none more gold: kyoto day three

Okay, apologies in advance. This one may be a bit more, uh, telegraphic than the last few: we need to get up stupidly early tomorrow in order to fight our way through the crowds at the Gion Mastsuri, and if I don’t get this written tonight it ain’t never gonna get written. Plus I have like 15 postcards to write and address. Kill me now.

Anyhow, Tuesday started out a bit more comfortably than Monday, relatively speaking anyway: there was so much cloud cover over Kyoto that the sun couldn’t penetrate much. Sure, it was still hot, sticky and humid, but it was merely in the mid-80s fahrenheit, and after that last two days, that felt positively human-friendly. I even managed to catch up on a bit of sleep: perhaps even a bit too much, as we didn’t make it out of bed until about 8, and we’d originally planned to try to get up as early as possible to beat the crowds to the golden temple.

So it’s worth noting here that the “Silver Pavilion” is simply a common name for a temple that has no actual silver on it. The emperor who ordered the silver pavilion built had plans to cover it in silver, but it never really happened. So you might think that the “golden pavilion” is a metaphor for the grandness of this particular temple. Or maybe it’s covered in straw, or painted bright yellow, or catches the early morning sunlight in a particularly lovely way, right? Wrong.

You take the bus to Kinkaju-ji station, pay your ¥600, walk down a short wooded path, and through the trees you can see a glint of something. Then you turn the corner. Hello:

The Golden Temple is called the Golden Temple because it is in fact covered nearly from top to bottom in 24-karet gold leaf. The gutters are covered in gold. There is nothing else like it on this planet that I know of. Let’s take another look:

The golden temple in these photos is actually the second golden temple. The first one was burned to the ground in 1950 by a monk who had formed an unhealthy (to say the least) psychosexual fixation on it — a story that Yukio Mishima would have had to have invented if it hadn’t actually happened. As it was, he merely got to write a book about it. The temple was rebuilt in1955 as an exact match of the original, except with a great deal of the gold that had apparently worn off of the first version restored.

The Kinkaju-ji is probably the most efficient of all of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There’s a small garden and a few tiny shrines behind it, but really you’re there for the Golden Temple, and they waste little time hiding it from you. You come, you see, your brain melts, you stare slackjawed, you move around for another view, and then you move on.

Our ultimate next destination was far on the other side of the city, so we went there by way of a stop in downtown Kyoto, figuring to avoid a bit of the midday heat by browsing through the Nishiki food markets. I’ll get to that in a second, but first I need to show you a building that we saw on the way. I’m trying not to overdo it with photos of amusing uses of western languages, but I really couldn’t pass this up. Ladies and gentlemen, the Salon de Messiah:

I’m going to hell for the caption, but it was worth it.

Anyway, the Nishiki food markets are a nearly half-mile long covered arcade of food shops, selling fish, pickles, rice, tea, strange gelatinous things, stranger gelatinous things, crackers, bread, and basically everything else you might want to eat or prepare food with in Kyoto:

While there are a few obvious wholesalers there, Nishiki is on the whole pretty retail-oriented: you can browse around the shops, sample various foods, and if you walk slowly from one end to the other, get pretty much all of your day or week’s shopping done. Nishiki is actually one of about half a dozen covered shopping arcades scattered throughout Kyoto, and it’s probably the most highbrow of them all. We succumbed to the food smells after about 45 minutes, and ended up eating a lunch comprised of catches from several different stalls on a tatami-covered bench just across from a stall that I could only dub the House Of Deep Fried Everything:

Sadly the thing we got from the House of Deep Fried Everything turned out to be cold deep-fried fish cakes of a particularly unfriendly-to-Nathan spongy/gelatinous texture. On the other hand, the fish-shaped hollow cookies filled with red bean paste were awesome.

Also in Nishiki were several kitchen equipment stores, including a knife store that’s been around since 1560:

I went in. I drooled. I drooled some more. I decided to think about it over lunch. So far, the balance still stands in favor of “I don’t prepare sushi often enough to justify owning a $150-400 sashimi knife that cannot realistically be used for anything else, and I already have a perfectly good santoku.” But I reserve the right to have my will completely break before we leave Kyoto.

Lunch attended to, and the day still overcast enough to make wandering around outside a possibility, we grabbed the metro out to our next destination: the Daigo-ji temple complex in Kyoto’s far southeastern suburbs. This proved to be… a bit of an adventure to get to. The Tozai line has apparently been extended two stops since the 2008 Lonely Planet guide’s publication, and Daigo-ji is no longer the end of the line. That was easily enough surmised. Once we got to the station, there were a series of helpful signs for the “Daigo Community Bus” which we were assured would whisk us quickly to the temple. We followed the signs to a bus stop a few yards away from the metro exit, checked the timetable we saw there, and decided that a bus was just three minutes away. Sure enough, three minutes later a bus pulled up, we got on, and the bus took off…

…to god knows where. It was actually a pretty interesting trip: I’ve mentioned already that outside of its historical sites, Kyoto is a pretty working-class city, and we were very obvious in one of Kyoto’s lower-to-middle class outer ring neighborhoods, which bore a not-insubstantial resemblance to a far-east version of Northeast Philadelphia: big square apartment buildings, wide roads packed with auto dealerships, A/V stores and the occasional blocky shopping mall. It was about as far from the picture-postcard Kyoto as you can get, which was great except that we were specifically trying to get to one of the picture-postcard parts. After about 10 minutes on the bus (the book had assured us that the temple was a 10-minute walk from the metro stop), I accosted the driver at a stop and tried to figure out if we were actually headed to Daigo-ji. The answer was a very clear “no.” Apparently what we’d done was read the wrong timetable: instead of the “Daigo Community Bus”, we’d ended up on a random Kyoto city bus. The driver dropped us off at the next stop with instructions to look for the number 22 bus at the nearby train station, and pointed us in its alleged direction.

We walked a few block in the direction the driver had indicated, and found that the train station he’d pointed us at was in fact the new terminus of the Tozai line. Since we had open bus/train passes, we decided not to chance looking for the #22 bus (and trying to figure out what direction to take it in), and just got back on the subway and took it back to Daigo station to try to get on the right bus. Japanese subways being what they are, this took only ten minutes.

Round two: FIGHT!

Getting back to the same bus stop we’d left now about half an hour before, we looked a little harder, and found the timetable that had “Daigo Community Bus” plastered all over it and instructions in both Japanese and English. You can lead a tourist to information, but you can’t make us read it, apparently. The good news was that we were definitely in the right place. The bad news was that it was going to be 25 minutes before the next #4 community bus to Daigo-ji. We managed to wait just shy of 15 minutes before my patience expired. This was all over a 10-minute walk, and the route in the LP book had agreed with the map we’d seen posted in the subway station. So we set off.

This might not have been the brightest idea I’d ever had. The clouds weren’t quite breaking, but they were certainly thinning out, and as we walked — uphill of course — toward where we thought the temple was, the heat and humidity started climbing, and I started sweating through everything I own again. We got slightly confused by some side streets and… hell, this travelogue has had enough of me wandering around lost already. Suffice it to say that it took about 20 minutes to get there, but get there we did, to find the massive western gate under an enormous tarp. High summer is apparently low season for Daigo-ji, and while we could enter, a great deal of the temple complex was under construction for renovations.

This all is starting to sound like Daigo-ji was the low point of the Kyoto trip, and I think I’ve been complaining too much. In fact, Daigo-ji was awesome. We had the entire complex practically to ourselves, excluding a few schoolchildren and a handful of monks and workmen. And the thing I’d specifically come here to see was most certainly not under renovation. Ladies and gentlemen, the Daigo-ji pagoda, the oldest standing structure in Kyoto and possibly the oldest pagoda in the world:

It’s five stories tall, made entirely of wood, and it was built in Anno Domini Nine Hundred and Fifty One. 951. It’s over a thousand years old, and it’s still standing. Fires, wars, typhoons, earthquakes: it’s seen them all and lived. And it’s enormous. We’ll add a full-sized Miranda to that picture for some scale:

Let me put this another way: in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and this damn thing was already over 500 years old.

I probably spent a good half an hour just staring slackjawed at the pagoda, and we took some time after that to wander through the rest of the complex, or at least the bits that were open to us. Daigo-ji is gorgeous, but I have to admit that it looks like it sorely needs the facelift it’s in the process of getting: most of the halls and temples were pretty weather-worn, and the paths between them were rutted and cracked enough to make getting around in tevas a bit of a challenge.

Plus at this point, the sun was starting to occasionally punch through the clouds, and “punch” is very much the operative term there. It was about 3pm, there was really nothing else in the immediate vicinity to explore, and obviously it was time to move on. We trotted back to the subway station, and planned our next assault while on the train. Most of the things I’d considered doing that afternoon were going to close at 4 or 4:30, so Miranda suggested one I hadn’t flagged: the Kiyomizu-dera temple in southern Higashiyama, which she’d been to with her mom in 2003 and which she thought I’d underestimated. As it turns out, she was right.

But when we got out of the subway at Higashiyama station, I dug in my heels a bit. The clouds had completely burned off, and the temperature was rising quickly. I was going to call in wimpy for the next 30-60 minutes thank you very much: there was a likely-looking cafe across the street, and it seemed like a good place to wait out the peak heat with some ice cream inside air conditioning. In fact it was a great place to do that, and we passed the hour with plates of green tea ice cream and some Japanese fashion magazines.

By 4pm, the clouds had rolled back in, and we deemed it safe to venture outside. We settled our bill and grabbed a bus, which put us at the foot of the small street leading uphill to Kiyomizu-dera. The street was lined with mostly unmemorable gift shops, ice cream stands and cafes, but this one stood out a bit:

Kiyomizu-dera is a series of halls and shrines built into the side of a mountain. You walk past the last of the ceramic shops on the way up, and suddenly you see this:

It’s a very popular shrine, and was probably the busiest of the ones we went to. Part of this is due to the “lover’s walk” that’s situated up a short path from the main hall: a pair of large stones are sunk into the pavement about 20 yards apart, and a sign informs you of a local legend that you’ll get what you desire love if you can start a one rock, close your eyes, and walk to the other rock without deviating off course. This provides endless amusement for watching Japanese teenagers and middle-aged European tourists attempting this, and more often than not walking facefirst into another tourist or into one of the small shrines that surround the walk.

The main hall is built into the mountainside, and even lets you take some photos inside the hall itself.

But the main attraction is the verandah. From inside the main hall, it’s merely a large wooden porch offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and Kyoto. But then you walk about 5 minutes down a path that goes to another platform on the mountain and turn around, and suddenly you realize what it was you were standing on:

The path winds around a small pagoda and then heads down to the base of the hill underneath the verandah, where an old waterfall has been channeled into three spouts:

The waters are said to have healing properties, and people line up to take a cup on a long pole from an ultraviolet disinfecting station (seriously) and reach out to fill it from the waterfall, either to cure what ails them or just because it makes for a good photograph:

The path continues to curve through several lovely gardens and monuments as it goes back toward the original entrance; I’m forbearing on photos here in order to keep this to a reasonable length. Finally we emerged back at the entrance, and began to poke through the gift shops on the street back going back down to the bus stop, looking for the perfect Maneki-neko. It had been intermittently spotting rain since we had been on the verandah, but we apparently dallied a bit too long in the shops, because suddenly the skies opened.

The water started coming and just didn’t stop. And the shops were closing. We dashed from one open awning to the next— of course I’d gotten cute that day and hadn’t brought my backpack or my umbrella, and was just carrying my camera in my hand. I protected the camera with the high-tech expedient of wrapping it in a plastic shopping bag, and after waiting 15 minutes to see if the storm would blow over, I gave up and paid the ¥450 stupidity tax for one of the fragile clear plastic umbrellas that everyone in Japan seems to use, and we huddled together underneath it as we gingerly walked down the one-lane street dodging strangely aggressive taxi drivers on their way down from the temple.

At the bus stop, we joined a crowd of very bedraggled people. The bus shelter itself was full, so we waited in the over-hung doorway of the bank next to it. As we stood there, we could see the mountains in the distance over the buildings slowly disappear into the haze: this was going to be a corker of a storm. Suddenly I realized something strange: I’ve been in big storms in Asia before, and they’d all had one thing in common. One thing that was missing here. The storm sewers were not flooding. Not even a little bit. Buckets of water fell from the sky, buckets of water vanished into big grates. It was not what I’m used to.

Eventually a bus pulled up heading towards our station. In the 2 seconds it took for us to dash from the bank doorway to the open bus door, we got wetter than we had in the entire walk down to the bus stop.

By the time we made it back to our neighborhood, it had finally calmed down to a trickle, and the temperature had dropped at least 15 degrees from when the storm had started. Ah, blessed relief. I slept well for the first time in days.

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