SYNOPSIS:  A few words about toilets, indeed a topic that needs to be discussed when it comes to Japan.  A toilet-culture of the highest complexity with some useful and some frivolous features.


Picture this:  I approach a toilet at the end of a sizable bathroom and as I am about 3 feet away the lid opens.  I was so startled, I turned around to see if there was anyone else in the room who might have pushed a button.   I did my business and left the lid open (which otherwise I’d never do), closed the door, walked away and peeked back 30 seconds later.  The lid was open.  Five minutes later I peeked again: lid closed.

Even though I no longer needed its services, I approached the toilet again and sure enough, it opened up for me!  I played this game one more time and decided it was high noon to write about toilets at my next opportunity — that is a day in transit and that is today:

No visitor to Japan can miss the amazing technology associated with toilets in this country.  You encounter it first thing at the airport and it follows you wherever you are to the last little budget backpacker guesthouse.  I wonder what the five-star hotels have to offer that tops this?  Perhaps someone can fill me in here.

The traditional Japanese toilet, used and perhaps even still preferred by most Japanese to this day is the squatter type, and those are quite low tech.  All the technology is associated with the Western-style toilets.  In public facilities, the stalls are well marked as to what to expect. In my two months in this country I only encountered one place — a temple — where there was no Western style available.

I have to admit that I was usually way too busy to figure out the elaborate menus, and play with all the available features and buttons of the high-end toilets.  But for starters, there are flushes of varying strengths coming at you in various places.  And you can choose from a number of noise features to drown out any noises you might produce on your own.  One part I would adopt instantly if I could: the heated seating pad.  Especially for cold Michigan winters and similarly cold climates, I could imagine this to be a real hit.  The automatic lid opener was news to me, but you can program these toilets to your heart’s content, and perhaps I had just missed this due to programming preferences rather than commonality.

Occasionally, when the number of toilets is limited, there are unisex toilets, designated for the use of mixed genders.  In some cases, urinals are installed outside the stalls and women are expected to pass by them as if they did not exist, and proceed to the closed stalls.  I wonder though what would happen if a man was actually using the urinal.  Is a woman supposed to pass by as if the man was not there or is she supposed to wait politely for the man to leave?  I did not have to opportunity to observe either scenario, so you have to decide for yourself what you would have done if faced with this dilemma.

Shoe etiquette in toilets may differ.  Public toilets will be used with your street shoes on.  But in private homes or hotels you may encounter a lower floor inside the toilets, indicating a lower rank of room.  If you already are in a no-shoe zone, toilet slippers will be provided for you to wear and you would commit quite a faux pas if you were to enter the toilet area in your bare feet or in socks (which I did when nobody was looking and the floors were dry).  If you are in your proper toilet slippers you need to be mindful not commit an even worse faux pas and to walk off with them up into the rest of the house!  It has been known to happen and you will hear about it…  In the really fancy places you might encounter color-coded toilet slippers for the sexes: red for women, blue for men.  But that is rare.

One non-frivolous feature I have not seen anywhere else in the world — and yet it makes so much sense — is the seat in the corner for a toilet customer with small children.  A kind of a high chair is mounted in the stall to drop off your child while you attend to your business.  Anyone with small children would attest to its usefulness, I am sure.  Why has that not caught on elsewhere, I don’t know.  Perhaps somebody should start a campaign for the improvement of public facilities in the US.  Go heated seat!  Go baby chair!

Good night.



SYNOPSIS:  About one of the three high festivals in Kyoto and the nights before and in between.


There are three key festivals in Kyoto, and I had planned my stay in Kyoto to experience one of them, the Gion Matsuri.   It is the largest of all festivals and activities are concentrated in nearly a ten day period, and culminate in two parades known as Yamaboko Junko, exactly one week apart, which symbolically welcome and then return spirits to the spirit world.  With my luck of living so far outside the city center it was hard get the full festival atmosphere each day, but I tried to catch some of the evening fun and at least one of the two parades.  Also, during the entire period of the festival you can observe the mikoshi (portable shrines for the deities) in their temporary places in town.  This is where you will see people behaving as if they were in a temple — that means, they will throw coins into a box, bow, and pray before these floats; after all, these boxes contain the gods.

What it boils down to especially for young people, is to dress up in traditional garb, to stroll the streets of Kyoto, which are blocked off to traffic after dark, to eat and drink, to collect stamps and souvenirs at each and every one of the floats, to see and be seen.  This time is known as the Yoiyama.   That kind of activity is obviously more fun when you are not traveling alone, so a little of it stretched quite far for me.

To fill in some of the history of the festival, you’d better check online.  But here is a brief run-through:  most other festivals in Japan are harvest related and take place in spring or autumn.  The Gion Matsuri is one of the few urban festivals that originated 1100 years ago when Kyoto was affected by the plague.  It evolved into a festival praying for the protection from urban disaster.  Since the 1960’s it developed into a tourist attraction  but despite that twist, it never completely lost its original meaning to the locals.  But as a tourist attraction it had changed and merged into one big, flashy show.  This is the first year that it has been revived in its original two-part form as a two-part parade with the saki-matsuri (welcoming) and the ato matsuri (sending off) of the gods to the city.

For me the most interesting parts of the nightly events were the street musicians and dancers.  At various parts of town, stages were set up and dance groups as well as bands were performing traditional music.  I wonder if later in the night when I had already returned to my suburb, this would turn a bit more “rocky” or not.  Some of the music and dances I saw take quite a bit of getting used to.  They are extremely monotonous for Western ears and performed in very slow motion.  But the costumes and the overall flair are fascinating.

The parade itself was something else!  Of course the one I attended was on a hot, hot, hot day again.  Already by  9 AM the thermometer had been rising above 90 degrees and if you wanted any glimpse of the parade you had to accept to be squeezed into a five to ten row deep stack of humanity which stretched for miles on end.  I got lucky in a way that I chose a spot at a corner.  Here, the parade turned a 90 degree angle.  This was the place to watch the most fun part of the parade, the turning operations of the large floats.

These floats…  there is definitely a float cult in Japan!  Every one of these floats has a name; as I mentioned, you can collect stamps proving that you visited each and everyone of them, and there are float related souvenirs, even DVDs!   There are two general types of floats: the hikiyama — huge four-wheeled floats pulled by 40-50 people, and the wheel-less kakiyama.   And then there are a whole lot of subcategories.  All the floats are on display days before the festival in various small streets.

Each float in the parade is accompanied by a crew of dressed up young men.  A few men pull the float along.  But it is at the corners, when things get tricky.  Even the small floats can’t be easy to turn.  Some have wheels, others don’t;  but all are turned at the corners solely by muscle power.   The large ones require dozens of men, called yocho.

When a corner in the parade is approached (there should be about four), the float is brought to a halt and then the operation starts: grease the roads with water, put rollers under the front of the wheels, prop beams against the back of the wheels, get the crew lined up and upon command:  how-dee — 1/3 of the turn is done.  Then the operation starts again and:  how-dee — 2/3 of the turn.  And then the final turn and the float is rolling again to the cheers and the applause of the lined up audience.  This 3x how-dee takes a full 20 minutes!  That is for one large float.  Why?

The largest of these floats weighs as much as two tons.  Hundreds of men have to accompany that one.  At any given time 50 men have to shoulder it; they are taking frequent turns.  That means these men carry as much as 40 kg symbolizing through the actual weight the enormous responsibility it takes if they were really carrying the gods.  As you imagine, a parade like this takes hours.  I mean hours!   After I had seen the second large float turn and even my loose fitting pants were soaked from all the water my body was exuding and from all the wet people squeezing against me, I had enough.  There was a total of 23 of those large floats in the parade…  I could not imagine standing and sweating through all of them.

The music that accompanies this all to my ears is mainly the same high-pitched line of flutes played by a line of men sitting on the left side of the top of the float and bells being rung by a line of men sitting on the right side of the top of the float.  It is memorable and distinct music but there is no variation to it.  Well, that’s what I say.  I read that each float has a repertoire of up to 36 different tunes.  As the music was playing on the days before after and in between the parades over loudspeakers in town, it really always sounded the same to me…  Between the larger floats, small ones come around.  And boxes and umbrellas are carried that surely all have some meaning.  Hundreds of dressed up groups of people walk along and some of them stop at corners like ours to perform a dance or two.  That too, goes on for hours.  And I mean hours!

After I broke loose from the crowds, I strolled through town people watching.

And before you know it, the day was over.  What a fun ending to the time in Kyoto!

Good night.


SYNOPSIS:  About the Nishiki Food Market, the Tea Ceremony at En, and the Gion Corner Potpourri performance of Japanese Culture.


Culture presents itself not just in permanent structures such as temples and shrines, but also in small tangible ways, etiquette of behavior, dress, food, music, theater, etc.

Today, I made the round exploring what I could: first, the Nishiki Food Market.  It’s a small street in the center of the Gion district filled with food vendors.  There are novelty foods, spices, pickled vegetables and  fruits; there is tea, sake, sweets and fish in all variations.  I hope there is some selling going on as most of what I observed were tourists like me, taking pictures.

The market was a feast for the senses (that is if you like tight spaces with an overload of things and smells).

In the afternoon, I went to a small tea house tucked into a tiny alley near the Yasaga Shrine.  There was an enterprising young woman who is studying the art of tea. She has been doing this for 1.5 years so far, but it takes a full 10 years to become a tea master!  She figured out that foreigners like me will actually pay a lot of money to learn.  So she rented this tea house and  is putting on three shows every day in which she is demonstrating the tea ceremony preceded by an introduction of the utensils used in the ceremony, and followed by the opportunity to whisk and consume your own green tea.  Six other foreigners and I were in the group.  That was thankfully small.  The next group after us most likely had 20-25 people in it.  No fun in a small tea house.

I guess you are best equipped for the tea ceremony if you have some experience with meditation.  It is a slow, deliberate and very stylized operation which has its roots in Zen Buddhism.  Everything, from how the hostess enters the room, how she folds her handkerchief, how she sits, how she holds the ladle, how she stirs, has been regulated.  I wonder if this highly revered tradition in part is responsible for all the rules in Japanese society today?  Rules definitely go way back in this culture and I think Zen Buddhism has to take a lot of responsibility.  I will check that out.

Well, that was a feast for your taste buds (that is if you like soupy green powdered tea).

One aspect of Japanese culture has fallen very short so far:  the performing arts. Unfortunately, neither June nor July is a great time to observe a lot of theater.  None of the famous art forms were performed while I was in town.  Not Noh, a very stylized form of performances associated with Shintoism, not the famous Geisha Dances Kyoto is known for, not any traditional Kabuki or Bunraki theater either.  I had to go with the one hour (almost) daily show at the Gion Corner which is pretty much performed for tourists only.  The first time I came, I had made a special date for it but found myself in front of closed doors.  Today, I came as sweaty as I was; ultimately, much more appropriate.

This show is a mess!  Everyone is there mainly to take pictures and you have to imagine the most unruly site you have seen in any theater ever.  People are getting up, holding up their I-pads, snapping their flashlights, etc.  You might as well get ready and do the same thing as there is no way to enjoy this show in a contemplative way.  But once you get over that hurdle, and you accept that it is all about snapping pictures, you can at least learn a bit.

The show starts off with the selection of two audience members who will be served tea by a tea master.  As the tea ceremony is in full swing off to the side of the stage and the audience is already getting impatient — this after all is a slow, stylized and artificial affair — the curtain opens for all those short attention span people, and two players on stage perform traditional koto music.  The koto is the quintessential Japanese stringed instrument (13 strings), plucked with a plectrum.  At the same time a woman appears on stage, accompanied by the koto, and the still ongoing tea ceremony is putting together a flower vase demonstrating the art of ikebana or kado.   This “triptych” performance lasted for about 15 minutes.

Three more 15-minute segments followed:  First, there was Gagaku, or court music.  It was very similar to some of the nightly street performances that were going on in Kyoto now leading up to the Gion Matsuri.  Fancily dressed performers move slowly and in stylized unison accompanied by a seated orchestra made up of drums, flutes, and bells.

What everyone was waiting for was the Kyomai, a dance style particular to Kyoto, performed by Maiko (Geishas in training) and Geishas.  More fun would be to see this dance during one of the main festivals as it is then performed by multiple dancers.  But we got at least one Maiko.  She performed two dances about a woman’s feelings during two different seasons.  Again, a slow performance, stylized and deliberate.  Each raised eye brow, each tilted finger is to express an ascribed emotion.  This type of extreme understatement is very much related to Noh theater, an art form associated with Shinto and the courts.

For comic relief a brief Kyogen act was performed.  That is a popular play which is performed as interlude during the serious, stylized and somewhat lengthy Noh plays.  It focuses on daily life scenes, exposes human weaknesses, pokes fun at people.  In this case, a paranoid lord had tied his servants up to prevent them in his absence from drinking his sake. Well, they managed anyhow, got drunk  and then mocked the lord who had come back only to witness their merrymaking and hear them talk about him in no flattering terms.

The final sketch was a Bunraki (puppet theater) scene of a distressed woman who could not get up the ladder of a very steep temple to ring the bell.  Finally, she managed.  Most interesting was to see that it took three black-mummied men to operate one single puppet.  Quite some engineering going there.

Curtain drawn; that was a feast for the senses (that is if you could ignore all the flashing, snapping, and clicking of dozens of cameras).

Good night.


SYNOPSIS:  About a temple, a rundown shrine and a missed one, a famous bridge and tea.


Uji is a small town between Nara and Kyoto that nobody would pay much attention to where it not for four things all at once: some of the best tea is coming from the Uji region, ten chapters of the famous Tale of Genji are taking place in Uji, and a whopping two of the 17 UNESCO monuments that are usually rolled together as the “Kyoto world heritage sites” are actually from Uji, which attests to its historical importance as the link between Nara and Kyoto.

A trip south was therefore in order.

The Byodo-in, or Phoenix Hall in Uji and the Kinkakuji in Kyoto are likely the two most beautiful executions of Pure Land Buddhism in all of Japan.  The Byodo-in has the advantage that you are able to enter the hall and get a really good feeling of the idea of Amida Buddha presiding over his paradise.

The site itself started out as a palace before it was converted into a temple in the 11th century.  The Phoenix hall features a single colossal, seated, gilded Buddha figure which has the added claim to fame as being the only authentic work of the great sculptor Jocho who influenced Japanese Buddhist sculpture for over 150 years, and who died in 1057.  He is also known as Jōchō Busshi.  The doors in front of it open to the pond and the head of the figure is lined up with a square opening in the latticed upper part of the doors, allowing the Buddha to look out over the pond.   26 (I think) musician figures, heavenly maidens, or apsaras are executed in relief and pinned to the wall of the hall, surrounding Amida’s head.  They play the full range of known instruments from lots of drums and percussion, to wind and string instruments.  They are adorable!  I would not mind a replica of one of those for my house…

All of the figures as well as the hall date authentically to the Heian period (794-1185) no fire, no destruction, no reconstruction here, except a heavy makeover and repainting of the hall exterior over the last two years.  A comparison between slides taken in 1993 by professor Kane and mine this year make that strikingly clear.  I don’t mind worn out old wood at all — to me, age should show to be appreciated.  But for some reason, Japanese seem to prefer the shiny repaint.  Or is it a matter of preservation?  I am glad the restorers stopped short of the interior.  It still has the patina of years gone by.

Photography was not allowed, but since the entire 15 minute tour as well as the full 5 minute long instruction on behavior was entirely conducted in Japanese, I decided to play dumb and take one picture, for which I was duly scolded.

The Ujigami Shrine is much less popular than the Byodo-in but nonetheless has been added to the world heritage list as it represents one of the few extant shrines in the indigenous nagare-zukuri style.  I am just so, so embarrassed to say that I missed it.  I don’t know how to explain this…

I crossed the river over the famous Uji bridge and where on my map the shrine should have been, there indeed was one.  But there was no UNESCO sign, no English language anything and it seemed a bit small to me, not to mention run-down.  I should have read the signs and followed my instincts.  Something did not seem right.  But I recognized the architectural style and convinced myself that I was in the right place.  I felt sorry for this world-heritage site and its neglected state but I knew this one would not be a big, flashy sight.

When I came home and opened the guide book (which I was too lazy to carry), it turned out that 100 meters south of the Ujigami Shrine there is the Uji Shrine.  Once they were a unit, but the Meiji restoration separated them.  And yes, both are from the same period and therefore constructed in the same style.  Ughh, I can’t believe this happened.  I never even made it to the Ujigami…  I know I did not miss anything really important, it’s more the fact that I was that close and missed it at all that bugged me!  It must be temple-shrine fatigue.

In fact, as this is one of the last couple of days in Kyoto, I have to say that I am quite worn out.  20+ temples, 5+ shrines, 10+ other things (like markets, theater, castles and the like) — this was a marathon with two more days to go.  Add the heat to this all — when there came a sign that said  “Genji Museum” , it could not even sway me to walk just a single kilometer to check it out.  That says something.

Instead, I stopped at one of the little wooden buildings along the river and in honor of the reputation of Uji tea, I ordered some green tea.  Don’t order this if you are thirsty.  You get a small plate with some sweets on it which you are supposed to eat in full before you start the tea.  I tried to order the tea without the sweets, but most likely that was a real insult.  The restaurant owner did not even know what to make of that request.  Gotta have those sweets whether you like them or not.  The tea is no more than three soupy sips and as I learned in a tea ceremony demonstration, has more caffeine than coffee has.  It perked me up all right.   But not enough to check out the Genji Museum.  🙂

It was time to call it a day.

Did I mention that my external hard drive conked out on me again?  It did that once before, several weeks ago.  I thought I was done with that.  3-5 hours of re-copying all my photo files and relinking with Lightroom are ahead of me, this time, on to a different external drive (no wonder my luggage is so heavy).  Since the last disaster I kept a very strict and consistent daily filing system on all of my chips — that will pay off now.  Just as a side note for frequent travelers: organization is key.  That goes for items as much as photos.

Good night.



SYNOPSIS:  Walking in the emperor’s footsteps.  About the Imperial Palace,  Katsura Imperial Villa, and Nijo Castle.   About permits and bureaucracy.


Walking in past emperors’ steps can be an awesome experience.  I am thinking of Versailles, for example, where the sheer size of the palace, the glittering opulence, the never-ending rooms, staircases, alcoves and hallways permeate the ego of the emperor to this very day.

If you come with expectations like this, you will be very much let down at the Imperial Palace of Kyoto.  And if on top of that, you have already seen a number of important temples, aristocratic residences, and gardens, you might — I am not kidding — skip the site all together.   The palace is neither particularly old, nor large, interesting, or innovative.  But for that alone it might be noteworthy on a philosophical level.   As much as Versailles is a representation of absolute power, the Imperial Palace might be taken as a representation for the puppet-role the emperor has played particularly during the years of the shogunate in Japan, roughly from 1192 to the end of the Edo period in 1867.

And following that train of thought, it should surprise no one that Nijo Castle, just blocks away from the Imperial Palace, is that much more ostentatious and therefore much more fun to visit.  It was built by the Tokugawas in the early 17th century and is a castle that definitely should not be missed.  It is a flatland castle (in contrast to hill and mountain top types) and is a particularly fine example of palace architecture versus defense architecture.

Yes, there are two moats filled with water and massive stone walls, and once there were turrets and a castle tower, too.  But in contrast to Himeji Castle, where the main concern was to ward off a potentially invading army — zig-zag patterns, hidden entries, booby traps, and multitudes of openings for shooters speak volumes of that — at Nijo, the emphasis was on comfortable, protected living and the show of might.   The architecture spoke volumes of status and rank through raised floors, variations in painting themes, and the location of rooms within the castle palace.

The central palace is spread out like an outstretched wing, surrounded by a beautiful garden.  It wasn’t so much an army that one had to fear but more an assassin.  Nightingale floors, literally chirping when you step on them — were a great innovation to prevent ill-minded intruders from sneaking in.

The Kano School of artists were covering the palace from the ceilings to the floors with painting of tigers and cranes, massive cedar trees and court ladies.  Ceilings are covered with square panels showing different floral and geometric motifs.  Every detail is executed to entertain, show off, intimidate, impress.

Another way of looking at these two places is the difference in taste that was developing.  The aristocracy and the emperor were turning to indigenous values and crafts whereas the shoguns were turning to China as the model for inspiration.  The more extroverted and showy the shogun style became, the more introverted, refined and subdued became the aristocratic style.

No better place to observe this than at Katsura Imperial Villa, or Katsura Rikyu.

But don’t just show up at the Katsura Villa or, for that matter, at the Imperial Palace.  There still is an emperor in Japan and this is his property.  You need a permission slip from the Imperial Household Agency located near the palace.  Originally, I had not even intended to visit the palace.  And given my recent experience with Kokadera temple — seven days advance notice via mail is required to gain access — I was ready for some red tape to get permission to visit the villa.  None of it!

I arrived at the agency at 9:20 AM, by 9:30 I had a permission slip for both the palace and the villa, and by 10 AM there was an English speaking tour of the palace for which people had to gather by 9:40 AM.  I could not have planned this any better.  This was too easy.  And so I joined the palace tour — what the heck.  But as I mentioned — it was a lackluster visit in hot, hot weather and if you are pressed for time in Kyoto — go to nearby Nijojo.  My villa tour was in the afternoon.  For Katsura no English speaking tour is offered; foreign visitors have to make do with an audio guide.

Katsura Villa has the reputation of being one of the finest garden villas complete with tea houses, viewing points, a moon observing platform, a treasure house, stone lanterns and fine landscaping.  It was all of that.  But never in my life would I have associated this villa with the emperor.   There was nothing ostentatious about it.  You had to look very carefully to know that no expense was spared in the selection of fine woods and expert craftsmen had been at work creating this serene spot of relaxation.

A very funny feature was a tiny rustic toilet in one corner of the garden, but it was just for show (if I understood this right).  You were supposed to appreciate the fine stones that had been used there for the squatter opening but somehow you were supposed to know that this was not for “real”.  Ladies are reported to have gone in there once in a while to straighten their dress or adjust their hair.  Hilarious.

All together, Katsura villa and gardens are not large.  The trick is to wind around the paths efficiently so that you can appreciate the garden and pond from various angles even though you are not actually covering a lot of ground.  One element of the garden I really found interesting in that respect was an attractive tree that was planted at the end of an alley near the entrance.  This is where you typically would enter.  Shortly after you pass the gate, the path forces you to turn.  When an hour later you come back to that spot, you realize that the sole purpose of the tree was to block your view.  You could have seen the entire garden from that spot were it not for the tree.  It prevents you from spoiling your whole experience.  Somebody had to come up with this.  Brilliant.

Unfortunately, none of the villa interior is open for the public, but from old slides professor Kane took in 1993, I gather that the interior is painted not in the flashy, colorful lacquer and gold leaf fashion that is found at Nijijo, but in monochrome ink washes.

All together this was a nice break from all the temples and shrines.

Good night.



SYNOPSIS:  About Kamigamo, Shimogamo, Heian Jingu, and Fushimi Inari Taisha.   


Temple saturation level has been reached, even for me.  So, what shall we do today?  I have a great idea:  let’s do shrines!  I realize that the concept of a “great idea” varies from person to person and that you think I am kidding, but I am not.  Shrines it is today.  I promise, at least one of them will be awesome even if it is one that did not make it onto the world heritage list.  It’s everyone’s favorite.

Shrines is what you bump into in Kyoto as you do temples.  At a ratio of one to four (that is 400 shrines and 1600 temples) that is about right.  I have bumped into a few shrines so far:  The Yasaka Shrine on the first day in Kyoto, which is a big, flashy one in the center of the Gion District, and the heart of the Gion Matsuri festival.  Then there was the silly Jishu Shrine filled with teenagers trying to walk blindfolded between two love stones which I stumbled on when I visited the Kiyomizudera Temple.  And in Uji there will be the Ujigamo Shrine, a site I will visit since it is close to the Byodo-in; it would not warrant a special trip on its own.

Today, we shall give shrines our fullest attention, not just run into them by accident or because they are nearby. The first one is way up north, a good full hour on the bus from the center of town, the KamigamoAlong with the Shimogamo, this temple pair are the oldest shrines in all of Kyoto and predate even the city itself.  The principal deity worshipped at Kamigamo is the Thunder god Raijin.

I thought sand piles are only found in Zen temples — I was wrong.  After you enter the shrine through two torii gates, two sand piles greet you.  But I think the concept of these piles differs from Shinto to Buddhism.  In the Buddhist temples I had read that they are piles purifying the visitor, piles for meditation.  If I get this right, at Kamigamo, they are landing pads for the gods to descend.

There is usually not as much to do at a Shinto shrine.  You go to the main hall, drop a coin, bow, clap your hands, make a wish, bow again and you are done.  Temple visits may take hours as there may be sub-temples, treasure houses, viewing gardens, etc.  Shinto shrines even at a leisurely pace can, with a few exceptions, usually be visited in one-half to one hour.

From Kamigamo in the north we wind our way back towards the center.  Kyoto is laid out along two sides of a river, which in the upper 1/3 of town splits into two rivers, the Kamogawa and the Tokanogawa.  They form a very feminine looking triangle and it is no wonder that in the midst of it there would be another important jinja, the Shimogamo, interestingly worshipping Tamayori-hime, a deity whose name can be translated as “spirit-inviting” maiden.

Close to the Gion district, in the center of town is the impressive Heian Jingu.  Its architecture is quite different from many other shrines and one of the main features is a strolling-garden, equally unusual.  In contrast to the northern “gamo” shrines, the Heian Jingu was only established in 1895 and most buildings you see today were actually rebuilt in 1976 after the original ones had been lost to fire.   I had not even planned on going here, but how things happen at times:

I wanted to board a bus to go south and was not absolutely sure if I was on the right side of the street.  As I was asking the driver for directions, a woman disembarked and took over.  I was going the wrong way, she insisted.  I was a bit surprised since I had double-checked my map, but this woman had a way of certainty about her which was hard to argue with.  I boarded the bus she insisted on and within one stop realized that I was going in the wrong direction.  But… this bus was going to stop right in front of the Heian Jingu.  Perhaps, she was a messenger of the spirits and wanted me to go.  Hard to argue with that, too.  I enjoyed the stroll through the garden and the moon-viewing corridor.

But there was no doubt how to get to the final shrine.  You had to board the train going south.  At the Inari stop on the Nara line you get off and only have to hop across the street in front of the station to find yourself engulfed by the Fushima Inari Taisha.  From there you follow red.  Red flags, red lanterns, red temple buildings but most of all red torii.  Lots and lots and lots of them.  This temple is dedicated to commerce and business.  Each of the hundreds (or are there thousands) of toriis has been donated by a business in Japan. **

For four kilometers the line of toriis is winding through the forest, up on top of the mountain.  If it had not already been rather late in the day, I would have done the full round.  But the day came to a close and I am not fond of hiking in the woods in the dark.  But even half the circle through the toriis was a magic experience which I hope you will enjoy at least in some form through the images.

It is a site to behold!

Shrines — checked off!  This was fun.  Just a few more things to do in Kyoto…

Good night.

**  One site online claimed 1300 toriis, another 10,000 — I certainly did not count nor would I verify one over the other number.  It’s a lot!


SYNOPSIS:  About a flea market, about sand, bees, an out of place art gallery, a Buddha who turns his head, an unexpected aqueduct; all in the context of a few temples such as the Ginkakuji, in the Okazaki area. 


There wasn’t a flea in this market and I regretted having gone through all the effort and time to get here in this excruciating heat.  I even took a taxi for part of it!  Of course, 33° Celsius does not come even close to the 50° I had to endure in Mali last year. But here, at this time of the year, and today in particular, the heat was coupled with 85% humidity and every part of my body inevitably was dripping.  Too late; I found myself at the Chionji.  This was solely, because the guide book had recommended its “flea market”.  At best you can call this an arts and crafts market.  There is hand-made jewelry, clothing, woodworking and ceramics.  But all of it was made yesterday and the souvenir shops in town are full of this wherever you look.  No need for more, no need for a market, at least not for me.

One single stand was interesting, and I could not figure out what was going on.  It was nearly closing time and an old lady was digging with her bare hands into several wooden buckets filled with some brown paste, pulling out vegetables to be packed up!  Honestly, not very appetizing.  What was that all about?  If she could put both hands into the bucket, I felt that I could dare to take a tiny dip into the paste and smell it.  For all I could recognize, it was yeast-based.  Was this a special kind of storage on hot market days?  Was this a traditional way of pickling or seasoning?  Neither she, nor anyone in earshot spoke English, so I am none the wiser.  But there is a photo of her and her buckets.  Now there is a puzzle…

The Chionji has two halls, as most Buddhist Temples.  In one, quiet prayers were going on, performed by a few visitors who had strayed from the shopping path.  In the other, not so quiet prayers were performed by anyone who cared to join, led by two monks.  They were chanting simple, unrecognizable syllables, drowned out by banging noises everyone created by hitting a round, skull-like “instrument” with a wooden spoon-type clapper.  A far cry from the sweet, Gregorian Chant-like Nembutsu Ann posted on the blog a while ago.  What the purpose of this drumming session was, again is beyond me.  In cases like this I truly regret not to have a knowledgeable guide with me.  Sorry, for leaving you hanging like this.

Chionji was the last temple for today.  Before I got completely lost in all the UNESCO or secondary temples, I have to make sure not to miss out on the big ones.  Today, the main target was the Ginkakuji, or the Silver Temple, and the Okazaki area of North-East Kyoto.

The patterns at the finely raked entrance path to the Ginkakuji Temple were still visible when I got there.  The multitudes that were expected to roll in today, as they roll in every day of the year, were still at breakfast.  As golden as the Kinkakuji is, don’t get your hopes up — this one is as plain as any wooden building.  But it is the same building type with that graceful square shape, punctuated by flame-shaped wooden windows, topped by a phoenix — all this mirrors the golden pavilion but it is at a more modest scale.  No surprise, as this one was built by the grandson of the builder of the Kinkakuji, Ashikaga Yoshimasa.  It is almost as if he wanted to honor but not outdo his ancestor.  The temple is located in a beautiful wooden setting surrounded by a pond, two peculiar and famous sand piles, a villa filled with famous paintings on sliding doors by notable painters, and a path through the woods, lined with moss, a stream, and beautiful rocks.   If you are afraid of bees, beware — the sand piles are swarming with them!  These are big bees — or are they wasps? You can see them going in and out of the various holes they dug for themselves in the sand.  And no doubt you can hear them humming as you walk by.

The Higashiyama Jishoji as it is formally known, is a Zen temple and Zen is an esoteric (secret) form of teaching.  The sand piles you see as you enter are understood to be purifiers for mind and soul acting on those who walk by.   And they can be symbols of various concepts, such as Mt. Fuji in this case, or salt, water, waves, or else, and they can be seen in various Zen places around Kyoto.

With that visit under my belt everything from here was just icing on the cake.  I don’t get a treat like a ten minute shady walk along a river in a scenic suburban neighborhood every day, when I make my way from one temple to the next.  Usually it’s a boring walk to the next bus stop, waiting, sweating, 1/2 hour in transit.  But the Honen-in was just that, ten pleasant stroll minutes away.  The ending “in” means temple just as the ending “ji”.  But it is an indication of size.  An “in” temple is usually much more intimate and small.  The Honen-in lived up to its name.  A modest gate lead down a path to a few small buildings.  Again, you passed through two piles of sand.  These were square shaped and one of them had a secret message written on it — secret to me, at least.  There was nothing special about this temple, really, but it was a cozy and quiet place.

In one of the corners of the temple there is traditional stone stupa in front of what looks like a modern artist’s interpretation of the elements of Buddhism.  A stone on the ground has the deep message:






Ponder that one.  The surprise comes when you realize that one of the small Buddhist halls has its doors open to welcome you to an art exhibit.  There is no charge, no commerce, just the quiet, dedicated promotion of contemporary, local artists.  Way to go, abbot of the Honen-in!  Rumor has it that you are a cool guy and I have no doubt about it.

The next stretch of the day was that typical walk, sweat, wait and ride kind of an experience.  The bus stop was quite a ways away from the actual temple and there was more walking.  And then I got tricked — at least it felt like that.  Everyone is heading for the big temple, but along the way there is an open door, another temple, another ticket booth and before I knew it I found myself in the wrong temple.  I was at the Eikando Zenrinji.  Darn!  That’s why I had circled the map, so I would not waste time in any of these 1600 temples…  But I had paid, I was at least going to look around.  And in Kyoto it’s hard to go wrong.  All these temples have something going for themselves.

Remember the guy who supposedly chanted the Nembutsu 60,000 a day — wouldn’t you know it, he was indirectly affiliated with this temple as it seems that one of his disciples by the nickname of Eikan also uttered the Nembutsu a lot and had a weird vision one day in the 11th century on a misty morning.  He had been walking around an Amida sculpture all night, which all of a sudden stepped off the pedestal, walked away and beckoned him to follow.  Since he just stood there, petrified, Amida turned back to him and called him to follow.  Eikan shared this vision with his congregation and a figure of Amida was sculptured as he was turning his head — totally unique in Buddhist sculpture where all images face forward.  Now that was worth getting side-tracked, or not?

15 more minutes walking and I finally reached the temple I had been looking for in the first place, the Nanzenji.  The gate, the Chokushimon was certainly nothing like I had ever seen: it was ginormous and you could go up into it.  There was a whole hall full of Buddha statues in there!  That is not what a gate usually is, but it was very impressive.

The Nanzenji is another one of those cities within a city kind of a place with 13 sub-temples and a sprawling area.  For visitors, only this gate and a garden with a villa is open.  The villa is full of priceless art works from the famous Kano school, so strict non-photography applies.  That’s like having a lot of Rembrandts or Raphaels.    But the gardens were lovely.

One more cool surprise, not even mentioned as anything special in the guidebook: there was a brick aqueduct right next to the temple.  All of a sudden you thought you were in the middle of Europe facing a Roman leftover.  This thing was still functioning — water was running all along the top channel!   Very impressive and picturesque, too.

All in all, another hot, temple-heavy day.

Did I mention that I finally found some edible bread with crust at the “flea market”?

Bread is a subject I don’t even want to mention.  I wish I could show any Japanese baker what a good slice of German bread looks like.  Perhaps, somebody could make a fortune around here.  Japanese bread is worse than American Wonder Bread.  It’s all white and fluffy and pointless.  But the bread at the market had a hint of substance and a crust that could not be poked in by the merest touch.  That made my day.

And along with my one-dollar dinner,  a bowl of Ramen noodles, I had a big slice of it!

Good night.


SYNOPSIS:  About the most famous of all temples, the Kinkakuji, and a few others, and about Japanese Manga.


Ninja Museum was a note I had scribbled on my map.  All I remembered was that it was about popular culture.  And all I can think of when I think of popular culture in Japan is the Ninjas.  I figured that at some point in my temple marathon, I would need some comic relief.  The time had come.

Don’t get me wrong.  Today was an awesome temple day.  It seemed like I was on UNESCO fast lane.  Almost all of these temples were part of the world heritage list.  Today included the absolutely most incredible building in all of Kyoto:  The Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion.  And they are not kidding.  It’s not a little gold here or there; the entire three storied building, save the lowest floor with its white sliding doors, is gold plated.  As you enter the garden in which it is located and you expect to be led around various paths to the temple climax and then — it is literally the first thing you see as the path opens up — you can’t help but be awestruck!

The Golden Pavilion is a Buddhist hall with images — you can see from afar a Buddha sitting on the main floor.  You can see the building only from the outside.  Nobody is even going near it.  Years ago, it was still possible to tour the building until an arsonist set it ablaze…!  The hall is part of a larger Zen Temple formally known as Rokuonji and was built by a shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.  He had envisioned the pavilion, the pond and the surrounding buildings as a manifestation of Amida’s Pure Land, and he willed it to become a Zen Buddhist temple after his death.  Here is confusion again: a Pure Land representation was willed to become a Zen Temple?  Zen and Jodo teachings are quite different.  I am sure there is a history to this which I won’t figure out now.  But there is some Pure Land for you!  Here, you really get that sense of paradise.  I wonder if the no longer existing buildings which I visited in Hiraizumi, that were so disappointing, once came close to this?

Before I got to the Kinkakuji, I had stopped at the Daitokuji, expecting a temple.  Far from it.  It’s a city within a city!  I counted 4.5 city blocks square and over 30 walled-in sub-temples all collectively known by the name of Daitokuji.  That complex wore me out!  And after the Kinkakuji, there were two more temples…   A brief summary of each of those in the temple post script.

But I had started a day early and these temples were on a route conveniently connected by buses that ran close by.  Transit was minimal.

Why not clear my temple-bogged mind with a few Ninjas?  As I approached the Ninja museum, I read everywhere “International Manga Museum”.  Yes, manga, not mango.  What the heck was that?  I wondered if I had gotten mixed up somehow, but no.  Manga is about Japanese pop culture.  I just had never heard of it — I know this statement is probably going to make manga fans cringe — so I had labeled it “Ninja” museum.

I definitely was a fish out of water, dropping in at a place where I did not even know what to do.  I have visited hundreds of museums, but none like this.

The minute I got in, I was confused.  There were no displays.  This looked like a three-storied gigantic library with people everywhere sitting, standing, even lounging on the floor.  They were all reading!  Was I supposed to read?

There were other areas where people were sitting and drawing, table after table; little kids, teenagers, even adults.  Paint, papers, and pencils were strewn everywhere.  Some people were drawing others for a fee.  Was I supposed to draw?

I found a place to squat and study the museum guide map.  Ah, there were two areas that were marked as displays.  That sounded promising.  History of Manga.  I was obviously in desperate need of that.  But even in this exhibition area, there were more book shelves and people reading than there were people like me who were frantically trying to figure out what this was all about.

An hour later, I had some understanding.  But you’d better check this out online if you care, since I have no more than the barest rudimentary idea now.  If I had to sum it up in one word: comics.  Why didn’t they say so in the first place?  I was in a comics museum which has over 300,000 Japanese and international manga comic books.  People come here to read for hours.  Museum entrance fee is probably about the equivalence of a single manga magazine.  Here, fans have all the magazine volumes bound in books going back to the dawn of manga (if that could be defined).

What I could not figure out even after I had read through the entire history of the genre, was what exactly distinguishes comics from manga or manga films from regular animation.  But I am sure the more I learn about it, the more this will become clear.  It’s probably like one of my students saying to me:  There is a difference between Renaissance and Baroque?  But they all look alike.  They all are paintings!  You have to start somewhere…

One thing that immediately struck me is the connection between ancient Buddhist Zen paintings and even Buddhist sculpture and manga.  I am sure people before me have noticed that.  But that would be fun to investigate.  Some day.

I had a full day.  No.  That is an understatement.  This was a cram-packed full and long day.  Not even enough energy was left to archive and label photos.

I was ready to reach for my one-dollar noodle dinner, when boisterous Kaizasan knocked on the door and then immediately entered — she has that slightly unsettling habit — with a plate of homemade food.  She had a name for the dish which I immediately forgot.  I would have called it stir-fried rice.  She calls me “Number One” — that is for my room number.  She has come by with a few treats, which is really sweet of her.  I think, I am in her only single room.  I have been able to peek into a couple of other rooms — all dorm rooms with bunk beds.  But those rooms had a TV in the room and even a window.  Perhaps she feels sorry for me to be so cooped up?  Whatever the reason, I appreciate her little spoils even if they come with a somewhat rude entry.

Good night.


Temple Post Script:

Daitokuji — Zen temple complex with 4-5 sub-temples open to visitors.  Definitely worth stopping by especially if you appreciate Zen gardens; that means sand and rocks arranged in very sparse and careful ways meant to aid in deep and long meditation.  Due to the individual temple visits (and charges), this temple takes a lot longer to visit than any of the other single temples.

Zuiho-in — The most “wavy” of the Zen gardens at the Daitokuji with sand lined up in quite distinct three-dimensional profiles.  A bit too busy for my taste, but memorable as much as wavy sand can be memorable.  However, this garden design is quite recent (1960’s).  Interestingly, the feudal patron of the monastery had converted to Christianity for a while (as it was still legal) and somewhere in the garden a statue of the virgin Mary is symbolically buried to commemorate the persecution of Christianity in Japan.  Nice touch.

Ryogen-in — One of the oldest of the sub-temples at the Daitokuji with no less than five different gardens, one dating back to the 13th century and one being the smallest in all of Japan.

Daisen-in — The most elaborate of all the Zen gardens at the Daitokuji with complex “iconography” of turtles, ships, reclining oxen, etc.  The most stingy temple regarding photography.  Even the garden is off limits and a guide leads you around.  You will hardly be left alone.

Koto-in — The only fully “green” garden at the Daitokuji with most of the above ones being “dry”, or rock and sand gardens.  The approach to this temple through a corridor of maple trees, moss and bamboo is magical.  In the fall this must just blow you away as the maples turn orange and red, setting themselves off against the dark greens.

Ryoanji — One of the most famous Zen gardens can be seen in this temple.  The overall gardens are wooded, with a big lotus pond.  But the focus is a small rock garden set off against a faded yellow wall prized for its natural aging.  A unique wash basin displays four characters that spell something like:  I learn to be content.  This is to ponder spiritual wealth versus material wealth.  Well worth a visit.

Ninnaji — An old temple (9th century) with a unique mix of palace and temple architecture.  My absolute favorite spot in Japan — because time and place and the weather just came together for me for a brief, perfect time: it was the end of the day, no more temples ahead of me.  There was time to slow down.  I found myself in one of the buildings of the Ninnaji, when one of those summer down pours started.  Instead of fighting it, I decided to wait it out.  I happened to be sitting at a Zen garden veranda with greenery and the peak of a pagoda behind me.  There were hardly any people around; a few came and went.  But for more than a half hour I listened to the rain and watched it coming down in big heavy streaks onto the sand, into the pond, off the roof, onto the rocks.  It was a perfect ending of the temple part of the day in Kyoto; simply divine!



SYNOPSIS:  About temples that play hard to get, about a bamboo grove.   About a failed date.


I had a date tonight!  After a full day of temple visits I had gone home to prepare.  I washed my hair, put on nice clothes and if I ever would use lipstick, this would have been the day I would have put it on.  Since I could not have a date with a person, I had decided on a date with the theater.  I would have a night out in Kyoto!

Imagine my disappointment when I reached the famous Gion Corner and found myself before a sign that simply stated:  We are closed today.  We are happy to welcome you tomorrow.  That, from a place which is advertised as putting on a show every night.  Mind you, I had to come all the way out here from the suburbs.  I have never felt quite so stood up! **

The day had been marked by being stood up one way or another.  When no guidebook mentions the temple you want to see, something is fishy even if it’s listed as a world heritage site.  I should have known.  By 8:30 AM, the opening time for most temples, I had arrived in front of the gates of the, Kokedera a mountain temple way out East.  The gates were closed, nobody in sight.  I figured I was early.  But then I started to read the various postings at the door and found out that to visit this temple you had to write a letter which needed to reach the temple 7 days before your intended visit.  That was a first!

But OK, I did my calculations and yes, if I wrote the letter today and left it right here, the timing would work out.  But how to write it?   Where to leave it?  Where to get a sheet of paper?  A monk-gardener was working behind the gate and I called him over.  With sign language and his limited English we had about the following conversation:

ETI want to visit the temple.

Gardener:  Crossed his arms into an X in the well-known “no” sign in Japanese.

ETI know I have to write a letter.  Where can I get paper?  I made the sign of a square and moved my hand as if writing.

GardenerLetter, seven years with post.  I know he meant days, not years, but given the sad state of English around here, he had at least a few words at his disposal and that was promising.

ET:  I am right here.  Again, I made the square sign, moved my hand as if writing and then handed him the imaginary letter.  No post, I added for emphasis.

GardenerPost, he repeated.

ET:  (no longer caring if he understood every word but accompanying everything with lots of hand gestures).  Come on!  I am right here.  I can write the letter and give it to you.  Where can I leave a letter?  Where can I get paper?

GardenerAt 10 o’clock.  (I guess he understood just about everything I had just said!)

ETYou are kidding me!  It’s 8:30 (pointing to my empty wrist).  You want me to come back at 10 AM to write a letter when I am right here, right now?!

Gardener:  10 o’clock.


That is thanks in Japanese.  I am not sure what I thanked him for.  But I left.  It was too soon to throw a fit.  And I had just thrown one a few days ago at the bank in Nara.  I had not yet built enough steam for another one.  It was early in the morning and still bearably cool.  It was beautiful around here.  And what else is new?  Japan is full of f-ing rules.  I had to get with it.  I am a visitor.  I need to be polite.  OK, Kokedera was crossed off the list.

Up North I went from here to an area known as Arashiyama.   There are various sites one could spend time on, but sticking with my rule (am I that different from the Japanese?) I only visited the ones I had circled:

First, there was the Tenryuji, another UNESCO site with famous gardens.  They had the novelty arrangement that you needed to buy two tickets: either you bought one for the garden, then you could not enter the temple building, or you bought one for the temple building, then you could not enter the garden.   But you did not know that as you entered one of two gates if you were a foreign visitor since that information was only posted in Japanese…!  By the time you had figured out the system, you were stuck.  I think I got the better deal, the garden.  And just to boycott them, I did not buy the ticket for the building.  I talked to a couple from Denmark and got the assurance that I really had not missed much — they wished they had gotten the garden ticket.  Each group of visitors could look into the other ticket area, but not see it all.

North of the temple, there was the famous bamboo grove. I had been looking forward to that one.  It was just a short walk, and except for all the people who were flooding through it, was almost as magical as I had imagined it especially since we just had another of the many daily rain showers.  The grove was steaming and covered in haze, which only added to its beauty.

At the bottom of the hill, the Nonomiya Shrine provided some lighthearted fun again.  The shrine seemed small, but curiously it was associated with the most famous of all imperial shrines: Ise!  The young and unmarried princesses which were sent off to Ise to serve as priestesses had to undergo up to three years of initiation here before being carried off (yes, in one of those pellegines) to Ise Shrine. What qualified them to bring good luck to marriages, was beyond me, but that was what the shrine was cashing in on: successful marriages.

Today was a tough day as far as transit was concerned.  On the map the distances looked almost reasonable, but there were transfers, weekend schedules, reversed lines and all, which added a lot of time and wasted a lot of my energy.  But hey, it’s all in the name of knowledge, right?

The final temple of the day was Koryuji.  It has two things going for itself.  An unusual and somewhat rare octagonal building and one of the most important seated Maitreya figures of all!  Ami, if you are reading this — I had to think of you today!  You would remember how professor Kane went bonkers over this particular Maitreya.  She loved the suspense created by how he held his fingers ever so delicately to his cheeks without ever touching them.  He is quite lovely, indeed.

But where was the octagonal building?  The temple grounds were not that big and I had made the round twice.  It finally dawned on me that the building would have been at the end of a garden path which was blocked off.  I went to the ticket counter:

ETHow do I get to this building?  Pointing to the map.

Ticket clerk:  Crossed her arms into an X in the well-known “no” sign in Japanese.  It is closed.

ETThat’s no problem.  I don’t need to go inside.  I just would like to look at it from the outside.  ET accompanying every sentence with the appropriate visuals hand signs, circling the building on the map.

Ticket clerk:  Crossed her arms again into an X.  Only open once in year.

ETWhat do you mean?  The building does not need to be open.   It’s the path that is closed.  Why can’t you open that? 

Ticket clerk:  It’s national treasure.  

ETAnd so is this and that. ET pointing to various other buildings on the grounds all known to be national treasures.  After all, this temple had gotten UNESCO world heritage status.  Why is the path closed?

Ticket clerk:  It’s a rule.

ETAh!  Now I get it!  Of course.  It’s a rule!  It makes all sense now.  Arigato daimos.  Thank you so very much!  

And with a big smile and a bow I retreated.

I know that the sarcasm was lost on her.  It was more for myself anyhow.  She was the poor messenger here.  Unbelievable!

This was not the first time I had come across this idea that a statue or a building is open only once a year on this or that arbitrary date.  I am convinced that this is nothing more than a control thing; perhaps, a money maker.   Rule-shmool!   I am not sure I can take a lot more of this nonsense.  This is beginning to wear me out.

Good night.

** Had I just read the brochure, I would have found a list of the four admittedly unusual closing days of the year, of which I had sure-handedly picked one.  Never anyone to blame, but myself.  Darn.


SYNOPSIS:  About technology and about the lack thereof.  About temples (in the post script) and one hall that boggles the mind and that should not be missed.


I did not think I would witness a low-tech scene like this in high-tech Japan.  So far I had been impressed by airport control systems that would scan my innocent milk-tea bottle and allow me to take it rather than force me to throw it out — why don’t we have something like this?

I was floored when the boisterous host of my kitchen hotel, Kaiza, whipped out her I-Pad, plugged in a little device and swiped my credit card.  On her phone!  It was phenomenal.

Given all this high tech stuff, it was almost embarrassing to watch the weekly round of money collection at the Nishi-Honganji today.  I just stumbled on it: four guys, a blue bucket, a wooden cart, and a few dozen cloth bags and you are in business.  Who needs more?  The team went from box to box, pole to pole, and can to can to collect a week’s worth of offerings and temple donations.  The first guy had the keys to all the locks.  The second would take the box, pole, or can and empty it into the third guy’s blue bucket who then would turn and empty out the content of the bucket via a funnel into a cloth bag.  The first or second guy now would swing into action again tying the bag, and into the wooden cart it went; which in turn was pushed by the fourth guy — in uniform.  I did not see a weapon, but he was the safety man of the team.  Occasionally, the bigger boxes had to be lifted by two of them and the other two would scoop out hands full of money.

The whole show reminded me of the infamous saying of the indulgence campaign in Europe:  “Sobald der Gülden im Becken klingt im huy die Seel in Himmel springt“ roughly translated:  “As soon as the coin makes a sound in the collection box, the soul will jump into heaven”.

It took them a long time to make the round through the temple, and by the end of it — I should have just gotten close to get a picture of the cart — there were dozens of bags lined up full of coins (and a few bills).  This must have been a heavy cart!  And now the monks will have to roll these up into neat bank-depositable chunks.   Or do they have a machine for that?

I had wondered about how this all worked.  Now I know.

I still wonder about some of the remote mountain shrines.  There are just so many…

There are temples and there are shrines, and there is the definite overload if you have to do these all in a row and in one trip.  But here and there something stands out as unforgettable and without comparison.  To me, the Sanjusangendo is one of those places and today, I saw it.  The original building dates from the 12th century, the one you currently see is from the 13th.   It is a hall of 130 meter length (or 33 bays) and 5 bays width.  Its official name is Rengeo-in.  The principal image is a colossal figure of Kannon flanked by 1000 near life-sized Kannon figures, 500 on each side.   Somebody took the idea of 1000 quite literally here!  Note, that three images where missing.  Why?

Typically, you have the 1000 armed Kannon represented with 42 arms of which 8 are principal arms and 36 are smaller scale.  These are impressive figures.  One and only one Kannon that I know attempts to show all 1000 arms.  That image is in Nara, at the Toshodaiji and from what I read, 953 arms have been accounted for.  But here you walk through a dimly-lit hall past 100, 42 armed Kannon figures long and 10 figures deep.  If you look at them straight on, the arrangement seems clustered.  But if you look at them at a slight angle, the neat arrangement of 10 becomes obvious.  These figures are all made of cypress wood in an assembly technique, but they are far from identical.  Attributes vary, folds differ and even the size of the head changes ever so slightly.  A row of guardian figures is lined up in front of the Kannons.  This is a site that can take your breath away.

The photo prohibition warning sites were stern — worse than I have seen anywhere else: if you get caught using your camera it will be confiscated!  If you have a camera it will be inspected upon leaving the building.  I was intimidated enough to not take pictures — the one you see here is a download.  At the end, there was no such inspection.  🙂

My recommendation if you are pressed for time in Kyoto.  Skip a temple or two, but do not skip this hall.  It is a one of a kind.

Another 10 hours in the heat.  At least there was no rain today.

I am falling asleep the minute I get home and I am falling behind in the blog…  Good thing, I have a few days of leeway to catch up…


Good night.


Post script on today’s temples, in addition to the Sanjusangendo.

Toji — with the 187 feet, five-tiered, tallest pagoda in all of Japan, the temple has become an icon of Kyoto.  An impressive image hall features a seated Yakushi figure seated on a most unusual pedestal decorated with the 12 sacred generals and surrounded by the usual candidates:  Nikko and Gakko, guardian figures and all.

You hear so much about all the many fires that have waged in these temples over the centuries, but it is just a line in the guidebook.  At Toji that line springs to life with the reality of four large-scale charcoaled Buddha figures.  A haunting site!

Nishi Honganji — this temple is mainly big!  It is a Pure Land temple attached to the Ryukoku university which presumably is a Pure Land teaching institution.

Higashi Honganji — within walking distance from the Nishi Honganji, the Higashi Honganji seems to try to compete.  It’s at least as big as the Nishi. It belongs to a branch of the Shin Buddhist Jodo sect…  As I said once before, I am losing it.  Some day I will map these sects out into a family tree of sorts.  This is getting out of hand!

Noteworthy is that it has a detached (three blocks away) garden, the Shosei-en, and abbots’ residence that is worth a visit for its tranquility and its interesting stone walls.