Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


Which way to Kiyomizudera (Kyoto)?

Given its location near Gion, Kiyomizudera (which translates to “Pure Water Temple”) is one of Kyoto’s most visited and celebrated temples. Sitting atop a hill on the site of the Otowa Waterfall from which it derives its name, the temple offers glorious year-round views over Kyoto and since 1994 has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Despite its significance and popularity I must admit to spending little time there, mainly due to my visits not quite coinciding with the peak Autumn colours or the Spring cherry blossom season when Kiyomizudera is one of Kyoto’s most popular viewing platforms. Unfortunately this means I cannot offer photographs showing Kiyomizudera at its best. I can, however, suggest that intending visitors give some thought about the route taken to and/or from Kiyomizudera.

The most popular route is through Gion by wending one’s way uphill through Gion’s old narrow streets until Kiyomizudera appears at the top of the hill, where one can follow the steps taken by the pilgrims shown at pic 1. An alternative, lesser-used route is to approach from the other side of the hill via the Otani Mausoleum complex and I would certainly recommend first time visitors to approach from one direction and exit from the other direction. Either way involves an uphill approach.

Approaching from the Otani Mausoleum side takes one through a number of grand wooden gates and halls at the foot of the hill, then along a path through a rather full and impressive cemetery (pics 2 to 9). Along the way one will find areas of specific interest such as small shrines or vendors who specialize in the preparation of incense blends specific to the needs of families with relatives interred in the cemetery (pic 4). Above all, it is an interesting and pleasant walk offering an “off the beaten track” insight into Kyoto’s story.

Upon reaching Kiyomizudera the views from the famous viewing platform make the effort worthwhile regardless of the season (pics 10 and 11) and show why people come from all over Japan to enjoy the scenic views over Kyoto. Another popular attraction is the Otowa Waterfall (pic 15) at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall, where the waters are divided into three separate streams. Visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from their selected stream, which are believed to result in longevity, academic success and a fortunate love life. Despite being regarded as a demonstration of greed, I did observe many drinking from all three streams. Temptation is always hard to resist.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


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Myoshin-ji Temple Complex (Kyoto)

It could be said that Kyoto has an embarrassment of riches in terms of the number and variety of Buddhist temples located within this ancient and culturally rich city. At one end of the scale one may come across small local temples, most often found when wandering the streets and at the other end of the spectrum are the large sprawling temple complexes such as Myoshin-ji in Kyoto’s north-east.

These large temple complexes are always impressive given their scale, yet each varies in character. For example, if I think of Kyoto’s Tenryu-ji ( I think of generations of monks working tirelessly to create a serene environment. On the other hand, Nagano’s Zenkoji Temple ( conjures images of a warring and bloody history. Myoshin-ji is different again with its feeling of community with many of the sub-temples serving also as residences and members of the local community simply “hanging-out” within the temple grounds.

Estimates of the number of sub-temples within the complex range from 38 to 50, with most closed to the public. Nevertheless, many front gates are open or ajar to offer visitors a glimpse of what lies beyond, a la the opening photograph “Peek-a-boo”. Meandering through the complex’s laneways is a delightful way to gain an appreciation of this very Buddhist community and I suspect I may have inadvertently wandered into a few of the “off limits” sub-temples such as Nehando where I came across the entrancing Jizo statuary shown at pics 8 to 11. Sometimes one’s poor language skills can be an advantage!

The other images demonstrate, in my opinion, how splendour can manifest in different ways. The images (pics 2 to 7) of the main Myoshin-ji buildings (the Butsuden and the Hatto) are further examples of the solid Japanese architecture typical of major traditional temple buildings. These buildings sit so solidly into their environment as to appear immovable and evoke feelings of calm and serenity. Elsewhere in the complex one finds the highly popular Taizo-in Temple, much admired for its beautiful gardens (pics 12 to 17) that similarly evoke feelings of calm and serenity, albeit by different means. I felt fortunate when the smartly dressed people wandered into the shot (pic 15), thus giving the image a rather timeless feel and one hopes that the final image has indeed become a precious memory for the elderly and young person mesmerized by the Japanese Koi fish.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Bukko-ji (Kyoto)

Kyoto has an embarrassment of riches in the form of its impressive temples and shrines representing several Buddhist disciplines. Tourists, local and international, flock to enjoy the history and ambience of the better-known and grander temples, especially during the peak Autumn and Spring periods when nature’s allure is magnetic.

Other temples exist more quietly and this is where one finds Bukko-ji. I was fortunate to be staying near Bukko-ji, which I passed most days on my way to and from my apartment and one day I acted on my daily reminder that “I must visit here before I leave”. Since visiting, it remains as a most memorable visit and serves as an example of the jewels one often finds by simply wandering away from the main thoroughfares.

Bukko-ji has a long history of teaching Shin Buddhism and promoting its message to: “Become a real human under the guiding light of the original power of Amida.” Founded in 1212 by Shinran Shonin, Bukko-ji moved to its present site in central Kyoto in 1586 and today sits comfortably within a neighbourhood of apartment buildings, hotels and other businesses. We talk today of community hubs, but I wonder how many can claim to have served the role for over 400 years.

Two halls joined by a connecting bridge dominate the temple complex. To the left is the Amida Hall or Hondo (main hall), where the statue of Amida Buddha is enshrined and to the right is Daishl-do (Great Priest’s Hall), where the seated statue of Shinran Shonin is enshrined. Typical of Japanese temples, the wide eaves provide protection from the elements and allow worshippers and visitors to move freely between the halls. Indeed, I would go as far as claiming that walking on the smooth boards, polished over time by many feet, as one of life’s simple pleasures.

The selected photographs aim to emphasise two aspects of Bukko-ji and arguably similar Japanese temples. The external shots remind one of strong beauty. Built from solid native timbers, these wooden structures are built to last and stand with an unspoken invitation as safe havens. The internal shots show a quiet, serene environment that invites contemplation. Softly filtered light, expansive tatami floors, classic scenes depicted on painted wall panels, statues of revered deities and splendidly adorned altars combine to make time spent in either hall a memorable experience.

I hope the photographs give readers some insight into Bukko-ji and serve as a reminder that Kyoto has many more hidden jewels. My memories from the visit include the friendliness of administrators and other staff I met during my visit; the absolute joy of being the only visitor there and having the halls to myself; the feel of the tatami; and most of all the feeling of calm and of life slowing down, if only for a while.

May Bukko-ji still be there for another 400 years.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)



Ginkakuji (Kyoto)

Located in Kyoto’s foothills, the ideal way to visit Ginkakuji is on foot via the Philosopher’s Path. Turning right at the end of the path, the final leg is uphill between rows of souvenir shops and food outlets, well placed to cater for hungry visitors on the way in or out or both.

Ginkakuji dates back to around 1480 and is a most significant temple. Originally built as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimasu, a shogun dedicated to the arts, Ginkakuji became a centre for contemporary culture that was to become known as Higashiyama Culture. Arts that developed and flourished during this time include arts that are seen today as synonymous not just with Japanese art, but with Japan. Imagine being at the centre of a culture developing the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, Noh theatre, garden design and architecture and one gets an idea of life around Ginkakuji at that time. Of even more significance is that the culture extended beyond the enjoyment of the aristocratic circles and filtered through to impact more broadly on the whole of Japan.

Ginkakuji is visually impressive in a rather uncomplicated way in that it relies on relatively few elements to deliver a serene environment for those who have lived there and for those of us able to visit only fleetingly. In this post I wish to draw attention to three key elements.

The best-known building is the Silver Pavilion (pics 1 and 2), named after an intention to cover the building in silver to both imitate and contrast with Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) built by Yoshimasu’s grandfather. Despite the original plan never being carried out, the building has aged gracefully and its survival through many fires and earthquakes since is a tribute to its architects and builders.

Also dating back to the temple’s foundation, Togo-du (pics 3 to 5) is the oldest example of Shoin architecture in Japan, the architectural style still governing how most contemporary tatami rooms are designed today. Within the building was the Dojinsai tearoom where Yoshimasu would often take tea and which many scholars consider to be the predecessor of the Tea Pavilion.

The Sea of Silver Sand (pics 6 to 9 and 11 to 13) is impossible to miss upon entering the grounds and when viewed from the higher reaches of the garden. It is, of course, a lovingly cared for dry sand garden that commands the eye, drawing one’s gaze towards the Silver Pavilion and the large sand cone named “Moon Viewing Platform” reminiscent of Mount Fuji.

A key element featured here only incidentally, is Ginkakuji’s magnificent gardens – an absolute must see in autumn. One of the many features is the moss garden, glimpses of which can be seen in pics 2 and 5. From there, one follows a path that meanders around the hillside overlooking the temple buildings and where even the fencing (pic 10) is impressive. The meandering path invites one to stop frequently to enjoy the views over the temple grounds and beyond to Kyoto (pics 11 to 13), a view that I always found delightful.

Ginkakuji is one of those places that make one relax and slow down. It is serene; it is tranquil; it invites contemplation and meditation; and this is largely due to the vision of a Shogun interested in arts and culture who, despite reigning in bloody war torn times, set in place the foundation for arts that came to be defining elements of Japan.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)



2014 Favourites

As 2014 draws to an end, it is natural to become somewhat reflective and for my final blog for this year, I thought I would select my favourite shot from each month’s posts.

This was more difficult than I had thought. Each photo is a memory and some months had several favourites. However, changing the rules on New Year’s Eve does not bode well for 2015 resolutions, so I stuck to the task and made my selections.

There is no theme. They are simply my selections for a variety of reasons and no further commentary will be made, except to say they are shown in chronological order (January to December) should anyone wish to visit the original posts.

I would like to thank everyone who has supported my blog this year and I hope the photos and stories have brought you as much pleasure as they have brought me.

I wish you all a safe and happy New Year and my best wishes for the year ahead.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)



Kennin-ji Temple

Being located in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district and close to Gion, the Kennin-ji Temple is easily accessible if visiting Kyoto. Unfortunately, much of the temple was closed for renovation and refurbishment during my visit, thus I am able to present merely a glimpse of the temple’s range and splendour.

The temple is historically significant as not only one of the Kyoto Gozan (five most important Zen temples of Kyoto), but as Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple founded in 1202. The founding monk (Eisai) is credited with introducing Zen to Japan and is buried within the temple grounds.

Pic 1, somewhat playfully titled “Contemplation”, hints at the temple’s meditative qualities. I say playfully titled because the shot took me at least thirty minutes to capture due to other visitors wandering into and lingering within the frame. Perhaps next year I will start a “ban selfies” movement :). Sadly the light deteriorated over this period, but one must acknowledge that all visitors have equal rights no matter how frustrating it can be when all one wants is a fraction of a second of clear space. Okay, I finally have that off my chest.

The most dominant feature of the main hall is also the newest, namely the Twin Dragons (pics 1 to 4) that look down from above. The work was installed in 2002 to commemorate Kennin-ji’s 800-year anniversary after taking the artist almost two years to complete. Created offsite, the work’s scale is imposing and is equivalent to the size of 108 tatami mats.

Other fine examples of Japanese art may be seen in the study rooms (pics 8 to 11) where various themes and traditional stories are represented in visual form.

Finally, I would have liked to show images from across Kennin-ji’s gardens, but I had access only to Chouontei – the garden of the sound of the tide. As one can observe from pic 12, Chouontei is indeed a relaxing place to spend some quiet reflective time outdoors.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)



Miyajima Walks – part 2

For a small island, there is much to see on Miyajima and unfortunately I was barely able to scratch the surface. As with many places in Japan, one leaves knowing there is still much to see on future visits. For this final post on Miyajima, I would like to focus on two of the island’s many interesting sites, namely the Reikado Hall and the Daisho-in Temple.

Kieza-no Reikado Hall is home to an eternal flame that has burned continuously since the lighting of the holy fire in the year 806 by Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect. It is said that Kobo Daishi, during his visit to Miyajima, performed “Gumonji” for 100 days – a meditative practice involving a fire ceremony. Since that time, the flame has continued burning and in 1964 was used as the pilot light for the Peace Flame of Hiroshima’s Peace Park. Such a link could not have been foreseen when the flame was first lit, yet one hopes that one day the Peace Flame will be extinguished to mark the destruction of all nuclear weapons.

Reikado Hall (pic 1) is a relatively small building near the summit of Mount Misen, where the eternal flame is an irresistible attraction despite the smoke filled interior not being the most pleasant of environments. Pics 2 and 3 give some idea of the smoke-filled interior and show a large pot of water being heated above the flame. It is believed that drinking the heated water has curative power and perhaps the couple in pic 3 will enjoy the benefits. The Hall is also renowned as a “lover’s sanctuary” with the flame being akin to the eternal fire of love. There is a legend that those dedicating votive tablets (pic 4) at least three times will be granted their wish.

At the base of Mount Misen, one finds Daisho-in, an impressive complex and one of the most important temples of Shingon Buddhism. Unfortunately my visit was too short to properly view and appreciate the variety of buildings and artifacts within the complex, thereby limiting my ability to share. However, I enjoyed my all too brief visit and as I hope the selected images will show, I left Daisho-in with a feeling of light-heartedness.

The temple grounds are sloping, even a tad hilly, yet they manage to evoke a feeling of relaxation. Kannon-do Hall, seen in the background of pic 6 is probably the dominant building and pic 6 is also a good example of how buildings, Buddhist deities and gardens are integrated within an inviting environment.

A recurring theme around Daisho-in and indeed elsewhere on Miyajima is the use of multiple statues, such as the Rakan statues (pics 7 and 8) lining the steps to the temple.   Altogether, there are 500 statues, each with a different facial expression. However, I couldn’t help but be taken by the personality added by crowning each with woolen beanies, which reminded me of football team colours.

Other multiples were found in the form of the 1000 Fudo images (pic 9) donated by worshippers to commemorate the succession of the current (77th) head priest and the seven happy deities in their lovely garden setting at pics 11 and 12.

In conclusion I would like to comment briefly on pics 10 and 13, which depict representations of Jizo – one of the most beloved of Japanese divinities. Although Jizo have many guises, they are invariably presented as friendly, comforting figures as in pic 10, or even as cute manifestations in more contemporary form as in pic 13.

As I said in the introduction, Miyajima has much to offer for such a small island and I hope this and the two preceding posts has provided a glimpse of the island’s significance.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)



Cherry Blossoms Everywhere (Kyoto)

Objects that attract admiration and generate excitement are typically those that have a measure of rarity; yet this does not apply to Japan’s cherry blossoms, except in the sense that the season is short. Indeed, in terms of supply, cherry blossom is ubiquitous. They can be found almost everywhere. In public and private spaces; in avenues of serenely subtle colour and as solitary trees lighting up otherwise desolate places; in urban and rural areas; and in meticulously tended gardens or growing untended in their natural habitat.

Wherever they are found, they enhance the space and draw attention to their surroundings. To demonstrate this I have chosen a selection of photographs taken at various Kyoto locations, which contain two common subjects, namely buildings and cherry blossoms.

The first four photographs featuring old buildings are scenes that have doubtless been enjoyed for many seasons. The welcoming view of the Sakura blossoms framed by the temple entrance (pic 1) is an invitation to enter and enjoy an interlude of quiet contemplation. By contrast, the magnificent Sakura highlighted against the classic dark timbers of old Japanese temple buildings (pic 2) stops one in one’s tracks to enjoy the visual feast. Nevertheless, the sight of blossoms through the temple doors then draws one’s attention inwards.

The Hanami scene (pic 3) is another example of a beautiful Sakura tree, framed in this instance by the structure of the Sanmon Gate, itself the subject of an earlier post (January 27, 2014) where this photograph was previously shown. Completing the sequence of sakura and older buildings is Renge-ji (pic 4), a small temple admired for its gardens and where the Buddha statues appear to be savouring the visual feast within which they reside.

I am unsure as to the history of the old industrial building (pic 5) located near the Keage Incline – a favoured Hanami spot in Kyoto. The building’s proximity suggests it may have been part of the infrastructure for the Lake Biwa canal network, though every time I passed I couldn’t help but imagine a future life as modern loft-style apartments. Residents would wake to a wonderful view at this time of year.

Pics 6 and 7 show a wide and closer shot of Sakura trees lining the canal running alongside Kyoto’s International Exhibition Hall, where the modern architecture and the timeless Sakura coexist harmoniously in yet another example of Japan’s ability to blend the old with the new.

Following is a series of five shots (pics 8 to 12) of private residences alongside the Philosopher’s Path – another popular Hanami location, as well as a pleasant walk at any time. The Sakura show an ability to enhance various architectural styles and building materials, such as timber, corrugated metal and masonry.

This ability to enhance is further shown at pics 13 and 14, where older style buildings are lifted by the neighbouring presence of cherry blossoms in bloom. Finally, at pic 15, a contemporary apartment building is similarly lifted, suggesting that whatever direction future building developments take, there will always be a place for the ubiquitous and inspiring Sakura.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)




Nikko (Toshogu & Taiyuan Shrines)

Someone told me that Nikko is the place every Japanese person wants to visit at least once.  After visiting there twice in different seasons I came to understand why, but I had no idea how their words would resonate on my feeling that this post does not do justice to Nikko’s importance to the Japanese.

In Nikko, all roads lead to the complex including the Toshogu, Futarasan and Taiyuin shrines and it is from this complex that today’s images are drawn.  Words that may typically be used to describe Japanese temples and shrines such as subtle and understated do not apply here.  There is nothing understated about these shrines.  Quite the opposite, yet still their underlying message is that of reverence and respect for those honoured here.

Toshogu is the dominant shrine, as evidenced by the buildings of the Taiyuan Shrine being oriented to face Toshogu as a mark of respect for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa era.  As well as being the driving force behind the construction of Toshogu Shrine to honour his grandfather, Iemitsu (the third shogun) is perhaps better known as the shogun who closed Japan to foreign commerce and isolated it from the rest of the world for 200 years.

The tree-lined path to Toshogu Shrine is dominated by Ishidorii (pic 1), a granite torii gate that majestically draws one forward.  In my humble opinion, it must surely rank among Japan’s most significant torii.  To the left of Ishidorii is the five-storey pagoda (pic 2), where the storeys represent, in ascending order, the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and heaven.

Toshogu’s most famous attraction is perhaps the Sacred Stable (pics 3 and 4), or more specifically the story of stages in a monkey’s life told through a series of carvings on the walls of the building.  Since early times in Japan, monkeys have been regarded as guardians of horses, hence their significance to the stable building.  The most famous carving is, of course, that of the three wise monkeys, whose message of “hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil” has been an aspirational refrain of parents through the ages.

Other structures of interest include my favourite, the relatively subdued Rinzo or Holy Sutra Library (pic 5), which houses a collection of valuable Buddhist scriptures; the heavily decorated Yomeimon Gate (pic 6) flanked on each side by statues of the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose presence remains imposing (pic 7); and the designated national treasure – the Karamon Gate (pic 8).

The heavily wooded setting makes for pleasant walking and throughout the grounds one finds areas of interest such as small roadside shrines (pic 10) and many stone and metal lanterns (pic 9) donated by feudal lords.  To walk these grounds with someone steeped in Nikko history would be a pleasure, though the stories behind each building and object may require a lifetime of walks.

Although not as grand as the Toshogu Shrine, the Taiyuan Shrine is no less interesting.  Prior to climbing several sets of stairs and passing through a series of gates, one finds The Cistern for Holy Water (pic 11).  Water from a nearby stream is channeled down through a system of gutters into a solid granite basin so perfectly aligned that the water evenly overflows each edge.  Visitors stop here for purification before proceeding to the Nitenmon Gate, which can be seen in the background.

Taiyuan is built on a fairly steep slope, thus opening up vistas such as those shown (pics 12 and 13) at various points during the climb.  Reaching the upper level, one finds the largest building (pic 14), with this view showing the Ainomo or connecting chamber between the Haiden (sanctuary) and Honden (inner sanctuary).  Adjacent to the Honden is the Koukamon Gate (pic 15), the final gate behind which lies the Okunoin – the tomb of the third shogun Iemitsu.  Neither the Koukamon Gate nor Okunoin are open to the public.

Finally, walking back to central Nikko, one passes the Shinkyo Bridge (pic 16), regarded as one of the three most significant bridges in Japan.  The bridge across the Daikyo River was originally built in 1636 (rebuilt 1907) for the use of the Shogun and imperial messengers.

A visit to these sites is at first a visual assault on the senses, such is the splendour and grandeur one encounters.  However, the true value is felt by slowing down and allowing Nikko to seep into one’s senses.  One can then begin (only begin) to understand why it is so revered by the Japanese people.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)