steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

A Voyage to Japan - 4th April

I had another full day in Kyoto before I was due to head back to Tokyo, and it took me a while to decide how to spend it. One possibility was a day trip from Kyoto (the Old Capital of Japan) to nearby Nara (the Even Older Capital of Japan). Another potential destination was Hiroshima. I felt a little conflicted by that prospect, since in truth my primary motive for going would have been the okonomiyaki (perhaps the second-most-famous thing about the place), and it felt a bit tasteless to visit for that reason rather than to see the bomb memorial, even though I would of course have done that too. Kobe was another possibility; or there was Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, with its thousands of vermillion torii. And there was still plenty to see in central Kyoto itself.

In the end I took a local train to Arashiyama, in the rural foothills on the west of the city. It was a beautiful day, and the main draw for me was the famous bamboo forest there, which I thought would look at its best in the sunshine, but my guide book also promised enough shrines and temples to sate any hunger I might still have for such fare.

Arashiyama is clearly set up for tourists, but in the manner of a small seaside resort rather than a slick large-scale operation, with plentiful trinkets and food stalls. (Here there was no sea, of course, only mountains – but very manageable mountains, covered in greenery.) There was a definite holiday atmosphere amongst the crowd I walked with, too. I had a map of the area's main sites, but it was only when I was there and could get a sense of its scale that I realised how close together everything was: this would not be a day of walking vast distances. First up was the bamboo forest itself, which was just as amazing as you'd expect. Why describe what I can simply show you?

The bamboozledness:

2007-04-03 09.04.39

The tunnelness:

In a Grove

Some random tourist:

The bamboo grove

And, of course, a cat lady getting her neko in a twist:

Kawaii neko wishes to escape

While in the grove my Japanese came in useful when I heard a passing rickshaw driver tell his passengers that many gaijin walk past the shrine without noticing it. Naturally this awoke in me a strong desire not to be one of those gaijin, so I looked for (and found) the relevant side path and quickly arrived at Nonomiya shrine – and am very glad I did. This was a far humbler affair that the ones I'd been to in central Tokyo and Kyoto, with a torii of brushwood and a simple stone trough for purification. When I arrived the trough was almost empty, and a young man from the shrine was just arriving with a bucket to fill it. There's always something very vivifying about the glassy sheen of water being poured in bright sunshine, and the splash of it on ear and eye refreshed me before I'd even touched it with my hand. This was a benign place, and today's prayer was about appreciation rather than supplication.


There were quite a few other shrines and indeed temples dotted about the area, and I visited a good few, but I won't be tedious and describe them all individually. Instead, let me give you one last cherry blossom shot, from the beautiful garden of Tenryuu-ji –

Tenryuu-ji garden 7

– and acquaint you briefly with the story of Gio-ji, my favourite of all the temples I saw. It's a tiny place, with a rustic thatch and a beautiful moss garden. (Why are people on Gardener's Question Time always asking how to get rid of moss, when it can look like this?)

Moss garden at Gio-ji

Gio was a traditional dancer in the Heian era, who became a nun at the age of 21 when she was supplanted in the affections of the military leader Taira no Kiyomori by another dancer, Hotoke-Gozen. However, after a while Hotoke-Gozen decided to leave Kyomori and join Gio. Whether she preferred Gio's company, or feared she would be supplanted in her turn, or truly wished to renounce the world, who knows? Some mixture of these, perhaps. There are statues of both women inside, along with others of Gio's mother and sister (who also joined her there), and Kiyomori himself; while in the small garden there are pagodas said to mark their graves. I like this story a lot, because of the room it leaves for different interpretations of the main characters' motivations.

Gio-ji pagodas

I suppose it's inevitable in a landscape where shrines and temples cluster so thickly together that one should at least wonder about the relationship of Buddhism and Shinto. I don't know much about the history of their interaction (though I gather it's not always been straightforward), but at the current point in history they appear to have achieved a symbiotic relationship, like some kind of religious lichen. Shinto's better for weddings, Buddhism for funerals; Shinto places more emphasis on ritual practice, Buddhism on ethical practice; so people mix and match, and shrines and temples appear hard by each other, and even within each other's precincts. One religion is tied to the phenomenal world by its millions of kami, a great stream of animism branching into the tiniest capillaries of material existence; the other preaches ultimate renunciation of all material things. Both answer to very fundamental aspects of human experience, and if there's a basic contradiction there are few areas where it manifests itself as a forked-road choice individuals are called on to make. It's a bit like the way physics has managed pretty well for the last century with both quantum mechanics and relativity, despite their incompatibility, using each for those purposes for which it happens to work. Pragmatism for the win.

I was tracking along a lane between these sights, and thinking it was getting towards lunchtime, when I came across a woman sweeping the entrance to a path. "Ye have the look of a thirst about 'ee," said this rustic. "How's about wetting your whistle down at the old tea house?" Okay, those weren't her exact words but that was the gist. In fact, as I learned later, she spent all day sweeping that path entrance in the hope of meeting likely-looking pilgrims such as myself and persuading them down the sinuous shady way towards the tea house. This was no ordinary tea house, either, as was evident from the price. "Our founder believes in simple values and deep emotions," she said in broken but heartfelt English as she took my money in advance. She showed me to a traditional building, where I was ushered into an airy room with an open verandah, leading onto an enclosed garden. Three or four other people were there, seated either at tables or on cushions, and I was relieved to see that all but one was Japanese. This might be a trap, but at least it wasn't set exclusively for Western tourists. In fact it was all rather beautiful, and as I knelt on a cushion by the verandah my mind somehow bifurcated, with one part calling shrilly but ever more impotently, "This is a rip-off!", and the other replying with infuriating calm, "What if it is? You can still enjoy it." And I did. I received two cups of roasted tea in antique wabi-sabi chawan, the first accompanied by some kind of mochi and a sharpened twig for cutting it, the second by a lump of raw sugar (it tasted like muscovado). In the garden, birds I couldn't name hopped from branch to branch, or came down to drink from the pond two or three yards away, and in the middle distance I could hear the occasional tourist party passing, and the voice of the sweeper enthusing once again about the tea house and its "deep emotions". I listened with zen calm and sugary teeth. And then, after being invited by the proprietress to admire the hanging scroll in a nearby room, I set off refreshed, back to Kyoto and the floating world.
Tags: nippon notes, voyage to japan
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