Kyoto in Autumn: encountering japan’s soul

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A long overdue post on my fall trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, last fall, before the coronavirus virtually grounded all of us. Visiting Kyoto in Autumn is the occasion of navigating between “zen” and trend, as the Japanese city shines in the fall colors.

Traveling to Kyoto

There are two ways to get to Kyoto, either from Tokyo or from Osaka. Osaka is relatively closer to Kyoto (a regional train stopping at Fushimi-Inari even ends in Osaka. At the same time, many people prefer to hit Tokyo first, then move down south, towards Kyoto.

I did not take the “real” Nozomi Shinkansen, I took the slightly slower Hikari. While stopping at more stations than the Shinkansen, the Hikari still just extends the travel time by one hour only.

I chose to reside in a hotel very near to the Fushimi-Inari temple, as I wished to go and shoot pictures in the early morning, the only chance of shooting the place without people in the way. And already in the evening, you could have a feel for the wonderful bath in tradition that I was going to take.

Young Japanese ladies snack at Fushimi-Inari train station
Young Japanese ladies in kimono snack at Fushimi-Inari train station, in Kyoto.

Fushimi-Inari shrine

As I visited the shrine in the evening, there were still a number of people on the grounds.

Although coming in the evening allows to see tourists and some aspects of the temple in operation, it is not the optimal moment to visit the temple for pictures of the gates. Some couples in traditional garb come there to get their prenuptial photo shoots.

A couple posing in front of the tori
A couple posing in front of the tori gates of Fushimi-inari.
The iconic red tori of Fushimi-Inari
The iconic red tori of Fushimi-Inari

Of course, the first image people have when you talk of Kyoto, is the iconic red tori of Fushimi-Inari shrine. The one issue people face with the shrine is the throngs of people filling the shrine on normal opening hours. Hence, after exploring a first time the shrine the evening upon arrival, I decided to go early in the morning, at around 5 AM.

Fushimi-Inari red toris at dawn

Being there so early, allowed me to shoot the red toris without the tourists that habitually fill the shrine.

Of course, I hiked up the shrine barefoot, as would do the pilgrims of yore. There were warnings of wild boars to be seen along the shrine, but I did not see any during my visit (contrary to Hong Kong, where I am guaranteed to see a herd of them each time I climb a small mountain passage near my home).

Light in the darkness

The beauty of going so early up the mountain is that you get to explore the whole shrine by yourself. You can also enjoy the pleasures of long exposure to get some light effects. However, going too early is pretty much useless, as you will be stuck to long exposures or using a flash if you are shooting portraits.

Being mostly alone on the shrine grounds at dawn is a lovely experience in the crisp November air (around 8° C that morning).

Despite the daylight being still poor, you can find light even in the darkness, as there are expanses of the shrine which contain delicate lantern lights. Insufficient for any kind of handheld exposure, but still good for a tripod.

Fushimi-inari shrine at night
Fushimi-Inari shrine at dawn.

The absence of people means that you are quite free to shoot freely scenes around you without having persons walking into the frame as becomes likely already as of 8 AM. You can also shoot more traditional scenes, such as cleaners and small details of the temple.

A cleaner in Fushimi-Inari
On a side trail of Fushimi-Inari, I caught sight of this cleaner, working already in the dawn.

When leaving Fushimi-Inari, do not forget to bid farewell to the statues of the foxes at the entrance of the shrine, as “Inari” means actually “fox”.

A statue of a fox in Fushimi-Inari
A statue of a fox in Fushimi-Inari.

Living shrines

The beauty of Japan is that, contrary to most of religious edifices in the Western world, shrines are still very much alive as places to to pray and come on important moments of your life. And Kyoto is filled with many such shrines.

Japanese ladies in kimono climb the stairs to the Yasaka shrine in Kyoto

Next on my visiting list was the Yasaka shrine, a 1350-year old shrine located right in the center of Kyoto, and often used as a stepping stone when visiting the traditional area of Gion. As can be seen from the pic above, it was already well frequented in the morning.

Beauty within beauty

Within the shrine, many young ladies come to take their photos in yukata or kimono, and it was my occasion to approach two of them and ask them in Japanese whether they would agree to pose for me, which they gladly did. It is the case to say that beauty was then enshrined within beauty.

Two Japanese ladies in Yasaka shrine
Two lovely Japanese ladies in Yukata in Yasaka shrine.

The lovely autumn light also allowed to shed a delicate light on the young ladies and their simple but beautiful attire. It is traditional to give something in exchange for the favour of posing for you, but as I did not have small gifts with me, I simply proposed them to give them their own pictures straight out from the camera. As the young girls were taking their photos with simple smartphones, this made them immensely happy. It does certainly help if you can speak some Japanese, as otherwise, many young ladies who do not master English will simply run away, as they cannot answer you in your language.

It is another way of encountering Japan’s soul in a much deeper level than just visiting places. Although, truth to be told, no other place renders better the refinement of Japan than the Ginkakuji temple in Kyoto (another upcoming post).

Yasaka temple has multiple subjects for photography, such as the lanterns in form of small houses lining one of the alleys.

Lanterns lining Yasaka temple
Lanterns lining Yasaka temple.

In a second stage of my exploration of Kyoto, I entered the area of the old city of Gion and met a Maiko (a geisha in training), but that is the subject for another post.

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