We are on the Nozumi limited express bound for Tokyo. We are leaving behind the wonderful, culturally rich and extremely humid Kyoto.
I must admit that until we planned to go here, I only knew of Kyoto in relations to climate change and as the place for the 1995 signing of the Kyoto Protocol. I even remember doing an assignment on it in high school, but what I remember most vividly about that assignment were our issues with transferring it to a floppy disc.
But as my boyfriend has shown me these last few days, Kyoto is so much more than the name of a piece of paper, which has proven to have no real worth anyhow.
Kyoto was for centuries the imperial capital of Japan, but with the Meiji Restoration, which ended the era of the samurai, the imperial court moved to Edo, present day Tokyo, in 1869. However, there is no doubt that Kyoto remains the cultural capital of Japan.
History of Kyoto
To my boyfriend, Kyoto has been the ultimate dream destination and there has been no stopping him in his quest for discovering all the best known and world-heritage protected temples and shrines. While I have been unable to find an exact number, it is estimated that Kyoto has more than 1500 Buddhist temples and more than 500 Shinto shrines. After five days in Kyoto I feel as if I’ve seen most of them. Never in my life do I need to see another Shinto Shrine or Buddhist Temple. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Kyoto has served as the seat of the emperor and thus capital of Japan from 794 until 1868. That is for more than a thousand years. In European standards that would be from the time of Charlemagne until the time of Bismarck.
We arrived around 12 o’clock with a direct train from Kanazawa and headed for our accommodation, which was something as peculiar as a samurai restaurant not far from Nijojo (Nijo catsle). It was burning hot, the cicadas were in full song and we were drinking water a gallon a minute. Famished we decided to cross the street for a small Italian bistro called Modern Times. My boyfriend had become a bit fed up with fish and fermented veggies, and I must admit I was not too sad to be enjoying western food for once.
But according to the sweet older lady behind the counter, the restaurant had run out of pasta and we ended up with rice dishes instead. What are the odds!
Already stressed out with all that we had to see and explore during our five days in Kyoto, we ignored the humidity and walked the short way to Nijojo. Not unlike our visit to Nagoyajo and Matsumotojo, we were soon caught out in the blazing heat of the castle ground where there was no shade, and we briskly walked the grounds, while enjoying the beautiful layout of the inside. Fortunately Nijojo is only one level, so we didn’t have to climb any ridiculously tall and narrow stairs this time.
Kyoto history and Nijojo
While for centuries Japan has been an empire with an emperor the actual power has since the Genpei War which finished in 1185 (with some exceptions) been with the shogun – hereditary military dictator – and the shogunate. Off these the most famous shogunate which lasted from 1603 until 1867 has been the Tokugawa Shogunate, lead by the Tokugawa clan. While Kyoto was the imperial capital where the emperor resided, the Tokugawa clan lived in Edo, why the period is known as the Edo-period in Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate was also the last one and ended with the Meiji Restoration which also saw the move of the imperial court.
It is also during the reign of the Tokugawa clan that Japan was closed off from foreign trade and politics, which has made it so unique in a world where no country was left untouched by the Western industrialisation.
The building of Nijojo was ordered by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who also founded the Tokugawa Shogunate. He ordered it build in 1601 and its main parts were finished by 1603, though the castle, as it stands today, was completed during the reign of his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1626. The castle was the Tokugawa residence in Kyoto, making it a historically very significant building – to say the least.
While I would have been content to end our day here, my boyfriend had other ideas and we spend the early evening visiting To-ji temple at the south side of the central station and running through Ninnja temple before it closed for the evening. As with the restaurants, the temples close early – around 5 or 6 PM, making our first evening in Kyoto a rather rushed experience. But I am pleased to have visited To-ji and to have glimpsed Ninnja.
To-ji temple, meaning East Temple, is one of Kyoto’s eldest temples. It stems from 796 and was at the time one of only two temples which were officially allowed in Kyoto – and the only one still remaining. It used to have a partner temple known as Sai-ji, which strangely enough means West Temple.
The two flanked the Rashomon Gate, which means the main city gate. To-ji temples ancient name Kyō-ō-gokoku-ji, meaning the The Temple for the Defense of the Nation by Means of the King of Doctrines indicates that the two temples were established around the city gate as protection for the new capital.
Today the temple is probably best known for being a temple of the Shingon School of Japanese Buddhism, whose founder Kukai in 823 became the head of To-ji temple. Kukai has after his death been more known as Kobo-Daishi and he is according to popular believes the inventor of the kana, the Japanese scripts which make up the basis of Japanese writing alongside the Chinese inspired kanji. Kana is phonetic and inspired by the Siddham script used for Sanskrit in India.
To-ji is also well known for its impressive 55 meters tall pagoda which is the tallest wood structure in Japan as well as for a famous flea market that we unfortunately missed out on.
Having set out from Kanazawa early, arrived in Kyoto, been sun struck in Nijojo and gaped at the wonders of To-ji, I was a dead woman walking, but for some inexplicable reason my boyfriend managed to convince me to walk the (not so) short distance to Nishi Hongwanji Temple. Yet another UNESCO world heritage site. They were closing up at the time of our arrival, but we managed to sneak a peak at the beautiful structure and walk the charming courtyard.
Day 1 – Temple count: 2, Castle count 1
Much later than I had imagined possible we returned to our accommodation for the week. As the place was a samurai bar we decided to take the easy solution and have our first dinner in Kyoto there. And I was more than pleasantly surprised. We had an absolutely wonderful meal there, experiencing a modern and sustainable taking on the Japanese kitchen.