Early on in the program everyone's still in sight seeing mode, so one weekend afternoon we all packed up and got ready for a hike up to Kiyomizu Temple, which is really famous. And believe me, it is a hike. You remember how I demonstrated in the previous post how the geography of Japan is either 100% flat or 100% vertical with no transition between the two? (Presumably this is due to a natural inclination of the land exacerbated by a thousand years of rice farming) Well, Kiyomizu Temple is in the eastern edge of Kyoto where the mountains start going straight up. So it's a bit of a climb up a very narrow street lined with small shops and absolutely packed with people, Kiyomizu Temple being one of the most popular tourist destinations of Kyoto. And lots of steps. Lots and lots of steps.
Also, there's something you need to understand about stairs in japan. THEY ARE NOT LIKE IN AMERICA. Strange, right? I mean, how can stairs be that different? Oh let me tell you. I have been trying and trying to take representative pictures ever since I came here, but photos can't really represent depth that well, I guess, because none of them have ever conveyed to my satisfaction how annoying stairs are in Japan. There are three types: a type for public buildings, a type of private homes, and a type of shrines and temples. Public buildings have the Western style stairs I'm used to. Private homes, including mine, have really really really really steep staircases that are literally about two inches away from being a built in ladder. The room I hang my laundry in to dry is upstairs in my little renter's apartment and oh boy climbing up and down that thing with a basket in my arms is like having a death wish. I've already fallen down it once and the bruises ached for WEEKS.
And then there's the type that exist outside shrines and temples. As I like to call them, "the slopey steps." Although slopey is probably not a strong enough word. See, all stairs leading up to religious places (and there are always stairs) have a distinct and pronounced downward tilt. I've been told that this is so that rain runs off them and doesn't puddle, but my suspicion is that it is actually a form of forcing all pilgrims to perform a little bit of shugyo (ascetic discipline) on their way up. Rain would certainly run off it just as well if they were, you know, only a little tilted as opposed to extremely tilted. So, uh, the point of this story is that it's really hard to climb up and go down stairs outside temples and shrines. Particularly on the way to Kiyomizu Temple since the mountain is so steep in the first place.
Some random photographer who cornered us to practice his English while we were at Yasaka Shrine even told us that the reason both koma-inu at Kiyomizu Temple have their mouths open is because you are so freaking exhausted by the time you get to the top that you're panting for breath. Because normally... okay, so at shrines at temples there are always two koma-inu positioned on either side of the entryway for protection. The one on the right will have his mouth open to say "Ah" and the one on the left will have his mouth closed to say "Un." (Fyi, the shi-sa lion dogs that you see literally every two feet in Okinawa also follow this pattern) The reason for this is that... man, I was really hoping there would be a wikipedia article I could link to about this. But there isn't, so bear with me. As I understand it, in the Sanskrit alphabet "ah" is the first sound and "un" is the last. (Coicidentally (perhaps) this is also true for the Japanese hiragana syllabary) So in this way they are representing... literally everything. From the alpha to the omega, so to speak. The entire cycle of existence. In Buddhist thought, anyway.
And... well, I'm not sure of the relation between this concept and protective guardian statues, but apparently there is one, because they all appear in this way. So that's why it's so strange that the koma-inu at Kiyomizu Temple both have their mouths open, although the random photographer's lighthearted explanation is probably not the real reason. (Although yes, you are indeed panting when you get to the top. At least, if you climb it in the blazing hot Kyoto summer sun you are)
...Wow. Typed this much already and I haven't even gotten to the pictures yet. Well, okay, let's see them.
Their homework for their English class was to ask some foreigners about their experience in Japan (really vague questions because their English level was very low) so, naturally, they headed to the tourist hot spot that is Kiyomizu Temple to catch some gaijin. Of course, we all also had to do this type of thing for our Japanese classes about once a month, so it was our karmic duty to help these girls out with their homework. Although I think we confused them instead because, since our Japanese level was much higher than their English level, every time they asked us something we would just reply in Japanese. This actually happens a lot. I can't even tell you how many (fairly long) conversations I have had with people where they are speaking English and I am speaking Japanese back.
...wow. We really made up a whole lot of random KCJS traditions. And when I say "we," I mostly just blame Sean.
So we got there a bit late in the afternoon and as we wandered around the middle of Kiyomizu, Sean suddenly notices something interesting (as he is apt to do) and calls us over excitedly, telling us that they're about to stop selling tickets to the inside of this special section in about two minutes so we have to hurry up and go inside. Having absolutely no idea what lies in store for us we, as is apparently our natural inclination, simply nod and follow Sean blindly.
Into a pit of darkness.
I mean that literally. What we had unknowingly bought tickets for was... you know, to this day I don't even know. You walk forward through this long long corrider for maybe 5 minutes. And there is not a single gleam of light anywhere. Just deep deep impenetrable blackness. It was actually really scary. I held onto the shoulder of the person in front of me for dear life, filled with the irrational fear that if I let go I would walk in the wrong direction and be lost forever. Then, eventually, we emerged into a room where some kind of stone symbol was bathed in rays of light from above. And then we stumbled, dazed, back into the world.
Being as Kiyomizu is a Buddhist temple I assume it's some sort of metaphor for achieving enlightenment, but apart from that I have no idea. It was a really singular experience.
And here's a lot more statues of Jizo. At first I thought that the reason Jizo statues all wear red bibs is because there's a tradition in Japan of dressing the small Jizo statues in children's clothing (once it gets cold you start to see Jizo-sama bundled up in little scarves and hats), but this is not the case. All small religious stone statues are always adorned with one or multiple red bibs, as you will see in the next post about our trip to Fushimi Inari. So... I'm not really sure why they wear them, although I'm sure there is a reason.
Next is a statue of who I am about 95% sure is Ebisu-sama, the Shinto diety of hardwork and prosperity. Notice how he's standing on top of two rice bales. The tanuki statues shopkeepers put outside their business to bring prosperity are also depicted in the same way.
And here's Buddha. It was ridiculously bright that day so a lot of the colors are washed out in my picture, but it's really impressive how colorful Buddha's shrine is. I was also pretty startled at how gaudy it was, which goes to show you how few Buddhist temples I had visited by that point. Because of Zen, Japanese Buddhism is often thought of as being very focused on the austere and spartan. This is not at all the case. The actuality is that they're often very flashy, intricate, and opulent in appearence.
The next one is the picture I took of the late afternoon sun starting to go down behind the small shops lining the small road that leads up to Kiyomizu Temple.
So after a nice afternoon at Kiyomizu Temple we headed back down the mountain into the city and stopped at a hotel restaurant to eat our dinner. Here's Natalie, Ben, Matt, Lowell, Miyuki, and Sean.
Here's Miyuki and Sean, and then me and Matt rocking it on the DDR machine. My first time playing DDR! I was so horrible.
We also took purikura pictures of ourselves at that game center, which, to my utter heartbreak, I have since lost. It's very sad. But it was a fun night.