Friday, 27 April 2007


Otagi Nenbutsuji

Otagi Nenbutsuji was founded by Emperor Shotoku in the mid 8th century and was located near the Kamo river until it was relocated to Arashiyama in 1921. Read more about Otagi Nenbutsuji here and here.

Read more about the day I went to Otagi Nenbutuji here.

Day 4: Kyoto

On the evening of my third day in Kansai I had been planning on getting a very early night so that I would have enough energy for another day of sightseeing. Unfortunately, things did not turn out that way. I had a sore stomach which was keeping me awake, but more annoying than that was the noise that was going on in the corridor. The floor I was staying on was the women’s floor, which was on the second floor of the hotel. Out in the corridor there were the sounds of someone banging and crashing about and walking up and down the corridor in plastic slippers. I thought there was some weirdo out there who had come down from another floor to prowl for women. Whoever it was tried to get into my room several times by jerking on the door handle impatiently. It was so scary! Eventually I called out in Japanese “Stop it!” and whoever it was stopped trying to get in. At about 11 o’clock the sounds stopped, and five minutes after that I and some other women who had obviously been too scared to leave their rooms went out to use the toilet while the chance was available. At 11.30 the sounds started again. Bins being knocked over, shuffling feet, etc. Whoever it was got into the room next to mine which, when I went to the toilet, I noticed the door of which was slightly ajar. They bumped around in there for a while before going out again. It was 12.30 by the time it was quiet enough for me to go to sleep.

Shortly after 6am I was woken by shuffling slippers and banging. Not again, I thought. Then I heard whoever it was banging on a door further down a corridor, and the voice of a very young child calling “Mummy!” That whole time it had been some small child causing all that racket! What kind of mother would let their pre-school child prowl about unsupervised and get up to mischief in the corridors of a hotel at midnight? I was so angry that I had been robbed of hours of sleep by some child who had a bad parent.

I checked out of the hotel shortly after 8am and headed back to Kyoto. My Surutto Pass ticket had run out so I had to buy tickets that day. I left my bag in a coin locker in Kyoto station and caught a bus towards a temple that I had heard about and very much wanted to see. I knew which number bus to catch and the name of the stop, but I didn’t know how long it was going to take. I was on that bus for ages. It drove to Arashiyama, through Arashiyama, and out the other side before I finally reached my destination: Otagi Nenbutsuji.

Otagi Nenbutsuji is an old temple that used to be located in the Otagi area of Kyoto near the Kamo River. At that time it was called Otagi-dera. It got destroyed multiple times: by flood, war, typhoon, earthquake, and many fires. Which is funny, because one of the main deities worshipped there is a ‘protection against fire’ god. Otagi-dera has got to be the unluckiest temple in all of Kyoto, if not Japan. Eventually in 1921, the people financing the temple decided that enough was enough and that the temple would be moved somewhere safer. When I got there I found that it was indeed very isolated. It is stuck up in the top corner of a valley that runs out into the mountains around Kyoto. 40 metres up the road from the temple, the road becomes one lane and goes into a tunnel through the mountains. How does a one lane tunnel work? There are lights at either end of the tunnel that have a period of about 5 minutes or more to give traffic enough time to pass through.

After the temple received extensive damage yet again (this time by typhoon) the people in the area decided to donate little Buddha statues to it to try and attract some good luck to the temple. The volunteers studied under a professional carver to learn how to make the statues. Then they started carving, and made thousands of buddhas between 1982 and 1991. But many of the people who made the statues had senses of humour, and not many of the statues are carved in traditional style. In fact, some are pretty funny e.g. boxing Buddhas and miniature Moais. Take a look at my photographs to see what I mean.

While I was at Otagi Nenbutsuji it started to drizzle, and I didn’t have an umbrella. I went over the road to see when the next bus would be along. It wasn’t for another 25 minutes. There was no shelter at the bus stop so I waited under the eaves of the temple gate. It started to rain harder. After looking at all those Ghibli-like statues, and then to be standing under a gate in a forest in the mountains surrounded my mist and rain, I really felt like I had stumbled into a Ghibli movie. I thought that the bus that came for me might be a Nekobus, if I was lucky.

As I stood there I started to get this creepy feeling on the back of my neck as if someone were staring at me. I turned around and found that the left-hand guardian of the gate was staring right at me. The guardians are statues of (usually) fearsome warrior-deities that are inside the structure of the gate behind a lattice or net so they can look out and keep bad spirits from entering the temple. The spot I had chosen to stand in was directly in the view of the scary-faced, reflective-eyed statue. The way the statue was in the dark but it’s eyes flashed golden made it look as if it were really looking at me. I took a step sidewards.

Eventually I had to cross the road and stand in the rain because if I was not at the bus stop then the bus would no doubt just pass by. The bus came, and it was not a Nekobus. How disappointing. So I took a bus all the way back to Kyoto. Even though it took so long to get there and back, the trip to Otagi Nenbutsuji was well worth it.

I was feeling tired and groggy so I made my only travel mistake I made on the whole trip: I got on the 201 bus not the 205 and so it took a while to get to my next destination – Daitokuji. At one point the bus driver of the 201 was yelling something at me that I didn’t understand. He was obviously in a bad temper. It turned out that it was the end of the line (the 201 is a loop bus and the end of the line was not marked on my map so I didn’t know) and he was angry at me because he couldn’t see my face and thought I was just some idiot Japanese person who was ignoring him until I stood up and he saw that I am foreign and so had an excuse. I hope he was ashamed of himself, snapping at me like that. At least I now know the word for ‘end of the line’ after having it yelled at me like that. I transferred to the 205 there.

Anyway, I got to the area of Daitokuji without further trouble. It was cold even though the rain had stopped, and I was tired, hungry and not feeling so good. I entered a small Japanese set menu restaurant. It turned out that the husband and wife pair who owned the restaurant were very, very deaf and didn’t notice me enter the restaurant and then consistently didn’t notice when anyone else entered or wanted to pay and leave the restaurant. People had to keep saying “Excuse me. Excuse me. EXCUSE ME!” to them before they got any service. Great comic relief. I ordered ‘Nikujaga teishoku’ which is a dish of potatoes, thinly cut beef and onions in a thin gravy served with rice, miso soup, salad and pickles. It was just what I needed, and so it tasted so good to me even though it was quite an ordinary dish, if you know what I mean.

After I had finished refilling the tank, I headed into Daitokuji. Daitokuji is not one temple, it is an area where lots of little temples are all clustered together. There are usually between 3-5 of the temples open to the public at any time, while the rest are closed. You have to pay an entry fee for each temple you visit. First I entered a small quiet temple that had raked gravel gardens. Everyone was very quiet and respectful while inside (a rare condition that is found in all the temples in Daitokuji, but is rather rare at other attractions within Kyoto). Photography was allowed. Excellent. Then I went to another temple. Photography was only allowed in the garden. I spent a while padding about in my socks on the balconies surrounding beautiful little buildings while peering into gorgeous little tearooms and stuff. It was quite nice to walk along covered walkways through the cold gardens in my socks. It felt so good to get out of the shoes I had been wearing for several days.

Next I went to Daisen-in, which is a tiny temple containing a very famous raked gravel garden. No photography is allowed inside, so I was very glad I had seen the other gravel garden earlier. I sat down on the edge of the balcony overlooking the garden with my yet again shoeless feet resting on a concrete step. The eaves of the roof were shielding me from the rain that had started to fall again. I was cold and more than tired and I felt sick and it was raining and I ought to have been depressed, but somehow I was happy. I sat there in silence and watched the rain falling on the gravel amongst a few other people I didn’t know who were also looking at the rain and somehow I was so happy I felt like crying, and my physical discomfort only added to my happiness. I really must have been tired. Either that or I am only a few steps away from Enlightenment.

I went for a walk around the cobbled streets of Daitokuji and found a long tree-lined path to walk along that reminded me of the path beside my old primary school in England. Then I walked all the way back to the front again. I had only decided to go to Daitokuji because I had heard that there are few tourists there. I had assumed that it would be a little boring and that I would only spend a short while there before moving on. But instead, I was there for quite a while and I am so glad I went. It was absolutely wonderful.

I had been hoping to take a mountain tram up to a famous hot spring in the mountains north of Kyoto, and although I had the time to go, I did not have the energy. Instead I went back to the station area. I decided to use the public bath that I had heard was located in the basement of Kyoto Tower. It is advertised as ‘the biggest bath in central Kyoto’ and the picture on the poster (an illustration not a photograph) shows a huge, beautiful bath. That has to be the worst case of false advertising I have ever come across. That bath is the smallest public bath I have ever been in. The bath was just a little kidney bean shaped thing that about four people at a time might be able to crowd into. The shower faucets were old-looking, and it was bloody expensive! But I got clean, that is the main thing.

I bought a ticket to Kyoto tower proper and spent quite a while up there peering through the mists with the binoculars trying to see the sights I had visited. I found Kiyomizu-dera, the first place I had visited in Kyoto. It is up on the side of a mountain so it is not hidden behind anything. It was almost hidden in the clouds but I could just see the stage and the flashes of cameras from the top. I remembered that I myself had stood up on the stage and had looked at Kyoto Tower, and I felt that I had neatly wrapped up my holiday. I bought the necessary Kyoto souvenir sweets for my places of work and my English conversation class and then I had dinner in a pasta restaurant in Kyoto station. There were still nearly two hours before I could catch the train, so after I got my bag out of the coin locker I spent a bit more than an hour staring at a ‘water phoenix clock’ thing that was set up near some seats in the station building. It was a big model of a phoenix standing on a clock with pillars of bubbly water behind it. Weird but hypnotic. Then I went through the barrier and waited again for a while until I could board the train. Once I was aboard, I quickly went to bed. The train got to Kisakata at 6.30am and I waited there for an hour until I could catch the five minute train home.

Thursday, 19 April 2007


Kinkakuji was built as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397. It was converted to a Buddhist temple of the Rinzai sect by his son after his death. Kinkakuji has burned down several times, not only in the Onin Wars (when most of Kyoto burned) but also in 1950 as a result of arson. The arsonist was a mentally disturbed monk who was supposed to be looking after the pavillion. Read more about Kinkakuji here and here.

Read more about the day I went to Kinkakuji here.

Osaka jo Park

The original Osaka Castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi between 1583 and 1598. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since that time. The current concrete reconstruction is based on the version of the castle that was built by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and which was quite different to the Toyotomi version of the castle. Read more about Osaka jo here and here.

Read more about the day I went to Osaka jo here.


Shitennoji was built by Prince Shotoku in 593, only a short while after Buddhism was first brought to Japan. The temple is layed out in an archaic style quite unlike modern Buddhist temples. Read more about Shitennoji here and here.

Read more about the day I went to Shitennoji here.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Sumiyoshi Taisha

Sumiyoshi Taisha is one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Unlike Ujigami Shrine, which is probably older, Sumiyoshi Taisha is still built in the original pre-Buddhist influence Japanese architectural style. Read more about Sumiyoshi Taisha here and here.

Read more about the day I went to Sumiyoshi Taisha here.

Day 3: Osaka and Kyoto

On Friday 23rd I had planned to spend the morning sightseeing in Osaka and then, if I had time, heading over to Kyoto for a bit of sightseeing there too. The first place I went in the morning was Spa World, which was right around the corner from my hotel. Spa World is this big huge building with huge spa rooms, swimming pools, gyms, video arcades and all sorts of other crazy things. It is supposed to be a place where you can hang out for hours and hours and relax. The only part I wanted to go to was the spa. Since Spa World is open 24 hours I thought I could just rock up at any time and it would be OK. But when I got there at 8am I found out that the spa is closed between 8.45am and 10am for cleaning. The person at the counter said there were many other things I could do there while the spa was being cleaned, but I didn’t want to do those things, did I? Also I didn’t want to spend all day there, I had sightseeing to do. So I hurried.

I’ll go back in time a little to explain the craziness of the Spa World system, back to when I first entered the building. The main reason I had gone to Spa World is because in March they have 1000 yen deals, whereas during the rest of the year it costs more than 2000 yen to get in. I entered the building and found myself in a big lobby area. A guard immediately came up to me and showed me to the ticket machine. I bought my 1000 yen ticket. The ticket was made of silver plastic and was the size of a credit card. Then the guard showed me to the big huge counter area, which looked like an airport customs area. The guard said to the two people behind a counter “Explain everything to her,” and went back to the door. I gave the plastic ticket to the lady and never got it back (I assume they recycle them). In exchange I got an electronic wrist-strap to wear. The two people at the counter explained to me that the spa would be closing soon. They didn’t explain anything else to me though, even when I made it clear that I can speak Japanese. They just gave me a piece of paper with the floor plan written in English. So I walked into the lobby and all of a sudden the guard is yelling “Oi! Stop!” at me from the other side of the barrier. I freeze. He is pointing at my shoes. Apparently as soon as I had finished at the counter I was supposed to have taken my shoes off. No one had told me that. So I took my shoes off. Then the guard yelled “Oi! Oi!” at me, and whistled to get my attention (which he already had) and pointed to the left of the lobby to show me where the shoe locker area was. So I went there and found that the shoe locker needed to have a 100 yen coin put in it, which I didn’t have. So I started back towards the counter to ask for change. Then the guard whistled at me again and pointed towards a pillar. I walked around the pillar and found a change machine on the other side. So I got my change and put my shoes in a locker and turned around and thought “Now where do I go?” because from the locker area there was no visible way to the rest of the building. Sure enough the guard whistled at me and pointed. The elevators to the rest of the building were tucked in a corner all the way over on the other side of the huge lobby blocked from view from the shoe lockers by the huge airport-like ranks of counters. I was feeling pretty pissed off by this time, from needing to hurry but getting stuck in this crazy system and on top of that getting directed about as if I was a sheepdog, so I strode across the lobby in a way that I haven’t really done while I have been living here in Japan and pushed the call button with more force than necessary. Possibly the fact that I had not yet had any tea to drink that morning had something to do with it.

There are two floors of spas at Spa World, a ‘Western’ spa and an ‘Eastern’ spa. One month women will be in the Western spa and men in the Eastern, and then the next month it changes. When I went there women were in the Western spa. I got my clothes off (and got a second armband with my locker key – my arm felt very loaded down). Then I went to the spa. The first room of the spa area contained a huge circular bath the size of a small swimming pool with huge statues of Greek gods at one side of it. There was a fountain shooting up out of the water and the walls of the room were modelled to look like some type of temple. The water was much too hot for me, so I moved on. I found myself in a small square with a clock in it (8.20am). In front of me was a cafĂ©. It was closed then because it was so close to closing time, but during the day it must sell drinks (which can be paid for with the wrist-straps). I assume people just sit about naked on the chairs (on their towels, I hope) and have a refreshing drink before continuing with their bathing. There were some other rooms leading off the square to various saunas and massage rooms (paid for with the wrist-strap) which were also closed.

I walked to the left and found a bath that was inside a fake cave. It was all dark in there, and there were very fake-looking paintings on the wall which were supposed to represent scenes viewable from various fake cave mouths. The rocks of the ‘cave’ were painted dark grey. The water in that spa contained honey and milk, which are supposed to be good for your skin. I walked in another direction and found a fake log sauna with ‘outside’ cold bath. The water was VERY cold. I wasn’t game enough to get in. Then I found a room full of roman baths. There were two little herb baths that smelled very nice. They were under little roofs held up by (I think) Ionian columns. I’m not very good at telling the different columns apart. There was another bath in the middle of the room with water that did something but I couldn’t read the sign so I don’t know what it did. The bath was surrounded by four statues that were made to look broken. Coming off that room were the mud baths, but they were closed.

I found another room of baths. The room was called the Atlantis room. It was dark and bluish in there, with big screens on the wall playing aquatic videos accompanied by aquatic music. There were two baths; a fizzy bath with a little waterfall along one side and a detox bath that was also a fish tank. Yes, a fish tank. I don’t mean that there were fish in the bath. The bath was made of Perspex on all sides. Along one side there was a big wall-like fish tank with tropical fish in it. There was also a fish tank UNDER the bath. So one could sit in front of the wall fish tank and look forwards and see fish, and then look downwards and see fish, and feel like one was under the sea. And not drown. Quite nifty, actually, although I think it would be better if there were fish tanks on three sides of the bath, not just one. That would be cool.

In the end it did not matter that the baths closed at 8.45 because by 8.35 I already felt like I had been doing far too much getting into hot water, and that I should really stop before I started to get dizzy. So I rinsed off, got dressed and sat on a seat in the hallway drinking green tea I bought from a vending machine and waiting for my face to stop pulsing with heat it had picked up from the heat of the spas. Then I went to leave. Before you can leave Spa World you have to put the wrist-strap into a machine and pay any extra charges you have racked up on it. There were instructions in English above the machine, but they said ‘Press the correct button’ and a dozen buttons came up on the screen and I couldn’t figure out which one was the correct one. An employee came to help me. I got my exit card which came out of the machine in exchange for the wrist-strap, I got my shoes, and I left the building by putting the plastic card through a wicket thingie and I was finally free. It was 9am.

It took a while to figure out where to board the train I wanted to board to get to Sumiyoshi Taisha. The train that goes there is a Nankai line train, which is the line that goes between Osaka and Kansai Airport. Theoretically that line has a Shin Imamiya stop, but Shin Imamiya combined station is very, very long and the Nankai station area of it was quite a long way away, 300, 400 metres or so, so far that I hadn’t thought that that area was still a part of the station. But I got there. Then I managed to get on a rapid train and overshoot my stop, and I had to get off and wait for a local train to take me back and it took ages, and it was 10am by the time I got to Sumiyoshi Taisha and I was already very sick of Osaka and thinking fondly on the previous day when I was in Nara and things were so much easier.

Sumiyoshi Taisha wasn’t all that great. It felt very old, but I was expecting it to be big because it is described in the Tale of Genji as being a big important shrine. But that was 1000 years ago and it seems as if it has lost a lot of land since then as cities grew up around it. But it had a nice bridge and some huge god-trees, which were nice. Then I travelled to Shitennoji. It turned out that the market was on that day. I had read on the internet that several times a week there is a market ‘around’ the temple, but it turns out that the market is ‘in’ the temple, with only the inner temple area spared from the madness. That’s Osaka for you. I ate a Korean pancake-like thing there, picked up a Danish and a can of grapefruit juice at a nearby bakery and then travelled to Osakajo Park. I ate my Danish and drank my juice, and then I went for a walk. I went far enough into the park to get pictures of Osaka Castle, but I did not go into the castle itself. Osaka Castle is a recent reconstruction, and I’ve heard that the inside is made of concrete. I’m not paying good money to look at concrete.

I caught an express train to Kyoto and then caught the subway and a bus to Kinkakuji. It is very beautiful, but so much so that it looks fake. It is hard to believe that THAT much gold was actually rounded up for the reconstruction. Then I went for a walk to find Gallery Gado, a small museum/shop that sells real modern-day Ukiyou-e. I bought a small print. I own a real Ukiyou-e. I got on a bus that was headed back towards the city centre. It was so full of people and was a very uncomfortable ride. Instead of riding all of the way I had been intending on riding, I got off as soon as the bus stopped somewhere I could transfer to the subway. I ate dinner in that area before taking the subway to somewhere I could catch a train back to Osaka. And that was the end of day three.

Sunday, 8 April 2007


The Byodoin used to be the country retreat of a powerful Fujiwara noble back in the mid-Heian Period, but his son converted it into a Buddhist temple in 1052. Read more about Byodoin and its pavilion the Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall) here and here.

Read more about the day I went to Byodoin here.