A Kyoto sojourn
Once destroyed by fires and wars, Kyoto, Japan's seventh largest city, today combines the ancient with the modern, says MAYA NARASIMHAN.
Japanese Kimono clad women, or maiko, at the Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto.
BOUNCING over rock, tripping down stone steps, flowing softly in a canal, in still pockets in the river in different musical notes, water speaks the tales of Kyoto. A graceful city, the old capital of Japan, modern buildings and up-to-date technology hardly detract from the old-world feel of the place.
Kyoto is a picture postcard town, ringed by green hills, and the gentle undulations take you past temple after temple. Accustomed to thinking of our own country as the unparalleled land of temples, we learn that Kyoto has more than 1,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
Buddhism came to Japan in the Sixth Century, through China and Korea. The new religion, branched into several schools, including the most well-known now the esoteric Zen school that has followers in many parts of the world. The native Shinto worship, too, is becoming increasingly popular.
We meet many who come to pray at the shrines and quickly pick up the Shinto forms of worship of washing one's hands in the beautiful stone cisterns, of clapping twice to draw the attention of the deity and dropping a coin or two into the offerings box.
We were here for a seminar on Japanese gardens conducted by the Kyoto University of Art and Design. Soon we got our fill of the distinctive nature of the Japanese garden, its inseparable elements and the Buddhist temples that fostered this unique example of the contemplative spirit.
We stayed in the eastern part of Kyoto, known as Higashiyama (Higashi meaning east in Japanese) in the Okazaki area the eastern mountains rising gently all round. The area is home to Kyoto's most famous temples the Ginkakuji, the Nanzenji the Heian-Jinga shrine, museums and the Kyoto zoo.
Many of these tourist spots we used as landmarks to instruct the cab drivers to help us reach home but the ones we could visit were enough to envelop us in this special Kyoto experience.
The No.5 bus was our lifeline ferrying us to most parts of the city. But first the Tetsugakuno-michi, the philosopher's path, a charming walkway bordering the canal between the Ginkakuji temple and the Nyakuoji shrine, winding up so gently that we did not realise that we were actually climbing the eastern hills.
There are several paths that led up the mountains near our guest house; there was one that wound its way to an old Buddhist temple passing small shops that sold exquisite ceramics and tiny houses that seemed sufficient to accommodate these daintily made people. The Buddhist temple was situated in the midst of cedars reminding one of the Hidimba temple near Manali, Himachal Pradesh.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Nijo Castle, former home of the shoguns, are situated right in the heart of the city. At one time, the imperial palace housed many grand residences belonging to the nobility. Now, most of the buildings have been torn down, and the place is a sprawling park with 9,000 trees. The palace is the property of the emperor and hence security is tight. Special permission, in person, is required, and passes are non-transferable.
The Nijo castle was far more persuasive with large wooden chambers, floors covered in tatami mats, in the Japanese style, leading one into another. Given the intrigues and power play of those turbulent times, it was not surprising that one of the corridors was designed to emit the chirp of a nightingale when tread upon, giving fair warning to the shogun, of stealthy enemies. The great painted screens by Kano Naonobu (1607-1650) depict mountain and water scenes, inducing a mood of relaxation.
Daitokuji and Ryaonji temples
The Daitokuji temple, one of the largest and most important Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto, is housed in an extensive compound with important buildings and sub-shrines. The temple has a practising monastery linked to it. It was to meet a monk that we went there. Sipping tea and nibbling on paper-thin grain biscuits, we allowed the simplicity and grace of the gentle monk (his slow movements and soft speech, also reflected in the aesthetic of his residence and garden) to lull us into a meditative silence. The Zen master, by not asking questions, enabled us to ask questions of ourselves.
We travelled far, to the western end of Kyoto to visit the Ryaonji temple. Its famous rock garden, in its bed of white gravel, has been featured in all important books on Japanese gardens and culture. This Zen temple was established in 1450 by Hosokawa Katsumoto. Visitors fall into a natural silence, and sitting on the floor of the verandah facing the garden, the eye travelled over the 15 large and small rocks, in their sea of white, their spareness inducing in one of the abstract nature of philosophy.
These are two Shinto shrines one situated at the northern end of Kyoto and the other in the centre of the city. Travelling for more than an hour, keeping a wary eye on the taxi meter, I realised how big the city really is. A designated UNESCO World heritage site, of which there are several in Kyoto, Kamigamo, or Kamo Wake-Ikazuchi Jinja, is the oldest Shinto shrine in this ancient city. Originally, the deity, the protector of agriculture, was placed on an altar on the peak of the sacred mountain, the Ko-yama, and rituals were conducted at the foot of the mountain. The present shrine was built in the year 678. It is spread over 6,64,000 square kilometres, the 34 shrines inside surrounded by beautiful old ichii oaks and weeping cherry trees.
Wandering alone on the quiet paths of the shrine, I sensed the presence of the past, a holding of breath, as though the disturbed spirits hovering among the trees were waiting for me to leave. Suddenly an eerie door loomed up in the leafy gloom two massive pieces of weathered wood. I could not leave before I had photographed the scene. The feeling passed as I came out into the sunlight, being further cheered by the colourful tableau of a Shinto wedding, the bridegroom, a westerner, maybe American, the bride, a Japanese woman in kimono. With just four guests, and the Shinto priest, the solemn group gathered and fell apart, and re-gathered, the presence of a babe-in-arms adding an untold tale. I watched with unashamed interest this slice of life in slow motion.
The Japanese maples by the clear stream that runs through the grounds show tantalising touches of copper and ochre at their edges. Autumn was nearing but we would miss the full glory of the red-and-gold palette of the maple trees. It was time to go as I decided to take a bus back, only lingering a few moments to photograph the mysterious mounds of sand piled up in a formal and sacred space in front of the shrine.
The Buddha Daitokuji temple.
The Yasaka shrine, bordering the Gion area, home of the geishas, welcomed us with a stunning scarlet Torii, the ornamental gate to the shrine. A popular place for the faithful, the Yasaka draws people who come there to pray for health and to be delivered from disease.
The best to the last. The Kiyomizu temple, scenically placed on the side of the eastern hill, is dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu, Avalokiteswara Bodhisattva, the goddess of mercy. We were fortunate in that the golden idol of Kannon that had not been displayed for 600 years was now placed in the sacred inner chamber. The hordes of people who visit the temple, the grace and beauty of the goddess, the purificatory water of the waterfalls all made us feel that we are back in the land of undisputed faith our own.
The Kinkakuji or the golden pavilion, set on the far side of the serene lake, Kyokochi, struck us blind with its stunning beauty, glowing and gleaming in the autumn sunlight, the golden shingles on its roofs shimmering, till only you and this sea of molten gold, the very epitome of beauty were all that is left in the world.
... and more
So, is this all that we did?... visiting temples and shrines and gardens? No, we did this and shopping too, in the Shijo Kawaramachi, the downtown area of Kyoto, in the bustling arcade market Teramachi, buying paper and ceramics, purses and indigo, admiring the best of textile designs by the masters of Kyoto, lapping up the flawless lacquer, visiting old houses, trying to find vegetarian food in a Japanese restaurant (there cannot be a more frustrating experience), relaxing for tea in a patisserie, picking up a loaf or two in a boulangerie opposite the university, consuming fruits by the basketful, relentlessly hunting down the yuki manju, a rice bun made by Buddhist nuns, and trying to understand the Japanese mind that can create beauty out of a sprig of green and a lone flower.
Each country expresses itself in its own special way. If religion is the genius of India, aesthetics is that of Japan. From the Japanese woman at the wayside eatery, wrapping up a Japanese sweet expertly in leaf to make a statement of beauty, to the granite forms on plain pavements which are extraordinarily spanking clean, to elegant design elements in iron and steel and bamboo, it is evident that to the Japanese, beauty is truth and this truth is their religion.
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