Kyoto: City of Temples & My Ema Tree

How to bring a little Kyoto spirituality home from your travels…

With a staggering two thousand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, City of Temples is an apt epithet for Japan’s former imperial capital. One of the delights of a trip to Kyoto is not only visiting the famous ones in all the tourist guides but stumbling unexpectedly across so many others as you explore the city and surrounding prefecture.

But don’t worry about becoming “templed out” – not only are these places of worship and prayer compellingly beautiful, they are also hugely varied, endlessly fascinating and an excellent way to gain an insight into Japanese culture. For many Japanese, religious practices are as much about tradition and custom as they are about worship. It’s not uncommon for Japanese people to practice both Buddhism and Shintoism, for which they visit both temples and shrines on special occasions, to remember their ancestors, and to ask for help in specific matters. For a first-time visitor, it takes a little knowledge to distinguish the temples from the shrines.

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Shinto shrines are sacred places in which to pray to one or more of thousands of different kami (spirits). Created as sanctuaries for the kami, the shrines are designed to blend in with their natural surroundings. Many are associated with specific spirits; worshippers often seek out kami that can help with particular issues they are experiencing. There are shrines for pregnant women wanting a safe delivery, shrines where one can pray for a good harvest, shrines for requesting success and wealth in business, shrines to ward off evil spirits and even shrines dedicated to relationships and sexual gratification. A particular highlight of our first visit to Kyoto was a visit to Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine, where we watched a long line of young girls pass through a hole in an enormous paper-covered boulder known as The Stone of Breaking and Bonding. Wriggling through in one direction breaks bad relationships and crawling back in the other direction creates new, positive ones.

Simple thatched wooden buildings echo the design of storehouses and prehistoric dwellings and are usually surrounded by a sacred grove of trees. Thick ropes hung with shimenawa (tassles) and gohei (white paper) cordon off sacred corners – they are often tied around a sacred sakaki tree known as the heart post. Entrances to Shinto shrines is usually through a torii (gate) which marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. They are often guarded by statues of lions or dogs, though at Fushimi Inari-taisha, you will find messenger foxes. This shrine is also famous for its senbon torii, paths of hundreds of torii gates snaking up the hillside, one after another. Painted bright red, they are individually paid for and donated by worshippers praying to Inari, the kami of fertility, rice and industry. Visit at sunset for the most spectacular play of light and shadow between the gates’ red pillars. The first stop for worshippers is the chozuya (water basin) to purify hands and mouths, using the long-handled ladles provided, before proceeding to the haiden (main shrine). There, a front porch features a rope, a bell and a collection box; visitors usually clap, ring the bell and make their prayers.

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It is also common to write prayers or messages for the kami. Originally, horses were given as votives, to represent the divine steed, but over time, boxes painted with their image were given instead. Nowadays, these have been replaced with wooden plaques called ema, on which personal messages are written before they are hung onto hooks provided. Ema come in different shapes – though rectangular ones are most common, we also spotted octagon, heart, rice-paddle, torii and ruler shaped plaques – the designs are varied; often colourful, intriguing and occasionally even startling! Sales of ema help support the shrines financially, so staff are very happy for visitors to buy ema as souvenirs to take home with them. They cost from 300-1000 Yen each (£2-7) and each shrine has its own designs to choose from. Shrine visitors also make small payments in exchange for o-mikuji – paper slips revealing their fortune. These can either be tied to walls of strings provided, for the resident kami to influence, or taken home.

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Buddhist temples are devoted to worshipping Buddha and the many gods within the Buddhist pantheon. As well as a main hall, where one or more statues of Buddha are located, some temples feature impressive multi-storied pagodas, a few of which – such as Yasaka Pagoda – permit public entry to the upper levels. Temples may also have kodo halls, where monks study and chant, and kyozo depositories, where sacred texts are stored. In the grounds, the many groupings of Jizo statues are impossible to ignore. Jizo is the patron of travellers and children and is most strongly associated with helping the souls of babies ­who were aborted, died during birth or as young children. Depicting a short, round, bald man the simplistically styled statues are often decorated with bibs and woolly hats in red and white. Some temples have a dedicated graveyard with family gravestones, many in the traditional gorinto (five ringed tower) form. You may also spot an enormous bell, rung to mark the New Year and other occasions. Outer and inner gates to the temple are usually guarded by an array of fierce animals, warriors or gods who ward off evil spirits. Some Buddhist temples also have torii, but these are usually smaller and less prevalent than in Shinto shrines. Visitors pray by making monetary offerings (thrown into a saisen-bako box), lighting incense and candles and leaving food and drink offerings. Like Shinto shrines, ema and o-mikuji are often on sale for leaving messages and discerning one’s fortune.

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During my two trips to Kyoto, I have amassed a beautiful collection of ema from many different temples and shrines. The pale wood, red and white cords and colourful images (also featuring lots of red) make unusual and memory-laden tree ornaments, and look lovely shown off against the green branches of a traditional tree or hung onto a more modern metal spiral one.  I’m delighted at how well they have helped me bring a little Kyoto magic into my home this winter.

 

This post was previously published in Good Things Magazine.

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13 Comments to "Kyoto: City of Temples & My Ema Tree"

  1. Insatiable Eater

    Love your idea for the ema decoration. I have one from my first trip to Japan but was not sure how to display it. I’m also desperate to see the senbon torii. I bet you took hundreds of photos! Looking forward to more Japan-themed posts 😉

    Reply
  2. Louise

    What a lovely post, Kavey, and great photos. Would love to go to Kyoto some day – though the flight puts me off a bit. Was looking through photos from Tokyo the other day, and had forgotten that we visited a shrine there, but I don’t think I had grasped the significance of all the elements.
    Your tree looks lovely, and even though you weren’t supposed to be at home, I hope your Christmas is warm and lovely.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Flights from UK really aren’t too bad… though I do find jet lag hits pretty bad both ways, for me. Worth it though!
    Thanks Louise!

    Reply
  3. Heather

    Your tree looks great! I bought a few but right now they are randomly dotted over cupboard handles, this is a much better idea!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    It’s one of the few times I envisaged something in my head before even doing the shopping (only bought one home on the first trip) and it came out as I intended – even better actually! Thank you!

    Reply

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