Kyoto: I Needed More Than A Day

After a week to acclimatize to the mystifying and often outright alien things that happen seemingly every minute in Japan, I was somewhat relieved to have a break due to rain in Kyoto. Unfortunately in retrospect, I could have spent a lot more time there. The one clear day I did have to spend was packed with both aimless wanderings, and happenings upon places that cemented my reasoning and desires to come to Japan. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto held a palpable sense of history which was jutting up against a recent foray into modern architecture. Tokyo on the other hand was becoming consumed by the ultramodern, while struggling to maintain vestiges of it’s long-reaching history.

After figuring my way out of the large train station, my first stop, although unintended as I misread the map, was Sanjusengando (or Rengo-in) Temple. Set among an extremely minimalist courtyard with various pools and orange hallways is one of Japan’s largest and most sacred temples.

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 The main temple building holds 1001 statues of the Goddess Kannon (A Buddhist deity of Mercy), along with her protective deities, which range from Zen, to Hindu, to Buddhist in origin. It is also the longest wooden structure in japan to this day. Here is a view of a portion of the main structure, with the wind doing it’s best to accent the architecture. Unfortunately photos are forbidden within the main shrine. I truly am disappointed I can’t show you the inside, I guess you’ll just have to go for yourselves.

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 And another view to give a perspective on the size of the structure, this is about half of it.

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 I was quite happy with my mistakenly getting off at the wrong bus-stop and stumbling upon such an interesting and historical temple. I decided to take a walk to the historical riverside Higoshiyama district, which looked on the map to be around 2 miles. It turned out to be about 4, but I was not at all bothered as the streets of Kyoto are far less bustling and hectic than those of Tokyo. I passed innumerable interesting sidestreets and shrines, but knowing I had a limited amount of time, I continued toward my destination. And being Japan, of course there was a giant cartoon cat in uniform to guide me. Across the river is Higoshiyama.

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 Higoshiyama consists of a few square kilometers of claustrophobic alleyways, mostly populated by high end restaurants, and traditional teahouses. I was very tempted to have a nice meal and cold drink after the long walk, but the prices quickly dissuaded me. There was nothing under $80-100 for a good sized lunch!

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After getting lost in the small alleyways, I got on the subway and proceeded to get far more lost on my way to Fushimi-Inari mountain temple. I thought I was on the right train, but started to get a sinking feeling when we passed about 5 train stops and continued speeding up. End result was me at the far northern edge of Kyoto, surrounded by factories. That little detour cost me about 2 hours, which was worrying as my planned hike to the top of Fushimi-Inari was supposed to take 2 to 3 hours, and it was already beginning to get darker. After much pantomiming, and broken English, which I had become quite accustomed to at this point, I finally made it to the bottom of the mountain and decided to get to the top as quickly as possible. 

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 I had seen a few pictures of this place before, and knew of thee vermillion gates, which had been dedicated by wealthy patrons of the temple over the course of many years. What I was not prepared for was the sheer numbers of them, thousands after thousands! The reason for the color of the gates is the fox being the guardian of Inari mountain. 

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 The hike began to steepen, and my pace began to quicken as the light was fading and I had no idea how far I had left to go. I took an apparently mistaken turn, which again led me to one of the more impressive sights I had seen on the trip. A perfectly split forest between towering bamboo on one side and massive pines on the other.

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 I was sure this was not the right way, but it was so intriguing I had to continue…. I happened upon this graveyard, which as you can see has smaller versions of the vermillion gates set on the headstones, presumably as a blessing to the dead, by relatives who could not afford a full size model.

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 At this point I was a few miles into the forest, and hadn’t seen anyone. The trail was becoming extremely steep, and the light was fading fast, but I kept spotting vermillion gates, so assumed I must be headed in the right direction.

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By now I was 2 hours in and increasingly unsure if I’d make it to the top, but suddenly the trail opened up,  and the summit came into view.

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Like many difficult hikes I have been on, it was not the summit which turned out to be the most exciting, but rather the return. The vermillion gates, and temple buildings were all backlit in the quiet darkness. This led to an eerily beautiful trek toward the bottom.

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 After seeing this place I was truly sad I would be leaving Kyoto the next day. I knew there were countless more secrets to explore, countless surprises that would have to be left to my already manifesting desire to return.

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