4th February: Kyoto – Fushimi-Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari-taisha

On the way back from Nijo Castle I stopped in at Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine just south of Kyoto on the railway line between Kyoto and Nara.  It’s very accessible because it’s very close to the railway station.

Fushimi Inari-taisha, Romon Gate

This is the main gate, the Romon Gate, donated in 1589 by Toyotomi Hideoshi.  As you can see, it is two days off the full moon.

Fushimi Inari-taisha, Romon Gate

Here we see two statues of Inari, guarding the main gate.  Inari is a fox and messenger of the god of rice, sake and prosperity.  The temple backs up onto the sacred Inari Hill.  The inari on the left holds a key in its mouth (symbolically, to the rice granary).

Fushimi-Inari Taisha Honden

This is the Nai-Haiden or Inner Hall of Worship, just in front of the Honden or Main Shrine, which was built in 1499 (not sure whether the Nai-Haiden has the same date).  The shrine as a whole dates back to 711 though it was at a different location until 816.  It is the head Inari shrine in Japan, with as many as 40,000 sub-shrines (and with as many as that, most of them must be pretty small).

Fushimi-Inari Taisha

I arrived close to sunset and the light was fading fast.

Fushimi-Inari Taisha

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Torii Gates

There are thousands of vermillion torii gates, snaking through the hillside.  All were donated by a person or company (at a fixed price by size, these days) and their name will be on the back somewhere.

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Torii Gates

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Torii Gates

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Torii Gates

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Torii Gates

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Torii Gates

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Torii Gates

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Torii Gates

Fushimi-Inari Taisha - Romon Gate

As I was walking out of the Romon Gate, I passed some commercial photographers taking pre-wedding shots of a young couple.  They were using a flash and a soft box; this is my quick shot as I passed, with available light.

Then I boarded the train and returned to Nara, just in time for a pre-arranged game of Go with Igo, a fifth-dan master.   I used to play competition chess at university and I had also played some Go, though not for thirty-five years.  Go is a very simple game, over 2,000 years old and yet as complex as chess.  Essentially, you play on a board with many intersections and place stones on the intersections in turn.  You aim to win territory by surrounding your opponent’s stones and a formation of stones is safe from surrounding if has two “eyes”, or protected holes.

We played three games.  Igo gave me at first an eight-stone handicap, then seven.  I was improving with each game and got very close in the last.  Very stimulating and enjoyable.

4th February: Kyoto – Nijo Castle

Though staying in Nara, I caught the train to Kyoto and visited Nijo Castle.

No scribbling!

It’s important to pay attention to the signs.  Poets and students who might suddenly sit down on the road with their notepads to finish an essay should beware.

Ninomaru Palace

Nijo Castle was the Tokugawa residence in Kyoto and includes both Ninomaru Palace and Honmaru PalaceTokugawa Ieyasu commenced construction in 1601 and Tokugawa Iemistu completed it in 1624.  This is Ninomaru Palace which includes elegant rooms and impressive wall paintings.

Oh, the No scribbling sign?  If the penny hasn’t dropped, it really means “No graffiti please on this ancient wall”.

Ninomaru Garden Pond

Ninomaru Garden Pond

Eastern Gate to Honmaru Palace

Ninomaru Palace is inside the outer walls of Nijo Castle.  Also inside the outer walls is a moat and another set of castle walls and inside that is Honmaru Palace, not open for visiting at this time.  This is a gate through the inner walls and a bridge over the moat.

Part of Honmaru Palace

Nijo Castle is famed for its “nightingale floors” which squeak as you walk on them and were designed to prevent anyone trying to sneak up on the Shogun.  I didn’t experience that at Ninomaru Palace and I don’t think it is specific to Honmaru Palace, so I assume it’s not a property of the public walkways.

Western Bridge to Honmaru Palace over the Inner Moat

Western Bridge to Honmaru Palace over the Inner Moat

Honmaru Palace from the Donjon (a large stone tower at a corner of the inner castle wall)

Ironically, since the Tokugawa shoguns based themselves in Edo (now called Tokyo), they spent little time in this castle – just a few times at the beginning of the Tokugawa period and a few times at the end, with a gap of more than 220 years in the middle.

Doorway at Honmaru Palace

Western wall and inner moat around Honmaru Palace

Western wall and inner moat around Honmaru Palace

South-west corner of inner moat

Gable decorations at Ninomaru Palace

30th January: Kyoto to Kanazawa

It had been snowing in Kyoto each day, but only for a few hours each day and melting when it hit the ground.  Almost as soon as I left Kyoto on the train heading north for Kanazawa, there was snow everywhere.  Here are a couple of shots out of the window of the train:

Not far out of Kyoto, from a moving train

Here, we were stopped at a station. Note the giant Buddha in the background.

When I got to Kanazawa, it was snowing heavily and the back streets of the city were a kind of eerie wonderland.

Young businessmen, perhaps. Suits and ties and umbrellas for the rain.

Waiting for passers-by

... Found one!

The young woman here is giving away free small packs of tissues on the street corner with some kind of commercial information on the wrapping, written of course in Japanese.

Some of the local boys ...

Municipal sculpture

A corner of a small shrine in a city street

Kanazawa escaped bombing in World War 2, so the old city survives.  This kind of snow was not typical for this time of the year.  In three of the previous four years, there was no snow at all for the equivalent days to my visit.

(All images with my “pocket camera”, a Fujifilm X100).

29th January: Kyoto – The Philosopher’s Path – Ginkakuji (The Silver Pavilion)

Finally, at the end of the path, I reached the Silver Pavilion.  This was built by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the grandson of the shogun who built the Golden Pavilion (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu).  It was planned in 1460 but due to the Onin Wars was not completed until the early 1480s.  It was Yoshimasa‘s residence from 1484 and became a Buddhist temple after he died in 1490.  It was originally intended to be clad in silver, though that never actually came about.  According to one source, it is best viewed by moonlight (when of course the gates are locked and it is not accessible).

The most magnificent thing about the Temple is actually the garden.  Here are details from the zen garden flanking the path on the way in.

Zen dry garden detail

Zen dry garden detail with bonsai

Ginkaku ("Silver Pavilion") and Kinkyo-chi ("Brocade Mirror Pond")

Many of the elements in the view from the image above date back to the time of original construction by Ashikaga Yoshimasa.  The Silver Pavilion itself never burned down though most of the other original buildings do not survive.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435-1490) was shogun 1443 to 1473.  He was a great patron of the arts but not so successful politically.  In 1464 he adopted his younger brother Ashikaga Yoshimi and persuaded him to leave the priesthood  so there would be no contention over his succession.  However, the next year he unexpectedly acquired a son, who was then his favoured successor.  This led to the Onin War of 1467-1477, though it was partly merely an excuse for conflict between two leading daimyo, Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sōzen.  Both had armies of 80,000 men, encamped in eastern and western Kyoto respectively.  By the time the war fizzled out, with both leading daimyo dead and no advantage to either side, most of Kyoto was devastated.

Yoshimasa is said to have quietly take refuge in meditation and artistic pursuits while the war raged around him, perhaps rather like Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned.  However, at least in Nero’s case, this is not now generally seen as an accurate depiction.

The Ashikaga shoguns after Yoshimasa had little power and were the effective captives of powerful clans.  The end of the Onin Wars didn’t bring peace, either.  Instead, general conflict spread across the country in what became the Sengoku or Warring States period until stability returned with the Tokugawa period at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Ginshanden ("Sea of Silver Sand")

The sand sculptures were not present in the early years of the temple and date to the early seventeenth century.

Ginshanden ("Sea of Silver Sand")

The Hondo or “Spirit Hall” lies beyond the Gishanden or “Sea of Silver Sand”.

Kogetsudai ("Moon-Viewing Platform"), often said to depict Mt Fuji

Ginkaku ("Silver Pavilion") and Kinkyo-chi ("Brocade Mirror Pond"). A view that may be little changed from the late fifteenth century.

Tree in late afternoon near the Silver Pavilion

29th January: Kyoto – The Philosopher’s Path – Honen-In

On the way from Nanzen-Ji to Ginkakuji along the Philosopher’s Walk, I also dropped into Honen-In Temple which does not allow photographs inside the buildings.  However, I was particularly taken with the thatched gate leading to the temple past two sculpted sand mounds maintained by the monks.

Honen-In is a small Jodo-shu temple, founded in 1680 to honor Honen (1133-1212), the founder of Amidism or Pure Land Buddhism, which was a faith-based rival to Zen.  Jodo-shu is a subsect of Amidism.

Honen-In Gate

Facade of Building at Honen-In

Honen-In Gate, sand sculptures and people

Honen-In Gate

Pathway to Honen-In Gate

29th January: Kyoto – The Philosopher’s Path – Nanzen-Ji

Today I walked the Philosopher’s Path from south (Nanzen-Ji) to north (Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion).  Eminent Kyoto-based philosopher Nishida Kitaro used to walk it every day in the early 20th century.

First port of call is the delightful Tenjuan Garden, off the avenue to Nanzen-Ji Temple and part of the complex.

Tenjuan Garden

The monk is walking up a path to the nearby cemetery. He then conducted a ceremony there with a few people.  The cemetery, though not open for public access, includes some graves of eminent people dating back to at least the sixteenth century.

Tenjuan Garden

There was originally an imperial villa on this site dating back to 1267.  In 1288 the Emperor Kameyama was so impressed by Zen priest Daiminkokushi ridding him of a troublesome ghost that he converted the villa to a Zen temple for the benefit of Daiminkokushi.   

Kameyama was 10 when he became Emperor in 1259 and he abdicated in 1274 in favour of his 7-year old son.  This was a common practice.  He retained effective power as cloistered Emperor though real power rested with the Hojo clan at Kamakura.  For example, he favoured submitting to Kublai Khan as a vassal but was overruled by Kamakura.  Late in life he lost an imperial power struggle to his elder brother and retired to a Zen monastery.  His choice of Zen rather than Classical Buddhism was influential in changing the preferences of the aristocracy.

The Tenjuan Temple burned down in 1447 and again during the Onin War of 1467-1477.  It was not reconstructed until around 100 years later.

Tenjuan Garden

Tenjuan Garden dates back to 1337 though parts seem to have been remodeled in later years.  These steps across a pond probably date back to 1337.

Through the Sanmon Gate

Here we are looking through just the central opening of the massive, two-story Sanmon Gate, which has a famous association with the outlaw Ishikawa Goemon.  Though a historical figure, much of his life is effectively mythical.  He was said to be a kind of Japanese Robin Hood, stealing from the wealthy daimyo and giving to the poor.  He hid in this gate after an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the shogun in all but name) but was discovered in 1593 and executed by being boiled alive.  The current gate is said to have been built in 1628 and dedicated to those who died in the civil wars so there must have been a different version in the late sixteenth century.


This is beside the main entrance to Nanzen-Ji, an alternative entrance way not currently in use for the public at least.

Like Tenjuan Temple, Nanzen-Ji was founded by the Emperor Kameyama and Zen priest Daiminkokushi.  It was originally built as an imperial villa in 1264 and donated as a temple in 1291.  The original buildings were destroyed by fire in 1294, 1448 and 1467 and the current buildings were rebuilt between 1570 and 1600.  It is the head temple of Rinzai Zen.

Toranokowatashi Garden ("Young tigers crossing the water")

One of the delights of Nanzen-Ji is Toranokowatashi Garden, also known as Leaping Tiger Garden, created about 1600 by Kobori Enshu.

Detail of Toranokowatashi Garden

Pedestrian bridge over a pond near Eikan-Do

I also visited Eikan-Do Temple but no photography is allowed there.  Here is a bridge in the area between Eikan-Do and Nanzen-Ji.

28th January: Kyoto – the Gion.

There were quite a few young women wearing kimonos amongst the crowd at the Kiyomizu-dera temple and in the Gion district below. They might have been Geisha, or Maikos (apprentice Geisha) or probably just young women wearing traditional dress. The area north-west of Kiyomizu-dera and between the river and the hills has many charming streets preserved with traditional buildings.

Scene in traditional street 1

Scene in traditional street 2

Scene in traditional street 3

Two people descending the stairs from the gate of the Shoren-In Temple

Lanterns outside a small museum after dark, probably a Shinto shrine.

More lanterns, nearby

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