Japan Day 5: Kimono Selfies at Kiyomizu-dera
May 5, 2016 by David T. Allen
Our fifth day was filled with kind people, the historic streets of Kyoto, a temple that was built in the 700s, and a giant rabbit statue. We rounded out the night with a trip to Kyoto Station, my favorite station in all of Japan.
The pictures were taken on Friday, November 13, 2015.
Leslie caught the bug I caught just before we left America, so we decided to take it easy and just walk to temples around the hostel.
The amazake we had near Fushimi Inaria Taisha was nice on the throat, so I asked the reception desk where we could find some. The receptionist was surprised, because no one had ever asked before. She recommended checking convenience stores, but we couldn’t find any there.
We visited Otani Honbyo, which didn’t have much English, nor did it seem like a tourist attraction (there are no English reviews on TripAdvisor), so I had to look it up while writing this article to get its name.
I saw an elderly man about to take a picture of his wife near a bridge, so I offered to take one of them together. He was surprised to hear a foreigner speak Japanese, but they were pleased and insisted on taking one for Leslie and I too.
This encounter was the beginning of a wonderful day filled with kind people.
I also snapped a photo of this plant, which looks like it has tiny persimmons on it and I’ve wanted a persimmon for some time now.
Chanting permeated Otani Honbyo. The gate man watched us wash our hands with ladles in a chozuya purification stand and smiled with his eyes. He told us to go through, it was free.
Generally speaking, we prefer Shinto shrines. Golden Buddhist shrines just don’t strike our interest. However, the sparse items inside this plain hall were fetching.
Here’s a few more, to get a feel for the area:
Flowers were everywhere. The only other visitors were a handful of somber Japanese adults. Leslie and I sensed this was not a tourist destination or, at least, something special was happening.
When the praying stopped, a few people exited the back of the shrine. We tossed some coins in the offertory saisen box, then shook the rope and clapped.
As we left, the gate man asked us to come over. The only thing he said in English was we were a nice couple. I responded in Japanese, so he asked us a few questions about where we’re from, etc. He was the only smiling face inside the grounds.
I asked him if today was a special day, because of the flowers and praying and the stoic people … I had never had a shrine experience like that before. He said no, then showed us a bouquet of flowers and asked Leslie to pick the one she liked. He then gave it to me to give to her. Once again on this trip, I saw Leslie smile with deep happiness.
It wasn’t until I wrote this article that I discovered Otani Honbyo is the Mausoleum for the founder of Shin Buddhism, Shinran (1173-1262AD).
We accidentally passed the road we were looking for and ended up in Toribeyama cemetery in east Kyoto. I didn’t know what it was called until I did some research at home, as there was no English near it. It’s hard to find information, but I think it was started around or before the 1600s.
For whatever reason, people used to ask me what Japanese cemeteries looked like all the time. I don’t know why. So, there it is.
I’m like 17% sure this was just off Kiyomizu-zaka Street, based off of this photo:
The road was crowded with people, so we went up the slope entrance (坂入口, or “Saka iriguchi”). Tanuki statues were scattered around the stairs. (Tanuki are “raccoon dogs,” sometimes known as that power-up from Super Mario Bros. 3)
At the top, we encountered this mischievous guy:
The area was beautiful. You know, the type of place with teacups that cost hundreds of dollars, and ceramic plates over a thousand.
We arrived at the big destination for the day: Kiyomizu-dera. Or, the place where Leslie took a selfie with a giant rabbit statue.
Although construction obscured Okunoin Hall, there was still plenty to see. The first glimpse of the Niomon gate is breathtaking, and hints at spectacular sights within.
A gaggle of 10-12 year old boys kept pointing at us and shouting kyuri, which means pickle. I waved back at them, and told Leslie what all the hubbub was about. Leslie laughed then gave them a better look at her hoodie, to which they yelled kakko-ii, or cool.
There’s many kimono rental stores on the streets leading to Kiyomizu-dera. To my immense enjoyment, people taking kimono-selfies was commonplace.
The temple was built in 778 AD—before Kyoto existed. According to legend, a Nara priest had a vision that led him to the Otowa Spring (Kiyomizu means “pure water”). Most of the buildings were rebuilt in the 1600s due to a fire. In 2007, Kiyomizu-dera was a finalist for the New Seven Wonders of the World.
We headed to the Kiyomizu Stage, which is connected to Hondo Hall. It was originally used for dance performances, kyogen (a form of comedy), kabuki, and sumo. The Japanese have an expression, similar to our leap of faith: “To jump off the stage of Kiyomizu-dera.” In the edo period, some people believed that their wish would come true if they survived jumping off the forty-three-foot-tall platform. According to wikipedia, 234 jumps were recorded, and about 200 of them survived.
While exploring Hondo Hall, we encountered a statue that stuck out in my memories of my last two trips to Kiyomizu-dera. His name is Shusse Daikokuten, and he represents career success and progress.
There’s one last bit of knowledge that makes the stage even more amazing: no nails were used in its construction.
Jishu Jinja, the Love Shrine
As we rounded a corner out of Hondo Hall, a familiar stairway came into view.
I told Leslie, “If that’s what I think it is, you are about to be very, very happy.” Sure enough, it was the love shrine, Jishu Jinja.
This area is devoted to love …
… but what Leslie loved most was the prominent rabbit theme!
Leslie “ee”-ed for a while, then ran to the rabbit and hugged it for a few minutes. After she was done taking selfies, she knucked it, and walked away with a look of pure bliss.
Another notable attraction is the love stones:
Two love stones are placed about sixty feet apart, and anyone that can walk from one to the other with their eyes closed will find love soon. Despite how crowded it was, everyone tried to make room for the elementary and high-school girls.
The ema wish plaques were especially fun to read, since many students often write things in English. To see the hopes of so many people, especially young students, was moving. One wish—I could not read the name, but I think it was an American—was for her friend in New York who had trouble finding someone. We spent minutes reading through them.
Others were a bit creepy, perhaps due to the language barrier. One said I will love you until the end of life.
Being such a popular tourist destination, Jishu Jinja had a number of English explanations.
But not everything was about love.
The description of Ushinotoki-mairi discussed how young women used to curse their enemies by nailing straw dolls to the back of cedar trees at 2am. It claimed you can still find nail marks in trees to this day.
One of my favorite features at Jishu Jinja is easy to miss. It’s a mirror in a small Shinto shrine. As I mentioned in my article about Fushimi Inari Taisha, the mirrors usually point in such a way that you can’t see yourself. However, during weddings, the mirrors are moved so newlyweds can see their reflection. It’s an adorable touch to the love shrine.
The Rest of Kiyomizu-dera
I was surprised by how different Jishu Jinja felt, as we re-emerged into the rest of Kiyomizu-dera. Okunoin Hall was under construction, so we couldn’t enter, but we still got a great view of the Kiyomizu Stage.
We looped around Koyasu tower, which was tiny when viewed from Kiyomizu Stage.
We also leafed pretty hard.
I began to feel a little dizzy, so we stopped to eat at a restaurant near the Otowa waterfall.
We ordered Tsukimi-udon and some strange clear noodles, called Tokoroten. The menu described it as cold jelly made from the agar with vinegar sauce and mustard.
Prices were a little higher than usual, but the amazake was good and the udon met expectations. Honestly, I wouldn’t order the clear noodles again; it wasn’t enough food for ¥500 and it mostly tasted like vinegar.
We had a great view of Otowa falls, which is composed of three streams that represent health, longevity, and success. I got a big filling of longevity five years ago, and Leslie wasn’t interested in waiting in line, so we continued onward.
An older man stared at Leslie as we walked past. He finally smiled, probably after figuring out her hoodie was covered with pickles.
Two high school boys wanted a picture with us, probably also because of the kyuri hoodie. As soon as they got the picture, they turned to leave, but I told them we wanted a picture with them, too. They seemed confused by this, as if they were thinking, “But we’re not the weird ones.”
Another older woman walked past us on the street and smiled, then got her friend’s attention to point out the pickles.
I’ve decided two things, based on these experiences:
If I ever do a program like JET, I should pick up a lot of fun shirts so the kids will find me awesome on day one.
- Leslie’s new nickname is pickles.
I think the only thing we didn’t do was the Tainai-meguri, which is a dark room near the pagoda. No reason, I just completely forgot it existed and didn’t notice it.
Higashiyama District (Kiyomizu-zaka Street)
The Higashiyama District is a well-preserved historic area leading to Kiyomizu-dera.
This road has been a tourist destination for centuries. The stores are brimming with ceramics, souvenirs, and delicacies, especially pickles (not to be confused with Leslie).
Remember the tanuki from earlier? We found a tall one, with more pronounced … features.
On way to Sanjusangendo, Leslie was moved by how cute the elementary school kids are in their uniforms, playing while waiting for the bus (which is regular public transport) without any adult supervision. It really is a surprising sight.
Sanjusangendo was built in 1164 AD and has 1001 statues. You can’t take pictures inside, so we just have a few shots of the outdoors.
Honestly … this is one of those places that gets high reviews, but it wasn’t for us.
Leslie asked if we should go to the next temple, but I felt like seeing something more modern, so we decided to go to Kyoto station.
Back at the Hostel
Remember that tree in Otani Honbyo with the little fruits that looked like persimmons? Well, I finally got one!
Unfortunately, I don’t actually know how to pick out a good persimmon, so it wasn’t very ripe. Still, it scratched the persimmon itch.
I asked reception if there were any onsens for couples, mostly so Leslie and I could talk instead of splitting up into different rooms. I was told no right away, then I explained some ryokans (expensive Japanese inns) let you use a private bath without staying. She kindly called a few places but had no luck, and told me they probably didn’t have such ryokans in Kyoto. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I didn’t have an easy way to search at the time. This would’ve been something good to research in the US.
I then asked for a grocery store, and was directed to konbinis and the first floor of the department store. So far, I haven’t come across any real grocery stores in the area.
When we finally stepped back outside, it was raining. I asked the staff if they had umbrellas, and one girl went to fetch them from the smoking area. I saw her struggling to bring the stand over, so I offered to help. That finally got the woman in the reception desk to smile.
We went to a cheap standing restaurant that was full of people the night before. It was empty now, and they had two tables in the back so we were able to sit.
We ordered fried lotus root, sweet potato, zaru soba, and “potato soba,” which was a hot soup with french fries in it. Leslie loves potatos, so I pointed that out for her. I’m honestly not a fan of lotus root, but there aren’t many opportunities to eat it so I take it when I can get it.
My zaru soba was surprisingly not very good, or filling, but Leslie’s potato soba was awesome.
I also ordered Uji Gyokuro Umeshu, which I had seen in Uji but didn’t want to buy since the other green tea liqueurs were more appealing. It was sold out, so I ordered a shochu drink that was advertised as popular in Kyoto. The man laughed at me; Leslie thinks I might have ordered a girly drink.
It was weak, and about the same quality of drinks you get at a nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink).
Still, the potato soba and fried vegetables made the meal.
An Evening in Kyoto Station
I’d been talking about walking around Kyoto station for a few days now, and Leslie didn’t know why. She kept saying, “it’s just a station.” I thought she was pulling my leg, since we arrived via Kyoto station and she had already seen it.
I jokingly told her I was 40% sure it was huge and had a ton of shops, but she didn’t believe me. As we got closer, I kept lowering my certainty, to 17%.
When we arrived, she was amazed. Despite the three times we had been through the station, she hadn’t ever thought to look up at the 11 stories with escalators and a giant Christmas tree.
There was also a sky walk, similar to what we did in Osaka, but free and not as tall. (The same architect did both Kyoto Station and Umeda Sky Building.)
I was still hungry, so we ate at Mr. Donut. The donuts were more bready and less cake-like, but tasty and filling nonetheless.
Leslie laughed nervously as we went up the escalators. I thought my discomfort of heights had been conquered, but even I felt nervous going up.
We went down the stairs, which was somehow less frightening than the escalators. (Mind you, people of all ages walk up and down those things like they’re nothing.)
I asked Leslie if she wanted to go up the other side, and with a pained expression, she said yes. There was one huge escalator that went from the third story to the top, where the sky walk crossed over to the other side of Kyoto station, eleven floors from the ground. I asked Leslie if she wanted to cross the sky walk. She looked panicked and said that if I hadn't suggested it, that she could have felt okay skipping the sky walk, but because I said something, she had to do it.
I wondered how everyone else was so okay with the heights-on the down escalator, a Japanese woman was using her cell phone without holding onto the rail. I suppose anyone that felt uncomfortable just wouldn’t go up in the first place.
We found the 10th floor, which was designated the Ramen floor. For many of the restaurants, you ordered from a machine then waited to be seated. The place was packed, perhaps because it was a Friday night. The spicy ramen with red broth was especially exciting, but Leslie wasn't hungry so I said we could come back when it was more appealing to her.
One Last Konbini for the Night
The konbini clerk was a younger kid, who asked Leslie to put her hand in a box and pick a sheet of paper. It looked like she lost, so he asked her to go again. She won a free energy drink.
The kid was the final super nice person that day.
While on the topic of convenience stores… before we left, our friend, who is also named David, put on a Tokyo episode of Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain said he inexplicably loved Lawsons’ egg salad sandwiches.
Although I had lived there for a year, I never purchased an egg salad sandwich. I always ate onigiri. With this newfound knowledge, Leslie and I kept an eye out for konbini sandwiches.
Our results so far:
- Lawson’s is definitely the best. It’s flavor has an interesting twist.
- 7-Eleven is behind a good ways, but still very good.
- Mini-stop is in last place, with a very plain sandwich. Leslie’s edit: They have a bomb Inari zushi, though. The secret ingredient is wasabi. Dave’s edit: I don’t know how much of a secret that is._
I still prefer onigiri, but Leslie noted that the vegetarian food always sells out the fastest. Egg salad sandwiches seem to go first, followed by vegetarian onigiri.
Leslie was sick that morning, so we took it easy but still walked about ten miles. Nearly everyone was extra friendly, making that day even more special.
When traveling, keep an eye out for Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Kyoto has a whopping seventeen of them. Not all of them are at the top of my list, but it’s a great place to start.
Kyoto—most all of Japan, really—has a great combination of historic and modern sites. There’s so much variety. Early in the day, we visited Kiyomizu-dera, which started in the 700s. At night, we wandered around Kyoto Station, which was opened in 1997.
The next article will cover Nijo Castle, the Nishiki Market, all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, and the Kit-Kat Chocolatery.