Lonely Planet Guidebook 10th edition 2007 has a section in the very front of it giving a list of all the things that one should do in Japan.
Quite a lot of this is stuff that I have already covered on this blog (Tsukiji Fish Market, Sumo Wrestling, Eating vast quantities, staying in a Ryokan) whilst some of it is stuff you couldn’t pay me to do (hike the Japanese Alps, what am I a masochist?).
The very first thing, the number one thing listed in this section is see the temples, gardens and shrines of Kyoto.
And the picture they use is of the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-Ji.
Which would be this.
I don’t know about the number one must see attraction in the whole of Japan but i7ll grant them this. It is very pretty.
You want background, nicked from Wikipedia? You got it.
Kinkaku-Ji (金閣寺, Kinkaku-Ji?) or “Golden Pavilion Temple” is the informal name of Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺, Rokuon-ji?) or “Deer Garden Temple” in Kyoto, Japan. It was originally built in 1397 to serve as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as part of his estate then known as Kitayama. It was his son who converted the building into a Zen temple of the Rinzai school. The temple was burned down twice during the Ōnin War.
What’s more not only has it been burned down twice wartime it was also nearly burnt down a third time in the 50’s.
On July 2nd, 1950 at 2:30 am, the pavilion was burned down by a monk named Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the Daimon-ji hill behind the building. He survived, and was subsequently taken into custody. During the investigation after the monk’s arrest, his mother was called in to talk with the police; on her way home, she committed suicide by jumping from her train into a river valley. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released because of mental illness on September 29th, 1955; he died of other illnesses shortly after in 1956. At that time, the statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was burned. A fictionalized version of these events is at the centre of Yukio Mishima’s 1956 book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
What is it about Kinkaku-Ji that seems to invite fire?
Ah, it might be the phoenix statue on the roof. Beautiful and renowned building keeps being burnt down only to rise again in golden colours. Yeah, that’s pretty thematically appropriate but it may tempt fate just a wee bit.
Kinkaku-Ji almost takes you by surprise the first time you see it. When approaching the temple from the bus stop you have to wander through a thoroughly modern Japanese city of concrete, buses and breezeblocks. Even once you reach the entrance and start walking through gardens the actual building itself is completely out of sight. So you start walking through the hedges when suddenly you turn a corner and…
…this greets you. A golden building. A building, covered from top to bottom in gold leaf. That can’t possibly be real right? Golden houses are for fairytales or cartoons. How can you possibly be looking at something covered in gold?! It is obscene in its opulence. It is surreal, it is otherworldly! It doesn’t belong here! How is it you have magically wandered into a fairytale?
And then you notice that there are really quite a lot of tourists here and the illusion is shattered. Obviously you are in modern Japan still. You haven’t stepped 600 years back in time and into some kind of fantasy world you are still in modern Japan. Overcrowded, cramped and hectic Japan.
And yet a Japan that, for all its problems with over crowding, with pushy tourists taking hundreds of photos, with the commercialisation of everything that can be seen, is still capable of preserving this piece of a magical otherworld for 600 years.
That there is a very pretty building.
Like all the finest examples of Japanese architecture it isn’t just the building itself that is so appealing (Though it is pretty impressive nonetheless. It’s covered in real gold!) but rather the way in which it harmonises with the natural world around it. From every viewpoint Kinkaku-Ji is offset by a background of green which compliments the golden colour. Though it is striking it isn’t gaudy, as something covered in gold leaf easily could be, instead it seems to enhance the natural setting behind it in the same way that the setting enhances it.
The reflecting pool is a particularly nice touch, giving a light source to brighten up the golden shine and giving you a reflection that provides two golden pavilions for the price of one.
The grounds around Kinkaku-Ji are really nice as well, very leafy and providing some great shade from the horrible Japanese sun. There is a hill behind the pavilion which provides a nice view of Kinkaku-Ji from the top and some quite spectacular examples of trained trees.
This was a fun little touch too, a kind of early Buddhist skill game. Standing from the path people have to try and throw 5yen coins (which have a hole in them and so are lucky) so that they land in the bowl thus granting good luck and a wish fulfilled. I managed it with not too much effort but Fran had to use every coin she had in her purse before she finally got one in.
We spent much of the time there looking at a Kingfisher we had spotted flying around the rear of the reflecting pool. Kingfishers are one of my favourite birds because they have absolutely stunning plumage. I didn’t even know they had them in Japan but it seemed very fitting for one to live near such a spectacularly plumaged building.
One final thing to note about Kinkaku-Ji is that the gardens, like many other Japanese gardens, make good use of moss. Grass doesn’t really grow in Japan. It is here but it’s only here in scattered places (and of course as bamboo). Being British I am used to grass being EVERYWHERE. One cannot walk 15 feet in England without coming across of some sort in some place. It is the greenest country in the whole world.
Japan doesn’t have grass, so they use moss. This is also very handsome and has a wonderful smell too.
Gold and gardened out we set off for our next destination and on the way were waylaid by the sudden need for lunch.
We ended up eating in a kaitenzushi or “conveyor belt” sushi restaurant.
For those that don’t know how this works (although most of you should have some idea) this a restaurant which has a long conveyor belt wandering through it, usually in a big circle but sometimes in more elaborate shapes, on which small plates of sushi and other foods move by. Diners sit at tables next to the conveyor belt, pick the dishes they want to eat off the conveyor belt as they pass and pay at the end based on how many plates there are on the table.
There is a kaitenzushi place in Kobe that I go to fairly frequently which is typical of the style. Plates are different colours for various prices and things like drinks or special sushi have to be specially ordered from a waitress.
The place we went to in Kyoto though is the most automated restaurant I have ever seen. To begin with there is a machine that allows you to book (from your phone if you so choose) automatically and receive a table number without speaking to a waitress. Sadly we didn’t understand this so one of the staff had to help us out.
Then in addition to the standard conveyor belt set up our table also had a small computer on which special orders could be placed directly and charged to the table.
And there was more than just sushi going round too. You could order ramen, ice cream, fruit, bowls of rice, pretty much anything and it would soon come speeding towards you on a conveyor belt. The computer even set off an alarm when your order was starting to get near to you.
As for the drinks? Why that was the most joyous of all. It necessitated standing up but after that you walk over to a machine, insert 500yen and then, well, this happens.
A beer machine!
I want one!
The sushi was not the best quality in the world but it was dirt cheap and a huge amount of fun. In 30 years all food will be served this way. I guarantee it*
*please note I do not guarantee it.
Bellies full of fish and rice we set forth for Ryoan-Ji.
You want more background from Wikipedia? I am happy to oblige.
Ryoan-Ji (Shinjitai: 竜安寺, Kyūjitai: 龍安寺?, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) is a Zen temple located in northwest Kyoto, Japan. Belonging to the Myoshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, the temple is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The site of the temple was originally a Fujiwara family estate. It eventually came into the hands of the Hosokawa clan branch of the Fujiwaras. Hosokawa Katsumoto inherited the residence, and lived here before the Ōnin War. Katsumoto willed the war-ravaged property to be converted into a Zen sect temple complex after his death. Later Hosokawa emperors are grouped together in what are today known as the “Seven Imperial Tombs” at Ryoan-ji. The burial places of these emperors — Uda, Kazan, Ichijō, Go-Suzaku, Go-Reizei, Go-Sanjō, and Horikawa — would have been comparatively humble in the period after their deaths. These tombs reached their present state as a result of the 19th century restoration of imperial sepulchres (misasagi) which were ordered by Emperor Meiji.
Essentially the temple has one main draw and that was what we had come to see. The “Dry Landscape” or rock garden.
This is a garden consisting of 15 rocks surrounded by raked gravel. The rocks are positioned such that all 15 cannot be seen at any one time from any one angle. Popular tradition holds that only once enlightenment is attained will the 15th rock become clear.
Alternatively a tall man could stand at the far right back on tip toes and do it too but that is cheating a little bit.
Whilst my father went to take photos Fran, myself and my brother sat down cross legged to observe the rocks and contemplate enlightenment. We had a great time coming up with possible meanings for the arrangement. Did they present a tiger crossing water? The futility of trying to know everything? A mother tending to a group of children? Obviously they were all these things and none.
And there is something genuinely peaceful about the sitting and contemplating. I’ve always quite liked Zen actually and the notion of concentrating your mind on a question to which there cannot be an answer. It is tremendously relaxing.
Sadly our inner peace was shattered by the absolute horde of tourists who had chosen to share this day with us to come visit the temple. One very tall German man who kept shoving me particularly sticks out in my memory. In fact it wasn’t too long before inner peace began to mutate into barely contained hostility. Possibly I need my own rocks and to do a bit more sitting and thinking.
We finished off this particular trip to Kyoto with some ramen and a trip to the top of the train station to admire the night view of the city.
For all these articles and posts about Kyoto I have barely scratched the surface of everything that there is to do there. Hell I haven’t even been to Arashiyama yet which is one of the more famous and popular areas.
In fact next time we shall also be heading back to Kyoto when we go to visit Fushimi Inari.