There are more temples in Kyoto than days on a Japan Railpass, but I did manage to see the Golden Palace, the Silver Palace, Ryoan-ji, and Kiyomizu Temple over the course of a couple days. I can see why people rhapsodize about them.
Ginkaku-ji (officially Jisho-ji) was built in the 15th century, and is probably nicknamed the Silver Palace as it came after construction of the gold-leafed Golden Palace. Possibly it was even going to be covered in silver foil, but that never happened, and it remains a painted wooden sculpture.
The grounds were extensive (I feel like a character in an Austen novel every time I say that, but it’s true). The gardens I visited in Japan were all meticulously laid out, and little arrows pointed the exact path you should follow, both to avoid congestion and to appreciate the gardens according to the aesthetic plan of the designers. The gardens at Ginkaku-ji were flowering beautifully, and the large raked rock garden (it is a Zen temple) was a perfect complement to the leafy trees.
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Palace, was super crowded–it’s one of the most popular destinations in the country, for domestic and foreign tourists alike. There’s a little spot set aside for photos of the gilded palace across the pond. Trying to elbow in for a photo in front of the fence was a bit of work. A Japanese teenager tried to take a photo with me–with me as the tourist attraction. I declined. Was that so different from taking a photo of the women in line with me at the kabuki theater? I like to think it was, since I chatted with the women in line before asking for a photo, but I’m not sure.
The palace a large house on stilts. It was originally the villa of a wealthy man; another man bought it later and then asked that it be turned into a Zen temple upon his death. So he got to enjoy the lavish place for himself and then piously give it over to religion–nice one! The original structure was burned down by a disturbed novice monk in 1950, and it has since been rebuilt. The hill walk here was far less impressive than that of the Silver Palace. I’m glad about that, actually, since I take it to mean that I’m getting a little better at distinguishing among the Japanese gardens I’ve seen, and determining which are more pleasing.
Ryoan-ji is part of the World Heritage listing of Kyoto, and it’s famous for its Zen rock garden, which has kept the same arrangement since the 15th century. The grounds are huge, and they include a large pond with ducks (which are apparently rare here), and a little fox shrine on a tiny island on the pond. Up the hill was the building. Everyone had to remove their shoes before entering, which is actually the first time I’d encountered that in a religious temple in Japan. (I removed them at every temple in Thailand.)
The rock garden is enclosed in a large stone fence. There are 15 rocks, set in carefully raked gravel/gray sand. I couldn’t get a good angle to see the whole garden at once, which is apparently intentional; you’re meant to sit and reflect on the portion you can see, and take meaning from that. You’re also only able to see 14 of the 15 rocks from any one point on the viewing pavilion, because you can “see” the final rock when you reach enlightenment. It would have been peaceful to sit there and reflect, but there were a lot of people and they all talked loudly, so that didn’t happen.
Getting to Kiyomizu Temple was more of a journey than I’d expected. I took a bus, walked up an endless hill, which finally turned into old Edo period buildings, and eventually I reached the shrine. It was a large complex, set around the edge of the hill, so for the first part you stood on the patio and looked across the ravine to a pagoda. (“Jump off the ledge at Kiyomizu” is a Japanese idiom similar to “take the plunge”–if you could jump 13 meters from the pavilion to a spot below, you’d get your wish. Not everyone survived this plunge.)
Then I walked along the rim of the valley to that pagoda and looked back at the buildings there, with the city off to the side and the sun starting to set. It was all picturesque, as just about everything in Japan was. Because I was there at closing, I didn’t get to to see the waterfall for which the temple is named, so, next time.
It rained most of the time I was in Kyoto, which was too bad for seeing the temples, but perfect for attending a tea ceremony and a dance performance one afternoon. Kyoto is famous for temples and geisha, but all these traditional elements are fit into a large, modern city. So I took a bus downtown and then walked down an alley to get to the theater for the dance.
The theater presents shows seasonally, and I was lucky to be there for the spring show by the maiko (geisha in training) and geisha. Kabuki is performed by an all-male cast, and near as I could tell, this show was all women. The first half was a full play, and again I was struck by how stylized every movement was, as it had been at the kabuki show. There was no English translation or program provided here, though, so I couldn’t really follow the story, but it involved thwarted love and I’m pretty sure mass suicide at the end.
After a short intermission, they performed a series of dances, mostly in small groups, with some individuals coming forward for a few moves. All very graceful, small movements, all set to live music from stage right. It was like a ballet in its wordlessness and gracefulness, and it was beautiful to watch.
There are several ways to attend a tea ceremony in Kyoto. I went to the one recommended to me by my hostel; I was the only one who attended this session, so after a short introductory conversation with the host, I sat on the tatami floor for instruction. She explained what a few implements were–the whisk, the serving bowl, the scoop–then said, “Now I will begin,” and walked out of the room.
Everything for the next 15 minutes was silence, as she re-entered and performed the ceremony with precision and grace. She folded a red cloth a certain way and wiped the tea bowl with it, then refolded it and wiped the wooden tea scoop. Water from a small hot coals stove, tea whisked with a bamboo whisk. She bowed when serving me the tea, and I lifted my bowl in respect, turned the bowl a quarter turn, and then sipped.
After she served me the tea, she left the room briefly. When she came back in, she explained some of the symbolism behind it all and had me whisk green tea on my own. The four qualities necessary to any tea ceremony, she said, are respect, harmony, purity, and tranquility. Each quality follows from the other–harmony from respect, etc. I found the ceremony the perfect end to the afternoon, a quiet, lovely time to reflect.
In no particular order:
1. First time driving on the left
2. First time eating sushi (the real kind, with raw fish)
3. First time riding in a tuk-tuk
4. First time using crampons
5. First time drinking sake
6. First time riding a motorbike
7. First time eating kangaroo and camel
8. First time sailing
9. First time snorkeling
10. First time feeding an elephant