35. Quiet Life

from “Quiet Life”, Japan, 1981.

Kyoto is something of a “temple town” and as upstanding tourists we duly visited a few of these while here, particularly the more well known ones: the Heian, the Chion-in, the Kiyomizu-dera, the Rukuon-ji (more commonly called the Golden Pavilion), the Tenryu-ji. However, as good as these generally were, almost all of them suffered from being too popular and were quite crowded, especially the Kiyomizu-dera and the Rukuon-ji to the extent they are almost spoiled.

It was a delight therefore to discover the Shoren-in temple (青蓮院) in the Hagashiyama district of Kyoto quite early in our temple touring, and it has turned out to be the yardstick by which we now measure all temples and shrines.

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The Shoren-in is a Buddhist temple built in the late 13th century and, after the Great Fire of Kyoto in 1788, was even used as a temporary imperial palace; the temple is in fact also known as the Awata Palace.

There are several factors that – aside from the physical beauty of the temple and grounds – lifted it above the others that we visited in Kyoto:

  1. It is not crowded – there seemed to be more locals than tourists here and we only saw perhaps 30-40 different people during our visit. This made for a wonderfully serene and tranquil time as we explored the grounds and buildings or just sat in the main hall and looked over the gardens.
  2. You can enter all the buildings – you are able to visit all the temple’s buildings (shoes off of course) and explore the various rooms and chambers, with their wonderful decorations and artefacts.
  3. You can take photographs of almost everything – only the inner shrine was off limits for cameras.
  4. You can ring the temple bell! Really, you can! And we did! Dongtastic!

Here is some of what we saw at the Shoren-in temple:

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Shoren-in temple – the view of the main garden from the reception chamber.
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Shoren-in temple – the main garden and pond.

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Palanquin – used to carry the head of the temple and other important guests.

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Shoren-in temple – the “hidden” shrine up in the adjoining bamboo grove.

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Shoren-in temple bell – oh yes you can ring it! All singalong together now: “You can ring my bell!”

We spent a rather magical couple of hours here just drinking in the serenity and beauty of the Shoren-in temple, and we are so glad we discovered this oasis of peace – bell donging notwithstanding! Definitely one of the main highlights of our time in Kyoto.

34. Wonderful Land

from “QE2”, Mike Oldfield, 1980.

While our main visit to Kyoto’s Arashiyama district was to see the famed bamboo forest, there are plenty of other sights and vistas to enjoy and we spent quite a few hours walking in a long but leisurely circuit to take in as much as we could.

The first stop was the bamboo forest as regaled in our blog entry 32. The House Of Bamboo. However, just before we left the bamboo groves we found the northern (lesser) entrance to the Tenryu-ji temple (天龍寺). We had planned to go in the main entrance towards the end of our walk but decided to change our plans to take in the temple earlier.

The temple is the head of the Tenryu branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and was built in 1345. Like most temples in Kyoto this is not free to enter though the admission charge is fairly nominal at ¥500.

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Tenryu-ji temple – the main buildings and Sogen pond.

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Tenryu-ji temple – the view from the garden hills, looking eastwards towards Kyoto.

The Tenryu-ji temple is fairly small but has pleasant shady gardens and a renowned pond (mainly for the colours of the trees in autumn) and it was a welcome break to pause and admire the temple and grounds after the bustle of the bamboo.

After leaving the Tenryu-ji temple we passed through the last of the bamboo forest and emerged at a T-junction of ways where it seemed that 99% of the tourists and locals either turned right, or were coming from the right. A quick check of the map showed they were clearly headed to, or coming from, another of Arashiyama’s three train stations located very close by. Our planned route was taking us left and were were happy to be free of the crowds in the bamboo forest.

A short walk uphill and we emerged into Kameyama-koen, a park perched on the hills beside the Katsura River. We climbed up the trails to the park’s observation point and got a rather wonderful view over the river valley. To accompany our view was the tolling of a lone bell from the Senko-ji temple (千光寺) set up on the opposite hillside. It was a serene and peaceful time we spent there just the two of us absorbing the sights and sounds to their fullest.

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Kameyama-koen park – overlooking the Katsura River. Perched up on the far side hills is the Senko-ji temple.

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Time to descend the heights through the park down to the river. Kameyama-koen was very quiet – admittedly no complaints from us – though in a way it is a shame as people miss out on a lovely green space and, more to the point, the view from the hilltop.

The park and surrounding area is also home to monkeys though we didn’t see or hear any monkey business. But we did encounter a somewhat hidden away statue dedicated to Suminokura Ryoi (角倉 了以) who was a famous merchant during Kyoto’s Edo period and known for making the city’s rivers and canals more navigable for trade.

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Suminokura Ryoi.

A hilly descent through the park brought us to the banks of the Katsura River which we followed downstream back towards Arashiyama. The river at this point was very placid and slow moving and we even saw some people out in rowboats enjoying themselves; we elected to keep to dry land and the shady walk along the riverside and headed along as far as the Togetsukyo bridge (渡月橋, meaning “moon crossing bridge”).

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Katsura River – finally made it down out of the hills. Tired feet; fancy a paddle?

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Katsura River – the weir, no rowboats past here.
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Togetsukyo bridge – not quite as exotic as its translated name “moon crossing bridge” sounds!

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Togetsukyo bridge – the view back upstream of the Katsura River.

It was a glorious day and a glorious walk, one of the best we have had while in Japan, and our feet were duly worn out by the end of it. We rewarded ourselves with a rather nice ice-cream before heading back to the train station.

33. (Keep Feeling) Fascination

from “Fascination!”, The Human League, 1983.

Time to visit Nijo Castle (二条城) – “keep” feeling, get it? No? Oh please yourselves. Nijo Castle is the closest of the main Kyoto tourist attractions to our Airbnb apartment and only just a few minutes walk down the road, so we could hardly not tour this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nijo Castle has two concentric rings of fortifications, each consisting of a wall and a wide moat. The inner walls contain Honmaru Palace with its garden. The remnants of Ninomaru Palace, as well as the kitchens, guardhouse and other gardens are located between the two main rings of fortifications.

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Nijo Castle – the southeast dungeon tower located just a short walk from our apartment.

With a whole afternoon before us we were able to spend plenty of time wandering the castle grounds as well as inside some of the buildings, although interior photography was once more prohibited.

Here’s some pictures of what we saw:

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As castles go, Nijo Castle isn’t like the castles you find back at home. Japanese fortifications like this are certainly more ornate and scenic in appearance and design, and – although we’re no military  experts – we do think Japanese castles would have been somewhat easier to take than their European counterparts. They used a lot of wooden construction too and history shows that places like this – as well as palaces and temples – suffered greatly from fires.

Nijo Castle is currently undergoing restoration in several areas so these were inaccessible but we were still able to explore and appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this castle and certainly recommend it as a very worthy sight in Kyoto.

32. The House Of Bamboo

from “No.1 Jazz”, Earl Grant, 1960.

Bamboo. Lots of bamboo. It can only be the bamboo forest in Arashiyama (嵐山, meaning “storm mountains”) on the western outskirts of Kyoto. This is one of the main sights we wanted to see in Kyoto and so on a gloriously sunny day we jumped on the train from our local station at Nijo and chugged out to Arashiyama.

Arashiyama is a very popular tourist district in Kyoto filled with numerous shrines and temples, woodlands and parks, a monkey sanctuary, the Katsura river and Togetsukyō bridge, and of course the bamboo forest. And popular it was not only with the tourists, but also many locals both young and old, all out enjoying the sunshine, sights, and snacks to be had aplenty in this scenic and quaint suburb.

The bamboo in the forest really is something to see, and so incredibly tall as well, swaying in the gentle breeze with the sunshine filtering in from above. Factoid: bamboo is the largest member of the grass family – you would certainly need one hell of a lawn-mover to deal with this little lot!

So with no further ado and no apologies for the overall bambooiness of the following pictures, here is our wander through the Arashiyama bamboo forest:

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Arashiyama bamboo forest – a definite tourist magnet. Get out of my shot you touristy types.

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The bamboo forest didn’t disappoint and it was very serene to walk through the groves even with a fair number of other people doing the same.

There is still more to come from our day out to Arashiyama. But no more bamboo, promise.

31. The Lake

from “Discovery”, Mike Oldfield, 1984.

After the misfortune of finding the unexpected closure of the Kyoto Museum of Modern Art for works (so we’ll need to revisit another day), we needed a quick change of plans. The Heian Shrine (平安神宮) was literally just up the road and so we decided after a quick Googling that this would be a good thing to do. It wasn’t difficult to find as we were virtually standing in the shadow of the shrine’s enormous red torii gate.

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Heian Shrine – the torii entrance gate. It’s big and red!

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The Heian Shrine is a Shinto shrine and while we were able to explore most of it there was a lot of work in progress that looked like an event being set up – chairs, stage, lights, etc. – so some of the shrine wasn’t really accessible to visitors.

However, the Heian Shrine also has an extensive garden around and behind it and so, not ones to turn our noses up at a nice peaceful garden, we stumped up our entry fee and headed in. The gardens are organised so that visitors essentially follow one trail; there are numerous side branches but these rejoin the main trail, and so it didn’t feel like we were being continually herded in one direction.

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Heian Shrine gardens – no garden is complete without an old tram. Ding ding, hold tight please.
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The lily pond – try as we might we couldn’t see any frogs. We could hear them, but not see them, the little blighters.

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The highlight of the Heian Shrine garden for us was the beautiful lake and bridge that we discovered towards the end of the walk through the garden. The bridge had long benches running along each side of the span and there were lots of Japanese ladies-who-lunch sat around chatting in the shade on this lovely sunny day.

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The lake – a couple of friendly locals come to say konnichiwa.

We sat on the bridge for a little rest and spotted a heron stood on a rock patiently watching the water. And just a few minutes later it flew forward and dived into the water and came up with a fish – one gulp and he was gone. Poor fishy.

So as the heron had had his lunch we thought the fish, terrapins and ducks that milled hopefully beneath the bridge deserved theirs. There was a public food store for the wildlife on the bridge, so we put the suggested ¥100 into the honesty box and had a great time causing a feeding frenzy as carp, terrapins, and ducks all sought to get a snack.

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Sometimes misfortune can be a good thing as we ended up seeing a shrine that was not that high on our list; or more specifically seeing its garden that we didn’t know about. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful green spaces we’ve seen so far in Japan.

30. In High Places

from “Crises”, Mike Oldfield, 1983.

It was time to go up in the world again as we ascended the heights of the Kyoto Tower, up 100m to the observation deck. Yes a fairly high place – certainly for Kyoto – but still a bit of a tiddler when compared to the whopping 450m we previously achieved at the Tokyo Skytree – see our blog entry 17. Big In Japan.

However, the Kyoto Tower has got one thing over on the Tokyo Skytree: no queues. No sooner had we arrived, than we paid our entry fee and were in the lift and heading up.

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Kyoto Tower – the highest structure in Kyoto.

We found that the observation deck was a fair bit smaller than we thought once we arrived at the top, but still with a good amount of room to move around and view the city in 360 degrees. There are lots of free telescopes to use but (a) we don’t as it’s a bit unhygienic really, and (b) they’re almost 100% occupied by rampaging Japanese school children looking at each other through them! There are also several interactive video screens that help you identify landmarks and provide useful information.

Kyoto Tower is easily the highest structure in Kyoto, which is otherwise a pretty low rise city so there isn’t much competition to it, and accordingly you can easily see across the whole city and the wide valley in which it resides. One thing we had begun to feel, and that was confirmed by the eagle-eye view, was that Kyoto is a bigger and more sprawling city than we had initially expected.

Here’s the view from atop the Kyoto Tower:

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Kyoto Tower – oh look, there goes a bullet train to Tokyo.

Our trip up the Kyoto Tower was a fun detour that we hadn’t at first planned on, but we found ourselves with a spare hour before dinner after a long and relaxed tour of the Heian Shrine and its gardens and so decided to make good use of the time. We’re glad we did.

29. Eat The Music

from “The Red Shoes”, Kate Bush, 1993.

So we have been in Kyoto for a couple of days and already have some museums under our belts (the Museum of Kyoto, and the International Museum of Manga), though as seems to be rapidly becoming the norm no photography was allowed at these. While out our meanderings took us close to the Nishiki Market (錦市場) so it seemed an apt time to take a look as it’s on our to-do list.

Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, Nishiki Market is to Kyoto what Borough Market is to London: filled with stalls and shops selling all manner of fresh produce, as well as numerous restaurants and takeaways where you can enjoy local delicacies. The market has a long history that dates back to 1310 when it was a wholesale fish district.

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Nishiki Market is a covered arcade that stretches for five blocks in the busy shopping area of Shijo. It’s obviously quite a popular tourist spot as the local to gaijin ratio seemed about 2:1 with people buying food, eating food, photographing food, and wondering just-what-the-hell-is-that food?

There’s a fun bustling atmosphere about the place as you peruse the shops accompanied by the almost singsong calls of the vendors as they tout their wares. There are plenty of samples to try as well – you can almost get a free lunch if you start at one end of the market and work your way to the other trying the food as you go.

So here are a few pictures of some of what we saw:

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Nishiki Market – pretty sure they sell sake here.

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Nishiki Market – that’s not a nice place to stick those skewers.

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Nishiki Market – some of the locals enjoy a quick snack.
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Cute marshmallow sweets – strawberry pigs and mystery chicks; maybe chicken flavour?

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Nara zuke – hmm, squidgy.

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Chopstick rests – a most essential dining item.

Nishiki Market is a great way to spend an hour wandering the stalls and taking in the culinary-related sights and smells whether you’re a foodie or not. Maybe we’ll go back for some free food next time we’re in the area.