Photo Barrage 3- Kyoto-京都の写真攻め

This weekend was busy, but it was mainly getting stuff done around the ‘house’. A bit of cleaning, a few ‘virtual’ errands, some studying up on some stuff I’ll need for possible work after I get back to Tokyo. It’s been a pretty productive weekend. I only have a few weeks left of class, and I already have most everything lined up for my stay in Tokyo. More on that at a later time (probably after I’m already in Tokyo!).

This post is to show you some of the pics from my neato trip to Kyoto and Uji last weekend. The main caveat is that I’m not the most in-shape guy in the world, and while I’ve been doing a lot of walking, a long weekend of mostly walking is still a lot, and over two days I did what for me is a heroic amount of walking. I probably didn’t see as much as I could have, or enjoyed it as much possible, but frankly I was surprised I saw everything on my “must see” list, and if you come to Japan you have to spend at least a few days in Kyoto.

The reasons for this are that Kyoto was the capital and Emperor’s home prior to the year 800, and was more or less officially moved with the Meiji Restoration in the 19th Century, and it was spared by the United States from the systematic carpet- and fire-bombing that many other major cities like Tokyo and Nagoya suffered during World War II. This means that there are a large number of historically important places to visit that are either still standing, or rebuilt over time (which is sometimes necessary given the Japanese penchant for wood).

Day 1 started with the belle of the ball, Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion).

IMG_2758.jpg This was just outside the entrance for Kinkakuji- I was going for a picture of the mountain off in the distance with the 大 mark in it.  Kyoto has a festival every year respecting the spirits of their ancestors where they burn characters into the sides of 5 different mountains. That’s one of them. The 大 character in Japanese means ‘big’.

IMG_2774.jpg There’s a bit of tension for me between what is truly old and what is spruced up over time for tourism purposes. I mean, the Ise Shrine where they don’t allow people to take pictures of it, and it’s rebuilt every 20 years is one thing. Japan has a culture based in large part around the idea of impermanence (partially described by the previously mentioned ‘wabi-sabi’), and no wonder- given all the earthquakes and fires and wars and the like, it’s tough to believe things will stick around for long. So things are rebuilt over time, and that doesn’t bug me much. The difference is when looking at something like Kinkakuji, which originated in the 14th Century, but didn’t obtain its current golden shell until the 1950s when it was rebuilt after being burnt down by a crazed novice monk. All that being said, it sure is a pretty building, and likes to ‘pose’.


Down the road about a mile is another famous Buddhist spot, Ryoan-ji. This is a Zen Buddhist temple with a famous rock garden (if you know your Mac OS X desktop backgrounds, you’ve seen this one before). It is believed to have been built in 1499.

IMG_2829.jpg This is a purification fountain with an inscription that roughly translates to “what we have is all we need”, a fairly profound idea from Buddhism.

IMG_2838.jpg This is the rock garden. When you see those little desk rock gardens out there, this is the real thing. I wonder how often they have to go out there with a rake to fix it. I also wonder whether various monks get annoyed because they never have exclusive access to this world-famous meditation garden. It would be like if they never got to have services in St Peter’s Cathedral because an unending line of tourists kept tromping though (it was still amazing).IMG_2842.jpg

 Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji are a bit out of the way in northwest Kyoto. Next I came back into town to visit Nijo Castle (in Japanese Nijo-jo). This was yet another structure built during the first Tokugawa Shogunate- apparently the ‘castle’ part of it (the donjon) was struck by lightning and burnt down in the 18th century but the rest of the concentric reinforced walls that were built to protect the Shogun and the Emperor in their palaces are still there.

IMG_2870.jpg This picture and the next are pictures of Nijo Castle from the street. You can see the moat here, and the same ‘fan sloping’ construction of the walls used in Nagoya Castle.IMG_2874.jpgIMG_2885.jpg The main entrance of Nijo Castle from the inside.

IMG_2891.jpg This is Ninomaru palace, where the Shogun lived and worked.

IMG_2900.jpg There was a tour inside the palace, but they didn’t allow pictures. The Japanese kind of pioneered modular architecture, where depending on the weather and needs, a room could be totally open to the outside, or by closing several sliding doors, could create smaller areas. Ninomaru Palace was very much like this. Lots of sliding doors, wooden floors that squeaked — purposely, they said, to detect intruders — and interior panels painted by artists from the Kano school. Not really a fan of the art myself, but the building was amazing.

IMG_2913.jpg This is part of the gardens near Ninomaru palace.

IMG_2924.jpg This is the moat separating the concentric ‘ring’ between Ninomaru Palace (the outer ‘ring’) and Honmaru Palace (inner ‘ring’), where the Emperor lived — methinks having the Emperor in a Palace with a moat around him guarded by the Shogun and his people was probably a way to keep him out of the way. Just a theory.

IMG_2936.jpg One of the buildings in the Honmaru complex. There doesn’t seem to be regular public tours of this, so I just kept a-walkin’.IMG_2957.jpg Another shot of the moat and walls around the castle.

Next I went to an area fairly close to my hotel, the Gion district (pronounced with a hard ‘G’). This is an old-style district of Kyoto, where to this day Geisha live, train, and work, and unfortunately are mercilessly hassled by gobs of tourists-slash-papparazzi.

IMG_2968.jpg I included this shot of a staircase in a one of the train stations I took to Gion because by that point my feet were not feeling good, and the number of calories I was burning by walking up the stairs was both interesting and helpful information as well as mocking my pain simultaneously.

IMG_2972.jpg A cool little canal I crossed over on my way to Gion.


IMG_2987.jpg Here’s a few building and street examples of the area. From what I read, commercial taxation in Kyoto used to be based on  street exposure (how wide the stores were to the street), so as a result many shops in this area are very narrow at the street and are somewhat deep.

IMG_2993.jpg  While a really beautiful area, the ‘old time Japan’ vibe was ruined by all the pylons in the street, not to mention the large numbers of taxis zooming down the road. They would really do well to ban cars in that area altogether.

IMG_2988.jpg It was worth the walk through Gion to see the area, and I stopped in a coffee shop for a really good cup of coffee and a green tea cream puff, but there was zero geisha sightings (I don’t blame them).

IMG_3012.jpg  A few shots of the Kamo River, which is between Gion and my hotel.

IMG_3016.jpgIMG_3018.jpgIMG_3029.jpg Tommy Lee Jones on a vending machine. It was just down from my hotel. He’s done work for (Suntory) Boss before, but it’s funny to see American celebs in random places.

Day 2

I started the day checking out of my hotel and dropping my bag off in a coin locker at the train station. When I got to Kyoto I didn’t see the really nice part of the station, so I’m including this here. For a city with so many ancient treasures, this station (less than 15 years old) is one of the best pieces of modern architecture I’ve seen. Walking thru the main atrium almost made me dizzy, it’s so huge.


IMG_3030.jpg A picture of the front from a bus stop.

IMG_3047.jpgIMG_3242.jpgOne of the main entrances.IMG_3055.jpgThe atrium.


After I dropped off my stuff, I went to the International Manga Museum a few subway stations up from Kyoto Station. To be honest it was a little bit of a disappointment for someone who is a) only somewhat interested in Manga and b) not fluent in Japanese. The Manga Museum is really more of a manga library. They have a few small exhibits, but the true draw is their very large collection of manga. The beginnings of this collection were 40 thousand volumes donated by a collector, and apparently that has only grown. It’s pretty impressive, even if I can’t really read much of it.

IMG_3109.jpg This is the outside of the museum. It’s actually a partially rebuilt elementary school that was closed, and then eventually repurposed for this museum. I discovered that while wandering around and seeing rooms set aside showing “the principal’s office” and the like. It made a bit more sense when I read the signs saying that it wasn’t just a manga museum but also a memorial for the closed school, but it was still an interesting juxtaposition.

IMG_3097.jpg This was a piece hanging in the atrium that was meant to represent Tezuka’s “Hi-no-Tori”, or Phoenix. Tezuka is arguably the most important name in manga- He created Astroboy and a number of other famous manga. My favorite that I’ve read (in translation of course) was his Buddha series, explaining the life and experiences of the Buddha. They had several volumes of that series in the collection, but were not available for reading.

IMG_3103.jpg This was one of the rooms from the school, called The Etiquette Room. I thought having a traditional Japanese room in a fairly modern building like this was pretty interesting.

After the Manga Museum, I took a train down to Uji which is maybe 20 minutes away.

IMG_3118.jpg Uji is known as the town where The Tale of Genji is set, which is arguably the first modern novel. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say much about it. This was right next to one of the Uji train stations, and represents something from the book.

I then walked down to the Byodo-in Temple’s Phoenix Hall, which might well be the oldest temple building still standing in Japan. It was built in 1053. The Phoenix Hall is depicted on the reverse side of the 10 yen coin.

IMG_3132.jpg The Buddhist bell outside the Phoenix Hall.

IMG_3155.jpg Here’s a few pics of the Phoenix Hall. I don’t think the pictures turned out too well because the sun was in the wrong place, but they are okay. It’s called Phoenix Hall because on the corners of the main building there are statues of the Chinese phoenix. There was a half-size replica of this building on Oahu island Hawaii that I went to as part of a Hawaii trip about 5 years ago. It’s not quite as old as the original, having been built in 1968.


IMG_3138.jpg They built a museum on the grounds of Byodo-in, and it couldn’t be any more different than the Phoenix Hall. Still a nice looking building.

IMG_3176.jpg No pictures allowed in this building either, but I wanted to get a pic of the interior.

IMG_3188.jpg I crossed over Uji Bridge walking to the (other) train station in Uji. This bridge has been rebuilt many times (due to war, earthquakes, etc)- this version was built in 1996, but the very first Uji Bridge built in the year 646 crossed the river at this spot, and it is mentioned in the Tale of Genji.

IMG_3196.jpg I wonder if this is known in Uji as the Phoenix phone booth?

IMG_3197.jpg This was the Keihan Uji Station (as opposed to the JR one). Kinda interesting design. It was closer to Byodo-in, and I was getting extra lazy by this point  in the weekend. Only one stop left…

My last stop was just south of Kyoto at the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. This was the only shrine I visited last weekend, as most of the more well known religious spots in Kyoto are Buddhist temples, not Shinto shrines. A bit of explanation here:

The most outward symbol of Shintoism is the Torii, which looks like this (this is the entrance to Fushimi-Inari):


Usually you see Torii at all the entrances to a shrine, and sometimes you’ll see them at the entrance to a town. For some of the larger shrines, you will see some rather large ones. There were some stone ones that towered over the street the bus drove down outside the Ise temple that were several stories in height, for example.

Torii is Japanese for ‘bird perch’ (the Japanese word for bird is tori — one ‘i’). In Shintoism, birds are considered messengers from the gods. The torii also indicate a division between the mundane and the sacred.

The Fushimi Inari shrine is there for worshiping Inari, the god of rice but also seen as the patron of business. For this reason, the shrine hosts torii given by various businesses who are looking for success in business. The larger the torii, the more a business has given to the shrine (they have a price list. no, I’m not kidding). The shrine has paths covered in torii, and the black writing on the left side is who donated the torii and the writing on the right is the date.

IMG_3215.jpgThis is the start of the path, where you see the very large Torii. I think the very first one/the largest was donated by a hotel in Tokyo. Here’s a few more pictures of the path. It’s really quite beautiful, although I had to wait around to stage these shots. This area is quite busy.


Supposedly there’s 4 kilometers worth of torii at this shrine. From what I’ve read, once you get down the path a ways the torii get fairly small, and the path is basically walking up a mountain, so I went up about two lengths’ worth and turned around. It was pretty amazing, but my feet could only take too much.

Coming soon:

Next week my plan is to go to Osaka/Nara and possibly Kobe depending on time. Nara is a lot like Kyoto in that it used to be a capital of Japan and has a large number of shrines and the like. Like a few other places in Japan, there’s a park where they have deer around. They have a similar park in Miyajima which is near Hiroshima. When I was there 5 or so years ago the deer were…quite aggressive. It’s not a good idea to walk around there with food on you. Helpful tip from yours truly. I’m looking forward to getting to see another giant Buddha (one of the ancient ones is in Nara, and another is in Kamakura, one of the places I visited in ’06).

So I included the photo below because it was doubly funny. One of my classmates came back from Nara the same weekend I came back from Kyoto. She had bought ‘chocolate dango’ which is a soft sweet made from rice and covered in powdered chocolate (I came back from Kyoto with green tea dango, which was similar, but with a different flavor). She just saw the Japanese characters for ‘chocolate’ and thought the deer on the box were cute. If you look closely at the box, it has a South Park-like deer doing something you probably don’t want to see on a food box.


Additionally, the Japanese involved tells you exactly what it is:

“Shika funjatta choco dango”

“Shika” is deer in Japanese.

“Fun” (pronounced foon) means poop, and ‘jatta’ makes something past tense.

So “Shika funjatta choco dango” means ‘Choco dango that a deer pooped’.

I think when I’m in Nara this weekend, I’ll have to buy another box just because it’s so funny.