東寺 Traders of the Temple

The end of the month in Kyoto is the time of markets. The time to spend a little of your time strolling the grounds of a temple surveying the beautiful clothes on hangers, the less beautiful clothes in heaps on the floor, the food stalls, the neatly organised tables of antiques and what looks like the contents of an old man’s garage strewn over a blanket. Temple markets are not an event to be missed – cheap deals, cheap food, and rare finds make this a great immersion exercise in Japanese culture and language (or sign language if you don’t speak Japanese).

Today I will cover Toji, the most famous of the temple markets in Kyoto. I also visited Kitano Tenmangu market, but I will save that for tomorrow. Toji market, known to Japanese as Kobo-san, is a market focussing on clothes and antiques that covers most of Toji’s grounds. I have covered Toji before (here) so I will not go into the history of the temple itself, but I will talk about the market.

Kobo-san is the name rather than ‘Toji-market’ because it is dedicated to the great monk Kukai, founder of Toji and one of the great teachers in Japanese Buddhism. Kukai’s posthumous name is Kobo-daishi 弘法大師 which literally means ‘the great master that spread Buddhist teaching’. As Daishi 大師 just means ‘great teacher’, his name is shortened to Kobo and the suffix san is added.

Kukai’s death was on the 21st of the month, so the market is held every month in his honour. The market is apparently particularly good in December, but sadly I was unable to go to that one. It’s really impressive whenever you go to be honest. There is even a smaller market every Sunday, so if your time in Kyoto is limited, if you visit on a Sunday you can still get a taste of Kobo-san.

I strolled through the market, trying to surreptitiously take pictures of the stalls. I’m sure they don’t really mind, but I’d prefer not to test that theory. I bought several things at the market; I’ve realised recently that despite living in Japan for 9 months I have little to show for it in terms of souvenirs. I bought: some pretty hand-made hairpins, a short kimono-style jacket/ cardigan (for wearing in my room, not out), an indian flute (maybe to get some petty revenge against my neighbour that is apparently learning keyboard, maybe because I miss playing music) and a beautiful scroll of Mr Tiger. The scroll is rolled up now so please excuse the mobile phone photo instead of one from my nice camera.

I also had a couple of snacks. In my mind the quintessential street food in Kyoto (or Kansai in general) is tako-yaki. Though the name たこ焼き tako-yaki, just means ‘fried octopus’ it is actually pieces of octopus placed in a batter mix and cooked in round frying plates (see below) and then sprinkled with sauce, dry seaweed flakes and mayonnaise. They are absolutely delicious but always as hot as lava. Every, Single, Time, I eat tako-yaki, I burn my tongue. This is a test of patience that I fail. I know I’m going to fail. I know only the last ball is going to actually taste of anything but pain and a sense of forced stoicism as I try to make it look like I am enjoying the ball instead of experiencing the fires of hell in my mouth. But always, I cannot wait. I feel like this says a lot about my patience levels. I also feel that it is the peer pressure from the little old ladies that buy the tako-yaki and immediately chow down, apparently immune to the lava. Maybe they are veterans and no longer feel the pain, maybe they too are experiencing the internal struggle. All I know is that last ball of tako-yaki is so delicious that it’s all worth it. Really tasty, try it. Just try to wait for it to cool down, if you can.

The other snack I had was just disappointment, a tale of desperation and unrealistic expectations. I was really thirsty, and it turns out that flea markets are one of the only places in Japan where there are no vending machines. I walked past a crushed ice stand, so I went for it, forgetting that this is not the same as shaved ice, but actual large-ish pieces of ice with a ‘strawberry’ syrup dumped over the top. The syrup tastes of vanilla and chemicals, it doesn’t matter which of the 6 flavours you choose, they all taste of disappointment. Also they give you a straw but nothing comes through because it’s just ice and you have to wait for it to melt. I ended up throwing it away after walking around for ages trying to find a bin (another thing that Japan apparently hasn’t heard of). Would not recommend.

Kobo-san is a great place to buy your souvenirs in a more interactive (and cheap) environment. There are big piles of kimono and yukata on the floor (on blankets) that you can pick up and try on. These floor-kimono are typically only around 1000円 (£5 ish) which is really really cheap. Sadly this means most are ill-fitting or not that nice or a bit stained, but there are real catches in there if you take the time to rifle through. If you really want to find something special, it’s best to go early in the morning, but you can still do pretty well in the afternoon. I wouldn’t go any later than 3 if you want to really shop though.

Kobo-san is one of those experiences that both Kyoto-dwellers and those visiting can really enjoy. I would recommend it to anyone in Kyoto and I will probably be going back next month. Tomorrow hopefully I will cover Kobo-san’s rival, the market at Kitano Tenmangu, Tenjin-san. Also this is my 75th blog post! Maybe I’ll make it to 100 before I leave Japan!

東寺 Golden Guardian of the Night

During the peak of the cherry blossoms I finally went to a light up! I had seen posters for them during the Autumn but I never managed to get to one. Not only did I go to a light up, I also got to go to a temple I’ve been meaning to go to since I spotted its pagoda from Kyoto tower early on in my year abroad. All in all, a visit I had been hoping to do for a long time.

The temple in question was Toji 東寺, which means East Temple. Toji was founded in 796, just after the capital was moved from Nara to Heian-kyo (ancient Kyoto). Toji is one of only two temples that was permitted to be built in the city itself, along with its partner temple Saiji 西寺 (West Temple). The reason for this exclusion of Buddhist temples from Heian-kyo was the increasing influence of Buddhist sects over the imperial court in Nara; the Emperor felt the need to escape the political influence of the Nara sects and start afresh. Only Saiji and Toji were built either side of the main gate to Heian-kyo to defend the capital from evil spirits. Toji used to be a temple tasked with the defence of the whole nation; it has always been rather important.

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This exclusion of other sects meant that those that controlled Toji and Saiji gained considerable power simply by being closer to court. The sect that gained Toji was the newly created Shingon sect, founded by Kukai, who was put in charge of Toji by Emperor Saga. Saga himself was supportive of Buddhism while also recognising the importance of keeping most sects away from the capital. It was Saga that decreed the consumption of meat (aside from fish and birds) illegal, cementing the Japanese diet as such until Europeans reintroduced the consumption of other meats in the 1800s.

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Toji is the only surviving temple from this period; its partner temple, Saiji, ran out of money due to a bad harvest in its district and was forced to close. There is a story that Kukai and his counterpart monk at Saiji, Shubin, were both praying for a good rainfall. Only Kukai succeeded and Shubin became angry and shot an arrow at Kukai but an image of Jizo appeared and took the arrow for Kukai, saving his life. Near the original gate to Heian-kyo (now just a single stone marker) there is a Jizo statue which is chipped where the arrow hit it.

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Toji has the tallest wooden building in Japan, the pagoda, originally built by Kukai and recontruted in the Edo period. It measures 57 metres and it was beautifully lit in gold, making it appear metallic rather than wooden. The pagoda is a marker for the storage of Buddhist treasures and sacred relics. The pagoda at Toji houses some Buddhist treasures but it is closed to the public for most of the year.

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The light-up itself was spectacular and not that busy – it was open from 6 – 10 and cost 300円 per person. The grounds were lit up spectacularly as well as the pagoda. They had also opened the halls to allow you to see the Buddhist statues. Toji’s main object of worship is Yakushi Nyrai, the Buddha of medicine. I would definitely recommend visiting Toji regardless of whether or not it is sakura season. It’s also a world heritage site, so clearly UNESCO agree with me. This temple also has a famous flea market on the 21st of every month. I’m definitely going to go and check it out at some point.