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.

関西 Mossy Messiah, Cow-Sensei and a Soldier’s Shield

Recently I have visited a number of interesting temples that I have been unable to fit into blog posts, so here I would like to present a small trilogy – two shrines and a temple. Each of them has interesting features and a very different location. We have one shrine in an Osaka old-style alleyway, an apparent anachronistic bubble in an otherwise bustling modern city. We have a shrine all the way in West Kyoto, well-known and popular among locals to the point that they were doing a tv spot there when we visited. Finally we have a shrine tucked away in the middle of Kyoto’s pedestrian covered shopping district, an island dedicated to learning in a commercial sea.

The first of our trilogy is Houzenji 法善寺, a temple located in Osaka near Namba, the popular shopping district. Houzenji, founded in 1686, is located in a small side alleyway that has remained the same for several hundred years. This area is surrounded by high-rise buildings and shops, so the Kyoto-esque old-style alleyway feels a little out-of-place. It is an oasis of old Japan in a modern city.

Houzenji is famous for its ‘Mossy Buddha‘, a Buddha statue completely covered in moss. It is said that the Buddha is mossy because those who did not bring the Buddha an offering would wash their hands to purify themselves and then pray (by clapping their hands) in front of the Buddha with their hands still wet, leading to the Buddha to become damp and grow moss. There is a saying associated with the Buddha 「水をかけて、願もかける」, which requires a small Japanese lesson for you to understand. The Roman alphabet translation reads “mizu o kakete, gan mo kakeru”. Notice the two uses of the verb ‘kakeru’, declined in the present tense in the first half of the phrase. This verb means several things, including ‘to be covered’ and ‘to grant’. Therefore we can translate the phrase as ‘As he is covered in water, he may also grant wishes’, but the wordplay stems from ‘cover’ and ‘grant’ being the same word in Japanese. When looking up the correct translation to the second part of this phrase, I used Google translate with amusing results. I will post my Facebook post on the matter below, as those who are not friends with me on Facebook will find it amusing.

This temple is also famous for the practice of ‘a thousand days of Buddhist prayer’, giving it the common name ‘thousand days temple’ 千日寺. There is a district of Osaka very close by that is named 千日前, meaning ‘in front of a thousand days’ in reference to this temple.

The next temple, Kasuga Jinja 春日神社, is back in Kyoto. I dragged my sister and cousin here for the sole purpose of buying this temple’s stamp book. I had found the book on the internet and, having just finished my last stamp book, simply had to get this one for my next book. It features the deer of the shrine under an arc of leaves. This shrine, as most with deer, is related to the Fujiwara family and is closely linked with Kasuga Taisha 春日大社 in Nara (see blog post here).

Kasuga Jinja was founded by Emperor Junna (ruled 823 – 33) when he abdicated so that he would have a shrine for his protection. This is a fairly large shrine and within its grounds it contains Modoroki Jinja, a shrine that is said to grant travellers safe travel. Many soldiers’ families would come to this shrine to pray for the soldier’s safe return. Those that lived in the shrine’s ward and died in the first Sino-Japanese war are enshrined here. This may explain why this shrine had a politician or some other important person visiting when we visited – there was a camera crew and several people helping out and they were filming him praying at the main shrine, I suspect it had something to do with the soldiers enshrined there.

Kasuga Jinja is also famous for a ‘hoso-ishi‘ or smallpox stone, famous for an event in which a princess contracted smallpox but was cured by the stone. A nice shrine, though not that interesting compared to some in Kyoto, I would recommend it if you happen to be in the area or love the look of their stamp book. The book was 2000円 but definitely worth it in my eyes.

Our final shrine is nestled on Teramachi-doori 寺町通, or Temple Street. This is actually the street I live on; it stretches the whole length of Kyoto as Kyoto is a grid-based city. This shrine is in the shopping district of Teramachi, surrounded by arcades, clothes shops, souvenir shops and restaurants, Nishiki Tenmangu 錦天満宮 is a shrine dedicated to the god of learning, Tenjin. Tenjin was a real person, a scholar of the Heian period, who was so respected and accomplished he has become worshipped as a deity. He is particularly popular among students attempting to pass exams.

Nishiki Tenmangu goes back a fair way – from the outside it looks like it only goes back a few metres but there is actually a whole complex inside. The cow statues in the shrine are due to their association with Tenjin. The story goes that when Tenjin died his funeral cart was pulled by a bull. They reached a certain point on the funeral procession when the bull refused to move any further. Taking this as a sign from the gods, the people founded Tenjin’s first shrine at that spot. Today there are many shrines to Tenjin throughout Japan – I have already been to at least 3!

Enshrined alongside Tenjin is another important Heian period scholar, Minamoto no Toru (822 – 895). He was a poet and a statesman, famous for his poem that appears in the collection of 100 Japanese poems. The poem reads thus:



Michinoku no
Shinobu moji-zuri
Tare yue ni
Midare-some nishi
Ware naranaku ni.

Like Michinoku prints,
Of the tangled leaves of ferns,
It is because of you,
That I have become confused;
But my love for you remains.

Michinoku prints are complexly patterned prints made by placing vine leaves on fabric and pressing them onto the silk to leave a mark. The word ‘shinobu’  しのぶ in the second line has multiple meanings, including ‘a vine’, ‘to love’ and ‘to hide’, adding extra meaning to the poem.

Nishiki Tenmangu was originally connected to a Buddhist temple, but they were separated during the Meiji period due to the state policy of separating Buddhism and Shinto. Its proximity to Nishiki market (see post) gave it the name ‘Nishiki Tenmangu’. All shrines dedicated to Tenjin are called ‘Tenmangu’. This shrine also has slightly creepy karakuri puppets for its fortune-telling. These are old-style automatically moving puppets, popular from the 17th – 19th Century.

This brings us to the end of our trilogy, I hope you found these temples interesting. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – even the smallest temples in Japan are interesting and many have a history or folk tale behind them that is more interesting than the founding tales of a lot of the big temples.