This is not an exclamation you expect to hear from kids. The architecture does not thrill them. So what if the buildings are made from wood without nails. The color red is simply a color. A temple’s history definitely draws a blank for them, which I can actually understand because we Westerners know so little about the important names in Japanese history. And the temples always seem to be very crowded. This disinclination towards temples is especially troublesome tourism-wise in Kyoto, which has 1600+ temples in the prefecture to visit. What is to be done?
We managed to visit four temples during our visit to Japan. For sure, that was enough temple visiting for the boys. However, they did not howl in protest about going to these temples, even the last one.
The first temple we visited was Asakusa in Tokyo. This temple is advertised as the most important temple in the city. A long, tourist-shop filled pedestrian avenue leads from the subway station to the temple. The red torii gates are imposing. We bribed the boys with ice cream before entering the temple. Since this was our first temple, everything about it was new and unfamiliar. Our focus at this temple became the customs we saw the Japanese practicing. Anything involving fire has a boy’s attention. We bought bundles of incense, lit them and placed them in a large bronze cauldron with all the other bundles of burning incense. We used our hands to waft the incense smoke over our bodies. I am sure this has some purifying effect for the soul, but at the time we were just mimicking what others were doing. Next, we saw people shaking a metal tube then pulling sheets of printed paper out of a wall of drawers that looked like an overly large library card catalogue. This turned out to be a fortune telling system. Donate 100 yen then shake the metal tube until a stick falls out. The stick has Japanese writing on it. You match the characters on the stick to the characters printed on a drawer. Inside the drawer you find a fortune sheet. They are printed in several languages, including English. Justin received a ‘good’ fortune. Jordan was shocked to receive a ‘bad’ fortune. It basically told him not to get married, to stay home with the curtains closed. He wanted to be rid of this fortune, or at least get a new one, which we said ‘no’ to because learning to deal with the ‘bad’ is a life lesson and anyway we were not going to spend another 100 yen for another fortune for him. To round out the family, Gigi received an ‘excellent’ fortune, and I received a ‘moderate’ fortune, which really did not read much different from Jordan’s. I should not get married (too late) or go into a new business venture, but I could leave the house in relative safety. Farther into the temple, Jordan and I found that we could leave our fortunes tied on a bar inside the temple and ask for intervention from the Buddha to help block the negative vibes imparted by these fortunes. We left the temple, Gigi and Justin with a spring in their step, Jordan and I relieved that the sky was blue and absent of lightning bearing rain clouds.
Our second temple visit occurred in Arashiyama, a western suburb of Kyoto. This area was recommended by one of Gigi’s friends on Facebook particularly for the bamboo forest. The other draw of this temple – Tenryuji – initially was its World Heritage designation, but what made the visit was the garden. We quickly walked past the temple buildings and paid little attention to the historical significance of the place. This strategy did pay dividends at times. There were giant koi in the small lake, something that always hooks Justin. The gardens were lush and green and backed by a further hillside of greenery. The city ended here. It was overcast and misty and cool. This environment energized Jordan. He loves being outdoors in leafy parks. Just outside the garden was the famous bamboo grove. There was a large walkway running through it and we decided to take the walk one by one in quiet contemplation – yeah right! It was more to give Gigi and I some peace from Justin’s constant jabbering and Jordan’s teenager attitude. Down the hill through another park was the Hozu river. Jordan and Justin bounded down to the water’s edge and began looking for skipping stones. Although there were stones aplenty, flat and round skipping stones were very rare. Still, we had our skipping contest, then moved on to trying to hit a rock out in the river as many times as possible. During this temple visit I don’t think Jordan once leaned against a railing, resting his head against his hands in a posture of I’m-so-uninterested-and-tired.
Our third temple visit was Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. We rented bikes this day and intended to temple hop along the west side of the city. Unfortunately, we did not pay close enough attention to the weather reports, and the overcast skies brought rain within an hour of the start of our ride. This temple was again crowded, this time with many school groups varying in ages from probably 10 to 14 years old. This created a different atmosphere for the boys. For once, they were surrounded by peers, and not the only non-adults in the throng. There were also several groups of young girls dressed in full kimono attire being hounded by people wanting to take their picture. We happened to get one of Justin surrounded by these “geisha wannabes.” This temple’s surroundings offered the same stunning arboreal background as Arashiyama. It was high upon a hill surrounded by greenery. Before entering the temple, we decided to take a small detour to walk down a dark hole called, the “Buddha’s Belly.” After paying our entrance fee, we took off our shoes, grabbed onto a rope handrail, and walked down some steep stairs that led to the beginning of a winding path or “Buddha’s Intestines.” The path is in pitch darkness and leads to a central room, “the belly,” where there is a large inscribed stone. We read beforehand that you are supposed make a wish while rubbing the stone and Buddha will reward your arduous journey by granting it. We rubbed the stone several times and made our wishes before continuing through the darkness to the exit staircase that led us back into the light. The wishing for good fortune continued at this temple with drinking from a sacred spring. Justin and I stood in line to take the metal cups attached to 3-foot sticks and filled them under the spring rivulets pouring from the rooftop above us. We finished our journey by walking a stone pathway to a red pagoda high in the hills beyond the temple. On the way down, we happened upon several kimono-clad ladies (the real deal), which added to the “old Japan” feeling of the place.
Our final temple visit was the Itsukushima on Miyajima Island. This is another World Heritage site and one of the top scenic spots in Japan. The floating tori gate is the centerpiece attraction, and it is quite a draw based on the number of tourist shops located on the main street of the small village. The hook for the boys here were the semi-wild deer that roamed freely through the town looking for food handouts. They were small deer, just waist high at their shoulders. They walked right up to us, followed us around, and let us touch them. They were quite endearing animals. The boys loved them. The floating tori shrine was an impressive sight. The island also has a gondola ride up to the 413m summit of the island with panoramic views of the Inland Sea and trails leading down to the village. Unfortunately, we had pretty constant rain this day and low clouds, so we skipped experiencing this part of the island.
I think the best strategy for visiting temples in Japan with kids is to make the visit not about the temple; it just happens to be there. It is window dressing. Advertise that you are going to burn things, challenge them to get a better fortune than dad, make lots of wishes, look for gardens and deer, and for boys, promise the holy grail of rock skipping on a river. They will absorb the spirituality and history of the place without really knowing it.