Kyoto Diaries – Hanatoro, Kodaiji

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The well of wonders runs deep in this town.  If you dropped a stone, I don’t think you’d ever hear it drop.

I’ve said almost as much about Kyoto on this blog as I have about Hunter X Hunter, but I just can’t stop.  My feelings for the city are something like being in love, I think.  You want to be with her every waking moment.  You want to tell the world how wonderful she is.  And whenever you think you must have seen everything she can do to amaze you, she surprises you.

The annual Higashiyama light-up festival called Hanatoro isn’t one of Kyoto’s oldest festivals, not by a long shot – it began only in 2003.  But it holds a special place in my heart because the first time I visited the city was in March, and it was going on then.  Besides which I think Japan’s beautiful places tend to be even more beautiful at night, and Kyoto is no exception.  I had a wonderful time on that initial visit, simply wandering the lantern-lit streets of Higashiyama.  But I didn’t pay to go inside Kodaiji, which opens its doors in the evening during Hanatoro, and I had no idea until now just what I’d deprived myself of.

Kodaiji is a very nice temple in its own right, established by Hideyoshi’s wife Nene (who remains a much-beloved figure in Japanese history) in 1606 to honor the memory of her late husband.  But I had no idea what was in store for me as I was enjoying the opulent halls, bamboo forest, Zen gardens and art displays (I could have lived without the light show in the rock garden, but at least it was unique).  Then I turned a corner and saw what I thought was a giant ravine, with a lit-up temple hall at the bottom.  I was dumbstruck – there couldn’t possibly be a canyon that big in the middle of Higashiyama and I wouldn’t know about it.  But there it was, staring me in the face.

Except it wasn’t.  Turns out what I was seeing was a reflection in the pond of the trees and hall surrounding it.  I exaggerate not a whit – this may well have been the most remarkable and beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.  I was speechless (which is rare), then babbling to myself about how impossible it was.   I have never, ever seen water reflect like that – and I’ve been to Yosemite, the Alps (European and Japanese), Lake Louise in Alberta.  The detail was perfect, the depth of field astonishing.  It can’t possibly be that intense all the time, but this was an absolutely still night without a breath of wind – and the results were truly awe-inspiring.

I’m never more frustrated at the limitations of the cheap photo equipment (basically, point-and-shoot) I can afford than at moments like this.  It’s never the same as being there, but so little of the power of the moment remains – especially at night, these cameras just aren’t up to the challenge.  You’ll have to take my word for it, it was literally unbelievable – and if you’re ever in Kyoto while Kodaiji is having a light-up, just go.  Seriously.

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  1. F

    Wow … it must have been quite beautiful indeed to elicit a response of you babbling incoherently!

    Hmm … wonder if there are professionally done art photos of that somewhere….

    Anyhoo thanks for the post. Kyoto is indeed a beautiful place. (Understatement of the week here, i know….)

  2. e

    Must second Flower's comment here. You. Babbling?
    I feel you on photography equipment and night pictures. But even so there is an echo of the suggestion you describe. And if one ignores the telling trees reflection the water there does look like a dark empty space in your shots. You still captured a bit of that RL Mirror Kyoto magic ;). And hopefully didn't drop any stone straight on some well-bottom-residing frog tanuki's head.

  3. N

    I really love these Kyoto posts you write Enzo. I'll actually be heading to Kyoto myself in September. I'll be studying in KUFS for a year so these posts make me all the more excited about going! Thank you for taking the time to write these :).

  4. l

    Was at last year's annual Spring Hanatouro at Higashiyama. Walked the areas where the lanterns were installed over 2 nights. Enjoyed it a lot. Some pics from 2014 Higashiyama Hanatouro:
    The lit-up sakura tree at Maruyama Park
    One of the lit ikebana displays with the many lit columns for posting wishes flanking it
    The bamboo lanterns
    Combined lit ikebana and path staging. That area was roped off for people to take pictures.
    Lit stairway path up to Kodaiji Temple
    Lit pathways of the preserved historical street of Higashiyama

    Will want to go for the annual Winter Hanatouro at Arashiyama later this year.

  5. Beautiful pics. Hanotoro is generally wonderful, but that pond at Kodaiji… I still get chills thinking about it.

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