Last weekend Phil and I had our first taste of ‘Japan’s heartland’, Kyoto, spending 3 days there exploring some of what this culturally rich city has to offer. Taking over from Nara in 794 Kyoto was Japan’s capital city for over 1,000 years and it is here that many aspects of traditional Japanese culture developed into the celebrated practices they are today. Japanese travel to Kyoto from every corner of the country to learn about their cultural heritage, and it is here that Phil and I will visit to learn the ancient art of ikebana, to partake in the famous tea ceremonies, watch kabuki theatre and to view the spectacular cherry blossoms. One of things that Kyoto is of course most famous for is its gardens, and with 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites, over 1600 Buddhist temples and more than 400 Shintō shrines it was a hard job choosing where to visit over the weekend.
We were fortunate to have Mori-san with us for the Friday and Saturday and Matsushita-san (ALPHA’s Vice Principal) with us on the Friday to help to being the city to life for us. It’s a shame they couldn’t do anything about the unseasonably wet weather on Friday, but it was good to see that the good old umbrella is not out of place here in Japan…
The first stop on our weekend tour of Kyoto was the beautiful Tenryū-ji temple, where Matsushita-san spent some years training. Built in 1339 by Shogun AshikagaTakauji, Tenryū-ji is today one of Kyoto’s top five Zen Buddhist temples. Buildings including the beautiful main hall, drawing hall and temple kitchen have several times been lost in fires and wars so those currently standing on the site only date back to the Meiji era (1868-1912).
However the gardens, created by the famous garden designer Muso Soseki, are little changed from their original conception in the 14th century. Like other gardens of the Edo era, the garden at Tenryū-ji is a stunning landscape garden with a pond at its centre surrounded by ‘stolling’ paths and dotted with artfully arranged rocks and pine trees. Japanese gardens often ‘borrow’ the natural beauty of their mountainous surroundings and Tenryū-ji is no different, with the Arashiyama mountains providing a spectacular backdrop.
The next stop on our tour was the Katsura Imperial Village (Katsura Rikyū), which was completed in 1645 as a place of residence for the Katsuras who were members of the Imperial Family. Katsura Rikyū is considered one of Japan’s most important cultural treasures so access is by appointment only. Fortunately Mori-san had kindly travelled to Kyoto a month previously to apply for us to have a guided tour of the site. Katsura’s buildings are even more culturally significant than the traditional Edo era ‘strolling’ gardens. The Old Shion, Middle Shion, New Palace were constructed in the shoin style with irimoya kokerabuki (Japanese hip-and-gable) roofs. O ur guide took us on a circular walk around Katsura’s large central pond from building to building, showing us the, Geppa-rō (‘Moon-wave Tower’), Shōkin-tei (‘Pine-Lute Pavilion’), Shōka-tei (‘Flower-Appreciation Pavilion’), Onrin-dō (a small ancestral shrine), Shōiken (‘Laughing Thoughts Pavilion’) and four Tea Houses (originally there were five). Each offers splendid views out over the pond.
The last stop of the day was to Kiyomizu-dera to take advantage of the newly dry weather to watch the sun set over the temple. The temple was originally built in 798 but the one that currently occupies the site is actually a 1633 reconstruction. The main hall is built high up with its huge veranda jutting out over the hillside supported by an impressively large wooden scaffold. Just below the main hall is Otawa-no-taki, a sacred waterfall where visitors go to gain health and longevity by drinking the waters. Other temples and shrines are dotted around the precincts, including an impressive pagoda which perfectly catches the last rays of the sun.
Well I say last stop, but the last stops of the day were actually a delicious Japanese meal…
…and a night in a traditional Japanese room with a traditional Japanese robe provided too.