To read Part 1 click here.
11. Bamboo Forest at Arashiyama
There is just about more bamboo than tourists. Still, if you get there early (or late) or if you’re very lucky, you may just get a break in the endless snake of groups and selfie-takers to enjoy the peace of the place, disturbed only as the wind manifests itself in the swaying boughs and hollow knocks of an oncoming gust. But, try as I might to hold onto that moment of calm, our grove companions’ very vocal ‘appreciation’ (maybe they were talking about lunch) is the lasting impression of the place. Getting lost in a bamboo forest in Kamakura was a lot more majestic. I wouldn’t be surprised if all those photos you’ve seen haven’t actually been taken by professional photographers with the place to themselves. Just remember, as you inelegantly contort yourself to crop others out of your shot, it’s about the rustle not the snap.
12. Gio-ji’s Moss Garden
For me, amongst all of Kyoto’s many shrines and temples, Gio-ji’s is something special. A small solitary thatched building sitting in its garden of lush moss, it could almost be that quintessential hermit monk’s isolated mountain retreat that you pictured in your mind’s eye when reading Tale of Genji. This connection is not that bizarre considering that its author, Lady Murasaki, lived in Kyoto and it is actually a hermit-nunnery. Its history actually features as a true story included in the Tale of the Heike.
The tale is that the eponymous Gio was a dancer who fell in love with the Heike clan’s powerful, though doomed, leader Taira no Kiyomori. Unfortunately, Kiyomori lost interest in Gio when another young dancer, Hotoke, caught his attention. Humiliated and heartbroken, Gio retreated into obscurity as she settled into this little house, which became her sanctuary, and begun her life as a nun. A few years later, full of guilt, Hotoke visited Gio asking for forgiveness and joined her at Gio-ji as a nun.
Still today, though Kyoto city has expanded to the mountains, Gio-ji retains an air of isolation and is a tranquil antidote for the noisy crowds around the bamboo grove. Its haven status protected by a short, mildly uphill, 10-minute walk and squadrons of mosquitoes – if you’re not part of a tour-bus group and you buy the local citronella repellent, these needn’t be obstacles (seriously though, standing in a swarm with the Japanese mosquito repellent on is like you are wearing the One Ring).
13. Ukai cormorant fishing on the Oi river in Arashiyama
Ukai is as traditional way of fishing, dating back to 700 AD, which involves harnessing cormorants to catch riverfish instead of rods or nets. Master Fishermen work out of wooden boats using highly trained cormorant on leashes to find and ‘eat’ the fish and then to regurgitate them once the bird has been pulled back on board. A cord around the bird’s neck allows the fishermen to control the cormorant; this also stops large fish from being swallowed while at the same time allowing the cormorant to actually ingest the smaller fish.
Setting aside any ethical consideration, this is still a marvellous sight to behold. Though now carried out for purely touristic reasons, after dark Ukai fishing certainly provides a spectacle. The massive brazier-lanterns lit at the prow are impressive in their own right, then when you consider that they’re on a wooden boat, the fisherman is standing right by them and 4 cormorants are skipping out of the river, spitting out fish into the boat and splashing back into the river faster than you can register, it’s pretty cool. We stayed on the banks and watching the two fireboats, 8 cormorants and swooping heron against the backdrop of the leafy Kyoto hills, it was a view, that wouldn’t have changed in hundreds of years (as my mum would say). But in this case, it is not just the view that would not have changed, but also this human behaviour, a skilled process, albeit pseudo-symbiotic, with different actors but identical nevertheless.
14. The Yukata
If you had to go to your cupboard now and I asked you to put on your ‘going out’ party clothes, you may have an idea of the outfit you’d end-up in. Well in midsummer Kyoto, I was amazed to see how often ‘the young’, out on the town, would wear a yukata, the casual cotton summer kimono. These we spotted worn here and there: by groups of young women heading to dinner, by couples at temples, by young men drinking by the river bank in the evening. The yukata party reached its crescendo for Gion Matsuri when almost everyone was wearing one. To join in, Gabby and I looked for our own for a long time. I eventually went for a vintage some second hand one and Gabby got a sakura one. They certainly are cooler than wearing western clothes, the obi (the sash) is a great place to store your fan and the inside of the sleeves can hold your wallet!
To find the second hand yukata shop visit: Yuzuki
For Gabby’s yukata shop in Kyoto visit: Mimuro
15. Gion Matsuri
There’s too much to say about this festival in this blog. Suffice to say, it played a massive role in our time in Kyoto, since the festival was split into two separate events, spanning the whole month of July, for the first time in 48 years as it returned to its original format. This meant that it lasted the whole length of our time in Kyoto. Our flat was right in the centre of things as we watched the behemoth, human-powered vehicles be assembled night after night. I’ll be posting a photo-blog of the parades later.
16. Realising I could read the kanji at Kinkaku-ji
The other temple that I think should absolutely be visited is Kinkaku-ji. Not only did I discover with delight that I could read the name of the temple in Kanji (Gold Pavilion Temple) but it is also picture perfect. The two golden buildings, one built on land and its twin mirrored across the pond’s surface, sit beautifully amongst their garden setting. It’s quite a bit ostentatious but it is still magic. In fact a little too magic: in a fact following fiction way, a young 22 year-old monk, like Thorin (in The Hobbit), was driven mad by this bewitching Temple covered in what we must assume was pure dragon gold leaf from under the Lonely Mountain. Having become obsessed with the structure, in 1950 this monk set fire to it and burnt it to the ground; no Smaug necessary.
As you can see, in a land where earthquakes, eruptions, monsoons, tsunamis and all sorts of other natural phenomena are responsible for the youth of Japan’s built heritage, the story of Kinkaku-ji really ignited my imagination. There now stands a golden sculpture of a phoenix at the top of the pavilion – should have been a liver bird.
17. Party atmosphere
Another cool feature of Kyoto in July was the constant party atmosphere. Roads were closed off, anime were shown on TVs in the street, street food was sold everywhere, merchants’ treasures were displayed outside their homes, performers on the riverbanks entertained crowds by moonlight with fire and people were out enjoying their city.
Exceptions: Kyoto’s bus drivers, cars and cyclists. Cyclists and cars appeared intent on knocking us down on the narrow, pavement-less, streets of the gridded old town. And I had my only heated exchange in Japan with a dick bus driver (in general the bus drivers in Kyoto were not excellent). With a population of 1.4 million and 51 million tourists in 2013, it’s possible that even Japanese deference and hospitality have been overcome.
18. Easy birth shrine okazaki shrine fertility
This famous shrine is a favourite for weddings. In fact, couples from all over the world come here to get married since it is the shrine associated with fertility and easy childbirth. It was for the latter reason that we paid a visit, so that Gabby could say a prayer for her cousin who was in the last stages of pregnancy. Everything went well for her, so maybe it’s well worth a visit! If you were wondering, the spirit animal of fertility is, of course, the rabbit. They’re everywhere at this little shrine.
19. Pottery decorating Kyoto Zuikougama
As Gabby wanted to try her hand at Japanese pottery, one of the last things we did was go to create our own clay mementos. We found Zuikougama studio, a traditional potter that has been in business since 1771, which offered a beginner course (price included one item each, but we could do as many as we wanted) and made a booking. When we arrived for our lesson, we put on a Japanese tablier, were given a few basic instructions in English and then left to ourselves as we free-hand coiled a bowl each then decorated an ocha cup. Having had a great time (with varying degrees of artistic success – think very wabi sabi for my attempts), we left everything to be fired and decided to have them sent to T&A as an amusing surprise. Following a mini-epic around the globe, we’re so happy that we have these as our souvenirs of our time in Kyoto.
For more information visit: http://www.zuikou.com
20. The rock garden at Ryōan-ji
If you almost been run over by a passing taxi or you’ve been caught in a summer shower then you may want to recharge your karmic gauge by visiting Ryōan-ji’s rock garden. I don’t know what it is, Gabby does not feel this way, but rock gardens really do it for me. A branch of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, Ryōan-ji is considered to have one of the finest kare-sansu, “dry landscapes”. Dating back at least 600 years, 15 stones are arranged on a linear-raked bed of white gravel. From any viewing position on the veranda it’s impossible to see all 15 stones (the 15th only reveals itself to the enlightened). For me, it’s the charming wabi of the brown and orange stained clay encircling wall that makes this garden standout. The permanent perfection of the white gravel and the immobile rocks contrast with the weathering man-made wall: sit, zone out the hoards and appreciate the yūgen.
Thanks for taking the time to read our memories of Kyoto!