京都 River Ribbons

Missing Kyoto, I was recently looking through all my photos from Japan (I have tonnes). I particularly miss walking to work down the Kamogawa, the river that flows through the East side of Kyoto. One of the advantages of living near such a beautiful river for a whole year is getting to see it in all seasons and weathers. If you look at the map of Kyoto, it is divided by several ribbons of blue, and each one represents some of the most beautiful scenery in the city. I am therefore writing this post to celebrate and reflect on not only the Kamogawa, but all the rivers in Kyoto. Please note that in this post I am using the suffix ‘gawa’ or ‘kawa’  to mean river, so rather than writing ‘Kamo River’, I am choosing to write Kamogawa, as those are the names I am familiar with. 

All the rivers in Kyoto join the Yodogawa 淀川 to the south of the city, meeting the sea in Osaka Bay. Before they reach this main river and lose their individuality, four main rivers flow through the city, each with a different character. Allow me to introduce them to you.

The giant of this group is the Katsuragawa 桂川. Slow and wide, it flows through Arashiyama in the West of Kyoto, wending it way past mountains and houses, and passing under the famous Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋 ‘moon-crossing bridge’) on its way to join the Yodogawa. I saw this river frequently as I took many trips to Arashiyama, a popular tourist spot, with friends. This river is particularly beautiful in twilight, with the shadows of the mountains on one side and the warm lights of Arashiyama on the other.

The Katsuragawa also stars in parts of the epic Tale of Genji, written in the 11th Century by noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji is an extraordinary piece of writing, and though I’ve only read a little, I still recommend it to anyone interested in the ancient Japanese court and its customs, or in Japanese literature and culture as a whole. The most amusing quirk of the book, and something that nicely sums up some of the difficulties of learning Japanese, is that at the time it was written referring to people by name was considered rude, so the author refers to her characters by their station in life for men, or by the colour of their clothing for women, making it a little difficult to follow as the characters often change ‘name’. Though it is no longer rude to refer to people by name, you now can’t really say the word ‘you’ to or about someone without it being rude, so the challenges persist.

Next we have the Shirakawa 白川, literally meaning ‘white river’, named after the abundance of white sand and stones it carries through the city. It is often known as a canal in English, but there has always been a river flowing through the city under this name, it was simply diverted as part of city planning works in the 17th Century. The Shirakawa flows through Gion, one of Kyoto’s geisha districts, before joining with the Kamogawa. This river flows behind tea houses and under tiny bridges, making it very photogenic. As this is the one part of the river I apparently never took pictures of, despite going a few times, here are a couple of pictures from Wikimedia Commons, just so you know what I’m talking about.

Fortunately I do have pictures of the Shirakawa at its most photogenic – along the Philosopher’s Walk in cherry blossom season. This is the iconic cherry blossom spot of Kyoto – tourists and locals drift along the narrow river, staring up at the light pink blossoms. Out of all the days I spent in Kyoto, that day among the blossoms was the most idyllic. I must have counted at least three couples posing for wedding photos, capturing the ultimate romantic moment.

The Takasegawa 高瀬川, meaning ‘shallow river’, is another river I was very familiar with during my time in Kyoto, and one that many Kyoto inhabitants will know well, as it flows right through the city. I personally think this river is underrated – in the Spring it has beautiful cherry blossoms, and the rest of the year it provides some welcome beautification to the streets outside Kyoto’s bars and clubs in Sanjo.

Finally we have the Kamogawa 鴨川 (meaning ‘duck river’), my favourite river in Kyoto, and not just because it was my closest. The Kamogawa has wide banks with paths and parkland running down either side, making it the perfect place for a stroll, some exercise, a bike ride, musical instrument practice, or drinking, depending on who, and when, you are. It also has turtle-shaped stepping stones, which are a fun challenge (and actually quite difficult, I’ve seen a lot of people take a dip!). The Kamogawa is also the best river for bird watching in Kyoto – kites and Crows circle above, while herons, egrets and cormorants wait for fish in the shallows.

In addition, the Kamogawa has the striking split of the Takanogawa and Kamogawa branches, two medium rivers becoming the larger Kamogawa. In the Summer this spot is popular among students to set off small fireworks and have a social drink. Though I saw it almost every day, I always thought it was a really beautiful and unique spot.

Hopefully this is the year I can be reunited with the rivers of Kyoto, but until then at least I have some great pictures and memories of them. My plan is to update this blog as and when new blog posts crop up from old memories, or I go to Japan and make new ones.

東山 The Accidental General, The Immortal Poet, The Sun Priest, and The Three Legged Crow

On Saturday I went for a walk through a little visited part of Kyoto’s temple-country, East of the Imperial Palace Park but West of Philosopher’s walk, these are often the ‘fly-over’ temples, neglected in favour the guidebook check-list. I based my walk loosely off one of the walks in Exploring Kyoto: on Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy (a book I strongly recommend for those with a little more time to explore Kyoto), though I missed some temples and added others.

I began my walk through Yoshidayama park just East of Kyodai university’s main campus. Yoshidayama park is a peaceful park on what is essentially a hill rather than a mountain. There are a number of shrines around the fringes and lots of mosquitos in the middle – bring bug spray or don’t stand still for longer than a few seconds if you want to avoid getting bitten (this advice only applies in the summer).

I emerged from the other side of Yoshidayama park and encountered a small shrine called Takenaka-Inari Jinja 竹中稲荷神社. This shrine is connected to the more famous Yoshida Shrine, which is nearby but I still missed seeing. I will rectify this soon. Takenaka-Inari shrine had lots of different gods enshrined, dedicated to many small local gods, the more famous and celebrated Inari, as well as a separate shrine to our teacher friend Tenjin. The famous gods get the big houses while small gods inhabit small spaces.

Takenaka-Inari Jinja was founded in the 800s and is referenced in records about the life of Ariwara no Narihara, who lived next-door. Ariwara no Narihara (825 – 880) was a waka poet and aristocrat and is considered by many to be the basis for the hero in the Tales of Ise, a Heian period collection of poems about court life, which include some of Narihara’s poetry. Despite being both maternally and paternally descended from Emperors, he never advanced very far in court, probably due to his numerous love affairs with other people’s consorts. These affairs are documented in the Tales of Ise, though some events are considered to not match up with his real actions. It sounds like he had a pretty relaxed lifestyle and ended up immortalised over those that probably worked very hard to advance in court, I feel like there is a lesson there somewhere.

My next stop on my adventure was Munetada Jinja 宗忠神社, a shrine belonging to the Kurozumi-kyo sect of Shinto. There are thirteen sects of Shinto, though there is also a non-sect version of Shinto that is more generalised. The Kurozumi-kyo sect was founded by Kurozumi, a Shinto priest, who had fallen gravely ill. He accepted his death and prayed to Amaterasu, the sun goddess. When he did so he had a spiritual experience in which he became one with the sun goddess and received divine instruction. He was miraculously cured of his illness and he founded the sect.

The core beliefs of Kurozumi-kyo are that Amaterasu is the source of life and light, and devout followers are able to tap into her power to perform miracles. It is a fringe sect and one of Japan’s newer Shinto sects, founded in 1846 (actually around since 1814 but official from 1846). In 1978 it had 218,000 followers (I can’t find a more recent statistic). The shrine in Kyoto was founded in 1859 and enshrines Amaterasu, Kurozumi himself and 8 million gods 八百万の神 (basically meaning all of the kami, 8 is just a nice looking number to the Japanese). I feel like enshrining literally all the kami is somewhat cheating, I imagine them all crammed into one small shrine whenever someone prays there, it’s a bit like wishing for a million wishes when in an encounter with a genie. But then again, founding a religion so that you yourself are enshrined as a god also seems pretty spiritually sneaky.

The next temple was just down the shrine steps and across the road. Shinshogokuraku-ji 真正極楽寺, or Shinnyo-do 真如堂 for short, is a Tendai sect temple, established 984. It actually has very little interesting history. Like every single temple and shrine on this walk, it was destroyed in the Onin war (a civil war that led to over 100 years of warring states in Japan), but other than that it has had a fairly mundane existence. However, the grounds of this temple are beautiful, it makes up for its lack of history with its beauty.

I stopped at a sub-temple at the entrance of this temple but I cannot find any information on it at all. It was nonetheless an interesting visit, though I cannot tell you why there are old woodblock print portraits inside the roof of one of the buildings.

Walking into the grounds I came across a pond next to some beautiful blue hydrangeas. The pond had a little turtle gang swimming around. I watched them for a while and some old ladies came along. One of the ladies clapped her hands and the turtles came over towards us, hoping for food. It was a great experience. For me at least, the turtles were probably rather disappointed.

The main buildings of Shinnyo-do are a pagoda and an impressively large main hall. I took off my shoes and went inside the hall, hunting for stamps. I found my stamp and looked at the elaborate decorations on the inside. Sadly, as with most temples, I was not allowed to take pictures, but I can tell you there was a lot of gold. The Buddha, though he urges us to release all material and emotional attachments, really likes gold.

I really liked the new maple leaves in the gardens, they are definitely under appreciated. Like most seasonal colours in Japan, they’re so bright. These shocks of spiky leaves are just so green, it always amazes me that nature produces such vivid colours; the glowing red of the maples, the delicate pink of the sakura and now the electric green of the fresh maples. Maybe I just didn’t pay so much attention to seasons in the UK; in Japan everything is telling you the seasons are changing – limited edition foods, beer cans covered in sakura print, my favourite ice-cream place changes its specials, decorations appropriate to the season appear in town centre. Japan loves its seasons (except maybe winter).

My next stop was Konkai Komyoji 金戒光明寺, often referred to by its common name, Kurodani Temple. This temple was founded in 1175 and would be as sparse on the history front as the previous temple, if it wasn’t for the presence of the graves of Aizu and Kuwana men that died in the Toba-Fushimi Battle of 1868. Though this link is a little tenuous, you are probably now curious about this battle, so let’s investigate.

Toba-Fushimi battle can be seen as the final stand of a shogun that was being stripped of his dignity having already surrendered, or we can view it as the last desperate attempt of a weak and incapable ex-shogun to ruin the rightful restoration of power to the Imperial family. The Meiji Restoration officially took place on the 4th January 1868, and the Tokugawa Shogun had renounced his title and restored power to the emperor. Tokugawa men were still prominent in the new government of Japan, something that displeased imperialist (and probably power-hungry) samurai from Satsuma (it’s not just a fruit) and Choshu provinces. The Emperor was persuaded to confiscate Tokugawa lands and the ex-shogun was ordered to totally dismantle his defences on Osaka castle. The ex-Shogun Yoshinobu resisted the total dismantling of Tokugawa power, and instead of filling in his moat, he rallied men to his castle and attacked Kyoto, hoping to remove those that had stripped him of the last of his power.

Troops belonging to Satsuma and Choshu met the shogunal army. Though the ex-Shogun’s army was 15,000 men strong, three times that of the Imperial forces, the Imperial troops were fully modernised with rifles, howitzers and even one gatling gun, while the shogunal forces were fairly ill-equipped. Also the presence of British warships in Osaka bay meant that the ex-Shogun had to leave many troops in garrison and reserve, as the British were known to favour the Imperial troops and had to be considered a threat.

The Emperor granted his blessing to the Satsuma and Choshu forces, and they picked up Prince Yoshiaki on their way, a member of the Imperial family, but also a 22-year-old monk with no military experience. No matter, he became their leader, making the army an Imperial force with Imperial banners, a smart move as this made any man to fire upon them a traitor to the Emperor, something that many of Yoshinobu’s troops were unwilling to become. If monk-turned-general Yoshiaki had written a book I would definitely read it, the contrast between a peaceful monastic life and suddenly becoming the Imperial representative of a large army on the eve of battle must have been quite jarring.

The battle went badly for the shogunal forces and they fled to Osaka castle. Yoshinobu took shelter on an American warship and planned his escape back to Edo. Their leader abandoning them caused the remainder of Tokugawa troops at Osaka castle to surrender. This event tarnished the reputation of the Tokugawa and was the nail in the coffin for their claim to power.

Kurodani Temple was pretty empty when I arrived as they were just closing (it was 4:30), but it was still good to see. There were also a few sub-temples I got to visit on my way there (some of the pictures are among those of the main temple above). Sub-temples are always little jewels. Always empty, always beautiful; great if you enjoy small, perfectly kept gardens.

The final temple was one I came across on my way back to the bus stop. Kumano Jinja 熊野神社 is a medium-sized shrine dedicated to the Kumano religion, Shugendo. Shugendo, a religion connected to Shinto, goes back to prehistoric times and revolves around the worship of the three Kumano mountains, Hongu, Shingu and Nachi. These mountains later became associated with different buddhas, blending old Kumano with Buddhism to create a Shinto-Buddhist blend, an example of shinbutsu-shugo (the combination of Shinto and Buddhism in one faith). Today Shugendo temples are associated with either Tendai or Shingon Buddhism due to an edict in the Tokugawa period forcing them to declare allegiance with one sect or the other.

Shugendo includes the belief that enlightenment is attaining oneness with the kami through pilgrimage and self-realisation. There is a lot of importance placed on experiencing nature and walking in mountains – you can go on a pilgrimage between the three sacred mountains, a journey that spans around 40km and is considered a World Heritage site. Hopefully one day I’ll get to go and see it.

The crow that is prominent in this shrine is the three-legged crow, Yatagarasu, a symbol of guidance. It is said that Yatagarasu guided Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan from Kumano to Yamato, the final settling place of Jimmu. Japanese crows are massive so I can see having one on your side as pretty handy.

I enjoyed my stroll through this much overlooked area of Kyoto, I would recommend this area to someone who does not like the crowds – I went on a Saturday afternoon and most temples and shrines were almost deserted. Bonus picture, Hello Kitty Gravestone. A step too far Japan, too far.