Kyoto temples : Fushimi Inari-taisha


Fushimi Inari is probably Kyoto’s most famous temple, at least judging by the crowds on an off day and the number of pictures of the shrine’s tunnel of torii gates there are online. The major portion of the shrine, the large temples and the densest torii gate tunnels are nestled in the base of a mountain named Inari – the god of rice and business. Outside of that cluster, the shrine has over four kilometers of trails leading up into the mountains and towards hundreds of smaller shrines. It takes about two hours to walk all the way up, but there are plenty small caretaker/teashop shops which will sell you water, snacks, and religious supplies.


One of the symbols of this temple is the fox. They’re everywhere around the grounds and up into the mountain, as statues, paintings, and carvings. The shrine sells fox-luck charms, and if you want to make a wish, you get to draw one one of these :


Alongside the more traditional house-shaped board you can buy and decorate a fox head. One side gets an often funny face, and on the other side is your prayer.


This temple gets so many visitors each day, it’s hard to believe. We went specifically on an off day, kind of early. Nope. It’s popular with tourists, locals, school groups, selfie-takers, well wishers, people getting married, people praying for good luck and health, pretty much everyone makes their way here sooner or later.


If you were hoping for an easy clean picture of the gates, you have to come in maybe absurdly early? Or when there’s a sports match going on that day? I don’t know. We got our best shots farther away from central area of the temple and far, far away from the famous there-and-back loop of gates. It’s very, very crowded in there, almost to the point of not being able to move.


Once you get away from the crowds though, the park-within-the-temple is really a gorgeous place to be. There are shaded trails that run across and around the main torii-gate trail, and lots of little temple offshoots to either side. The trail within the shrine is well shaded and built to blend in with the surrounding nature very well, often we didn’t feel like we were in a maintained area at all. The temple’s trail actually connects with a larger trail, the Kyoto Isshu trail, which encircles the northern half of the city. It’s very important to pay attention to which way your trail is going, and to look for the signs to various waypoints, because in certain areas the trails criss-cross haphazardly and it’s easy to go somewhere you weren’t intending.

IMG_4853 IMG_4821

Here are two examples of the small altars – the first has two fox guardians, and the second has a pile of miniature torii gates, a sign of devotion.


Generally these smaller altars are housed within little shrine subdivisions – I’m not sure if each of the several altars within a smaller shrine are devoted to a separate deity or family, or if the whole shrine is towards one cause.


Some of the larger, more ornate shrines have their own large red gate at the entrance. The larger the gate, the more devotion, and the redder, the newer. Some of the shrines are family shrines that receive a lot of attention as their family flourishes, others are still well maintained but significantly older and not as recently renewed.


If you’re wondering what it takes to build a torii gate in your name on the trail, here’s the price list. As with most things related to religion and money, this isn’t a bribe but a sign of devotion – the money goes to maintaining the temple and is considered an offering to the gods.


For those of us less fortunate or devoted, some of the shrines sell tiny torii gate charms for luck and protection.


If you climb all the way to the top you get a lovely, somewhat challenging hike, and a great view of the city down below. The torii gates are beautiful and vibrant, their long stretches forming mesmerizing tunnels of red timber, beckoning both creativity and meditation.


Kyoto temples : Kiyomizu-dera


Kiyomizu is a Buddhist temple in the east of Kyoto, nestled in the mountain range that juts into the city. Since it’s in the mountain slopes there’s a bit of a climb to get into the temple proper. That street is full of slightly overpriced souvenir shops and fairly steep but it has a nice view of the city.


Though we were there on a Thursday the temple was packed. It’s a very popular tourist attraction and a highly visited holy site. It would be better to get there early – less heat and less crowds. Visiting the temple seems to be a common school trip and we saw several student groups led by slightly exasperated teachers.


The temple buildings are amazing. The bright sun and close viewing distance really makes the iconic multi-tiered temples in all of their gloriously vivid red stand pop out from the rest of the scenery. It’s almost impossible to not stare up at their impressive height and finely crafted ornamentation.


This temple is known for its large open terrace supported by extremely tall wooden poles, but unfortunately this part of the temple was under reconstruction and covered with a cloth so it didn’t make for great pictures when we visited. The view of the city is quite nice though and is another one of the must-sees while you’re here.

IMG_4402 IMG_4417

I particularly loved the bright, ornate details in the roof and corners of the buildings. I don’t imagine they’re paid too much attention by most of the visitors who are here for the view of the city and the activities of the temple, but I found the colors and carvings especially eye-catching.


One of the must-do rituals, which we didn’t do due to the very long line, is to drink from the naturally running water in the center of the temple complex. Metal cups on long poles are provided to snatch the water as it falls, and washing your face and drinking it is said to be a cleansing experience. I was a bit worried about germs, but it turns out the water is sanitized with UV light before it reaches the edge of the fountain.


At the very top of the temple complex is a small garden featuring several devotional activities. In some areas you can leave offerings and written wishes, in others you pray to various gods, and in the middle you can try to move between two far-apart rocks with your eyes closed. If you reach the other rock, it is said you will find true love.


While you’re there you might notice that some of the rocks and trees have large white or brown cords around them. These are yorishiro – sacred objects that can house spirits, or kami, giving them a physical space to occupy. They are demarcated by the cord as holy and are used in festivals and prayers. While this is a Shinto tradition, it seems to be found in Buddhist Temples as well.


Down the back of the temple and all around it are the lush, tree covered hills. There’s a lovely walking trail that loops around and back, an opportunity for sun-dappled meditation.


Our day was especially sunny and hot, and on the way down we got an ice cream treat – ramune and cherry blossom!


Bonus temple! After lunch we decided to try and catch a temple cleansing ceremony going on at Chishaku-in, a Buddhist temple a bit to the south. It’s famous for its beautifully painted sliding walls and meditation garden. Otherwise, it’s not really on the tourist-trail of the more famous temples.


We arrived too late to see the purification ceremony, which featured a pyre and chanting to cleanse and renew the temple.


We did get to see this amazing moth though. And on the upside, the temple was not at all crowded.


And of all things, the temple had a stamp collection activity! Stamps are everywhere in Japan, people just love collecting them. The idea was to visit each of the main buildings in the temple where a monk would carefully and precisely place a stamp on your sheet. The more important the building, the bigger the stamp is what I gleaned from this, understanding no Japanese. At the end, if you collected all the stamps, you got a small pouch to put the paper in, though we didn’t really want to fold ours up. If you bought a temple charm – a way of giving donations in exchange for a good luck token – you also got a raffle ticket to win a prize, featuring such disparate things as : children’s toys, packets of curry paste, candy, and household cleaning supplies. Raffles and small forms of gambling are very popular everywhere in Japanese culture, apparently even at temples.


Next time : Fushimi Inari-taisha!

Kyoto Japan


Every country, or sometimes even state, seems to have two cities locked in a particular relationship. The first city is sometimes the larger, it is a working city, a city that gets things done, where tourists are unexpected and the facilities for tourism are relatively underbuilt. The second city is the city everyone recommends you go to when you say you’re going to visit that country. There’s Moscow to Saint Petersburg, there’s Jakarta to Yogyakarta, there’s Warsaw to Krakow. If Japan could be said to have two cities in this relationship, it would be Tokyo to Kyoto. Tokyo is the bustling megacity powerhouse to the more laid back, quieter, and tourist friendly Kyoto. For them though, it’s a bit of a stretch. Yes, Kyoto is a tad more tourist friendly, but the difference is not in how ready either city is to accept tourists, but rather the experiences it has to offer.


In answer to Tokyo’s seemingly endless shops and malls and eateries, Kyoto has temples. It also has shopping and a huge central mall and wonderful food, but really it has temples. The internet seems to agree on just about two thousand all together, 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines according to Wikipedia. We visited not nearly that many, but they are everywhere, big ones taking up entire streets, smaller ones tucked away in between houses. A big reason for such a plethora of shrines and temples is that the city of Kyoto, former capital in all the glory and grandeur that that entailed, was mostly spared from harm during WWII. Kyoto was spared the firebombing that engulfed Tokyo and was removed from the nuclear target list by a general who went on his honeymoon there. By luck and circumstance, Kyoto is around now in its beautifully preserved historic state, grand temples and charming alleys alike.


While the temples are the main attraction, I loved Kyoto for its own charm, shrines aside. Especially compared to Tokyo, Kyoto feels much more intimate. Despite its size it feels like a city you can actually know, a far more approachable density and pallet than the unending districts and zones of the current capital. Its streets are small and charming, traditional wood buildings being highly valued and well preserved. The aesthetic is very strong – outside of the downtown buildings taller than three stories are rare, lanterns are common, and structures bunch together, their multiple awnings creating a varied and continued cascade of wood and color.


Like the rest of Japan, rail and bus are highly connected and readily available. The JR company does not have as many lines in Kyoto as in Tokyo, which made our JR passes less useful, but there were enough to get around. Bicycle and scooter are also common forms of transit, not only through the narrow streets of the residential areas but also in the down town. There seemed to be far less traffic when we walked through the city center, the streets were wide and open.


On our first day, we walked from the central rail station to the city shopping complex. Even this multiple-block spanning mall was in the style of old, covered but with narrow walks crossing larger promenades, wood and paper walls abundant.


It turned out we were hungry and walking through snack alley. The mochi called to me, but it wasn’t until we found a ‘pop-our-own’ mochi stand that we took the plunge. Over the course of ten minutes we watched the mochi expand and puff open like popcorn. It took much less time to eat them – they were very good.


Inside the mall area were several temples, the largest of which greeted us with sake barrels and lanterns on the outside, and this amazingly vibrant display on the inside. This was new to me, but it turns out to be fairly common – people make tons of origami cranes or flowers and string them in massive bundles, usually for some wish or to express a strong desire or emotion. They hang them in temples as an offering, and the theory being that the larger the bundle, the more dedicated the asker is to the cause. This is pretty often done by students hoping to pass an important test or get into a good school.

We, the onlookers, get to enjoy the beautiful display of color.


Outside we encountered a massive crab-mascot for a seafood restaurant. The claws on this behemoth moved up and down creating an interesting and slightly unnerving display.


Nearby to the crab-shack was a series of gachapon machines, toys in a plastic ball served up for 100-200 yen, though some of them went as high as 500 yen. We couldn’t resist the Gudetama machine, but it was broken and we had to get our yen back from the person who ran the store.


Our path to the hostel led past one of the larger canals in this part of the city and we got a glimpse of reconstruction of a larger, more ornate building. The noise in this part of town continued to be surprisingly low, despite the cars and construction and people.


Night fell pretty soon after that, and we only got a brief glimpse of what might have been a major tourist stop, but we only saw the prices on the menus and moved on. It was charming beyond belief though, lanterns a glow and tiny restaurants crowded into a small alley.


For dinner we chose an equally charming ramen shop, a bit closer to our hostel and further out from the central shopping area. Their specialty is ramen served with black sesame broth. Its taste compares with regular ramen the same way a plain bagel compares to a sesame seed bagel. The sesame adds a deep nutty undertone to the mix along with a bit of sweetness. The restaurant’s name is Musoshin and we can highly recommend it.


Next time.. temples!