Friday, 17 December 2010

Last trip to Kyoto

We have been lucky to be within a short drive from Kyoto: the most important historical city in Japan, some say the "Paris of Asia". Nearly every month we ventured to this amazing city, seeing it's sights and taking in the temples, shrines and shopping districts. But on all our journeys we never saw two of the most photographed and storied locations in the city. Last week we headed out to see what all the fuss about The Golden Pavillion and the torii gates of Fushimi Inari. Both places took our breath away, and I would say if in Japan you need to see both of these.
The Golden pavillion was first on the agenda. It's name is Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺 Temple of the Golden Pavilion) being covered in gold leaf from shingle to foundation, this Zen temple was first a pavillion built for the relaxation of the wealthy Saionji Kintsune in 1397 and later willed to the monks. The architecture is simple yet exquisite like much of Kyoto's grandeur. On top is perched a phoenix and the whole pavillion seems to be floating on a reflecting pond, a nice feature in the full sun. When we saw this place we were kicking ourselves for not going out to check this one earlier, certainly one of the top sights in the country.

Our second spot to hit was the Fushimi Inari Taisha, a large complex dedicated to the Inari, the god of rice, sake, and business. This massive shrine complex is the head of all Inari Jinjas across Japan, making it possibly one of the most important shrines the country has. Being the god of business, sake and rice is no small matter in an Asian country like Japan, imagine American's venerated the cow they eat, that would be some big shrine! When you arrive here the streets are marked with torii gates and you pass loads of restaurants and shinto religious shops selling more torii gates. We had a lovely cafe lunch, possibly the best in Japan (the coffee was to die for) and headed on our way to the 1300 year old shrine.
There were hundreds of people bustling around, clapping and praying. Shinto priests were washing hands and doing ceremonies and it all looked like a very fancy but typical Japanese Shrine, until we walked a little further up the hill. Behind the main shrine is a path that leads to 8km of trails through the mountain leading to 32000 small shrines and most of these are lined with back-to-front torii gates. I had never seen so many of these until I came here. There is an ethereal feel walking through miles of repeated red gates with odd glimpses through to the forest around you. Also, you can see hundreds of metal and stone foxes around the shrine grounds as the fox is the guardian and messenger of the Inari, seen holding keys to the granary in his mouth he is a spectacular work of art and probably a good messenger.
Many of the torii gates are new though some are quite old and collapsing giving a neat generational effect. All of these are donated by businesses wishing for prosperity and to look back and see names like Nikon, Toyota, Yuki`s Hair Salon and others really is quite funny. Each torii is said to purify you and represent a transition from the profane to the sacred, having this mountain lined with them must really get the job done, I mean I wouldn`t want to offend Japan`s rice god, they take him quite seriously.
So, a golden temple and a mountain lined with red gates was certainly a visually striking experience and one memory that we will always keep from this land, not to mention the delicious sandwich and coffee. We ended the day strolling our favourite streets in Gion taking it all in for the last time. The best thing you can do to end your day is to sit along the river with the couples watching the city go by and that is just what we did. Sayounara Kyoto!

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