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I went to Kyoto for three days. It’s not far from Osaka, so I rode the train there in the morning and alighted at Kyoto station. The station turned out to be an attraction in itself. Over the main entrance is a web of steel beams, and a series of escalators takes you all the way up the side of the 12-story-plus building to a deck on the roof. On the tenth floor is Ramen Alley, where specialty ramens of different places are represented. I tried to eat there, but every shop had an unbelievable line, so I gave up. The other restaurants on the top of the building (actually an Isetan dept. store) were expensive, so I left my bag in a locker and rode the bus to Ginkakuji, the temple of the famed Silver Pavilion.
Ginkakuji and the Tea Well
Nowadays, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji 金閣寺) is an internationally recognized symbol of Kyoto and Japan itself, but what of the Silver Pavilion, on the opposite Eastern Mountain side of Kyoto? The pavilion is not plated in silver, and unlike the Golden Pavilion, is a 15th-Century original wooden construction. (Kinkakuji was burned by an arsonist about 60 years ago.) Kyoto is large and traffic dense, so it took an hour to get uptown to Higashiyama, around Ginkakuji 銀閣寺. I ate oyako-don (chicken and egg over rice) for lunch on a street leading to the temple. Ginkakuji is not the official name of the temple, but most know it as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. I paid 500 yen ($6) to enter with a huge crowd. We passed a bamboo hedge, and right on our right was the pavilion. The bottom is built in Japanese Shoin 書院style, and the top in Chinese temple style, with a phoenix on the roof. The date of construction was some time around 1400. In front of the temple is a garden of raked sand, and a cone of sand called the Moon-facing Platform. Up the hill was a little spring of clear water and algae called the Tea Well. The water from the well apparently has a good flavor favored by tea specialists, and the water from the well is used to make tea at government functions. A quiet garden led the way out, and I set off down the Philosophers’ Way.
The Philosophers’ Way and Honen’in Temple
Yamazaki and his wife recommended me the Philosophers’ Way, a path lined with cherry trees that leads south from Ginkakuji toward Kiyomizu Temple. After being jostled by crowds in Ginkakuji, a stroll along the river on the stone path was a welcome respite. A café I passed boasted coffee made with water from the temple’s well. At times I was alone on the path, and at times I passed others walking their way. The Way is so named because great scholars of the past were said to amble along the riverbank lost in thought. The trees grew thick on the other bank and hung low their leaves on the water, quite like Suzhou or Ito, and I was quite taken by the mosaic of greens and rocks and stream. I came upon Honen’in Temple 法然院, where Yamazaki said I could find a hint of the old Kyoto. Unlike Ginkakuji, Honen’in was free, not crowded, and set back in the woods of sight. The buildings lacked illustrious pedigrees, but the setting was right for relaxation. A sign before the moss-covered straw roof entry gate read in Classical Chinese, Pungent foods, spices, alcohol and meat may not enter this gate. Inside, on either side of the path were raised platforms of sand with designs formed on top. I’d never seen such artwork before and don’t know what they mean. Great vines grew on the trees over the water, and a pamphlet advertised a lecture titled, Let’s talk with the monks about nuclear power.
Futher down the path, I visited Otoyo Shrine, where a fox and mouse shrine stand side by side (technically an Inari and a Taikoku shrine).
Eikando Temple and the Lake Biwa aqueduct
Before Eikando Temple 永観堂 (officially called Zenrinji 禅林寺) was a sign with a quote: Respect humanity and morality, keep courtesy and moderation, use no martial force, and all under heaven will be in accord. (仁徳を尊び、礼節を守り、武力を用いず、天下和順なれ。)
Eikando’s autumn leaves are famous, and even in this late summer some were starting to redden. I walked among the centuries-old wooden buildings. Some parts of Eikando have been rebuilt more recently, as it suffered during the haibutsu-kishaku 廃仏毀釈 period during the late 19th Century when Buddhism was briefly outlawed, but even the elevator blended nicely with the old wood. I went up to see the tower, a famous spot for watching the sunset. The tower faces west, toward the Pure Land, so when the sun sets one can look out at the faraway Paradise and dream of the afterlife. A story associated with Eikando says that the founder of the sect was pacing in the temple in the cold early morning, chanting Amida’s name, when the statue of the Buddha Amida stepped down from its platform and walked with him. He stopped dead in his tracks. Amida turned his head and said, Eikan, you’re slow! Thus, to preserve that most beautiful profile of Amida, Eikan carved a statue of the Buddha looking over his shoulder than can still be seen in the hall.
Around Nanzenji Temple I saw the Lake Biwa aqueduct, which was built of brick about 100 years ago to bring water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto. I walked along as the water sped down the canal, until I came to a hydraulic station in an old stone-carved western-style building. I took the subway back to get my bag and spent the night in a hostel.
Today I met a video game character designer named Yamazaki and his wife. We met on CouchSurfing, and agreed to meet in Ueda. While wandering around before the meeting, I came upon a shrine called Tsunashiki Tenmangu Otabisho 綱敷天満宮御旅所, or Tsunashiki Tenjinja. (It has a website here: www.tunashiki.com .) Sitting between buildings on a street next to Kappa Yokocho, Tsunashiki Shrine caught my attention because of its steep steps, and the “Otabisho” part of its name. A “tabi” is a journey in Japanese, and sure enough Tsunashiki is a shrine for ryoko anzen, or safe travels. I offered some yen and bought an omikuji. It was lucky, but recommended I hold back and not try to do too much. As for direction, anywhere south was good. As for travel, it suggested I quit. I tied up the omikuji to ward off the bad luck and bought an o-mamori charm for safe travels. Of course, I can’t quit, so I have the charm. The lesson on the back of the omikuji read something like, “The high peaks tower in the blue sky, but if you climb, there is a way up.”
I ate curry in Kappa Yokocho, got lost around Umeda walking up and down platforms through crowds and department stores, and drank some bottled ginger jujube tea. I met Yamazaki at Yodobashi camera and we tried two cafes before we found one with empty seats. He kindly treated me to coffee and we talked about Kyoto, where he attended university, learning languages, traveling in Rome and Europe, and his dream to hold an international art exhibition in London. Also, he designed two characters in the video game Street Fighter 4.
Art in the Isetan department store
We went to Isetan department store to see an art exhibition called Girlie Show. The theme was “girls,” and women artists from around Japan depicted girls in various styles on small canvasses. Prints of artworks and goods like iPhone cases were on sale, and one or two of the artists were present. We then went upstairs and saw the “Art Liberation Space” or something like that, where various works were exhibited, like ceramic cups crawling with metal insects. In the back was an exhibiton called “The Beauty Adventurers” (美の冒険者たち) if I remember correctly. The artists were students, graduates and faculty at an art college in Osaka. I enjoyed the various styles and materials and the high level of artistry in the works, and happily spent an hour with Yamazaki gazing at paintings.
Tsukemen noodles in Ueda
We met Yamazaki’s wife at Loft variety store and went to a nearby shop for tsukemen (dipped noodles), which were delicious. The roast pork on top was expecially good. The Yamazakis gave me lots of advice about Kyoto, and we talked about what we had done that day. I received advice from a pair who had studied art in Kyoto. What could be better! When I mentioned that I saw the guardian statues at Todaiji Temple in Nara, Yamazaki told me those are by a famous artist of the Edo period. I took notes on place names in Kyoto, and they kindly saw me back to the subway. The next time I see them, perhaps their first child will be born!
During a day wandering among temples, I realized that I came to Osaka with a false impression. In the early 1970s, the writer Sawaki Kotaro traveled by train and bus from Bangkok to Singapore. In every city, he felt something was missing. The excitement he’d found in Hong Kong wasn’t to be found in Thailand or Malaysia. On the eve of leaving Singapore, he realized, Singapore isn’t Hong Kong. It seemed too silly to say out loud, but he’d been looking for a copy of Hong Kong everywhere he went. Certainly, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok must have their individual charms.
I assumed Osaka was a loud and crowded place, on flat ground, without much that would carry me away. I was wrong. Shin-sekai, around the now 100-year old Tsutenkaku tower is indeed a place of boisterous bars, and not a boring place to visit. Shitennoji is a world apart.
Shitennoji District (四天王寺)
I happened to be staying next to Tennoji station so I took the subway past it on a whim to make my 200 yen go farther. I alighted at Shitennoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station, which means “In front of Shitennoji (and) Sunset Hill.” It turns out, the Shitennoji area is full of temples, leading south to Shitennoji Temple itself. I learned a lot about Japanese Buddhism by reading the signs. I turned a prayer wheel carved with scripture in Chinese. I met a group of high school students near Yuhigaoka Academy. On a stele was carved in Chinese the exploits of the writer’s father, Date Munehiro 伊達宗広, according to the nearby explanatory board. He loved the songs of a songwriter Fujiwara Ietaka 藤原家隆 who lived many generations before him, so he made his home in the same place, and named it “Sunset Hill” after one of Fujiwara’s poems. They are both buried nearby. While reading the sign, a man working on his 600cc shiny black Honda came over, and we talked about my travels, my brother Pace’s travels in America, and the history of Osaka. His name was Kishino, and he told me to go on to Shitennoji, past the tower we could see over a parking lot.
The tower turned out to be a 400-year-old national treasure, a pagoda to store the treasures in Aisen-san 愛染さん temple. It was the model for a temple once erected at the Japanese pavilion at the World’s Fair in San Francisco. Aisen-san itself was bright red.
The Seven Slopes (七坂)
There are seven slopes among the temples. I came up Kuchinawa Slope, which a writer once climbed and thought, “I won’t be climbing this slope for a while, I suppose,” whereupon he came to feel that the sweetness of youth was over, and a new reality had come to face him. I stopped for ramen, and ate “Osaka Black” salt-broth ramen with thick noodles (you could choose thick or thin). The dark broth had an edged flavor. I walked down Aisen Slope to a temple that holds Kinryu and Ginryu Ido, or the “Golden and Silver Dragon Wells.” Alas, they dried up when the subway was built, and Ginryu is buried in concrete. However, a woman from the temple named Asano showed me to Kinryu Well, in which we could see our reflections! The water has come back, little by little, though we can’t yet drink it again to get the sweet taste that was once favored in the tea ceremony.
Kiyomizu Temple and the deadly fault line
I climbed Kiyomizu Slope to Kiyomizu Temple, which shares a name with an illustrious temple in Kyoto. From the hill at the Kiyomizu graveyard (which was packed with a tour group for a few minutes), a vast stretch of Osaka can be seen, including a tower still unfinished at Tennoji Station. I went down to see the waterfall at Kiyomizu, and a man was chanting sutras before the statues behind the water. As I left, a man named Satoshi spoke to me in perfect English. In what was quite likely the first all-English conversation I’ve had with a Japanese person this trip, he told me he worked for the IT department at Stanford and lived in California. He was surprised I came to Kiyomizu, which he visits often, because he seldom sees tourists there. He asked had I noticed the slopes and varied elevation in the area? I had, but he informed me that the slopes are due to a dangerous fault that runs under the area. The line of temples and shrines are built on the fault to prevent disaster with their power.
Isshin Temple and modern decor
I went through a shrine with cats and a man behind the counter who explained the Warring States history of the area. Across the street was a temple far busier than the sleepy ones I had visited. Isshin Temple (一心寺) lost its gate, so a very modern gate was built to replace what had been called the “Black Gate” or Osaka. Indeed, the gate is made of a honeycomb of black metal, and two utterly fearsome guardians wave green fists over heavenly ladies embossed in dark steel. The temple grounds were packed. I prayed in the main hall and offered incense, and a very old couple encouraged me to go to Sapporo.
Shitennoji and the story of the Buddha
Up the street, I walked down the arcade to Shitennoji, the biggest and busiest of all. The red five-story pagoda indeed towered over the hall at Aisen, and every building in Shitennoji was painted red and white. Inside the main hall, wall paintings told the story of the Buddha, from his miraculous birth under the right armpit of Maya, to his death and entrance into nirvana at the age of 81. Most impressive was the scene of the Buddha returning, enlightened, to speak at the Deer Garden. He wore simple clothes and his face was calm and pure, and a light emanated from his brow. In the forest, those who had known him before fell to the ground and reached out their hands in awe to see Gautama so transformed. (According to the explanations written below.) The Buddha had also been attacked by a host of demons, but their arrows turned to floating lotus blossoms and the beautiful women sent to seduce him suddenly grew old. The story was mostly new to me, so I am keen to read more. Another hall told the story of Xuanzang 玄奘, who spent 17 years on a journey from Chang’an to India and back. Upon his return, he and a team of scholars translated hundreds of scriptures, which were stored in the Great Goose Pagoda that I visited last year in Xi’an.
If only I could tell you everything I learned today. I’d never get any sleep. I walked among the bars around Tsutenkaku tower and spent a mostly fruitless and expensive hour in a net cafe trying to copy photos.
Osaka is alive!