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Family Vacation part 2: Kyoto part 1

2010 January 24


We arrived in Kyoto Sunday evening and had several adventures. First was figuring out how to get two cabs to an apparently mysterious street address. (Our rented house was located down an alley, but we were at least able to get taken to the correct street.) Next was getting our big bags into the house without scratching any floors or pulling up any tatami. Next was meeting a friend of mine from college and going out to dinner with her. She was carrying a Japanese guide magazine, and one of the recommended restaurants featured the kanji 洋 (“you” – say “yoh-ooh”). 洋 usually indicates something Western-style, as in 洋服 (“youfuku”), Western clothing, especially suits, or 洋食 (“youshoku”), a Western-style meal (eggs and bacon instead of fish and rice for breakfast). We figured something with 洋 in it was a safe bet. Man were we wrong.


This is the menu. Yes, all of it.

It turns out this restaurant is some sort of local fixture, selling this special unique okonomiyaki containing, among other things, prawn, octopus, and konnyaku (devil’s tongue root jelly). I found it delicious, but it was definitely not the best place to take foreign tourists, and we stopped for a second dinner of Sam’s favorite yakitori after my friend got on the train back to Osaka.

Day Two
Next day, we did a walking tour of some shrines and temples in our area. Our first major stop was Sanjusangendo.


Sanjusangendo is the longest wooden building in the world. It houses a giant statue of the bodhisattva of compassion, Kannon, along with 1000 life-size statues of her and several more of other guardian deities. There are no photos allowed inside the hall, but it is truly amazing how long it is and how, as you continue walking down the seeming endless wooden floor, you start to notice the unique details in each statue of Kannon.

(Scanned from temple brochure by OnMark Productions.)

Buddhism tried to adapt to the local religion in every country it spread to, and Kannon is a particularly interesting example of this adaptation. The original bodhisattva of compassion is Avalokitesvara, who is male. When Buddhism spread to China, though, the Taoist deity of compassion was Guan-Yin, a female. The two became so closely associated that Avalokitesvara is generally called Guan-Yin (Kannon is the Japanese pronunciation of the same characters), and this fused deity of compassion is often or exclusively female in much of East Asia. Kannon also gets closely associated with the Virgin Mary, although in her thousand-armed form, the two look very dissimilar.


Buddhism continued adapting to local religion when it spread to Japan, so temples were often built close to shrines (and sometimes vice-versa) to encourage Japanese people to worship old gods in new Buddhist forms. Sanjusangendo was built by a retired emperor turned monk/priest, who actually built both the Buddhist hall and the shrine next to it so that he could worship at both in his private villa. Once Buddhism was more established, later emperors tried to separate the two, so some boundaries were placed between Sanjusangendo and its sister shrine.


Those boundaries are less evident at Japan’s landmark temple, Kiyomizudera. This huge temple/shrine complex is built on a hill with a small waterfall, from which it takes the name 清水 (“kiyomizu” or “shimizu”) – “fresh water”.



The iconic view of Kiyomizudera is of the platform by the main temple. The friend we met for dinner explained that the Japanese idiom for making a big decision is “throwing oneself off Kiyomizudera”.


Across from this iconic platform was something I as an amateur calligrapher was pleased to see: the Kanji of the Year! Each fall the people in charge of the Japanese Learner’s Proficiency Test (at the upper levels, taken by native speakers and foreigners alike as a gauge of ideogram proficiency) select a character they feel is representative of the passing year. This kanji is written by a professional calligrapher in a special ceremony that, for the past few years, has been held at Kiyomizudera. 2009’s Kanji of the Year is 新 (“shin”) – “new”. Among other reasons, it was chosen to reflect political revolutions in both Japan and America.


The most famous of the Shinto shrines sharing real estate with Buddhist Kiyomizudera is Jishu Shrine, just above the main temple. Jishu is dedicated to several gods, the most popular of whom is a god of love, so the shrine is full of rituals to perform for luck in love and omamori (lucky trinkets) to attract a new partner or strengthen an old relationship. Okuninushi-no-mikoto, I didn’t realize, is one of Susanoo-no-mikoto’s sons. Susanoo-no-mikoto is the god of storms, brother of Amaterasu the sun goddess, and spent much of his life exiled from the land of the gods to – you guessed it – Shimane prefecture! He’s the hero of the story of Orochi, which is the finale to every good Iwami kagura performance. I think I should make a habit of visiting places where he is venerated. 🙂


That night, we had a tamer dinner at an American-guidebook-recommended restaurant, although Sam still ate the hunting tentacle of a squid.

Day Three
After Kiyomizudera (or possibly before), the next most famous of Kyoto’s temples is Kinkakuji.

Kinkakuji Temple

Originally built as a villa for another retired lord turned monk, he earned good karma for himself by willing it into a monastery after his death. Kinkakuji is not its formal name, but its nickname, since it is almost entirely covered with kin – gold. This lord’s grandson tried to pull the same stunt and created a second villa-cum-monastery, called Ginkakuji, on the east side of Kyoto. Unfortunately for him, though it’s called the Silver Temple, it was never actually covered in silver.

Kinkakuji Temple

(Coincidentally, I spent last summer in Kanazawa – which produces 98% of Japan’s gold leaf – and now live near Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.)

Kinkakuji Temple

Kinkakuji is certainly 印象的 (“inshouteki”, impression-forming), but it’s a little on the flashy side, so to balance it out we visited Ryouanji. Yet another villa-cum-temple (there’s a million of them!), this one’s central feature is the Zen garden around the villa.


There are 15 unique rocks in this sand garden, but you can’t see all fifteen from any given angle. Instead, you sit on a porch and different spots and contemplate them, imagining them as islands. As un-thrilling as 15 rocks in some sand may sound, it’s definitely a unique experience and worth a visit.


I went hunting for and quickly found Ryouanji’s other famous landmark, this tsukubai. It serves a functional purpose, collecting fresh spring water for the lord’s tea, but the inscription around the center is a unique zen puzzle. It it meant to read: 吾唯足知, “I only know plenty” – a Buddhist message of anti-materialism. But look at those characters. They all contain that same box-shape, right? Instead of writing each character separately, the center of the tsukubai is that box, and the remaining pieces of each character are written around the box so that directionally they combine properly. Because Chinese ideograms often contain these “radicals” (characters that can stand alone but are used in conjunction with other shapes to lend sound or meaning to more complex characters), it’s possible to construct puzzles like these, but it’s hard to think of one as functional and as meaningful as this one.

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