Kyoto, maple leaves, and footprints on the ceiling

November 18, 2006

Maple leaf frenzy has begun in Kyoto. The buses are jam-packed, the streets are choked with enormous tour buses, and the flag-guided mass tours shuffle from temple to temple with the same city-published tourist maps in their hands. Ha, tourists.

I love the autumn foliage and hate the crowds. Every year, I search for that spot – not necessarily perfect, but at least not swarming with tourists striking their peace-sign poses for a photo in front of every maple tree in the temple precint.

To this end, today, I ventured up to Koetsuji (光悦寺), a temple in the north of Kyoto. Fact: it doesn’t matter if it’s a weekday afternoon, when most people should be at work, if there’s a red leaf around, the tour buses and taxi cabs will find it. And so they did.

Although it could have been worse. In fact, given the usual circumstances – narrow streets, collosal tour buses, hoards of yapping grannies, the growl of an electric chainsaw constantly in the background of the temple – the trip was downright pleasant.

The afternoon was yellow and lush in that way that November afternoons are. Around the temple, there was only one souvenier shop and one discreet cafe – a very quiet scene for Kyoto. We took the Kyoto City Kita1 bus (北1) to Koetsuji, and as most people getting off, headed straight for the temple. We, however, strolled behind the determined group and were rewarded by stumbling upon a small, newish-looking, and deserted temple, Enjoji (圓成寺). Repeat: deserted. Do you know how rare this is? A deserted temple in Kyoto during peak maple leaf season? Like going to Disney World and there being no one in line for Space Mountain. There wasn’t even a staff member at the front entrance so we got in for free. A deserted, free temple! One downside: there was a big sign at the front saying No Photography. I suppose since the temple was deserted, I could have taken as many pictures as I wanted, but I’ve lived in Japan for too long and have become too “honest” (or, afraid of getting caught.) Anyway, there were vivid red and yellow maples, all in their peak, their twisting roots covered in a carpet of green moss. Towards the back of the temple trickled a “waterfall” (although it really just looked like a broken pipe.) A 9 out of 10 on the Perfect-o-Meter, but for the cacophany of construction sounds coming from the nearby parking lot. Ah well.

On to Koetsuji. The temple had a few stunning, maroon trees, but otherwise was pretty average as far as fall colors. Of course, there were the people: retirees, taxi drivers-cum-tour guides, triplets of middle-aged women. We caught a glimpse of a maiko in full regalia, also. But this being Kyoto, you’re supposed to be ho-hum about those kinds of things. One great thing about Koetsuji: the scenery. No buildings, no powerlines, just mountains, or “borrowed scenery” in Japanese gardening terms. Before it was a temple, Koetsuji was an artist’s retreat and it still retains that atmosphere: contained and serene.Koetsuji

Next, because we were there already, we decided to pop on over to Genkoan (原光庵), a very standard temple, with a sub-par garden, and higher admission than Koetsuji (400 yen, rather than Koetsuji’s 300.) I was about to throw a hissy-fit until I looked up. Genkoan, apparently, is famous for a few things: its unusually shaped windows (it’s shaped like a circle! gasp!!) and its “blood ceiling.” Yes, a blood ceiling. And yes, if you look up, you will definitely see the stains of splattered blood and, gorier yet, a footprint in blood!! My boyfriend surmised that the blood got up there by being sprayed as someone got sliced through with a sword. But the footprint?!

Footprint in blood

I asked the lady at the ticket counter and she explained:

Back in the day, when someone committed seppuku (i.e. slashing your stomach open in a ritual suicide), they would leave the blood stains on the floorboards to commemorate that person. But, by leaving the floorboards on the floor, everyday traffic would wear away the blood stains. Therefore, the floor was ripped out and put up into the ceiling, leaving a very visceral memorial of the gory death through the ages. A creepy feeling. Especially the footprint. It’s hard to imagine those distant, belly-slicing samurai as real people. But there was the blood over my head to prove otherwise.

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