Forest bathing in Kyoto

When you hear Kyoto you think one thing an one thing only: temples. The city boasts seventeen UNESCO World Heritage sites, almost all temples. Some date back to the mid-800s, though you'd be hard-pressed to actually find any beams that old. Many of the temples embody the philosophical paradox I remember Mrs. Lawlor asking us in 9th grade: if you replace every plank in a ship, is it still the same ship? I'm not sure, but Kyoto seems damn sure about it. 


The thing I didn't realize though, is that in addition to temples, Japan has a week called "Golden Week." Why this wasn't mentioned in the lonely planet guide book is beyond me. It's basically a government instituted "stop working you crazy @#$& and take vacation" week. Five national holidays over an eight day period -- everyone finally takes off. It's like France in August only less hot and with a lot more people. So when I got to Kyoto at the tail end of the national holidays I got to enjoy the most popular temples along with near every school child in Japan it seemed. Over. And over again. 


Don’t get me wrong. The little ones might just win for world's cutest school kids. They wear matching uniforms and adorable bright hats, walk in two rows holding hands, and generally look like real life covers of Madeline. 


kyoto has it all 

Temples, kimonos, tradition, children, selfies, construction -- this is Kyoto. Fast-paced, fashionable, full of history. (And touring school groups.)


Now see the kids are adorable, but the teenagers. They're the worst. It doesn't matter the country, everyone that age acts the same everywhere. Pushing, yelling, giggling, flirting, pushing some more, yelling some more, giggling some more, flirting some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. 


Perhaps it's not surprising then that the Kiyomizu-dera temple did me in and sent me running for the hills -- literally. The beautiful temple sits atop a hill, giving it beautiful views of Kyoto. That's why I came. The temple, also, seems dedicated to love, which feels like a rare thing for temples. That's why the kids came, or maybe why their teachers dragged them. There's even a little game to find if you're lucky in love: walk blindfolded about 30 feet from one stone to another. Successfully manage it and you're soon to be in love. You know who will be lucky in love? Five thousands shrieking, pimple-popping, voice cracking teenagers. Seriously, who puts this stuff in temples with kids?! 


But you know, you're in a temple, you start to thinking, "ahhh I should be more patient with them, more forgiving, more I don't know -- zen?"


Nope. I saw an exit through a barbed wire fence and decided that had to be better than the screaming.


I'm not sure why I didn't take a picture of the barbed wire fence. I saw a sign that I was pretty sure meant I could enter from 9am-5pm. It could have been a prison, I thought. Or a park. It's a gamble, but worth it.  



with a 


Kiyomizu-dera looks out unto the sprawling modern Kyoto just beneath its feet.


As I kept walking with the barbed wire flanking me and the path, I started to really wonder where I was heading. "At least I have quite a few hours to turn around if I had entered a prison," I thought. Then I finally saw what looked like a little row of houses, a shop of sorts, a vending machine, and a path into some real woods. Alright sweet! It's a park not a prison!


At the entrance to the hills I found two signs. One, a map in all Japanese. Luckily about the only twos words I can read in Japanese are "yen" and "minutes" so I gathered the trail was free and the summit would take maybe 65 minutes. The second, a little "if you're lost, here's where you are and what to do" post in English and Japanese. Now, I thought this would be just at the entrance. Nope. I found these about every 15 minutes. My only thought: OMG WHY DIDN'T PATAGONIA HAVE THESE?


ready, set, go.

65 minutes to the summit.


So after loading up with an oddly large can of regular Coca Cola as my "lunch" aka mid-hike sugar rush I started up the path.


Encountering only the odd bird and couple here and there, I found the peace and quiet very refreshing, almost disorienting from the chaos of the city and temples. Speckled light burst through the dense leaves to dot the path ahead of me. Rocks scattered under my feet, tumbling down the hillside. 


About 20 minutes into walking I made it to a fork in the path. A well labeled fork I might add. I had a choice: head to Shogunzuka Mound or the Triangulation Point of Mt. Kiyomizu. So naturally, rather than ask the large group of Japanese hikers taking a break right next to the sign post, I decided to google which was better. Because, yes, you can get LTE data everywhere in Japan and that's just what millennials do. But a bit of waffling, I decided I'd just ask them if I was heading the right way figuring even if no one spoke English we could at least pantomime my way through the conversation. To my delight, one woman, Tomoko, spoke English! And she wanted to tell me that her friends liked my hair. One guy started taking my picture and giggling. Others I swear almost patted my head. Grandparents. They're the same everywhere. 


Turns out the group was actually heading to Shongunzuka Mound and invited me to join. YESSSS. Secretly, I had hoped this would happen. I had kind of thought I'd meet a group of younger Japanese folks and go drinking with them. I had not expected to find myself with a group of Japanese parents and grandparents hiking up a hill, or, as I later learned this is called: forest bathing.


They had come from Fushimi Inari, which is not that close in all honesty! Impressive. Oh, and if you're interested in doing one of these hikes yourself, check out the Inside Tokyo guide to Shogunzuka and Seiryuden Hike From Chion-in Temple


As we walked, I learned Tomoko had lived in New York for a month and she had been to the states a couple of times. "Niagara Falls. Grand Canyon. San Francisco. The USA is so big!" In her short time in the U.S. she had already hit more of the sites than I had! "I lived in Hells Kitchen. Very dirty." Ah, yes, only a month in New York and she's already a New Yorker. "I like The North Face. And Columbia. Everyone wears The North Face in America?" Ah yes, she had been to an American suburb.

Sidebar: can I just say, Japanese older people really have their act together with hiking gear. I walked up into the park I thought might have been a prison with basically a bottle of water, a can of Coke, and some sneakers. These people had hiking boots, poles, hats, even Camelbaks! Some I met later laughed and said, "yes, it's very Japanese to have all of the gear, in perfect order."


Which way?

Not this way.


Along the way we made it to a clearing with a stone monument and some signs, none of it in English. Now, I would have started walking toward the path ahead of us, but thank god I was not alone as the world's most unremarkable stone signpost apparently indicated the path would be treacherous due to damage from many storms. Or maybe it said something more like "harder path" and these folks didn't want to do it. I have no idea. All I know is they turned around and we found a white arrow spray painted on the ground indicating a better path. Seriously. Where were these little signs, Japanese hikers, and spray painted arrows when I was getting lost in Patagonia?!


This way!

Japan, ever so accommodating.


Once we made it through the forest we emerged to this rather plain car park on a hill with a couple of buses. I remembered Tomoko had said something about taking a bus at some point...was that what we were doing? Then group started to rest and decant their waters. Me to myself: "Ohhhhh !@#$%. Is this Shogunzuka Mound? Does it mean car park mound?? What are we even looking at?" I decided rather than get annoyed I'd have my Coke because they all their advertising suggests Coke is quite literally happiness bottled, so I'd feel calm and better and happy immediately, right? ;)


Is this the view?

No, but a great place for a nap apparently.


Well of course not. Instead I drank an overly sweet soda and realized I would have to carry the sticky can with me for the rest of the trip. Because Japan doesn't believe in trash cans. Seriously, it's the second thing I think every other traveler has mentioned after saying how clean it is here. 


Just as I was starting to get wistful about our all too short of a hike, the group started moving! And these buggers nearly ran past this observation point. "What am I missing? Why didn't we take a break here?" I thought to myself. Named Higashiyama Sancho-koen, this is the older view point of Shogunzuka Mound and it's quite lovely.


The actual viewpoint

The view from Higashiyama Sancho-koen


Some of the group grew impatient with us onlookers and wanted to get moving. "Why are we leaving??????" I thought. Well, I soon had my answer. Farther atop Shogunzuka Mound sits Kyoto's best kept secret, Seiryuden Temple, with a far superior view to Kiyomizu-dera. 

Seiryuden Temple, a sub-temple of the Shoren-in Temple, was only completed in 2015 hence the slightly more modern feel, I think. Plus with its long observation deck, quiet interior, beautiful garden, and panoramic view view of Kyoto, the temple offers a perfect place to zen-out.


In Kyoto you hear about "temple fatigue" akin to "church fatigue" in Europe. The temples, beautiful and distinct as each is, start to blend into a blurred outline of red, brown, and green with white relief: a bright torii gate here, a dark wooden pagoda there, a manicured garden outside, and white washed walls inside. Trying to find a moment? Good luck. It doesn't help that many temples are so close we tourists want to check them all of like Monopoly cards. Or that we find ourselves shuffling walking with a hundred other people in a directed route. Or that we often crane our necks to hope for a sign that explains what makes this room or that room special.


Personally, I had hit Temple Fatigue, even though I was telling myself I hadn't. 


Yet the forest transformed my fatigue into wonder. We moved slowly to enjoy the crunch of the earth beneath our feet. We gazed at the speckled light between the leaves. We savored the sweet smell of chestnuts in the air. Then out of a shadowed sylvan chrysalis we emerged ready to enter the sun-drenched Seiryuden and look beyond its glass teahouse to find the dizzying city unfurled below.

The Seiryuden viewpoint 

The Seiryuden viewpoint 


temple with a view

Beautiful panoramic scenes from Seiryuden 


I stood there for as long as the group would let me. 

Which apparently was only about 5 minutes. These people move fast. 


Tomoko took me through the temple hall and showed me around the beautiful garden. Again, a bit rushed for me. But apparently when you're a massive hiking group with different speeds you have got to bust a move through temples.


As we walked through the rest of the forest, now on our way to one last shrine and back to the bustling city Tomoko and I got to talking about the my travel across Japan. She marveled at how I wanted to go from Nagasaki to Sapporo -- "Oh, so far!" When I reminded her that even with a connecting flight, it would barely take me more than 4 hours, which was still shorter than a direct flight from New York to San Francisco she commented on having been there years ago and how it frightened her. I asked why. "I saw two men holding hands -- it was so scary!" Then she took my hand to show me and again expressed something between dismay and confusion. 


Ah, crap.


Azaleas in bloom

I found these flowers everywhere in our walk. They symbolize home, budding passion, femininity, a many other lovely things -- and apparently death threats.


I'm not the kind of person who likes to "come out" and I'm only just getting more used to it. But, shit, here I am in the middle of a forest in a country that is by no means hostile to the LGBT community, but struggles with really seeing queerness in the lives of people around them. Kyoto had two gay bars. Two. In a city of 2.5 million. 


So I could offer her my sympathy, perhaps even a little laugh, and move on. After all we were really struggling to understand one another. Or, I could try to explain how that's nothing to be scared of, and out myself. We had just spent a few hours together after all. I opted for the latter. I'm not saying that to sound courageous, just to say, I decided perhaps this was a moment of cultural exchange and I could rise to the occasion. (Helps when your girlfriend is has been a queer activist for awhile and strongly supports this position...)


I told her "I'm like those men -- I have a girlfriend. It's not so scary. People are more and more accepting in the USA. And here too in Japan!" I had wanted to tell her I stayed at a temple that performed same-sex Buddhist marriages, but I wasn't sure how much she could take.


I'm not really certain if I shocked her or embarrassed her -- probably both -- but she didn't say much in response. 


I’d really like to say we bounced right back, that my admission was met with little more than “Oh that’s cool. Want to come for sushi with us later?” And while that didn’t happen, I could see Tomoko thinking, processing. I wasn’t “scary” like the two men she had seen before. I was funny, and nice, and the group’s “special guest” for the day. Here I was, a literally fairy she met in the forest. I mean really, what else could one expect when finding a blue & pink haired Westerner in the forest? 😉


When we finally emerged from the forest, a blazingly hot mid-day sun warmed my cheeks and spirits. We had walked so far the tiny little torii gate I noticed from the temple now stood toweringly tall over the street. 


I had started to get a little worried about if Tomoko had said anything to the others, if they were uncomfortable, if she felt like now she was carrying a big burden, etc. etc. But then the ladies gave me the world’s littlest, cutest, handmade chickadee charm and I figured what better way to say “she likes chicks” than to give her a whole nest full of them.