Kyoto, Japan: Forests of Bamboo and Shrines to Buddha

Kyoto is often referred to as the cultural capital of Japan. Its historic place as the former capital of Japan is only surpassed by the massive number of temples that cement its spiritual importance.

About 3 blocks from the train station, locals and tourists queued outside of two small shack-like buildings. The ramen in Kyoto is world class and these particular restaurants specialized in soy sauce-based ramen. While in line, Hannah and I met 2 couples from the United States and quickly picked up friendly conversation. They had plans to enjoy some mountain spa visits and were having their luggage shipped from stop to stop. That contrasted significantly with our experience, heaving 40-50 lbs backpacks and hoping for decent water pressure or a place to hold the showerhead in many locations.

The scratchy white cotton of the face mask grabbed at my stubbly facial hair as I tried to twitch my face and shift the mask without my hands. Noticing my unusual concentration, Hannah flashed a smile, wondering what I was up to. Spending 24 hours a day together often meant amusing each other at spare moments. This one was aboard a local train in Kyoto that was taking us out into the suburbs where more of the over 1600 temples of Kyoto stood waiting for us to explore. Upon stepping off the platform, we hungrily bought a red bean paste filled cake in the shape of a fish. We had learned in Korea what a delicious substitute red bean paste made for chocolate and Japan’s cakes didn’t disappoint.

A looming, cross-legged Buddha sat above a tranquil pool of water. A placard beside me described the site as part temple and part WW2 memorial, given to Japan by the United States. Lush green mountains rolled across the back drop, a casual reminder of the flow of history to good and bad ends. Hannah and I entered the sanctuary. We were handed an incense stick with the instruction to place it at the prayer pit at the center. Though not Buddhist, we reflected quietly in our own religious convictions before moving on.

A shadowy room on the second floor was dimly lit by ambient outside light and the pale-yellow flicks of candles. A dozen or so different, unique diety statues inhabited the room. The residents of Japan prayed for an end to WW2 just as many did in America. Upon leaving, a small room was set up as a shrine to honor American troops from WW2, it felt odd to visit it in a country where we dropped the atomic bomb. As we left, monkeys perched above us on the nearby roofs and fences, a fun way to forget the harshness of the world’s wars.

One of my favorite memories in Kyoto was the final day. Walking into the bamboo forest imposed a subtle shade of green across our path. The tubular bamboo was nicked with deep scars, but resiliently strong. What a symbolic reminder of a Japan that remade itself in the wake of WW2 to become one of the most prosperous and peaceful countries on earth. The rittle-rattle of hollow bamboo stalks rubbing against one another resonated. It threw me back to simpler days laying on a hammock in my parents’ backyard, listening to the windchimes play the songs of the wind. The songs in Japan were different, but no less melodic.

Sadly I was not feeling great one day in Kyoto and for the first and only time on our entire journey, Hannah set off for a day of sightseeing without me. The following excerpt was from her time:

Hannah: As I wandered through the neighborhood, I noticed how many walled off temple complexes there were. Inside the gates were peaceful gardens and the effect spilled out onto the small, quiet road shaded by the large trees. The crunch of gravel under foot and the unique chirps of the birds were the only sounds at the relatively empty temple grounds. After a long walk through a very local neighborhood where the few locals I crossed paths with did a double take, the narrow alley suddenly emptied out into a large square bustling with tourists with a beautiful entrance to the shrine famous for its hundreds of orange gates. It is a terrible shame Josh was not there to capture it with his photography skills and superior phone camera. I did my best.


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