Ancient Japan

Osaka, Japan

Up very early this morning for our sightseeing in Kyoto and Nara, ancient capitals of Japan. The ship docked in Osaka at about 7 and we ere already up and breakfasting. Usually we organise our own tours at each port of call or just do our own thing, but here we had to take a P&O tour in order to see the two places in one day. We’d seen a lot of modern Japan on this trip – Osaka is also very modern – and I had a hankering to see some of the Japan of history – pagodas, temples, ponds and gardens. For that I was prepared to put up with travelling in a group of 40 people!!!
So, we set off at arund 730 for the 1.5 hour drive to Nara. Nara had been the capital of Japan in the 700s AD unti it was abandoned for Kyoto due to court intrigues. Nara was a charming small town, surrounded by mountains and the historical sites we were visiting were located in a very large park, full of beautiful trees. The cherry trees are opening but they are probably about a week off being in full glory.
Our first stop was at the Todai-Ji temple, a large Buddhist complex. On arrival we were greeted by a herd of deer which are omnipresent in Nara. There are plenty of stalls selling a type of rice cake used to feed them and they are very tame really and used to being fed. The males have all been de-horned anyway, although there are some funny signs warning that they are still wild animals and unpredictable.
Outside of the main Buddhist Hall is a courtyard with a very large and beautiful bronze lantern, dating from the 8th century and shaped in an octogon. Gorgeous. Inside are some very large statues of the Buddha and also one of his Japanese followers who is also sacred in his own right as a healer. The huge Virocana Buddha inside is 49 feet high. I believe it is the largest in Japan and is bronze with gold leaf. The Buddha Hall itself is the largest wooden structure in the world.
After visiting this temple we travelled to the Kasuga Shrine which is a Shinto shrine with altars to 4 gods. This shrine was a fantastically scenic place, surrounded by ornamenta trees and reached up slopes and shallow steps lined by over three thousand stone lanterns. The lanterns are lit twice a year and it must be a truly wonderful sight when they are, well worth visiting. The Japanese are a superstitious people more than a religious people. I think that we can more easily understand the Roman view of religion if we study how Shinto works in Japan. It is not a personal belief system, but very much a quid pro quo, a “just in case” following of rites and custom. Anyway, it was noticeable at the Shinto and Zen shrines that people were there getting blessings for their wedding, for examinations, for other important events. It is also popular in Japan to come to the temples and shrines wearing traditional dress and we saw many people today wearing kimonos. A lovely sight especially the young girls with flowers in their hair.
After our two visits in Nara we headed to Kyoto, about an hour away. I thought Kyoto was going to be far more attractive than it actually was. It was a large, ugly, industrial town which has preserved monuments dotted around it but no discernable “old quarter”. We had lunch in a hotel here. A funny mix of Japanese and European i.e. sushi followed by roast chicken and hash browns. I was starving and it was tasty and hit the spot.
After lunch we went on to the highlight of the day: a visit to the Golden Pavilion, the Kinkaku at the Rokuon-ji Temple. The Kinkaku is a shariden, a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha and it is part of a Zen Buddhist temple. The pavilion was originally a guesthouse for foreign dignitaries, particularly the Chinese, but became a temple in around 1400. The pavilion is built of lacquer covered in gold leaf and is stet beside a still lake surrounded by ornamental trees and shrubs. It is an absolutely exquisite sight and would be even better if you saw it on a totally still day when the mirroring in the lake would be perfect. Absolutely ravishing. We walked through the gardens which have several pure water springs and Zen stones set about.A perfect garden for walking, admiring the vistas which are beautiful at each turn.
Our final visit was to the Kiyomizo Temple, a very popular one in Kyoto. It is approached up a narrow hill street lined with shops. It was a huge crush here to get uphill through the crowds of people, many of them in national dress. The complex has several temple halls and two beautiful pagodas, red and gold. We explored as best as we could and also looked in some of the shops on the way down. There were loads of sweet shops – mostly types of jelly or nut sweets. Bob and I couldn’t resist a green tea ice cream. It was so refresing and delicious.
The traffic was pretty horrendous getting away from Kyoto. Got back to the ship at around 7pm and ft’d with the girls. We sail tonight at midnight and then have 8 days at sea. Next stop Honolulu, Oahu.