Mid-April, the middle of the blossom period of cherry and plum trees in Japan. This is the most beautiful time on the calendar when it comes to visiting the country of "cherry blossoms". Hanami - the habit of admiring flowering trees - reaches its culmination in these days. As Japan is an archipelago of islands with a meridional course and a span of 3,000 kilometers, the first trees bloom in mid-January - Okinawa and Ryukyu, and the last ones in early May - Hokkaido.
Hanami, literally translated "seeing flowers", is one of the most important events in Japanese culture. It is a tradition practiced for several hundred years, consisting in admiring decorative cherry blossoms. Its origins date back to the 7th century CE. The festival of cherry blossoms is a time of special atmosphere and beauty, associated mainly with joy and the fleetingness of the moment, passing as part of life. This is part of the IKIGAI culture that I wrote about in this article.
Flowers foreshadow spring and remind us of the ephemeral nature of life. As they bloom, the Japanese organize picnics and feast outside. Cherry has become a national symbol - this motif is also ubiquitous in art - incl. poetry.
But Japan is not only Tokyo. It is also Osaka and Kyoto, which are part of one agglomeration and offer many attractions. It is not only the UNIVERSAL Studio amusement park or Dotonbori - the most famous street in Osaka. It is also 17 sites that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
And that's why I visited Kyoto. Unfortunately in the summer. So I missed the pleasure of admiring the blossoming cherry trees ...
As Kyoto is part of the Osaka agglomeration, it is usually visited as a "full day sightseeing trip" during your stay in Tokyo. This is made possible by the high-speed “Shinkasen” and “JR Pass” trains, weekly vouchers that are redeemed for tickets upon arrival in Japan.
NOTE: The JR Pass can only be purchased prior to entering Japan.
I definitely recommend spending 2 days in Kyoto, and preferably 3 days, staying overnight. I can assure you that there is enough impressions and the possibility of walking after dusk is worth a small investment in accommodation. Personally, I recommend AirBnB or Couchsurfing - this form is cheaper than a hotel and allows you to get to know the local community thanks to the person hosting us.
If you are staying in Osaka, the journey to Kyoto will take approximately 45 minutes. JR UMEDA station will be the starting point. Most of Osaka's metro lines pass through this station.
Fast, clean and punctual.
The Kyoto station is centrally located and is an architectural gem in itself. Openwork structures, steel and glass. Purely as in all of Japan.
As you leave the station, you will see the TV tower, an iconic structure that is also an excellent landmark.
As I love walking the streets in Asia, it was no different this time. The walk took me through the streets of Shimgyu-ku to the Sanjusangendo Temple.
This temple is located a bit off the beaten track, which has its advantages. Less tourists and no ubiquitous souvenir stalls.
The uniqueness of this place is associated with the 1001 life-size statues of the goddess Kannon inside. This is one of the key figures of Buddhism that embodies the Buddha's mercy and compassion for mankind. Often referred to simply as the Goddess of mercy, she is universally worshiped in Buddhist temples around the world.
In Sanjusangendo, the central role is played by the figure of the Kannon of the Thousand Hand (Senju Kannon), which is halfway along the length of the building. The figure sitting on a lotus flower is 3 meters high and has 42 arms. Why only 42 when she is called "the Thousand Hand"? Now, after subtracting the two main prayer arms and multiplying the remaining 40 by the 25 worlds that the goddess is to look after, we get the number 1000.
On either side of the Kannon are rows of smaller Goddess figures arranged in a staggered manner, one below the other. The figures are wooden, but covered with gold. We count 1001 of them in the temple. Unfortunately, I didn't make it.
What's more, only 124 figures survived the fire that destroyed the original buildings of the temple. Most of the currently visible ones were built during its reconstruction. Between Kannon and the visitors, 28 figures of deities were placed, which are to constitute the bodyguard of the Goddess - these are both figures related to Buddhism and Hinduism, which is unusual for Japan.
The name of this temple literally translated means "Temple of 33 distances". This is related to the classical unit of measurement for the length of wooden structures in medieval Japan. This unit was the distance between the two pillars supporting the building. Sanjusangendo has such distances as much as 33, which makes it the longest wooden building in Japan (120 meters). This feature distinguishes the temple so strongly that it stuck to it as a proper name. Officially, Sanjusangendo is called Rengeou-in - Temple of the Lotus King.
Sanjusangendo is located near the Kyoto Station - we can reach it on foot in about 15-20 minutes. We can also take the city bus 206 or 208 and get off at the "Hakubutsu kan Sanjusangendo mae" stop, which is right next to the temple.
It is also worth visiting the temples around. A beautifully maintained garden, numerous pavilions and the meditative peace of this place will leave an unforgettable experience.
If you have already arrived here, you also have a great opportunity to visit the Kyoto National Museum - it's worth combining these two attractions.
It is also worth remembering that the temple is open only until 5:30 pm.
As in all other temples in Asia, remember to take your shoes off and remember the shelf on which you left them. You will save time looking for them and avoid confusing your own shoes with someone else's;).
Wandering along the narrow streets of Higashiyama-ku, you can visit the Higashihonganji temple and the Shoseien garden - the distance to both is about 1.5 km, so I recommend to visit them too.
Let's walk further, because we have another attraction nearby. Yasaka Shrine - Shinto shrine, located in Maruyama Park with the largest stone gate in Japan. It looks very nice in the evening when the lanterns are lit, creating an amazing atmosphere.
Yasaka is also known as the Gion Sanctuary.
Founded over 1350 years ago, the temple is located between the popular Gion district and the Higashiyama district, and is often visited by tourists walking between the two districts. Tori's large red gate is impressive.
Like dozens of tourists dressed in traditional kimonos.
The main hall of the temple combines honden (inner sanctuary) and haiden (sacrifice hall) in one building. In front of it there is a dance stage with hundreds of lanterns illuminated in the evenings.
Yasaka Temple is known for the Gion Matsuri summer festival, which is celebrated in July. Gion Matsuri is over a thousand years old and includes a procession with hundreds of participants. A great place for "instagram" photos. By the way, very well connected and open 24 hours. Entry is free.
These are just 3 of the 17 key attractions of Kyoto, Japan's former capital, and it's already been an entire day.
Time to rest, drink local beer, eat Ramen or sushi and devote yourself to contemplation.
In the morning, I went to the place I really want to see - Kinkaku-ji, the "Temple of the Golden Pavilion", officially called Rokuon-ji, the "Temple of the Deer Garden".
I know that it is neither the largest nor the most important temple in Kyoto. There is, however, something magical about it - at least for me.
I went there by taxi. Specially. As expensive as they are, I wanted to personally experience the legendary quality of this service in Japan.
It was worth it.
The car was spotlessly clean. The driver opens and closes the door with a button wearing white gloves. The car is spacious inside, very comfortable and quiet.
But the price ... 1900 yen for a short course, for a tourist, is a prohibitive price. I'll stay with the railroads and the buses.
The Temple of the "Golden Pavilion" is one of the most popular Buddhist complexes in Kyoto, attracting many tourists every year.
The Kinkaku-ji site was originally a villa called Kitayama-dai, owned by the powerful statesman Saionji Kintsune. The history of Kinkaku-ji dates back to 1397, when the villa was purchased from the Saionji family by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and transformed into the Kinkaku-ji complex. When Yoshimitsu died, his son, according to his wishes, transformed the building into a Zen temple.
Unfortunately. During the Onin War (1467–1477), all the buildings of the complex, except the pavilion, was burned down.
In July 1950, at night, the pavilion was burnt down by a 22-year-old novice monk who then attempted suicide on the Daimon-ji hill behind the building. He survived and was then arrested. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released for mental illness. During the fire, the original statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was destroyed by the flames (now, fortunately, restored).
The present construction of the pavilion dates from 1955, when it was rebuilt. The pavilion has three floors and is 12.5 meters high. The reconstruction is said to be a copy close to the original, although there are doubts as to whether the original structure was coated with gold as thick as it is today (0.5 µm).
Additionally, the interior of the building was also restored, including paintings and a statue of Yoshimitsu. There are also relics - "Buddha Ashes".
The name Kinkaku comes from the gold flakes that cover the pavilion. Gold was an important addition to the pavilion because of its essential importance. The gold used was intended to soothe and cleanse any impurities or negative thoughts and feelings associated with death.
Unfortunately, you cannot approach or visit the Golden Pavilion inside, you only have to enjoy the view from the outside. And there is something to watch. The pavilion reflecting in the waters of the "mirror pond" is an unforgettable sight.
It is worth paying attention to the image of the phoenix on the roof. The original one survived the fire - it was happily renovated at that time. The phoenix currently seen on the building is a copy. The fourteenth-century original is in another temple - Shokokuji.
The pavilion successfully combines three distinct architectural styles: shinden, samurai and zen, especially on each floor. Each Kinkaku floor has a different architectural style.
The first floor, known as the Dharma Water Chamber - Hō-sui-in, is made in the shinden-zukuri style, reminiscent of the residential style of the 11th-century Heian imperial aristocracy. It is reminiscent of the style of the Shinden Palace. It is designed as an open space with adjoining verandas and uses natural, unpainted wood and white plaster. This helps to highlight the surrounding landscape. The views from inside the pavilion are also influenced by walls and fencing. Most of the walls are made of shutters that can alter the amount of light and air entering the pavilion and change the view by controlling the height of the shutters.
The second floor, known as the Soundwave Tower (Chō-on-dō), is built in the style of aristocrat-warriors, or buke-zukuri. On this floor, sliding wooden doors and lattice windows create a feeling of impermanence. The second floor also houses the Buddha Hall and the temple dedicated to the goddess of mercy Kannon.
The third floor is built in the traditional Chinese chán (Zen) style, also known as zenshū-butsuden-zukuri. It is called the Kukkyō-chō Dome. The Zen typology shows a more religious atmosphere in the pavilion. It was popular during the Muromachi period.
When we enjoy the pavilion, we can follow the path leading through the temple gardens in the style of the Muromachi era (14th - 16th century). The route leads a bit uphill, but it is extremely charming - we will pass waterfalls, ponds and Sekkatei - a pavilion intended for the tea ceremony. It is worth relaxing and taking a breather in the beauty of Japanese nature. Finally, before leaving the complex, we will come across Fudodo - a small Buddhist temple.
The exit from the temple complex leads straight to the stairs that will take you down to the main street. If we decide to take the bus, the most convenient way is to go to the 'Kinkakuji mae' or 'Kinkakuji michi' stop - it's a few minutes walk.
The Golden Pavilion looks especially beautiful in the afternoons, during the so-called "golden hour". The building reflecting in the water is breathtaking. Kinkakuji also looks great in the fall when the leaves turn yellow, red and brown. It is one of the best times to visit Japan, of course, outside the Hanami period.
And so we spent 2 lovely days in Kyoto. And so much more to see ...
As the old Japanese proverb says: "Hurry up slowly" ...
See you soon Japan!
またね日本 (Mata ne Nihon)
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