|A Japanese devotee bows before entering the Romon Gate leading to the Fushimi Inari Shrine|
During WWII, when military planners made a list of Japanese cities targeted for atomic bombing, Kyoto was included. But thanks to Henry Stimson's opposition, (then U.S Secretary of War and one-time Governor General of the Philippines), Kyoto was removed from the list. The reason? He fell in love with the city after spending his honeymoon there. While I certainly can not trivilialize the horrors that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kyoto's recent history would have been entirely different had the A-bomb obliterated much of Japan's former capital.
With only three days to spend, Kyoto's vast collection of cultural and religious landmarks is a herculean task to take it all in. No way was it possible for me to do a leisurely pace of appreciating everything. So I had to cherry-pick. Despite missing many other temples and shrines and gardens within Kyoto, I felt fine knowing - just as I've pointed to one fellow blogger - it has given me a very good reason to visit Japan again in the future.
Outside of Kyoto, the parade of sights go on and on. That's where I decided to spend the day. My first stop was Inari, just 5 minutes away using the JR Nara Line (still covered by my Japan rail pass). I specifically wanted to visit Fushimi Inari Shrine, a very important Shinto shrine. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, worshiped by those who seek success in businesses. What's the real draw for tourists are the thousands of vermillion torii gates which straddle the entire length of wooded trails around 233-meter high Mt. Inari.
Just after the shrine's main grounds, the trail starts for the 2-3 hour loop. It looks initially like an easy walk up concrete steps, helped by the novelty of walking through a dense collection of gates. Midway at certain levels are small shrines still dedicated to Inari with statues of foxes (called kitsune) who served as trusty divine messengers. Devotees who do the trek stop at the shrines to pray, double-clap, ring the bell and then they move on. As for me, I could only offer my silence while intently observing such expression of faith - many times, while catching my breath.
The torii gates are all donated by individuals and businesses, the names of which are all written on each gate. Costs vary according to size, anywhere from 383,000 to 1,300,000 yen. Workers can be seen digging in preparation for another gate to be erected. Others do the task of maintaining the paint job and keep the color as striking as it is. As soon as I reached the trail's highest point, hunger caught up with me so I went back to the Yotsutsuji intersection where there's a restaurant with a fantastic view of Kyoto. I ordered the Tori Nanba Udon (or udon with chicken and scallions) which I slurped noisily - a sign I was enjoying it as much as the view before me.
On my way down, there was a dirt path without the torii gates and I got tempted to follow it. Before long, I was swallowed by a thick forest of bamboo. I couldn't remember the last time I've been anywhere near a grove of such useful plants but this one in Inari offered me so much shade from the hot sun I felt a sense of relief. An old man working nearby wasn't even bothered by my presence. I stood there, craning my neck upwards, simply happy at this very moment, even inspired at things I usually take for granted like a spider building its web on one of the bamboos.
From Inari, I hopped on another JR Train bound for Nara, a 65-minute journey. Established in 710, Nara was then originally called Heijōkyō, making it Japan's real first capital. Such status lasted only for 75 years as the capital was moved to Kyoto before it moved again after about a thousand years to Tokyo. Despite its relatively short-lived prominence, Nara is in itself a repository of Japanese gems. There are currently 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites worthy of a day or two of exploration. I only have an afternoon to scratch the surface so I chose to discover 3 of them: Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Kofuku-ji Temple.
Nara is quite compact and most major sights are all within the city, most notably within Nara Koen. From the JR train station, I intended to merely walk to it but as soon as I stepped out, the early afternoon heat (at 1 PM) almost drained my energy right away. I ended up catching a bus ride to the Buddhist Todaiji Temple, my first destination.
To reach Todaiji Temple from the closest bus stop, I had to walk and pass through the giant Nandaimon Gate, watched over by two fierce-looking statues on both sides. A large number of spotted deer - considered messengers of gods in Shinto religion - roam freely around the grounds which is part of Nara Koen. Shops selling kitschy tourist stuff abound, including shika senbei crackers which are sold to visitors to feed the deers.
Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) is Todaiji's star attraction and it really is impressive. It's so massive people sitting on its front steps look like dots from afar. Not only does it house Japan's biggest bronze Buddha but is itself considered the world's biggest wooden building. When it was built in 752, the size was even bigger, only to be scaled down in 1709 to two-thirds of the original size after a succession of fires.
The walk to several clustered shrines deep within leafy Nara Park was pleasant. Hundreds of donated stone lanterns line the path towards Kasuga Taisha Shrine, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Besides the stone lanterns, there are also bronze ones donated by its Shinto devotees. Twice a year during the Lantern Festival held in February and August, these lanterns are all spectacularly lit up.
Another pleasant stroll and I found myself within the grounds of Kofuku-ji Temple, another Buddhist temple complex. Unfortunately, the Central Golden Hall (Chukondo) was under renovations but I did get to see the Eastern Golden Hall (Tokondo), the adjacent Five-Story Stupa as well as the Three-Story Stupa. Just as I was about to leave, a Buddhist monk who was just wrapping up his prayer rang a bell. And rang it some more. The sound was so distinct, so divine, one that I suppose is only appreciated when one feels at peace - with God, with the world, with one's self.
I took the JR train back to Kyoto and slept so well that night. I'm going back the next day to where this trip began - to the current capital city of Tokyo.