京都 Snapshots: December

I have had quite a busy December in terms of work and socialising and as such I don’t have a great deal of snapshots. Most of what I’ve been up to has slotted neatly into single blog posts. However I do have some tiny temples left over as well as some pictures of the snow for your enjoyment. My third month in Japan was great and I was lucky enough to experience snow in Kyoto twice!

Takoyakushido Eifukuji Temple 蛸薬師堂 妙心寺

This temple is located in a busy shopping area near Sanjo. The area has many different shops and is also covered, which was great because the snow and ice made it very hard to walk outside. Though the snow looked beautiful, walking around in it was a different story. Walking to university I saw a tragic sight: a man was walking his dog down a very icy street. The street was like a rough ice-rink, I was sliding everywhere and I was worried I might slip into the ditch at the side of the road. The man’s dog was not doing so well, falling over quite a bit, but the man kept pulling the dog onwards. As I carefully navigated my way around them I realised that the dog only had one front leg, making walking on the ice impossible. The poor dog kept getting up and trying its best, as dogs are animals that do not give up. Thankfully soon after the owner crossed to the non-icy side of the road (the sun had melted the ice) and the dog had some respite. Poor dog.  Basically, walking around outside was not a great idea in that weather but I digress.

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The temple appeared small from the outside and I thought it would be a simple matter of walking around a small area and getting my stamp done, but actually there was a narrow corridor back to a courtyard where there were some statues and another place to pray. It is dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddhist God of healing.

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This temple was founded in the 13th Century, with the official name of Eifuku-ji. It got its second name of Takoyakushido a few hundred years later. The temple had been known to the people as Takuyakushido, where ‘taku’ means marsh, denoting the area where it stood. Tako means Octopus, and this is the tale of the octopus temple.

There was a monk studying at the temple named Zenko whose mother was very sick. He tried to nurse her back to health but nothing worked. She told him that she remembered eating octopus in her childhood and said that maybe if she had some she would get better. Zenko, being a Buddhist monk, was not allowed to buy living things to eat, but he was so desperate to save his mother that he took a wooden box to the market and bought octopus. As he carried the box back to the temple people grew suspicious and demanded to know what was inside. Zenko, unable to refuse, prayed to the god of healing for help, and when he opened the box the octopus had transformed into the eight volumes of the Lotus Sutra. People were amazed and praised him and soon after his mother was miraculously cured. Since that incident the temple was known as the Octopus temple, with the ‘taku’ in its name turning into ‘tako’.


Anyoji 安養寺

This is a very small temple in the same vicinity as Takoyakushido, just opposite an arcade. I thought it was a proper temple with stamps but it was quite confusing. There was a small portable shrine on the ground floor with all the information about the temple but we couldn’t find the actual official temple. It turned out to be up a rather treacherous flight of steps which were covered in snow. We made it up the steps and found the inner part of the temple with its statues and incense. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures of this part, but there were several golden statues inside that made the stairs worth it.


This temple also has a foundation story. The story goes that the monks carved a lotus pedestal for the statue of the Buddha but it seemed as if it was going to break when the statue was placed. They ended up placing the lotus upside-down and it did not break. As a result the temple became famous for its upside-down lotus flower. This became a symbol of salvation for women; there was the belief that women, being inferior to men and stupid according to ancient Buddhism, had the lotuses in their minds upside-down and therefore could not enter the Pure Land. Women would go to pray for salvation at this temple in order to enter the Pure Land (or be reborn as a man, because then you are good to go).


Anyoji was founded in 1018 in Nara, but was moved to Kyoto in 1110. It was finally moved to its present location by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1580. I wouldn’t really recommend visiting it as there isn’t much to it,


Though it was hard to walk around outside I did take a brief trip around my local neighbourhood to look at the snow. The snow was so early that there were even a few red leaves left here and there. Here are a few pictures from that trip.

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That concludes my December snapshots. Somewhat short but hopefully next month I will have more to share with you. I visited some great temples yesterday so new posts on that coming soon!

金閣寺 A Golden Flame

A week ago I awoke to a Kyoto covered in a thin layer of snow, so after class I did what many others did and went to see Kinkaku-ji in the snow. This is an image I’d seen on post-cards countless times but I never expected to be able to go and see it for myself so soon.

The temple was beautiful with the gold of its upper two floors shining brilliantly against the snow. The surrounding pond and gardens were also a sight to see. The grounds were pretty busy but it was fairly easy to find a space and take pictures – definitely not as bad as I expected it to be.

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Kinkaku-ji, 金閣寺, was founded in 1397; it was a mansion that was turned into a Zen Buddhist temple upon the death of the owner of the property. The pavilion itself is constructed in three different styles; the first floor is in traditional imperial Heian style; the second in the style of warrior-aristocrats and contains a shrine to Kannon; and the third is in classic Chinese Zen style. The top two floors are coated in gold leaf, representing the purification of negative thoughts towards death (and also because at the time it was built, temple aesthetics were very important). The temple is surrounded by a pond and stroll-gardens, in which the temple fits perfectly, with no sense of disharmony with the nature surrounding it (despite all the bling).

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Kinkaku-ji is famous for the arson commited in 1950, in which a mentally-ill monk burned down the temple before attempting suicide. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released due to his illness (schizophrenia and persecution complex). This event became the subject of the author Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, in which the monk narrates the events up to the arson. Mishima even visited the monk in prison in order to ascertain the accuracy of the novel (though it is still clearly a work of fiction).

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Mishima himself is an interesting character, and his great literary legacy is overshadowed by the manner of his death. In 1970 he and his followers attempted a coup d’etat at the Japanese Self Defence Headquarters for the Eastern Command of Japan, barricading themselves into the head office. Mishima gave a speech to onlooking soldiers in which he tried to start a revolution that returned the Emperor to power, but the soldiers simply mocked him. Shortly after he came back out onto the balcony where he gave his address and committed seppuku, ritual suicide. He had already written traditional death poems prior to entering the headquarters, so he probably always had meant to commit suicide regardless of the reception of his speech. His dramatic death can be somewhat likened to the burning down of the temple – a dramatic end that grabs the public imagination. I have only read extracts from the ‘Temple of the Golden Pavillion’ but he portrays a paranoid mind very well and its an interesting, if disturbing, read.

Mishima during his speech in 1970

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Today the temple is completely restored, though some argue that it did not originally have so much gold-leaf; the leaf had worn off over the years so it was unclear how much it had when it was built. Regardless, it remains an icon of Kyoto and Japan. It is also a World Heritage Site.

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Kinkaku-ji is iconic and well worth the visit, though it is very much on the ‘temple trail’ for tourists, so I would recommend going in the morning on a weekday to really enjoy it without the bustle of other tourists.


Sadly the snow only lasted the day, and was melting before I even left Kinkaku-ji, so I feel very lucky that I got to experience the brief beauty that was a snow-coated Golden Pavilion.