Sunday, June 10, 2012

Kyoto, Japan Part II: Finding Shrines

Let me paint you a picture. Of course, I don't mean that literally, but more allegorically, as any good English major would. I'm sitting by my computer fairly hungover. I'm wearing about as much as a caveman in the form of boxers, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee, and thankful for spellcheck. Last night turned into a surprising affair of new friends, free tequila, and a rather blurry cab ride home. However, today I will dare to be productive and grace you with the much anticipated second blog on Kyoto. It's probably fair to say that I am the one who has felt the foremost anticipation, but now I shall experience sweet relief and serenity as the time has come for a little writing. To continue the prowess of an English major, I'll start in medias res, which is to say that I'll begin at the heart of the action. We had just left the confines of the marvelous Golden Pavilion, and were off to see what other marvels graced the ancient capital. This day would solidify Kyoto as arguably my favourite city in the world.

Ryoan-ji Dry Rock Garden
We took a 15 minute stroll from Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion) and arrived at yet another world heritage sight. Ryoan-ji is another temple complex, but it's famous for its dry rock garden, which is supposed to be one of the finer examples of such phenomena in the city. Let me be frank - I didn't really get it. It was pleasant enough to look at, but it wasn't quite what I anticipated. However, it is quite interesting overall, and therapeutic as well. Apparently, it's designed so that you can never view the whole garden at once, and you can only see 14 of the 15 stones at any one time. There has been immense speculation as to the "meaning" of the garden. Personally, I can only speculate that its formation is a lesson in humility, or a moral about the attainment of knowledge. I would have to say that my interest in Ryoan-ji was provoked more from its symbolism than its aesthetic value. Although, historically speaking, it's quite a significant sight, so it was well worth the walk over. From here, we hopped back on the bus for a relatively short journey to Shimogamo-jinja, a famous shrine that (surprise, surprise) also wears the seal of a world heritage sight. I guess the real question is - What site in this city doesn't wear this seal?

Shimogama Shrine has always been regarded as one of foremost shrines in Kyoto, and in Japan in general. The shrine actually predates Kyoto by a few hundred years and was established sometime in the 6th century. I have to say that I'm constantly impressed by the record keeping of the Japanese. When doing research on Kyoto there was always certainty as to exactly when something was established or fell. It goes even deeper than that, as it's even noted when a particular sight of historical value is mentioned. For example, in the year 942 on the 29th day of the 4th month Emperor Suzaku visited the shrine to offer his thanks for the restoration of peace. I have to believe that this meticulous, methodical approach to record keeping has had a tremendous impact of the incredible traditions and heritage present in Japan to this very day. When you understand your country and its precise history, it's a lot easier to be proud of its past, and look forward to its future. Busy was the name of the game on this particular day, so after taking in the sights of a traditional wedding complete with several kimono at the shrine, it was back on our feet.

Want to see a magic trick?

Lunch went down like a charm, and the added energy of pleasantly palatable Japanese cuisine translated into continued fervor for Japanese culture. The first stop after lunch was the incredibly famous Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Silver Pavilion. In this case, I wouldn't suggest that silver was any worse than gold. Both the Golden Pavilion and the Silver Pavilion offered quite a bit, but I'd even go as far as saying that I enjoyed the Silver Pavilion better. The actual temple isn't silver or as striking as the Golden Pavilion, but the grounds were much more stunning, soothing, and interesting. Care to guess if it's a world heritage sight?

I was really in awe of the aura of this complex. I would have to say that I was most intrigued by the rock gardens, which may surprise you considering my earlier hesitation towards Ryoan-ji. It's largely because I've never seen anything like it before, and you can guess by now that I'm a seeker of new experiences. There's one section in particular that really had a tremendous amount of draw for me, and I'm not entirely sure why. It was a carefully formed cylindrical pile of sand that is said to represent Mount Fuji. I can't recall ever being so impressed by a pile of sand. I would go as far as saying it's my favourite pile of sand in the world, and you can quote that.

This looks like something that people in the year 3000 would have in their gardens, not something that (along with the temple) came to fruition in the 15th century. Anyway, I'll give a little dose of history about the Silver Pavilion, informal as it may be. It was actually commissioned by the grandson of the fellow who commissioned the Golden Pavilion and was supposed be covered in silver foil, but unfortunately Ashikaga Yoshimitsu passed away before those dreams were realized. Like the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion was built as a sight of relaxation and contemplation for the shogun. Another parallel between the two pavilions is that they were initially built as villas, but subsequently became important Buddhist temples. I thoroughly appreciated the grounds, which I viewed as a carefully put together natural tapestry. Bri and I were also about to walk to locate a path in the Northwest corner of the complex that led us up to a fantastic vantage point of the temple and the city of Kyoto. I simply can't think of a place that possesses more sheer aesthetic beauty.

Walking around the grounds was delightful, but alas, there was still much to be seen while the sun was high in the sky. Next on the menu was Chion-in, which managed to be just as delectable as everything that preceded it. I imagine we had taken close to a half-dozen buses at this point, which is to say that we got excellent use out of our one-day bus passes. The most striking feature of Chion-in, the headquarters of Pure Land Sect Buddhism, was the entrance gate known as a Sanmon. Built early in the 17th century, the entrance is the longest surviving structure of its kind, thus maintaining the status as Japan's largest Sanmon gate. It held an heir of unmatched authority, and it was what I'd describe as politely imposing. Its size and character were astonishing.

For me, this was the most impressive part of the whole complex. Just through the gate and up the stairs there was more to see, but nothing that matched this for me. However, Japan's largest bell happened to be up there among the buildings. The main building, Mieido, is under a massive restoration project that will span until 2019, but there were some other notable structures of interest. The use of "nightingale" floors was something I found quite fascinating. Essentially, a "nightingale" floor was engineered to be very squeaky (with the use of metal), and was implemented here to alert the Tokugawa family should there be any enemies attempting to attack them in the night. It's really quite a logical idea, but I imagine it could get quite annoying after a while. Chion-in didn't disappoint in the slightest.

Back to the bus stop. Back on a bus. The next stop was the commanding Buddhist temple known as the city's spiritual heart and soul, Kiyomizu-dera.

I'm still trying to figure out how a building built in the early 17th century remains sturdy when it was built on wooden pillars for support. It's really quite baffling and an attestation to the incredible ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Japanese people. The temple was initially founded in the 8th century, and it takes its name from a waterfall of "pure water" near by. Here's a fact that will astonish you: There's not a single nail used in the while complex. Not surprisingly, it was shortlisted as one of 21 finalists for the "New Seven Wonders of the World" initiative that occurred in 2007. It's not in bad company on that list. I've actually visited 7 of the 21 sights that were shortlisted, which is pretty good as far as I'm concerned. I'll be damned if I don't see each and every one before my time is up. I suppose I just found myself a new challenge. Anyway, we basked in the remarkable views from the temple, and I think I was more in shock than anything about the whole structure. It's beyond impressive to me. Before we left, we had one more task. 

Try and tell me that water isn't the most pure and magical water you've ever seen. You can't because it is. That's been the belief here since the establishment of the temple, and it's been a popular pilgrimage for Buddhists all around the world. It's reported to have "wish fulfilling" abilities, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Bri and I lined up and reached out with our extended cup to fill them to the brim. I made my wish and took a sip. I don't know if I believe in these "miracles" strewn across the world, but I always take part in the tradition because it's never hurt my luck either. It's partially the satisfaction that I've done something people have considered worthwhile for over a century. Also, I've always thought that I developed my gift of gab and charm with more fervor after kissing the Blarney Stone outside of Cork, Ireland when I was 16. Fingers crossed that my wish comes true then, I suppose. Believe it or not, we caught another bus, and headed off to yet another destination. This time, it was Fushimi Inari-taisha, which was the final stop on one of the busiest and most wonderful days I've had in my life. This sight is famous for its "tunnels of torii" and has as many as 32,000 sub shrines around throughout Japan. We actually previously visited one of these sub-shrines in Tokyo, which I wrote about in my blog post "Tokyo Part II: The Saga in the Land of Sega." It would be an understatement to say that the main shrine was considerably more elaborate. It was gorgeous. 

 The shrine is dedicated to Inari who is considered to be the god of rice. However, Inari is also considered to be the patron of business. Thus, I can spell out another interesting fact for you. Each of the orange "torii" that make up the tunnels is donated by a Japanese business. The truth is that I could write an entire blog with just fun and interesting facts about Kyoto. It's one of those cities that's brimming with opportunity, mystery, and subsequently, fun facts. I've often wondered how much one person can accomplish in one day. Let this day be my answer. 

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