“Oh, you are going to see some Geisha?” asked by a friend when I told him I could not go on the tour that our hosts at Osaka University prepared. (I told our hosts, I already had a tour of the city on the day of my arrival. On my first day, I already visited Osaka Castle, Shinsekai and the Namba Shrine, which were listed in the itinerary of our hosts).
“It’s Kyoto! It’s monuments!” I replied.
“Yeah, Gion is in Kyoto,” he added.
Gion is the most popular district in Kyoto and probably in the entire Japan because of the presence of the century-old tradition of the geisha, Japanese women who entertain through performing the ancient traditions of art, dance and singing. These carriers of Japanese traditions are also distinctively characterized by their wearing of kimono and oshiroi makeup. The district is also popular with its series of shop-houses, restaurants and teahouses called ochaya.
Upon arrival at Kyoto, my friend’s persistency was buzzing in my head. I went straight to Gion but to my disappointment, no geisha was spotted. I was told I arrived a bit early – it was 8 AM when I arrived at Kyoto. Maybe not yet the best time for me to experience the geisha’s hospitality. So I hopped on the bus and went to my personal itinerary: see some monuments inscribed as World Heritage Sites (WHS) by the UNESCO under the collective title of Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities).
Inscribed in 1994, the property consist of seventeen components that are situated in Kyoto and Uji Cities in Kyoto Prefecture and Otsu City in Shiga Prefecture. These components are said to have been built in 794 and are modelled after Chinese designs. At that time, Kyoto was the cultural center and the imperial capital of Japan until the middle of the 19th century.
According to the UNESCO page on the property: “[A]s the centre of Japanese culture for more than a thousand years, it spans the development of Japanese wooden architecture, particularly religious architecture, and the art of Japanese gardens, which has influenced landscape gardening the world over. Most of the one hundred ninety-eight buildings and twelve gardens that make up the seventeen component parts of the property were built or designed from the 10th to the 17th centuries.”
When I visited Kyoto, the first time in 2014, I was only able to pay homage to three WHS properties.
First in my list is Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺) or the Pavilion of the Golden Pagoda. Adjacent to Kyoto Station is a bus that brings visitors to different sites of interest within Kyoto. In the train, I was contemplating if walking around the city would be a better option. While some tourist sites would not suggest walking, some people I know who visited Kyoto would not recommend it. Arriving at Kyoto Station, I grabbed a tourist map. I immediately understood why some acquaintances never recommended walking.
Some 30 or 40 minutes of bus ride, I arrive at the bus-stop of the Golden Pagoda. It was easy to navigate the whereabouts of the site: there were helpful signages all over the place. From the bus-stop, I walked for over 20 minutes then queued for my ticket. It was a long queue. Spring is tourist season in East Asia, especially in Japan. I had to be very extra patient.
But the long wait to enter the pavilion was all worth-it. Literally, the pagoda was shining. As the sun hit the pagoda, its golden color was becoming so alive. The pagoda was in the middle of a pond. Its reflection on the waters was so bright that the iconic image the water produced was somehow very, very similar to the actual pagoda itself.
Originally built in the Kamakura Period as a country estate of the aristocrats, Rokuon-ji is now a Buddhist Temple (since 1422). The entire site is known especially for the kinkaku (golden pavilion), with its second and third floors entirely gilded with gold. In July 1950, the kinkaku was burned down to the ground by a 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken. After the arson, Hayashi attempted suicide on the Daimon-ji hill just behind the building. He survived, and was subsequently taken into custody. Hayashi was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released because of mental illnesses. Through the Japanese heritage committee, the pavilion was rebuilt in 1955 (according to the brochure, replicated as an exact copy of the original structure).
Another fascinating aspect of the structure was the golden phoenix on top of the kinkaku. Looking at it closely, it looked more like the sarimanok of the Philippines. Perhaps, such fascination with birds (or bird-like creature) is something that connect East and Southeast Asian communities. Motif such as that phoenix is not something unusual in the arts and cultures of East and Southeast Asian nations.
To be continued . . .