Finding #Zen-rinji Temple: initial impressions of Kyoto and exploring our favourite attraction

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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‚Äôll 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 ūüôā

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 ‚Äúsexy casual‚ÄĚ (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:

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A sign warning girls to beware of people looking up their skirt

So despite fashion being (in my opinion) really nice- I‚Äôd be lying if I said that such signs didn‚Äôt unnerve or concern me slightly. I‚Äôd also be lying if I said I didn‚Äôt walk around with my travel companion saying ‚ÄúI love what she‚Äôs wearing, but I couldn‚Äôt wear that on the London underground‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄúZenrin-ji‚ÄĚ only ‚ÄúEikando‚ÄĚ, and since trip advisor hasn‚Äôt posted the full name of the temple (Eikando Zenrin-ji temple), this confused us as we were worried we‚Äôd 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.

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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.

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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.

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A temple building                                                       The bridge leading over the lake

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The view from the bridge                                         Another bridge leading to a shrine

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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‚Äôm not sure whether Zenrin-ji Temple has a marvellous policy whereby tickets allow for re-entry once you‚Äôve 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‚Äôs 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 ūüôā

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.

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The view at the beginning of the walk¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†The cat lady we saw on the Philosopher’s walk

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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.

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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.

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The landscape at the exit of Eikando Zenrin-ji temple

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Tokyo time part 1: Senso-ji Temple and Tokyo Skytree.

My second day in¬†Tokyo (after a very pleasant flight from Hong Kong but a stressful first day of settling) allowed me to have my first insight into ancient Japanese spiritualism and religion via a temple visit¬†(which I hope to experience more of in Kyoto) and gave me the chance to see 360 degree views of Tokyo, lit up and twinkling at night from an almost bird’s eye viewpoint (350m high).

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My friend and I awoke on day 2 in Tokyo with the intention of having an early start but in reality, we didn’t venture out into Ikebukuro (where we are staying) until late morning.

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Ikebukuro at night- this commercial area of Tokyo encompasses the “work hard, play hard” philosophy.

Here you can see it lit up at night.

Our primary form of transport that day would be the train network; we had brought a JR pass in advance (for up to 7 days, standard price of £165.50, free trains on the JR network and some buses). This was also an important purchase for us since we knew it would cover the cost of our train travel to Kyoto (our second destination in Japan). The first port of call was Asakusa, and to get here, we took the Yamanote line to Ueno station and then had to buy tickets to travel on the Ginza line (since this is part of the subway system, not the JR network).

*note, if you do have a JR pass, you can get a shuttle bus to and from Tokyo Skytree in Asakusa to Ueno station, which eliminates the cost of buying a metro ticket- we discovered this whilst in Asakusa*.

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Ikebukuro JR station                                                                                  Asakusa Metro Station

But enough on trains, we had a short straight walk from the station to get to the Senso-ji temple. The temple itself is Tokyo’s oldest temple, known to the people of Japan as the Asakusa Kannon and¬†attracting over¬†30 million visitors per year.

Walking through the arch, you experience a riot of colour and noise as market stalls selling items as diverse as rice-crackers wrapped in seaweed, toys pertaining to superheroes and childhood and traditional Japanese-style fans and tea sets line the streets.

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The top of the arch which you walk through        At first sight: the shopping area leading up to the temple

The shopping area forms a kind of crossroads, whereby taking the north fork (if you are coming from around Asakusa station way), leads you directly to the temple. The weather that day was fairly warm, and my friend spotted a street vendor selling Japanese soda. To get the taste, the vendor drops a ball of flavour through a closed bottle top, which then lodges itself into the bottle as a result of the bottle shape and, according to my friend, it then “effervesces… or something”. He also asked me to write that, in his in own words, “he is not a scientist” ūüôā

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Japanese soda pop!

Upon approach to the temple; shop stalls become slightly more tourist-focused. If you look up, you can see decorations which seem to resemble tree or tree branches (maybe they are real, I’m not too sure), resplendent in shades of peach, fuchsia, lemon and crimson. Prior¬† to entering the temple, you walk through another arch (red and gold) and soon come across an urn, with incense smoke rising urgently and weirdly, almost elegantly, and the opportunity to buy incense sticks from a stall to the right.

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The burning of the incense in the urn                                      The temple from afar

The purpose of the incense (reputedly) is to be a method of purifying the surroundings, bringing forth an assembly of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, demons, and the like. Entering the temple, you can throw money into a ridged box and say a prayer. It is also possible to light a candle. Since photos are allowed, below is a snapshot from inside of the temple.

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The shrine at which people throw money (into the box below) and then pray

The temple gardens were also beautiful, and my friend developed a new obsession (see below).

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The temple gardens¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† The obsession- a¬†loved fish ¬†nicknamed “Diem”.

After the senso-ji shrine, we decided to try and get back to Ueno, where a number of museums are. However, by the time we arrived at quarter to five, everyone was shutting up shop (so to speak). We made the impulsive decision to hop on a shuttle bus which had just arrived outside where were standing in Ueno (near Ueno zoo and the shuttle was free as a result of our JR pass). The final stop- Tokyo Skytree

By the time we reached the attraction, the city had crept towards darkness and my hunger levels were at an all time high (being vegetarian in Japan is not all that easy- a blog post about that might be coming soon amongst other things). So we decided to have a look around to find a place that I was able to eat at. Eventually, we found a fusion café in Tokyo Skytree town (my friend had eaten fried chicken in Asakusa earlier) and since the staff were so polite and obliging (this seems ingrained in Japanese culture), I was able to eat spaghetti with soy sauce and seaweed. Skytree itself exists within a shopping village, and shops there are either cute, quirky and full of anime references or high-end/high street clothing and accessories brands. There are also food courts and restaurants. It spans over roughly 8 floors, with an east and west wing and a centre point.

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An anime shop¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† What caught my eye ūüôā

Post-food, we went to the fourth floor to access the Skytree tower. The lift elevated to us to 350m high ridiculously quick, so much so that my friend (who’s not crazy about sudden changes in height) did not experience any inertia.

The views from behind the glass windows were like nothing I’ve ever seen before; Tokyo became a toy city, with flashes of gold light from buildings and darkness only arising from rivers, fields or the sky itself. Below are a couple of my favourite pictures¬†from the observation deck:

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I’m also seriously proud of my friend (who suffers from vertigo) for standing on a sheer glass floor (with the drop from that height visible beneath it).

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The glass floor in question                                                       Having a little sit down in the most comfortable place

In the end, he may have left Skytree feeling tired, and I may have felt energized, but both of us thought Skytree was an incredibly worthwhile thing to do. At 2060 yen, it may have been more expensive than Tokyo tower (which is where we initially planned to go and is located in Minato, Tokyo) but in my mind, it is well worth the cost. The views are mesmerising, staff are so sweet and cheerful and it was a lovely way to end a really good day in Tokyo.