Japan Trip 2016 – Week Eight – Kyoto



My first week in Kyoto was marked by a feeling of restlessness, as I was still in the traveling mentality of packing and moving to the next place, so, while I enjoyed myself, I wasn’t always as focussed on the immediate space. By the end of that first week I had settled down, and felt far more comfortable than I had during the first couple of days – it helped that I was still in the habit of waking up between 5 and 6 in the morning, a habit created in Hokkaido. One aspect of Kyoto that becomes immediately obvious when you do get up early, is how quiet many of the major tourist attractions are before 10am, when large groups of tourists begin to appear. So, by getting up early, and arriving at some of the more famous temples and gardens for their opening times, I was able to enjoy them in a much calmer, and more relaxed manner than Tenryu-ji on the first day. This week also represented a change of pace, one where I didn’t focus exclusively on the centre of Kyoto, and began to visit a number holy mountains around the outskirts of the city, and even visited Himeji.

In fact, the week started with a trip to Mt Kurama, one of many sacred mountains that ring the city, the location of the annual Kurama no Hi-matsuri, or Kurama Fire Festival. Furthermore, according to legends, Mt Kurama is home of Sojobo, the king of the Tengu, and the one taught Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189, a historical, but also semi-mythical figure from the Heian era) swordsmanship. It is therefore an especially important sacred space, and one that is simultaneously connected with Shinto through the Tengu, and other elements of animism, while also the location for a Buddhist temple called Kurama-dera that enshrines Bishamonten, Kannon, and Mao-son. The journey is also rather fascinating, requiring two trains along Kyoto’s numerous private railways. The first is fairly normal, but the second is a particularly special journey, one that would arguably more interesting if you are lucky enough to take the special Eizan-Line panoramic train, with seats set up to enjoy the view as the railway winds its way through the mountains. And wind it does, the first few stops are bordered by houses, but, as you get further out of Kyoto, the track begins to climb, and soon you are surrounded by trees, forming what can only be described as a tunnel of green. In fact, this particular journey is also one that is famous for its autumn colours, when the tunnel of trees are bright crimson and orange.


The town of Kurama is small, and, at least around the station, dominated by smaller restaurants and tourist shops, but compared to a town like Fushimi, it wasn’t as busy. In fact, when I was there I only saw Japanese visitors, including a significant number of cyclists, and what I assume to be ultra-marathon runners, based on their equipment. In fact, Mt Kuruma, and Kuruma-dera represented something of a departure from the previous days in that I was visiting a site of pilgrimage, and tourism, largely known only to the Japanese. What was rather curious as I climbed was the feeling that Mt Kurama was almost more spiritual and sacred than Fushimi-Inari, despite knowing that to be untrue, especially given the continued importance of Inari as a figure of worship. Perhaps this was down to the effort required to climb to the Honden, or main shrine, and the general lack of western, and Chinese tourists. Such thoughts also raise questions about what it means to be a sacred space, and particularly, what characteristics I attribute to a pilgrimage or ritual area, specifically the lack of western/Chinese tourists.

It was a cloudier day, although no less warm and humid, even up in the mountains, so the climb was, if not tricky as in the case of Annupuri, was certainly far from easy. It was however, fascinating to see how such a climb, or pilgrimage was split up, with little shrines, sacred rocks, and other important spaces found all across the mountain, as the path weaved between them, while always going steadily upwards. It is easy to understand why temple complexes are built on mountains, and while Bishamonten, Senju-Kannon, and Mao-son are enshrined at Kurama-dera, the temple also offers a space to worship the mountain itself. In fact, the temples main gate is in the town of Kurama, and you are within the temple grounds as you climb to the main hall, so the mountain is the temple. Indeed, in my brief discussion of landscape and space during the last post I briefly touched upon the idea of the Japanese temple and shrine acting as an area to worship a sacred space, rather than a relic, or idol. As such, the walk to the Honden, along with the numerous little shrines, and objects, all form one elaborate processional route, a physical form of worship that all those who visit Kurama-dera must take part in. The walk was enjoyable, and upon reaching the Honden was greeted with a wonderful view out over the wooded mountains, valleys, and a chance to sit down and do some writing.


Interestingly, while Kurama-dera started out life as a Buddhist temple, it now focusses on an esoteric set of religious figures and ideas that bring together Buddhism, its Yamabushi (mountain men, or ascetic hermits) patrons, and other, esoteric adherents of mountain worship, including a focus on Tengu, and other elements that are connected with Shinto, and animism. Japanese religion has always been rather complex and syncretic in nature – Buddhism and Shinto coexisted, often worshipping the same deities under different names (Inari is worshipped as Kannon for example), and focussing on the same sacred spaces. Temples such as Kiyomizudera for example is a Buddhist complex that enshrines Senju-Kannon, but behind the main temple building there is also a Shinto shrine called the Jishu shrine, dedicated to Okuninushi, the god of love and good matches, alongside a smaller shrine dedicated to Inari. In choosing to become independent in the post-war era, Kurama-dera helps to highlight the complex nature of religion in Japan, and how difficult, if not impossible it is to focus entirely on one single aspect to the exclusion of all others. It enshrines Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas, and yet, has a long and complex history with the Yamabushi, of which Tengu are a part of, alongside other animist beliefs commonly associated with the Shinto religion.

Indeed, upon visiting Kiyomizudera a couple of days later, it was fascinating to see how closely the two religions and their beliefs intertwined within a single temple complex. Furthermore, Kiyomizudera represents a slight departure from the usual Buddhist temple complexes of Kyoto, complexes that often feel more formal in nature, with visitors coming to see a specific building, or, in Kyoto at least, a garden. Shinto shrines by comparison, at least the larger ones, are almost always noisy, and in Kyoto, they are full of people dressed in kimono, buying omamori, and feel like living, breathing spaces.


Kiyomizudera felt more like a Shinto shrine than Buddhist temple, as people come for omamori, to test their strength, drink from the Otowa Waterfalls, and most importantly of all, stand on the temples famous stage. Many also come specifically to visit Jishu shrine, as such, it is a multipurpose sight that is popular with tourists, while simultaneously serving as a centre for the smaller acts and beliefs that make up Japan’s religious landscape. That the main hall and veranda just out of the hillside, and are supported by a wooden structure that has been constructed without the use of nails is truly remarkable, although, the temple itself is arguably best enjoyed in the evening around sunset, as it gets much quieter then, and you are treated to the wonderful sight of the sun setting over Kyoto from the main stage.

Watching the sunset at Kiyomizudera ranks as one of my favourite moments in Kyoto, alongside visiting Shoden-ji, and seeing Ryoan-ji first thing in the morning. Ryoan-ji (lit. Dragon Peace Temple) may be the most famous garden in the world, and it is certainly the most photographed, at least in Japan. Because of its fame I had planned to visit first thing in the morning, before the main tourist route got too busy, while also taking the opportunity to visit Kinkaku-ji, and Ninna-ji, as they were all along the same hillside to the north-west of the city. Ryoan-ji was a particularly special garden (although perhaps not as special as Shoden-ji due to the nature of my visit), as I was able to sit and contemplate the garden for a good hour with ten Japanese visitors. It also served as an interesting comparison between different visitors and nationalities, as there were a number of Slavic speaking tourists who spent all of five minutes in the garden, talking loudly, taking pictures, and then moving on, whereas the Japanese visitors all sat quietly and contemplated what is a highly complex, illusive, and deliberately abstract space meant for meditation and thought. This difference between what I shall describe as ‘foreign’ tourists (Chinese, western, Slavic), and Japanese tourists was something of a running theme throughout my trip, and while I do not wish to generalise, my experiences were that the Japanese visitors were more likely to stop and enjoy a garden, rather than take a selfie, then rush off to the sext tourist spot.


When exploring a garden such as Ryoan-ji, one can begin to understand why the zen masters viewed the garden, and specifically the kare-sansui (dry) garden as a place for meditation and path to enlightenment. Furthermore, given the turbulent period within which this, and many other gardens were constructed (The Muromachi period – 1336-1573), it is easy to see how such a space could become a quite retreat from the politics and unrest of the outside world. And as I have mentioned before, many such gardens started life as part of palaces and villa complexes created by Kyoto’s elite as retreats from the outside world. Ginkakuji is perhaps the most famous of these, and served as a retreat for the them shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who retreated there to indulge in the finer arts as the Onin Wars slowly turned Kyoto into a ruin. Similarly, the grounds of Ryoan-ji were originally the estate of a nobleman of the powerful Fujiwara family in the Heian period.

As such, the garden serves as a further remind of the important, even essential link between politics, religion, and culture throughout Kyoto’s history, and the reality that such magnificent spaces wouldn’t have existed without the political, and cultural backing of powerful figures within Japan’s elite. It also helps to illuminate the importance of the Muromachi period on Japanese culture as a bridge between the earlier Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods, and the Edo period when Japan once again entered an era of relative stability. Many of the most famous gardens and temple complexes (at least in their current forms) originate from the Muromachi era, a period that saw changes in Japan’s culture, and the increasing importance of zen Buddhism, alongside renewed interest in Shintoism. In fact, many of Japan’s traditional, and most venerated arts – Noh Drama, Kabuki, poetry, tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and flower arranging – all flourished during the Muromachi period.


While Ryoan-ji was a fascinating, and thought provoking space, Kinkaku-ji by comparison felt almost crude in nature, despite the magnificence of the pavilion itself, and surrounding gardens. This may in large part be due to my arrival at the same time as four coachloads of Chinese tourists who were all a little rude, and generally only seemed interested in taking selfies and little else. The garden was really just too busy, with too many umbrellas (it was raining at the time), and there simply wasn’t the space to truly explore or enjoy the garden as many of the smaller paths had been closed off, I assume because of the rain, so I was left to walk the same, simple path around the golden pavilion and towards the gift shops and exit. Furthermore, unlike so many other gardens that I visited, there was nowhere (that I could find) to sit down and simply enjoy the garden for what it was, although given the rain, anywhere that wasn’t covered would have been useless anyway. Indeed, upon viewing Kinkaku-ji, I felt that it suffered from the same issue as Ginkaku-ji, at least in its contemporary form.

The original pavilion dated from 1397, when it was part of a villa owned by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the shogun of Japan at the time – its name actually refers to the original intention of Yoshimitsu to gild the ceiling of the third floor with gold leaf as a place for relaxation. However, in 1950, a 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken burnt it down (he was later diagnosed with persecution complex and schizophrenia, which helped to explain his actions), the current building therefore dates from 1955 when it was rebuilt, when it was decided that the building should literally match its name (Kinkaku literally translates as golden pavilion), with several kilos of gold leaf added to the exterior (later changed to thicker gold leaf in 1987). It is therefore a very striking building, and yet it was neither as enjoyable, or as interesting as a garden such as Ryoan-ji, or Shoden-ji, despite the exquisite nature of the gardens composition, and clever use of perspective and space.


We, as the visitors are perhaps looking at the space from the wrong direction, and while the garden as designed to be walked around and enjoyed, unlike Ryoan-ji, which is there to be looked at and explored in an abstract sense, standing on the opposite bank to the pavilion never quite felt right. The pavilion was meant as a place of luxury and contemplation, it was relatively plain on the outside (at least in comparison to its current form) because it wasn’t meant to be looked at, but looked out from. So in rebuilding and adding gold leaf, the architects have largely changed the buildings purpose, and in some respects changed the entire function and layout of the garden. It is now a space to look at the pavilion from, rather than as a place to enjoy and contemplate. It also feels far too formal, and lacked much of the fascination that made a place such as Ryoan-ji, which I visited immediately before so interesting. In a sense, Kinkaku-ji felt too much like a tourist destination, and has become alienated from its past and history, the pavilion dominates what should be a Buddhist temple complex. Perhaps this is what happens when a building, or space, becomes disassociated with its history and origins through the changes that take place over time. And yet, Kinkaku-ji, as with Ginkaku-ji represent important links with the historical past to the Japanese, and exist as physical reminders of the Muromachi, and early periods, where Japan’s culture, and heritage come from. So, even if I find them far too formal, even disembodied in nature, they are still essential elements of Japanese traditional culture, regardless of their actual age (in the case of Kinkakuji, about sixty years at the most).


I had also decided to visit Ninna-ji on the same day as Kinkakuji and Ryoan-ji, since they were all in the same area, and while it was a fascinating temple, with a particularly interesting garden, three major gardens one after another turned out to be too many. Ninna-ji is likely the oldest temple site in that area, having been founded in 886 by Emperor Uda, and like so many temples from the Heian era, a complex that once included sixty sub-temples, was completely levelled during the Onin-Wars. While the temple was rebuilt during the early Edo period (17th century), another fire took its toll in the complex at the beginning of the 20th century, so many of the main buildings, specifically the Shinden Hall from which you view the garden.  Interestingly, the garden at Ninna-ji reminded me of Tenryu-ji, with elements of the earlier Heian pond gardens mixed with raked gravel, and more abstract, and esoteric features.

The garden is also dominated by a waterfall, whose noise and movement draws the eye from every corner, and serves as a focal point for the plant, and gravel arrangements. Interestingly, unlike Ryoan-ji and Shoden-ji, the garden wraps around the main buildings, with the veranda and walkway offering different perspectives and angels from which to view the space.  I also arrived during very heavy rain, so the sound of rain on the roof, and rain drops as they hit the pond, and stones changed the way I approached the garden. In fact, I think everybody needs to view one of these sitting, and contemplative gardens during different types of weather, especially rain, and I suspect, snow. Unfortunately, because I had just visited Ryoan-ji, and then Kinkaku-ji, I was beginning to space out a little towards the end, and probably didn’t appreciate the garden as much as I otherwise would have.

Interesting, Ninna-ji served as a good example of the variations found within Shhincho temple stamps. At one point the first or second son of the Imperial Family would become the temples head abbot – possible because of the tradition whereby emperors would abdicate early to allow for their son to take the throne, and since the imperial family were, for much of their history, figureheads rather than a political force, many former emperors often retired to a life of Buddhist practice. Because of this tradition, something that only ended in the late Edo period, one of the stamps used at Ninna-ji is a chrysanthemum, something that only those institutions with close ties to the imperial family can do. Such little bits of knowledge further serve to add extra depth to the Goshuincho – it isn’t just a collection of temple stamps, but a glimpse into the history of those institutions, and the origins of their practice and construction.


Saying all of this, because Kyoto has so many temples, a testament to its history, alongside its political, cultural, social, and religious importance, they can have the horrible tendency to blur together. Which is truly unfortunate given how interesting many of them are. As such, after seeing a number of important, and interesting temples, I decided to spend two days focusing on something a little different, although the second day also involved temples, just from an alternative perspective. I therefore decided that since I still had a valid JR Rail Pass, I was going to visit Himeji castle, possibly the finest example of Japanese castle building in the country, and a truly astonishing structure to behold. Although, I visited as a weather system linked to a typhoon that was hitting northern Honshu passed across the Kansai area, so my trip was a little on the damp side. But it was worth it, as I was able to visit what may be the most impressive castle I have ever seen – in fact, European castles, no matter how much work, and thought went into their construction look crude and cheap by comparison.

What is particularly fascinating about Himeji castle is how it has managed to survive largely unchanged for 400 years. Whereas Matsuyama Castle suffered several fires throughout its history, the last during the late Edo period, and other castles were singled out as targets during America’s air strikes at the end of WWII, Himeji has managed to escape such problems. Of course, it has also undergone two periods of extensive restoration, one during the 1950s and 1960s, and another from 2009-2015. This was because various problems had been discovered with the structure, largely due to the lack of care and attention that such a building, having long since lost any tactical, or political significance had been faced with. In fact, they discovered that the whole main keep was subsiding, and without urgent repair work, it would simply collapse under its own weight.


The castle is truly magnificent after that restoration, and it is gratifying to know that the project went back to older building techniques so that, while metal brackets are used to strengthen certain pieces of wood, and the entire foundations have been filled in with concrete, it isn’t a concrete and brick construction (as with Osaka castle), but one of wood, plaster, and tiles. Himeji castle represents the Japanese approach to space and architecture as extensions of an artistic vision, alongside practical use. It is a building specifically built to protect, and control the western approach to Kyoto (with Osaka castle), and holds a commanding position in western Japan. It was therefore a practical, military, and economic space, giving its rulers control over an important, and rich area. At the same time, its aesthetics, while functional, are also beautiful – it is a building constructed as a visible representation of its ruler’s power, culture, and wealth.

I also had a little moment, when, as I was walking up to the main keep, I suddenly realised that I was on the set of Kagemusha, and Ran, easily two of the best samurai, and general films ever made. There is a particular scene in Kagemusha when several of the characters are talking about the night that the main warlord was supposed to have been shot. They are walking down a sloped path, past a number of rectangular, and triangular shaped arrow/gun loops – this is in fact the path that everybody must take to reach the main keep, a twisting, winding path that would make it difficult to mount any form of cohesive assault on even the most minor of gates. I suspect some tourists thought I was a bit crazy, dressed in full waterproofs and just standing staring at arrow loops, but realising that you are on the set of one of your favourite films is a truly wonderful experience, regardless of what others think. Unfortunately, any description I use for Himeji-jo would be inadequate, as it is a place that should really be visited and experienced.


I had intended to also climb Mt Shosha to visit Engyoji while I was in Himeji, but since I spent so long at the castle I would have been rushing, and certainly wouldn’t have been able to sit and appreciate the temple complex. Instead of returning to Himeji, I decided to climb Mt Hiei the following day and visit Enryaku-ji, one of the most important centres for Buddhism in Japan. It was founded during the Heian period, and at the height of its power had as many as 3000 sub-temples, and an army of warrior monks (Benkei a semi-legendary figure was supposed to have been of the Tendai Sect from Enryakuji). Because of Enryaku-ji’s immense political, military, and financial power, it, along with the whole of Mt Hiei were burnt to the ground by Oda Nobunaga in 1573, so the complex we see today date from the early Edo period. While you can take a bus, or use one of two cable cars to reach the summit as most people do, I decided to take a train to Hieizan-Sakamoto and hike to the top. I do enjoy hiking, even if it can be difficult, but the path to Enryakuji was an especially tricky, and at times, potentially dangerous one. The torrential rain that Kyoto, along with the entire Kansai area had experienced the day before had clearly turned the path into something approaching a river. Large chunks of earth had been moved, great grooves worked into the hillside, with large rocks, boulders, and even tree trunks arranged all across the path from top to bottom.

It also turned into something a little different when I remembered that there had been bear sightings on nearby hillsides, and I did not have a bell on my bag, and was hiking entirely alone. So, while the path, and mountainside were rather interesting, the actual journey was less so given the uncertainty about the are – its those sorts of trips that make you realise how isolated you can be when walking on your own, despite being a mere mile away from a large inhabited area. Upon reaching the top however, I found myself behind the main temple complex, on the opposite side to the entrance, so clearly if you hike to Enryaku-ji, you do not have to pay an entrance fee. The temple complex itself was fascinating, and made the somewhat tricky journey worth the effort, especially as it was more of a place for pilgrimage than any of the other holy mountains I had previously visited. Tour groups participating in the Western Honshu Henro were present, alongside a steady stream of businessmen, all buying amulets, protective charms, and other little things. It was far more formal than many of the temples in Kyoto’s centre, and although there were smaller groups of tourists, it didn’t quite feel like a tourist spot. I suppose this is in large part due to Mt Hiei’s location outside of the city, alongside the cost, time, and effort required to reach Enryaku-ji at the top, factors that would likely stop all but the most determined visitors. It is also such a vast series of temples that it is pretty difficult to see them all in one day, especially if you are walking. The main complex is simply enough to get to, as is the second complex, a mere twenty minute’s walk away, but the third complex is at least an hour and a half walk, so I only managed to see part of Enryaku-ji.


As it was, my original plan to walk down the other side into Kyoto had to be changed, as I was told by one of the temple staff that part of the path I was going to use had been washed away by the rain, and there had been a number of bear sightings on the lower slopes on the Kyoto side. So I ultimately caught the bus, and was treated to some rather astonishing views of Lake Biwa, as it wound its way down the mountain – in fact, I can see why the bus services are suspended during the winter, as the road would be treacherous to say the least in snowy and icy conditions. Upon arriving back in Kyoto I just wandered around, eventually finding my way to Heian Jingu, a rather curious shrine that was first constructed in 1895, to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto. It is supposed to be a 5/8 reproduction of the original Imperial Palace of Heian-Kyo (The Heian Era name for Kyoto), and while it uses architectural styles from the Heian period, its historical authenticity may be somewhat questionable, and must arguably be seen as a period piece from the Meiji, and modern eras, rather than an authentic recreation of the Heian Period. Although, while it seems little more than an idea, and a very flashy one at that, in vermillion buildings against stark, white gravel, Heian Jingu certainly helps to illustrate one aspect of Japan’s approach to history and tradition. A topic I will likely discuss further in another post, as it is far too complex for what is an already rather long piece of writing.

The rest of the week was spent exploring parts of Kyoto – Gion, Nisshiki Market, Kawarmachi, a wonderful little garden called Koto-in that is part of the Daitoku-ji temple complex, and returning to Kiyomizudera – certainly too much to recount place by place. Kyoto is a fascinatingly complex city, one that is simultaneously modern, and yet very much fixed to its historical past, a past that it, and its people are immensely proud of. It is also a very different city to Takamtsu, Matsuyama, Tokyo, or Sapporo, with wooden and tiled buildings in greater abundance than any of the other cities I have visited – although the caveat here is that I haven’t spent as much time in any of those cities as Kyoto – and certainly one that you could arguably spend years exploring, and never truly see everything. In fact, as I wandered around the city, finding little temples, alleyways, rivers, and streams, I often found myself wondering whether half the tourists I have encountered at the more famous spots ever truly see the city. So many people seem to be so intent on rushing from one place to another, ‘collecting the sights’ as if they were pokemon, without ever stopping to appreciate the splendor of what is around them. Somewhat of a generalistion I admit, as I only ever saw a fraction of the cities visitors, and yet, it was still a thought that stayed with me.


But, with all the impressive temples, shrines, and castles that I saw during my time in Kyoto, it was actually a small park of sorts, nestled between two rivers, and just below one of the biggest, and most important shrines in the city, and perhaps Japan (Shimogamo Jinja) that became one of my favourite aspects of Kyoto. Kamogawa Delta is often used in anime that are situated in Kyoto, or at least, Kamogawa Delta and a number of other similar river crossing that can be found in this part of the city. It is just a series of large, concrete stepping stones where two rivers meet, a popular spot for people to sit throughout the day, and often a focal space within anime. It is also somewhere that I initially visited entirely by accident, having visited Shimogamo Jinja during a summer light show, and wanting somewhere to sit and relax for a little. But, over the two weeks I was in Kyoto I found myself returning to this area, despite its distance from my ryokan, to sit and write – the sound of the water as you sit on the stepping stones can even drown out, or at least cover over many of the cities sounds. And watching the sun set while on the stones was a very relaxing, and enjoyable experience. Funny really, you can visit any number of historically, and culturally important sites like Ryoan-ji, and Kinkaku-ji, and yet a simple series of concrete stepping stones turns out to be one of the most memorable places in the city.

As a way to end my time in Japan it was a fun experience, although I really only scratched the surface of Kyoto, and could easily return to the city for several years to come. And although I was in Kyoto for a bit of sightseeing, I was also conducting a little preliminary research on tradition within contemporary Japan. So my journal, which along with my goshuincho because my most prized, and important possessions, is now filled with thoughts, musings, and observations on tradition, ritual, and religion, linking what I saw in Kyoto to numerous different anime series. I had intended to explore that in this piece, but soon realised that the topic is so vast, and complex, that it should really have its own article, rather than trying to squeeze it in with my other, more general observations and comments. It also represented something of a change for me, as I had spent the majority of my time in Hokkaido, and while the nature school is a wonderful place to be, it can also be limiting. You are so focused on the immediate activity, the long term camp, and the children, that you ultimately only ever see a very small part of Japan. Although even then, rural Hokkaido offers an interesting comparison with the larger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, so no single part of my trip was more important or enjoyable than the others, just different. I would actually like to try spending more time in Japan on the next trip, and use Kyoto as a base for day trips, there is just so much more to see, and even after a few months I’ve only really scratched the surface.


About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

One Response to Japan Trip 2016 – Week Eight – Kyoto

  1. Pingback: Lovely Blog Award! – Anime Commentary Returns

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