59. Stepping Back: Pre-pandemic Kyoto

A stroll through the tranquil lanes of Japan’s imperial city reveals beautiful gardens, marvelous temples and a people in love with their heritage.

The Yasaka Shrine is the gateway to Maruyama Park in Kyoto’s Higashiyama ward. (JGA photo)

Kyoto, Japan, is on my short list of favorite cities in the world. Japan takes great pride in its heritage, and that fact is nowhere more apparent than in the country’s cultural center, a city that was the national capital between the 8th and 19th centuries. Spared large-scale bombing during the Second World War, the old imperial palace, immaculately tended gardens, Buddhist pagodas and Shinto shrines are among many buildings honored as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As it so happens, my brother lives only 36 miles (58 km) from Kyoto. Fred is a longtime resident of Japan, a linguistics professor at Kansai University. I often refer to him as “a tall blond Japanese guy,” even though his hair has now turned white, like mine. He and his wife, Kiyoko, live in suburban Osaka, in the town of Takarazuka; their two married sons and a grandson in Tokyo.

On the rare occasions when I’m able to visit Fred, who is better known in Japan as Sensei (teacher), I make it a point to spend at least one full day in Kyoto. The city of 1.4 million is too big (and it has too many sterling attractions) to see everything in a single swallow. So I decide upon one area at a time.

I doubt if very much has changed since my last visit, in late October 2019. COVID-19 has precluded any more recent trip to Japan — or, for that matter, to almost anywhere. But my footsore day of wandering the pedestrian paths and temple trails of Higashiyama ward yielded some beautiful photographs that I’m pleased to share on this forum.

Sensei Fred Anderson chats with a fellow scholar on an Osaka train. (JGA photo)

Scent of a geisha

I disembarked from my Hankyu Line train at Kawaramachi station and walked about a kilometer down Shijo-dori through the heart of the Gion district. The smell of pungent green tea (ocha) invaded my sinuses, even though it was still morning.

By night, the teahouses (ochaya) become clubs where high-priced geishas demonstrate classical dances, traditional music and intricate crafts for an appreciative audience. For less-well-heeled admirers, especially tourists, apprentice geishas (maiko) present a daily cultural show at Gion Corner that includes such arts as bunraku (life-size puppet theater), kyogen (comic theater) and ikebana (flower arranging).

I wandered into some of the side streets off Shijo-dori, where the wooden homes of medieval merchants still stand, most now converted to restaurants and shops. No more than six meters (20 feet) wide, they may extend back three or four times that dimension, as property taxes once were based upon street frontage. I found one that served me a light and early chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) lunch before I began temple hopping.

My first stop was the Yasaka Jinja, an Eighth-century shrine at the head of Shijo-dori. As serendipity would have it, I had arrived in Kyoto at the start of the annual Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), honoring the city’s rich heritage. A great many women, and also some men, climbed the steps of the main hall wrapped in their finest kimonos to make offerings to the Shinto gods.

Lanterns line the entrance to Chorakuji temple near Maruyama Park. (JGA photo)

Finding faith afoot

The Yasaka Shrine is also the gateway to Maruyama Park, renowned for its ephemeral sakura (cherry blossoms). Japanese gather here by the thousands for blossom viewing parties in April.

The park is nestled on the lowest slopes of Higashiyama (East Mountain), which gives its name to the surrounding district. Easily followed signs direct pedestrians from here to the great Kiyomizu-dera temple through a variety of narrow lanes and walkways.

My first stop on this promenade was Chorakuji, a temple established in 805 A.D. by the Tendai Buddhist sect. While religious scholars make note of its trio of historically important ancient Buddhist statues, I am most impressed by the beautiful, lantern-lined walkway that leads to the temple.

Nearby, the temple of Otani Sobyo contains the mausoleum of Shinran, founder of Buddhism’s Shinshu sect. The sweping grounds embrace beautiful bonsai and evergreen gardens and extend to a broad hillside cemetery.

The Entoku-in temple is a classic Shinto shrine with all the symbolic trappings. (JGA photo)

Shinto and sake

Well-known by Japanophiles for its artistic and cultural treasures is the Kodai-ji. The temple’s 16th-century teahouse and 17th-century garden were designed by the preeminent artists of the time in their respective fields.

I was even more taken by the Entoku-in temple, considered a subtemple to the Kodai-ji. I entered the modest Shinto shrine through a gateway of empty sake barrels (kazaridaru, believed to connect people directly with the gods), white papers in zigzag designs (shide, marking sacred boundaries), and swirling commas (mitsu-domoe, symbolizing the interaction of earth, heaven and hell) on the eaves of the roof. Within, a labyrinth of slender hallways leads through beautiful meditation halls and other rooms that show off a priceless art collection and a magnificent garden of stone.

Beyond Entoku-in, I entered a warren of crowded lanes leading to narrow Ninenzaka, which ascends slowly to the famed Kiyomizu-dera temple. It is framed by ancient wooden buildings — homes on the second floor, all manner of shops and restaurants below — that have been patronized by pilgrims for centuries. They come for everything from pottery to pickles, from sweet cakes to freshly roasted chestnuts, from souvenir fans to fine kimonos.

Visitors gather beneath the entrance gates to Kiyomizu-dera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (JGA photo)

Drink the water

Ninenzaka ends at the broad Sannenzaka steps. These climb more steeply to a plaza at the entrance to Kiyomizu-dera. Above it rises a vermilion three-storied pagoda, a repository for sutras, large entrance gates and the Zuigudo Hall, dedicated to the mother of the Buddha.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. It dates from 798 A.D., when it was built beside the Otawa waterfall as it drops through wooded hills. Indeed, its name translates to “Pure Water Temple.” Today, the waterfall’s three streams meet in a pond beneath the main hall; drinking from each is said to give wisdom, health and longevity.

No nails were used in the construction of Kiyomizu-dera, most of whose buildings were erected as part of a restoration in 1633. That includes a wooden stage that juts out from the main hall, 13 meters (42 feet) above the hillside. In spring and fall, when cherry and maple trees emblazon the city of Kyoto with their vibrant colors, it’s a great viewpoint.

The main hall houses a small but precious statue of the 11-faced, thousand-armed Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Also within the complex are the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking; the three-story Koyasu Pagoda, where mothers-to-be pray for a safe and easy childbirth; and a small hall with nearly 200 stone statues of Jizo, the protector of children and travelers.

I returned to Gion via Matsubara-dori, a somewhat wider version of my Ninenzaka approach, and caught the evening train back to Takarazuka.

Lunch in the Gion neighborhood is chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard. (JGA photo)
Formally dressed for the Jidai Matsuri holiday, a family dances through Masuyacho on their way to Kiyomizu-dera. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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