Capitals of Japan: Kyoto

First trip to Kyoto // Kinkaku-ji // Kitano Tenmangu Shrine // Imperial Household Agency

I will spend a lot of time in Kyoto over the next 3 months, and for good reason: it is the place for gardens in Japan. There are tonnes, and loads of amazing temples too. It’s not surprising, since it was the capital from 794 to 1868, and as we all know- great gardens are built where rich, powerful people live. That’s why there aren’t many in Scotland or Wales.

This was just a quick orientation trip, so Mori-san could show us around a little and so that we could go to the Imperial Household Agency office to apply for permission to visit some of the city’s amazing gardens. Yup, that’s right- you can’t just turn up and visit a garden, there’s an nice squishy layer of bureaucracy to get through first. Although, if you’re a foreigner, it’s pretty easy to get a pass to visit the restricted gardens as you are prioritised over Japanese people. This seems quite unfair to me, but apparantly it’s to do with sharing Japan’s garden heritage on an international scale.

We also took the opportunity to visit Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺), The Golden Pavilion (proper name Rokuon- ji 鹿苑寺). My first official, super famous, proper Japanese garden! And let me tell you, it is AMAZING. Here are some pictures…

Apart from the obviously breathtaking shiny goldness of the pavilion, I think that the things that really make the garden feel amazing- and make you completely forget about the hordes thronging around you- are shakkei (借景, borrowed scenery), and the design of the islands in the Kyoko-chi (Mirror Pond). The garden is actually really close to a main road, and isn’t very big. But as you can see from the pictures, it feels like you’re in the middle of the mountains. The height of the hills and trees rising above the Pavilion and pond provide a perfect foil for the gold but also have the effect of holding the atmosphere in, and focusing your attention inwards- a bit like the walls in a walled garden. Regarding the 10 islands in the mirror pond: I wanted to stand and study them all day! They are so artfully placed as to control your view and the amount of open space you can see at every step. But I don’t really understand how it works so I’ll have to go back and stare at them a bit more. By the way- the pond and the islands all the trees are all man made, constructed 600 years ago. Oh- and the Pavillion was burnt down by a monk in 1950! The one you see today was rebuilt five years later. It isn’t exactly the same but who cares? It’s incredible.

We also briefly went to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, which has a big market on the 25th of every month. Lots of vendors selling antiques, crafts, kimonos, vegetables, street food (mostly buta niku :-/ ) and so on. Plus, Kitano Tenmanu is famous for Japanese plum- ume (梅)-  blossom. That’s Prunus mume to me and you. So there were loads of people there viewing the blossom, shopping and praying. I took the opportunity to question Mori-san in annoying detail about the religious habits of the Japanese, as it is something I have found rather confusing. Japan is a Buddhist country, right? Well, I studied buddhism at university for a while, so I know a little about it and therefore have been rather bemused by all the shrines filled with statues of gods. As far as I remember, Siddartha was pretty clear about the No God thing. So what’s that about? Mori-san described the following to me (corrections and clarifications from those more knowledgeable gratefully received)…

Number 1. In Japan, religion is a custom, a tradition and something useful. A Japanese person is not devoted to serving a God, or adoring them in their Great, Powerful, Holiness. They are, in fact, not particularly fussy about what brand of temple, shrine or church they attend, because you’re going in order to get some luck- not to worship in the way that we understand it. Let me explain: pretty much all of the temples and shrines are famous for helping out with a particular thing, like studying or safe childbirth. So, if you have an exam coming up, you go and light an incense stick or chuck some money in the collection box and ring the bell at the appropriate temple, and that will ensure you a blessing from a god and some good fortune. It doesn’t matter which sect of buddhism that temple is- indeed, if there was a catholic church that was known for helping out with arthritis then, there you will go. And there are a lot of temples and shrines with very specific niches, so you can go to a lot. It’s wonderfully pragamatic. But do people really believe that it works? Well, Mori-san says, probably not. But it’s a custom and it’s what you do for luck. And if you don’t do it and something goes wrong…

Number 2. Shintoism was the religion in Japan before Buddhism arrived and it’s still here- and mixed up with Buddhism. I don’t know much about it, other than that it is a multi-deity religion, has a lot of mythology in it and isn’t an organised ‘church’ as we know it. I think that it also incorporates a form of animism, whereby there are gods or spirits in everything: rocks, water and so on. So, that explains all the gods everywhere.

Number 3. People aren’t that precious about religion, not like Christians or Muslims are. As Mori-san likes to point out, Japan has never spent any time at war over religious doctrine. Generally, people are chilled about their religion. It’s nice.

OH- before I finish this post with some more pictures, I must just briefly mention the chaotic, noisy, disorientating craziness that is the depāto (デパート), or japanese department stores. Just fabulous. And terrifying. I spent a lot of time on Sunday evening in Yodobashi Camera, which has 8 floors, no windows, takes up an entire block and sells everything, whilst playing terrible music and jingles really loudly. Luckily for me, it also has free wi-fi and a large area with massage chairs that you can try out. Mori-san booked us into a hostel with no internet (I will be making my own accommodation arrangements from now on…), so I spent a very surreal half an hour talking to AC on whatsapp in the middle of a huge crowd of people, lying in a vibrating red leather armchair with my legs above my head. I love Japan. 

One thought on “Capitals of Japan: Kyoto

  1. A lovely read, Katie, and you have summed up the general approach to religion exactly as I have always been given to understand it. I think I was aware of Shinto in Japan before I learned about any other form of religion there, but possibly that was from reading the Wrong Sort of Comic when I was eight years old.
    気をつけて, ね (wish I had my old kana software, can’t think what happened to it, oh well, have to use the lumbering method I found a few weeks ago ….)


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