Monday, 10 August 2009

Kyoto: the sights and sounds

In one word: wow. Now let me explain...

On Saturday I got to my first temple at 8.45am (don't worry, I've not had a personality transplant), which turned out to be a good idea for two reasons - it wasn't too hot yet (only about 28 degrees!) and it wasn't too busy yet. After walking up a little hill, lined with gift shops, I reached the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera.

Most of the buildings in this temple are 400 years old, although there has been a temple there since the 7th century.

The main building is built on giant slits and sits on the hillside.

Its famous for its sacred springs (mizu is Japanese for water), which are meant to have healing powers. I drank some but I can't say I've felt the benefits yet...

I also came across this crowd, no idea why they're wearing bibs:

I later found out that I picked a good day to visit Kiyomizu-dera - apparently if you went on that Saturday, you get the same spiritual benefits as going for 1000 days! After wandering around the area for a while I headed down some brilliant old streets (I later found out that this is the Lonely Planet's recommended path) towards my next temple. On the way, I bumped into these two:

They looked even more beautiful in real life. I can't even begin to imagine how uncomfortable they must have been though, it was about 30 degrees by this point and they were wearing so many layers! The heat in Kyoto was unbearable - weather reports said it was 33 degrees, but with about 50% humidity and not a cloud in the sky, it felt more like 40 degrees. I thought I was about to spontaneously combust on a number of occasions.

Yasaka-jinja was the next shrine I visited, and there was actually some sort of service being held inside, so I couldn't go into the main bit. There were so many lanterns hanging from one of the buildings.

I then hopped on the bus to Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), which was a bit confusing as you get on through the back door and pay on your way out... This was one of my favourite temples at it had immaculate gardens - there were people employed to sweep any fallen leaves off the moss on the hillside, that's how beautifully kept the grounds were.

I then walked along the 'Philosopher's Path' towards Nanzen-ji. This two-kilometer long river-side path is a beautiful way to get between temples and is lined with cherry blossom trees that must look incredible in Spring.

I was impressed by the inside of Nanzen-ji as they still have all the original wood panels and painted sliding doors that have been there for centuries.

I spent the rest of the afternoon essentially getting lost. Kyoto is a wonderful city to get lost in - it's a brilliant mix of old, winding streets lined with traditional buildings and syscrapers and shopping malls. I spent most of the afternoon wandering around Nishiki Food Market and indulging in some retail therapy (my excuse is that I needed to go into the shops to cool down...). It turns out that I have some sort of homing signal as I managed to shop myself back to within 20 yards of my ryokan without even realisng it!

I woke up on Saturday to discover that a monsoon had descended on the city. This didn't put me off sightseeing though and actually helped to cool down the air a bit. Unfortunately, the rain added to the humidty, offsetting any good it had done by making everything damp and sticky. It also made taking photos very difficult as I kept getting tiny water droplets on my lense everytime I pointed the camera up, which was generally where everything I wanted to take a photo of was. Oh well.

I got the bus to Kinkaku-ji, or 'The Golden Pavilion'. This temple is incredible - it sits in the middle of an ancient, man-made pond and is completely covered in gold leaf. When it's sunny, it must be blinding to look at!

My next stop, Ryotoku-ji, was a short walk away. It is famous for its really old zen garden:

I thought that these trees were pretty cool, too:

I then walked further out and went to visit Ninna-ji - this was my favourite temple of the day because I wanted to move into the palace part of it. This is a series of beautiful, old Japanese buildings that are all connected by open walkways and surrounded by perfect bonsai and zen gardens.

Within the temple complex (it covers a huge area), there are loads of other buildings and shrines, including a five-storey pagoda.

The last pace I had time to visit before catching the shinkansen back was Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle). This castle sits in the centre of Kyoto (much like Edinburgh Castle) and is surrounded by ridiculously tall and thick granite walls and a moat. The inside of the palace was amazing, but they didn't let me take any photos :( All of the painted walls, ceilings and screen doors remain intact, as do all the paper walls and carved wooden decorations. The best part that has survived has to be the the 'nightingale floor' that encircles all of the rooms. This floor quietly sqeaks whenever you step on it - it doesn't make a wooden creaking noise, it actually almost sings, hence the name. I thought it was brilliant that it still works perfectly (I have no idea how the noise is created) and it made for fantastic background noise with everyone walking around the palace and looking into the rooms.

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