When Japan was mentioned to me as a potential travel destination- my mind envisaged this image of absolute solitude in a beautifully sculpted Temple garden. And visiting Zenrin-ji temple provided me with that opportunity, though achieving this golden silence was not exactly easy, as I’ll explain later on. And choosing where to go is something that can also eat up a large amount of time- Kyoto itself is akin to a giant buffet when it comes to temples, which makes the situation especially problematic if you only have time for a couple of main courses 🙂
We started our first full day in Kyoto visiting Apprivoiser (see my veggie bites post for more information). Having left the restaurant feeling nicely re-energized, we made tracks to the downtown area of Kyoto, situated only 15 minutes walk away from where our hotel was located. The vibe in Kyoto is very different from that of Tokyo- for a start, the number of fellow tourists increases but not exponentially. You also need a state of permanent vigilance when it comes to bicycles racing across pavements, something which is not necessary in Tokyo (because everyone mainly walks their shorter distances). In addition, Kyoto fashion is far more “sexy casual” (as a floor advertising clothes in a Kyoto department store described) than Tokyo. Fashion in Tokyo is more diverse, but perhaps overarching more conservative. In Kyoto, it was more the norm for girls to wear knee high or thigh high boots, stylish cowl neck sweaters, cute mini dresses/skirts and brightly coloured but well-tailored mini coats. Perhaps this is a good time to note that both the Tokyo and Kyoto undergrounds carry signs like this one:
A sign warning girls to beware of people looking up their skirt
So despite fashion being (in my opinion) really nice- I’d be lying if I said that such signs didn’t unnerve or concern me slightly. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t walk around with my travel companion saying “I love what she’s wearing, but I couldn’t wear that on the London underground” multiple times. However, by and large, Kyoto had an air of youthful vibrancy that the region of Tokyo we were staying (Ikebukuro, the business district) unsurprisingly lacked.
But I’m going to stop myself before I digress anymore- we were heading to downtown Kyoto in order to hop on a bus to get to the Eikando Zenrin-ji temple. The temple itself was the headquarters of the Jodo Sect Seizan Zenrinji Branch, and is a still fully functioning temple amongst the Jodo Sect of Shingon Buddhism, with the still fully-functioning temple element being important to us when choosing which temple to visit.
We got a bus from the central downtown area- with the temple name clearly displayed on the list of bus destinations. It cost only 230 yen for our entire journey, with our stop being something like the eighth stop on the line- but the experience itself was not particularly pleasant. It was bumpy, crowded and jolty, but it meant that I was clinging on to the handle falling from the ceiling with such intent that I realised my upper arms had received a complimentary workout. And in that respect, every cloud has a silver lining.
When we disembarked from the bus, we realised we had no idea where we should be heading. Despite there being a board nearby, nothing said “Zenrin-ji” only “Eikando”, and since trip advisor hasn’t posted the full name of the temple (Eikando Zenrin-ji temple), this confused us as we were worried we’d be heading to the wrong temple. Reassured by the fact that there would be at least one temple in the area we could visit (since the map was full of them), we nonetheless decided to ask around in a few shops before one lady guessed what we were getting at and pointed us towards the correct place.
The sign which also helped us. A lot.
The part of Kyoto where Eikando Zenrin-ji temple was located fit my prior expectation of what Kyoto would be like far more than downtown Kyoto- this area had emptier roads, smaller dusty coloured houses, shops and cafes (although more of the former than the latter two options) and generally an incredibly communal, village-y feel that downtown Kyoto lacked.
Entry to the temple was 600 yen each and it was absolutely stunning! Autumnal coloured leaves, majestic trees, sparkling water with little stone bridges above, a small fountain by the exit and beautiful brown and white temple buildings. Below are some of my favourite images from the temple.
A temple building The bridge leading over the lake
The view from the bridge Another bridge leading to a shrine
Autumnal leaves framing the lake
We enjoyed the peace (a school was nearby so we still had some background noise of children but this wasn’t disruptive per se). What was disruptive, however, was that we’d only been inside the temple for twenty minutes or so when what seemed like a tour group of Japanese businessmen arrived, completely killing the ambience with chat and noise. Like the other tourists present, we were not best amused, and we felt especially cheated since the same thing happened in Happoen Gardens in Tokyo (we had 10 minutes of peace before it was interrupted by a wedding). And I’m fully aware that I may sound a bit like the Grinch (in spite of it not being Christmas) but for many of these gardens in Japan, it is the silence that makes the place magical and ethereal, and allows you to feel a million miles away from reality but absolutely in harmony with nature.
We decided to move on from the Temple at this point. I’m not sure whether Zenrin-ji Temple has a marvellous policy whereby tickets allow for re-entry once you’ve left or whether the lovely women who sold us tickets simply recognised me and my friend and waved us back in (upon seeing our previously brought tickets) but after the Philosopher’s walk, myself and my friend walked back past the temple to get to the bus stop and saw the group of Japanese businessmen boarding a coach and leaving. We felt triumphant since this meant that we did get to return. But more on that later 🙂
The Philosopher’s walk was a pathway my friend wanted to try and had been signposted before we entered the temple. It was a long, gravelly walk, surrounded by grass, water and dark khaki trees, but we did see some interesting things along the path- a lady surrounded by cats who jumped for the ball when she held it up for them, an elderly man who drew the most amazing ink sketches of landscapes and then a coffee shop, mainly filled with locals eating mizo and noodles. We stopped there as we were in need of a little perk-me-up at this point; my advice is don’t- it wasn’t too great. My friend went for strawberry shaved ice (too artificial tasting) and I had an incredibly watery hot chocolate. I don’t actually think the name of the coffee shop was overly visible from the outside or I would have taken a photo but just avoid it if you are doing the Philosopher’s walk- I think it makes more sense to bring your own snacks.
The view at the beginning of the walk The cat lady we saw on the Philosopher’s walk
Moggy The work of a Japanese artist sketching as we walked
Upon seeing the businessmen leave as we walked back, we returned to Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple and climbed up to a pagoda which was absent of people; I had a brief nap on a wooden bench (probably responsible for the subsequent insect bites on my leg despite having smothered myself in insect repellent). And I could do this, because the peace was magnificent- all we could hear was the birds tweeting merrily and, when we descended from the Pagoda, a gong being hit at regular intervals (about 4.30pm), symbolising the monk’s prayer time.
The view from the Pagoda Another view from the Pagoda
You may need luck on your side to obtain peace in the temple gardens but if you get it, than wow- be prepared to be amazed. Hearing the monks during prayer was an additional unexpected bonus and I left the temple feeling more mentally relaxed and calm than at any other point in Japan.
The landscape at the exit of Eikando Zenrin-ji temple