Friday, April 2

Korea-Japan, Day Eleven: On The Path Of Philosophy

According to all the guidebooks and friendly advice, a mere night in Kyoto is no where near enough time to take the place in. Even considering the fact that my friends and I are quite quick at the whole tourist thing, I was worried that I'd miss out on some things before our train to Osaka later that afternoon. Add to that that I had to somehow find the mosque and squeeze in Jummah today, it wasn't looking too good.

It's times like these when spending a little time to plan and prioritise really pays dividends. Laying out maps and sample walking tours, I figured out a plan that would lead me through most of what I wanted to see, provided I stuck to my usually brisk walking pace. I think my friends found it incredible that I would even consider walking the length of Kyoto, but in my mind a ten minute walk is better than a ten minute wait for a bus.

We started south of our locality of Higashiyama, checking out a threesome of temples right across our ryokan: Entokuin, Kodaiji and the Ryozen Kannon. There wasn't really much to see apart from a (literally) hugely impressive stone bhudda in the Kannon. We continued walking the back streets until we reached Kiyomizu temple which included an impressively large main hall seemingly balanced on stilts. Classically Japanese, it was a pretty amazing site. Beside that was Zuigudo hall which had what I can only describe as an underground passage in pitch black; which provided an amusing and curious experience to follow. On the walk away from Kiyomizu, we lazily walked through the stalls and shops, stopping to take pictures of the Yasaka Pagoda and wondering geishas.

In retrospect I spent way too long in the south of Higashiyama, and so taking leave of my colleagues I went off to do my own thing. It was 11am and I had yet to see the couple of sights I wanted to before joining the Jummah congregation a couple of miles North of where I currently was. What followed was a whistle-stop tour of the rest of the Higashiyama area, and although many would have criticised me for rushing I think I paced it quite well.

Chion-in Temple was the star for me, if only for its ominous leading stairway. Once up there was the usual array of halls and temples, and the same went for the Shoren-in Temple further down the road. Carrying on north I passed under a huge torii gate at the entrance of the Heian Shrine, with yet more of the same. As you can probably tell I was beginning to overdose on the temples and shrines by this point; I wouldn't say that I didn't enjoy checking out the ones I had, but I wouldn't call any of them too unmissable, and at 500 yen entrance fee a piece you'd probably bankrupt yourself if you chose to visit all of them anyway.

With the help of some friendly passer bys I managed to find the mosque relatively easy, although arriving at 12:30 meant missing most of the khutba; what I did catch seemed to be an English reading of something from Islam online or the like. Doing my usual post Jummah rounds I started talking to a Russian immigrant; once I heard he worked in a kebab shop I made sure I latched on to him for lunch. He took me to the Kyoto University cafeteria where I grabbed a halal kebab, and hung out with my Russian friend and a couple of other students, chatting about Kyoto and other things. Once again, this was one of those unique experiences that no guidebook can direct you to and I savoured every moment. Alas I was on a clock and so left my new friends earlier than I really wanted to.

After being put back on track by my new Russian friend I headed east toward the Ginkakuji Temple. On the way I happened to come across the entrance to what turned out to be Yoshida Hill. I hadn't read anything about it till then; it was deserted but seemed interesting enough so I decided to take a punt and headed up the winding path.

An hour of aimless wondering later and I found my way back on the main road to Ginkakuji. In that hour I had scaled a hill, invaded a graveyard, found a row of over twenty torii gates, found some hidden shrines, visited an isolated hilltop cafe and witnessed some breathtaking and unique views of Kyoto. Not bad for a punt.

Fully aware of the time I rushed ahead and found the start of the old canal running through the eastern side of Kyoto. This canal more of less led home and so was the last journey of today, and so of Kyoto, but there were plenty of sights to be had on the way back. For a start was the canal and adjoining path itself: described as The Path of Philosophy by the local learned, the combination of water, pathway and cherry blossom seemed designed to live up to that name.

Otherwise known as the Silver Pavilion, Ginkakuji will always be compared to its golden brother (or is that sister?). But where the pavilion itself fails to live up to its name, the accompanied gardens were amongst the nicest I had seen yet during my stay in Kyoto. Clean, lush and breezy, it was almost like something from a film.

Rejoining the path, I headed toward what would be the final temple of today, the Honen-in. Unlike many of the other temples I had seen, Honen-in appeared to have a distinct modern feel to it, and was definitely bigger on the inside than it appeared to be on the outside.

Heading home along the path, I came across a street sales lady who was selling a bunch of magically jumping clowns. It would dance, bow and exclaim in response to her questions and had drawn quite a large crowd by the time I had joined them. Of course coming from London I'm trained to disbelieve anything like this - I certainly didn't accept her explanation of it being due to "magic". I finally figured out who her stooge was: the quiet guy on the side with his right hand always hidden in his bag which had an invisible tugging along its surface. I decided not to give the game away.

I finally reached the end of the path at Nanzenji Temple, but alas I didn't have the time to check it out. Instead I hung out at its gate, hoping to get a flavour of what lay after it, and then turned away to head back home. Since I was now really tight for time, I decided to throw caution to the wind and take an impromptu short-cut through the back streets of Kyoto. This paid off both in terms of saving time and giving me a last chance at seeing the hidden Kyoto. With a final visit to Maruyama Park I was back at the ryoken where my friends were waiting for me.

Two hours later we were in our hotel in Osaka calling it a day. Due to logistical issues (that is it was fully booked over the weekend) we were unable to spend any more time in Kyoto. I could have easily spent another day here, if only to bathe in the vibe of the city (something the whole trip has only had rare yet excellent moments of). Still, I think today was an outstanding success given what I managed to cover and experience; I must have walked well over ten miles or so.

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