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A shrine for every soul

travel Updated: Jan 08, 2010 11:09 IST
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I am on Teapot Lane, a quaint, winding lane that derives its name from the ceramics sold on it. I look greedily at the sake cups, chawans (bowls to prepare and drink green tea), fans and norens (typically Japanese door curtains). To a self-professed junk collector like me, Teapot Lane is a veritable treasure trove, much like Kyoto, Japan's capital in ancient times and easily its prettiest city.

If you want to see the `real' Japan, steeped in culture and aesthetics, look beyond Tokyo and add Kyoto and Nara to your itinerary.

Kyoto wears its 1,200-year-old history with grace and style. It is Japan's nerve centre of music, dance, theatre and the Zen religion and is home to many beguiling shrines and temples.

The beautiful city is full of cherry blossoms, landscaped gardens, traditional teahouses and entertainment districts where geishas practise their profession that are so emblematic of Japan.

Kyoto escaped the wrath of the Allied bombing during World War II.
Therefore, it also has the maximum number of pre-war buildings in Japan and a staggering seventeen World Heritage Sites.

We stay in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) on Chawan Zaka or Teapot Lane. The inn is upholstered with tatami mats and futons for an authentic Japanese experience. We also have our first experience here of an onsen, a communal hot spring, where we shed a few inhibitions besides our clothes.

Zen wisdom Chawan Zaka ends in Kiyomizu-dera, an elegant wooden structure that rises magnificently above the surrounding forest. Kiyomizu-dera or the Temple of Pure Water is a World Heritage Site that dates back to 798 AD. What conveys the grandeur of the monument particularly well is the fact that there is a Japanese metaphor named after it. "To jump off the stage of Kiyomizu-dera" means taking the plunge and doing something daring.

Beyond the main hall is the waterfall, Otowa no taki (or the "Pure Water Spring"), the water of which is believed to infuse those who consume it with health, longevity and wisdom.
I dip a long ladle with a cup attached into the water, drink from it and put it back on a tray exposed to ultra-violet radiation to disinfect it.

The temple complex has several other shrines, like the Jishu-jinja or the "Love Shrine" dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking. There are two love stones here, 18 metres apart, which visitors have to attempt to cross with their eyes closed. If they succeed, it is believed to be a sign that they will find true love. But if you need a helping hand, it means you may need an intermediary in love.

It is time for lunch on Teapot Lane.

I decide to try shojin ryori, a vegetarian meal specially created for Buddhist priests and pilgrims visiting the temples of Kyoto. Shojin ryori are set meals with a variety of local vegetables, batter-fried vegetable tempura, a miso soup, tofu with sesame and mushroom dishes.

My meal is light and delicious, served in a typical Japanese room with low tables and tatami mats.

Philosophical musings We walk on the Philosopher's Path (so called because a philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, walked this path lost in contemplation) lined with cherry blossom trees and a winding canal, to the famous Kinkaku-ji temple.

The Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion is the popular name for one of the main buildings of the temple, called the Rokuon-ji. The original building was burnt down by a disgruntled monk in 1950. What you see today is a replica. There are large crowds here - hordes of school children in uniforms and pretty women under paper para sols -- but even that does not disturb the tranquility of this place. No one is allowed inside the building now, but just seeing the façade is well worth the entrance fee.

A short distance from here is the famous Ryoan-ji temple renowned for its rock garden. This karesansui or dry landscape garden has no trees, but just neatly raked white gravel, and 15 rocks placed such that you can't see all of them from one angle. My guidebook tells me that it conveys the idea that no one can have a complete view of life.

Next on my list is an absolute must-see in Kyoto -- the austere Nijo castle. It was originally built in 1601, and served as the residence of Iemitsu, a powerful ruler belonging to the Tokugawa dynasty. This imposing castle has 33 rooms and is surround ed by an outer wall and a moat. We are fascinated by the famous uguisu bari or nightingale floors, which were designed to squeak even if someone trod lightly on them. What an effec tive way to keep out intruders! I end my tryst with history at a kissaten, an authentic Japanese tea room where I munch on delicate wagashi or sweetmeats shaped like birds and flowers while drinking frothy, bitter green tea.

Memories of a geisha As evening falls, we walk along the Kamo River, lined with weeping willows and flowering cherries. Courting couples pepper its banks. We head towards Gion, considered the `pleasure district'.

This is the locality where geishas -highly trained singers, dancers and expert hostesses -- entertain their wealthy customers.

We walk down quaint streets with curtained windows, and are rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of a geisha -dressed in a ceremonial kimono, with lacquered hair, rosebud red lips and wearing geta or wooden clogs -walking with quick, dainty steps to her next engagement. It's like seeing a doll come to life.

A shrine for every soul We take the sleek train to Nara, Kyoto's less famous neighbour and Japan's first permanent capital.

Nara's temples and ancient buildings are more intact than those in neighbouring Kyoto, where unplanned development has encroached upon old neighbourhoods.

We head towards Todai-ji, the most historically significant temple in Nara. Constructed in 752 AD on the order of the Emperor Shomu, Todaiji's Buddha Hall is the largest wooden structure in the world. It is said that 437 kg of bronze and 130 kg of gold went into the making of the colossal statue of the Buddha inside the hall.

I see an interesting rear column inside the hall, with a hole at its base.

The hole is apparently of the same size as one of Buddha's nostrils. My guide tells me that if a person can squeeze his way through this, he is guaranteed enlightenment. This is tough even for the slimmest adult. I see quite a few people getting stuck, being dragged out, and still persisting.

I walk towards Nara Koen, the famous park here that is home to many deer. Deer are considered sacred messengers of the temple gods. These deer are self-assertive -I find myself stalked by half a dozen of them until I exhaust my stock of senbei or rice crackers.

I slowly make my way to the last temple on my agenda. The Kasuga shrine has a lantern-lit path leading to it. This vermilion building built in the Chinese style is a magical sight against the backdrop of a burnished orange sunset. The shrine is surrounded by about 2,000 stone lanterns and another thousand lanterns hang on its eaves.

Unfortunately, I will miss the spectacle of the Setsubun and Obon festivals, which is when these lanterns are lit. I close my eyes and pray to the gods. I know I have to return to Kyoto and Nara someday -- there are a thousand more shrines to visit before I can sleep. Kalpana is a Japanese language specialist and travel enthusiast based in Chennai.

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