Tag Archives: Kyoto

Temples of Kyoto

Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years and has so many temples that it would be impossible to visit them all unless you had months, or maybe even years, and a serious level of motivation. We enjoyed the ten or so that we visited during our stay in the city and found them to be just as varied as the wats that we discovered in Chiang Mai.


The one with the glitz


Kinkakuji, or The Golden Pavilion, is an iconic image of Kyoto and it didn’t disappoint. It is hugely busy and because of the volume of tourists you are constrained to a one-way route around the grounds which means that you have to move with the herd and can’t enter any of the buildings. Even so, we’re really glad that we went, even when you’ve seen photos the real thing is still utterly breathtaking.


The one near the bamboo grove


Another busy temple, Tenryu-ji is situated in Arashiyama in north-west Kyoto, right beside the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The temple’s Zen garden is one of the oldest in Japan and has the same form as when it was designed in the 14th century. It is lovely and we really appreciated the benches and area to sit on the terraces of the buildings around the pond although there were a few too many visiting tour groups to make it a really peaceful place to pause.

20140620-082924-30564952.jpgJust outside the grounds of Tenryu-ji, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove was beautiful but smaller than we’d expected

Otagi Nenbutsuji

The one with quirky statues

20140619-204915-74955079.jpgHint: two of these are not permanent fixtures

This temple is also in Arashiyama, just outside the main tourist trail area. It’s not in the Lonely Planet, we found out about it on another travel blog. The temple originally dates to the 8th century although it was moved to its present location in 1922, and the grounds contain 1200 carved stone figures of Rakan (disciples of Shaka, the founder of Buddhism) which were made during the 1980s by visitors from across Japan for the reconstruction of the temple. We loved that enough time had elapsed to cover them with moss so that initially they looked very old but on closer inspection the variety of expressions and accessories (tennis racket, beer bottles, walkman!) gave them an air of modernity. It’s a lovely peaceful temple, but also feels a little like an art installation, and is definitely one of our favourites.


The one with the view


It seems as if this temple is on everyone’s itinerary, it was full of school groups as well as scores of other tourists, including quite a few Japanese dressed up in kimonos for the day’s sightseeing. Even so the main hall of the temple perched on a hillside overlooking central Kyoto is an impressive sight.

If you go we’d recommend stopping at Tainai-meguri before entering the main temple (go through the gate and up the steps, it’s to the left before you get to the ticket booth). It’s an unusual sub temple which you enter through a curtain into a pitch black corridor, following a handrail of large wooden prayer beads leads you to the centre of the temple and symbolises rebirth. Even with a group of giggling schoolgirls following us and stepping on the backs of our shoes it was a mystical experience.


The one with grandeur

20140620-083136-30696716.jpgClockwise from top left: Andrew in front of the temple gate, the main hall under wraps, a large Buddha head in a sub-temple in the cemetery, the ‘big bell’

From the beginning you know that this is going to be an impressive temple. It has the largest temple gate in Japan, a self proclaimed ‘big bell’, and when the main hall is uncovered and reopens (scheduled for sometime in 2019) it looks as if it will be an imposing structure. But, for all that, there’s nothing brash about this temple, it has a quiet dignity and we liked how it seemed to be a working temple, minding its own business and almost ignoring the few tourists who pass through.

Its seven ‘treasures’ are explained in a display case behind the temple hall and the corridors linking the three main structures are fitted with nightingale floors, so called because they ‘sing’ as you walk on them. It’s thought that they were used as a kind of security measure so that intruders couldn’t sneak in.


The one that looks like a country retreat


I still can’t quite get my head around this one being a temple. There is a line of massive camphor trees along the front shielding it from the street and the buildings are an interconnected collection of rooms with beautifully painted screen doors and views out into a peaceful garden. You really have to look for the temple elements – the Buddha images are modestly sized, there’s no incense and even the temple bell is tucked away in a corner of the garden.

Fushimi Inari

The one with lots of red torii gates


OK, strictly speaking this is a shrine not a temple, but you know what I mean… It’s located about a 30 minute bike ride south-east of Kyoto centre and extends all the way up the side of Mt Inari. It’s quite a long and sweaty hike to the top along a path almost entirely covered with thousands of bright orange-red torii gates with various small shrines along the way dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. We found the view through the gates to be really photogenic and it was much easier to find empty stretches the higher up the mountain we climbed.


The one with the amazing Zen garden (and not a glimmer of silver)


Ginkakuji means silver temple but, unlike at Kinkakuji, they never quite got around to applying the bling here. We arrived just after opening time to find the team of gardeners beginning a demolition job on the intricate raked sand Zen garden. Our next hour or so was spent sitting at the side and watching as with hosepipe, string line, special rake and a hefty boulder they reconstructed it. Even without the special experience of seeing how the Zen garden is engineered, the rest of the grounds are also beautifully kept (and busy) with mossy hillsides and glimpses into the temple buildings.


The one with the art

Philosopher's PathThe Path of Philosophy

The Path of Philosophy is a canalside footpath which leads south from Ginkakuji. The next temple along it is Honen-in which the Lonely Planet highly recommended but which was nevertheless very quiet. There is a small garden surrounding the temple buildings as well as several pieces of art installed discreetly in the grounds. There’s also a dedicated exhibition room which hosts small temporary exhibitions. We enjoyed going in and speaking to the mother and daughter artists and an Australian artist who was also viewing, we even got a free cup of tea.

20140620-092045-33645740.jpgHonen-in (clockwise from top left): art exhibition hall, stupa in the grounds, raked sand, art work in a corner of the garden


The one with the gate that you can go inside


Nanzenji also has an impressively large gate and it’s possible to enter this one. I found the ¥500 (£3) entry fee a little steep for the 20 minutes required to climb the steps and walk around but the view over the city is nice and the temple on the second floor is beautifully painted although unfortunately we could only peek through the windows and photos are not allowed. Afterwards we wandered through the grounds, past the brick built aqueduct and through a very quiet temple called Saisho-in to a shrine-temple in the forest built in front of a sacred waterfall.


The one on a forested hillside


The main reason we visited the small town of Kurama, 30 minutes north of Kyoto on the Eizan rail line was to visit the outdoor onsen, but an hour or so’s walk up the hillside through the various temple buildings and a picnic lunch with a view over the surrounding mountains turned it into a pleasant full day trip. The temple was pretty, but we highly recommend a soak in the hot spring waters as a way to relax your muscles after the hike up and back down the hill.

Japanese markets

Markets are some of our favourite places to visit. For a start we love food and it’s always interesting to see the exotic (to us) ingredients available to local cooks, and they are usually interesting and colourful places to photograph too. We’ve found Japanese markets to be just as interesting as the ones we visited in Riga, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Bangladesh, and three very different markets from the first half of our stay in Japan really stand out.

Omicho Market, Kanazawa

The Omicho market in Kanazawa really feels like a locals market. It is comprised of stalls mainly offering fresh ingredients and is arranged in a series of covered corridors. There were lots of restaurants around the fringes and on the second floor, we ate at a couple of them during the few days that we stayed in Kanazawa.

20140526-120419-43459436.jpgA quiet corner of Omicho Market

20140526-120532-43532044.jpgAll kinds of fish feature heavily from live oysters to dried squid, and especially big red crabs, this fine specimen is priced at just under £30!

20140525-222117-80477241.jpgJapanese vegetables – that’s fresh wasabi in the bottom left, bamboo shoots above it and the white vegetable with green leaves to the right of the lemons is called udo

20140526-120655-43615571.jpgNon-fish and vegetable stalls include cakes, desserts and flowers

20140526-120852-43732121.jpgWe enjoyed sashimi bought from the fishmonger for lunch one day – eaten standing at the side of his stall

Nishiki Market, Kyoto

This very long covered market stretches for four or five blocks through the centre of Kyoto. It was a great place to spend a rainy afternoon, unfortunately lots of other people had the same thought so we spent much of the time shuffling along in a crush of bodies. There were a lot of weird and wonderful traditional foodstuffs that we attempted to identify, with enough samples to keep things interesting and the occasional souvenir shop as well.

20140525-222302-80582882.jpgStained glass skylight over Nishiki market

20140526-122759-44879830.jpgVast arrays of pickled vegetables

20140526-122829-44909778.jpgMiso pickled vegetables (called misozuke) are made using a fermented soy bean paste

20140602-174348-63828690.jpgWe managed to score several samples of sake by looking simultaneously appreciative and indecisive :)

20140526-122956-44996665.jpgSouvenirs included beautiful ceramics, mobiles and cotton scarves

20140526-123046-45046414.jpgFood offerings ranged from fresh vegetables and fish to the intriguing sounding ‘Espresso Milk Jam’ (sadly no samples available) and packs of spices

20140526-123301-45181139.jpgThere were lots of snacks available too, these Tako-tamago looked interesting – a baby octopus with a quail’s egg in its head on a stiiiick!

Kagoshima Fish Market Tour

When we read in the Lonely Planet about the weekly early morning tour of the Kagoshima wholesale fish market I got very excited, to the point of planning our trip to make sure that we’d definitely be in town on a Saturday. The tour is run by a group of local hotels and ryokans, but it’s not necessary to be staying with one of them to join in.

We were collected from our hotel just after 7am and whisked off to the Wholesale Fish Market on the seafront where we were issued with wellies and met our guides and the rest of the group – two locals and a group from a Hong Kong TV company (without their video cameras). A market representative guided the group in Japanese, but fortunately for us Yukiko, one of the hotel managers, spoke good English and gave us a really good overview of what we were seeing.

20140530-185301-67981681.jpgBustling commercial fish market in Kagoshima

When we arrived fish was being auctioned. The smallish group of wholesalers moved around to each of the crates with the auctioneers amidst a cacophony of bells and whistles. Everything happened very fast, there was a lot of cryptic jargon (even to Japanese ears not in the know) and the bidding was done by the wholesalers quickly scribbling their price on a clapper-like pocket chalkboard which was then flipped open at the auctioneer so that only he could see it. To us, it seemed like the wholesalers got one shot at naming their price for each crate before the auctioneer moved on to the next.

20140530-185349-68029695.jpgAuction in progress, the guys with the red caps are the auctioneers

20140530-185500-68100139.jpgWellington boots are pretty much required footwear around the wet floor of the fish market

We were able to wander fairly freely, trying not to get in the way and marvelling at the huge diversity and amazing freshness of the fish. I’ve never seen eyes so bright or scales so shiny. Obviously the quantity and variety of fish each day varies. Yukiko told us that this morning’s catch was a particularly good one.

20140602-074403-27843322.jpgFlying fish are a specialty of the Kagoshima area. Their pectoral (side) fins are very long to allow them to glide over the water’s surface.

20140530-185606-68166046.jpgFish of all different shapes, sizes and colours

Next we moved into the section of the market where the wholesalers sell to trade, i.e. restaurants and fishmongers selling to the public. Here we were given a demonstration of a 40kg tuna being carved and even got to try some as sashimi – short of cutting it up on the boat, I don’t think we could get it any fresher than that!

20140530-185643-68203313.jpgTuna preparation: from whole fish to delicious sashimi in less than 10 minutes!

Some fish varieties aren’t available locally and these are imported from as far afield as Scotland, Argentina, and Chile, and kept in huge walk-in freezers at -20oC. As you might imagine, keeping so much fish fresh in Kagoshima’s warm climate takes a lot of ice. Market employees send a piece of paper up a dangling line to order whatever quantity they need and then collect it from a nearby huge chute.

20140530-185711-68231128.jpgClockwise from top left: refrigerated trucks lined up outside the fish market, collecting ice from the dispenser, the market’s shrine to the god of the sea where thanks are given for its generosity, Andrew and our guide inside the walk-in freezer

There are a couple of restaurants on site that serve meals to the employees and workers at the market, but they’re also open to the public whether you’ve been on the market tour or not. The whole group went to one of them after the tour. Andrew and I ordered the huge sashimi set which contained some slightly exotic items (a large sea snail, and sea urchin) as well as more familiar fish.

20140602-080642-29202057.jpgA sashimi feast! The snail is at the top left of the picture, the sea urchin is the orange coloured meat in the middle right. As well as this mountain of raw fish, the set meal also included rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables.

After seeing the workings of the market it was great to sample some of its delicious wares, and to talk with the hotel managers who created the fish market tour, and who continue to run it every week with the support of the Kagoshima Fish Market.

Yabusame mounted archery, Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto

Once a year on the 3rd of May (which fell at the beginning of Golden Week this year), the Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto hosts a display of Yabusame – or Japanese mounted archery.

Yabusame archer making his way to the starting line

Yabusame archer making his way to the starting line

Originally started by Minamoto no Yoritomo in the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333) to improve the archery of his shoguns, this event is now part of the Aoi Matsuri (or “Hollyhock”) festival in Kyoto, and it was a happy coincidence that we were in Kyoto and able to see this fantastic display of skill.

The 5 riders in traditional costume take it in turns to race down the 255-metre track 6 times, taking aim at 3 consecutive wooden targets on each pass. By the time we’d arrived the crowds had already gathered, so we took up a place by a large green square which turned out to be the background for the final target.

The Yabusame archers started the procession to the starting line at 2pm and very soon afterward we heard the crack of splintering wood and the roar of the crowd before the first rider came thundering down the course towards us, at the last possible second drawing his bow across his face to lose an arrow into the final target. We didn’t see the arrow at all, the archer flashed past and the target exploded behind him – it was so quick!

Yabusame archer taking out the final target at full speed

Yabusame archer taking out the final target at full speed

The speed and control of the horses reminded us of the Mongol warriors during the reign of Chinggis Khaan, where archery, horse-riding and wrestling are huge sports celebrated every year at Nadaam festivals throughout Mongolia.

Here’s a short video we took of some of the Yabusame archers which hopefully shows their skills of speed and accuracy..

A woman in the crowd next to us translated some of the announcements for us, and it turned out that one of the archers was an extra in the movie The Last Samurai!