Monday, August 30, 2010

Kyoto Station - Looking for the Forest in the Sky

29th October, 2006 - After a quick walk around Tō-ji, T-chan and I met up again to have closer look at Kyōto Station. It's strange that such a focal point of travel in and around Kyōto can often be overlooked. It's not as if Kyōto Station is exactly non-descript. It stands out like a sore thumb - in a good way (of course).  It's a massive building, occupying 238,000 m2, and is some 470 m long and about 70 m high. That's one very large train station. Built in 1997, it is a sign of the modern in an otherwise traditionalist town. If you come to Kyōto, you will invariably come here at some point.

You can find a very nice view from the very top of the station. A wide expansive view of modern Kyōto - now burdened with concrete and steel, all competing with glass to block out the sky. It is a city undergoing growing pains. And yet for all this post-WWII urbanisation, there remains a touch of magic. A small bamboo forest can be found on the top floor. A lone solitary reminder of the beauty of nature that surrounds the city.

The building houses 11 floors of restaurants, department stores, cinema, hotels, clothing stores, convenience stores, post office, tour operators - even a Mister Donuts- and if you're in need of guidance, there's a foreign tourist help centre (8th floor). My only question is - why put the tourist help centre near the top of the building. Because we'd done a lot of research on what we wanted to see, we didn't find the help centre that helpful.... but it's worth popping into see what's happening around the time you go.

Christmas in October in Japan... just in case you wondered what it would look like...

The open-air atrium-like structure is an interesting architectural feature - that can also double as a half-decent amphitheatre. You have the choice of escalator or stairs... As a  theatre, I'd recommend sitting on the stairs. Also, don't expect to find too many bins here. Not sure if this is all a post-terrorism thing, or a cost-cutting thing... it is an annoying thing however.

It's a long way down to the bottom... and if you're like me and heights aren't your strong-point, you might be thinking that architecture is for those that don't struggle with... er... don't struggle with.... um... ok... I'm unlikely to get work here cleaning all of these windows.

As I said - the building is not exactly discreet. It is however nice that the city, renowned for it's 1200 years of history, could embrace (even reluctantly) the modern designs of Kyōto Station. I also have a soft-spot for some of the modern Japanese architecture. The architect, Hara Hiroshi, also designed the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka (we'll see this a bit more later on) and the Sapporo Dome. Good ol' Sapporo... I miss you already.

And near the station stands another of the eyesores landmarks of the city... Kyōto Tower. A 131 m high relic of the 1960's when big was beautiful. And concrete. To be replaced in the 90's by cubism, cut-aways and glass.

Whilst the day started out strange with T-chan getting jiggy with the toilet bowl (morning sickness), we ended up having a very relaxing day walking around the shops and stores. It's not exactly Ginza or even downtown Sapporo for that matter... but it's good place to spend down time... and to find a quiet forest somewhere.
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Toji - Now The Carnival is Over

29th October, 2006 - Our plans had more or less worked out so far on our holiday (apart from the small matter of T-chan being pregnant). Today was going to be our return trip to Tō-ji , scheduled for the morning... However as T-chan was busy getting intimate with the porcelain (so to speak) with morning sickness, she thought it a good time for me to do some sight-seeing by myself. Thankfully Tō-ji was only about 20mins walk away (the other side of Kyōto Station), and so was an easy trip on foot.

Why return to Tō-ji, I hear you ask? Well - we first went during the famous market day (the 21st of each month), which whilst a very good idea to do if you're planning on visiting Kyōto, it does have a downside that you don't get to see the temple for what it is. One of the oldest existing temples in Kyōto. So I put on my walking shoes and set in tow.

Now just a quick reminder - Tō-ji was one of two temples that stood either side of the grand boulevard into Kyōto (Tō-ji being the eastern one). It was first constructed with the birth of the city in 796, but the oldest building remaining dates from 1491 (though the statues are near original). The temple is associated with the the famous monk and founder of the esoteric form of Shingon Buddhism in Japan - Kūkai.

The most physically prominent feature of the temple complex is the five storied pagoda which, like the nearby Kyōto Tower, can be clearly seen from quite a distance all around. This is now the highest pagoda in Japan, at some 187 feet (or about 55 metres), and was originally constructed in 826 AD. Like much of the temples of Japan, it has suffered mishap, having been burnt down a total of five times. The present pagoda dates from 1644, re-constructed on orders from Tokugawa Iemitsu. There are recorded references to seven story pagodas (standing at over 100 metres tall), however, these now no longer exist.

The design of the pagodas are nothing short of amazing when set against the environment of one of the most earthquake prone countries on earth  (and a good technical description can be found here). Essentially, each tier of the pagoda can be considered a separate (i.e. independent) box structure, of progressively smaller dimensions as you go up. The structure is built upon 12 outer pillars - each inset further with each story.

The heavy overhanging eaves actually act as a counter-weight to the weight of the next story... and therefore the size of the eaves is dependent on the height (and weight), and vice versa.

Of course - the topmost level eaves are not balanced by a higher-story, but instead by a very heavy iron spire - which serves to anchor the top-story.

The pagoda itself remains locked for most of the year, so the artwork and Buddhist statues remain out of sight. Yet still it remains one of the most visited sites in Kyōto.

The Kon-dō building (below) holds the Yakushi (Healing) Triad, made up of the Yakushi-nyorai and the two attendants, Nikkō and Gakkō Bosatsu. The building also contains the 12 Sacred Generals.
The Kondo or Main Hall

The most important religious feature of the temple is the Kō-dō, or Lecture Hall, which contains the 21 statues placed according to the Mikkyō Mandala. The statues placement is based on mandalas brought from China by Kūkai. Originally completed in 835, the present structure dates from 1603. The statues centre around the image of Dainichi Nyorai, around which are the four Kongokai (Daimond World) Buddhas: Ashuku; Hosho; Fuku; and Amida. To the left are the Godai Myo-o, the Five Radiant Kings, and to the right the five Bodhisattvas – each surrounding a central figure. At the four points, are the located the four Shitenno, or Deva, that protect the world from evil.

Alas - as they don't allow cameras in here, you will need to come to Tō-ji to see it, or alternatively pop into some other very good sites, such as this one.

The Jikido Hall with Kyoto Tower in the distance

A view through the southern gate
Like many temples in Japan, there have been many significant changes, especially due to the constant threat of fire and earthquakes. Many of the structures were destroyed during the Onin Wars (1467-77). The Great South Gate (above) was actually moved from the nearby Sanjusangendo temple, in 1894 - and the current precinct is only a quarter of it’s original size.

Whilst I walked around Tō-ji, I couldn't help but feel a little empty. My constant companion (through life and through this trip) was back in our apartment suffering morning sickness. This place seemed deserted now (especially compared to the throngs of the 21st when the flea market is on) - and it perhaps left me a little cold the second time around. The pagoda is one of the symbols of Kyōto, and therefore it's almost unmissable on any itinerary. Also, it's easy walking distance from the main station, and stands as one of the foundation temples of this city of temples. Still, I wonder if the temple - much like the basis of the Shingon sect itself - is just a little too esoteric for the likes of us mere mortals. When the crowds have gone, you realise that this place is not a place for people, but a place where the city marks time.
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Shopping for Salvation?

28th October, 2006 - We spent the rest of the day shopping in and around Matsubara Dori - which approaches Kiyomizu Dera (and where we didn't have time to do the first time we were here). This is a great place to buy all sorts of traditional Japanese goods. I didn't take any photos (strangely) during our shopping... but it's a great place to find that unusual trinket or piece of pottery. The pottery is famous here, known as Kiyomizu-yaki - and ranges from 1000 yen to the skies-the-limit. Our skies, however, definitely had limits - and we ended up getting some nice traditional tea cups here...

Being in this neck of the woods also gave us a chance to have another quick look around Kiyomizu Dera - the backyard view. I love Jizo statues - especially when there's lots of them. These are not the standard form I'm familiar with, but they give me the same tingle down my spine when I see them. A minature stone audience, watching silently as we walk on by. Are they judging us, or there to be judged? Do they offer salvation, or seek it? What message are they willing to impart to us?

There's always something maudlin about their quiet solitude, their red bibs (and sometimes hats) prepared by those seeking solace, slowly fading with time. With each year, the statues are returned, grain by grain, to the earth from which they came. These Jizo statues are found by following the path to the left once you reach the entrance of Kiyomizu Dera.

This was an easy day - but every holiday needs easy days... doesn't it?
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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sanjusangendo - I Just Love to Count

28th October, 2006 - It was a chilly early morning when we got up. Our first destination was Sanjusangendo... one of the most famous and popular temples in Kyōto, Sanjusangendo (literally 33 bays) Temple complex was first constructed on the orders of the ex-Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127-92) in the year 1164 AD on the site of one of the Imperial villas. The cloistered Emperor had become a follower of the Buddhist Kannon, and was assisted by Taira-no-Kiyomori (of the Heiké clan) who was defacto ruler of Kyōto at that time.

The complex was destroyed, as with many such temples, in 1249, from which only about 125 Kannon statues were saved. It was then re-constructed by Emperor Go-Fukakusa (1243 – 1304). The temple is also known as the Renge-o in.

The most famous feature of the temple are the 1,001 Kannon statues which are our arranged along the 33 bays (hence the name) of the main Hondo building (shown above) which stretches some 390 feet from end to end. Each of the Kannon were the product (after the first reconstruction) of approximately seventy artisans under the famous artist Tenkei who personally constructed the central larger Kannon statue (shown below) at the age of 82.
Photo taken  from official pamphlet (no cameras allowed inside)

This central Kannon has 500 smaller Kannon located on either side, together with the 28 guardians of Buddhism (Nijuhachibu-shu) – and are also bookended by the gods of fire (Fujin) and wind (Raijin). Whilst it is the sheer scale of the smaller Kannon statues that initially inspires the visitor, almost without fail it is the individual statues themselves that captures the attention after recovering from the initial shock. Each of the 1,000 Kannon is reportedly unique, based on the individual designs of each of the artisans.

Photo taken from official pamphlet (no cameras allowed inside)

The story has it that the statues have 1,000 arms, however a quick count will find only 40 in total on each statue. By Buddhist reckoning however, each arm can reach into 25 different worlds (ok doing the maths 25 x 40 = 1000... convenient). Furthermore, each Kannon can have 33 representations, and thus there are 33,000 different representations of the Kannon. Man... my head is starting to hurt with all this transcendental mathemagics.... Each Kannon statue also has 11 different heads, and each palm is adorned (though difficult to see with the naked eye) with an eye. 

The statues were constructed using the yosegi technique where a number of crudely carved hollowed wooden boards are secured together. The hollowing prevented cracking due to shrinkage of the wood with age. After this the surface carving was conducted and then they were lacquered and gold-plated. This technique has been central to the excellent preservation of the essentially wooden statues in Japan.

Sanjusangendo is also the location of the archery contest known as Hikizome Matsuri ("first shooting festival") on the 15th of January each year. This contest started in 1606 when aspiring archers would have to shoot the 196 feet along the veranda of the Hondo at a target 1 yard in diameter. The record being 8,233 hits (out of 13,053) in 24 hours, in 1686 AD. Now that's some sporting dedication for you... but perhaps this is one sport that Fox might skip over (or at least limit to the highlights package).

Now the verandah's look rather empty - it's hard to imagine such a spectacle here.

The grounds of Sanjusangendo themselves are simple, almost sparse - and there's no sense of the grand Kyōto gardens here. There is a straight-forward practicality exhibited.

They know that the real attraction lies within the long wooden temple building... 

Overall - I'd definitely recommend visiting Sanjusangendo - you can visit it separately or include it in a trip to Kiyomizu Dera. In my opinion it most probably rates as one of the more popular temples amongst Japanese, more so than foreign tourists... but it is very rewarding to both. Take your time, don't bring in too many expectations, and enjoy trying to find your doppleganger amongst the assembled Kannon statues.

BTW - the temple is also noted for selling small charms for safe car-driving (don't ask me why)... o' those crazy monks!

Back in Good Ol' Cold Adelaide

Well after almost 4 weeks in Japan, our whole family is back in wintery Adelaide. It was a fantastic family holiday, and we enjoyed the summer in Japan (my first). Sapporo was surprisingly hot and humid (did I hear someone say global warming?).... but nothing compared to Tokyo which was a real sauna. It was a good trip for all, and my 3yo son has picked up an enormous amount of Japanese in only 9 weeks. Personal shame (at how difficult it is for a 30something to pickup a new language) is mixed heavily with a great pride that he's adapting himself to both backgrounds so well. Then again... you'll meet him on the blog soon enough.

We're all suffering from Japanese food-withdrawal already... nothing like good authentic home-made Japanese food... exactly like your mother-in-law used to make!

I've decided to keep the chronology of the blog going - so I won't blog about this trip until after I've finished the other trips...  perhaps just in time for my next (8th) trip to Japan which is looking like being in April/May 2011. The clock is ticking down for that already. I might post some snapshots on a separate page as a "teaser".... but I'm still slowly getting back into the swing of things.

So.... hope you enjoy the resumption of normal programming.