Kyoto – the old capital

Monday 14th to Thursday 17th October

We suffered the third downpour, resulting from a passing typhoon, in Kyoto, and got to use the very expensive, very light umbrellas. They worked!

Kyoto is the old capital of Japan. The Imperial Palace was there between 784AD and 1869AD when it was moved to Tokyo.

Monday 14th October

Our first afternoon was spent in the Nishiki Food Market and Gion area.

The food market is more of a fast food area with craft and souvenir shops scattered amongst the food stalls. Like many Japanese market areas, it runs along a single street for about a half kilometre. The street is narrow and covered with coloured glass. At the end of the street were two more long, covered market streets, running perpendicular and concentrating on clothes and beauty products.

I am not a shopaholic, however this would be a great place to stock up on souvenirs.

Across the Kamo River is the Gion district of Kyoto and our travel information suggested that “Gion is the one place in Japan where you may see Maiko or Geisha walking between appointments”. We were lucky enough to see a young lady dressed in a stunning kimono, you could only stop and stare.

Tuesday 15th October

We had a guided morning tour planned to visit the Nijo Castle, the Golden Pavilion, and the Kyoto Imperial Palace, places difficult to see on your own.

The Nijo Castle is a Shogun residence. Shoguns, as the warlords of Japan, lived in constant fear of being overthrown so the castle was built for defence and protection. It was interesting to see what lengths they needed to go to for their personal protection.

Our first stop was the Ninomaru Garden, with a beautiful pond complete with “The Island of Eternal Happiness” and two smaller islands representing the crane and the turtle.  The day was dull and so were the colours, because a Shogun garden is limited to stone, water and evergreen trees.  Flowers and falling leave remind the Shoguns of their tenuous hold on power, so are not included in their gardesn.

In the palace, reception rooms were built as a series of rooms slightly offset, creating a diagonal effect. Inner audience rooms were separated by corridors. All reception rooms had an internal adjoining room, where loyal Samurai were prepared to defend the Shogun. Visiting feudal lords wore very long trousers which inhibited their movement, and were forced to hold a fan in their right hand so they could not take up a sword. And the floorboards on the corridors were designed to “chirp”, so intruders would be heard.

Being a Shogun was a dangerous position.

The detail of architecture in the wooden carved panels and the painted screens was outstanding. Sadly, photos are not permitted in the palace, however there is an excellent web site.

Next stop was the Kinkaku or Rokuon-ji Temple, also called the Golden Pavilion, it is a Zen Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha. By now the rain had started, so in the grey, dull light the Kinkaku glowed and was reflected beautifully in the lake surrounding it.

The pavilion is not open to the public, we mere mortals could only walk around the outside, grab as many photos as we can and then back on the bus for the next stop.

Our last stop on the morning group tour was the Imperial Palace. Here protocol reigned. We had to fill in a form with name, occupation, country and age – “When I am 64!”. Our group, standing in a line four wide were counted and recounted before given the nod to enter the grounds. Guards were everywhere – they seemed to follow you. The tour was simply around the perimeter of the buildings, peering in through gates to see the Shishinden (throne room) and stopping to look at the many formal entrances – even one built to accommodate visitors in motor vehicles rather than horse drawn carriages.

Unlike the Nijo Castle, this was a more open place of residence. The emperor inherited his position and did not need to defend it.

The palace was often destroyed by fire and warfare and then reconstructed. The Imperial family were a figurehead during the Shogun period. Sovereignty was returned to the emperor in October 1867 by the fifteenth Tokogawa Shogun, ending military rule in Japan.

After our tour the rain continued, so armed with umbrellas we chose to explore two nearby temples Higashi-Honganji Temple and Nishi-Honganji Temple.

The massive wooden structures both date back to the Momoyama era. The Nishi-Honganji was built first and the Higashi-Honganji was built around 1602 to create a rift in the powerful Judo Shin-shu school. The founder’s hall is one of the largest wooden structures in the world.

The Higashi-Honganji Temple is currently undergoing renovations and massive structures have been erected around some of the temples to undertake this work in dry conditions.

Thursday 17th October

On Thursday we finally got some sunshine.

We had walked through Kyoto station many times by now, in fact we were just starting to understand the maze and how to navigate from the side where our hotel was to the side where everything else is – sights, buses, underground.

This massive structure of steel and glass rises to 15 floors and contains a huge indoor space called the Cube, two shopping malls, a department store, two hotels, dozens of restaurants and even a large number of train platforms. It has it’s own Guide Map of 24 pages to help you navigate around, handed out by chic young girls in very smart uniforms including hats.

So we spent an hour wandering around, cameras in hand, trying to capture its size and features. Atriums, skywalks, stairs and escalators, rooftop gardens and views over the Kyoto Tower and the nearby mountains. It is an amazing piece of architecture, sometimes called the Cathedral of Transport.

We then ventured out by bus to find the Zen Garden of the Ryoanji Temple. This is a tiny, white stone garden, just 25m x 10m with 15 rocks. The school children that arrive start counting – ichi, ni, san, shi,… but the rocks are so carefully arranged that you can never see all fifteen at one time, unless of course you have reached enlightenment. Nor, for that matter, can you successfully photograph this tiny garden in its entirety. As well as a highlight for visitors to Kyoto, it is clearly a place of contemplation.

Two secondary school girls approached me at the Zen Garden, asking if they could practice English with me. They did a good job, telling me they came from Gumma (north of Tokyo) and their names are Natsumi and Rie. Natsumi wants to study English at university, so good luck.

The temple is set in delightful gardens with shaded paths and a lovely lake with the obligatory lotus, water lilies and grey heron.

Our last stop in Kyoto was the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Manga to us is the very popular Japanese style graphic novels from which Anime films were derived, but the earliest Manga expressions can be seen in picture scrolls from the Heian period (794-1192).

The museum is very much a hands on place with walls stacked with books dating back to the 1940s that are available to read. There is a children’s reading room, where one older gentleman had a stack of books and a giggle on his face, and there is an outdoor area to enjoy the books when the weather is fine.