It would be hard, impossible probably, to visit Kyoto and NOT end up at a temple or shrine. I mean, considering that the city is home to around about 3,000, there’s one every which way that you turn.
Interestingly though, at least among the handful that we toured, they are all really distinct and have their own unique purpose and beauty. I was really excited, as someone who considers her faith basic to her daily life, to see the heart of Japanese worship.
On our very fist night in Kyoto, we visited Kiyomizudera, which was having a special “light up ceremony” which, apparently, only happens three times a year. Basically it means the place, and the grounds, are lit up like Christmas. The atmosphere is similarly festive. We went back again, a couple of days later to experience it by the light of day.
To arrive at Kiyomizuderu, you must ascend a winding little street, surrounded by shops. Each of them is bursting with trinkets, pottery and cloth goods, which threaten to distract you from your mission. I could have spent days there and never made it to the top at all. There’s also loads of yummy mochi, ice cream and other treats being offered to the tourists, pilgrims, and most especially the laughing school kids on field trip.
Owing to the special event, the place was CROWDED. We were pressed so close that I was nearly carried up by sheer force of the crowd.
Once we reached the top, we gawked at the beautiful architecture for a bit, and marveled at the view of Kyoto and the surrounding countryside.
Then, before I knew exactly what happened, I found myself shoeless, entering a pitch black tunnel meant to represent “the great mother’s” womb. I seriously could not see my hand before my face. It was cold. Panic and dread swept over me (read: impending claustrophobic snit) . I was supposed to be looking for a glowing stone that would bring good luck. I saw it and booked it out of there FAST!
Outside, if you are so inclined, you can drink from the famed waterfall, to gain wisdom, love or health. You can walk, eyes closed, from one love stone to another. If you make it, it is said that you will find your true love.
You can hang your wishes for the coming year.
You can participate in tea ceremony or stop for noodles.
You can have your fortune told. If you like your fortune, take it with you. If you don’t, hang it and leave it behind.
You can light a candle. I’m not real clear why, but you can. I think it has something to do with the smoke carrying your prayers to the gods or your ancestors.
You can toss coins and ring a bell that will carry up your prayers. You can rub this statue for healing. If your shoulder hurts, you rub the shoulder. If your leg hurts, rub the leg, and so on.
It was a lot to take in. The unfamiliarity, the festivity, the bustling, laughter, the lights at night, or the amazing foliage during the day, the smell of tea and mochi, girls in uniform or kimono, not a sign I could read or a word in English. All strange and at once alarming and gorgeous.
Japan, in other words. Japan.