Travel is a lot like life – there are guidebooks, but they’re no substitute for experience.
The start of the Keihan Otsu Line is about 10 minutes away from Kyoto Station by train, but it feels much farther away. And the relative lack of tourists – especially foreign – certainly contributes to that impression. Otsu in Shiga gets very little mention in the guidebooks and travel websites, which I find both puzzling and gratifying. For ¥500 you can buy a day pass and play on the Otsu Line all day, lost in a wonderland of sublime mountain temples, mysterious and ancient shrines in the forest, putt-putt anime trains and Lake Biwa – all while getting a respite from the hordes of tourists who throng Kyoto every day of the year.
It so happens that my favorite temple in the world – and quite possibly my favorite place in the world – is in Otsu, and that’s Ishiyama-dera, where Murasaki Shikibu is said to have written the Tale of Genji. It’s also the home of Omi-Jingu, the ancient Shinto shrine that’s the center of the Karuta universe. But perhaps the most famous place in Otsu is Mii-dera, the mountain temple Onjo-ji. I’d never been before, and I was certainly glad I visited this time – it’s stunning. It’s also huge – the fourth-largest temple complex in Japan, and once much larger (it’s an offshoot and later a rival of Enryaku-ji, on Mt. Hiei). Its ancient halls and sacred springs are scattered through a cryptomeria forest on a mountainside overlooking Lake Biwa, and it’s a pretty magical place.
In truth, though, no temple can hold a candle to the little-known Ishiyama-dera. I visited here once before, in snow, and that was incredibly magical. But having seen it in snow I wanted to see it in bright sunshine, and yesterday was an early summer in Kyoto – 22 degrees and clear. The locals call Ishiyama-dera “Temple of Flowers”, and like no place I’ve visited, it seems to exemplify a harmony between man and nature. You can tell this place was built by men who loved and understood this concept, and the temple feels as if it’s part of the natural landscape. Everywhere are incredible buildings, heartbreakingly beautiful gardens of every type, and trees and flowers – always trees and flowers. Ishiyama-dera is, to me, perfect – there are larger temples and older ones, but none that reflect such a refined and harmonious aesthetic.
It’s always a torture to tear myself away from this Heaven on Earth, but happily there was a Chihayafuru train waiting for me at Ishiyamadera Station. I hadn’t even realized they were still running them (indeed, the links on the Keihan website are mostly dead) but I had a good 10 minutes to photograph this one inside and out before it carried me to my next stop, Sakamoto (though I knew this was the right train, I couldn’t resist asking the station attendant “Sakamoto desu ga?”). Never have I been happier seeing that I had a wait for a train.
Sakamoto itself is a beautiful, ancient town, its entirety considered part of a protected architectural heritage zone. It’s the home of the Hiyashi Taisha, head shrine one of the most powerful shrines in Japan with over 1200 satellites (including Hie Jinja in Tokyo). It’s been important since the 8th Century, but really came into prominence under Hideyoshi, under whose rule most of the current halls were built (you can certainly see signs of that everywhere). I’ve spoken before of the striking difference in atmosphere between shrines and temples, but it really hits you at ancient, forested jinja lke Hiyoshi Taisha – that sense of timelessness, something slightly unnerving and observant.