Thursday, 27 September 2007

World Heritage Site, Kyoto

The Main Gate of a Shinto shrine in Kyoto

I started the day with a short walk in the Imperial Palace Gardens, quite close to the hotel. The palace compound itself is only open for visits by special application, and there's not time for that (this trip). I had a good look round a Shinto shrine within the gardens.

The short version is 'Today, Jan looked at a load of old temples'. Actually, if they're Shinto, they're called 'shrines'. Japan has its own 'religion', Shinto, related to animism, but various forms of Bhuddism co-exist with this. Some of the Shinto shrines I visited have a Buddhist temple on the site, whilst Buddhist temples may have a Shinto shrine incorporated. Most Japanese seem to have no problem following both practices. One explanation offered is "Shinto for happy events, like weddings, Buddhist for sad events, like funerals."

Today I had a driver/guide, Mr. Doi, with a very spacious and comfortable 6-seat people-mover. We started at a large shrine devoted to learning. This was absolutely heaving with secondary schoolchildren praying for good exam results. You start with a simple water purification ritual, then approach the shrine, make an offering, and undertake a series of claps and bows. To ensure your prayer is being listened to, the supplicant shakes a thick rope which sounds a bell fixed at the top.

All the shrines and temples are almost exclusively build of wood, so they're subject to rotting from the rain and termite attack, although they usually set on fire before they fall down. The floors are raised a few feet above ground so that air circulation can help to dry out the timber. The roofs have very wide eaves, many feet overhanging, so as to minimise the amount of rain which actually reaches the main walls. The weight of this overhang introduces design problems, so the rather ornate arrangement of rafters is not so much decorative as a means of managing the roof loading.

We moved on to the Ryoanji Temple, which features a world-famous Zen garden of gravel and 15 rocks. Some of the symbolism is quite appealing, but meditation was not assisted by the hordes of young people also making a visit. The scale of these places is impressive - the main hall is supported by various other surrounding buildings and there's a gatehouse, sometimes a very large gatehouse. There are usually gardens, carefully designed, sometimes centuries ago, to assist in meditation and understanding man's place in the world. The hills and trees outside the compound form an important part of the site ambience and it's impossible not to be moved by these places.

A short drive took us into the country where rice paddies fill the flatland, hemmed in by wooded hills. Most of the rice crop has been harvested and stubble-burning was going on. Many of the fields are provided with scarecrows. Outside one farmers house, there was a vending machine dispensing today's crop - bags of rice, and collections of vegetables. Vending machines selling drinks and cigarettes are everywhere in Japan. There are supposed to be 5.5 million machines and the range on offer is amazing.

We stopped a little way up a hill in a wooded clearing with a large, artificial pond with Koi carp in front of a fairly simple temple-like building which was the grave of one of the early Emperors. The Office of the Imperial Household is responsible for the upkeep of these sites, all over the country. Next, crossing to the East side of the city, we visited Ginkakuji temple, approached by a 50-yard path bordered by camelias trained into 20-feet tall hedges. The two-storey Kannonden is a building probably familiar to everyone. It is set in an idyllic location with trees and a lake, all designed to look natural but in fact artificial (just like Capability Brown).

Moving on again, the shrine at Nanzenji has a huge gatehouse ('Sanmon') you can climb for a fee (yes, I did) - one of the three biggest gatehouses in Japan. The 1.8km Philosopher's Walk is a path along a canalised river surrounded by cherry trees. This is something you should do at blossom time. I enjoyed it but, with all the retail outlets dotted along its length, it is now a bit of a tourist trap. Perhaps the best bit was the quiet shrine set at the end of the path.

And there were more 'best bits' - currently all jumbled in my mind, but leaving a great impression. I've always believed in 'The Spirit of the Place' and these shrines and temples exploit that idea to the full. There's one huge Shrine right in the city on the North side with very impressive gardens including three artificial lakes. Whilst the majority of these buildings are dark brown timbering and white walls, this is one that features the Chinese red-painted timber frame, although the Japanese use a very orange shade. You're sure to have seen pictures of this shrine because the bright colour scheme seems to appeal to art directors. What I didn't expect to find in the garden, protected by a bamboo 'shed' was a Kyoto electric tram! I've no idea what the intended symbolism is - perhaps there is none. We finished up in the area of Gion (where I had the conducted walk yesterday) looking at temples, a pagoda and the attractive traditional wooden houses. Again, it's rather a tourist area and at one point there was a rickshaw taxi stand, with the young men ready to take you on a trip. I didn't indulge.

Mr. Doi was a most congenial and knowledgable companion with excellent English, quite happy to discuss philosophy, religion and history. Altogether, a very illuminating day although I was quite tired on my return to the hotel.

My pictures of Kyoto