Mob Scene or Personal Journey? Choose your own path in Kyoto!


Quick – have there ever been any religious arguments in Japan between Shinto and Buddhist’s? Answer… No!

Our awesome guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum explained that the religions get along so well because they have different mandates. Shinto – the original religion of Japan is about living – births, wedding, celebrations of life – these are all Shinto related experiences. And when you visit a Shinto shrine to pray – you are praying for the continued health and happiness of those you love. Or perhaps you are praying for their speedy recovery. But it’s about living!

Buddhism on the other hand, at least according to our guide’s quick explanation, is about what happens after death, and more importantly perhaps, how you prepare for that. So Buddhist priest have no issues with their congregants going to a Shinto Shrine – and the opposite is also true. In fact, most Buddhist Temples include a Shinto Shrine on the grounds – even the massive training facility at Koyasan had a Shinto Shrine. It was designed as part of the original design in 803 or so and dedicated to the Shinto Gods that protect that area of the world. How cool is that?

All this said and observed, the two religions do have different traditions that dictate how you worship at the shrines or Temples, and one could even comment that they march to the beat of a different drummer.

Shinto Shrines all have Tori Gates — in the case of Fushimari – over 2000 of them. Upon entering or leaving a Shrine, one washes ones hands and mouth, and bows at the gate – upon entering to focus your mind, on leaving to say thank you for letting me visit, and for listening to my prayer.

Shinto traditions place a lot of importance on fortune telling – and there are plenty of options available. Shaking a container with sticks and then picking the fortune that the stick directs you to by number or symbol is very popular. And if you don’t like that fortune – no problem. Just tie that fortune to a nearby tree or post, and then pay again to pick again. Our guide told us that the fortunes are about 70% good, 30% not so good – and it’s considered excellent fortune to get a bad one first – the gods are going to be very happy when you pay a 2nd time for a better fortune.

More costly fortune telling involves a more personal touch – but the idea is the same. Good fortunes go home with you, Bad fortunes stay at the Shrine.

There are also prayer plaques. These are thin wooden objects that you put your personal design on or prayer or both and then hang on boards near the shrines. I loved the ones at the Fushimari Shrine – they were shaped like fox faces, and folks who knew how had decorated them Manga Style.

The Buddhist do it very differently. They chant sutras, meditate, and sound gongs during specific parts of the service. In Shinto, you do your own gong/bell ringing – it’s a more personal approach.

Buddhist monks, like monks the world over, dedicate themselves to their religion, never marrying, and denying their past existence in the hope of reaching nirvana. Shinto priests (men or women) can marry and have children – and choose to live at the Shrine, or just be a day visitor. It’s a much more flexible religion.

But all of this aside – I want to describe my favorite Shrines and Temples!

We happen to adore Zen gardens, particularly the dry stone gardens. So many of our favourite Buddhist places – like Ginkaku-ji Temple (the Silver Pavilion) or Eikando Zenrin-Ji had magnificent stone gardens. Ginkaku-ji actually had both a pond to walk around while meditating, and a double stone garden. The stone gardens were quite small, but very dramatic – and of course hand done.

But Eikando Zenrin-Ji was the favorite of all the Temples we’ve seen. For starters – there were few other tourists – so the experience was a very private one. And the buildings were varied in shape, and we were able to walk inside them to admire the magnificent sliding panels. But the real prize were the varied gardens for meditating. One had a wonderful pond with a waterfall, and places for folks who couldn’t quite do the on the floor kneel to sit and enjoy the place. They even had free hot tea – so you can imagine that the Intrepid Traveler and I took full advantage of the opportunity to just enjoy the space. On the other side of the main mediation hall was a stone garden that along with the curved stone outline, had a water feature. So the sound of moving water was everywhere to be enjoyed.

On the other hand, we have little positive to say about the Nanzenji Temple. It was crowded and unpleasant.

The same thing could be said about the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-Ji. It is not much of a religious experience when you are sharing it with a thousand other folks all snapping pictures and shoving you out of their way. I saw it, but we can’t recommend the experience.

We also tried to visit some of the other Shrines in Kyoto – but in almost every case the sheer popularity of the sites ruined the experience for us. Of those we popped into – the Heian Shrine, the Yaskaka Shrine (formally the Gion Shrine) and even the generally outstanding Fushimari Shrine were just plain mobbed – and not in a nice way. I found the abundance of faux geisha interesting from a photographic point of view, but the giggling, the posing for pictures, the lack of any kind of religious intent just felt wrong. Even the Meiji Shrine that we visited in Tokyo suffered from an overwhelming popularity. Much nicer were several smaller Shrines that we spotted as we walked, and just went inside to pay our respects. Quiet, serene, and peaceful – our kind of religious experience.

Bottom line – do include the Eikando-Ji on your list of must visits when in Kyoto – and spend time looking for smaller, less visited temples and shrines in Japan. You will be glad you did.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Why they do that? (Japanese Curiosities)


We’ve been in Japan for about 2 weeks and I’ve observed some very curious things. Odd enough that I wonder.. is it me, or these things just plain weird. You be the Judge!

1) There are lots of very bent over older people. I mean almost C or U shaped – not just hunched back. We’ve been asking folks and using Google to get an idea about why we see so many folks like this, and have gotten some rather curious answers. As per Google, living thru the war, living thru the hardships of after the war, and diet are all contributors. The tour guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum agreed that older folks are very hunched over, and told us her mother also suffers from this. But she thinks it’s due to the Vegan Diet that as Buddhist’s, most Japanese enjoyed. And as evidence, she pointed out that as the government put on pressure to change the diet – starting in 1869 with the Meiji Government, the number of severely hunched people decreased. But her mother continued to follow the traditional Buddhist teachings – and her daughter feels that’s why she’s now deformed.

2) Japanese toilets are amazing. Often they even offer bidet functions, and a choice of sounds to cover the sound of you doing your thing. But what they often don’t offer is a way to dry your hands. The better the store or restaurant, the more likely you are to get a hand towel or at least an electric hand dryer. But go a bit down scale, or public – no way to dry your hands. Most Japanese deal with this by carrying small towels at all times – but isn’t this curious?

3) Napkins – the kind you put in your lap when you eat – are also not often provided. And even if they are, they are tiny. Way too small to cover your lap, let alone provide any protection for your clothes. I was told that you should use the warm wet towel provided upon entering to clean your fingers before and during the meal – but how do you protect your clothes? And trust me – when eating with chopsticks – I need clothes protection. Only in one restaurant – a very fancy Teppanyaki place – were ‘Napkins’ provided – and they were in the form of full size aprons.

4) Locking Umbrella stands are the norm. If you go to a museum of any size, you’ll see locking umbrella stands. Since most umbrellas, at least in Tokyo, are similar – rounded handle, with a clear, white and black umbrella part – figuring out which one is yours is a challenge. And there is no question that locking umbrella stands solve the problem – but isn’t it curious?

5) Coloured Hair Clips so you can recognize your shoes. Japanese school kids wear very similar shoes. Black loafers being as much a part of the uniform as the uniform. And since you must take off your shoes constantly – how do you know which ones are yours. Some museums have shelves that have letter and number ids – but we watched a group of high school students solve the problem in a very cute way. They used coloured hair clips to clip their shoes together – and thus there was a rainbow of clips attached to a flood of black loafers. They still had to remember their clip colour and approximate shoe location – but in a sea of similar black shoes – those hair clips really stood out.

6) Japanese business people stand in circles when they chat in a public space. At first I thought – how odd. But when I watched carefully, I noticed that every group of business people I saw always were standing in a circle. We decided that it makes it harder for one person to ‘outrank’ another, and maybe it’s easier to hear each other. But it is curious.

7) Japanese babies are generally very quiet. We’ve seen a lot of young kids out – and I have yet to hear a tantrum. The closest we came was one child who refused her mother’s first offering of food – and the mother quickly gave the child an alternative. The result – quiet and a grateful smile. I wish my kids had been so well behaved. I wonder how they do it.

8) Here’s a real puzzler. In Tokyo, folks always stand on the left side of the escalator , letting folks that want to walk up the escalator do it on the right. I noticed because it is so unnatural to me – and the Intrepid Traveler had to constantly remind me to stand on the left. But in Osaka – and in Kyoto – everyone stands on the right side, leaving the left side to the climbers. How curious is that? Do folks from Osaka feel as awkward as I do in Tokyo? Or do they just automatically adapt?

9) Why do so many young people ‘sleep’ on the subway and buses. The Intrepid Traveler and I think it’s to avoid eye contact with seniors so they aren’t forced to be polite give up their seats. But maybe they really are exhausted.

10) Eating outside seems to be very limited. Folks don’t eat or drink on the street or while riding the subways and buses. We’ve seen folks in parks having a picnic – but there are No Starbucks Coffee Cups, no grabbing an energy bar – no eating at all in random places. And there are lots of ‘take-away’ places. So where and when are folks eating the food they buy that way? We’ve had to search long and hard for a place to sit down and eat lunch – and sometimes never found it. Definitely Curious.

11) Japanese toilet paper isn’t perforated. It took me a long time to figure out why I kept getting toilet paper shreds when ever I tried to tear off a strip – and only after a week (I’m a slow learner) did I realize why all Japanese toilet paper holders have a metal piece across the top. You just hold down the metal piece with one thumb while thought tear upward – and perfect strip of toilet paper results. Isn’t that neat..

12) Kyoto Parking lots are different. Ok – in Canada there’s a gate or an attendant, you drive in, you park, you pay – the gate or the attendant makes sure you have paid before you leave. But here in Kyoto – it’s different. Even a tiny patch of flat cement can be a parking lot – with as few as 3 spaces. So each space is guarded by a device that is sensitive to weight. You drive in to the space and the device pops up – putting a barrier under your car. To release the Barrier – you must pay at the pay station. That action makes the barrier fold back into the pavement – and you drive away. Cool, eh?

13) Last – but I’m sure I’ll think of more as soon as this blog is posted – there are very few public garage cans. Almost none in fact. And this is a society that loves to wrap things up in an extra layer of paper or plastic. You buy a sandwich from a vendor, and it comes in a plastic bag, wrapped in a paper holder – and if you aren’t fast enough – there’s an outer plastic bag as well. But when you finish lunch – where do you put all that plastic. Answer – apparently you carry it around in your purse or pocket until you find one of the extremely rare garbage containers!

Enough Curiosities – Don’t forget to share yours with me!

Signing off – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid traveler

I’m definitely too noisy for the Japanese


I even got shushed in a museum – and I was talking to myself!

Clearly I am way out of line in the noise continuum.

But in my defence – the Japanese are very very quiet. We took an English tour in the Edo-Tokyo Museum (outstanding) and the tour guide was audible only if you were standing directly in front of her. If you stood even slightly off center – you couldn’t hear her at all. I tried.

And in the subways – as cautious as the Japanese are not to insult foreigners – we’ve been insulted. How do I know? People sitting next to the Intrepid Traveler and I, who think nothing of having a conversation while sitting on the subway, move away the minute another seat opens. This has happened at least 5 times already, and I suspect will continue – since we are unlikely to stop talking just because we’re on the subway.

Speaking of quiet – the subway cars – even if mobbed, are silent. Folks either just stand quietly, or they put their faces very close to those of their infants and whisper to them. There is lot of use of iPhones and like – but always on silent mode. I’ve never heard anyone talking on the phone here in Japan – something that I see and hear all the time in Montreal. And while I have seen (and barely heard) Japanese business people gather in a circle on the station platform to have a conversation, once on the subway – they too fall completely silent.

Even in restaurants – you’ll see a table with folks all using their phones – but you won’t hear any noise. This is less true here in Koyasan, where using phones at the group dinners and breakfast is viewed very negatively by the monks. So folks have no option other than to be silent (impossible for me) or to chat with other’s. Interestingly – we’re seated across from our companions, but closer to the strangers on the right and left. Naturally, the Intrepid Traveler and I have struck up conversations with French, Dutch, Italian and Australian fellow travellers. But I’m definitely the noisiest.

This general sense of quiet makes the occasional noise seem even more startling. I was stunned once when I entered a toilet to the sounds of a Beetle Song, and in the Ginza a police car went by making an announcement that over the general quiet was extremely loud. Today the ringing of bells at noon and 2:00 PM were clearly audible for several kilometres – and the occasionally noisy fellow tourist was disorienting, and frankly annoying. It turns out that even the Japanese get noisy in a cemetery – care to wonder why? We think it’s to scare away evil spirits.

And the rules about being quiet – something we Westerners have never learned – aren’t written down. You have to observe others to understand what being quiet is all about.

But quiet or not – we’re having a wonderful time. And I’ll survive insulting a few Japanese. They probably think I’m just an awkward American anyway.

Signing off – The Soup Lady (with the Intrepid Traveler shaking her head over my shoulder)

The road to Koyasan is long – but the Journey is worth it!


I first visited Koyasan (Mt. Koya) with my husband at least 20 years ago, and fell in love with it, so I dearly wanted to show it off to the Intrepid Traveler.

She kindly agreed – so I booked us a Monastery stay for 2 nights and off we went.

The trip from Tokyo to Koyasan is not an easy one – there are subways to take, trains to catch, more subways to use, more trains to catch, and finally a funicular, a bus, and a walk. But in this case, the destination is worth the travel headaches to get there.

Koyasan was established as a place of Buddhist teaching and worship back in 816. Yes – well over 1200 years ago. And it’s been going strong ever since. Everyone in Japan wants to be buried there – and if they can’t – to at least have a monument erected in their honour. It is a place of pilgrimage and for many – a place of power. Certainly it is difficult to describe how unique the feeling of being in Koyasan is – even to the totally uninitiated

Our Monastery – the Yochi-in – was probably the least expensive place to stay in Koyasan – mostly because there were no private toilets. All the washing and bathing areas are still shared, and this keeps the prices low. But that said, we absolutely loved it. The facility is huge, and only a small part of it is devoted to paying guests. We dined on special vegetarian meals in a communal dining area, and prayed together every morning at 6:30. There were sutra copying exercises on offer, and you could pay a bit more and have all the facilities of a proper ryokan – in-room massages, wine or saki with dinner, etc. Being budget travellers – we took the simplest options – but they were wonderful.

Our room was huge, and lovely – yes our beds were futons on the floor, but we had a private balcony with western chairs and a small table overlooking a lovely garden. Quite a change from our lodging in Tokyo. And we loved meeting all the other guests at dinner and breakfast. There were folks from Italy, Holland, Australia, Spain, and France, along with Japanese pilgrims as well.

We had all come for the same reasons – to walk the absolutely stunning graveyard, to pay our respects at the Temple where the founder of Koyasan, the Buddhist Monk Kodo Dashi, is lying in eternal meditation, and to feel the power of what is a completely marvellous place.

In addition to the main highlights, the Intrepid Traveler and I found time to tour the World Headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. This is home to the largest Rock Garden in Japan, and a set of sliding doors used to separate the various rooms from each other that were painted by a master in and around 1000 years ago. They are stunning – and worth contemplating for hours – which of course is what they were designed for.

One of our highlights however was a very small temple off the Main Street that told the story of a man and his son who spent 40 years as monks in this very temple, without the father ever letting the son know of their relationship. He did this to demonstrate his belief in Buddhism – in the denial of self. The story – one of infidelity and the results of that action – was told in a series of wood carvings. Our favourite was the one that shows the wife and the mistress playing an innocent board game while their long black hair has become fighting snakes. Naturally the husband is looking on – and decides it would be best for all if he left to become a Monk.

Eventually, his son by the mistress comes looking for him, but at that point, he’s been a Buddhist for so long, he refuses to identify with his former self, and tells the child that his father had died. When the son returns to Koyasan having discovered his mother has also died and he is now an orphan, it’s too late to undo the white lie, and thus father and son spend 40 years together, without the son ever knowing that his mentor is his actual father.

I know – weird story. But very Japanese I think. And the wood carvings were magnificent.

We loved this visit to Koyasan as much as I loved my last visit – and I will try to return once more. It is a very special kind of place.

Signing off on their way to Kyoto – and a much less relaxed pace – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.