Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji & Chion-in Temples

So with my revised blogging schedule, I’ve decided to skip ahead a few days on my Japan trip recount. These, I think, I’ll most likely return to as Thursday Doors posts, or some other random post as I think of them. Today I’d like to share one of my most memorable days from the holiday: Tuesday February 14th, which KF and I spent in Kyoto.

Having travelled there by bullet train the day before, this would be our first full day in Kyoto. Prior to the trip, I did do a little bit of research about places to visit in and around the city, but on the day we arrived, we visited the tourist information centre (helpfully located near the main train station), and a very helpful guide/assistant (who also spoke really good English) gave us a few pointers about getting around town. We left with a map of the bus routes, bus passes, and a better idea of what we’d be doing the next day. 

So on the morning of the 14th, we went first to Nijo Castle, and then to the Golden Pavilion Temple (Kinkaku-ji). Both of these are usually highly recommended to tourists for their impressive beauty and historical significance. Even on an overcast winter morning, there were plenty of visitors, and I’m sure many/most of those were tourists. It was relatively simple catching a bus from Kyoto Station to Nijo Castle but, admittedly, we ended up at Kinkaku-ji sort of by accident – or serendipity, if you will.

We were supposed to have caught a bus going the opposite direction, toward Chion-in Temple, but once we were on the bus, and realised we weren’t going where we thought, we kind of just decided to go with it. After all, there would be a bus at Kinkaku-ji to connect us to Chion-in.

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My sister told me she has a photo of Kinkaku-ji that’s framed pretty much exactly the same as this one that I took. When you enter the grounds, there will almost certainly be a small crowd of people standing on the near bank of the lake, taking this very same photo. The skies were clearing up by then, so I got a nice reflection in the water too!

As a bit of trivia / for interest’s sake, the top two floors of the temple are coated in actual gold leaf (unfortunately not made entirely from gold, although that’s probably not structurally sound anyway). The official name of Kinkaku-ji is actually Rokuon-ji, and it is a Zen Buddhist temple.

The grounds around the temple are beautiful and peaceful, even if there are a lot of tourists around. I will also remember this as the place KF and I discovered our mutual appreciation/sympathy for pigeons while eating black sesame soft serve.

A lot of the recommendations I got for Kyoto were from my sister or from friends. However, I did do some browsing online, and that’s how I found out about Chion-in Temple. But, to be honest, I don’t remember what it was about the place that made me put it on the list of places to visit. Maybe something about the garden, or about how there are usually significantly fewer tourists there, or maybe the fact that it’s close to the Geisha district Gion. Probably a combination of those and a few other things.

Anyway, I’m thankful for whatever it was that compelled me to visit Chion-in Temple over all the other places that people recommended because it turned out to be one of the most memorable places in Japan for me.

Actually, I just did a Google search of Chion-in, and realised that we probably entered through a side entrance because it’s not the same as the big Sanmon Gate all over the travel sites. Quite possibly we only saw a small part of the grounds, so there’s no doubt that I’ll be back to visit Chion-in the next time I’m in Japan.

Anyway, that’s not important right now.

Chion-in is a Jodo, or Pure Land, Buddhist temple. I observed part of a service before wandering the grounds. KF was a bit tired at this stage (it was late afternoon, and we’d done a lot of stairs already), so I did most of this wandering on my own. And, yes, very few other tourists/visitors around the grounds too.

Of all the hundreds of photos I took on that holiday (and the few I’ve taken since – I’m not big on photography), this photo is the one I’ve got on my phone’s lock screen.

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I set it in February, and haven’t changed it since. And, yes, the fact that I could take this photo with only one person in the shot (right at the top of the stairs) is probably a good indication of how peacefully empty it was.

In order to understand the significance of this photo, I’ll have to first explain what I found at the top of these stairs. Well, apart from more stairs, there were more gates leading to small gardens and buildings. Sorry, I don’t know all the proper names for these things. If someone knows the name of the little stone monument things (like the one on the left in the photo above, or the one by the base of the stairs in the photo below), please do share.

More stairs

I explored around here for a while (there are gates to the right and left). There was even a large sculpture/statue head of Buddha inside one small building (the statue was taller than me, and took up most of the interior). I didn’t feel right taking a photo, so I just didn’t. I know there are some things you’re not supposed to photograph because it’s disrespectful, but it wasn’t always clear what was and wasn’t off-limits.

After a while, I headed up to the gate in the above photo, and went up the stairs beyond that. I do like stairs; a few stairs never deterred me from going somewhere. At the top – you must keep in mind that we climbed many stairs to just to get to the outer gate of the temple grounds, and then I climbed more stairs to get to this final set of stairs, so I was quite high up by now – there was quite an amazing view of the city, but I didn’t actually notice this until a bit later. The thing that took my breath away was this:

Shrines

This was another thing I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to take photos of or not, so if anyone tells me it’s disrespectful, I’ll promptly remove it.

I’ve never actually visited a cemetery before – here in Australia or anywhere else – so I suppose that probably added quite a bit of gravity and significance to the experience. I mean, I’ve driven or walked past cemeteries, but I’ve never been on the other side of the fence, in the midst of the tombstones.

By the time I’d gotten here, I was already feeling quite awed, yet also humbled and kind of at peace – both from Kinkaku-ji and Chion-in – but seeing these shrines and tombstones – how immaculately tidy everything was, but also how densely packed together they were – it was just…

Even now, I’m stuck for words to adequately describe the feeling.

The closest approximation I can give is probably to say that I felt really small, really insignificant, but that this was ok, and that there was actually comfort in this feeling. Maybe I am small, but then so are my problems. I felt lucky to be alive, but also unafraid of death.

I could have used a photo of the cemetery as my phone background, but, of course, it didn’t feel right. I chose the photo of the stairs because it was probably the longest/highest continuous flight of stairs I climbed that day, and it led me somewhere I hadn’t expected to be, but am glad I found. And I don’t talk much about my own struggles, but seeing these stairs reminds me of how I felt in Chion-in, particularly in the cemetery, and helps keep everything in perspective. The stairs themselves are also a reminder that life has a lot of uphill struggles but you can conquer most of these by just taking one step at a time.

3 thoughts on “Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji & Chion-in Temples

  1. Pingback: snapshots – Transient

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