The whole area around Kyoto is jam-packed with temples and shrines that may have been rebuilt since their original conception but still hold onto the beauty and mystery that makes them real. During WWII, Kyoto was the only major city in Japan that didn't get destroyed in the fire bombings, allegedly because the US Secretary of War had taken his honeymoon in Kyoto and couldn't bear the thought of so much history being burned to the ground. Thank God for that, because Kyoto really is something special that deserves to be around for many many generations to come.
For your reading pleasure, here is a brief introduction to the three major temples and shrines I visited during my recent trip to Kyoto.
Fushimi Inari's claim to fame is that instead of only having one gate, there are several thousand. Yes, thousand. I can only imagine the people who built it were the kind of one-uppers who believed in the idea that if one is good, five-thousand is exponentially better. As you walk up the mountain (a little over an hour from the base to the main shrine at the top), you are constantly surrounded by torii. The ones near the bottom of the mountain are clearly much newer, but as you near the top, you begin to notice that some of the gates are obviously quite old. Fushimi Inari pays the bills by selling advertising rights on each gate, so the torii backs are covered with (tastefully-done, I must add) advertisements. Somehow the thick black lettering just seems to add to the aesthetics.
The guardians of Fushimi Inari are the stone fox deities scattered around the mountain, standing guard over the various shrines and memorials. Because of their stern-looking scowl, they sometimes come across as frightening, while other times looking down-right adorable. What I thought was a scroll is apparently a granary key that the foxes carry in their mouths--Inari, the patron diety of the shrine, is the deity of rice, in addition to being the guardian of business--hence the reason for all the advertising. It never hurts to have a god in your corner!
As I was snapping away, I kept wondering why I hadn't bothered to stop off here last time I was in Kyoto, but I think it's probably a good thing I didn't. Even in winter I was sweating and overheated by the time I got near the top, and I can't imagine braving Fushimi Inari in the summer heat. As we were walking, we were passed by a postal worker who'd been given the task of delivering mail to the top of the mountain. Not a job I envy, that's for sure! Though I guess he saves some money by not needing a gym membership.
The all-compelling quest of peace
The World's Unknown Soldier
World War II
All honor to him, friend or foe,
Who fought and died for his country!
May the tragedy of his supreme
Sacrifice bring to us, the living,
Enlightenment and inspiration;
Fill us with ever-mounting zeal
For the all-compelling quest of peace,
World peace, and universal brotherhood.
Erected by the Ryozen Kannon Kai, Kyoto
June 8, 1958
Still, it was nice to come across such a touching memorial. Only a fifteen minute walk from Kiyomizudera and we were the only people there. If not for blind luck, we wouldn't have even known to visit.
This is one of the things I love most about Japan. Even in the most unassuming places, there is always something surprising. There are tiny temples and shrines around every corner, small things that remind you of Japan's rich history and culture. As a college student, I was enamored of everything traditional Japan had to offer, and I was in a sense immensely disappointed to travel here and find that Japan has become a modern country and lost much of what made it beautiful before. This isn't specific to Japan, either--in a sense, embracing the modern means leaving the dated behind. If you look at Japan through the lens of Osaka or Tokyo, it's hard to see it as anything but a boring concrete jungle.
If you want to catch a glimpse of easily-accessible, English-friendly traditional Japan, Kyoto is the place to go.