28th January: Kyoto – Kiyomizu-dera

Today I took train and bus to visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple,  more than a thousand years old, high on a hill overlooking Kyoto.

Walking up to Kiyomizu-dera

The road to the temple goes through the Higashiyama area, which is a traditional location for artisans including ceramics, wood carving and textiles.  It is lined with shops and stalls.  Some of them sell fast food and the rest sell a wonderful array of traditional items, the products of skilled artisans rather than tacky souvenirs.

Nio-mon Gate, the main gate to the temple

By chance in the image to the left I took the same young woman ascending the stair to the gate of the Temple as in the previous image.  I didn’t even realise until I selected both images.  The right-hand image features a young woman in traditional dress who was being photographed by her companion.

The temple bell

Near the gate is this huge bell, in a bright vermillion structure with colourful decorations.

Gate near Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Here we are looking through an old gate close by the temple and in the distance (as I remember) a war memorial of some kind.

Kiyomizu Temple walkway

Parts of the temple are under renovation, as you can see in the background to the right.  The chain hanging down is like a drainpipe.

Steps to Jishu Shrine

Behind the temple, these are the steps leading up to Jishu Shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to love and match-making.   The shop further up is selling good luck charms, perhaps a little like the selling of indulgences by the medieval Catholic Church in Europe.

Jishu Shrine

This is Jishu Shrine, beyond the top of the steps.  The wooden grate in front is where people throw offerings.  Near the shrine there are two special stones set in the pavement nine metres apart.  It is said that if you successfully walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, your aspirations in love will come true.  (There were too many people around for a photograph of the stones and no-one doing the walk).

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Here is a view of the massive Kiyomizu-dera Temple, with Kyoto in the background.  The temple was founded in 798, just after the capital moved to Heian-kyo (Kyoto) so it must have had particular significance in the Heian era (794-1185).  The main hall is dedicated to the goddess of mercy and compassion and is supported over the edge of the cliff by 139 wooden pillars 15m in length.

There is a saying in Japan that if you’re about to undertake some particularly daring act, you’re “jumping from the verandah of Kiyomizu Temple”.  Apparently people actually used to jump, believing their wish would come true if they survived.  234 are said to have jumped and 200 survived.

Koyasu Pagoda

And here is the Koyasu Pagoda, in front of the temple from the front entrance though we are viewing from the side.  The top of the spire is also visible in the previous image which was taken from the rear of the temple.  The pagoda was rebuilt in 1633 after a fire, along with most buildings in the complex.  It was also moved from another location in the complex in 1912.

Pre-wedding party

As I was walking out of the temple complex, I encountered some professional photographers in front of the vermillion Nio-mon Gate, taking photographs of a what I presume is a pre-wedding party.

GPS location (green arrow).

I also visited Kodai-Ji Temple but can show you nothing of this as photographs were not allowed, outside or inside.  There were remarkable wall paintings and the highlight was an exquisite zen dry rock garden that left you no alternative but to sit down and contemplate.

27th January: Kyoto – Ryoanji

On the way back from Kinkaku-Ji, I visited Ryoan-Ji, a Zen Temple mainly famed for its dry rock garden.

From left to right: Stairs up to the gate to the temple, taken from the road; a very old tree in the lower garden with a supporting structure; a gate inside the temple complex to a garden closed to the public

Lower garden with ducks.

The garden and pond dates back to the 12th century. The red structure you can see through the trees is a Shinto gate associated with a shrine dedicated to Benten, a goddess of luck.

The overall site was a Fujiwara estate during the Heian era (794-1185), in other words, the era of Classical Japan when the capital moved from Nara to Heian-kyo (later Kyoto). The Fujiwara were the dominant administrative family of the time and female members often married Emperors.

Above, on the left, the bamboo pipe and ladle are for ritual purification. On the right, is a group of stones from Ryoanji's rock garden.

You can see variations of the bamboo pipe and ladle on the left at many temples. Sometimes they are only for cleansing of the hands and sometimes for drinking the water.

Ryoanji zen rock garden

The Ryoanji zen rock garden, one of the most abstract of zen rock gardens, was constructed in the late fifteenth century. It is designed to be viewed from a long verandah that we are at one end of. There are fifteen stones and it is not possible to see any more than fourteen from any position along the verandah. It was designed this way because fifteen is said to be a perfect number and the garden demonstrates that perfection is not possible.

GPS location (green arrow).

Lower pond and garden

Returning from the rock garden, here we are again at the lower pond and garden. I presume the building is part of the Shinto shrine (access was not possible).

Suburban train at level crossing

Walking back to my lodgings, I had to stop at a small level crossing for this train. This is a suburban line by a private railway (not Japan Rail). Notice how close the train runs to the houses and the car parked on the other side of the tracks gives you an inkling of how scarce and tight parking places can be in Japan.

27th January: Kyoto – Kinkaku-Ji (the Golden Pavilion)

Kyoto is a city of around 1.5 million people and is not far from Osaka, a very large city.  There are many charming side streets with elegant houses and exquisite trees but this is not what we have here, instead, one of the many cyclists and a curious version of the corner liquor store. At this time I am walking towards Kinkaku-Ji (the Golden Pavilion).

Taken while on foot, en route to the Golden Pavilion

And this is Kinkaku-Ji.

The Golden Pavilion

The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu built Kinkaku-Ji (also called Rokuon-Ji) in late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries as his retirement villa and covered the top two stories in gold leaf.  There were also many other buildings at the time that have not survived.  Kinkaku-Ji itself was burned down in 1950 by a renegade monk and later rebuilt.  The burning of the pavilion was the subject of a Mishima novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Golden Pavilion and Lake, with rain falling

Golden Pavilion

Yoshimitsu was the most successful of the Ashikaga shoguns.  Though he handed the shogunate to his son in 1394, he was effectively shogun from 1368 to 1408.  Since his grandfather staged a coup against the Emperor there had been two royal courts and intermittent civil war.  Yoshimitsu saw the Southern Court (arguably the legitimate imperial line) submit to the Northern Court under the control of the Ashikaga dynasty.

Notwithstanding the frequent conflict in this period, it also saw a cultural and artistic flowering that permanently changed Japanese aesthetics.  There were several factors that fostered this: freedom from the set ideologies of classical Japan, renewed aristocratic influence due to the return of government to Kyoto from Kamakura,  widespread improvements in artisan skills due to breakdown of class roles and decentralisation, and the influence of newer more egalitarian religions such as Zen.

A heron beside a nearby pond

Reflections of the Golden Pavilion in the Lake

Ashikaga Period (1336-1573)

In 1333, the emperor Go-Daigo challenged the power of the Kamakura shogun.  The shogun charged Ashikaga Takauji with defeating the imperial forces but he changed sides and defeated the shogun.  After a brief period where the Emperor had full political control, Ashikaga Takauji took effective control and founded the Ashikaga shogunate.

The Ashikaga shogunate was weaker than the Kamakura bakufu had been or the Tokugawa shogunate would become.  The feudal system of obligations was less tightly bound and many daimyo had little more than nominal allegiance to the shogun.  The old system of moral behaviour was breaking down and individual daimyo became more inclined to go to war for their perceived personal gain, unfettered by a sense of any obligations.

The latter part of the Ashikaga period was the Sengoku or Warring States period.  This started in the Onin War or 1467 to 1477 where there was a civil war between two clans in and around Kyoto and with battle lines inside Kyoto.  It centred on a dispute over who was to be the successor of the shogun, even though the shogunate was not vacant.  There was then a period of continuous local warfare until 1600.  Paradoxically, this was not all bad.  The decline of central control led to more widespread and localised skills, economic development, artistic achievement and literacy.

Trees on tiny islands in the lake

The top of the Golden Pavilion from the hills behind, now in persistent rain.

GPS location (green arrow).

Main Periods of Japanese History

  • Early Periods
      • From early hunter-gatherers to the beginnings of Imperial Japan in the Ise Peninsula
  • Nara  710-794
      • First fixed capital.  Highly centralised system with strong Buddhist influences.
  • Heian  794-1185
      • Capital moves to Heian-kyo (now Kyoto) with Fujiwara clan having main power.  Centralised power system slowly dissipates.
  • Kamakura  1185-1333
      • Minimoto Yoritomo seizes effective political power and established a “tent capital” at Kamakura, south of Tokyo (then Edo).  Mongol invasions repulsed.
  • Ashikaga  1336-1573
      • Power supposedly returns to Kyoto under the Ashikaga shoguns but local daimyos become much more powerful and conflict becomes endemic
  • Momoyama 1565-1615
      • Oda Nobunaga, Toyomoti Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu (leaders in succession) take effective control over Japan and end the Warring States period.  Attempted conquest of Korea and China in 1590s fails.
  • Tokugawa  1603-1868
      • A long period of stability, most of it in isolation from the West.
  • Meiji Restoration and Modern Period 1868-present

27th to 29th January: Kyoto – Shunko-In and Myoshin-Ji

While in Kyoto I stayed in the zen temple Shunko-In in the Myoshin-Ji complex.


I started my first day in Japan with a Zen meditation session.  There were spaces for about twenty people but there was just me and the Abbot.  I was facing a view of the zen garden while fine snow swirled down outside the window.  Perhaps some things are not meant to be captured in a photograph.

Part of a sliding panel in Shunko-In temple by Egaku Kano, dating to the 17th century

I experienced meditation some decades ago, mainly as a consequence of living rather than  as an organised activity, and I had also read about Zen.  Zen is not so much a faith as a way of living.  The meditation is not as formal as in some other forms of Buddhism, rather a simple way to free your mind from thoughts to assist you to experience directly and to appreciate the pervasive nature of change.  Though I didn’t encounter them here, Rinzai Zen also specialises in koan or enigmatic aphorisms that challenge rational thinking as part of the process to self-knowledge.

A corner of the zen garden at Shunko-In

The Abbot mentioned two aspects of Zen that I either was not aware of or had forgotten.  One is that Buddha is not held to be a God and so all statues of Buddha are small.  Another is that there is no belief in reincarnation.

Another interesting thing he said is that people generally think that the lines in the sand or gravel are there to look pretty whereas their primary purpose is as a form of meditation for the person who creates them.  You have to have your mind in the right space to be able to draw them regularly and coherently.

Entrance to a temple in the Myoshin-Ji complex, showing a nice contrast between the old and the new.

GPS location (green arrow).

Temple bell, door and roof at Myoshin-Ji Complex

The courtyard to a Zen Buddhist Temple in the Myoshin-Ji complex

Europeans in Medieval Japan

The Portuguese brought Christianity to Japan in 1549 and the Spanish followed on soon after.  After 50 or 60 years there were around 200,000 adherents including some in the highest ranks of daimyo (feudal lords).  However, the Shoguns came to realise that the Christians pledged allegiance to their God as a higher allegiance than to the Emperor and so they were ruthlessly suppressed and many executed.  After 1637 those few who were left were in hiding.  The centre of covert Christianity was in the southern island of Kyushu and when the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, the remains of a cathedral featured amongst the ruins.  Less than 1% of Japanese are Christian today.

Details of a Christian bell in the Shunko-In temple, dating from 1577. The Abbot's father hid it during World War 2 to prevent it being melted down for munitions.

In 1600, an Englishmen called William Adams  arrived in Japan on a Dutch ship with a few surviving crew members, all starving and scurvy-ridden.  After a few months, Adams established a close relationship with Tokugawa Ieyasu, notwithstanding initial pleas by the Portuguese for Adams’ execution.  Ieyasu was Regent at the time and soon to become the first Tokugawa Shogun.  Adams became a special advisor to Ieyasu on Western technology and trade, built him a Western ship and was later made a feudal lord.  Due to his influence, both the Dutch and the British received trading rights though the British withdrew after 10 years because they brought the wrong goods and were unable to make a profit.  After the expulsion of the Spanish and the Portuguese until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Dutch maintained the sole European trading outpost from an island in Nagasaki harbour.

24th to 26th January: From Canberra to Japan

Sometimes events are not as simple as they should be.  Driving down from Canberra to Sydney in the rain I found that the motorway was closed due to a horrendous accident and I had to go “cross-country”.  Then on the first detour route I took there was a (low-speed) head-on collision four or five cars in front of me that blocked the road.  It was a very narrow road in a rock ravine with only six paces from one side of the ravine to the other.  It was only because I was driving a small car that I was able to do a U-turn and continue.

The next day I boarded a plane to fly from Sydney to the Gold Coast and then after a change of plane, on to Osaka (Kansai).  However, when we got to the Gold Coast, the plane circled the airport for half an hour or so but was unable to land because the rain was so heavy the pilot could not see the runway or the control tower.  So, back to Sydney.

Finally, on the 26th, to Kansai and then on to Kyoto, where I am staying in the Shunko-In Zen Temple.  I was dropped at the door by the Yasaka Kansai Airport Shuttle which was a great boon and involved the driver negotiating some very narrow lanes near the destination.

Itinerary of Journey to Japan

I traveled in Japan in January and February 2012.

Brief Itinerary

Special Topics

Completed posts