In Kyoto, like many cities in Japan, it’s hard to walk 10 yards without stumbling over a temple or a shire. They’re literally everywhere, ranging in size from huge ornate, palace-like complexes to small boxes that are no larger than a picture frame and stashed away unremarkably on random street corners. And just as the temples are diverse, so are the visitors. You can either find yourself amidst a swarm of excitedly yapping, uniformed school children and camera-flashing busloads of tourists or be entirely alone, appreciating the quiet beauty of peaceful, zen courtyards, listening to birds chirping and water gurgling.
I think I’ve mentioned that I’m using Lonely Planet Japan as my guidebook for this trip. (Side note: good guidebooks are an absolute essential for traveling – find one that works for you and make it your constant companion.) I’ve been happy with the LP so far, but visiting religious sites are an area that no guide can really cover. It’s awfully hard to try and encompass the essence of each place, give the history and make the description appealing without pictures. I think you just have to go to these places and see for yourself. It’s like in Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams tells Matt Damon that there isn’t a book in the world that can tell you what it smells like inside the Sistene Chapel – it’s true.
Incidentally, it smells like hot dogs.
Of course, in Kyoto, with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and dozens more Japanese national historic places of interest, it can be awfully hard to figure out which places to go visit. Mom, Jen and I tried to stop by the important ones that were relatively grouped together and not super attractive to tourists. That, unfortunately, meant we had to cross The Golden Temple off our list. That particular temple is possibly the most photographed spot in Japan. You’d recognize the gold-leaf covered pagoda easily (For us Mac users, it’s one of the default background images and currently shown on my laptop). But I feel like, in the end, we used our three days of sightseeing to the fullest extent. I won’t bore you with long descriptions of each place, but I’ll mention where we went, give you my favorites and why.
First, though, we’ve gotta cover shrine etiquette…
At the entrance to most temples and shrines, there is a basin set to one side with perpetually trickling water and ladles. It can be large (up to several feet long) and decorated with statues and carvings around a bathtub-like stone structure. Or, it can be a small, simple faucet running into an overflowing bowl.
Now, we human beings are dirty creatures, as the Japanese know so well (Why else would they have separate sets of shoes for the outside world, the home and the bathroom?). They believe the gods, who are pure, understand this fully. Hence, in order to approach the being living inside the shrine, we mortals must wash to at least partially purify ourselves.
The ritual is a simple one and involves no removal of clothing. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I leave up to you and your definitions of “sight-seeing.”
Step 1: Take a ladle and scoop up water from either the basin or the faucet.
Step 2: Splash some water over one hand and then the other.
Step 3: Grab another ladleful, pour some into a cupped hand (yours) and then use that water to rinse out your mouth.
Step 4: When you’ve gargled enough to feel clean, spit out the water onto the ground or into the provided trough and replace the ladle for the next visitor’s use.
There you go; you are now clean. Well, clean enough to at least enter and not enrage the gods. That was easy enough, no?
---Shinto Shrines, Buddhist Temples---
One more thing before we head inside to light incense and either ring a bell (if available) or clap to draw the gods’ attention. It’s probably a good idea to know what kind of diety you’re visiting, if you want it to work on your behalf.
99% of Japanese citizens believe in a mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism. Shinto originated in Japan hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago (pre-dating the nation’s written language). It’s a poly-theist religion where there are many spirits to be worshipped – each one having a special blessing for the mortal world. In Shinto, there are gods for good business, food, mental health, protection of women, guardians of children, fertility, rain, etc…
The problem with Shinto, however, is that there was no afterlife. You just stopped living and that’s it – the gods could care less about the dead. So, 600 years ago, when Japan was introduced to Indian Buddhism and the concept of Buddhas available to guide you to an afterlife, the people loved it. They quickly combined the two religions and why not? One was for the living and one was for the dead. It all seemed simple enough.
With the two religions came two kinds of places of worship and those physical divisions remain to this day. Shinto shrines are easily recognizable for the pagoda at the front of each – two tall, vertical sticks topped by a pair of crossbars, one of which is usually curved. Often, those pagoda are painted red or orange. Buddhist temples, on the other hand, don’t have pagodas. Rather, their entrances are guarded by massive gates, which can be so large as to look like mansions with their tiered, slate roofs and ornate woodwork.
If you’re a true worshipper, and not just a tourist poking around for pictures, you’ll visit Shinto shrines to receive blessings on your life and Buddhist temples to pray for your passed ancestors or when you yourself are nothing but and urn full of ashes.
---Religious Highlights of Kyoto---
Originally built in 1591, this is arguably the most important Buddhist temple in all of Japan, as the ashes of the deceased believers must pass through for blessing shortly after death. Its main hall (goe-do) is the largest wooden structure in the world, although another temple in nearby Nara disputes that claim. Unfortunately for us, a few years back, the heavy stone tiles began to cave in the roof. So the temple is currently covered by scaffolding and undergoing construction.
Be there is another hall, a sort of 2nd-tier worship center, that remains open to the public. It’s wonderfully ornate, featuring gilded screens, a golden Buddha and a statue of the temples founder, which actually receives more prominence than the deity’s image itself. Unfortunately, I have no pictures for this one – it’s not allowed (one of the few temples where that rule applies), so you’ll just have to go there and see for yourself.
Nazen-ji is a major temple and attraction in Kyoto. A huge structure, it was originally built in 1291 as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama (although most of what remains now was built in the 17th century, post-Japanese civil war).
However, the gaggles of visitors often miss the small, rather unmarked, dirt path that runs out the back of Nanzen-ji and into a small shire/temple called Oku-no-in. Lonely Planet clued me in on the secret and the three of us were able to find it. Oku-no-in sits beneath a mountain waterfall that’s carved its mark into a cleft of rock. The walk there is through a quiet mountain forest full of bamboo groves, soaring maples and leafy ferns. Several small washbasins and “prayer station” shrines line the carved stone steps of the path. In the stillness of the air, en route to Oku-no-in, you can hear the quiet gurgling of water whispering deep, enchanted secrets and letting you know that you’ve truly entered a special place.
It’s five-story, bright orange pagoda is one of the most photographed in all of Japan as it majestically rises through the treetops overlooking the east side of Kyoto. Though it’s overrun by tourists (I saw a dozen sprinting through the entry gate at 5:55pm to snap a quick picture before the 6 o’clock closing), Kiyomizu-dera is quite historical, having originally been built in 798 and then reconstructed in 1633.
However, for me, the historicity of the place wasn’t what drew me in. Rather, when I turned my back on the crowds and famous pagoda, I could look over the whole city of Kyoto. It spread all the way below my feet to the mountains off in the distance – a magical valley covered in a mist of summer’s haze. Amidst rows of old, tiled homes and blocky, modern buildings, there shot up colorful pagodas and the decorated tops of temples. They stood like so many ancient wise men keeping watch over their city. For the briefest of moments, I joined in their eternal vigilance.
All was well in Kyoto.