Hello again. I hope you like sakura because today’s post is absolutely filled with it. As indeed was Kyoto last weekend.
Ah Kyoto. In my view there’s no city quite like it. Where else can you find a city so large bustling and vibrant and yet so densely populated by interesting historical features. London or Paris may have more attractions and sights all together but they can’t match the way that shrines and temples seem to leap out at you from every corner, the way that you can’t go more than twenty yards without seeing something ancient or scared or both or how you can be in a modern convenience store, step out, turn left and be confronted by an image straight out of pre-meiji-era Japan. Truly it’s one of the best places to be a tourist in the world.
And just to make it even better I was not travelling alone but was, for a change, accompanied by my wonderful and patient girlfriend Fran. During my first couple of weeks in Japan I basically spent all my time wandering around going “oh Fran would love this” or “I can’t wait to show this to Fran” or variations on that theme. Now I finally had a chance to introduce Fran to my Japan. Oddly however I opted to start with something she’d already seen, Kiyomizu-dera. But while Fran had visited this temple before she hadn’t visited it when the sakura was in bloom and that made all the difference.
You might notice that some of the photos in this post are, well good. Rest assured my photographic skills have not miraculously improved overnight and no deals with the devil have been struck. Instead the good photos can be attributed to Fran who will hopefully be sparing you all my amateurish attempts in future. Not entirely alas but at least your eyes will be spared some of the torment I refer to as photography.
Anyway, enough pre-amble. What did we do?
We set forth first by train to Kyoto station and then by foot in the general direction of away from Kyoto station and uphill. This strategy was largely working for us until Fran became intrigued by some “pretty sakura” and we had to be diverted from our path to wander into a smaller temple to look at the sakura.
I have no idea what this temple was called but it was absolutely packed! The main garden in the centre was absolutely full of middle-aged Japanese people and off to the side there was a building that seemed to be some kind of museum. Just before this building was a row of desks and the sort of queue I’d expect to see in a post office or some kind of government building. Only it was a temple. This intrigued me greatly but alas we had no time to waste and I mentally filed it to investigate another time.
And in fairness to Fran the sakura in the temple was very beautiful, but it was nothing compared to the one we were about to go find so I hastened her onwards. However our detour had taken us away from the path we wanted to take and into the biggest graveyard I have ever seen.
Kiyomizu-dera sits atop a hill and on the slopes to the east of the temple heading almost into the heart of the city itself is one, huge, graveyard. It is an intimidating and impressive sight, row after row after row of gleaming marble neatly arrayed and spreading out to cover an entire mountainside. If I didn’t think it was somewhat disrespectful I would have taken some pictures because it was truly awe inspiring.
And what’s more it was quite busy too. You may or may not know this but Japanese people have a very different relationship with their dead relatives than we in the west do. This derives from the old Shinto religion in Japan which holds that souls do not enter any kind of heaven but instead remain on earth bound into natural forms, as stones, trees, etc or sometimes as ghosts. So when famous or important people die a shrine is built on their remains and they achieve a kind of godhood from this. They are a god and they live inside the shrine. This doesn’t just happen to famous people though, whenever a Japanese person dies they effectively live inside their gravestone or a household shrine dedicated to them. In fact a tombstone becomes not merely an icon or marker but a sort of body after death. Japanese people still feed their dead relatives, usually mochi (a kind of rice cake) and offer them drinks. Sometimes they go out and give their dead relatives a wash, giving the gravestone a really good scrub so that it stays gleaming marble and isn’t neglected. Fran has even done this apparently and there were a few people out bathing their relatives on this lovely sunny day. There are even two festivals each year (in the spring and autumn equinox) where the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead are much closer. At these times Japanese people go visit their relatives, drinking, chatting and reminiscing and generally remembering all the things you loved about them.
This I think is quite brilliant actually. I don’t for a second believe in any of the spiritual aspects of this but I think that a festival to celebrate all your dead friends is a fantastic idea. In the west we’re too conditioned to let the dead go and we suffer too much grief and depression because of it. In Japan the dead never really go but continue to be a presence in your life, a postive and happy presence. Visting a graveyeard is not a mounrful ocassion but an excuse to get out and about on a sunny day.
I will say this though. The practise of household shrines is yet another way in which the combining of Buddhism and Shinto into one religion in Japan is faintly ridiculous. In one you live forever in nature, in the other you continually re-incarnate and what happens after detah is a central tenent in both religion that is nigh on impossible to reconcile together. Most Japanese people don’t even attempt to reconcile the two though and seem cheerfully uninterested that their religion doesn’t make a lick of sense. Which is all for the best probably.
All this diversion meant we were approaching Kiyomizu-dera from the wrong side. Typically one wants to start at the left hand side of the temple if facing the mountain and move right and back down into Kyoto city. However we had approached from the right and were at the right hand bottom side of the temple. We could head back down a bit and loop round but we decided to head up the mountain and right to get some photos and then back into the main temple.
Before we did this though we opted to try and beat the crowds that we knew would form by going to drink the scared water early.
Kiyo-mizu literally translates as “pure water”. The story behind its founding is recorded at the temple itself but frustratingly wikipedia appears to have let me down on this one. As I recall a monk in 8th century had a dream to found a temple where a spring was and he found the pure water. Sorry it isn’t more evocative but that pretty much was all there was to the story in the first place. The sacred waters are meant to confer prosperity, longevity and health and fancying some of that me and Fran queued up to take the waters.
To take the scared waters you go into a shrine that is positioned underneath a sort of parapet over which the waterfall flows. This means that technically you’re underneath the waterfall but the actual water is about 3 ft in front of you. To take the sacred water you have to use a large pewter cup on a stick, dangling it in the falling water and then bringing it back in to drink from whilst simultaneously trying to avoid whacking people with the 3ft of wood extending from your face.
Having successfully negotiated the crush of people without causing a facial incident Fran and I headed off to go get our pictures.
And my word what pictures we got.
Easily one of the finest sights in the whole world.
Apparently legend holds that if you plunge from that veranda and survive then one of your wishes will be granted. Apparently, mostly due to the vegetation below, this is eminently do-able and about 85% of the pilgrims who attempted this during the Edo period survived. No word on what proportion got their wish granted but if I leapt off a building my wish on the way down would probably be something along the lines of “oh god I want to live, I want to live!” so I’m estimating quite a high percentage. It also used to be a popular suicide spot (the trick would seem to be to angle your head) so the government put a stop to leaping off for any purpose. Spoilsports.
Coming back into the temple complex proper I was pleased to see that the crowd for the sacred water was now enormous. Is there anything that makes an Englishman happier than learning that he has skilfully avoided an enormous queue?
Looping back into the temple annoyingly we couldn’t enter the main temple from this angle and so had to go down the mountain and come back up again where we detoured into the jisha-shrine that is on the same grounds.
Jisha is the Japanese god of matchmaking and together with his messenger (a white rabbit) they’re the subject of this shrine. The shrine is tiny due to being squeezed onto the same grounds as the much more impressive Kiyomizu-dera but it is the most commercially dense shrine I have ever visited. There is exactly one thing there that doesn’t offer you the chance to part with money and that is the love stones, supposedly a pair of stones about 18 yards apart. If you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed then all your wishes for love will be fulfilled. I would have loved to have given this a go but the place was so packed that I couldn’t even find the second stone despite searching frantically for it for some time. For all I know it doesn’t exist. Maybe it costs 500 Yen to see the other one and it’s rendered invisible until you buy some special glasses.
Despite how much I complain about the rampant commercialisation in Japanese shrines I am still a sucker for them. Thus I ended up buying a pair of charms for me and Fran that promised to “deepen our relationship”. I also had a go at the shrine of some tubby bloke who invited me to rub his belly for small fee in order to get a wish granted. As of yet said wish has not been granted but I live in hope.
Whilst we were in Jisha-jinja some kind of ceremony began. I cannot begin to comment on what it signified or its purpose but I can briefly describe what it consisted of. Firstly two monks emerged from the inner shrine wielding various plants and fruits. They began to chant and wave the plants and fruits over the spectators, then everybody bowed, then they did it again. Diverting but not exactly captivating.
And on that note let’s call it a night. I still have loads more to post about Kyoto and Kiyomizu-dera but it is getting very late for me and bed beckons. I promise you on Thursday I will have geisha, drunks, pottery and racist caricatures. See you then.