery shops and food retailers. It can be quite a crush to make your way through the crowds, but at the top you emerge into a wide plaza in front of the Deva Gate.

This is a spot for photo opportunities, although with the number of people all trying to get their Kiyomizu Moment captured on camera, it’s hard to see how anyone can get a good selfie or portrait shot!

Up the steps past the Deva Gate are the ticket booths where you pay your entrance fee to the temple. It’s only 300円 to go in, which is a bargain for what’s on offer. On both our visits, the area in front of the ticket booths has been crowded with people who weren’t really queuing for tickets, making it seem as though there would be quite a wait for entry. A lot of the people are part of organised tours, waiting for their guides to sort out their tickets, so we have learned to just walk past them up to the ticket booths.

Through the ticket barrier, you pass the three storey pagoda.

This is currently wrapped up ready for renovation, as the whole temple site is in the process of being renovated in stages. The original temple was built in the 8th century, and rebuilt during the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo era. Most of these buildings have survived and are presumably in need of some TLC after 370 years. In 2012, the Okunoin Hall, the Amitabha or Amida Hall and the Gautama Buddha or Shaka Hall at the back of the site were all being renovated, and were still off limits the following year. In 2012, there were men working on the roof of the Okunoin Hall, apparently without safety harnesses. This wouldn’t happen in the UK!

The Main Hall is the main draw, though. The platform that juts out across the valley is supported by 12-metre long zelkova tree trunks and the floor of the platform is made from cypress boards. The Main Hall and its platform were famously constructed without the use of any nails – quite something!

People lean out from the balcony to get a better look at the view across the city of Kyoto. I’m scared of heights, so I didn’t lean at all, preferring to stay safely behind the sturdy wooden barrier!

 

 

Looking down from the platform, you can often see other visitors taking pictures of each other. In April, our visit coincided with graduation from high school, and there were plenty of young ladies dressed up in kimono taking photographs of each other underneath the cherry trees.

Across the valley from the platform is another pagoda, the Koyasu Pagoda, which nestles among the thick forest of trees on the mountainside, its vermilion tower peeping above the canopy of leaves. It’s apparently the place to visit if you want an easy time giving birth.

Kiyomizudera is a working temple, and there are often people praying before the statue of Buddha in the main hall, although more often the view is obscured by other tourists!

 

Behind the Main Hall is a Shinto shrine, the Jishu Shrine.

Jishu Shrine is dedicated to the Japanese equivalent of Cupid. He is Okuninushi no Mikoto, who has quite a piquant story associated with him at this shrine. Okuninushi was travelling to Inaba province in order to woo a comely maiden. On his way, he encountered the Hare of Inaba. This hare had a habit of tricking people into giving it what it wanted, but every time it resorted to deception, it had to peel off its own skin (some legends say that it tricked a shark and it was the shark who peeled off the hare’s skin). Nice. Okuninushi was a kindly god, and healed the rabbit, and taught it less deceitful ways to get what it wanted. There’s a statue of the hare at the entrance to the shrine.

 

Okuninushi and the hare also feature on the ema plaques that people write their prayers on at this shrine.

The shrine is popular with young ladies looking for love, and with newly weds hoping to guarantee a long and happy marriage. In front of the main shrine building is a pair of stones set about 10 metres apart. Legend has it that if you can walk with your eyes closed in a straight line between the two stones, then your love will be realised. There were plenty of school girls giving it a go when we visited in 2012. We didn’t take our turn, because we are already married, but we did pay 1,000円 for a Good Marriage charm from the shrine.

Heading back towards the Main Hall, the path takes you past the shrouded Ontokuin Hall. This is apparently a smaller scale version of the Main Hall, with its own platform, but on neither of our visits could we enjoy its pleasures. Along with everyone else, we made our way along the pathway running alongside the hall, and paused to take photographs of each other with the Main Hall in the background.

Past the Ontokuin Hall lies the Otowa Waterfall, from which the temple gets its name. Kiyomizudera means Pure Water Temple. The purity of the water from the waterfall is celebrated by visitors who drink from one of the three streams falling in front of a small platform. Each stream has a different property, and you’re only supposed to drink from one during your visit. You may choose to benefit from success in exams, a good love life, or a long life.

 

Close to the Otowa Waterfall is a small restaurant that serves up noodle dishes. We’ve eaten there on both visits, and the food is really good. I’ve tried both the kitsune udon and the zaru soba.

At the end of the path that leads past the Otowa Waterfall is an area with other, smaller temple buildings, statues of Jizo nestling on the banks that flank the pathway, and a pond where turtles live.

 

The path leads round eventually to a plaza close to the Deva Gate, where there are sacred stones and cherry trees.

Kiyomizudera is a beautiful place to visit. It’s prettiest when the cherry blossom is out, or there are leaves on the maple trees. It is a very busy place to visit, though, so be prepared for others jostling you to take their turn at each photo opportunity along the way. Give yourself a couple of hours at least, and maybe combine it with a wander around Matsubara-dori, Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka, where you can pick up some really lovely pottery and other souvenirs of your visit. There are other shops and cafes on Chawanzaka, a narrow street that leads up to Kiyomizudera from the pottery area of Gojozaka. You can get to Chawanzaka from Kiyomizudera by walking down the steps to the left of the plaza in front of the Deva Gate, instead of heading down Matsubara-dori.

Ryozen Kannon (霊山観音)

On one of our trips around Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, close to Entokuin, we had once spotted the gigantic head of a statue peeping over a wall as we hunted for the Ghibli Studio shop on Ninenzaka. We wandered up the hill to see if we could get a closer look, but there didn’t seem to be an entrance.

When we returned to Kyoto 18 months later, we decided that we were going to find out what this statue was and how to visit it. After a little searching on the internet, I discovered that the statue is the Ryozen Kannon, constructed in 1955 by the architect Hirosuke Ishikawa. The statue is a memorial to those who died on both sides of the conflict in the Pacific warzone of the Second World War.

Entry is from the same street that Entokuin lies on, just along from the flight of steps that lead up to Kodaiji Temple. As we went in through the gate, we paid our 200円 entrance fee and were handed a guide and a stick of incense to place in the brazier in front of the Kannon.

 

Inside the grounds the atmosphere was very peaceful. Although this is a war memorial, it takes great pains to make sure the visitor knows that it doesn’t just focus on the war dead of Japan. It is a place of peace that aims to commemorate everyone who lost their life during the war. Inside the shrine, there are memorial tablets for the two million Japanese who lost their lives in the war, but there is also a monument to the memory of foreign soldiers who died on Japanese territory or in territory under Japanese military control. The names of both Japanese and Allied soldiers who died are also filed in drawers inside the memorial hall, and within the grounds is an altar containing soil from every Allied cemetery from the Pacific war zone.

We placed our incense sticks into the brazier and then walked around the grounds and looked out across the city beneath us. It’s possible to climb up inside the statue of Kannon, but we didn’t. I can’t remember why, now, but I think we had the impression that it wasn’t open that day.

 

 

One of the structures in the grounds protects are large golden sphere, called the Negai no Tama. Tradition has it that if you walk around the sphere three times, with your hand against its surface, wishing (or praying) for something, then buy an ema plaque and write your wish on it, your wish will be granted. I decided to give it a go. As Ryozen Kannon also has a small altar dedicated to Aizen Myoo, the God of Love, who promises to find those who pray there a good marriage match, I decided that my wish should be for a long and happy marriage.

Only two and a half years have passed since I walked around the golden orb, but we’re still married. Read into that what you will!

Looking back on our visit to Ryozen Kannon and comparing it with our trip this year to the Showa Daibutsu at Seiryu-ji, I much prefer the ethos of peace as a memorial to the war dead at Ryozen Kannon. Further up the hillside from Ryozen Kannon is a more nationalistic war memorial, at Gokoku Shrine, which we haven’t visited so can’t compare.

I was reminded of our visit to Ryozen Kannon this week, as some in the UK media have tried to stir up controversy over the art installation at the Tower of London that commemorates the dead of the First World War. An article that appeared in a national newspaper that I thought should know better, tried to suggest that the memorial was a focus for nationalistic sentiment and a bandwagon for UKIP to jump onto. Or at least the headline for the piece did. The article itself is just the writer’s opinion, and a bit flabby. Still, it filled some pages and gave someone else the chance to chime in on the non-story. However, it reminded me of Ryozen Kannon because, in that second piece, people who had volunteered to plant a poppy to commemorate a British & Commonwealth life lost in the conflict spoke of how it made them reflect on all of the lives that had been lost. Unless it is allowed to be hijacked by nationalistic sentiment, or is set up with that purpose in mind, a war memorial is just that: a memorial to lives lost in conflict. A space where anyone from any nation can stand and consider the sacrifices made by many. I thought that Ryozen Kannon succeeded in being such a space.

The Goddess of Mercy sitting on her hillside is a peaceful monument in a place that encourages reflection.

I’m glad that we visited, and if this blog is still in existence in 50 years, I’ll let you know how the marriage thing is going!