Kyoto Temple Walk (and a little shopping)

I’m back in Kyoto again now and I have a day to walk some of the interesting temples and shrines. Some I’m re-visiting, others, I haven’t managed to get to before. There is never enough time to do everything in Kyoto. As this week is Silver Week in Japan, There are going to be a lot of people around, So I decide to avoid a lot of the crowds, by going to some of the lesser known Temples and Shrines. I start at the nearest Temple to where I’m staying, The Higashi-Honganji Temple. This temple is located just 5 mins from the Kyoto Station. Straight up Karasuma-dori. I was here very early the other day, to listen to the temple ring out the dawn. Today, I’m here at a much more reasonable hour.

I walk up to the main temple. It is virtually empty. Only a few people are in there. It’s a huge space. The main room is 12 tatami mats by 14 mats in the central section. There is another 2 side sections that double this area. I sit quietly and ponder my day. I don’t sit cross-legged very comfortably for too long, so I get up and decide to stand for a while. It’s quite peaceful and quiet inside this mammoth room. I really enjoy just being here in this ambiance of quietude.


After leaving this sanctuary I cross the Karasuma dori and take the back lanes to the Shosei-en Garden. This is a lovely little garden space, tucked away in these quiet back streets. I walk down to the Shichijo dori, not too far, then cross the Kamu river. While I’m on the bridge. I can see a heron patiently working the shallows for its supper. In the distance I can see two men also working the rapids with weighted, circular throw nets. I’m too far away to be able to see if they are catching anything. Over the bridge, I come to the Sanjusangen-do Temple to see the 1000 goddess/deity images, called ‘Kannon’, each with 38 arms. That’s 38,000 arms, but it doesn’t grab me! I’m listening, but she doesn’t speak to me in any way. In a city with so many temples, you have to have some sort of gimmick to stand out and get some notice. Most are ‘armless, but not this one. It’s fully armed to the hilt.


This huge wooden temple is enormous and set in very nice grounds, with large gravelled, open spaces, but as it is a well-known Temple and it’s Silver week. It is totally crowded. It’s hard to find a quiet place to sit and think. All those ‘Kannon’ deities, are impressive in their numbers, but the actual image isn’t all that aesthetically pleasing to my eye. I’d have taken a picture to show you, but there are signs every where saying cameras will be confiscated if pictures are taken. Isn’t it funny how many different and sometimes conflicting rules God has. It’s almost as if they were all made up by self-interested people!  And maybe god doesn’t even come into it. Perhaps we are all just acting out our own private power struggles, trying to get a gimmick and them milk it for money, power, prestige? Actually, this place reminds me of the work of sculptor, Brian Doar, who I exhibited with for many years at Legge Gallery and more recently at Watters Gallery. It reminds me of Brian’s sculptures on acid, or Speed, or both. Except that Brian’s sculptures are more engaging. I find a quiet place out in the garden, past the gravel, in some of the very scarce shade. I spend time to take in the scene. Older couples ambling around, Little kiddies running around, burning off energy, while one or other of the parents has the chance to get a serious look at ‘Kannon’ and the massive buddha in the centre of the long wooden hall.


I really like this elegant, but very large hall from the outside. I’m a big fan of the simplicity and pared back restraint of some of the architecture. Some of the temples are way too busy visually for my taste, but this one has poured all its bling into the inside display and left the outside quietly understated. I can’t find anywhere to sit that is in the shade, but also quiet, away from the throng, so decide to move on. I leave ‘Kannon’ without recording her on my ‘canon’. The best that I can do is take a photo of the tiny image printed in the glossy brochure that you get when you pay to go in. That will have to suffice.


Across the road from here is the Yogen-in Temple. It was built by one of Hideyoshi’s concubines and has a troubled history. It burnt down, almost as soon as it was built. The temple is small and not all that special except for the blood stains on the ceiling that is its’ claim to fame. The reconstructed temple was built from the remains of a castle that was lost in battle and the defeated warrior, took his own life, rather than be captured and live with dishonour. His spilled blood stained the floor boards of the main hall and later, these same floor boards were used to construct the ceiling of the entrance hall of this temple.

I never really got inside and understood ‘bushido’. I tried. back in the 70’s, I read a lot of Japanese literature at the time, Kawabata, Yukio Mishima’s work and others. but it just didn’t ring true to me. Concepts of servitude, obedience and violence, just don’t sit well with me. I prefer self-imposed discipline, frugality and pacifism. I think more can be achieved by growing organic vegetables than staging coups.


Back outside, I like the sloping walkway up to the Yogen-in Temple entrance with its mossy garden. I think that it’s that best part of this temple. Leaving here brings me to the amazing stone retaining wall of the Kyoto National Museum. I turn left here and go down the hill a few hundred metres to find a sweet little knife shop on the left side of the road, just past the intersection. I was here once before, about 6 years ago, coming from the opposite direction. I’m sort of surprised that I can find it and that it is where I thought that it might be. I bought a little kitchen fruit and vegetable paring knife here. The very helpful lady who runs the shop seems to be related to the maker? Not too sure about this. She has little English and I, very limited Japanese. She does indicate to me that all the knives in the shop are ‘te-sukuri’, hand-made and also made in Kyoto. That makes them pretty rare, as most of the knives on sale here are made in near-by Sakai. I love my little paring knife and use it often at home. I try to tell her that I’ve been here before, years ago and bought that particular knife here. Pointing at the one in the display case. She seems to understand and thanks me. I’m looking for an ‘kanna’ utility blade, just like the one that Tatsuya had in his workshop, and allowed me to borrow and use as required. It’s a special thing, for a man to share a very valuable and treasured, sharp-edged tool with a stranger. I really appreciate his thoughtful kindness. I now want one just like it, but I realise from my quick scouting around in the ‘Aritsugu’ family knife shop in the Nishiki market, that they cost up to $200. I didn’t realise that they were quite so highly valued! Such an apparently simple thing, involving what appears to be so little work compared to a kitchen knife, but twice the cost? I now appreciate Tatsuya’s trust in me even more. I decide that I want to be just like Tatsuya san when I grow up!


In this tiny, out-of-the-way cutlery shop, my persistence is rewarded. I find just what I am looking for at a very reasonable price that I can afford. I realise that I should master my desire for owning possessions, but there are a few things in life that are special. Some particular pots, mostly made by others, a few wood working tools, a couple of pieces of clothing that I have spent time re-working, repairing and patching. My beautiful hand-made cello. A hand written letter from a friend. When it is all boiled down, there are so few objects/things that I have in my life that are really of value to me and when I sit and consider them, what I see are some un-remarkable, plain and very ordinary objects. They have no monetary value to speak of. I have created the meaning embedded in them. Any one else would throw them out. They are just so ordinary. Simple, restrained and beautiful. Loaded with the South Pacific-Austronesian concept of ‘mana’. I’ve made them special!

I give in to my base nature and purchase this simple elegant thing, and then re-trace my steps back up to the Museum wall. The stones used to make the wall are about 3 metres across and the 100 or so metres of wall are quite impressive. This was once the site of one of Hideyoshi’s castle strongholds, hence the amazing old stonework. These days it is the site of the museum. I am quite taken by the exhibit of calligraphy in the main downstairs gallery. Suddenly I wish that I could read this. But then again, on reflection I realise that it is better not. It’s most likely a note to the dry cleaner or the milkman and probably something quite mundane. It’s probably better that it retains its beautiful romantic mystery and remain an image of beauty. Too much knowledge spoils romance!


Just along from here on the left, in a back lane is Kawai Kanjiro’s house. It’s always worth a visit. I don’t stop off here every time I come to Kyoto, but I have visited here a few times and I did call in here a month ago on my last visit to Kyoto.  This isn’t a Temple, but it is a sort of shrine for potters with romantic ideals.

Just past Kawai’s house, towards the end of the lane, there is a nice pottery gallery, worth a look. So many of the houses around here are occupied by potters. Some of them have pots out on the sidewalk on shelves with honesty boxes. There are some nice pots among them. I have bought some pots here over the years. They are what I consider to be amazingly cheap, for what they are.

From here it is just a short walk across the Gojo dori street to start the long climb up to the Kiyomizudera Temple. Just 100 m. down the hill from here to the left of the intersection, there is a real  Shinto shrine to potters. There can’t be too many of those in the world, but here is one. I clap once and ring the bell. I leave my little offering. I want the potters of Kyoto to prosper.

I often come here, each time I visit Kyoto. Not because I’m religious, because I’m not. It’s more for the walk past all the pottery shops that line the streets leading up to the Kiyomizu Temple than anything else. I start off up the Gojozaka street, but today, I decide to take the lower right hand road at the first fork. The Chawanzaka. Along here, there are also a lot of pottery shops. I’m heading for one in particular, towards the top of the street on the left side there is a lovely, small shop which always seems to have a great selection of pots in stock. Today there is an amazing display of polychrome porcelain by a young, local, Kyoto girl. recently graduated from Art School. She has created a range of intricately hand painted tiny dishes. I’m amazed at the detail that she has put into their decoration. I buy one for myself and another as a present for The Lovely. They’re tiny, precious and intense. I hope that she will love my choice as much as I do?


After leaving this shop, there is a staircase up the cliff on the left, directly as you leave the shop. It winds up past a pottery ‘experience’ workshop and emerges at the top, in a small courtyard space between another pottery gallery and a small restaurant. I’ve had a couple of light lunches in there, cheap and cheerful. The gallery opposite is owned by the same people that own the shop lower down, “Asahido”, but all the stock is entirely different! just past the shop front, there is a walkway that leads to the upper temple road again. I walk up to the top of the hill.

One of the last shops at the top of the hill, has a nice range of Kiyomizuyaki. I buy a lovely little sake cup by Yano Syozo from the Hekiseki Gama workshop. This shop also turns out to be part of the “Asahido” family group of shops. They seem to own everything that I choose to go into.


I continue on up the hill, but instead of going into the temple this time. I’ve been in there before and I don’t feel the need to go again today. Particularly because it’s packed out, with a huge long queue waiting in the hot sun to get in. Instead, what I do is to take the right hand lane, past the temple entrance and along the side of the temple against the stream of people leaving the temple tour. I’m heading to the rear exit, where I know there are two small cafes that serve chawan of whisked green tea. It’s just what I’m feeling like at this time of the day. The caffeine in the green tea will give me a pick-up to get me going for the rest of the afternoon. I find a quiet place off to the side of the cafe tent awning, with a view down into the valley. The tea is great. It’s a very hot day today, and my tea arrives with ice cubes in it.


After my little rest, I’m refreshed and up for another walk down the temple road to the steps that lead along towards the Gion district. Along this linked system of alleyways, small roads, stairways and paths, I come to the little antique/2nd hand shop, where a few years ago Janine and I found a Kawai Takeichi, press-moulded rectangular bottle. A beautiful thing and included its signed wooden box. It has a special place on Janine’s dresser. On this occasion, I find two tiny treasures, both polychrome porcelain sake cups made in Kutani early last century for $20. Lovely.


From here, it’s down and across to the Kodiji Temple where I sit and try not to think for a while, but maybe its the green tea, or just the excitement of being here? All the sights and aromas. I find it so very stimulating. My mind is racing around with so many ideas, concepts, particularly there are ideas of new pots to be made that will reflect all this cultural input. I’m ready to return home now. I want to incorporate some of this new thinking and porcelain throwing/turning skillset into my practice. All this is going through my mind and won’t stop. I watch myself doing this. The constant cycling of thoughts and images. I just let it roll.

There is music out in the park somewhere and I am drawn away from my meditations to listen. I’m so shallow! I’m a sucker for a bit of live music. I get up and wander slowly out to the park. People are enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. I sit and listen and watch the glow slowly disappearing from the sky. It’ll soon be evening. Birds are circling, swooping and wheeling overhead. Children are crying. It’s been a long hot day out for them and they are tired.


Somehow. I don’t really know how, perhaps it was the green tea? I’m energised and ready to take on the Terramachi shopping street throng, but first I have to navigate the crowds at the Kawabata/shijo dori intersection.

I emerge from the park through the Yasaka shrine gate into the Gion district and across the busy intersection of the Kamo river crossing and up the Pontocho laneway to see and smell all the tiny restaurants located along the narrow passageway.


There is a nice little lacquer shop just 50 metres in along here, with some great lacquer bargains, I look in, but today I’m not tempted. Then along Karamachi dori to the little hidden gallery upstairs above the soft bank phone shop. The ‘NishiKawa CraftShop’. This place has a nice selection of small items, displayed with a particular elegance and restraint.

I reach the Terramachi, covered market street by a side lane and up to the end, crossing the Oike dori and continuing up the open Teramachi street, up to “Gallery West’ or so the sign says, but is actually called ‘Hitamuki’ or ‘Space-Design’ according to the card I’m given. This is a beautiful, small gallery run by people with excellent taste and a discerning eye. I often buy pots here, especially the porcelain work of Kazumi Kinoshita, but also some very fine woodwork. However, today, there is nothing to temp me.

Just a little further along the street, there is a tiny brush shop, where they have some very fine delicate brushes. I buy two for very fine line work. Across the road there is a nice ‘tea’ shop and next door to there is a washi paper shop. It’s evening now and places are starting to close up. So I make my way home by walking across to the Karasuma Dori and then straight back home to my guesthouse. I suddenly feel hungry. I need to make my way home via the supermarket to get some fresh salad and a small piece of fish. A satisfying end to a full day and an end to my time in Japan – for this year.

An enjoyable day out, walking some of the temples and craft shops of Kyoto.

Best wishes from Steve in Kyoto