Before I started to seriously study the history of the country and actually prepare for my visit, my knowledge of Japanese geography came almost entirely from a very unreliable educator: The Pokemon games.
It’s a fairly well known fun fact that the Kanto and Johto regions that serve as the settings of the first two games are based on the real-life Kanto and Kansho regions, the eastern and western sides of Japan’s largest and most central island, Honshu.
While Kanto, the Eastern side where Tokyo is situated, was translated into fairly generic towns, cities and woods, the Johto regions in the sequels have a much stronger Japanese feel to them. From the music, with its Eastern mysticism, to the visuals, full of pagodas and temples, Johto felt like Japan even on the classic Game Boy.
There’s actually quite interesting historical reasons for this. For a long stretch of history, while Kyoto was still the capital of Japan, the Western side was considered “real” Japan, and was home to a huge amount of cultural and religious influence. Even today, the temples and castles are dripping with history and majesty.
This means the in-game locations took much more inspiration from real-world places and their histories. Most notably, the two legendary bird Pokemon on the boxes and their homes. Ho-oh and Lugia are mythical birds who used to live on top of tall towers until one of those towers burned down. Ho-oh in particular is very explicitly based on a phoenix, and even uses phoenix-like powers to revive other Pokemon.
The two towers take inspiration from two different pairs of real towers. In the North of Kyoto, at the extreme East and West edges in the shadows of the mountains, are the gorgeous gold and silver towers. In the Southeast, another temple holds an even taller pagoda. This one is notable for the counterpart which used to exist; on the other side of the city, there used to be an identical, mirror image temple but it unfortunately burned to the ground.
I love the aesthetics and spiritual history of Japan’s temples and shrines. The unique Japanese approach to religion and spirituality will always be some small mystery to me, but the artworks, architecture and ambience are undeniably beautiful.
This love affair might very well have started with playing Pokemon Silver at the start of the millennium. Certainly, it was impossible for me to resist visiting these three sights which inspired the games that then inspired me. I might find some intriguing new insight into the games which defined much of my childhood. If not, I’d certainly see some very pretty sights which had an impact on the Game Freak team all those years ago.
First on the agenda was the To-Ji temple. This was the complex with the five-storey pagoda and the sister sight which had burned down. This pagoda was actually only a short walk from my hostel. I’d seen the top poking over the walls every day.
Like so many of these locations, the temple is marvellously well kept. A little garden has a pond in which ducks sat contentedly. The pagoda is very impressive to behold. Both it and the other wider, single-storey temples are filled with paintings, statuary and artefacts. It was definitely pretty, and the tale of the other sight does add a romantic air.
Next on my list was the silver temple Ginkaku-Ji, a four mile walk North-East from my hostel along the canal. This one has far less of the dusty, historical feel. The gardens are expansive, bright and colourful, even on the dreary rain-soaked Friday I explored it.
The tower itself isn’t actually silver. The golden tower, which I’ll come to in a moment, is coated in gold leaf and originally the plan had been for this one to be similarly silver, but it never came through.
Nonetheless, the pagoda sat in the centre of a reflective and tranquil lake was a sight to behold. Following the path through the gardens, I climbed the cliff face nearby, and looked down at the sight below me.
These traditional Japanese roofs, temples and quarters and the pagoda, rising from the treetops as a fine mist of rain fell down onto them, were the most classically Japanese sight I think I’d beheld so far. I could almost see the monks leading meditations, the samurai walking this way and that deciding the fate of the nation, the elegant and beautiful women pulling the strings while maintaining etiquette. I could hear the strings and woodwind of those soundtracks Hollywood had taught me to associate with feudal Japan.
Five miles to the West sits the sister sight, the Golden pavilion really living up to the name. Sat similarly in the centre of a tranquil lake, the elegance is something to behold, obvious even from an amateur photograph like mine.
Both temples are topped by little metal phoenixes. Its easy to see how these gorgeous locations, rich in importance and spirituality and magic, could inspire the powerful birds I grew up mesmerised by. Brilliantly, the history and culture of this part of Kyoto snuck into the mind of a child mostly ignorant of such things through these little game boy cartridges.
This was the last day I spent visiting temples and historical sites in ancient Kyoto. Was it worth walking fifteen miles to see these structures? Of course. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Kyoto is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Every step takes me to something incredible, be it old or new, natural or manmade or that quintessentially Japanese spot in the middle of the two. In Tokyo I was constantly taking the metro to each new place I wanted to visit, but in Kyoto walking down the streets, along the riverbanks or through mountains and forests was the best part.