Sunday, October 15, 2006

Japan - Kyoto Temples

The main reason most people go to Kyoto is for the temples. Kyoto is a tourist city, no doubt about it - probably even moreso than Tokyo. I heard more English while there than anywhere else, and saw a lot more westerners - most of whom come for the traditional Japanese architecture and the still-practiced ancient customs.

Kyoto is home to a huge number of temples and shrines, and it's impossible to visit them all. We only had three days, and we had a lot of other stuff we wanted to do as well, so we really had to pick and choose. In the end, it was my wife who insisted we "had to" visit Sanjusangen-do and Kiyomizu - apparently, these are among the most famous temples in Japan, and all Japanese know their names.

Here's a ticket to Sanjusangendo Temple (jpg):

Back of the same ticket - this basically lists out some of the rules you have to follow, like no food, no photography, you may need to show this ticket, and follow the posted rules inside. (jpg)

The Sanjusangendo Temple brochure (multi-page PDF):

Sanjusangendo is known for housing 1001 life-size statues of Buddha. The main building is extremely long in order to house them all. Standing in front of them are the 28 guardian deities, making for a pretty impressive display of wood carving. Lining the rafters are various wood prints that originally would have carried various calligraphic messages - today, most have faded to nothing. The building itself is that typical brown wood beam construction that you'd expect to see in a movie about ancient Japan, but the interesting thing about this is that originally this temple (like most others) was painted in vibrant colors and complicated patterns. Small sections of these color patterns are still visible, and signs point them out.

Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside the building. I do have some brochures I'm planning to scan and post later, though, so check back if you're interested.

There's nothing much to see after the main building, so we headed out to Kiyomizu. Kiyomizu temple is known for its amazing views of Kyoto, along with having a spring with what's known as the best-tasting water in all of Japan. Well, we missed tasting the water (they charge an extra 200 yen for the privilege) but we sure couldn't miss those views. Set along a mountain ridge, Kiyomizu offers a panoramic view of the city and architecture that's beautifully integrated into its surroundings.

Unlike Sanjusangen-do, it has not been "antiqued" with age - its original vivid colors have been maintained, and all of the temple buildings look new.

It does not offer as impressive a collection of art and sculpture as Sanjusangen-do, nor does it have a large central main building, but it more than makes up for it in its setting and flow.

Here's a ticket to Kiyomizu Temple (jpg):

Back of the same ticket - poetic! (jpg)

Unfortunately, I didn't see any brochures at Kiyomizu.

The thing about Japanese temples, and the thing I wish more tourists realized (because they obviously don't), is that while yes, they are tourist spots and in some ways living museums, they are also working prayer houses. I am not a religious person, but I don't go to St. Patrick's Cathedral and stand there talking loudly and taking flash pictures while people are praying. I think there's something difficult for westerners about accepting the fact that something built 500 or more years ago can still be operating just as it always was, but that is the case with all temples and shrines in Japan. So please, if you go, be respectful and also be mindful of the customs of visiting a Japanese temple. There are English signs everywhere telling you what to do (and what not to do).

All of the temples I've been to have a street leading up to them crammed full of shops where you can buy all of the cheap crap that souvenir stores sell everywhere in Japan. I'm probably going to do a whole other post on this, because you really need to be careful what you buy in places like this. The long and the short of it is that you shouldn't expect a souvenir store in Japan to be any more reputable than a souvenir store in Times Square. But you can find some good deals and also some good quality items if you know what to look for (and what to skip over).

Luckily, the weather held off on the day we went temple-hopping, because most of visiting any temple is walking around outside. The sun even broke through as we made it to Kiyomizu, but by the time we ate lunch afterwards, the skies were threatening. By the next morning, it was raining hard, and it would only get worse from there.

Next up: Gion Corner, shopping in Kyoto, getting around and getting out of Kyoto (including the shinkansen!)

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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