Tucked under the sheets of my lavish capsule bed I tossed slightly, slothfully. I sighed and with my mind I scanned down my body. I could feel only pleasure, I felt fresh like a rose: I had the rest of a king. I opened my eyes, happy. Who said capsule hotels were uncomfortable?
Kyōto is so full of interesting landmarks it is well worthy of a multi-day stay. For that second day, I planned to see the cream of the crop of the city.
I got up bright and early, groomed myself in the bathroom, got dressed and, having grabbed some breakfast on the go from the nearest convenience store, it was 9AM when I arrived at Kyōto Central Station. It was the same place where I had met Satsuki-san the day before. The difference was that, on that day, I was meeting someone else: Suzuki-san, the coordinator of the Kyōto's Goodwill Guide Club. This time it took me a while to find my volunteer guide amongst the large crowd of early commuters who arrived at and departed from Kyōto to carry out their daily duties.
Suzuki-san could not have been more different than my first guide in Kyōto. Satsuki-san was a quirky, hyped man, endearingly jumpy and with hilarious mannerisms. Suzuki-san, in contrast, was calm, serene, a man of reserved countenance, his gaze kind, his smile frank and warm. We cordially greeted and introduced each other and we started our day together, him walking with his hands behind his back, his gait as confident and relaxed as his facial expressions. As we talked and got to know each other, I felt instantly very much at ease in his company, reminiscent of my childhood memories of strolling around on a spring day with my grandfather.
During my first day in Kyōto we had focused on the north-east of the city. Today we were visiting the east, starting at Mt. Inari, one of the many hills, this one 250m high, of a range that delimits the city on its eastern side. At the foot of Mt. Inari we find the incredibly popular Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社).
The earliest structures of this shintō shrine date from the 8th century. It had been originally built elsewhere, but it was relocated to its current position upon request of the famous Japanese Buddhist monk Kōbō-Daishi.
The name of the temple gives us clues about what to expect within:
- Fushimi (伏見) is simply the district of Kyōto where the shrine is located, officially known as Fushimi-ku (伏見区).
- Inari (稲荷) is a kami (神), a holy spirit or deity according to Japanese shintō. In shintō deities are rarely represented pictorially, but when Inari does, it is most often depicted as a fox, because legend has it that foxes are the messengers of this deity. Inari is linked to fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture and industry. All of these are fundamental concepts in Japanese society and hence Inari, enshrined here in 711 AD, is very much revered.
- Last but not least, taisha (大社) means "large shrine". Due to Inari's popularity and the spirit's ability to partition itself and be re-enshrined elsewhere, there are about 32,000 sub-shrines or bunsha (分社) scattered across Japan. In fact, I had visited one of these lesser shrines in Hanazono-jinja, Tokyo, at the beginning of my journey.
The temple isn't called taisha only because of its hierarchical importance, being the 'main residence' of Inari. It is quite literally large, massive even: sitting at the base of Mt. Inari, the temple grounds climb all the way up the hill, with a sinuous and steep trail 4km long that takes about 2h to walk up.
As you trudge up the winding path, you are surrounded by hundreds of wee granite altars, each of them unique in their construction but all devoted to honour Inari. Consequently they are all adorned with bright orange and red ornaments as well as depictions of foxes.
The temple has always been popular in Japan: several millions of worshippers flock the temple every year during the Japanese New Year celebrations in order to pray for prosperity. Its fame in the West, though, is much more recent.
Some of you might recall the captivating 2005 movie "Memoirs of a Geisha". An audiovisual rendition of a historical fiction novel, the film tells us about the life of Chiyo, a child from a poor peasant family who, during the interwar period, is sold by his parents to an entertainment house in Gion, Kyōto's red light district, and grows up to become a geisha. The movie begins and finishes with Chiyo in Fushimi Inari Taisha at different stages of her life: at the start, she darts through as a sweetly ignorant child, and at the end she strolls around, reflecting as a mature woman who's lived through much. In both cases, though, she is surrounded by the fascinating endless succession of bright orange torii gates that lead you up Mt. Inari towards the main shrine.
This succession of torii is the result of an ancient custom that started in the Edo Period. Businessmen akin to curry the favour of Inari, the deity of industry, would commission the building of a torii for the temple. As the fashion spread, more and more merchants would do so too. Eventually, the temple was crammed with so many torii that they had to be placed one right after the other, sheltering the whole length of the trail up to the main shrine. There are currently about 1,000 torii in Fushimi Inari Taisha, by far the largest number hosted in a single temple in Japan, and each torii has a unique inscription at the bottom where each sponsorship is acknowledged.
The climb was brisk but not strenuous. The experience, however, was somewhat marred by the large crowds visiting the temple. It was really hard to get a good picture taken with not too many people around. The mysticism that usually accompanies these sacred places could hardly be felt with the ceaseless chattering and shouting of the tourists.
At some point of the trek Suzuki-san halted and led me off the path, looking for one of the many little altars where he wanted me to inspect a very peculiar contrivance. The device is known as Omokaru Ishi (おもかる石), or 'The Interesting Stone'. A fairly primitive device at that: it is simply a boulder resting on top of a granite lantern. Basic, aye, but magical. Somehow, the rock has the power (and the absolute discretion) to grant wishes. It works as follows:
- You stop for a second, close your eyes and focus on a wish.
- You open them and, looking at the rock and judging by its dimensions, you guess its weight.
- You close your eyes again. You visualise in your mind the muscular effort that you'll have to exert to lift a stone of such weight, well aware of your own strength.
- You open them again and you lift it. If the boulder felt lighter than what you had anticipated, your wish will become true!
My visit to Japan, overdue and postponed due to unforeseen circumstances, took place after a period of deep reflection about my life choices, but before I had a chance to implement any changes. Consequently, at every temple in Japan where I prayed I always wished that my choices in the near future would result in happiness. So I had to try my luck with The Interesting Stone!
I am glad to declare that the stone felt lighter than I had expected. But did this mean my wish would become true, or did I simply underestimate my strength? Who can tell for sure? Fortune-tellers are always sneaky ;)
After a couple of hours into our visit of this crowded temple we left and took a train that took us northward, along the eastern hill range, until we got to the area near Mt. Higashi. We were headed for another stunning landmark of the city: Kiyomizu Dera (清水寺), or the "Temple of the Pure Water".
Part of the appeal of visiting this temple is simply approaching it. You will do this through the picturesque, steep and busy passageways of the Higashiyama District (東山区), which are an attraction on their own.
If you are a good observer, you may have noticed loads of girls wearing kimono (着物) and you might be wondering if there was a festivity going on. I did notice it myself, but after posing the question to Suzuki-san I was disappointed to learn that most of them were Chinese and Korean tourists who would rent a kimono for a day, or even only for a few hours, so that they could sightsee in Kyōto while having the "authentic Japanese experience" .
Sure, it might be a tacky choice, but for me they contributed to paint this bucolic picture of Kyōto in my mind: a cosmopolitan yet odd city, that boasts about its most historical and charming spots not at its core, but in the peripheral hillside settlements.
We finally got to the entrance of Kiyomizu Dera, which was as crowded as Fushimi Inari or even more. However, as it is a much more open and spacious temple, the crowds felt much less oppressive and disturbing.
Crowds notwithstanding, I could not stop looking around, overawed, at the stunning brightness of the blooming spring colours which popped up everywhere in that sunny mid-morning: in the trees, in the girls' kimonos, in the painted woodwork of the temple... It was all simply too photogenic.
Kiyomizu Dera is almost as old as Fushimi Inari Taisha: it was founded in 780 AD on the site of the Otowa Waterfall, the waters of which give name the temple. This temple, however, belongs to Japanese Buddhism. The sanctuary is best known for its wooden veranda, which juts out from its main hall and falls 13 meters down the hillside. The stage affords visitors a nice view of Kyōto's skyline and of many cherry and maple trees below which erupt in a sea of colour during spring and fall.
Nevertheless, a grime tradition shrouds this impressive terrace in tragedy. In the late 17th century, during the Edo Period, a myth spread across the land promising that, if you were to jump from the stage into the void and survive, the gods would grant you a wish.
Unlike with "The Interesting Stone", the associated risk seems too great to take a chance, doesn't it? Well, believe it or not, but throughout history as many as 234 people have jumped off and plummeted down the 13m veranda. Of those recorded jumpers, only 34 died, which gives us a jaw-dropping 85.4% survival rate, considering it's a free-fall of more than 3 floors. The tradition was not banned until 1872, soon after the Meiji Restoration, and it had been so longstanding that the expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu" has become the Japanese equivalent of the English phrase“to take the plunge”.
We didn't make it all the way up to the main hall, though, because unfortunately it was covered in scaffolding. It was being refurbished so it could look immaculate for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which regrettably have had to be postponed due to this terrible COVID-19 pandemic we're currently suffering.
What we did visit, though, was the Zuigu-do Hall, which has quite an attraction underground, or better said, quite an experience: the Tainai Meguri (胎内めぐり).
The Tainai Meguri is actually the large basement of this hall, which you can explore as long as you take your shoes off and offer a donation. What makes it really special is the fact that it doesn't have a single window or aperture, so inside it's darker than black. Like a maze, only if you make it to the end you'll get to a dimly lid spot: a pedestal with an eerily glowing stone and a Sanskrit word engraved: 'womb'. As a matter of fact, the whole thing is a homage to Buddha’s mother, designed to simulate the experience in a mother’s womb .
What could be regarded as a little adventure with a small rush of adrenaline is actually a very practical application of the Buddhist teachings about the mind. Buddhists believe that we are slaves of our minds, always making us get lost in thought, too busy brooding about past situations that cannot be changed or planning ahead things that might not ever happen. We thus live through the here and now without noticing it; we live in death. It is only through the constant practice of meditation that we can get to know our minds, learn to notice when they get us lost in thought so we can free ourselves from the mind trap. And meditation can take many different forms.
While Suzuki-san waited for me outside, I ventured into the mother of Buddha's womb. The darkness is absolute, there's no chance for your pupils to adapt. The complete absence of light triggers your protective instinct: fear. Feeling in danger, my mind was compelled to set aside unfruitful thoughts and to sharpen my remaining senses: with the sounds muffled by the woodwork and the tatami mats, I relied mainly on my sense of touch to move around, taking steps shorter than a performing geisha. For a while, at least, I was very aware of the here and now, really living in the moment. As I emerged back into the sunshine, one leaves with a feeling of being reborn as the sudden light floods your senses.
After this sensorial experience it was time for a lunch break. We left the temple and went to a tiny, inexpensive one-woman-manned (the sexism of the language!) dining house. Suzuki-san ordered for me, and as the lady prepared the food in front of us they had a friendly chat. To my foreign, ignorant ear it sounded like there was a degree of familiarity - he clearly knew this woman from before. Every now and then she would glance at me subtly, shyly. Upon noticing her quick eye full of curiosity I introduced myself clumsily in rudimentary Japanese, and Suzuki-san adorned my introduction with more complex information about me. She was really impressed and while I ate my ramen she wished me a great remainder of trip.
Once our bellies were full, we left the wee restaurant and, with the sky by now hazy, we got on bus and crossed the city all the way to the north-west. Our last stop of the day: the hugely famous Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺), or "The Golden Pavilion".
What is there to be said about this hugely popular place that is not known yet? Much more modern than the previous two venues, Kinkaku-ji was erected at the end of the 14th century by order of the shōgun or warlord Ashikaga Yoshimitsu during his 30-year rule. A Zen Buddhism temple, the three-story building has three different architectural styles in it, one in each floor. But what makes it unique and famous is that it's lavishly covered in gold leaf, so that Yoshimitsu could show off his power and wealth. It set a precedent, for the later Silver Pavilion I had visited the day before was built following the lead of this building, albeit with much less sumptuous materials.
The building, however, deteriorated substantially throughout the centuries. By the end of the 19th century it could be seen that most of the gold leaf had peeled off. The dilapidated temple was finished off, though, in July 1950, when a monk resolved to set it on fire and attempted to commit suicide shortly after, unsuccessfully. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he spent many years in a mental institution.
We have to thank the arsonist monk, though, for after a 5-year restoration, since 1955 we are able to enjoy the Kinkaku-ji exactly as it would've looked like in its former glory. It's unarguably one of the most photogenic spots in Japan, the colour contrast being so eye-catchy in any of the seasons.
By now it was getting close to dusk. Suzuki-san and I had done so many memorable things that we decided it was time to call it a day. We shook hands emphatically, looking at each other warmly in the eye, and I gratefully bowed after, trying to express, I hope successfully, how honoured I felt to have shared my day with this gentleman.
But Kyōto hasn't finished yet, hold your horses! More to come in my next publication!