Kyoto: Of polite people, tidy streets, heritage sites, fascinating culture and then some

It was almost to the year when I capped my first trip to Japan by spending days walking aimlessly around Tokyo—getting lost while discovering the character of its gigantic city spread over towering skyscrapers and spacious sidewalks filled with hastening crowd. A total of 12 days constituted my first foray into the Land of the Rising Sun, and yet, I still desire for more. Only India had me yearning for a return trip to the same country too soon—and in Japan I felt that same attraction quite hard to resist.

the winding bamboo path leading to Tenryū-ji  temple

Present day and I found myself again being on the receiving end of the courteous greetings of “ohayou gozaimasu” from, probably, the most polite people on Earth. Whatever I learned from my first trip to Japan barely scratched the surface of the wondrous personality and culture of this country.

A beautiful woman rinses her mouth at the purification fountain
Aside from looking forward to downing more bowls of ramen—my curiosity grew threefold and is directed at the number of heritage sites situated in the cities of Osaka, Nara and Kyoto. Several hours of Shinkansen train ride away from Nagoya and Tokyo; two cities I had the chance to familiarize myself last year; these triumvirate of cities appear like a cultural triangle waiting for my curious and wandering soul to explore.

Counting Orange Torii Gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha

Depending on the pace of your strides, a few minutes of walking could lead you underneath dozens, or even hundreds, of Orange torii gates already. These mother of all shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice, Foxes and Sake,  spreads to an uphill trail leading to a mountain where pockets of shrines and temples situates.

Walking underneath the Torii gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha. Photo by Kara Santos
Caught between trying to weed out the crowd from the frame of my camera, and staring in awe at the women adorned in kimono dresses, my interest was drawn to the messages scribbled in Japanese characters on each of the Torii gates. Setting aside my camera, I walked in a slower pace and just marveled at the lingering air brought upon by the presence of these vibrant Orange torii gates, which appears to stretch endlessly.

Outside Nijo Castle
Circling my back into the main temple, the Honden near the entrance, where I earlier performed the ritual of washing my hands and rinsing my mouth with the water from the purification fountain, I looked back at the centuries of history glowing beside me. The countless Orange torii gates, which gleams under the small speck of sunlight seeping through the cloudy skies, echoes an understanding to myself; that Japan’s history and its fascinating religious practices are all abundant and waiting for me to unearth.

Entering a parallel world into Ancient Kyoto

Sixteen of the 17 places listed under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site categorization of “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” are all found within Kyoto and, for my wandering cultural junky self, this fact screams of visual and learning orgasm.

One of the wooden bridges inside the grounds of the Imperial Palace
Disregarding the heavy downpour and the threat of typhoon coming within hours, we trudged along the snaking bamboo forest path that leads to the Buddhist temple of Tenryū-ji and the same grounds that once served as the playground of ancient Japan’s noble class. Separating myself from my two friends, I wound up in a spot where the towering branches of bamboos stood, and thick enough to almost shelter me from the rain. In that instant, I felt entering a chasm taking me back to ancient Kyoto.

Rokuon-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)
A glimpse of the centuries-old Kyoto would continue with our bus-hopping incursion into the other Zen-like places of importance within the city. Most of the time, we’d find ourselves walking through the foot of high-rise buildings into a busy stretch of sidewalk lined up with a fusion of modern and old establishments, and into the interior of a vast walled complex that hides lavish gardens and centuries-old temples and shrines.

Jishō-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion)
Immediately after stepping inside, you feel transported back in time. As I amass a list of Kyoto’s other historic monuments under my belt, namely, the Jishō-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion), Nijo Castle, Rokuon-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kiyomizu-dera (Pure Water Temple), Kyoto Imperial Palace, my cultural experience in Kyoto left me with longer list of sites to be explored. I felt the days we spent are still lacking to fully engross myself to the rich culture, history and traditions that prevails in the city. Once again, I find myself barely grazing on the cultural wealth this part of Japan has to offer.

And a Japanese song plays in the background

During our last night, while I was having dinner with my friend Gael in a small joint fit enough for a dozen diners and a small acoustic setup, a Japanese singer belted a string of haunting melodies. After our meal, I excused myself for a walk around the city that night. As I took medium hops over the pavement, I can still hear the Japanese ballad playing in my ears while the Kyoto city lights flicker with lively signage. As I continue my stroll with the cool air breezes through me, chased by endless thumping of footsteps, I once again feel the atmosphere that pulls me and leaves me emitting strong emotions. A thought came into my mind.

“I’m open to spending a long time here,” I muttered to myself. Teeming with culture, history, food and modernity that are all present in a fast-paced life surrounded by a Zen environment, the contrasts are presented in a myriad of beautiful ways.

I passed by a row of cabs parked on the sidewalk. I peeked inside and saw those seated behind the wheels are men of old age with gray hairs. A couple of them nodded with smiles as their gazed met mine. A life lived well in the Land of the Rising Sun, and even in their advancing age, their own society still finds good use of their skills—much like everything else is put to better use in this country. Much like what the tradition and culture that dates back many centuries ago are continued and preserved up to this day.

A girl sketching inside the Imperial Palace grounds

This article appeared on the Lifestyle pages of the October 16, 2016 print issue of Business Mirror.

Travel Tip: Kyoto is an hour away from Osaka by train. Travelers can avail themselves of a single-ticket day pass for trains and buses to explore all of Kyoto’s Ancient Heritage Sites for a day or two.

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