If you’ve never been to Kyoto, it’s mighty hard to grasp the sheer magic of the place. In a way I find it a rather frustrating destination, because no matter how much time I spend here I can always find a list of things a mile long that I don’t have time for. For anyone interested in Japanese culture, history, art and natural beauty, this part of Kansai is a seemingly limitless treasure chest.
Kyoto proper is of course chock-a-block with national treasures – dozens of important and beautiful temples and shrines – and a discernible sense that life is something to be enjoyed. Once you get past the modern traffic and bustle of central Kyoto the city lulls you into its timeless spell, and an entire trip spend wandering the alleys of Higashiyama without a game plan would be a very exciting prospect. But on this trip I’ve spent almost all my time outside the city limits, seeking out the amazing places I’ve missed in previous trips.
Friday, that was Horyu-ji – the ancient temple complex West of Nara that contains a dizzying array of 1200-1300 year old wooden buildings. They’re the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world, living examples of the Asuka Style that had already passed from prominence by the time Nara’s ancient temples were built. Horyu-ji also contains a bewildering array of artworks – more national treasures and important cultural properties than any other temple, and that’s not even counting the ones that fill an entire wing of the Tokyo National Museum. Where most temples keep their really spectacular pieces hidden away, almost everything at Horyu-ji is displayed at the Treasure House, including some 1400 year-old Asuka statuary that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I happened to meet up with a volunteer English-speaking guide when I arrived, so I got quite a cultural education along with the visual feast. That’s a blessing and a curse – my preference is to go at my own pace, lingering where and when I feel the urge, though of course with limited English information I wouldn’t have understood what I saw nearly as well. In any event these are really quite beautiful structures in addition to being so ancient, including those in the “new” East Precincts that were built in 790.
After Horyu-ji I stopped off at one of my absolute favorite places on Earth, Fushimi Inari Shrine. Along, it seems, with half of Japan – about 2.5 million people visit Fushimi Inari during the first three days of the new year for their Hatsumode prayers. I’m always hesitant to repeat visits when I come to Kyoto as there’s so much that demands to be investigated, but places like Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizudera are hard to resist. I climbed to the top of the mountain this time, the crowds slowly thinning as I ascended, though it’s always surprising how many old people in this country I see climbing places I’d never think they could climb.
Much more to follow. The train ride is about 8.5 hours each way with five transfers using the Seishun 18 Kippu – it’s dirt cheap (2300 yen each way) but it takes it out of you, and I’m still recuperating…