Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Japan III: Kyoto Dreams

I hopped on a Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo & took myself off for a wee trip to Kyoto. Everyone I had spoken to said that they wished they'd had more time to spend in the ancient capital city, & it was very easy to see why, straight from the off.

There was a more definite sense of history surrounding the entirety of Kyoto. The Imperial Palace was my first point of call for a guided tour around the expansive complex.

Some truly lovely buildings, and much of this symbolic orange/red permeating the scene. Sure, it sounds all picturesque & lovely, but it was so warm my cheeks were beginning to match!

I am thoroughly grateful I took a guided tour. Tours are something I've only converted to recently, but my trips have been made a thousand times richer. We were led around the Palace by a thoroughly charming Japanese man that kept apologising for his English whilst simultaneously astonishing us with his knowledge. I also thoroughly appreciated his ability to explain the poignancy and detail of things that we were seeing - things that those of us without a cultural link to this potent heritage may easily miss.

Such beautiful wooden buildings. So finely detailed. Ravaged by fire & rebuilt over & over. Their phoenix-like existence is something I've struggled with in conservation terms generally, but here in Kyoto it seemed to make sense. Perhaps it was the preservation of their context, setting and tone that made it feel more natural and original.

My next visit was to Fushimi Inari-taisha. It had been top of my list of things to do & I was rather excited by the time I got there. 

Climbing through the iconic torii was a more affecting experience than I had anticipated. It was sweltering and clammy, throwing down rain by the bucket. I was wearing my orange raincoat & getting frustrated by the bottlenecking of crowds. But then I began to get higher, & people began to get bored & tired. I swung the hood of my jacket over my head like a schoolkid playing superheroes, & carried on.

Before I started my climb through the shrine, I hadn't known of the fox's importance in Japanese folklore and Shinto. The Kitsune are the fox spirits or messengers of Inari Ōkami, and images of these messengers were carved into stone at every shrine. I won't try to clumsily explain any more about things I don't completely understand, but it's wonderfully interesting & I encourage you to have a quick google. I should point out that this was significant to me as foxes are my favourite animal. I have various soft toys, ornaments, candle holders with foxy likenesses.

It may not be the highest of mountains, but the sense of achievement at 233m was incredible. Battling with the weather, the heat, keeping my camera dry, and my asthma, it was a wonderful feeling to arrive at the top and pay my respects at the shrine. That's the funny thing I found about Japan, and about Kyoto in particular, is that despite being an atheist, I found the Shinto and Buddhist traditions to be incredibly affecting, and I felt a strong desire to be part of it in some way - even as a shallow tourist.

& so I descended and began to stroll in search of more cultural delights.

I had not expected to find something so rich. Nanzen-ji Sanmon was beautifully overwhelming. I spotted it through the rain & felt, more than anywhere else I had been, a deep sense of history. I paid my dues, took off my shoes, & took a silent and solitary stroll through this early 17th century structure. It was original built in the 12th century, destroyed and rebuilt (like so many historic structures in this country). The view was beautiful, but the wood was even more striking.

Out of respect, I did not take a photograph of the most beautiful part of the sanmon. There is an opulent and delicately decorated room featuring various images of Buddha, and a text that seemed to be of advanced years. I peered through the gate and marveled at this untouched space. 

I can't pretend I had a plan for visiting Kyoto. I wish I had, so that I could have explored more of the wonderful places that could have offered so much insight into my temporary country of residence. Despite that, I am glad I found Nanzen-ji. This beautiful oasis of zen Buddhism. 

The temple definitely seeks to teach its visitors by allowing looks and explanations of rooms and places within the building, but it is also definitely functioning. As I was peering through windows and peeking around doors, there were women dressed in traditional clothing going about their business, quite unperturbed by me in my borrowed leather slippers, shuffling along the wooden floors.

I had not expected to be affected by a zen garden. Things like these must operate on levels beyond faith. A teenage Japanese couple had set up camp on the steps, whispering quietly between intermittent looks at their surroundings. I stopped for a while, too, following the lines in the gravel and appreciating the wonderful green-ness of the trees in the rain.

I stayed in this place a while until it was time to make my way back to the city centre, via Philosopher's walk.

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