Posted by: leospurr | March 21, 2009

The City of Temples…

Ah- Kyoto!  Ever since one of my high school friends spent a summer in Kyoto back in 1984, I’ve been wanting to visit!  The experience did not fail to disappoint, and I’m planning to return on my own this summer for a few more days.  Kyoto served as the capital of Japan for nearly 11 centuries until 1868.  It now ranks as Japan’s 7th largest city, and is nicknamed the city of temples because of its some 2000 temples and shrines.  Due to it’s historical and cultural relevance, Kyoto was dropped from the list of potential bombing targets during WWII, and retains a pre-war beauty with its ancient temples, shrines, palaces, and gardens still intact.  One of the things I appreciated most was the grid-like layout of the city.  Unlike Tokyo’s confusing, complicated, and sneaky layout, Kyoto’s ancient city planning was very straightforward.  The reasoning is that warlords in Tokyo had to be more concerned about potential invaders into the city, and therefore didn’t want to make the streets so easily navigated.  As often as I get lost while driving in Tokyo, I can confirm that they succeeded.  

Japan's longest wooden structure

Japan's longest wooden structure

Sanjusangendo (三十三間堂)was first on our target list – it is a Buddhist temple that literally houses 1001 lifesize, gold-leaf covered cypress statues of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon.  Pictures were not allowed inside, and I doubt they would do justice to the enormity of presence that these statues portray.  In front of the deities, as befits any proper deity, stand twenty-eight guardian deities.  The guardians are much more ferocious looking and seem to be  succeeding at their job of protecting the goddesses.  As my Indian classmate confirmed, the guardians have their origin in ancient India, and he was feeling quite at home.  The hall housing these treasures is Japan’s longest wooden structure, and the current structure has remained intact since 1266.

The Golden Pavilion Temple

The Golden Pavilion Temple

Our next stop was kinkaku rokuon ji (金閣鹿苑寺), or more often referred to simply as kinkakuji (golden pavilion temple).   It was pouring rain at the time, and I am thoroughly glad for it!  If I had been there on my own, I probably would have found some nice shopping area to visit, and foregone walking around the garden.  But since it was part of the tour, we couldn’t skip it and visiting an ancient garden during the rain is absolutely spectacular.   Of course, the crowds are minimal, and the mist in the air, the sound of rain-swollen waters, the smell of wet moss is just an entirely different experience.  The Golden Temple was originally built in 1397 as the retirement home of Yoshimitsu, the 3rd Shogun of Ashikaga.  It is a 3-storied pagoda-shaped laquered building, with the top two floors gilded in gold leaf.  To see a golden building in the middle of a pond reflecting its grandeur is a sight to be seen.  The original building was burned and rebuilt a few times due to domestic wars and at least one disgruntled monk.  It was most recently rebuilt in 1955, and given a thicker coating of gold in 1987.  Thank goodness the Japanese economy was good back then!

Feel like jumping??

Feel like jumping??

Our final visit on this way too brief trip was at kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) which means “clear water temple”, and takes its name from the waterfall on the complex.  The temple dates back to 798,  with present buildings built in 1633.  Not one nail is used in its construction!  This temple is referred to in a Japanese proverb – “to jump off the stage at kiyomizu” essentially means “to take the plunge” and refers to a practice during the Edo period where people would literally jump off the stage, and if they survived the 13m plunge, their greatest desires would come true.  Apparently some 85% of those “recorded” jumpers survived.  Not sure of their greatest desires success rate, however.  The practice has been banned, thankfully!  The waterfall’s waters also have therapeutic properties, reportedly.  Our tour guide told us that the three streams of water from which you can drink will give you health, love, and academic success.  You cannot be greedy and take all three.  “Ok, boys, which one do you want to drink from?”  We all chose love.  After a brief sip, Chris proclaimed that he felt better already (I didn’t know he was feeling poorly before), and he was full of love.  For the next 15 minutes the boys were hugging, laughing and promising to play with each other peacefully.  Yeah, that lasted pretty much until we got back on the bus when Chris then proclaimed, “I should have drank more of the water,” and the fight over the Nintendo ensued.  Regardless, a little more research on my part afterwards, and the waters are supposedly for wisdom, health, and longevity.  Love comes into the picture at another temple on the complex that we didn’t even know about!  I’ll get back there this summer!

Drinking therapeutic waters!

Drinking therapeutic waters!



  1. Gosh–do you spend any time at home with your feet up? Loved the rendition of the boys drinking from the “love” river….who knows how long they’d have lasted if they hadn’t drank from it!

  2. I’m sorry that Kyoto didn’t fail to disappoint. 😉

    Interestingly enough, Kannon is considered male in Japan, but female in China (where the name is rendered something like Kuan Yin).

    Kannon was originally represented as Buddha when he was a prince. The rational for that representation is that Avalokitesvara (the Sanskrit original name) has attained enlightenment, but compassionately remains in this world to aid the enlightenment of others (much as Siddhartha is said to have done). Anyway, compassion seems to have been considered a feminine trait, and so, over the centuries, the Chinese came to represent Kuan Yin as a female.

    On the other hand, most Japanese statues of Kannon show him in princely robes (which expose his breast) and a facial hair (check out the Fu Manchu/Jazz patch combo on the one in the second row, left side).

    You definitely hit the highlights of Kyoto! Now–can you squeeze a side trip to Nara next time you go? I think it’s even better than Kyoto….

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