Kyoto is like what if a city planner saw all of these beautiful old temples and castles and was like, ‘hey let’s fill in the gaps with convenience stores and souvenir shops!’
It’s a small place, about an hour across by bus. In the center is an old castle that I didn’t actually go to, and surrounding it in a circle are shrines and temples and forest.
It has a quaint feel. Touristy, yet touristy for a reason. It’s as if the castle walls are saying, ‘yeah, you’re kind of annoying, but I get it.’ There must be normal people who live there because there’s a decent subway and bus system, and someone has to run the shops, but for the most part the place is just people wanting to see pretty old things.
And by old, well, at one time they were old. New things were built on mostly the same spot as the originals. Japan has seen a lot of bombs, wars, bloodshed, etc. I don’t even know if anything is original. But the government has done a good job of restoring it so at least you feel like it’s a little bit old.
The one I wanted to visit the most was the Fushimi Shrine. Mainly because I saw it on the natgeo instagram once. Also it makes an appearance in Memoirs of a Geisha. Also it looks pretty.
I wasn’t the only one who thought this. Even on a non-holiday weekday, the Shinto shrine was packed with tourists, many of them in traditional clothing which made it even better.
The shrine starts with a plethora of gift shops leading up to a temple where you can write some Japanese on a stick and make a wish.
Then you simply follow the home depot orange. It’s not just a little trail of gates you pass through and take a selca and then go home. It’s hundreds and hundreds of wooden gates spaced 2-3 feet apart winding all the way to the top of a mountain. We kept going and going, thinking we were getting closer, only to reach another ‘you are here’ map and seeing we had barely moved. After about 2 hours we decided to take a loop down. Because I’m not Shinto, there was no religious reason for me to continue. And because I don’t like to exercise, there was no physical reason for me to continue.
There are so many hundreds of pillars, yet they are all bright orange even with the constant touching/wiping/licking/whatever. Either they are made of some kind of magic repelling orange wood, or they are painted frequently. Like the San Francisco bridge, I bet there are workers who just travel along the shrine repainting and when they get to the end they start over. I don’t actually know that, I’m just guessing.
At one point I saw a little dirt trail leading off from the pillars and so we left the crowds and followed this path to who knows where. It got narrower and narrower, passing multiple unkept little temples. Then we realized we were in a bamboo forest, which was pretty for about the first 30 minutes but eventually we just turned around because we had no idea where this trail led and we wanted to see more things before dark.
Overall it was an incredibly beautiful place with much to offer. If I was more in shape/more religious I would have taken the trail all the way to the top of the mountain. I’m sure the view is fantastic not to mention the assurance of a job well done. But even if you’re old/out of shape, just going halfway is well worth it.
The other beautiful thing I wanted to see that day was the Kiyomizu-dera because it looked pretty. Like Fushimi, it was packed with tourists and school groups. It was a little difficult to maneuver around through all the people. I’m guessing the Buddhist monks who built it weren’t expecting quite that many guests.
Regardless, it was a beautiful day and the Japanese are quite friendly. But I’ll talk about that later.
Another fun thing you can do at this temple is take a sip from a special stream. I read on wikipedia that it is split into three sections, one is for academic success, one for longevity, and one for love but it doesn’t say which is which. They aren’t labeled in English, which is unfortunate because I specifically wanted longevity.
After waiting in a fast line, you pick up a long metal rod with a cup on the end out of a sterilizer. You reach the cup out under the eave towards your choice of stream and bring the water back. You’re supposed to pour the water in your hand and then drink, but many don’t. Hence the sterilizer.
I picked the middle stream by default because it was the open one at the time and I didn’t want to hold up the line. If I die soon, we’ll at least rule out longevity.
The third pretty thing I saw in Kyoto was the Kinkakuji. Yes go ahead. I know you tried to say that out loud.
According to Wikipedia, the mother of all truth, Kinkakuji has a rather eventful past. It dates back to 1397 where it was a powerful guy’s house. Then a monk bought it and his son turned it into a temple. That’s cute. But then in the mid 1400s every building but the main gold one was burned down in war.
Still not exactly unique as far as Japanese history goes. No–the real tragedy was in 1950 when a novice monk accidentally burnt the entire the surviving pavilion down.
The poor guy was found trying to commit suicide, but he was then imprisoned instead, only to be placed in a mental hospital for illness.
It took until 2003 for the entire pavilion to be rebuilt. No one knows exactly how much gold laquer was on it to begin with, but the best part about burning it down is that you can remake it to be whatever you like and claim it as truth. In the 80s, a half micrometer of gold was added to the entire thing to make it just a bit shinier.
So in essence, this building is just a pretty thing that really doesn’t resemble the original. But let’s be honest– the originals are never nearly as photogenic.
And no temple would be complete without an old-fashioned fortune slot machine.
Overall, Kyoto is a wonderful place that I thoroughly enjoyed. We didn’t even go to a quarter of the attractions available and were already astounded. It’s a beautiful combination of the old and the new.
Those city planners did an excellent job putting a subway beneath the temples and winding bus routes around the castles. I felt like I was exploring pretty old things with the comfort of modern transportation.
Until next time–