Yamatour 2013: Up from Down Under, Part 3

Day 2, August 16: Inner and Eastern Kyoto (Continued)

After the morning at the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum, with a full belly and some renewed supplies, we were off on a path that would, if everything went to plan, take us to three landmarks: Sanjusangen-do, Kiyomizu-dera, and finishing with Ginkaku-ji, the famed Silver Pavillion.

the sight that greets you as you enter the main courtyard from the car park area

Sanjusangen-do Hall

This temple is about a 10-15 minute bus ride east of Kyoto Station, and is famous for its giant hall with 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, contained in Japan’s longest wooden building (at 120 meters). A sign on the outer wall in several languages provided a brief history of the building and its significance. The Temple was built as part of Houji Palace in 1164 on the orders of retired Emperor Goshirakawa. The building was destroyed by fire in 1266 and rebuilt, and has stood for over 750 years. In addition to the 1,001 Kannon statues, the site has also played host to an annual archery tournament every February for centuries.

After we bought our tickets at the window, we stowed all our stuff in one of the coin lockers in the forum. Or rather, we had stowed everything but our cameras. While the attendant said taking cameras into the hall was fine, signs in the entryway said cameras would be checked upon exiting the facility, so I wasn’t even going to chance it (while I’m not religious myself, I make it a point not to upset gods just in case). Therefore, my written description of the contents will have to suffice.

This shot captures the building’s 120-meter length

The main area is a sight to behold. Ten rows of thousand-armed Kannon statues (the thousand arms are there if you ignore the two human arms and consider the 25 planes of existence, according to Japan-Guide.com’s information). You walk past five hundred of these, along with a number of statues of various deities in the front which include explanations (in English) of their origins in India.

Then in the middle, there’s a prayer shrine which includes a gigantic thousand-armed Kannon statue. On the other side were another five hundred thousand-armed Kannon statues, mirroring the other side, along with another handful of statues of various deities in the front. The sheer scale of this sight is incredible. Words can’t do it justice.

After leaving the viewing area for the Kannon statues, the walkway back to the building foyer contains a lot of documents, paintings, and relics about the hall, and events that the site is famous for. The majority of the relics and paintings (and even some early photographs) pertain to the archery tournament held every winter. There are bows and arrows from various eras, explanations of the competition, and notable competitors who shot an insane number of targets over the course of an event, despite the competitors in question being adolescents.


The Sanjusangen-do pond garden.

The earthen wall at the south end of the grounds.

We exited the hall and began to walk around the temple grounds. As with all the other temples we had visited to date, a pond garden was a sizeable part of the grounds, and like all the others, evoked relaxation and calmness. Again, Koi and at least one turtle populated this pond. Again, the turtle knew there was a camera about, and decided to poke out from under a rock to put on a bit of a show, swimming around the pond before climbing back onto a rock for a rest. We continued around the grounds, seeing various landmarks, shrines, monuments, and informational signs, as shown in the mini-gallery here.


This sign illustrated the format for the annual archery tournament during the Edo Period. Whoever shot the most arrows from one end of the main hall too the other won. 120 meters with ancient handmade wooden bows? No problem!

A shrine nestled on the edge of the grounds.

Terry and I retrieved our gear from the locker and headed for the exit. Since it was getting late in the afternoon (and by late I mean almost 4pm), we thought we’d take a taxi, which was conveniently outside the entryway, to our next destination. However, the elderly taxi driver advised us that it would be much easier to get the bus to Kiyomizu-dera. So, back on the bus that brought us here, and off to the foot of Kiyomizu-dera.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Along with Fushimi-Inari Shrine, this was one of my most eagerly-anticipated destinations of the entire trip. Kiyomizu-dera ranks alongside Kinkaku-ji and Fushimi-Inari Shrine as one of Kyoto’s truly iconic sights. That said, it’s not a short trip to get there from where the bus lets you off. There’s a main street to cross, and from there it’s a long uphill walk of nearly a kilometer. Normally, not a problem since the slope is gentle, but on a hot and humid day at almost 4:30pm, and after being on your feet most of it already, no mean feat.

The walk uphill is a pleasant one though, and while there were rickshaw drivers offering to ride you up at least part of the way for a fee, we chose to continue on foot. We passed numerous gift and food shops, and as expected on the 16th of August, a large number of people were also heading up the slope. When you reach the temple grounds, there are a few dozen stairs to climb.

When you get to the top of this staircase, the first of many fantastic sights in this iconic place awaits you. The photo above shows the Deva Gate to the left, and the Eastern Gate to the right, with the Three-storied Pagoda’s top story visible directly behind it. To your left as you face this way is a marketplace which includes a number of souvenir and refreshment stores, restaurants and the like. We continued up to our main objective, the iconic Kiyomizu temple itself.

Obviously, coming to Kyoto during Obon was a double-edged sword. Sure, we’d have the opportunity to see the Daimonji Bonfires, and possibly see some of the traditional activities associated with Obon, but the downside to that is that everywhere is crowded! Buses, temples, shrines and museums are all crowded. Kiyomizu-dera was no exception to this, even this late in the afternoon.

Overall, that’s not such a bad thing. Things run very smoothly just about anywhere you go, and wait times are minimised for tickets into almost anything. A lot more efficient than in Australia, at least in my experience. We found this was the case at Kiyomizu-dera too. They had enough people manning the booths so that no line had more than five people in it, in spite of the crowds. Inside two minutes, we were lining up to get into the main temple.


Zuigu-do Hall.

The Kyo-do (Sutra Hall), with the Three-storied Pagoda in the background.


A view into the valley below. A long time ago, many a fool leaped off this stage thinking if they survived the 13-meter
drop, they would have their wish granted. Unfortunately,
no record exists of any of these wishes being granted and numerous people simply plunged to their deaths.

A view across the valley at the Koyasu-no-to (Easy Childbirth Pagoda). Light rain was beginning to have an effect on clarity of photographs over any significant distance.


The entrance to the Main Hall [Hondo] and Kiyomizu Stage.
Did I mention it was busy?

The Okuno-In (Innermost Temple). Like so many places in Kyoto, currently undergoing renovations for future generations to enjoy. The viewing platform in front of it is where many an iconic photo of the stage has been taken from.

Kiyomizu-dera is famous for numerous things, for the autumn leaves, for the cherry blossoms, for their love fortunes, but still the centerpiece of it all is the iconic wooden temple built on a 13-meter cliff face, on giant wooden stilts. Once we were done admiring the view from the stage, we skipped past the love fortune-teller’s stand and out onto the platform in front of the innermost Temple. The end result is the picture below. My own version of an iconic photograph.

The iconic photo of Kiyomizu Stage.

From here, we ventured around, walking along the pathway to the Koyasu-no-to pagoda, and then down through the bottom path below the stage. Thunder was beginning to rumble softly, and it had become decidedly overcast. With everything we’d planned to see here taken care of, we made our way back down the slope, stopping to buy souvenirs for family members and wet our whistle at a row of vending machines – including one that dispensed cups of Coke with ice! Small, but it gave me the sugar rush I needed. After that, on to the bus stop!

A famous flyover from 2010. (A CG shot made for the traveling prop exhibit for the live-action movie.)

Ginkaku-Ji and Daimon-ji

We got on a bus fairly quickly and set out for Ginkaku-ji, the famed Silver Pavillion. Winding through the area, we saw a number of other temples, Kyoto Zoo, and part of Kyoto University. When we arrived at the bus stop for Ginkaku-ji, everyone was heading back down. We got to a point near some shops on the road upwards, and saw roadblocks with signs: “Closed for Daimonji Bonfires. Access by invitation only.” We’d run out of time anyway, as it was already after 6pm.

So, courtesy of my new ultra-zoom camera, we thought we’d look at the mountain above Ginkaku-ji, as that was one of the symbol-bearing mountains; specifically, the one that bore the smaller of the two “Dai” [Great] symbols. (The larger one is on Daimonji-yama, in the general vicinity of Kinkaku-ji, the famed Golden Pavillion.) Below you can see a huge team of people making preparations for the burning.

Workers preparing one of the Daimonji bonfire symbols.

Since two hours was too long to wait in the heat and humidity, we decided to forego the sight we would have seen and head back to the hotel. The nearest bus stop, which was a short walk around the corner from our location, had more than one bus heading back to Kyoto Station. We were rewarded with the sight of a novel, mechanical bus timetable.

It actually informs you where the next bus on each route is in relation to the current stop, and when it is two stops away. A permanent estimate is listed of the number of minutes it will take to get from one stop to the next, so you can tell how many minutes away your bus is. I know there are digital trackers for these sorts of things now (we have them here in Brisbane) but I really loved the design of this analogue implementation. Pretty darn cool.

Evening exploration of the JR Kyoto Complex

As we returned to the hotel lobby, we noticed a sign next to the lifts: “Please note, the Daimonji Bonfires are NOT visible from any part of this hotel.” It went on to tell people to find somewhere in general Kyoto to see them. There were notices that the rooftop of the JR Station, usually an observation platform and garden, was off limits for this night.

Apparently, real estate for seeing these bonfires is big business, and a very small space on the roof of any building high enough to see them in Kyoto can fetch hundreds of dollars. In fact, a few days later we’d receive a notice which talked about these sorts of exhorbitant prices, and specifically mentioned the date 2014-08-16 – Daimonji Night.

Anyway, as we went up the lift we noticed a bunch of guys in suits with earpieces coming out of the lifts. Narks to patrol the floors of the hotel to make sure nobody was trying to sneak a look? The answer may surprise you.

This was my first time doing the “use the shower to clean the body then use the tub to de-stress and relax” routine. With my feet aching like they were, it was a godsend. After an hour or so, it was time to eat. We decided to do something nearby and obviously the eatery on levels 10 and 11 of the Isetan/Cube shopping area of Kyoto Station came to mind.

As we headed to the lifts, we took a look out a narrow walkway which had huge windows out to the north. We had seen amazingly huge taxi ranks there throughout our stay. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bright orange shape, and wished I’d had my camera with me. The hotel lied – you could see at least one of the Daimonji fires from there – notably the one on Daimonji-yama itself. Anyway, just then, the guys with the earpieces came around the corner. Nope, I wasn’t kidding when I said that. They had hired goons patrolling the corridors of the hotel looking for bonfire-watchers.


We went downstairs from our hotel and then back up the other side. It was then that we first saw JR Kyoto’s visual staircase, which uses LEDs in the underside of the stairs to render different patterns. Over the course of the week there, we saw three or four different patterns. Two of those are in the pictures here.


We took four or five escalators to the top, then one staircase down into the 10th floor restaurant area. After much looking around, we saw a ramen restaurant with a huge placard advertising the owner and chef as a previous competitor on that fantastically horribly-dubbed Japanese cooking show, Iron Chef (above left). We didn’t go there.

Instead, we went next door to King of Ramen, which offered huge bowls of pork belly ramen from ¥ 700 through ¥ 950 for small, medium, and large serves, and bottled beer for ¥ 550. We ordered two medium ramen and two bottles of beer. We didn’t know it was two 500mL bottles of Suntory Premium Malt. In any case, it gave us a good introduction to the tradition of filling your drinking companion’s glass rather than your own. Kanpai! Meanwhile, the ramen was delicious. I can definitely recommend this place to anyone in Kyoto for a good cheap feed.

After that, we went to walk off dinner, and in the lower area of the Cube we came across a rather fun find: a 1/100 scale LEGO model of the JR Kyoto Station. The detail was exquisite, and from our knowledge of the station, amazingly accurate. This was built in the Czech Republic, and if I were a betting man I’d say this was the same team responsible for the full-scale LEGO X-Wing starfighter seen in Times Square in 2013. See the pics below to judge for yourself!


After that, we headed back to the room to unwind before hitting the sack. The next day’s activities would cover the last two stops in the category of Shrines and Temples: Fushimi-Inari Shrine, known for its ten thousand Torii gates, and Daigo-ji Temple, a little further off the beaten track.

Continue to Part 4 – Fushimi-Inari Shrine and Daigoji Temple

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