嵐山 Bamboo Boulevard

Arashiyama 嵐山 is depicted in most guidebooks as a lush bamboo forest; an idyllic photograph, no tourists, the sun piercing the bamboo. Thanks to such guidebooks, this type of shot is virtually impossible unless you want to get up at crack of dawn on a weekday, preferably during rainy season or some other time when less people are outside – Arashiyama’s bamboo grove is normally packed. The guidebooks aren’t wrong though, the bamboo is fantastic and serene and beautiful, it’s just that the path isn’t.

As you have seen in my other two posts on Arashiyama, there is so much to this area of North-West Kyoto which you should not miss. This is a place I am definitely returning to in order to get a bit more ‘in depth’ rather than the tourist check-list I covered last time. The bamboo forest, like those other ‘check-list’ tourist activities I covered, is unmissable and a fantastic experience, despite the presence of other people also admiring the bamboo (how dare they).

You can start your bamboo experience around the back of Tenryuji temple, or by following the crowds leaving the main Tenryuji gate, which is what we did. Almost every Buddhist temple in Japan has a bamboo grove, but Arashiyama’s forest is much larger. It doesn’t stretch on forever, but there is enough for a 10 – 15 minute stroll. Nestled in the bamboo are a few temples and shrines. We managed to find three, but I am sure there are more hiding away from the main tourist paths.

The first temple we came across was Nonomiya-jinja 野宮神社, a small shrine with a moss garden, several main shrines and loads of people. Nonomiya shrine does not have a founding date like most shrines as it is actually the last of a series of shrines called ‘Nonomiya’, which were where daughters of the imperial family would undergo 3 years of purification before becoming priestesses at Ise grand shrine, one of the most sacred shrines in Japan. As it happens, I have just visited Ise, so hopefully you will learn more about this unique shrine in my next post! Nonomiya shrine is the ‘last standing’ of the Nonomiya shrines, and no longer serves its purpose as a purification shrine.

The present day Nonomiya shrine is dedicated to several gods. Residing here we have the Sun Goddess herself, the God of fire, a God of good matches in marriage and a God of easy child birth. This makes the shrine popular with pretty much everyone, but especially women, who come to write their wishes for a good match in marriage upon heart shaped ema 絵馬 (prayer tablets). This shrine is also featured in the Tale of Genji, the Japanese classic, written in 1008, and there are several prayer tablets with the meeting of the two characters there. The two characters are often known as The Shining Prince and the Rokujo Lady (most characters in the story do not really have names but have titles).

After Nonomiya shrine we continued our walk through the bamboo forest, passing a lot of rickshaws. It seems that the thing to do as a young Japanese lady is to get your best friend, dress up in beautiful kimono and go for a rickshaw ride around Arashiyama. It does look like a fun thing to do and the girls look really pretty. I always feel awkward taking pictures of people when they can see me doing it, plus they were moving at speed, so sadly I don’t have that many pictures of the girls on their rickshaws.

The next shrine we visited was very small. This was Mikami Jinja 御髪神社, which literally translates to ‘shrine of hair’. This name piqued my interest from the outset, and I was even more intrigued to see a small pair of scissors chained to the place you buy charms. It turns out that at this shrine people cut off a small piece of hair and offer it to wish for good fortune. This is because this is allegedly the site of Japan’s first hairdresser, set up in 1281. The prayer tablets there are concerned with not going bald, getting thicker hair and other hair-related wishes. I think its nice that Japanese religion allows people to focus in so much on a specific thing, it’s pleasing to imagine a hair god hanging out with the god of the sun, the god of the sea and maybe even the god of vending machines (Japan must have one, there are so many vending machines here, someone has to watch over them).

Finally we came across Jojokkoji temple 常寂光寺, a peaceful temple a little out of the way of the main path through the forest. This temple climbs up the mountain, giving a pretty good view over Kyoto. This temple was founded in 1596 and features a pagoda from the 17th century. I strongly suggest visiting their website and looking at the ‘movie’ section to see how beautiful it is in the Autumn and Spring. The website is in English and Japanese and it’s the best temple website I’ve ever come across. The main hall is under construction until 2016 but it’s definitely still worth a visit.

Arashiyama bamboo forest is beautiful, and right next to the forest is the beautiful river. Much wider than my local Kamogawa river, the Hozu river is spanned by the ‘moon bridge’, which was originally built in the 8th century (latest reconstruction 1930s). Crossing this bridge takes you to the mountains and the monkey park, but even if you don’t want to venture that far, I would recommend just going to the bridge to see the river.

Arashiyama is a fantastic day out and is one of the best complete day trips you can do in Kyoto – it’s top of the guidebooks for a reason. To avoid the crowds I would suggest going on a weekday, and if you want that bamboo shot, go early in the morning on a clear day for a really beautiful picture. I know I’ll be going back on a sunnier day to appreciate the bamboo.

天龍寺 Imperial Exile, Dragon Dreams, and the Price of Power

I visited Tenryuji a while ago when my sister and cousin were visiting. Tenryuji is one of those temples that is both beautiful and has a rich history. This temple tells a tale of enemies united after battle, of a shrewd monk and of the start of a new Shogunate.

Tenryuji 天龍寺, meaning ‘heavenly dragon temple’, was founded by Ashikaga Takauji in 1339. Takauji had just become Shogun, the very first of the Ashikaga shogunate which would last over 200 years. As one would expect of a great Shogun, he had commissioned the construction of Tenruji, a magnificent temple, to commemorate the recently deceased Emperor. However, all is not as it appears in this founding moment. Ashikaga and the late Emperor GoDaigo had been friends before becoming enemies, an enmity that would divide the Japanese imperial court in two for 60 years.

This begins with the accession of Emperor GoDaigo to the Chrysanthemum Throne. He had always looked back on the times of direct imperial rule as a golden age, and intended from the start to overthrow the ruling Kamakura shogunate and take back imperial power. The Kamakura shogunate heard of his plans and exiled GoDaigo, replacing him with a more compliant Emperor. He planned in exile, gathering forces. One of those that allied themselves with GoDaigo was Ashikaga Takauji.

Godaigo marched on Kyoto and established himself once again as Emperor, sending forces to remove the Kamakura shogunate. This move was successful and GoDaigo set about reestablishing direct imperial rule. However, Takauji was nervous and feared samurai rebellion (and probably wanted a slice of power for himself). When there was a rebellion in Kamakurea, Takauji set off to put it down but took Kamakura for himself, declaring himself shogun. Though he said he allied himself with the imperial court in Kyoto, his old friend GoDaigo denounced him, declaring that he should be executed.

GoDaigo sent forces to overthrow Takauji’s new Ashikaga shogunate, but they failed. Takauji’s forces marched on Kyoto but were defeated. He regrouped for a year before trying again, this time victorious. GoDaigo’s court was exiled to the South, establishing themselves as a rival court to the Ashikaga’s new Emperor Komyo. Thus started the period of Nanbokucho, or ‘North and South courts’.

When GoDaigo died, Takauji had Tenryuji founded in his honour by the most famous monk of the time (and his personal friend) Muso Soseki. This attempt to honour the late Emperor suggests that though he betrayed him to seek power, there was a great deal of respect between these two men. In fact, Ashigaka Takauji is praised by Muso Soseki as fearless, merciful and very generous, the last two characteristics are slightly unexpected of one who’s life story is so shaped by his quest for power. Perhaps this veneration of GoDaigo was a sign of his true feelings of friendship towards the exiled Emperor.

Tenryuji had beautiful gardens as well as a special room with a huge dragon painted on the ceiling. This dragon was painted to commemorate the 650th anniversary of the death of Muso Soseki, the monk that founded the temple. Muso Soseki was a teacher, calligrapher, poet and garden designer (and of course a monk). He allied himself with the Ashikaga family before they had fully taken power, shrewdly putting himself in a great position. He helped to spread zen Buddhism throughout Japan during the Ashikaga shogunate, helping to legitimise the shogunate and bolster the power of his religion. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the ceiling room, so here is one I found on the web to give you an idea.

The obsession with dragons at Tenryuji goes back to its founding. It was originally named Ryakuo Shiseienji, but Takauji Ashikaga’s brother dreamed of a golden dragon around the time it was founded. This was taken as a sign and the name was changed to Tenryu Shiseizenji instead. Tenryu 天龍 means ‘heavenly dragon’.

Tenryuji played an important role in the history of Japan; Japan’s courts refused to submit to the Chinese tributary system, which would see Japan as a junior in the relationship. Tenryuji did submit to the tributary system and became the link between Japan and Ming China for trade. This bolstered Zen Buddhism’s power greatly, as they were effectively controlling trade with one of Japan’s most important trade partners. In return China chose the abbot of Tenryuji. This arrangement lasted until the 19th century; though there are periods where historians claim Japan was ‘closed off’ to the outside world, the truth is there were several unofficial channels, such as the link at Tenryuji, which remained open.

Tenryuji also has a number of sub temples, some of which are open to the public. We stopped by Kogenji 弘源寺, a temple dedicated to Kannon founded in 1429. The temple pillars have cuts in the wood from samurai testing the sharpness of their swords during the Hamaguri rebellion of 1864. These were pro-imperial forces that were seeking to restore direct imperial rule through capturing the emperor (not entirely sure how that would work). They failed and a lot of Kyoto got set on fire, which seems to be the default result of anything happening in pre-modern Kyoto.

There we had tea and a small sweet. It was a lovely experience – the temple garden was pretty and it had a small display of screens and other artefacts (sadly no photos).

Tenryuji is well worth a visit, and you can incorporate it into a day trip to Arashiyama; there is also the bamboo grove (which I will write about soon!) and the monkey park (which I have written about here). This temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Kyoto’s 5 main Zen temples. It can be a little expensive to go around all the sections – the ceiling room, the gardens and the main building inside all cost 500円 (£2.70) each. We did not do the insides of the temple as you can pretty much see most of it from the outside. The gardens and the ceiling are worth it in my opinion.