After a restless night thanks to the sinus that had been aggravated by the A/C on the plane, I woke up at around 5am and gave up on waiting out the 6am alarm. Instead, I played around with the bedside radio and stumbled across an epic station where they were enacting some Japanese play. I think we need stations like that again. I ended up going down for an early breakfast at 6.30am. The breakfast was really good, with airy croissants that pretty much put to shame any croissant I’ve had here and yummy lychees <3 (I could probably eat an entire tree filled with lychees in one sitting so yes I may be biased).
Our first stop of the day was the tea tasting in the hotel itself so we found the room ahead of time and then decided to head down to Lawson’s, a 24hr convenience store, to get some water for what we had been warned would be one hot and humid day. Now the tap water is perfectly safe to drink in Japan, but with my history of tummy trouble I decided to play it safe and opted to go mineral. Lawson’s is a short walk from the hotel and right next to the hotel, a couple of minutes away, is a large Buddhist temple- the Nishi Honganji temple. We didn’t enter the temple, but marvelled at the architecture from outside.Some of the buildings in this temple are actually National Treasures and as I later found out, the elaborate Karamon that caught my eye is also a National Treasure. People refer to this Karamon as all day gate, meaning that you could spend an entire day just admiring the carvings and architectural beauty of the gate. I would have to agree with that statement. During our short walk from the hotel, past the temple and into Lawson’s we were struck by one thing – the incredibly loud machine-like hum coming from the cicadas hiding in the trees and in the bushes lining the road. It’s a sound you’ll miss back home- a sound that reminds you that there’s life all around you. We got back to the hotel with enough time to rest before heading back down to the tea tasting which was being conducted by Tsuen, one of the oldest tea-houses in Japan based in Uji- around 850 years old. The owner was there to meet us himself, a young man who had inherited the family business and the skill and he was there to prepare a variety of teas for us to taste. There are three main types of tea – Matcha, Gyokuro and Sencha – the strongest tea being the green powdered Matcha and the lightest being Sencha. While tea is traditionally served warm, the tea house has evolved with the times and now offers cold varieties of the tea too. I passed on the Matcha which I normally find too bitter and opted for the warm Sencha. Less bitter but still too bitter for me. I think I’ve been too spoiled by sugar and tea-bags to appreciate green tea in its original form. The good news though is that they have great sweets to eat before the tea tasting (which I ate after the tea tasting to clear the taste from my mouth). ^^
An hour or so later, we left the tea tasting and headed to our next stop. We were originally supposed to attend the Gion Festival in the morning but Sensei felt, and rightly so, that most of us would be too exhausted to even wake up in time. Instead, we got fans from the Gion festival, which would eventually prove to be our best friends during our week-long tour.We headed to the Kiyomizu Temple, which means The Temple of Clear Water. An ancient temple, the current buildings were mostly rebuilt after fires in the 1600s and are not only considered National Treasures but are also a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. We walked through the Deva gate, past the three-storey pagoda and straight to a place not normally opened to visitors. We were in for a special surprise when we were allowed to enter the hall which houses the footsteps of Buddha. We took off our shoes at the entrance, changed into slippers and headed into the dimly lit hall which was more like a balcony overlooking the 4m long feet of Buddha below. The hall is around 20m in height, which corresponds to the height of a standing Buddha. The walls were covered with tiles featuring Buddha and we were handed two lotus-leaf shaped papers to toss towards the feet. This is how people make a wish, they said. We spent a considerable amount of time there learning more about the markings on the feet and Buddhist customs before we headed back out, humbled by the privileged experience. Our special treatment though was far from over. We were then escorted to the main hall. While the main hall is open to the public, there is an inner sanctuary that is not open to the public which is where we were taken. From the inner sanctum you can see three doors in front of which there are altars. In front of the central door is a statue of the goddess of mercy in typical Kyoto style with palms pressed in front of the body and over its head, with a total of a thousand arms, 11 heads and 28 followers to its side. This door is opened once every 33 years (it’s next due to open in 2033) and remains open for 9 months from March to November during which time the public can see the secret statue of Buddha. Since pictures were not allowed in either place I’m hoping I don’t forget how amazing everything looked.
We left the main hall and went out to take in the amazing views of the Otowa Mountain from the Kiyomizu Stage.The stage itself is an architectural wonder, 12m or so high, built with zelkova trees- an interlocking wooden foundation without a single nail. The stage is so high that it’s featured as part of a popular metpahor “To jump off the Kiyomizu stage” (清水の舞台から飛び降りる) which means to take the plunge or make a difficult decision. We then headed out in search of the famous spring at the temple. The Otawa waterfall is channeled into three streams and drinking from each of the streams left to right is said to grant you health, wealth and wisdom respectively. But drink from all three springs and you’ll get nothing because you’re being greedy. There was a long line of people waiting to drink from the spring but we joined them and as we got to the water, we found long-handled metal cups which can be used to reach the falling water and drink. After a long walk in the hot and humid weather, not only did we have a renewed appreciation of our hand-fans but the spring water was a much-needed refreshment. As with most temples, there are lots of shops on the way towards the temple and make for great souvenir shopping but since we were short of time we had to skip them both going up and coming back down. We did however discover that there are vending machines everywhere in Japan, so you don’t need to worry about packing a bottle of water since you’ll find vending machines at every corner with a variety of drinks.
With that, we headed to lunch at the Kangaan temple.
Stay tuned for Day 2 Part 2