Rewind to our first morning in Kyoto… Our bags were picked up from The Capitol Hotel Tokyu in Tokyo at 7:30am to be transferred to Kyoto, the former imperial capitol of Japan and one of the best preserved cities in the country. Sue-san drove us to the Tokyo Station at 9am, where we said our goodbyes and she saw us off via what she called the “waving ceremony.” Over the next 2 hours, we watched as the landscape evolved from crowded skyscrapers and apartment buildings to fields of rice patties surrounded by mountains. We were on the Bullet Train, named for its appearance and speed (we were traveling at a speed of about 178 mph). When we arrived at the Kyoto station, we met Miko-san, our Kyoto tour guide. After introductions, we hit the ground running.
First, Miko-san gave us a tour of the Kiyomizu Temple, an independent Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. She informed us that part of the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ had been filmed there! It was very beautiful. Next we visited the Kinkakuji Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple.
Kinkakuji was originally a villa that belonged to a powerful shogun (hereditary military dictators in Japan from 1192 to 1867), and he built the temple as a place for entertaining guests and for meditation after his retirement.
The Kinkakuji Temple is also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion because it is coated with gold. It is unbelievably beautiful in real life.
At the very top of the temple, a gold-plated phoenix overlooks the pond below.
According to Japanese Buddhism, the phoenix does not symbolize reincarnation, but rather peace in the afterlife. Ironically, this particular phoenix did in fact rise from the ashes. We learned from Miko-san that the Kinkakuji Temple was burned to the ground by a deranged monk in 1950, so the temple that stands today is an exact replica of the original.
After the Kinkakuji Temple, we visited another Zen temple, the Ryoanji Temple (lots of temples in Kyoto!). The most fascinating aspect of this temple is its famous Zen garden, the karesensui (dry landscape) rock garden. Nobody knows who constructed this garden, although it is thought to have been built in the late 15th century. Unlike your stereotypical garden, there are no trees, ponds, nor flowers in this one.
The garden consists of raked gravel and 15 moss-covered boulders, which are placed so that, when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only 14 of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the 15th boulder.
After the Ryoanji Temple, Miko-san brought us to our ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn), the Tawaraya.
Managed for over 300 years by the same family, the Tawaraya has only 18 rooms (and a staff of 60! all dressed in traditional kimonos). We had to remove our shoes at the entrance because the floors are tatami mats, very delicate mats made of rice straw. First we were served a NINE-course meal in our room (it was actually pretty hilarious. The courses just kept coming!), and then the table was taken away and the room was converted into our bedroom (two futons — pretty comfy).