Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kyoto Protocol

As with a lot of travel, there can be unforeseen challenges. Finding dining options that were accessible to  someone that doesn't speak (or read) Japanese are a prime example of those challenges.
Some of the time, it became a bit of a game to see what exactly was I going to be eating. For instance, the below sign left me no idea what I had in store for me when I pulled into the parking lot. That (a parking lot), in and of itself was quite the luxury. Most places are on an alley or main street with sidewalk or some convoluted driveway out front. Typically, you can't get within 3-4 blocks of a place before you find somewhere to stash a motorcycle.

Other than the delightful aroma emanating from the building below, I would have had no idea this was a restaurant. Yet another reason that riding a motorcycle is much more enjoyable (perhaps I should say... desirable) than riding in a car.

I'm getting a bit off track here. Like I said, it is not easy to know what (or how) you will be eating. In this case, I found out as I sat down what it was I was to be eating. Since the ONLY thing on the menu was eel, I decided that I would have... wait for it... EEL! I could have boiled, broiled, deep fried, tempura, fried or raw eel, but don't ask for them to take American Express...

As I was riding away, I was trying to determine what the sign actually said. Was it Eel-a-teria? Perhaps, Trator-eel-ia? Eel-catessan? Unagi-stro/Eel-stro? Whatever you want to call it, IT was pretty damn tasty (except for the curdled-custard-like tofu pudding)!
One of the common themes for Kyoto was rain, as you can tell by the umbrellas below at the five tiered pagoda in Kyoto. This particular pagoda is in the Toji temple area surrounded by an amazing garden and several temples (that I was not allowed to take photos of inside). 

It is thought that pagodas originated in India though many would believe, due to the name, that it was first created in China or Japan. The predecessors of the pagoda, called stupa, were first created in India. This concept of a tiered structure then passed through Korea and China, which eventually made its way to Japan approximately 1,300 years ago. Though the general idea of the many tiers still remains, the shape of the stupa differs greatly from the pagodas that can be seen standing in Japan today.

The stupa, which can be translated to 'tuft of hair' or 'pile or mound' in Sanskrit, were used as relics that would generally be placed over the ashes of holy individuals, including Buddha. A stupa is generally a five-tiered system, of which each tier is a different shape that represents a different element. The idea of having the representation of the five elements, though not done through various shaped tiers, may also be seen in Goju no Tou (or gojunotou), which are five-story pagodas in Japan. Similarly, three-story pagodas, which are also fairly common, are known as Sanju no Tou. The reason why a large number of pagodas have five tiers is that each tier has a particular elemental meaning in Buddhism. The five meanings are earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. Similarly, the seven sections of the decorated 
sorin atop the pagoda each have a symbolic significance. Their names in Japanese appear below.
1. Hoju……Place to enshrine busshari
2. Ryusha……Symbolizes a courier used by high status people
3. Suien…… Originally, it meant fire. But people think that fire causes the pagoda to burn so they named it suien. Sui means water in Japanese.
4. Horinor Kurin)……Nine rings. It explains five famous Tathagata.
Symbolizes the five famous jina deities and four famous bodhisattva
5. Tairen……Symbolizes the hour scythe and it is found in some sorin, such as at Toji Temple. However people have not found the reason why tairenwas designed with sorin.
6. Ukebana……Symbolizes the lotus flower
7. Fusebachi……Symbolizes a grave

Like I said, the theme of Kyoto was rain. It took me hours to find the Fushimi Inari Shrine, but I kept after it because every wrong turn brought me to something new and exciting. Once I did get to the shrine, I rode through the large vermilion gates in the Japanese torri style mark the entrance to this shrine which is built on the bottom of a hill. Stone foxes (a theme that was quite prevalent in most of the shrines I visited) stand guard on either side of the large formal gates and of the main shrine, which is decorated grandly in bright red – which makes sense when you consider that this shrine is to the Inari kami, the gods who look after rice, sake and business. Built in the eighth century, this is Japan’s main Inari shrine, there are some 30,000 others, and so the best place to pray for and give thanks for good fortune in business

I parked the bike and went up the hill to the entrance of these vermillion gates (seen directly below).
Walking up the hill I didn't stop being impressed by the rows and rows of gates. In some places, like at the beginning and along flatter areas, the gates are put up right beside each other in almost closed corridors, which you can only see fingers of green through, but in some places they're set almost a meter apart from each other, looking all the more striking for being able to see the forest though them. The Torri were so close in the photo below, that I abandoned my umbrella to take this shot. If you walk the entire length of the 1000 Torris you will travel a distance of approximately 4 kilometers up and down the side of the hill. Since I had spent a good six to eight hours in the rain, I decided to turn back after the first 300 Torri. Like the old saying goes, "When you've seen one Torri..." 
Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) is the more common name for Jisho-ji, a temple belonging to the Shokoku School of the Rinzai Zen sect of Buddhism. I was more fascinated by the sand sculpting in the gardens than I was by the actual Silver Pavilion itself (seen center of picture just below). Construction began on Gikaku-ji in 1460, to be halted by war. There is an engaging history of the construction of the Silver Pavilion involving a Shogun, a civil war (that used Kyoto as the battle field from 1467 to 1477), succession, sibling battles and in the end, reconciliation and understanding. 
As you can see, it was a nice sunny day in Kyoto, but with the sun, came the people. The garden path circled the 1.75 acre sand garden shown in the three pictures here (yes, 1.75 acres!!). 
In the background of the below picture you can see a cone shaped structure rising 2 meters into the air. This is called the Kogetsudai, or Moon-viewing Platform. There are several theories about this mountain shaped creation. Some believe it is meant to resemble Mount Fuji, while others say it was designed as a simple mound of sand used to replenish the walkways. Still others say that the cones of this type (they are located in other temples in Japan) are meant to reflect divine light into the hearts of the visitors. No matter what the true purpose is, the Kogetsudai illuminates the Silver Pavilion on moonlight nights, making for a magnificent sight.
As the crowd forces me forward, I find myself fighting to separate myself from the horde, so I took advantage of getting in front of some teenagers who, like teenagers of all customs, were intent on doing their own thing and going at their own pace. This allowed me a quick unobstructed shot of the path up the mountain. It was a short-lived respite and once again, I found myself pressed by the mob behind me. At least I had a clear path in front of me, all I had to do was walk faster than the rest of the people and take pictures when I found a good spot. 
A good spot! Since we weren't allowed to stray from the path, I couldn't tell if the "grass" was moss, but it certainly had that texture, but it was mixed with clover. Whatever it was, it was idyllic. I could picture that hundreds of years ago, someone might be watering their horse at this river looking at the exact same things I was. Perhaps the trees would be different, but the garden has been tended for over 600 years. 
Kyoto is lush, spread out enough that it doesn't feel so congested, it is situated amid some hills (I call them hills... the tallest being 1000 meters) and not so far from the coast, it is cultural and modern at the same time. Overall, it is a very desirable place to live. Perhaps that is why it has been the epicenter of Japanese culture and rule for over a thousand of years.  Kyoto is also important historically in the eyes of the world. Kyoto itself has been declared an UNESCO World Heritage area with seventeen sites within Kyoto declared. Each and everyone of them, alone, is worth getting on a plane to view. It is one of the most important cities in Japan to visit, but in general, Japan is a wealth of historical preservation. Only three other countries (China - 40, India - 28 and Australia - 18) have more UNESCO sites. The difference between those countries is, that in Japan, they have just designated cities as a singe listing. In the case of Kyoto, that is 17... so, if we just took all the UNESCO sites in Kyoto and added them to the others on the list, and pulled out all the sites that were lumped into the others, Japan has 68 UNESCO recognized sites.  Quite a bit more than China alone. 

To be fair, I did not tally up each of China or India's sites like I did Japan, so they may outstrip Japan in this count. But... for a country that is 1/25th of the size of (making shit up now) Disneyland*, it is quite impressive! 
*Not really, but it is just slightly smaller than California.
What I am trying to say is, there is an immense amount of history, culture and relevance to be found in Japan. 

Below you will find Kinkaku-Ji (Golden Pavilion) (yeah, the name is not a whole lot different than Ginkaku-Ji) or, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is the popular name of Rokuon-ji (Deer Park Temple).

The design of the Golden Pavilion inspired several other buildings (Ginkaku-Ji being one) and Kinkaku-Ji's history dates back to 1397. Bad luck has followed the temple grounds since the civil war (Onin War) (briefly described above), when all the buildings in the complex, except for the temple, burned to the ground. The temple, however, did not survive a mentally disturbed monk in 1950 when his attempted suicide burned the temple to the ground. He was later sentenced to seven years in jail,  he spent five years in jail, during which time,  the temple was rebuilt and is said to be an exact copy of the original. 
Kinkaku-Ji is more impressive than its brother temple across the city. The crowds are similar, but with the expanse of the grounds, you have almost unobstructed access to everything here. 
Kiyomizu-dera (Temple of the Clear Water) could have been the highlight of the trip if it wasn't for all the other amazing places I stumbled upon. It is located halfway up Otawa Mountain in the Eastern part of Kyoto. As you enter, you will most likely pass through the Deva gate (below) and then past the three storied pagoda enroute to the Hondo (main hall)
The temple was dates back to 798 (even before Kyoto was the capital of Japan) and the current buildings were re-constructed in 1633. There is not a single nail used in the entire structure. Keep that in mind when viewing the following three pictures - it is a very large structure that is built 13 meters above the forest floor... and into the side of the hill-side; supported by 139 pillars almost appears to be floating above the forest. 
A view of some of the Cherry and Maple trees that dot the hillside.

Out of respect for those praying, I did not take a picture of the statue they are praying in front of. The Its formal name is "Eleven-headed thousand-armed Kanzeon Bosatsu" and is one of the sacred images in Buddhist religion. This Kannon is a little different than others for its two extra arms holding a small Buddha body above its head. It is said that this is the Kannon among Kannons which manifests the all-encompassing power of the Dharma teachings as it is taught in the Senju Darani Sutra. I think (hope) I captured the essence of what Kiyomizu-dera embodies in this photo. 
I truly don't know what this was all about. It seemed out of place with the fresh paint and Hello Kitty hat. 
The view of Otowa-no-taki from the Main Hall veranda of the shops, tea house and waterfall. In the background was a covered building going under renovation. It is another three-storied pagoda (Koyasu Pagoda), and a visit is said to bring about an easy and safe childbirth.
As you leave the platform of the Main Hall the Jishu Shrine is on your left, it is a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. It was jam packed with trinket shops, people brandishing umbrellas with the passion of a ninja warrior and others that were performing some blind-folded ritual to find love. I just moved past it and into an area that seemed MUCH less chaotic!
Bosatsu at Amida Hall. The statue is rubbed shiny just like the snout on the bronze boar in Florence, the the head of the brass lions on the Odeonplatz in Munich or the balls of the bull on Wall Street, NY. 
By about this time, I was in the mood to become a bit drier, but it would not be the case. I did get a bit of a respite when, at the top of the hill (to the left), I found a Ramen restaurant. It was probably the worst ramen I found in Japan, but still pretty damn good!
Drinking the water of the three streams is said to confer wisdom, health, and longevity. However, some Japanese believe that you must choose only two; if you are greedy and drink from all three, you invite misfortune upon yourself.
After I noshed on some piping hot ramen and green tea, I stumbled upon this grave yard over looking Kyoto (and part of Kiyomizu-dera). I do not know what the custom is for burying people in Japan, but there is certainly not a whole lot of room for a plot, leaving me to believe that cremation is standard with a head stone to give someone to pray to their loved ones. 
After several hours, it is time for me to go. Too bad the weather didn't sort itself out. I am not a fan of umbrellas!

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