Remarkable Japan – #06 – Three non-negotiable temple visits

A Zen Garden, a giant Buddha and a temple coated in gold. What more could you want?

You could dedicate a lifetime just to visiting Japan’s tens of thousands of temples. Spending just half an hour on a 24/7 schedule at each temple in Kyoto alone would leave you six weeks later with still many more to visit. So let me make it simple; these are the three temples that you cannot miss out on. That’s non-negotiable.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) – Kyoto

Let’s start with the shiniest of the lot. How shiny can a temple get? How about covered-in-gold-leaf-shiny. It’s all that’s left of what was originally a retirement complex for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, converted according to his will into a Zen Buddhist temple in 1408. It would be superb if the beautiful temple you see below had indeed stood the test of time. Unfortunately, that is not the case. After a monk burnt down the original building, a reconstructed temple with gold leaf over the entire top two stories was unveiled in 1955. In 1984, even more gold leaf was applied to give the building the durable brilliance, which remains to this day.

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Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple) from across the lake
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No surface left uncoated on the top two stories of the Kinkaku-ji

While touching the gold leafed exterior will land you in all kinds of trouble, there’s a tastier way to turn your hands green. Grab some of the Matcha Green Tea soft serve from the café on the way out. Tourist trap? Tentatively. Delicious? Definitely.

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Impossible to resist Matcha Green Tea soft serve

Ryoan-ji (Temple of the Dragon at Peace) – Kyoto

So you’ve noticed the ‘ji’ pattern by now? You guessed it; ‘ji’ means ‘Buddhist temple’ (not to be confused with ‘jo’, meaning ‘castle’). The temple’s Rock Garden is as peaceful as mid-morning Kyoto gets. Visitors line its edges to gaze into the calming perfection of the carefully-raked sea of white pebbles, trying also to find a vantage point from which they can see all 15 of the large, moss-encircled rocks at once (spoiler alert: it’s intentionally impossible to see more than 14 of them from any spot, until you reach enlightenment, that is!).

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The Ryoan-ji Rock Garden complete with spectators

Look out also for the slightly surreal persimmon trees surrounding the temple’s pond. If you ever find yourself bequeathed with persimmon fruit with no clue how to prepare it, chill it (the fruit, not yourself) and then chop it in half. Sprinkle on some lemon juice and sugar, or add a dollop of cream, before tucking in with a spoon. Not yet ripe? Extract the tannin to brew some sake, or dilute the bitter-tasting flesh in water to make some insect repellent. A versatile fruit indeed.

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A persimmon tree lining the Ryoan-ji pond

Todai-ji (Great Eastern Temple) – Nara

Of course, I’ve saved my favourite until last. Just about an hour from Kyoto you could find yourself in Nara, at the threshold of the biggest wooden building in the world. And that’s even after it was reconstructed in 1692 to be only two thirds the original size.

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The Todai-ji’s Daibutsuden (AKA Big Buddha Hall)

The Todai-ji is the reason Japan’s capital had to be moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784. So powerful was its position as head of all provincial Buddhist temples in Japan, that its impact on political rule became a concern. Today though, it is better known as the home of the ‘Big Buddha’.

This 15-metre bronze statue remains an engineering marvel for its sheer scale and complex casting, given its age. In as beautiful a ceremony as one can imagine, the Buddha was ‘awakened’ in 752 by painting on his eyes. It is said that the thousands of monks in attendance were able to feel connected to the brush itself by holding onto one of the many attached lengths of string.

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But how is it possible that this massive structure remains in one piece after centuries of endured earthquakes? Forgive me whilst I indulge in my inner geek for a moment. The photo below shows one design feature that explains the temple’s resilience. The connections between the beams and the roof aren’t rigid. Instead, they have the freedom to slide in response to an earthquake. Genius, I say.

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The anti-earthquake design of the Todai-ji’s rafters

Don’t feel dispirited while we depart from our final temple of this mini tour; you’re in for a surprise! Students are to the city of Oxford what deer are to Nara. Almost every public space is frequented by both people and (mostly) benign deer, whom you are free to feed and stroke. They are a curious bunch though, making sure to investigate anything hanging out of your backpack!

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The deer of Nara browsing the souvenir shops

So there you have it. Three temples in Japan, which you cannot afford not to visit. If you can’t find your personal favourite on this list – and believe it really should be there – do let me know!

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