Autumn leaves at Ishiyama-dera

In my ever-continuing quest to find Fun Things to Do in the Kansai area on my days off, I realized I’d overlooked something very obvious, and very nearby.

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If you think ‘famous literature in Japan’, what comes to mind first? Basho’s poetry? The Kojiki? …What about ‘Tale of Genji’, or 源氏物語 by Murasaki Shikibu?

For those of you not in the know, Tale of Genji is credited as the first novel written. Yes, other western novels have been given this credit- Don Quixote and whatnot- but Tale of Genji was written back during the Heian period, or the 11th century. And boy howdy is it a novel, with romances and political intrigue and all sorts of messed up stuff.

But let’s not get into the nitty-gritty of the book, we’re here to talk about the author herself. While I’ve sort-of known that Murasaki Shikibu’s influence was present in Kyoto and Shiga, it didn’t really hit home for me until a friend suggested we go to Ishiyama Temple.

Ishiyama Temple, or 石山寺、is located in Shiga prefecture, within walking distance of Lake Biwa. It’s said that Murasaki Shikibu found inspiration for the Tale of Genji there; seeing as it’s NaNoWriMo (and the friend in question is a writer), we figured it would be a good pilgrimage to pay homage to the Japanese novelist.

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Murasaki Shikibu, author of Tale of Genji

To get to the closest train station for the temple, hop on the JR Biwako Line from Kyoto Station to Ishiyama Station for 240 yen. From there, change to the Keihan Line for an additional 170 yen to get to Ishiyamadera Station. Alternatively, if it’s lovely weather outside, take a walk- it’s about a 30-40 minute hike from town. If you opt to take the Keihan Line, you only have to walk for about 10 minutes. Great for a rainy day.

From the station it’s an easy enough walk; there are maps everywhere and signs (albeit in Japanese). Exit the gates and turn right, following the water until you get to the temple gates. From there, go on in to reception.

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Past the main gate

Now, here’s something to keep in mind: there’s a lot to see here. If you want to just see the temple and gardens, expect to pay 600 yen. If you want to see absolutely everything, they have a set ticket. This includes any little side buildings and displays. I personally opted for just the basic ticket as I wanted to enjoy the gardens, rain or not.

The “basic” ticket, by the way, was more than worth it.DSC_0164.JPG

First of all, the grounds were much bigger than I was used to; I’m accustomed to standard Kyoto temples and shrines, places that are squeezed in between office buildings and large streets. This place had winding gardens up and down hills. The whole place was reminiscent of Mt. Kurama with its’ use of stairs and heavy foliage.DSC_0174.JPG

The main hall didn’t allow pictures inside, but it had your standard temple fare- charms, fortunes, a place to pray, and the all important stamps. The best part of it, in my opinion, was the view of the autumn leaves from the hall doors, but the rest of it was pretty neat, too.

Because it was rainy when I went, there weren’t many folks out in the gardens, which let me explore at my leisure. It was quiet, save for the sound of running water and the occasional bird in the distance. It’s no wonder Murasaki Shikibu was inspired to write there- if it had been nicer weather I might have sat down on a bench and scribbled some things down myself!

Overall, it took a little over an hour to wander around. Perhaps if I’d splurged for the “set” ticket to see more things it’d have taken longer, but I was fully satisfied with what I’d experienced there.

There are lots of things to see in the Kansai area, from temples to museums and parks and what-have-you. But if you have some time and aren’t completely templed out, I’d recommend this little side-trip, especially during the autumn months.DSC_0180.JPG

What’s a place you like visiting in autumn?

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