Day 9–The Mountain of Storms

As I’m sure many of my readers know, I still play Pokémon Go. One of the nice things about paying PoGo while on holidays, though, is the potential for impromptu sightseeing that it allows – and indeed, that was almost certainly part of the intent behind it. One of the criteria required for getting something registered as a point of interest in the game is that it should be “a location with a cool story, place in history or educational value”, particularly if it’s a hidden gem or off the beaten path. So simply by following the Pokestops in the game, it’s possible to see some pretty interesting stuff. Sponsored ones being the exception, mind – if you follow those, you’ll just wind up in McDonalds (though the 7-11 ones are handy markers for where I can find an ATM).

It’s actually pretty cold in my room – one of the downsides of staying a nice old building. The aircon in my room is really only effective at heating the air above waist-level (when I’m standing), but since I do everything in this room either sitting or lying on the floor, that’s not great. The bathroom sinks are in the the passage which is open to the central courtyard, which is open to the outside air – actually the hall outside my room is too, but there’s at least a noren curtain in between. It was actually so cold this morning I could see my toothbrush steaming once I had finished brushing. I didn’t notice so much during our last stay here – that was in summer, so all the aircon had to do was cool the air near the floor, and having the courtyard open to the air was refreshing at night. After all that, though, my bed is surprisingly warm and comfortable, especially once I’d put my socks back on, and I slept quite well.

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Awoke this morning bright and early for breakfast. Very Japanese-style breakfast. Pretty nice, though.

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Headed out to start sightseeing soon after. First task: re-tread my paths from last night so I can see Nishiki and Pontocho in daylight. As I’d expected, Nishiki was still bustling, but Pontocho was almost completely empty. Nishiki has an entire shop selling nothing but rice, and several selling exclusively pickled vegetables. I bought a piece of dashimaki (kinda rolled omelette, but with dashi stock and stuff). It wasn’t bad.

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With that done, I hopped onto the Hankyu line train to head for Arashiyama, on the western side of Kyoto. Or to be more precise, I hopped onto the Hankyu line, but had to change at Katsura to the Arashiyama line. Disembarking at my destination, I decided to look around for somewhere to get an earylish lunch.

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I’d been meaning to try a bunch of bento boxes from convenience stores over the course of my trip, but so far, restaurants have always been more convenient. Today, though, no restaurant was in sight, so lunch was two rice balls and a piece of double-choc baumkuchen (cake) from Family Mart. Tasty, but someone’s gonna have to show me the trick of how to wrap square nori around triangular rice balls.

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Lunch done, I popped over to Matsunoo Taisha, which was nearby. Matsunoo Taisha (that’s Matsu-no-o) is built at the foot of Mount Matsuo (yes, that’s Matsu-o without the no), and is a grand shrine, serving about a third of Kyoto’s population. It’s actually located at the extreme western end of Shijo Dori, the same road that runs a block from my hotel on the eastern side of the city. It was founded at about the same time that the capital was being moved from Nara to Kyoto, making it one of the oldest shrines in the city.

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And today, there was a flea market going on happening in the outer grounds, and a traditional Japanese wedding happening in the inner court, so it was fairly crowded. I breezed through and took a few photos, but soon headed on, because this wasn’t the main reason I came out here.

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No, my main reason was to visit Saiho-ji, colloquially known as Koke-dera, or Moss Temple, after all the moss that grows in the gardens – over 120 types of moss are present, supposedly. Entry to Saiho-ji requires that you apply at least a week in advance by sending a snail-mail letter with a stamped return envelope – they’ll send a return envelope advising you which day you’ve been given a booking for, and when the entry time is that day. Mine was today at 1pm.

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Entry costs three thousand yen, making it the most expensive temple in all Kyoto, and you’re also required to perform some kind of Buddhist service before being allowed entry. I was expecting to have to copy a sutra with a calligraphy brush, but my letter said we’d be chanting a sutra instead, so I was a mite concerned when we were shown into a hall with calligraphy equipment laid out on little tables in rows and on entry we were handed a sutra on an A3 page.

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Turns out it was just chanting after all. I couldn’t really follow along at all, so I just sat and listened to the sound. Then we were asked to write a wish on a wooden plaque they’d handed out to us as well – I decided to try using the calligraphy brush to write “world peace”, because (a) it’s a nice generic wish, and (b) it consists of four kanji that I already knew (though in all honesty, I looked it up to make sure). Went pretty well, though I had too much ink on the brush and my handwriting is shocking anyway. Then we got up to put them on trays before the altar, and when I put mine down, I found myself putting it down next to another one that also said “world peace”, so I guess I wasn’t alone there.

Sadly, I wasn’t permitted to take photos of any of this. Also, I had to surrender the letter that they sent me – would have been nice to keep it as a souvenir, though I did make a colour copy first. There were a fair few foreigners there in the room with me. Fairly sure the couple next to me were from Hong Kong or Singapore or similar. I tried, incidentally, to sit in the formal kneeling seiza posture, but I couldn’t even hold that long enough to make it to the start of the ceremony, much less the end, so I switched to crossed legs. I managed that ok, but I could barely stand up afterwards.

Anyway, once the ceremony was done, we were allowed out into the gardens, and the photography began. The sun was lighting everything with a lovely golden glow – not that you can really tell in most photos, with the camera handily colour-correcting everything to bland white. Guess I can fix that in post. The pond in the centre of the garden is supposed to be in the shape of the kanji for “heart”, but I couldn’t really see it – and based on a conversation I overheard between a fellow visitor and the monk looking after the gate, I wasn’t alone in that regard.

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The garden was actually designed by famous Japanese gardener Muso Soseki, who also designed the gardens at Tenryu-ji – which James and I saw last time – and Jochi-ji – which (if you recall) I saw in Kamakura a few days ago – among others. The moss is actually not part of the original plan – it grew of its own accord during the Meiji period, when the temple lacked sufficient funds for upkeep. I guess they decided to keep it.

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Once I was done there, I decided to wander up an interesting-looking flight of stairs, and found Jizo-in, which is colloquially known as Take-no-dera, or Bamboo Temple, after all the bamboo that grows in the gardens. Jizo-in, a temple of the Rinzai sect, takes its name from – and enshrines – Jizo, a Buddhist figure who is the guardian of children, especially those who died before their parents. Supposedly Japanese Zen monk Ikkyu spent part of his childhood here, and one website I’ve consulted says that Muso Soseki (yes, him again) was the founding monk. It’s not a very big temple, but quite nice.

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Once I was done there, I decided to start heading back north towards where I started. On the way, I stopped at Kegon-ji. Kegon-ji is colloquially known as Suzumushi-dera, or Bell Cricket Temple, after all the bell crickets… no wait, there’s a story here. Seems there was a monk working at this temple who admired the bell crickets who would chirp at night, as they lived each day to their fullest potential. They’d only chirp during the summer, though, so he spent literally decades researching and training crickets to chirp all year round, in the main hall which is kept heated at all times. Now there’s supposedly six thousand crickets inhabiting cages in the main hall (though I confess I didn’t count them personally).

There was a fair queue waiting in line on the temple’s steps when I passed by on the way to Saiho-ji, so I was hoping it would have died down when I came back, but it was more than twice as long, reaching almost to the road. A bit of quick internet research revealed that they let people inside in bunches, though, so I thought I’d wait in line for the next bunch and see how close I got. Turns out the entire queue could fit inside. We were seated at long tables in the main hall with the crickets, and each given a cup of tea and a small snack (no idea what the snack was, but it was pretty tasty) while the priest gave a talk about the history of the temple – all in Japanese. I confess I didn’t get most of it. No photos allowed inside here either, but I took a couple before realising that.

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Then they allowed us out to the garden. It’s a fairly nice garden, but one part has a spectacular view of Kyoto, so I took a bunch of photos there.

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The temple also has a Jizo statue whose claim to fame is that it’s supposedly the only Jizo statue in all Japan that’s wearing sandals – the rest have bare feet. In theory, it’s because this specific Jizo personally works to grant your wishes.

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By the time I was done here, it was pretty much sunset. I decided to walk up to the main part of Arashiyama to catch the Randen line home – it’s Kyoto’s only streetcar. It’s officially named Keifuku Electric Railroad, Arashiyama Line – the colloquial name Randen comes from Arashiyama Dentetsu (the character for “arashi” can also be read as “ran”). But first I had to get there.

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On the way, I passed Tsukuyomi Shrine, a shine to the god of the moon which is attached to Matsunoo Taisha, and snapped a few photos. Saw a bunch of boys playing baseball in the park across the road too. Grabbed a bottle of white peach flavoured Fanta from a vending machine to sip on. Got another look at Matsunoo Taisha, now devoid of crowds… or indeed, people at all.

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I walked north through the streets in darkness, until I hit Horin-ji, and found a whole lot of people walking inside. Turns out there was a light show going on there, kinda like Vivid in Sydney, except lights were just shone on things, rather than special displays designed for specific structures like in Sydney. Fairly pretty, though.

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Headed on from there to discover that it was actually a thing that was going on in a bunch of places around Arashiyama. Like Togetsu-kyo, and a bunch of temples, and even the Randen was getting into it. Part of my reason for wanting to ride the Randen is the Kimono Forest installed at the line’s Arashiyama Station – it’s a collection of six hundred illuminated pillars, each displaying a unique kimono pattern done in the traditional Kyo-yuzen style (though these are a permanent installation rather than a temporary event). I confess I was a little bit torn between riding the Randen in daylight and seeing the Kimono Forest at night, but in the end the latter won out, simply because of how long I take to go places.

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I also discovered that the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest was also getting in on the event. It was already getting a bit late, and also starting to sprinkle a bit, so I considered passing on it – especially considering how I found it a little disappointing last time – but eventually decided it’d be dumb so come so far and not go the rest of the way. Almost reconsidered when I realised how far away it was, though. And also considering how long it took me to get off the Togetsu-kyo bridge, what with all the crowds waiting to cross at the lights.

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I followed the crowd. Every time we passed even the smallest bamboo copse, I kept thinking that was it, and then thinking it wasn’t too bad, but not really worth adding an hour to my day for. Then I saw the real thing, and it was really quite impressive.

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Still not sure it was worth adding an extra hour to my day for, though.

Stumbled back to the station and hopped on the Randen. Too dark to see anything, and too tired to look, which is a bit of a shame.

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The Randen’s other terminus is a short walk from my hotel, so I walked, looking for somewhere to have dinner. Eventually I found this nice little ramen place, where I ordered their “Matured Miso Ramen” – a combination of dried sardine, chicken bone and pork bone soups, plus “eight varieties of matured miso”. Very very tasty. Very umami. Very large and filling.

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Downside: carrying a cold camera into a restaurant filled with open boiling pots of water for cooking noodles? Instant foggy lens.

Headed the rest of the way back to the hotel (actually saw the nearest Toyoko Inn on the way) to find another snack waiting for me as part of the Japanese service. Some kind of red-bean-paste-filled wafer thing. Yum.

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Decided to have my shower at night to save time tomorrow morning, and discovered the bath all filled and ready for a soak – I’ve never seen that bath filled before. In Japanese households, you share the one bath of water with all the inhabitants, though you wash outside of the tub – that’s the important difference, baths are for relaxing, not washing. And very relaxing it was – I don’t remember the last bath I had (in a regular tub) that I could get both my knees and my torso under the water, and in this bath I was sitting up to my neck. Part of the reason for that is that you deliberately fill the bath so full that it overflows when you get in, so that it’s full to the brim when you’re sitting in it. Japanese bath rooms are designed to cope with that. Very nice. Very warming.

Very tired, though. Time for bed.

Today’s photo count: a thousand and thirty-two. Cracked a thousand again. Also managed to roll over the 10,000 image mark for the camera. Plus a video I somehow managed to take while the camera was hanging around my neck. Maybe I thought I’d pushed the power button to turn it off, but hit record instead – the buttons feel quite similar to touch.

Today’s pedometer count: 22,367 steps, for 16km exactly.

Today’s goshuin count: Four – Matsunoo Taisha, Saiho-ji (with a double-page spread), Jizo-ji, Kegon-ji.

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Today’s stamp count: Um… three-ish. Kawaramachi, Katsura and Matsuo-taisha Stations, all Hankyu stations. Trouble is, first time I applied the Matsuo-taisha stamp, I pressed so hard I turned it into a featureless blob, and soaked through the page to ruin the Katsura stamp on the other side, which is a bit sad. I re-did the Matsuo-taisha stamp on a new page, but ain’t nothing gonna fix the Katsura stamp.

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