Archive

Zen

Lonely Planet Guidebook 10th edition 2007 has a section in the very front of it giving a list of all the things that one should do in Japan.

Quite a lot of this is stuff that I have already covered on this blog (Tsukiji Fish Market, Sumo Wrestling, Eating vast quantities, staying in a Ryokan) whilst some of it is stuff you couldn’t pay me to do (hike the Japanese Alps, what am I a masochist?).

The very first thing, the number one thing listed in this section is see the temples, gardens and shrines of Kyoto.

And the picture they use is of the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-Ji.

Which would be this.

I don’t know about the number one must see attraction in the whole of Japan but i7ll grant them this. It is very pretty.

You want background, nicked from Wikipedia? You got it.
Kinkaku-Ji (金閣寺, Kinkaku-Ji?) or “Golden Pavilion Temple” is the informal name of Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺, Rokuon-ji?) or “Deer Garden Temple” in Kyoto, Japan. It was originally built in 1397 to serve as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as part of his estate then known as Kitayama.[1] It was his son who converted the building into a Zen temple of the Rinzai school. The temple was burned down twice during the Ōnin War.

What’s more not only has it been burned down twice wartime it was also nearly burnt down a third time in the 50’s.
On July 2nd, 1950 at 2:30 am, the pavilion was burned down by a monk named Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the Daimon-ji hill behind the building. He survived, and was subsequently taken into custody. During the investigation after the monk’s arrest, his mother was called in to talk with the police; on her way home, she committed suicide by jumping from her train into a river valley. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released because of mental illness on September 29th, 1955; he died of other illnesses shortly after in 1956. At that time, the statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was burned. A fictionalized version of these events is at the centre of Yukio Mishima’s 1956 book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

What is it about Kinkaku-Ji that seems to invite fire?

Ah, it might be the phoenix statue on the roof. Beautiful and renowned building keeps being burnt down only to rise again in golden colours. Yeah, that’s pretty thematically appropriate but it may tempt fate just a wee bit.

Kinkaku-Ji almost takes you by surprise the first time you see it. When approaching the temple from the bus stop you have to wander through a thoroughly modern Japanese city of concrete, buses and breezeblocks. Even once you reach the entrance and start walking through gardens the actual building itself is completely out of sight. So you start walking through the hedges when suddenly you turn a corner and…

…this greets you. A golden building. A building, covered from top to bottom in gold leaf. That can’t possibly be real right? Golden houses are for fairytales or cartoons. How can you possibly be looking at something covered in gold?! It is obscene in its opulence. It is surreal, it is otherworldly! It doesn’t belong here! How is it you have magically wandered into a fairytale?

And then you notice that there are really quite a lot of tourists here and the illusion is shattered. Obviously you are in modern Japan still. You haven’t stepped 600 years back in time and into some kind of fantasy world you are still in modern Japan. Overcrowded, cramped and hectic Japan.

And yet a Japan that, for all its problems with over crowding, with pushy tourists taking hundreds of photos, with the commercialisation of everything that can be seen, is still capable of preserving this piece of a magical otherworld for 600 years.

That there is a very pretty building.

Like all the finest examples of Japanese architecture it isn’t just the building itself that is so appealing (Though it is pretty impressive nonetheless. It’s covered in real gold!) but rather the way in which it harmonises with the natural world around it. From every viewpoint Kinkaku-Ji is offset by a background of green which compliments the golden colour. Though it is striking it isn’t gaudy, as something covered in gold leaf easily could be, instead it seems to enhance the natural setting behind it in the same way that the setting enhances it.

The reflecting pool is a particularly nice touch, giving a light source to brighten up the golden shine and giving you a reflection that provides two golden pavilions for the price of one.

The grounds around Kinkaku-Ji are really nice as well, very leafy and providing some great shade from the horrible Japanese sun. There is a hill behind the pavilion which provides a nice view of Kinkaku-Ji from the top and some quite spectacular examples of trained trees.

This was a fun little touch too, a kind of early Buddhist skill game. Standing from the path people have to try and throw 5yen coins (which have a hole in them and so are lucky) so that they land in the bowl thus granting good luck and a wish fulfilled. I managed it with not too much effort but Fran had to use every coin she had in her purse before she finally got one in.

We spent much of the time there looking at a Kingfisher we had spotted flying around the rear of the reflecting pool. Kingfishers are one of my favourite birds because they have absolutely stunning plumage. I didn’t even know they had them in Japan but it seemed very fitting for one to live near such a spectacularly plumaged building.

One final thing to note about Kinkaku-Ji is that the gardens, like many other Japanese gardens, make good use of moss. Grass doesn’t really grow in Japan. It is here but it’s only here in scattered places (and of course as bamboo). Being British I am used to grass being EVERYWHERE. One cannot walk 15 feet in England without coming across of some sort in some place. It is the greenest country in the whole world.

Japan doesn’t have grass, so they use moss. This is also very handsome and has a wonderful smell too.

Gold and gardened out we set off for our next destination and on the way were waylaid by the sudden need for lunch.

We ended up eating in a kaitenzushi or “conveyor belt” sushi restaurant.

For those that don’t know how this works (although most of you should have some idea) this a restaurant which has a long conveyor belt wandering through it, usually in a big circle but sometimes in more elaborate shapes, on which small plates of sushi and other foods move by. Diners sit at tables next to the conveyor belt, pick the dishes they want to eat off the conveyor belt as they pass and pay at the end based on how many plates there are on the table.

There is a kaitenzushi place in Kobe that I go to fairly frequently which is typical of the style. Plates are different colours for various prices and things like drinks or special sushi have to be specially ordered from a waitress.

The place we went to in Kyoto though is the most automated restaurant I have ever seen. To begin with there is a machine that allows you to book (from your phone if you so choose) automatically and receive a table number without speaking to a waitress. Sadly we didn’t understand this so one of the staff had to help us out.

Then in addition to the standard conveyor belt set up our table also had a small computer on which special orders could be placed directly and charged to the table.

And there was more than just sushi going round too. You could order ramen, ice cream, fruit, bowls of rice, pretty much anything and it would soon come speeding towards you on a conveyor belt. The computer even set off an alarm when your order was starting to get near to you.

As for the drinks? Why that was the most joyous of all. It necessitated standing up but after that you walk over to a machine, insert 500yen and then, well, this happens.

A beer machine!

I want one!

The sushi was not the best quality in the world but it was dirt cheap and a huge amount of fun. In 30 years all food will be served this way. I guarantee it*

*please note I do not guarantee it.

Bellies full of fish and rice we set forth for Ryoan-Ji.

You want more background from Wikipedia? I am happy to oblige.
Ryoan-Ji (Shinjitai: 竜安寺, Kyūjitai: 龍安寺?, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) is a Zen temple located in northwest Kyoto, Japan. Belonging to the Myoshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, the temple is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The site of the temple was originally a Fujiwara family estate. It eventually came into the hands of the Hosokawa clan branch of the Fujiwaras. Hosokawa Katsumoto inherited the residence, and lived here before the Ōnin War. Katsumoto willed the war-ravaged property to be converted into a Zen sect temple complex after his death. Later Hosokawa emperors are grouped together in what are today known as the “Seven Imperial Tombs” at Ryoan-ji. The burial places of these emperors — Uda, Kazan, Ichijō, Go-Suzaku, Go-Reizei, Go-Sanjō, and Horikawa — would have been comparatively humble in the period after their deaths. These tombs reached their present state as a result of the 19th century restoration of imperial sepulchres (misasagi) which were ordered by Emperor Meiji.

Essentially the temple has one main draw and that was what we had come to see. The “Dry Landscape” or rock garden.

This is a garden consisting of 15 rocks surrounded by raked gravel. The rocks are positioned such that all 15 cannot be seen at any one time from any one angle. Popular tradition holds that only once enlightenment is attained will the 15th rock become clear.

Alternatively a tall man could stand at the far right back on tip toes and do it too but that is cheating a little bit.

Whilst my father went to take photos Fran, myself and my brother sat down cross legged to observe the rocks and contemplate enlightenment. We had a great time coming up with possible meanings for the arrangement. Did they present a tiger crossing water? The futility of trying to know everything? A mother tending to a group of children? Obviously they were all these things and none.

And there is something genuinely peaceful about the sitting and contemplating. I’ve always quite liked Zen actually and the notion of concentrating your mind on a question to which there cannot be an answer. It is tremendously relaxing.

Sadly our inner peace was shattered by the absolute horde of tourists who had chosen to share this day with us to come visit the temple. One very tall German man who kept shoving me particularly sticks out in my memory. In fact it wasn’t too long before inner peace began to mutate into barely contained hostility. Possibly I need my own rocks and to do a bit more sitting and thinking.

We finished off this particular trip to Kyoto with some ramen and a trip to the top of the train station to admire the night view of the city.

For all these articles and posts about Kyoto I have barely scratched the surface of everything that there is to do there. Hell I haven’t even been to Arashiyama yet which is one of the more famous and popular areas.

In fact next time we shall also be heading back to Kyoto when we go to visit Fushimi Inari.

Advertisements

I mentioned in my post about the ninja museum that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of advertising standards law in Japan preventing exaggerated or false claims made by products. Or if there is then it probably doesn’t apply or get enforced to claims made in English because some of the English blurbs written on products in Japan are unbelievably grand.

I think I have discovered the finest example of this in the form of Starbucks Japan.

Starbucks Japan sells a Chicken club sandwich that contains no chicken.

None.

It does contain crab, salad, mayonnaise and prawns and it is a very tasty sandwich but seriously Starbucks; what’s that all about?

Hanami.

The Japanese obsession with nature culminates in two events every year; Hanami and Momijigari. The latter is the practise of going out to appreciate the autumn leaves, the former is going out to appreciate the sakura (cherry blossom).

And it should be stressed here, Japanese people are mad for the sakura. Amongst the sakura related products I have come across since Spring sprang are sakura crisps (pretty nice), sakura chu-hi (basically sakura tonic), sakura charms, sakura clothes, sakura stickers, sakura phones, sakura tea (very, very salty), sakura jam, sakura sweets, sakura kit-kats and sakura bloody hello kitty.

The Japanese love the sakura.

Circumstances arose last week to grant me two days off work. Admittedly I did have to use up my precious nenkyu in order to do so but it was that, spend a day pottering around the KEC learning Japanese or attend an all day meeting in Japanese at my school. So having been more or less forced to take the day off I decided to make the most of it and see more of Kyoto.

My recently arrived girlfriend has sort of thrown my travelling patterns into a bit of disarray. Since I know that I want to visit places in Japan with her and I know that I only have a limited amount of time in Japan I don’t really want to see every single place I visit twice. As such I was frantically flipping through the guidebook looking for a place I think Fran wouldn’t want to see. Mostly this meant looking for anything that wasn’t described as being “particularly stunning in April when the sakura is in bloom” which seemed to be bloody everything.

Eventually I settled on ginkakuji, The Silver Pavilion, which seemed interesting enough to divert my attention for a day but not so especially amazing that it would necessarily require a second visit.

As it happens it will definitely require a second visit because it was shut! Well not entirely. Ginkakuji started out in life as a villa for a samurai but was later on converted into a Buddhist temple. It consists of two main buildings and an elaborate and beautiful garden built partly into the mountain (a practise known to the Japanese as borrowed scenery). The garden and one of the buildings was open but the main building that the area derives its name from was shut as it was being refurbished.

You would think this would be exceptionally annoying but as it happens I was in too good a mood to be particularly irked. You see, the sakura was in bloom.

The approach to ginkakuji was a canal/river thing in the centre of the road with a row of grass and sakura trees either side of it and the actual road beyond that. I had no idea that the sakura was already out in so much force and was gobsmacked by the sight of it all. It was a little avenue of nature, an oasis of calm right smack dab in the centre of a busy city. It was beautiful and perfect.

And busy, well not terribly busy but surprisingly so for a Wednesday morning. The streets were pulsing with people and vendors, wandering around, taking photos. There were even some girls in Yukata out and about getting their photo taken. I purchased a sakura ice-cream and had a perfectly pleasant meander. Eventually I made my way to ginkakuji.

(Just to interject for a moment lets talk about Ice-cream in Japan. The stall I bought my ice-cream from had nearly none of the standard ice-cream flavours we’re used to. No strawberry, no vanilla, no mint. Furthermore this wasn’t just restricted to this guy; strawberry, vanilla and mint seem to be completely absent from Japanese ice-cream sellers. In fact this guy seemed to have the “standard” Japanese flavours. These would be, melon, mango, milk, ramune, which is a sort of Japanese version of lemon/lime only slightly odder. The bottle usually has a marble in the top, I’m a big fan. He also had green tea, chocolate, sakura and black sesame which I haven’t tried yet but desperately want to.)

The first thing that greats you when you enter ginkakuji is an enormous hedge, fully 13 or 15 foot high! You pass into the hedge which becomes a kind of alleyway bordered by hedges. This is surprisingly intimidating, possibly because it’s a blind corner and all you can see in front, behind and to either side of you is hedge. You can peer through the hedge and glimpse an impenetrable bamboo forest on either side of you, dampening the noise from the outside world.

Eventually you turn a corner and leave the hedge and step into what must be one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen.

Alas I was so stunned I pretty much forgot to take photos.

It’s done in the bonsai style, all miniature trees and recreated lakes and mountains. The centrepiece of the bonsai style is a fantastic waterfall at one end of the garden with a koi carp pond beneath it. It’s perfectly tranquil and still and supremely relaxing.

The other major feature was an immaculately smooth sand sculpture of a mountain and a lake. Whilst I was there 5 or 6 men were continuously smoothing and layering the mountain but the lake was unattended and was unbelievably smooth.

There was a distinct lack of sakura in the graden but it was so lovely that I didn’t particularly care and just wandered about in a tranquil daze.

Eventually I drew myself from my daze and set off in the vague direction of Hoonen-in.

Hoonen-in is the main temple for Buddhists practising the Joodo Shuu or “pure land” school of Buddhism. It was founded in honour of the creator of this school the monk Hoonen, a very controversial figure during his lifetime. The temple seemed like much more of a working temple than others I’ve visited. Whilst most temples which are tourists attractions are primarily tourist attractions Hoonen-in seemed to be mostly about teaching people. There were classes being attended whilst I was there and a library of Buddhist materials that visitors can stay and read. It was huge too and pretty mazelike.

The main appeal to Hoonen-in seems to be the various artworks and treasures inside it. The building itself is pretty unimpressive even though it’s one of the largest temples I’ve been to but it has some interesting artworks and murals inside. I was particularly fond of a dragon done in what looked to my untrained eye to be charcoals. In any way the only colour used was black but the dragon had a strange organic quality to it, like it hadn’t been painted so much as scratched into the wall. Or maybe burnt there?

The garden was quite nice too, not a patch on ginkakuji but it did give me one very awesome photo.

Making my way back to the station from the two temples I realised that it was still pretty early and I could do two things I have wanted to do in Kyoto for ages.

The first was to go up to the top of Kyoto tower. Nearly every major city in Japan has one of these viewing towers, Kobe has port tower, Tokyo has Tokyo tower (which looks like the Eiffel tower), Osaka has the Umeda Sky Building (which looks like a flying saucer dangling between twin towers) and Kyoto has the Kyoto tower, which they describe as looking like a candle but which I am convinced resembles an upside-down mushroom.

Anyway the view from the top was mightily impressive, vertigo inducing even and having looked at it for a bit too long I had to have a sit down and stop looking at anything but the inside of the tower. My vertigo is weird, 90 % of the time it doesn’t bother me at all but then on that 10 % I’ll be looking at something from a great height and my brain goes YOU’RE GOING TO DIE RUN, RUN YOU FOOL. Stupid brain.

Not that the inside of the tower was dull, Kyoto city-council evidently faced with a tower they’ve constructed and paid for said, “well lads, now what do we do with it?”

The answer apparently is to use it as an usual gallery space for art installations. Some of these made fantastic use of the unusual space and incorporated the view into their presentation but most of them were bafflingly obtuse. Place your bets as to whether this is because they’re modern art or merely Japanese?

Kyoto tower was nice but pretty pricey just to get to the top and I was about to find out that the money I spent was entirely wasted. Next to Kyoto tower is the train station and from the top of the train station the view is almost as good for free!

Bugger.



Kyoto station has the distinct honour of being included in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a distinct attraction in its own right and not merely a way of getting into Kyoto. This is mostly because Kyoto train station is a stunning architectural achievement. It is big, really, really big and is constructed in such a way as to make it seem even bigger than it is. It is intimidatingly big. I mean in terms of actual size it is nothing, it’s probably actually smaller than Newcastle station (although taller, and actually Newcastle station is a pretty gorgeous building itself) but it seems like some kind of giant staring down at you chuckling at your puniness.

It basically consists of a central hall and then two slopes rising up on either side of the central hall making a kind of V. At the top of each point there is a skywalk joining the two going across the central hall so I guess it’s more of a triangular shape. It’s meant to evoke the geography of Kyoto, sitting in a basin with mountains on either side. I certainly agree that the slopes seem mountainous.

Incidentally it’s yet another building that I have been to that I have seen Gamera destroy in a film.

On the right hand side is an escalator that rises all the way from the 4th floor to 11th! At the top is the brilliantly named “happy terrace” (oh Japan) at a height that rivals Kyoto tower. From there you have a commanding view of the surrounding city and a horrendously vertigo inducing view down the escalator which is ten times scarier than any mountainside I’ve ever stood on.

Just below the top floor was a door mysteriously marked “ramen restaurants”. Now long time readers of this site will know of my passion for ramen, I bloody love the ramen. I am so in love with ramen that I am nigh on incapable of refusing ramen if offered it even if I have just finished a bowl of ramen. Therefore a door marked “ramen restaurants” intrigued me greatly. Surely this isn’t what it seemed? The door could not lead to a space consisting only of ramen restaurants could it?

As it happens, no, that would be too good to be true and there was a takoyaki and a hamburger restaurant behind the magical door. There were however about 10 ramen restaurants ranging from the cheap and dodgy to the high end and covering the entire spectrum of variety that one can achieve with ramen.

They also all had a pointless little gimmick, the menu was a vending machine. Rather than go in, sit down and order, you perused a vending machine featuring pictures of the food the restaurant sold. Then you selected and paid for your food and got a little voucher. When you went in the restaurant you handed over the voucher and got your food.

Completely pointless but it did liven up the experience a tiny little bit.

So that was Kyoto day 1. Come back next week for far more exciting adventures in Kyoto featuring geisha and drunken men.

%d bloggers like this: