Kyoto: Templing


After our stay in Tokyo, the Crew and I took the shinkansen down to Kyoto where we stayed for a couple of days. If you’re in Kyoto for two days, and it’s the new year holiday, the thing to do is certainly to go templing. After arriving in Kyoto, checking into the hotel room, and having a delicious tempura dinner at Takasebune, we walked over to Yasaka-jinja, which is Kyoto’s most famous shrine. As I’ve written elsewhere,

Yasaka Shrine, formerly known as Gion Shrine, was built to appease the gods responsible for plague and, as such, is symptomatic of the form of ceremonial appeasment that was the hallmark of early Shinto. Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s three biggest festivals, began in 869 when the deities enshrined at Yasaka-jinja were paraded through the streets to help stave off an epidemic. Yasaka-jinja is still visited by people who come to pray for health and prosperity, and it is one of the most popular spots for the new year’s hatsumode visit.

Since we arrived in Kyoto on the 3rd, Yasaka wasn’t as packed with hatsumode visitors as it would have been on the 1st or 2nd, but there was still a steady flow of people through Yasaka’s persimmon-orange entry gate.

Banks of lanterns light up Yasaka’s Higashiyama entrance.

Visitors leave coins at the shrine area to pray for health and good fortune in the new year.

The white paper tassels that you see hanging below the lanterns are omikuji, or fortunes. And all of them are bad. When you get a bad fortune at a temple or a shrine, the practice is to tie them to a tree or other area within the shrine precincts so that you can leave your bad fortune behind. Since so many people come to Yasaka-jinja for hatsumode, and since so many people like to get omikuji for the new year, there were literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of bad fortunes cleverly attached to any available space at Yasaka-jinja.

The next morning we woke up for some serious templing, starting with a trip to Teramachi-dori. Teramachi (which basically means “temple city”) is primarily a shopping street now, but there are still several small temples located within the covered arcade that runs between Shiji-dori and Oike-dori. Especially interesting is Takoyakushido, a small temple with a beautiful shrine area and a nice, funky garden area in the back. The ‘tako’ in Takoyakushido means “octopus,” and there’s some connection between the tako and the temple, though I couldn’t figure out what it is. There were several beautiful hand-painted placards for sale at the temple depicting a woman, if I remember correctly, standing next to an enormous red human-sized octopus. There’s not a ton of other octopus paraphernalia around, but there’s certainly enough to make a visit to this temple interesting.

After our walk through Teramachi we made our way to Chion-in, located on the edge of Kyoto’s Maruyama Park (a prime spot for cherry blossom viewing). The entry gate at Chion-in is the largest in Japan, and was apparently built during the temple’s 1633 restoration in order to advertise both the power of Jodo-sect Buddhism, and the power of the Tokugawa shogunate, which funded the restoration. The spirits of Tokugawa Ieyasu, his son Hidetada, and his grandson, Iemitsu, are all enshrined here.

Chion-in was built on the site where Honen, the founder of the Jodo-sect, started to preach in 1175. The temple area is incredibly beautiful, with several impressive buildings and nice grounds that extend up into the mountains behind the temple. The whole place has a kind of piney feeling to it. Apparently the new year’s ringing of the huge bell on the temple grounds (108 times for all of your 108 sins) is broadcast on television every year.

After visiting Chion-in we walked up the hill to Ryozen-ji to visit the Ryozen Kannon, which I think is a really interesting place to visit, even if it wasn’t built until the 1950s.

Although Jorge didn’t get a chance to enter the Daibutsu at Kamakura, he was able to go inside the seated figure of Kannon, which is dark except for candles and a scant few bare electric bulbs. There are various altars inside the Kannon, including several where you can purchase omikuji based on the year of your birth. This particular shrine area is for the Year of the Dragon, but of course this year it’s the Year of the Boar.

We ended our day of templing by hiking up to one of Kyoto’s most famous temples — Kiyomizudera.

Although I’ve been to Kyomizudera before, this was the first time to stop off at the popular “love shrine” located on the temple grounds. Jishu-jinja is a busy area, full of young people and love charms, and several small shrines.

Here’s the story of the rabbit and its sacred stick and the man with the hammer who looks like he’s about to pound Leon’s head in:

The god of Jishu Shrine is Okuninushi no mikoto, whose story appears in the most ancient history of Japan, the Kojiki. When a rabbit gained what it wanted by deceiving others, it was forced to peel off its skin. Okuninushi, a sweet-tempered god, healed it and made it mend its ways.

In any case, there are two rocks in the shrine area, and if you walk from one to the other with your eyes closed (about ten meters) while repeating the name of your beloved, your wish will be fulfilled! Of course I tried it, while Tessa and Leon helped me out with the occasional walking instruction: “Straight. Keep going straight. A little to the left.” Thanks to their guidance, I successfully ran my shin right into the goal stone, and so now I’m guaranteed love! But whose name was I calling? Could it have been YOURS, dear Reader?

Here’s a view of the main temple area at Kiyomizudera, taken from the opposite hill where the small pagoda sits.

I’m not sure why, but all of the color shots of Kiyomizudera that I took this time around turned out looking very bland. The wood of the temple is a beautiful aged grey color, but all my color shots came out looking either too vibrant or too drab. Black and white seemed to have fit the mood of the temple a bit more, so here’s a black-and-white view from below of the famous main hall at Kiyomizudera, which has an enormous veranda that’s propped up by the framework you can see here in the picture — entirely put together without the use of nails.

Here’s the silhouette of the small pagoda that sits that sits on the hill opposite from the main temple area.

These three blue-bibbed jizo stones can be found on the path that leads down to Otowa-no-taki.

Otowa-no-taki is Kiyomizudera’s sacred waterfall. Visitors come here to drink the healing waters of Kiyomizudera. I’ve never had any of the water myself, mostly because the line is always so long. There’s a fascinating system at work here where drinking cups are placed in circular holders at the end of long sticks so that you can reach out and collect some of the water from the fall. When you’re finished with the cup, you put it in a separate bin so that it can be taken off and washed. Judging by the length of the line, there must be a lot of monks constantly busy with washing duties.

After leaving Kyomizudera’s grounds, we ran into this maiko, who was nice enough to let us take her picture. But was she really a maiko? Apparently not. There are several studios in Kyoto where you can get dressed up as maiko and then tour around the Higashiyama area while you get your photograph taken and this ‘maiko’ probably came from the one at the bottom of the Chawan-zaka, one of the main roads leading up to Kiyomizudera. There are similar places where you can get dressed up like a samurai if you’re a dude. Of course, real maiko and geiko do visit the Higashiyama area from time to time. Perhaps I should try out this service next time I’m in the Higashiyama area? I can already imagine myself hiking up the hills on my platform geta, long kimono sleeves trailing in the wind. How Romantic!


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