14 February 2015

Travel memories: Yasui Konpiragu

Today I’m going to start my Travel Memories feature by telling you a bit about a fun and interesting shrine I visited in Kyoto in 2013: Yasui Konpiragu.

I really love Japanese shrines in general, with their torii gates, wooden ema plaques, purification troughs etc. But Yasui Konpiragu has some really unique elements.

The shrine is tucked away in the area behind Kenninji temple, and although I had been around that area a lot I had never seen it before, but by following the instructions in my guidebook I found it quite quickly.
The first thing you’ll notice when you walk into the shrine is a huge stone with a hole in the middle. This stone is covered with strips of white paper, making it resemble a woolly mammoth! It’s called the Stone of Breaking and Bonding. The idea is that you buy the paper strip, paste it on the stone, and crawl through the hole, and that this either breaks up a bad relationship or gives you good luck in forming a new relationship. The stone itself is quite striking, covered in its paper strips, and it’s fun to watch people as they crawl through it (or have a try yourself!).

The other interesting thing about this shrine is that there’s a tiny museum there, of ema (the wooden plaques used for writing wishes on at shrines).

Outside the museum are some interesting ema on a board. Inside, when I went there, it was manned by a little old lady, who was hunched over and moved very slowly. And who spoke not a word of English. Considering that I can only speak a few sentences of Japanese, I thought this would be a bit of a problem!

She took my 500Y payment, then beckoned to me to follow her, and led me through into a couple of dimly lit rooms where there were lots of early ema plaques. There was some information in English beside these, which helped! And I managed to ask her whether it was OK to take photos, which she gave an enthusiastic yes to (once she understood my Japanese!).

After looking around these rooms I returned to the desk, and the little old lady again beckoned for me to follow her. She led me outside, and I recognised her saying the word for stairs. She pointed to my feet, and I realised that I would need to remove my shoes for going into the upstairs rooms (they have tatami mats on the floor), and by gestures I managed to ask whether I should remove them at the bottom or top of the stairs (it was at the top!).

In the couple of rooms upstairs it was very cold, especially with just socks on my feet, but there was a small heater. These rooms were crammed full of ema plaques. I found the ema upstairs much more interesting. I really liked the style of illustrations on a lot of them. They were much more modern, and some even had designs such as cartoon characters, with others having more traditional horse designs.
When I came back downstairs the old lady beckoned to me to wait, and she came out from behind the desk, led me outside and locked up the museum. She then took me across the courtyard of the shrine, and into another building. Again I had to take off my shoes, she gave me slippers to put on, and she took me into a room with artistic glass objects in display cases around the walls. But the finishing touch was when she switched on the lights under the glass floor, and I could see the amazing shell-like rippled glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly that were under my feet!

There were some lovely ema on sale at the shrine – in fact I couldn’t choose so ended up not buying any! Maybe next time!

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