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Basho: From Kyoto with Love

Mrs Tani at Tani House


Kyou nitemo
kyou natsukashi ya


Even in Kyôto—
hearing the cuckoo's cry—
I long for Kyôto

I am in Kyôto,
Yet at the voice of the hototogisu,
Longing for Kyôto.

Back to Kyoto
My longing now refreshed
When Hototogisu cry

Haiku - Matsuo Bashô (松尾芭蕉)

Extended photoblog with many Kyoto chapters:

This is our last day in Kyoto. We wound up by going to a craft market at a local temple, catching a glimpse of the maples beginning to turn red in the parks, where a Japanese man stopped me to pronounce that my visage was very much in the likeness of Basho, then to Morita Washi the finest paper supplier in Kyoto to buy some rather beautiful Japanese wood block prints of Samurai courtship, again passing through the downtown markets, and pontocho area having already seen a variety of expensive crafts, from the scintillating woven art of Shosui Kaku, through several Japanese craft emporiums to the paper shops.

Tonight I went to visit Funaoka Onsen, the traditional Japanese bath house nearby which contains old wood carved panels of the Russo-Japanese war, as well as a ceiling display of Tengu, the red-faced penis-nosed mythological guardian figure that appears in both Buddhist and Shinto temples and festivals here, as well as the love hotel in the previous blog, whose long nose originally came from the beak of a bird of prey, as which is regarded largely as an evil spirit in Buddhism but is a guardian protector in Shinto.

The big room Tani House

Afterwards I heard the elusive clicking of sound sticks in the night that happens here mid-evening and mysteriously heralds the fire guards who wander through the alleys calling "Hi no jo-in" - beware of smoldering fires - harking back to the time when Japan used open fires for cooking and the wood and paper houses caught fire so often that, in Tokyo, the nightly blazes were a regular entertainment called the 'blossoms of Edo'. After running hundreds of metres down several streets clean into the precincts of Daitoku-ji temple, I finally came upon them singing their ancient protection song, something that is common sense in a compound full of pine trees in the centre of the city.

Giving the V sign downtown Kyoto.

The 12 days here have stretched out endlessly and at the time time we have been so fully occupied that I have had little chance to write. This is partly a function of the unique way of life at Tani House, a very special Japanese style guest house for Westerners, which we first stayed at in 1984 and whose land lady Mrs. Tani has been doing the same good thing ever since the 1970s. Tani House is famous and she does a really neat job of making it personally pleasant, keeping the whole process going smoothly including providing simple but varied breakfast fare every morning and a kitchen where you can cook, a small bath house and a series of quaint traditional Japanese sleeping rooms of various sizes with futons and floor mattresses.

Girl in Kasuga procession

Japanese style dwelling involves living on the floor with paper thin walls, so that every rustle in the room next door echoes like thunder, and any chance of a romantic liaison depends on finding odd times when everyone is out. Because its up a small alley, getting a free wireless internet connection to produce the blog requires walking out of the little cul-de-sac and down the lane to huddle on a street corner typing with one hand, although a laptop is provided in the foyer for a small fee for ordinary internet use.

Medieval Belgian hanging Otsu matsuri

In Kyoto I have discovered a golden rule. Never follow one religion. Either have none at all, or make sure to have two and give only some of your allegiance to each. In the case of Japan there is no one religion but an ebb and flow between Shinto's polarity of life, fertility and energy and Buddhism's pole of quiescence, chastity and death. By separating the two, each person remains free from the oppression either might deliver on its own and able to give spiritually in a way which one dominant religion rapidly obliterates - thus as I have mentioned Shinto serves birth, marriage, luck, worldly fertility and cultural continuity while Buddhism serves death, enlightenment and meditative repose.

Peach girl puppet play Otsu matsuri

We have tried to spend our time doing the unexpected and concentrating on the spontaneous and accidental rather than slogging our way through the endless round of 500-800 yen temples, with varying varieties of slightly gross touristic exploitation of Buddhist excesses, like Chion-in which boasts the largest bell and temple gate in Japan and Sanjusangen-do which houses 1001 images of the 1000 armed Goddess of mercy, Kannon each of which has a different face and none of which you are allowed to photograph, although do have a postcard displaying them for all to see and I did manage to accidentally sneak into Shokoku-ji which sports a huge hall, like a bare protestant cathedral, with a famous painting of a dragon on the roof.

Kinkakuji burned to the ground
by an obsessed monk in the 1960s.

The first couple of days we visited Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji the two delightful lakeside temples famous for their reflections in the water, and the latter for its painted panels and sand garden, spurning Ryano-ji the austere temple with a bare rock garden which exemplifies how the affinity of Zen to nature can end in a complete contradiction where the dead contrivance of raked sand has replaced living nature, despite the more sensitive mossy gardens of the huge temple complex of Daitoku-ji right over the wall from Tani House.

Kasuga procession

Instead we have come upon a so far endless variety of the spontaneous and unexpected. After exploring some of the craft centres, we walked by the Yasaka pagoda, coming upon a succession of women dressed up as Geisha's for a day and to the Sennenzaki and Nissenzaki districts full of old houses and boutique shops finding as we wound up the hill crowds of people converging on another temple Kyomisudera, which is a very endearing Buddhist temple, with a freely photographable set of altars and a water fall with reputed sacred therapeutic properties.

Missing the target love rock Jishu jinja

But the most intriguing thing about it is that it is uniquely associated with the Shinto Jishu shrine in its grounds, which is the shrine of love. The shrine has all manner of good luck charms and oracles including a pair of rocks hopeful lovers try to walk between with their eyes shut to seek their fortunes in love and a shrine to Ogaki-myojn, the guardian deity who answers all prayers especially for ladies, even those who nailed straw dolls to the trees below during 2 am visits to curse their betrayers.

Women in kimonos on an outing to Kyomizudera

Being in the name of love, the temple has a unique air of affection and draws both streams of school children and young women in kimonos out to celebrate the mystery of love's fortune, who are pleased to be photographed and found beautiful in the eye of the beholder.

Wedding Shimogamo Jinja

We have also made a tour of many of the Shinto shrines in Kyoto, which in contrast to the fees charged by touristic Buddhist temples, have stayed true to their sacred calling and remain free. We are next to Kenkun jinja a quiet hill top shrine, but have also visited Yoshida and Yanaka shrines and the very picturesque Shimogamo shrine set in a park between the two forks of the river which was literally pulsating with a series of wedding ceremonies, and 'christenings' of infants demonstrating the relationship between Shinto and the rights of passage of life in birth and marriage, and a ceremony between a Shinto priest and his partner wildly dressed up like a woman in a traditinal Japanese medieval play almost unable to move for the flowing bulky garments, requiring two attendants to get her into her clogs to move to the next shrine.

Man in Shinto priestly attire with woman
in traditional dress in ceremony at Shimogamo

Earlier on in the piece we had travelled to Otsu on the shores of Lake Biwa, half an hour out of Kyoto to watch the Otsu matsuri, a festival like to one at Kakunadote where medieval three wheeled two-storey high chariots containing teams of flute players and drummers, covered in ornate old brocades, each with its own puppet theatre telling a different tale are blessed at the shrine, before being pulled around the town with frenzied energy by teams of men in Kimonos and loin cloths, again with a procession of the elders, priests, little girls and boys in costume, while at the same time throwing out good luck charms to the crowds who vie with one another to pick up the prizes.

Otsu Matsuri Chariots

We have stopped in small temple markets where we found fresh vegetables, sexy cups with naked geishas, a monk doing wild staccato rap sutras.

Naughty Geisha Teacups Temple Market

We also spent a day traveling by train to Nara, where there is a park with several quaint old temples and shrines. Nara was before Kyoto the capital and its priests became very powerful before being eclipsed by Kyoto, which in turn gave way to the economic power of Tokyo as capital in 1868 marking the start of the Meiji period. Nijo castle in Kyoto records the council in which the Shogun was compelled finally to utter a decree transferring power back to the emperor in the state room in a set of mannequins.

Sculpture Nissenzaki district

Nara's Kofuku-ji has one of the tallest old wood pagodas in Japan. Like Kyomisudera, Todai-ji's Daibutsu-den hall housing the great Buddha is a photo-friendly rustic temple thronged by crowds of school children, along with the Nigatsu-do hall which has a sweeping view of Nara. Behind these is the secluded Shinto Kasuga shrine which was again celebrating life in an infant blessing, amid throngs of deer which wait to eat deer biscuits we mistakenly consumed ourselves last time in 1984 and which try to sneak up and nibble your sandwiches.

Women worshiping at a Tengu shrine Kurama.
Tengu is also a mountain protector.

A couple of days ago for another change of scene, we traveled by a neat little mountain railway a few kilometres North of Kyoto to Kurama and Kibune, where there is a Buddhist and Shinto complex straddling a forested mountain park, which we ascended in a long winding pathway with great views out over the hills. The temple belongs to the slightly bizarre Kurama-Kokyo sect which, believes that more than six million years ago, Mao-son the great king of conquerors of evil and the spirit of the earth, descended on Mt. Kurama from Venus with the great mission of the salvation of mankind. While this conflicts with evolution as madly as the Christian view of a four thousand year creation, it does make a refreshing twist to the religious fantasies of humankind. Consistent with the engagement of Buddhism with renunciation and death, rather than life and life energies, the main hall had a candle-lit mausoleum below full of the urns of the ashes of the dead in long rows like an ancient DNA library.

Geishas officiating at the Doll Burning Ceremony

Yesterday we found ourselves intimately involved in two different festivals. The first was a solemn 'doll burning' ceremony at the Hokyoji nunnery, which houses a very expensive 1000 yen exhibition of dolls the daughters of the emperor brought when they set up the temple. This consisted of a huge display of hundreds of Japanese dolls, and a solemn ceremony in which the nuns read sutras, while three extremely photogenic Geishas in ornately woven attire made offerings and the small crowd offered prayers.

Women's shrine team at the Kasuga festival

Afterwards we headed to the Kasuga shrine just North West of Shi-in station where the Shinto deities are taken out into the town by two teams of two hundred men in hand-carried scintillating Arks of the Covenant, and a smaller team of women carrying a women's Ark, to ensure the deities go out to the people and remain alive and entwined in the life of the people. We arrived just in time to see the Arcs being blessed by the priests, the procession of elders, men on horseback, little girls in headdresses and boys piping flutes, followed by the women wildly joggling their shrine Arc and then the two teams of men with great gusto wielding their two shrines out into the street and away on a route round the neighbourhood.

400 men carry the two male shrines and
vie with one another for energetics.

Tomorrow we hit the railroad for Tokyo (probably another chain of locals but hopefully using rapids that jump at least some stops), where there is an evening lantern festival at Ikebukuro over the next couple of days and will explore the love hotels and red light districts of Shibuya and Shinjuku.

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