rom year 794 to 1869, Kyoto served as the capital of Japan
. It was not just the seat of the emperors, it was also the epicentre of the nation’s cultural and intellectual innovations. Over that thousand-year span, Kyoto congregated the nation’s best talents under the imperial vicinity. Monks, artisans, poets, and thinkers gather from across Japan and rest of Asia to build a capital worthy of the Chrysanthemum Throne.
From those talents spawned thousands of temples, writings, and a tradition based on ceremony and religion. It collected the fragments of a nation, pieced them together, and refined them into an unifying philosophy that still governs Japan’s cultural fibre today.
Like other cities rich in history, Kyoto faces constant challenges to define and redefine itself. The increasing speed at which Kyoto sheds its old self is evident from the growing cacophony of architectural styles that dominate Kyoto’s urban landscape. In an effort to remain competitive, for example, many machiya
have been torn down and redeveloped.
In this two-part series, we explore the neighbourhoods of Southern Higashiyama, the southeastern area of Kyoto rich in historical artifacts. Starting from Mangan-ji, a small Buddhist temple beside the renowned Heian Shrine, we follow along the ancient streets and temples southward to discover traces of Kyoto’s imperial past.
Our journey begins at Mangan-ji, a fairly small and non-descript buddhist temple overshadowed by the majestic Heian Shrine to its west. Except for the locals, it is a fair bet that nobody has ever heard of it, and for a good reason. In Kyoto alone, there are over 2,000 temples and shrines. Many, like Mangan-ji, are without government support and struggles to find the necessary funding to survive.
Those smaller temples, however, still play an important role in strengthening the social fabric of the community. Comparing to the more famous religious landmarks, they represent the humble, day-to-day establishments that scatter across Kyoto. They are small, but most are well maintained. Starting from Mangan-ji, we walk around the neighbourhood and move southward towards the Shirakawa River.
Shirakawa means “white river” in Japanese. It was named from the white sediments deposited at the bottom of the river. Shirakawa river flows from the east into the Kamo River, the major waterway running through the heart of Kyoto. Through its course, the river passes several neighbourhoods, such as the Gion district and Shin-Jujo Dori.
The river is usually very shallow, except for a prolonged rainy season. They are flanked by walls built out of stone blocks. Along the riverside, one can see bridges built out of single pieces of steel plate with two-legged supports. While they are not exactly engineering feats, they provide convenience to the locals who cross them frequently.
Constructed in the 12th century, Shōren-in was originally the residence of the sons of Emperor Toba. It was meant as their urban dwelling when they studied under the head priest of Enryakuji Temple, a Buddhist sect (Tendai) in the mountains of northeastern Kyoto. Gradually, it evolved into a full-fledged temple itself, becoming one of the five Monzeki temples of the Tendai sect in Kyoto.
So what is Monzeki? Monzeki, or 門跡 in kanji, is a type of temple where the high priests are of aristocratic or imperial lineage. Up until the Meiji era, only members of imperial family could be appointed as the head priests of Shōren-in. They enjoyed superior status and funding amongst other religious institutions. Today, Shōren-in is open to tourists and offer ceremonies and seasonal illuminations.
Continued in Part 2