Kyoto is one of the few cities in Japan that the Americans decided not to carpet-bomb in WWII because of it’s beauty and historical relevance. Interestingly, after the war, the urban planners were not as respectful as the Americans and most of the old center was re-built into a standard modern Japanese downtown. Luckily, most of the really beautiful stuff remains, and that includes temples (many temples), the imperial palace and a castle.
This is the information that I was reading while in the train to Kyoto. My tourist guide: Wikipedia and Wikipedia travel, my plans: enjoy the city. The guide article says that it distances are big, so taking the bus is good, and renting a bike is ok. As if I came from Bilbao, (and because I found no bicycle rental shop in my way) I decide that whatever is possible by bike, must be by foot. So there I go, walking the city up and down.
I must say, however, that renting a bike wouldn’t have been so good, even though I spent more than 5 hours walking non-stop. The good thing about walking is that you see the real city, the people, the houses. There is also time to think, and you learn to know the city better. Then, you don’t have to park the bike (which IS a problem in Japan), and there is more time and space to make photographs (thanks L. for the camera!!).
This time I decided to visit the north-west. It is ok to visit just one part of the city because the nice places are quite spread out, and there is a lot to see. Besides, as I take the regular train, and not the bullet train (shinkanshen), it is quite cheap and I can go as many times as I want (the total cost of my excursion was around $20, including train and entrance to the sites).
In the way to the Daitoku-ji (a temple complex), I cross through the imperial part that contains the Imperial Palace. To visit it you have to reserve in advance, so I don’t visit it. The palace is huge, but you cannot tell much from outside, because it is all walled. The park is pretty, reminds me of El Retiro.
More than one hour and a half later I arrive to my first destination. The Daitoku-ji temple complex. Many many temples. You have to pay to visit each sub-temple, so I chose to visit two that seem very interesting. Nice and peaceful, there were not too many tourists in the ones I chose. I had some time to walk around and relax. In the meanwhile I read that the temple was constructed by an important politician-warrior from the 15th century, who was also the one to perfect the tea ceremony (seemingly a very important thing in this place – just imagine Colin Powell perfecting the coke-drinking ceremony). Of course, everything in the temple is taken care to the millimeter.
As I said in a previous blog, a temple is different from a shrine in that the temple has a Buddha. Actually the difference is that a temple is Buddhist and a shrine is Shinto. Both religions/philosophies have lived here together for a very long time. Shinto is based on the aboriginal religions existent in Japan before the Chinese came and took over the country (we are taking at the relative beginning of Japanese history). The basic belief is that everything has a soul, so they pray to the soul of the different gods of everything. Buddhism came from India, through China, and also evolved here in new forms, among which you have Zen Buddhism.
The interesting thing is that although the religions/philosophies come from different sources, most people practice both. Sometimes you can even see signs from the two plus a Christian cross in the homes. Why not? Well, I’m sure that for the first Christians to arrive and preach here (specifically Francis Xavier), the compatibility of Christianity and other (specially pantheistic or polytheistic) religions was an issue. It seems that at the beginning the thing went more or less ok for the spreading of the gospel, but at some point the emperor decided that Christianity was a little problematic, and then they killed all Christians (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Now it is ok to be a christian here.
I’ve mentioned Zen Buddhism, and the second temple I visited was precisely a Zen temple. There are no photos of this because they were not allowed. It was a really nice place, though. It had a Zen garden (a.k.a. dry garden) which is one of the most interesting things that I’ve seen so far in Japan. Some people claim that the zen garden at the Kyu-ji (not too sure about the spelling), which I didn’t visit because of too many tourists, is the single-most important work of art in Japan. The garden is very simple. There is gravel (combed gravel), a few black rocks and that’s it. The one I visited is similar, and I believe it predates the other one. The idea is to convey the wonders of nature through the simplest way possible. It certainly has a soothing-hypnotic effect. I really enjoyed it.
The leaflet from the temple, however, was not so poetic, claiming that the garden was so because there was very little space in the temple for a garden, and they had to simplify to fit in mountains rivers etc…
After the temples, I went to the golden pavilion. It was crowded crowded crowded. Crowded as in 200 people with 300 cameras in 100m2. It’s probably one of the most visited attractions in Japan. Although it was interesting, the crowd made me want to flee away.
If you wonder why there are no tourists in the photo, it is because the place is nicely arranged so you don't have to take anyone in your picture.
The temple was originally the residence of one of these very powerful warriors/politicians, which retired with a lot of money. He decided that his villa should become a temple after his death. The edification begun in 1397. The first floor is built in the palace style, the second in the samurai style and the third is built in the Zen style. Originally only the third floor was covered in gold. Now it’s the third and second floor.
After this one I was already pretty tired, so I decided to walk back, which took me another two hours. I went through the river, and I also saw what I, stupid foreigner, interpret as Japanese poverty. If you look in the photo there seems to be some kind of container under the bridge. Actually, I saw people entering and getting out of it, and could peek in. It was a bedroom. Very clean and taken care of, but living under the bridge.
Anyway, I hope the blog was not too long or too boring. If you want to check out all the photos, you can go to my picasa album. I also put on the internet google earth links to the imperial palace, the Daitoku-ji temple complex, the golden pavillion and where I started walking the river. To give you a hint of the distance that I walked, here is the station.
In the next one: Of Miguel, bikes and Saskatoon.