A Side Trip to Kyoto – Day 2

Breakfast is at 8 but despite having slept soundly for ten hours already we have a further nap afterwards until, at 10:30, the mistress of the house reminds us we are supposed to be out of the room by 9 so she can clean it. By 11 we are therefore back on the bikes and heading for the first of three locations that are fairly close to each other here in the north west of the city where our accommodation is situated.
The first is Ninnanji of which I wish I could remember more but as we arrive at the time the sun was reaching her zenith and poor little ginger-headed folk like me simply can not think straight, my recollection is sketchy. This was the residence of the first cloistered monastic emperor and is a gorgeous sprawl of wooden buildings connected by covered gangways surrounding an exquisite landscape garden and pond whose tranquility and grace are deeply refreshing as we see it from one of the blissfully shaded gangways.
The usual station stop ritual of consuming a fresh litre of water to replenish the half kilo of body weight lost to sweat and a new layer of sun cream they could coat a space suit with liberally applied and we continue on up the hill to the absolute highlight of my time in Kyoto, the Zen Buddhist temple of Rioanji.
The path winds its way up to the temple proper past an ornamental lake which is itself a place of pilgrimage as it is a representation of heaven, with lillys and lotus flowers floating on the still water reflecting the shade giving trees and azure sky. Buddha sits on these lotus flowers and casts spider threads down into the water, the world below, to allow the worthy to climb up and join him.
The temple itself houses a Zen rock garden of fifteen differently sized stones in four clusters scattered across a raked sand bed of geometrically straight lines meeting circular ripples emanating from the islands of stone. It represents the whole of nature though there is not a single plant or tree in the garden. We patiently wait our turn to be able to sit at the very edge of the platform and see the garden uninterrupted by bobing heads and opened guide pamphlets.
We know, intellectually, that there are fifteen rocks in the garden but cleverly one can not see all fifteen at once from any one vantage point. I see various people counting; one, two three… ichi, ni, san… up to fourteen and scratch their heads and count again then beam and smile once they move away and spot which ever rock was their missing number fifteen, perhaps without noticing that another has disappeared off of their map and they can still only see fourteen.
Here is the whole of nature represented by fifteen rocks. One, two, three… fourteen. Here is the whole of the universe and everything in it. One, two, three… fourteen. I gaze for a long time and, without moving, I suddenly see where the fifteenth rock is. The trick is to be careful what you count as number one.
I come away from the garden in a trance like state of serenity wondering if, just maybe, I caught the edge of the coat tails of enlightenment.
On the other side of the building from the garden is another most curious object. A circular tablet of stone with a square hole in the centre, a bamboo pipe pours water into the basin it forms and there is a ladle for ceremonially washing your hands and drinking the water (which a note advises you not to actually do – you may wash but drinking is not recommended). The stone itself is a symbol that represents man and inscribed at the four compass points are chinese characters that read “I learn only to be contented”.
As we leave I buy a calligraphy piece representing the basin made by the previous abbot of the temple. I will treasure it for ever.
Next on our mini tour of the city’s north west is Kinkakuji – the Golden Pavilion. This is a place that does exactly what it says on the tin – a Pavilion of three stories topped by a bronze phoenix and bedecked with gold leaf. It was the oppulent retirement villa of a Shogun who lived in splendid luxury while the country around him suffered a series of disasters from plague to famine and earthquakes. This is a reconstruction of the 1390s original as a monk burned the first to the ground in 1950.
It is an awe inspiring site that glimmers in the sun and reflects off of the calm, carp filled, pond that surrounds it, dazzling the eyes. After the simple serenity of Rioanji though there is something quite grotesque about the audacity of this display of wealth.
The last stop of the day takes us back into the centre of Kyoto and Nijo Castle. We arrive late in the day and have to rush around the splendid Ninomara Palace at the centre which was Tokugawa’s Kyoto home and since one can not easily see the Imperial Palace in Tokyo with any great ease, this is a worth while visit. The wood carvings and paintings on the panels of wood, silk or paper are intriguing following the classic Japanese style and the layout of the palace itself is fascinating with hidden rooms for body guards and the fact that the floorboards all, quite deliberately, creak as you walk across them to warn the Shogun (here represented by a mannequin kneeling before his assembled Samurai in the main meeting room) of approaching persons, be they friend or foe.
This evening the cycle back to our guest house is considerably less arduous without baggage attached and a light rain is actually a blessed relief. Another bath and fine home cooked meal from our hostess, who has arranged in the meantime for our luggage to be collected and delivered to the station tomorrow, and it is time for another long and contented nights sleep.

5 Replies to “A Side Trip to Kyoto – Day 2”

  1. As it happens I have a fictionalised account of the burning of the Golden Temple, by Mishima Yukio. I’m sure you would find it interesting– once you’re back give me a shout if you’d like to borrow it. I wish I could see the reconstruction!

  2. You know, you’d make a fantastic travel writer with stuff like this. I can’t wait for the next installment, and I’m more than a little jealous (although I wonder if Tokyo would make me feel intolerably claustrophobic). You seem to be having an incredible time, and I’m guessing all the better for going with someone who knows the country – it would be all too easy to get lost as a tourist, otherwise.

  3. Just finished reading your experiences in Japan, well done you. But then you always did have a touch of the poetic about you. Writing is definately your forte! Glad to see that you are doing well for yourself Jamie. Look forward to reading more, very inspiring.