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Travel: Zen Diaries

Tokyo may have become the capital of Japan in 1868 but for many Kyoto continues to be its spiritual capital

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It’s 6pm and the sight of a few Japanese women in layers of make-up and draped in exquisite kimonos suddenly transforms a crowd of tourists into a paparazzi-type mob trying to grab a picture. Their excitement is palpable; this is Gion, one of Japan’s only surviving Geisha districts in the heart of Kyoto. Tokyo might have become the capital of this fascinating country in 1868 but for many Japanese, Kyoto is still its spiritual capital.

Almost every corner of Kyoto has an uncanny knack of throwing up a surprise and a photo op. When is the best time to visit Kyoto? That’s a question most international tourists ask. My simple answer — ‘Around the year’. Of course, the Cherry Blossom season, that short window in spring is picture perfect but so are the reds of autumn that I managed to catch during my visit just before the onset of winter.

The Geisha tradition is not the only tradition that lives on in Kyoto, almost every quintessential Japanese tradition has either originated or flourished in and around Kyoto; this was after all the capital of the country for over a millennium. Kyoto’s shrines are its biggest draw — with over 1500 you clearly need more than one trip to even see the tip of the iceberg but as I discovered the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine is probably the best place to begin.

To call this Japan’s most significant Shinto shrine is not an exaggeration. It dates back over a thousand years and is dedicated to the Inari Okami — the Japanese kami of foxes, fertility, and general prosperity. Kami refers to the spirits or phenomena that are revered in the Shinto faith. The shrine’s most striking architectural features are its never ending row of vermillion tori (shrine gates) that were also used in the film Memoirs of a Geisha. I can’t remember if it was a walk through these gates that sparked my romance with Japan.

The shrine has over 5,000 gates, many donated by patrons and businessmen — it’s not uncommon to find Inari shrines in many Japanese corporate headquarters (Shiseido is a case in point), that connect to the five shrines spread around the complex. Along the path I spotted multiple stone installations of a fox with a key in its mouth. My local guide was quick to point out that the fox is seen as the messenger of the Inari with the key to the rice granary — the symbol of prosperity.

If there’s one shrine that comes close to matching the visual appeal of Fushimi Inari Taisha, it’s Kiyomizu-dera, the city’s most historic Buddhist shrine that was founded in 778 AD and takes its name from the waterfall within the complex. The current structure was built in 1633 and not a single nail was used in the construction of the entire complex that includes an elevated hall supported by tall pillars where you can grab fantastic views of the entire city.

It was not uncommon for pilgrims to ‘jump off the stage at Kiyomizu’ (The Japanese equivalent of ‘taking the plunge’) during the Edo period (1603–1868). Edo traditions believed that your wish would be granted if you survived the 13 metre jump from the stage. A surprisingly high 85.4 per cent of the 234 jumps during the Edo period were successful. Despite that high success rate, this practise has been put to an end.

For many Japanese, nothing is more emblematic of Kyoto than the golden reflection of Kinkaku-ji. For me this stunning ‘golden leaf’ coated temple symbolises Kyoto’s unique ability to paint a picture of poise despite the presence of scores of tourists at all its attractions (over 50 million annually). This 14th Century Zen Buddhist shrine was torched by a pyromaniac monk in the 1950s and has been painstakingly rebuilt. Kinaku-ji is a splendid sight all through the year with its landscaped gardens.

It’s easy to be mesmerised by the sheer symmetry of the Japanese landscaped gardens, a central feature in many landmarks in the city including Nijo Castle (Now a UNESCO World Heritage site). It’s one of the finest surviving examples of castle palace architecture in the country and was built for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun during the Edo period. From imposing moats to painted sliding doors to corridors with nightingale floors (that squeak when stepped upon — a security measure to ward off intruders) most of the original design elements have survived to tell their tales. Almost every Kyoto tradition has not just survived but continues to be revered and celebrated like Kabuki (a dance form that originated here) at the Minizama theatre or the city’s own brand of vegetarian cuisine that was perfected by Buddhist monks. Of all the meals I enjoyed at Kyoto, this vegetarian experience at Aun stood out. Just like India’s satvic diets many ingredients like garlic and onions are forbidden and yet the abundance of mushrooms, tofu and crunchy vegetables more than makes up.

My last stop on the outer fringes of the city made it even more tougher to bid adieu. The Arashiyama Bamboo grove is more than just a pathway flanked by tall bamboo stalks that almost touch the sky. It is another world in itself. I desperately tried to grab images that could capture the visual splendour of this grove and failed miserably. Eventually, I realised that Kyoto is more than just a destination for a travel scrapbook. For me it was a journey into my soul, that’s why I will never leave Kyoto.

When to Go: Kyoto is beautiful round the year but the short 'Cherry Blossom' window around spring (usually between March 20 to April 15) is particularly magical. Autumn (October 15 to December 15) when the leaves change colour is a great time to visit too.

How to Get There:
There are frequent Shinkansen (bullet trains) between Tokyo and Kyoto that cover the 450 km distance in under 3 hours. Tokyo is connected with frequent flights (direct and connecting flights) from Indian metros. The service and Japanese meals (even on economy) on ANA is exceptional.

Visa: Short-term visas (up to 90 days) are issued by Japanese diplomatic missions in India and typically don't take longer than a week to process.

Where to Stay: Surian( is one of Kyoto’s newest luxury abodes and is inspired by traditional Japanese touches and culture. Kyoto Royal Hotel and Spa ( a great value for money option.

Don’t Leave Home Without
4A light rain jacket. An occasional shower is always in the mix in Kyoto.

Don’t Leave kyoto Without
4Shopping for tiny dolls (each with its own story) at one of the souvenir stores. Kyoto is probably the best place to buy traditional Japanese products and you don’t have to worry about bargaining at any store. Also look for the tastiest KitKat chocolate anywhere in the world — laced with Wasabi.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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magazine 22 August 2016 tokyo japan Shinto shrine lifestyle

Ashwin Rajagopalan

The author is a Chennai-based freelance food and travel writer

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