Despite a food tour, a castle, a temple, two new neighborhoods, and a Michelin meal; we both felt like we were off our game Monday. The obvious cure is to see as many sites as possible in one day.
We began with breakfast in our hotel room, picked up at a grocery store the night before:
While I showered Jason plotted the sites on a map and developed a plan of action. First stop: Fushimi Inari Taisha
|Steps to getting the rare double-photo of us:
1) A couple approaches me and asks if I’ll take their picture
(they never approach Jason)
2) I do, of course
3) They offer to take one of us in return
4) I call for impatient Jason to return to where I am
5) Voila! Photo
The Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine sits at the base of Mount Inari in southeastern Kyoto. Inari is also the god of rice, and this shrine was originally dedicated to his worship for an abundant harvest. As the local economy shifted, the shrine’s supporters turned from rice farmers to general business; as such the iconic vermillion torii gates are now sponsored by businesses who still pay for their upkeep in hope of a prosperous year.
Judging by the cardboard figure and the giant grass circle that people were ritualistically walking through, some kind of celebration was in progress:
Rather than the guardian lions or dogs we’ve seen elsewhere, this shrine has foxes:
Dressed in dapper bibs (cloaks?), there were several dozen of them throughout the site. I’m showing great hipster restraint by only posting a few here:
|With a key
|With a sheath of rice
|At the nearby metro station
Aside from the charm of the fox guardians, the real draw of the place are the hundreds and hundreds of orange-red gates:
They wend along the path up the mountain, creating a surreal, almost hypnotic effect as you pass through portal after portal. Torii gates represent the division between the sacred and the profane – hence their typical placement in front of Shinto shrines. Crossing through so many at once, a red-and-back tunnel of divisions between this world and another, added a layer of the infinite and the eternal to the transition.
There were occasional breaks in the paths for smaller shrines or more fox statues, many of which had miniature versions of the larger ones nearby:
One of the side shrines had a cat wandering through it. I set up my camera shot and called to the cat with my usual double mouth click, discovering that Japanese cats respond to the same way American cats do:
by looking at you and then ignoring you.
We walked a little over halfway up the mountain before deciding to turn back so we could see the other sights. This was, however, my favorite of all of the religious sites/shrines we visited on the trip, and one well worth seeing.
We took the train to the next stop, pausing for lunch at the first decent place we spotted:
I had “Taco Rice in Cocohana Style.” It, oddly, tasted like a Japanese taco salad. It also came with soup and pickles.
Next up, Tofoku-ji:
The grounds of this temple complex are free to enter, but the gardens cost an admission fee. We paid, took off our shoes, and walked across the nightingale floors:
to Hojo garden, a rock garden in the courtyard of the former residence of the head priest:
This one included mossy hills:
We followed the walkways around the building to a smaller rock garden with pillars set in the shape of Ursa Major:
We also viewed the biggest draw of the complex – the forest of Japanese maple trees:
The maples fill a coulee, and must be absolutely stunning in the fall. There are two bridges that cut through the trees – one upper and one lower. This is the view of the upper bridge from the lower, which we spotted as we left the complex:
We got back on the subway and made our way to Kiyomizu-dera, another Buddhist temple. Once again, the metro stop was quite a ways from the site itself, and I mentally cursed the lure of building on mountains as we hiked up steep, steep streets in the heat.
At the top was another large vermillion gate and a ton of tourists. Unlike the other sites we’d visited, this place was packed with people, including several young women and men dressed in traditional garb posing for photos:
It seems to be a thing – we passed a couple of different shops like this one:
which listed rental fees for kimonos and even promised hair styling services. We did not participate in this ritual, perhaps because of our borderline tourist-fatigue or perhaps because of the tall blond American woman we passed earlier in the day tottering down the street in a kimono and a set of athletic toe shoes while her (American-dressed) male companion carried her geta sandals by the thongs.
We did note, however, that many other tourist sites would benefit from similar rackets. If we had been offered the chance to dress up as Marie and Louis when we were at Versailles a few years ago, you know we would have been strutting around the gardens and uploading those photos to Facebook faster than you can say “guillotine.”
We wandered around the Kiyomizu-dera complex, which seemed oddly Catholic-esque between statues like this:
and items like this:
That’s a set of iron sandals (left) and an iron staff. Monks show their devotion by walking some pre-set distance with those ridiculously heavy devices.
We spent a while trying to find a tourist-drawing-attraction Jason had read about – supposedly there is a pair of rocks somewhere in the complex. You stand at one, close your eyes, and then walk to the other. If you reach the other rock successfully, you will find your true love. If you reach the other walk with the assistance of a friend, you will find love with assistance. I’m not sure what it means if you spend several minutes trying to find the rocks in the first place, then give up when you decide you don’t really care that much about it since it’ll probably be crowded when you get there anyway.
On the other hand, we spent even more time trying to find something called the Tainai-meguri by following these directions in Lonely Planet
“The entrance is just to the left (north) of the pagoda that is located in front of the main entrance to the temple (there is no English sign).”
because they promised:
“We won’t tell you too much about it as it will ruin the experience. Suffice to say that by entering the Tainai-meguri, you are symbolically entering the womb of a female bodhisattva. When you get to the rock in the darkness, spin it in either direction to make a wish.”
We tried and tried to find the bodhisattva womb, but couldn’t even figure out what qualified as “the main entrance.” Then again, Jason’s already admitted
his lack of knowledge of the female anatomy, so perhaps we shouldn’t have appointed him primary navigator.
Both love-tunnel visits denied, we instead made cursory admiration of the temple buildings and shrines and the views of Kyoto from the balcony:
Then we made our way down the stairs:
and back to those steep streets:
A snack was in order, so we stopped at the first store that looked promising. They primarily sold cream puffs, which I ordered with an ice cream filling.
A few blocks down, we spotted this:
and so each enjoyed a hot pork bun, Chinese-style.
Really, we were on a hunt for mochi. While visions of Mochicream danced through our heads, we resolved to stop off at any store that looked as if they might possibly have those rice-paste-wrapped ice cream balls for sale. We tried several times, all to no avail.
Back on flat lands again and halfway down a quiet street, Jason suddenly spotted this sign:
We stepped into the dark shop. It looked like a sketchy bakery, but a young man in a white apron soon came out and greeted us.
“Mochi?” we asked.
“Mochi?” he replied.
“Mochi!” we nodded, holding up two fingers “Ni!”
“Mochi?” he asked again, his voice laden with skepticism.
“Hai,” we confirmed. “Mochi.”
The young man shrugged and disappeared into the back. With some rustling, he reappeared with two white balls in a cellophane container. We eagerly paid him, and stepped outside to sit on the stools there and enjoy our mochi.
And it was mochi. It was two balls of warm, sticky, rice paste.
It was the equivalent of walking into a doughnut place and asking for a ball of dough. I’m sure we became the “So, these two dumb tourists came into the shop…” story of the week.
We had time for one more site before our next scheduled activity, so off to Chion-in.
We were hitting our temple limit, but it didn’t stop Jason from stopping to admire the gardenias:
Sadly, most of the complex was under construction.
After a quick walk around and some token Lonely Planet information (“Is this one the biggest gate or the oldest gate?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” Jason replied with a not-so-subtle subtext of “and I don’t care.”), we headed out and back down the hill, pausing to admire the vibrant hydrangeas growing next to the back doors:
After many inquires and attempts to find some Japanese theater, the only thing that was (repeatedly) offered to us during these off-season weeks is something called “Gion Corner”:
They offer two shows per night, and we arrived in time for the first showing at 6. The show is only an hour long, but offers a sampling of many traditional Japanese arts. While obviously designed for tourists, I actually didn’t mind being able to see small pieces of so much all at once. The show consisted of:
|Chado (Tea Ceremony)
|Kado (Flower Arrangement)
|Koto (Japanese Harp)
|Gagaku (Court Music) (which sounded awful!)
|Kyogen (Comedy Play)
|Kyomai (Kyoto-Style Dancing)
|Bunraku (A Puppet Play)
I enjoyed seeing the similarities between the Kyogen skit and Satyr/Commedia plays, and resolved (as I so often do) to see more puppetry in the future.
When the show finished, we consulted my copy of “Old Kyoto” to find a restaurant for dinner. We landed on Aunbo and after picking our way to the entrance:
We sat on the floor in front of the bar facing the chefs and enjoyed an array of dishes like this:
We were supposed to share the eggplant below. The cook set it in front of us. We eyed it, then eyed our chopsticks. Just as we started to debate how we were supposed to attack this dish, the chef came back chuckling. “I cut it for you, like for the children!” he announced jovially.
While we probably should have been insulted that we had to be served “like children,” I still have no idea how two adults would politely share such a thing.
Also, more fish:
I really am being brave about this whole trip.