Features

Feeling zen in Kyoto

11 May 2023 by Hannah Brandler
Springtime sakura in Kyoto (iStock/Sean Pavone 2018)

One of Japan’s most revered and storied cities is home to beautiful temples, unique sweets, and exquisite entertainers.

We crept forward in the pitch-black, using our hands to trace the Buddha beads running along the wall. I was in the womb of the Zuigu-bosatsu (the mother of Buddha), otherwise known as the tunnel of Tainai-meguri, preparing to make my wish to the Zuigo stone.

The journey through the darkened temple corridor represents a form of spiritual rebirth. While perhaps not advisable for claustrophobics, the sensory deprivation can be a meditative experience. By focusing on my footsteps, I found my mind was freed of clutter. When we finally exited the tunnel and escaped the darkness, we had apparently gained an enlightened state.

This spiritual journey takes place at the UNESCO World Heritage Kiyomizudera temple. Many of Kyoto’s 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines boast this status, but this is one of the oldest and most revered. The temple is situated halfway up Mount Otowa, in Kyoto’s Higashiyama ward, but a certain level of willpower is required to reach the temple as the ascent weaves through narrow lanes filled with souvenir stalls, pottery studios and sweet shops.

It’s worth persevering. The ancient temple was originally built in 798 and the buildings here are reconstructions dating back to 1633. The temple is most famous for its Main Hall, where a cliffside veranda (known as the Kiyomizu Stage) stands 13 metres high, supported by 18 pillars joined with wooden rails. It’s an architectural marvel, with not a single nail in sight thanks to traditional forms of carpentry that feature elaborate wooden joints to support structures instead.

From these heights, you are also afforded astounding views over Kyoto. My visit took place shortly after Japan reopened its borders last October and a glowing canopy of amber and red-hued treetops signalled the start of autumn. Visitors today will find slightly different but no less enchanting views, with the springtime sakura (cherry blossom) in bloom until the end of April, before lush greens take over for summer.

Nearby you’ll find the stream of the Otowa Waterfall, from which the temple takes its name (kiyomizu means pure water). Long-handled ladles are used to collect the water, with visitors pouring the contents into their hands and drinking it for good luck.

The Kiyomizudera temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, originally built in 798 - credit Hannah Brandler

Old-school techniques

Along with its centuries-old temples, Kyoto has a rich culinary heritage kept alive by local producers that preserve the practices of their ancestors. As I stepped out of the taxi in Yoshidaizumidonocho, the scent of sugar activated my sweet tooth. We’d arrived at Ryokujuan Shimizu, a 176-year-old producer of konpeito, the popular hard candy first introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century.

The family-run shop, currently overseen by the fourth generation, produces the konpeito onsite in a compact 50-degree Celsius kitchen. Production is guided by sight and sound rather than a fixed recipe – I’m told that employees are only entrusted with the production process once they have 20 years of listening and watching under their belt. The owner jokes that her son, who will eventually take over the store, is a few steps ahead thanks to his time spent listening to the process in utero while she was pregnant.

To make the konpeito, the grain is repeatedly coated with sugar syrup and rolled in a large heated pot for up to eight hours a day for two weeks. The candy specialists listen to the sound it makes as it rolls to judge its readiness. The final step sees flavourings and colours added. It’s a painstaking traditional process that has made konpeito a luxury commodity – the brand has previously made products exclusively for Gucci and Chanel. The sweets produced here are not sold online or internationally, so don’t miss the chance to purchase some at the main shop in Yoshidaizumidonocho.

Just a seven-minute walk away, you’ll find a producer of an equally hard substance: sake. Kyoto is the second-largest sake-producing region in Japan, partly thanks to the region’s access to fresh water. The family-owned Matsui Sake Brewery, currently led by a 15th-generation toji (brewmaster), is a smaller-scale operation, producing just 30,000 litres per year. But the entire brewing process is done by hand. This begins with washing the rice – Kyoto-produced Iwai and Gohyakumangoku varietals, naturally – and collecting water from the onsite well.

New York native and sake sommelier, Jorge Navarette, takes visitors on tours of the facility followed by a tasting session at the sleek bar where they can make their mind up about which bottle to bring home. The brewery, which is approaching its 300th anniversary, plans to introduce a sparkling sake in the future.

Geikos in Gion

Kyoto’s performing arts are also largely rooted in antiquity. You will have heard of geisha, but in Kyoto these professional entertainers go by the name geiko, with apprentices referred to as maiko. The beautifully kimono-dressed women reside in Gion, a district filled with narrow, quaint lanes on the eastern bank of the Kamo River. But in the age of Instagram, make sure that you are respectful of the etiquette. In 2019, Kyoto introduced a ban on photographing geiko without their consent, owing to complaints of harassment, and you’ll spot warning notices and surveillance cameras in this area.

The geiko showcase a variety of traditional Japanese arts – from dancing to singing and ceremonial games – while customers enjoy kaiseki (multi-course) meals in ochaya (teahouses). These venues, however, are exclusive establishments, and visitors will need to know an existing member of the ochaya to secure an invite. Fortunately, Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto, where I was staying, has just such a relationship with an ochaya, and arranged a visit.

It was an honour to meet the multi-talented maiko, who graciously answered our flurry of questions with the help of a translator.

We learned that she was drawn to the vocation by her fascination with kimonos and a dream to perform, though her stage debut only came in April 2022 due to the pandemic. She challenged us to a round of ozashiki games, in particular konpira fune fune. The game involves an empty sake cup, which can either be lifted or tapped. Both players take it in turns. If your opponent lifts the cup, you must present a closed fist on the table, if not, you tap the top of sake cup. The game is accompanied by a rhythmic tune sung by the maiko, with her singing speeding up as you play to make it trickier. Jetlagged, I warned her that it was unlikely I would wise up to the rules, so it might have been this sense of security that prompted my victory. Or, more likely, she was kind enough to let me win.

Back in Higashiyama, we headed to another shrine, this time to Yasui Konpiragu. The focus of this site is a stone monument, measuring 1.4 metres high and three metres wide, with a large hole through its centre. Not that you’d know it, because the whole thing is plastered in paper notes detailing wishes made by visitors. I had already experienced some of Japan’s wish-making customs, but this one was dedicated to the making and breaking of relationships.

I joined fellow visitors in writing on a paper amulet (known as katashiro) a relationship I wanted to break, followed by a positive one I wanted to construct. The next step is to crawl through the hole. Holding the paper firmly in my hand, I silently recited the negative relationship as I passed through the monument, returning in the opposite direction with my mind occupied only by good thoughts. All that was left was to stick my wish note onto the stone, among those of other strangers, and hope the kami (Shinto gods) looked favourably upon my request. While my trip was coming to an end, the focus was on new beginnings.

High Speed Bullet Train with Fuji Mountain (iStock/DoctorEgg)

SPEEDING TO KYOTO ON THE SHINKANSEN

Travellers on business trips in Tokyo can access Kyoto’s zen-like surroundings and rich culture in just two hours and 20 minutes, thanks to Japan’s ‘bullet train’ the Shinkansen. The Tokaido Shinkansen is the country’s busiest and most popular line, with the Nozomi service linking Kyoto and Tokyo at speeds of up to 300 km/h. Services run roughly every 30 minutes from 6am-9.30pm and stop en route at Nagoya.

The high-speed train has been highly popular since its launch in 1964, and is still celebrated, most recently starring in the Brad Pitt-fronted comedic thriller of the same name. The highly punctual and incredibly clean trains are no doubt a wonder to Brits, who are painfully used to cancellations and delays.

Our tip is to book a window seat to maximise your chances of spotting the snow-tipped peaks of Mount Fuji, which match the sleek white exterior of these trains, and grab a reasonably-priced bento box in the station for the journey.

Note that the Japan Rail Pass does not cover the Nozomi bullet train, which has the fewest amount of stops and is ideal for commuters. To purchase a ticket, go to a JR Ticket window or use a ticket machine. (shinkansentrains.com/tokyo-to-kyoto.html)

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