Sam and I took a long weekend off and hopped on a ferry to visit one of Japan’s most famous cities, Kyoto.
We boarded a ferry in Hyuga, where for the next 14 hours we would share a large tatami room with the other passengers. By the time we arrived on board, all of our fellow travelers had already claimed their space, grabbed their blankets and their Japanese-style pillows (designed, clearly, by a sadomasochist) and found ways to entertain themselves.
We squeezed out a space on the tatami, settled ourselves in and had a few pleasant conversations with those we’d be sleeping near before the mandatory 10:30 p.m. lights out.
We arrived on the main island of Honshu, in the busy port city of Kobe, Thursday morning and from here took a series of trains, the last being the famed Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, which shot us into Kyoto. Before leaving the station, we made reservations at the Kyoto Century Hotel which we chose not only for its very reasonable rate in a very expensive city, but because it was located near the station and plenty of public transportation for getting around this ancient metropolis.
At 12,000 yen per night, we prepared for a dump, but reasoned that we would be spending very little time there. We paid for our rooms right at the station’s hotel desk. The woman who took our reservations then handed us a map of how to get there and a brochure of our accommodations. Sam glanced at the brochure and with a look of complete surprise on her face, handed it to me.
This must be a mistake, we thought. She must have given us the wrong brochure. We reserved a room at a dump and this place looked like a five star hotel.
“Well,” I warned my friend, “you know what they can do with good lighting and the right camera angle. Besides, these pictures were probably taken years ago.”
A short time later, when we arrived at our destination, I realized that I’d been completely mistaken. We were immediately greeted at the front entrance of the hotel by a handsomely uniformed valet who led us through the very elegant lobby, straight to the shiny reception desk.
We couldn’t believe our luck.
This place was lovely, sophisticated and far beyond our expectations and our current state of dishevelment. We scurried to our pristine and fashionable room, showered off ferry-life and headed out for an afternoon’s adventure.
Within moments of our very first stroll, I was already sorry we had a mere 2.5 days to spend in Kyoto, what was the nation’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868. Our first stop was the To-ji, one of the most famous in all of Japan. Around 796 A.D., Emperor Kammu transferred the capital of Japan from Nara to Kyoto and to honor this move, he built two huge Buddhist temples, To-ji (East Temple) and Saiji (West Temple).
Both temples were destroyed by fire but rebuilt during the Edo Period (1615-1868). Today, To-ji still stands and (at 171 feet high) is one of the tallest wooden towers in Japan. The gardens and ponds surrounding the temple were altogether awesome. A feat in carefully composed asymmetry and meticulous modesty.
Next, we visited the Goju No To, a five story pagoda – the highest in the country. The original pagoda was built in 826 A.D., but due to several fires, the existing structure (an exact replica) was built in 1644. It’s certainly not uncommon to learn that fire has been the cause of so much loss. Even the more “modern” pagoda we stood admiring was made entirely of wood. And not a single nail was used in its construction.
What resonates most deeply for me, however, are not the sights as much as the smells I encountered that afternoon.
A pungent mixture of folklore and tradition.
Ritual and rule.
Which wrapped around me like an old blanket each time I entered one of the historic structures. The incense, forever burning within, curling around and around the delicately carved figures and forms.
Saturating the woods.
Fusing with musty, dusty particles creeping in through the cracks and crevices.
Thick and settled atop the worn surfaces.
The aroma is almost tangible.
One… long… inhale… seems to tell a thousand tales.
Each time I left a building, I’d carry the smells with me as a faint reminder. I’d bury my nose in my clothes repeatedly. Until the profound fragrance faded.
After leaving the grounds of the temple, we wandered around the city, constantly being reminded of how small (and quaint, mind you) Miyazaki is. Where I live in Japan, it’s easy to forget about the remainder of the world. I’ve become accustomed to strange stares by passersby. But Kyoto is truly cosmopolitan.
Our stomachs began to remind us that we hadn’t eaten, so Sam and I pulled out our trusty Fodor’s and decided that what we wanted more than anything was something that wasn’t Japanese. We found a place called “Knuckles” which, according to our guide book, was owned by some ex-patriot New Yorkers who offered honest-to-goodness deli sandwiches. Checking out our rather ambiguous map, we determined the restaurant was in walking distance and started on our way.
In a matter of moments, we were lost.
We stopped in a local establishment, refreshed ourselves with some ale, and asked for directions, which entailed boarding a bus and walking another ten minutes – all for this promising deli menu, which ended up being little more than a disappointing pair of puny, sorry-ass sandwiches that any true New York deli owner would have given the finger.
After paying a bill which surpassed the national debt, we found our way back to the hotel where we climbed into bed and set our alarm for an early start the next morning.
Our first destination the next day was Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. Our goal was to not only see the shrine (built in the early part of the 1600s), but to attend an antique market that would be taking place outside the temple that very weekend.
When we finally arrived at our destination – after being pushed around by an overanxious group of old ladies who had apparently had a heapin’ helpin’ of Geritol that morning – we found the stalls we were looking for, but were disappointed to discover that most offered little more than food and tacky tourist souvenirs.
We bought some roasted corn and figured we’d wander around the market a little more with the hopes of finding something – anything – of interest. However, other than some cool, but useless plastic toys (certainly without the many applications the plastic tiara had bestowed) there was nothing of interest.
Somewhat despondent, we headed into the shrine, roamed from building to building snapping pictures, making funny faces at the little children we caught staring at us, and reading up on the history of the buildings. Quite a complexity of maturity levels, eh?
On our way out, we noticed a side street where a number of stalls were set up and although we had little hope of finding anything of interest, we made our way over and… lo and behold, THERE was the market we had been looking for.
The stalls were filled with marvelous items – both old and new. There was hearty earthenware and delicate china, intricately carved brass and wooden chests and elaborate, hand-painted screens.
Yet what excited Sam and I most were the stalls filled with kimono and obi.
At one of the very first stalls, I found a stunning, white, embroidered wedding kimono (actually, it’s the long coat worn over the kimono) and instantly fell in love with it. Painstakingly hand-stitched down the entire front and back and along each sleeve were flowers and cranes of gold, silver and orange.
I wanted it more than anything I’ve seen since my arrival in Japan.
So beautiful was this coat and in such fine condition that I feared asking its price knowing it was likely well out of my price range, but I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t at least inquired. When the old woman running the stall said 5,000 yen (the equivalent of about $45) I nearly fainted. Unable to contain my excitement, I nearly pounced on the garment.
At which point the old woman decided to jack the price up to 10,000 yen.
I quickly retorted. Surprising her with my Japanese. Reminding her of her first price.
The deal was struck and I was overjoyed with my extraordinarily beautiful garment. Sam, too, purchased a lovely, pure white kimono and we both found a few lovely obi as well. I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to examine our purchases more carefully, but we had more sightseeing to do and an entire day ahead of us. With our treasures in hand and big smiles on our faces, we next visited Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion – one of the most famous sites in all of Japan – as breathtaking as it is renown.
Built in the 1220s as a private residence for Kintsune Saionji, the Golden Pavilion is a three-story structure set at the edge of a pond. The first floor was designed in the architectural Shinden-zukuri, or palace style. The second floor, the Buke-zukuri, was styled as a Samurai house; while the third floor was designed to reflect a Karayo, or Zen Temple. Both the second and third floors are covered with gold leaf and Japanese lacquer.
On a sunny, calm day (like the one we were experiencing) one can see a perfect reflection of the pavilion in the Kyoko-chi, or Mirror Pond. The Kinkau-ji was designed specifically along the lines of Buddhist thinking.
Life should reflect a perfect harmony with nature.
And what a truly splendid, harmonious spot it was. Made even more spectacular by the serenity of the gardens surrounding it. The only regret was the constant influx of unavoidable crowds which made it almost entirely impossible to sit back in peace and enjoy the surroundings as they were meant to be enjoyed. If only I had been born into Japan’s 13th century upperclass.
Also on our list of sites seen that day were Ryoan-ji and Koryu-ji (ji, if you haven’t figured out yet, means castle). Both were certainly resplendent sites to behold, but what I found even more fascinating were the gardens; especially the famed Rock Garden at Ryoan-ji.
This garden simply consists of 15 rocks and white gravel, believed to have been first laid out by a painter/gardener at the end of the 15th century. This garden is considered the embodiment of Zen art. It’s said that each person who visits it sees something entirely different in the rock and gravel formations. It’s up to each individual to determine what that might mean.
What, you might ask, did I see?
Well… that each piece of gravel represented all the people hovering around the temple, making it impossible to keep any train of thought, let alone delve into a deep appreciation of the art of Zen.
As I found my frustration build with the arrival of each new tour group, I managed to discover a peaceful corner of the garden where a washbasin stood. Carved in the stone along the rim is the inscription (translated in a brochure), “I learn only to be contented.”
Choosing to take to heart one of the most important rules of Zen philosophy, I left the crowded temple with a stronger sense of inner peace.
Our final stop was a visit to Koryu-ji where they have a collection of some of the nation’s most priceless statues, including the Miroku Bosatsu, one of the most renown images of Buddah. The delicately carved face of the Miroku Bosatsu is said to perfectly embody inner peace and that gazing upon it can actually help one to heal. It’s exceptionally beautiful and after close examination of the statue, I couldn’t help but feel as if the carving was, indeed, created from a divine image.
Its smile and countenance is both intimidating and beguiling.
Tranquil and composed.
I couldn’t help but feel serene from the sheer study of it.
Our final day in Kyoto began with the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art. All I can really say about our visit is… there isn’t much to say. Except that I felt it was, at best, a representation of modern mediocrity. With greater hope of seeing some inspiring exhibits at the National Museum of Art, we headed that way, but soon found a line blocks long due to a special Matisse exhibit – and we simply couldn’t see wasting our last day standing in a line.
We moved on to Nijo-jo, a 35 room castle built in 1603 by the powerful Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. He erected it after winning a battle against rival forces and unifying Japan.
Nijo Castle epitomizes the timeless refinement and uncomplicated appeal of Japanese design. Each shikiri (sliding partition, a mainstay in Japanese architecture) in every room of the castle was gold-leafed and hand-painted to reflect various scenes of nature. Whether the towering strength of the pine tree which dominates the mountains of Japan, or the gossamer intricacy of the butterfly.
The wood carvings found throughout the castle’s chamber are also some of the largest and most intricate ever made in Japan. So masterfully carved that I couldn’t be sure the craftsmen were not, themselves, divine.
One of my very favorite parts of the castle was the main entrance, known as “Yoru-uguisu”, or the Nightingale. The dark wood floors were especially designed by the ruling Shogun to warn residents of all who entered the castle late at night. More specifically, enemy intruders.
As soon as you step foot onto the boards which run the outer length of the first wing, a warbling sound, similar to that of a Nightingale, sounds, informing guards quartered nearby of trespassers.
It’s undoubtedly the most pleasant alarm system ever designed and does everything to support an atmosphere bent on showing the Tokugawa’s earthly cunning and power, yet at the same time, a deep desire not disturb the beauty and serenity of the nature which surrounds him.
The castle gardens were just beginning to hint of their autumn colors. It was easy to get lost in its well-orchestrated beauty and hard to believe that a buzzing metropolis was just on the other side of its massive walls. So flawless was the scenery that I momentarily found myself feeling painfully awkward and aware of my own imperfections.
Until I remembered.
I learn only to be contented.
Sitting on a bench overlooking the gardens, I closed my eyes and repeated the phrase over and over again in my mind.
I learn only to be contented.
In the silence surrounding me, I finally began to understand the peaceful environs as not simply beauty to be admired, but a perfect reflection of the delicate balance between man and nature.
It was a good day.
My love to all and may this letter find you content to be contented.