On the way to Nanzen-ji I kicked myself and shelled out ¥1300 for my fifth disposable camera. I was starting to consider buying a digital camera purely for economic reasons. Then at least I’d be able to tell if my pictures turned out before I developed them.


The ascent to Nanzen-ji was lined with tall, arching trees and low buildings set a comfortable distance back from the road. Inside, rather than a single discerning feature, the temple offered a collection of interesting and unique little things. I ascended the stairs inside the big temple gate, balking momentarily at paying ¥500 for something that promised about five minutes of interest, but from up top I spotted two rather interesting-looking towers on a hill I’d almost certainly passed on my way, and I decided to add them to my visit list if I ever returned.


Around 3:15 I called Needles, a friend from university I’d planned to meet in Osaka, to let him know I’d probably be later than 4:30. Our conversation, however, was interrupted by the exclamation, “NEAT! They have an AQUEDUCTt!” as I spotted an entirely unexpected set of red brick arches extending across the path and disappearing into the foliage of the hillside.

Nanzen-ji aqueduct
Why is there an aqueduct in Nanzen-ji? Who knows!

Further up the hill was the Nanzen-in, a sizeable house complete with tatami mats, sliding painted doors and little closets and such that seemed like it could easily be lived in tomorrow, all opening onto a carefully-constructed little garden cradled against the shade of a green hill.


I wanted to know where the aqueduct came from, so I walked along the top until I arrived at what, as far as I could tell, appeared to be a component of the Kyoto waterworks: a mass convergence of water flowing into two giant pipes leading down to the city.


I wanted to head back and see if there was anything else I’d missed—I was quite sure there was—but it was already getting late and I still had to make my way to the station. I followed some wide railcar tracks down the hill and started walking toward town in the hopes of randomly finding a link to the subway. Instead, I found a sign for Chion-in.


I pretended it was on the way and made a quick detour.


 I hadn’t read anything at all about Chion-in. All I knew was that, in his Lonely Planet, Socks had underlined the fact that the founding priest had “fasted to death,” and if that were the most interesting thing about the place I’d figured I could skip it.


What I hadn’t read included things like “massive scale,” “immense main hall,” and “for visitors with a taste for the grand and glorious.” I wished I’d actually set aside time for it.


I sort of did a fly-by of the place. I buzzed through the centre of the grounds, entirely missed out on the giant bell and anything of interest inside, and finally emerged at the huge temple gate, purportedly the largest in Japan.

The main gate of Chion-in
The gate of Chion-in is indeed very big. Those doors are about 12 feet high.

I was starting to entertain thoughts of trying to hitchhike a ride to the station when I found myself right outside Yasaka Shrine. If I hadn’t been meeting Needles, I could probably have gone in and taken a proper look around Maruyama Park before it got dark.


An ideal Kyoto route would probably start with a bus trip up to Ginkaku-ji in the morning followed by a meander down the east side all the way to Kiyomizu Temple by the end of the day, possibly even squeezing in those two random buildings I’d spotted from Nanzen-ji. Then again, I tend to walk like a blitzkrieg, and I'm not sure if the casual walker could pull it off. My personal assessment by the time I finally got on a train was: “Legs… in pain… but… strong.”

Osaka Not-Quite Nights

It was approaching 6:30 by the time Needles and I met up in Osaka station, and he showed me a few neon highlights of the downtown area before we headed out for dinner.


We were both curious to see how our respective Japanese skills were doing. I’d always gotten the better marks back at school, but the new job he’d lined up included translation for the City of Osaka website, and he’d taken the Level 2 test in December while I’d only done the Level 3. He hadn’t taken it seriously, mind you, and it beat him up pretty badly. That said, even though I’d managed to pull a wacky 94.8% on my Level 3, I can’t even begin to read the books I bought for Level 2.


I had to cut things a little short since Fozzie wanted to show me some of the good nightspots around Kyoto, but it turned out that he was feeling too ill to head out. In the end, we just stayed in and watched Shaolin Soccer, my recent movie of choice.


On Tuesday, Fozzie and Mo both decided to come along to Sanjusan-gendo, the last stop on my itinerary. It was only a few blocks from the apartment, so we could easily do it before I caught the 3:50 train back home. Given that it rained all day, it was a good thing the place wasn’t much to look at from the outside.


Sanjusan-gendo is most famous for housing 1001 statues of the Kannon Buddha. Like pretty much every single other important building in Kyoto, it did indeed burn down at one point, but while most other places have been rebuilt in the last 300 years or so, with the exception of four major “renovations,” the present structure at Sanjusan-gendo has been unchanged since 1266.


 The interior looked like something computer generated for a movie: there were literally 1000 golden, five-foot tall, 40-armed statues of Kannon in seven rows down the entire length of the 120-m building, the shining array broken only by a single 11-foot statue in the centre. 124 of them had even been saved from the original 1164 construction. All were made of carved and painted cedar, and before them stood the statues of Kannon’s 28 guardian deities, their fluidity of form and vivid expressions a great contrast to the rigid and restrained art of later Japan, and highly reflective of the Indian roots of Buddhism.


Around the large Kannon statue itself were the guardian kings of the four directions, each haloed by three tongues of flame. Much of the story behind the statues was written on placards translated into English, and unfortunately for Fozzie and Mo, I found it all quite engrossing.


Sanjusan-gendo was historically the location of the toshiya, an archery contest in which competitors stood outside one end of the hall and tried to strike a target at the other. Just about every information card in the rear hallway referred to Wasa Daihachiro, who in 1686 shot 8133 of 13053 arrows into the target in a single day. That’s nine arrows a minute, or one every 6.6 seconds.


In a display case there was a chunk of a beam removed during one of the building’s restorations. It had been half eaten away by arrows, with a dozen broken shafts still protruding from it. The temple is even now the site of an annual archery contest for girls celebrating their 20th birthday.


I’d spotted metal boxes labelled “fire extinguisher” posted around pretty much every temple, but I never knew exactly what they were until I saw one open at Sanjusan-gendo. The thing contained a water cannon. It looked like an automatic robot sentry out of Aliens. At Chion-in there had been a dozen of those metal boxes completely surrounding the massive entrance gate. The slightest spark near that thing was going to be blasted to kingdom come.


I always thought it a horrendous understatement that the area around every temple was plastered with signs simply saying “No Smoking.”


To finish up we headed to a rather chic little café, the hip-ness of which I soundly drubbed to death with my bull-in-a-china-shop Megabag. On the way there, we stopped at a building bearing a plaque that Fozzie proudly insisted I read. On it were inscribed the words, “Nintendo Playing Cards.”


They originally made cards. And they’re still based in Kyoto. And curse the rain, the photo didn’t turn out.

Just A Little Further

On the bus back to The Village, I got a call from Animal, probably my favourite guy from the taiko (drum) festival in November, inviting me out to a restaurant near my apartment where everyone was celebrating after another little festival I’d completely forgotten about. I also invited Socks along, who showed up with a girl who was visiting him from Nara, a town about an hour from Kyoto. They’d met the week before in Numazu, and she’d surprised him that day by calling to ask if they could meet up after she looked around P. Rock.


At dinner, she said it was easy to understand my Japanese since I used a lot of varying inflection just as they do in Kansai-ben, the dialect of her region. Go figure.


She didn’t have a change of clothes and she never asked, but Socks gradually gathered over the course of the day that she had every expectation of staying at his apartment. This would all make sense if something had happened between them, but nothing ever did, and neither of us was able to glean exactly what her intentions had been.


Four days later, I dropped ¥8000 ($100) and picked up five cameras’ worth of photos from Kyoto and one more roll from skiing, with the inevitable result that only about two-thirds were worth looking at. I still managed to fill three photo books, though.


Did I mention I went to Nagano on two weekends in January? Well, I did. Thought I’d save everyone some reading time.


Next >

Nagano ski hill
I have no idea where this is, but I skied here

February 2003