Thanksgiving in Kyoto (Part 3)

My third (and final!) blog on Kyoto will walk us through a few more temples and shrines and lovely streets. Thanks for coming along with me through Kyomizu-dera in Part 1 and encountering a geisha in Part 2.

First, let’s take a look at the temples. Kodai-ji Zen Temple was right next door to the giant Buddha. The temple was established in 1606 by an aristocratic widow for her husband. We were able to walk through several of its buildings, but the real appeal was its surrounding gardens, designed in Zen style. The gardens included a raked gravel garden, decorated with parasols on the day we visited, as well as a pond, gentle hills and a bamboo forest.


Next, we walked to the Yasaka Shrine, which was just a short stroll downhill from Kodai-ji. (Did I mention that Kyoto is basically just one giant temple-shrine?) In the late afternoon, this large Shinto shrine was a popular spot. This shrine has a long history: I’ve read that it was originally founded in 656, dedicated to the god Susa-no-o, the god of good prosperity and health, and his wife and eight children, although the current buildings were constructed in 1654.


On Saturday morning, as part of a tour, we visited Kinkaku-ji Temple, another Zen Buddhist temple that is better known as the Golden Pavilion. (The pictures make it clear why: The temple is covered in actual gold leaf.) Originally built as a shogun’s retirement villa, it became an official temple in 1408. The temple we saw was built in 1955, reconstructed after a mentally ill monk burnt it in 1950. Even on a drizzly morning, the temple glowed.


We also visited Kitano-tenmangu Shrine on Saturday morning. Dedicated to Tenjin-san, the deity of learning, the shrine is said to get mobbed by students during exam time. For us, it was just the usual crowd of, slightly soggy, tourists. This wasn’t a flashy shrine — nothing giant or golden here — but it was pretty and the grounds were appealing.

Had enough of temples and shrines? Now, for the castle. It was pouring when we visited Nijo Castle and they won’t allow you to photograph inside, so I have very few photographs to show you. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu started building the castle in 1603. It’s a wooden structure and despite various political upheavals it still stands centuries later. Even its nightingale floors, floor boards fastened down for maximum squeakiness to warn of intruders, remain, offering an eerie chirping as we padded through the halls in our socks. The interior is sparse and even the artwork is simplistic but it was elegant. I could see how the feudal lords who had to come here to ask favors of the shogun would have been intimidated as they progressed through the castle’s waiting rooms.

While in Kyoto, we also passed a pleasant hour or two at Nishiki Market, a narrow food market that stretches for five blocks. A lot of seafood was on display, most of it not tourist-friendly, but we did stop to enjoy some fried calamari at one of the stalls with a restaurant attached.

Nearby Pontocho Alley is also on the tourist trail. Truly an alley, we walked up and down its narrow length several times, in daylight and in evening. The alley is lined by restaurants and tea houses and has numerous alleys of its own branching off of it. On one of them (Alleyway #15) we found the little Tanuki Shrine. Tanuki are mythical badger creatures that you often find in ceramic form in front of bars and restaurants here. (The one pictured below we spotted in Tokyo.) They’re jolly-looking and when I was away in Nikko, Wil purchased one of them for our home, so we thought it worth the quest to try and find the little shrine. This shrine was built in 1978 to honor a ceramic tanuki who residents believe helped protect their neighborhood from a bad fire.

When nighttime drops onto the city, Kyoto’s Pontocho Alley comes alive with the light of many lanterns. Yet another lovely experience in a city with so very much to offer.