Walking Route

Shisen-do, Manshu-in & Shugaku-in
Sanjusangen-do Temple to Gion
Chushojima and Fushimi
Kamigamo Shrine area
Old Capital Walking


May is the month of irises and Kyoto is full of amazing places to see these long blooming beauties. Some of the best places for irises are listed at the end of this article but the most beautiful setting of all for many is still the timeless pond setting of Ohta Shrine. The shrine is known throughout Japan for its thousands of rabbit-eared irises (kakitsubata). Besides inspiring many paintings and poems, this flower has a medical use. After the flower has bloomed, the leaves are cut and bundled and added to the family bath to purge the body of impurities. The flower blooms twice, so you are sure to see several hundred in bloom anytime during the month of May.

Ohta Shrine is on the eastern side of the immense grounds of one of Kyoto's oldest and most important Shinto Shrines: Kamigamo Jinja . Ohata Shrine's iris pond is very old and more than a thousand years have passed since this kind of garden was the most popular design style. The island in the center of the pond is known as, "the floating isle", adrift in a sea of gentle purple flowers. Benches are set up during this time and although there may be other people there, you will notice a distinct absence of commercialism. Just the irises, the massive cryptomeria trees, and the twittering of birds are all it offers those fortunate to visit. The garden can be viewed at any time of day or night. Entry is free, but a small donation is requested.

Kamigamo Shrine covers a large area just east of the Kamo River north of Kitayama Street. It is easy to get to by bus and the entire surrounding area is full of interesting ancient things to see and experience. The large torii gate for Kamigamo shrine stands at the southern end of a huge lawn-covered approach that leads to the main buildings. On either side of the gate is a sign. The left-hand sign warns visitors not to ride horses, catch birds or fish, uproot bamboo or disturb the sand-raked patterns that they will encounter the shrine grounds. The right-hand sign has huge red numbers on it that indicated the so-called ''dangerous'' or unlucky years for men and women: women on the left column, men on the right. The most dangerous time for a woman is thirty-three. For men it is forty-two. Many thousands of people of these ages come to this shrine and countless others around the country to ask the gods for assistance in these difficult times. A little money thrown into the offering box is also a good idea and millions of coins pour into big shrines during the course of a year.

Kamigamo Shrine is especially popular this month because of its intimate connection with the giant annual Aoi Matsuri festival. The grounds are used to stage a number of horse related events: races, riding skill competitions, and so on. May 5th is the day of the giant horse race that has been held here since 1093. All the riders and horses are outfitted in ancient court dress. Special attention is paid to the way the rider holds the reins of the horse. The best grip is called the ayame or blue-flag iris style.

If you visit Kamigamo Shrine when there are few people around, you might see a white horse tethered in a tiny hut to the left of the second torii gate along the approach. In the old days, the Japanese emperor rode a white horse, and the one at this shrine acts as a kind of mascot for the god of the shrine. If you put some money in the tray before the horse, a shrine attendant will give you a small plate of sliced carrots. When feeding the horse be sure to have the carrots on the flat of the palm your hand: this is the safe way to feed a horse and avoid a nasty bite.

Inside the inner courtyard of the shrine are two tall white, cone-shaped sand piles. These piles echo the shape of the so-called mountain (more of a low hill really) behind the shrine's Main Hall, where the god is said to have descended to from heaven. The buildings that make up the main part of the shrine are impressive for their elegance and lovely proportions. As you might expect when you are there, this shrine would be perfect for weddings. It is one of the most popular in the country for the joining of lives before god. If you were set on seeing a Japanese wedding then simply ask a Japanese friend when the next ''lucky shrine day'' is and you can sure that several wedding will be held on this day at Kamigamo Shrine (and also at Heian Shrine and Shimogamo Shrine).

Kamigamo Shrine is also well known for the intimacy of the community it forms: the priests, their descendants, the local shop keepers and the local children. It is an extremely old and prosperous community and for the visitor offers all kinds of secret things to see and experience: special pickles made with local vegetables, hidden back lanes, canals and great restaurants. Here are some of the best places to look for.

As you leave the shrine, near the bus terminal, look for the Jinbado sweet shop (closed Wednesdays.) The shop, last re-built in 1872, specializes in a hot grilled rice cakes filled with bean paste. Then go east on the road that runs in front of the shrine towards Ohta Shrine. On your rights, you will see some very ancient residences surrounded by fading tall earthen walls. One of these is the Nishimura home: a designated historic house that is open to the public. Ring the bell at the gate and then walk back to the main building. Across the street is a famous pickle shop called Narita (closed Wednesdays). As you enter the shop, look up at the large exposed rafters that support the high ceiling. Turn left as you exit and walk east to the next traffic light: the mysterious wonders of Ohta Shrine are just a few steps away to your left.

Other Iris viewing spots
Heian Shrine: The spacious stroll garden here is famous for seasonal flowers. While azaleas dominate this month, hana-shobu will be in bloom along the banks of the pond during June. Admission is 500 yen; open 8:30-17:30. Umemiya Taisha: Kaki-tsubata will be in full bloom along the banks of the shrine's Sakuya-ike pond until the middle of May. In June hana-shobu will be in bloom. Admission is 300 yen; open 9:00-17:00; on the east of the Matsuo-bashi Bridge, just a little south of Arashiyama. Oharano Shrine: Around the middle of May, this shrine's garden is filled with hana-shobu and ayame. Admission is free, and the shrine is open 24 hours a day. The shrine is located near the so-called Flower Temple, in Nishikyo-ku; from Hankyu Railway's Higashi Muko Station, take bus #41, bound for Minami Kasuga-cho. Oharano Shrine is a ten-minute walk from the end of the line in the forest.

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