The city of Kyoto is one of the most famous in Japan. Its name literally means “capital city,” as it was the capital of Japan during its golden age, the Heian-kyo period, before the unified rule of the emperor was replaced with many warring feudal lords. In addition to being the seat of the government, it was also the birthplace of such literary masterpieces as The Tale of Genji and the Pillow Book, and it is still the home of many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. During the war, Kyoto was considered as a target for bombing, but was ultimately passed over because of the city’s great beauty and cultural heritage. Naturally, with my background in Japanese language and literature, I was very excited to visit here – it was the number one place on my list, actually – and see the legends that I had so far only imagined come to life for me. So I was glad that we had, more or less, a “free day” to take in as much as we could of the city.
It turns out that Kyoto is a city of fusion, thousand-year-old temples rubbing elbows with very modern skyscrapers and high-end fashion stores. My favorite place that we visited was Nijo Castle, which was built to house shogunate troops and visiting (i.e., hostage) lords and their families. Everything was lavishly decorated, but in an understated, subtle way. The dark wood was overlaid with gold and green carvings, mainly of animals – tigers, cranes, hawks. The floors were, of course, covered by the traditional tatami (bamboo mats), but the floors in the sleeping rooms had an extra feature: they were designed to squeak obnoxiously whenever someone walked on them, so that it was impossible (well, very difficult) to sneak up and assassinate the castle’s inhabitants. They call these the “nightingale” floors. We also saw the secret doors built into the walls of the meeting rooms. These doors were for the bodyguards to hide behind, and kept the meeting private while still allowing quick and easy access to the lord’s private army should things get ugly, politically speaking.
Another highlight was Kiyomizu Temple, up on a cliff overlooking the city. The temple was founded in the eighth century, when a certain monk had a vision that told him to climb the mountain, bring down a log he found there, and carve it into the likeness of one of the Bodhisattvas. This he did (apparently), and founded a temple on the site. The temple’s chief feature is the water that comes down from the mountain. It is said that this water is holy water, and that drinking it will give you wisdom, good health, and long life. Of course we had to try it for ourselves. I don’t know about wisdom or good health, but as for long life, well . . . After drinking the water, I noticed that my camera (whose battery had been on the verge of dying) found the mysterious strength to carry on – the display showed the battery completely full again. Coincidence? I think not!! (Hey, no one said it had to be long life for humans!)
To see photos of this stuff and more, head here. Stay tuned for Part 4: Osaka (featuring the Yodogawa Christian Hospital)!