Japan 2014: Day 2 (Kyoto)

Six months after the Day 1 post, here we are again! Better late than never. Here’s an extremely long one to tide you over until the Day 3 write-up, which I may or may not write after six months.

The bulk of our second day in Japan was for our first guided day tour around Kyoto care of Viator. We were heading to some of Kyoto’s famous spots: Nijo Castle, Kinkaku-ji, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Heian Shrine, Sanjusangen-do, and Kiyomizu Temple. Though Tokyo is the capital of Japan and is a superb city, Kyoto is what I first envisioned Japan would be. Dozens of historical sites perfectly preserved all around the city, ladies in kimonos on their way to dinner and tea, strangers so helpful they’ll literally go out of their way just so you can check that temple off your itinerary. When first-time travellers to Japan ask me which city they shouldn’t miss aside from Tokyo, I always, always say Kyoto.

End of an era

Our first stop was Nijo Castle, the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns. The Tokugawa shogunate was the last feudal military government in Japan. The Tokugawa shoguns—hereditary military governors of the country—were primarily based in Edo, the capital city, which the world knows as Tokyo today. However, the Imperial Court was still housed in Kyoto, thus creating the need to have a place south of Edo where the shogun could use as living quarters and conduct his shogun-y affairs. The construction of Nijo Castle began in 1603 by Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, who was once the most powerful man in Japan. The castle was completed by the time Iemitsu, his grandson, took over in 1626.

In 1867, when the Tokugawa shogunate fell and sovereignty was returned to the Emperor by Yoshinobu, the fifteenth Tokugawa shogun, the ownership and care of the castle was transferred to the Imperial family. The end of the Tokugawa period gave way to the Meiji Restoration, ushering in the modernization and Westernization of Japan. (Samurai X fans are familiar with this transition.) The Imperial family eventually donated Nijo Castle to the City of Kyoto in 1939. Many years later, the castle was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

Nijo Castle Entrance

Upon entering the castle grounds, we were taken to the Ninomaru Garden, which was designated as a Special Scenic Beauty Site in 1953.

Nijo Castle Gardens

Nijo Castle Gardens

Nijo Castle Gardens

Nijo Castle Gardens

But the main attraction is the 3,300-square-meter Ninomaru Palace, where the shogun and his family stayed and received guests. Visitors have to remove their shoes to enter the palace. That day, I unfortunately went commando down there because I wore flats, and I decided against bringing a pair of socks because I didn’t want to look baduy. Major noob moment. The floor was nice and cold, but it must have been a pain to walk on during winter. Lesson learned: temple hopping requires clean socks devoid of holes.

Ninomaru Palace

Many of the temples and shrines in Japan also have a strictly-no-photography rule to preserve the integrity of the building and the artifacts inside, even though many of them are already reproductions. As much as I wanted to snap photos here and there, I was glad this policy was enforced because my preoccupation with getting the “perfect shot” was paused. I was free to marvel at the beauty and solemnity of places historic and sacred, seeing details I probably wouldn’t have seen had I been worried about properly documenting my visit. With the camera barred, I had nothing between me and the wonders of the Ninomaru Palace.

The tourist path around the palace first led us to the different reception rooms for low-ranking officials. Further in, only high-ranking visitors, personal attendants, and the shogun’s family were allowed to enter the inner chambers. The special feature of the Ninomaru Palace is its nightingale floors designed to “chirp” when walked on, making it a great security tool because it alerted people if someone was coming down the hallway. “Gusto ko nito sa bahay,” both my parents said. So, if ever you’re thinking about making your house ninja-proof, nightingale floors.

The fifth stop of the path is where Yoshinobu gathered the country’s feudal lords to tell them sovereignty would be relinquished to Emperor Meiji. In a way, this is where it all ended for the Tokugawa shogunate. Intense.

Further along the trail, we stopped in front of the shogun’s living quarters. There, only the people who interacted intimately with the shogun could enter. The shogun’s female attendants could easily move around, but the shogun’s bed chambers were exclusive for him and his wife. It was extremely important to enforce this rule since the shogunate’s leadership was passed down from father to son. They couldn’t have Tokugawa Snows running around knowing nothing, could they? (Game of Thrones reference.)

Nijo Castle

The golden years

After Nijo Castle, we headed to Kinkaku Temple, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a Zen Buddhist temple constructed in the Muromachi period, centuries before the Tokugawa era. The area where Kinkaku-ji was built used to belong to a statesman named Saionji Kintsune. The third shogun of the Muromachi period, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, liked the area so much he bought it from the Saionji family in 1397 and built what we now know as the Golden Pavilion. The pavilion was primarily a retirement villa for Yoshimitsu, but it also served as a guesthouse for visiting nobility.

Kinkaku-ji

Yoshimitsu died in 1408. As per the instructions in his will, the villa was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple by a priest named Musokokushi, its first abbot. Over the course of history, the pavilion has burned down several times, but the most famous incident is told by Yukio Mishima in his book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, in which he wrote about the time the pavilion burned as the consequence of a failed suicide attempt by a young Buddhist monk in July 1950. The pavilion structure was eventually rebuilt and the interior restored to its present condition. Today, Kinkaku-ji prevails as one of the most iconic images of Kyoto, home to sacred Buddhist relics. Of course, in Japanese, that means no photos allowed inside.

Kinkaku-ji

If I remember correctly, the path around the temple takes around 20 minutes to complete, but we weren’t given a lot of time here because we had to stick to the tour schedule. But the Golden Pavilion and the complex around it were stunning. I couldn’t stop taking photos of the temple. They all look the same, from one angle, but that’s how beautiful it was. I would love to see it during autumn someday when all the leaves turn red and the weather cools just right.

Kinkaku-ji

The Instagram square and cultural accountability

Recently I’ve been liberal with following people on Instagram. From exclusively following friends to anticipating the posts of a monk in Tibet (@gdax) and an English teacher in North Korea (@dguttenfelder), Instagram has made the world bigger and smaller at the same time, by connecting us to each other as we explore the unexplored, savour new flavours, and explain in one image what a thousand words can’t. One thought constantly ran inside my head when I went to the Kyoto Imperial Palace: Man, this place is hard to put inside a square. Some attractions can be easily framed because there’s usually only one thing to focus on, which was the case at Kinkaku-ji. The Kyoto Imperial Palace, however, isn’t just one building; it’s a 27-acre complex with several main buildings, gardens, rooms, and gates. I wanted to capture the Kyoto Imperial Palace in one photo, but its majesty is really something to be witnessed personally.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

English and Japanese tours are available several times each day, but reservations must be made in advance at the Imperial Household Agency Office or through their website. If you’ll be booking a tour online, do so a few days before your visit. Check the website for tour availability because the palace grounds are closed on Sundays, national holidays, and some Saturdays.

Half of the palace complex wasn’t open for visitors, but the area that was still took quite a bit of walking to explore. Before entering the complex through the Seishomon Gate, we were asked to line up horizontally in groups of four. I’m not sure why visitors have to enter the palace grounds like this, but it felt very official; we looked like a procession of nobles.

Our first stop was the Okurumayose entrance, which was the official entryway used by courtiers who were allowed to enter the Palace grounds. The entrance was wide to allow horse-drawn carriages to pass through until the Emperor decided cars were easier to ride into the Palace with. Plus, they smell better.

Following the route, we passed by the Jomeimon Gate, which led to the most important building in the Palace grounds, the Shishinden, significant because it was used for major ceremonies of state such as enthronement rites. It stands as the symbol of the Imperial Palace.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

I was most impressed by another building, the Kogosho. Like the Shishinden, it was also a place where ceremonies were held and where the Emperor received shogun and daimyo (feudal lords subordinate to shoguns). It was the first time I paid attention to one of the wide roofs made entirely out of Japanese cypress, right down to the nails. To me, that was very cool because wood is so susceptible to degradation, but the roof looked well-maintained, almost like new. Perhaps it wasn’t the building I was truly impressed with, but the dedication the Japanese show when it comes to their cultural heritage.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

In the Oikeniwa Garden across the Kogosho, you won’t see an empty Sprite can bobbing up and down the side of the pond like you would inside around Intramuros (no offense). I wonder if it’s partly because the traces of history we see in present-day Japan is solely theirs, since they were never invaded. They have always been accountable for everything in their culture. They know who they are because they know exactly who they were, whereas Filipinos have a hard time pinpointing what makes the Filipino identity distinctly Filipino. Is that why our history isn’t as interesting as other histories? Because we can’t really identify with what we think is ours? Or we don’t feel a strong sense of ownership over our hodgepodge culture? Does this perhaps affect our approach to long-term preservation? At some point in the future, I’m afraid that we might lose something we’ll never get back, and desperate, we’ll ask ourselves, Is it too late?

50 shades of orange

After having beef sukiyaki and tempura for lunch, it was full speed ahead to Heian Shrine, one of the many Shinto shrines we would visit over the course of the trip. Heian Shrine is known for the huge torii gate leading to the main shrine area. This vermilion-hued shrine was built to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of Kyoto as Japan’s former capital, dedicated to the first and last Emperors to rule Kyoto.

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine

Before entering the shrine grounds, our fantastic tour guide—who knew a lot about everything and shall henceforth be called Mr. Miyagi—beckoned a kimono-clad lady over to our group. He wanted to show us how to distinguish a single lady from a married woman by looking at the kimono she was wearing. The kimono style of married women is more conservative with shorter sleeves and a smaller bow at the back. The kimonos donned by unwed women are more ornate and showy, featuring floral designs, longer sleeves, and larger bows. You know how peacocks extend their tails to attract mates? I guess the same rule applies. Flaunt it, single ladies.

Mr. Miyagi

 There wasn’t much to see at Heian Shrine except for the shrine itself, but it was still great. It was the first time we saw panels with hanging small boards of wood with messages and wishes written on them from people all over the world. We would later learn that these would be burned in a special ceremony by the shrine priests. Many of them were written by students who wanted to pass exams. If you’re having a bad day while you’re visiting Japan, just find a shrine with these wooden boards and read the well wishes for family and friends. Instant mood boost.

Heian Shrine

There were also a lot of charms being sold at the shrine, each supporting a specific petition…like passing exams. Japanese testing began to develop as a rigorous and highly competitive discipline after World War II, when Japan’s recovering industrial capitalist economy needed workers who could survive and commit to long, hard hours to the point that sleeping in the office was more economical than going home. One of our tour guides mentioned that the Japanese work so hard they rarely have hobbies. Throughout the trip, I kept seeing guys in suits rushing to catch their trains on a Sunday. On a Sunday, come on.

Heian Shrine

The Japanese standardized testing system evolved around the idea that getting into a good school and better test scores were linked to career advancement. Some critics argue that Japan’s standardized tests strip all kinds of creativity and initiative in the students, and that linking test scores to career advancement is problematic. The Japanese education system is a major source of fulfillment and stress not only for students but also for parents and teachers. Perhaps the level of economic development Japan enjoys today came at a price—hard school years, passive children, poor work-life balance, the declining birth rate. I suppose you can tell a lot about the Japanese by what they keep praying for.

Heian Shrine

1,001 statues you need to see before you die

Sanjusangen-do (meaning “a hall with thirty-three spaces between the columns”) might be my favourite bit of the entire Kyoto tour. Sanjusangen-do’s main draw is the 1,001 statues of the Buddhist deity, Juichimen-senjusengen Kanzeon. Or Kannon, for short. The statues are lined up in a hall that spans 120 meters. Made from the 12th to 13th centuries, all the statues are made out of Japanese cypress, and no two are the same. One gigantic statue sits in the middle of the hall surrounded by a thousand standing Kannon, plus other statues of guardian deities.

Sansusangen-do

To preserve the statues, photography isn’t allowed inside the hall. As we walked along the stretch, I couldn’t help but talk in whispers. The sombreness of the place almost commanded it. Trying to pin down the differences of one statue from another, from the thousand others, would take days. I can’t find words to describe the sight of it. It’s one of those places you have to see for yourself. Trust me.

Sanjusangen-do

Pure water, pure life

Our last tour stop was Kiyomizu-dera, the Temple of Pure Water. This Buddhist temple was founded in 798, but the buildings visitors see today were commissioned in 1633 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, remember this guy? Kiyomizu-dera is famous for the view of Kyoto from its wide veranda supported by high wooden columns. The sight must be absolutely beautiful in autumn when the leaves on the trees turn red, orange, and brown. I really have to go back in autumn.

Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera

When you look down from the veranda, you’ll see people from all over Japan—mostly students on field trips—in line to the drink the “pure water” coming from the Otowa Waterfall. The water is dispensed through three spouts, each representing a different benefit (longevity, success, and love). Visitors use cups sterilized by UV light to drink from one or two streams. I think people are advised not to drink from all three spouts because that’s considered greedy. Can’t have it all, I guess.

Kiyomizu-dera

Moving further into the temple grounds, our tour guide pointed out the Jinsu-jinja Shrine where single and ready-to-mingle boys and gals can bump into their love matches by walking between two stones with their eyes closed. I saw a lot of high school kids on their way to this shrine. Behave, kiddies.

Kiyomizu-dera

On our way down from the temple, we saw small statues of Buddha with red bibs on them called Jizo Bosatsu, an enlightenment being and guardian of deceased children (among other things. He’s very busy protecting everything.)

Kiyomizu-dera

From what I’ve read online, red is the colour to thwart demons and illness. The bibs need a bit of explanation: according to legend, when children die prematurely, they’re sent to the underworld for judgement. They get stuck there because they haven’t had a chance to gather good karma points in life. They make pebble towers hoping each stone will help them climb out of limbo. Then demons swoop in and give them a hard time by scattering the pebbles and beating the babes with iron clubs. This is when Jizo comes to the rescue by hiding the kids in the sleeves of his robe. Because of this folktale, Japanese parents clothe the Jizo statues in red bibs and hats to protect the children. They also make pebble towers beside the statues to give the children better chances at salvation. Creepy story, no?

Japan, land of angels

Most temples in Japan usually close before 6PM, but for a limited time every season they remain open for night-time illumination. I found that Kodai-ji Temple was going to be open at night during our stay in Kyoto, so I thought that would be a nice extra after the Viator tour. To get there, we asked one of the New Miyako staff for directions. I don’t remember his name, but I recall thinking, Why is he named after a place that was bombed during the war? or Isn’t that the place where that nuclear disaster happened? His name was a little unfortunate, but I can’t say the same for his service. I only expected him to give directions verbally and send us on our way, but he didn’t do just that. He drew a three-part, colour-coded map for us. And he took his time trying to get his lines straight, drawing train tracks, telling us to cross here, take a bus at this corner, turn right there, go up the road, and whatnot. I wanted to tell him to stop sketching because it was too much already, but he just kept on drawing, trying to make every line clear so we wouldn’t get lost. I wanted to give this guy a really fat tip. Or a long hug. Both, really. Japanese goodwill for the win.

We took a bus going to Kodai-ji, which wasn’t as hard as I expected it to be, partly because we had seen some of the routes earlier on the tour bus. Everything was going great until we got off at the right bus stop nearest to Kodai-ji. Everyone put on their Now what? face. Mr. Hiroshima/Fukushima/Angel No. 2’s map was a great help, but somehow we couldn’t figure out what to do next. My mother asked a random woman waiting for the street light to change for directions. Little did we know that she was talking to Angel No. 3.

Again, we didn’t expect her to do anything other than tell us to how many times we needed to turn left or right, but she offered to accompany us all the way to the temple because she couldn’t express herself properly in English and I think she said it was on her way home anyway. Japan, the land of the rising sun, my tushy. Japan is the land of angels!

She led us through a neighbourhood, turning this way then that way until we couldn’t remember how to retrace our steps anymore. Like in Gion, we were the only ones walking along those empty, quiet streets. We could have been kidnappers posing as a family, lady! How can you be so trustworthy?!

We got to the temple safe and sound. We couldn’t thank her enough, but somehow we failed to ask for her name. We have a picture together, though, so whoever you are, kind woman, thank you for helping those five lost Filipinos that night! Faith in humanity RESTORED.

Angel No. 3

Seeing a temple lit up at night is quite the experience. We practically had the place all to ourselves. It was serene, surreal, stunning. I didn’t even read the brochure. I just let the sights do all the talking.

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Kodai-ji Nighttime Illumination

Day 2: DONE. I’m counting this post as a #NaNoWriMo milestone.

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