David Chart's Japan Diary

December 6th 2003

I seem to be recovered from whatever was wrong with me, although half the class was missing on Thursday. Most of them have the Japanese Language Proficiency Test tomorrow, but as I'm not taking it this year, I have another day off. Which I can spend revising for the class test that we have on Tuesday. The weather has also finally turned cold, after apparently the warmest November on record.


Last weekend (November 28th to 30th), I went to Kyoto, to see both the city and Keiko Yamada, with whom I met for language exchange for over a year while we were both in England. She was working on the Friday, so I got myself to the ryokan without too much trouble, only getting slightly lost walking from the station. The ryokan, Matsubaya, was fine, but there was no sink in the room, which was slightly inconvenient. I may try a different place next time I go to Kyoto, but I may not -- as I say, it was fine.

On Saturday, it rained. Heavily, and almost constantly. This was due to a typhoon making its way up the eastern coast of Japan, so I suppose that nothing but heavy rain was not too bad. Still, it got quite wet.

Me at the Temple fo the Golden Pavilion Me in front of the Golden Pavilion.

Keiko was free on Saturday,so we went round Kyoto together, speaking Japanese all day, with only occasional complete failures of communication. In the morning, our first stop was the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), which is famous for having a gold-plated pavilion, that was burned down by a monk in the 1950s and rebuilt exactly as it was. Beyond that, there isn't that much to see, although the gardens around the pavilion are pleasant. The pavilion is much more beautiful from a distance than from close up, which may be something to do with the rebuilding.

After that, we went to Ryouanji, the Zen temple with the really, really famous rock and gravel garden. This wasn't quite a normal visit, because one of Keiko's friends works in the office there, and she was able to arrange for us to get a special tour of the temple. This meant that we got a guided tour, with commentary in Japanese. More significantly, we were taken to places that most visitors don't get to see at all.

This was fantastic. We started by going through a bit that was public, but we were soon taken to another temple building which was normally closed. This had the most amazing cypress pillars, so that the inside smelled wonderful, and looked superb. In the altar area were a number of wonderful wooden statues, one of which looked almost alive. I'm not sure on the details of this building, because the explanation was Japanese, so while I know that the two most interesting statues were of former abbots, I didn't catch most of the details. There was also a painting of a dragon on the ceiling, which clearly has some religious significance, as we saw several similar paintings later. This building had the most superb interior I saw on the trip, partly because the zen tradition keeps things simple, and partly, I suspect, because it wasn't full of tourists.

From there, we went to a garden, and saw a statue of one of the Tokugawa shoguns, a statue which is apparently in lots of guidebooks, but not normally displayed to the public. It is in a small shrine-like building, and our guide opened the doors so that we could see and take pictures.

The Ryouanji Zen Garden Some rocks and gravel and trees.

From there, we went to look at the famous rocks, which are not greatly enhanced as objects of calm contemplation by the several hundred tourists normally staring and taking photos, so I just took some photos as well. This bit of the commentary was less comprehensible than normal, probably because it involved discussion of the possible esoteric meanings of the garden (I think).

The garden is viewed from the veranda of a hall, which tourists can normally look into, but not enter. We were taken inside. Once inside, the fusuma screens on each side were closed, so that we could see the paintings of the dragons on them. The screens are normally kept open, as then the dragon paintings are not exposed to light. As a result, the paintings are in excellent condition. They are also excellent. I don't think that paintings could get much more Japanese than them; they are black and white ink drawings of coiled oriental dragons, and the dragons seem almost alive and moving. Possibly the most astounding thing was that we were allowed to take photographs.

Me at Ryouanji Me, in the important Tea House at Ryouanji temple.

From there, we went to the tea house, seeing the real version of a very famous stone washing bowl, which does, as our guide said, look a lot better than the fake that standard tourists get to see. From the original, I could see why it was a national treasure, something that is not clear at all from the copy. The tea house is also a national treasure, and despite the rain, you could see why. I got Keiko to take my picture sitting inside the tea house, with the gardens in the background.

We were then taken to another Japanese room, and served ceremonial tea and sweets. It wasn't a full tea ceremony, but it was an abbreviated one, and it was very calming, just like a zen temple should be.

After that tour, the rest of the visit was a bit of an anti-climax. Everywhere was heaving with tourists, because it was the tail-end of the kouyou (autumn leaves) season, so the calm and beauty that places seemed to have was never really visible.

Anyway, after Ryouanji we went to see Kiyomizudera and Kodaiji in the dark and rain. They were both specially open with floodlighting, and at Kiyomizudera we listened to an explanation of their specially designed garden. Kiyomizudera felt spectacular around us, but I want to go back there in the daylight; I suspect that most of the structures will have more impact when I can see them properly.

Kodaiji's gardens, on the other hand, worked very well as they were lit. The most effective was coming down a hill through a bamboo grove, where the rain and lighting combined to give the air a distinct green tint, making it feel a little as though you were under water. The overall impression of the garden was that it was extremely beautiful, and this is another place I'd like to revisit in the day, although in this case mainly to compare, not because I feel that it lacked something in the dark. (Unfortunately, my attempts to take photographs of the lit gardens were a failure.)

After that, we went for dinner. By then it was, of course, getting quite late, and Keiko, despite being a native of Kyoto, got us a bit lost. I started to suspect that we'd left the area we wanted when we passed the 'Hotel Sexus'... The wait at the restaurant we had planned for was too long if I was going to get back to the ryokan before it closed, so we went to another one, where Keiko ordered a range of typical Kyoto food. It was delicious, even the vegetarian yudoufu, and I did make it back to the ryokan in time, just.

Ginkakuji, across its garden Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, seen across the gravel garden in that temple.

On Sunday, Keiko was busy for most of the day, so I wandered around by myself. The first stop was the temple of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji), which is notable for not being silver. The original plan was to silver plate it, but the builder died before he got around to it, and his heirs as shogun decided that they had better uses for the money. The building is still quite impressive, but the garden in which it is set is even better.

The Path of Philosophy A view down the Path of Philosophy.

This was the starting point for one of the walking tours in my guidebook, and the next stage took me along the Pathway of Philosophy. This is a pleasant walk along a small tree-lined canal. Fortunately, it didn't rain very much on Sunday, so I was able to enjoy the walk properly. At a number of places the leaves on the trees were just turning, and autumn flowers were out, and there it was really beautiful. It also has a lot of cherry trees, so with luck it will also be a nice walk in spring.

The Pathway of Philosophy took me to Eikandou (Eikan's Temple, officially called Zenrinji). This is a famous place for viewing the changing maples, and it was absolutely heaving. There is a famous statue of Amida Buddha looking back over his shoulder, which was beautiful, but there were so many Japanese tourists around that it was hard to properly appreciate.

After that, it was lunch time. I went to Goenmonjaya, a restaurant highly recommended in the guidebook. The recommendation was amply deserved. It was very busy, so I had to wait a little while for a table, but the food was excellent, and the staff even gave me some advice on how to eat it. It was yudoufu, so I already knew most of it, but the advice about the soup at the end was valuable. The food was even vegetarian, so I suspect that I may be going there again with family. I think they had an annex with chairs, although I ate kneeling on tatami.

The gardens at Heian Jingu The covered bridge (at the left) in the gardens at Heian Jingu.

My original plan was to go to Nanzenji Temple, but I was templed out, so I went to Heian Jinguu instead. This is a shrine dedicated to the Heian period (800-1200, very roughly), but built at the end of the nineteenth century. The shrine is bright orange and green, and because it was still November, there were a number of young children in kimono and hakama around. This is for Shichigosan (seven-five-three), when seven year old girls, five year old boys, and three year olds of both sexes go to shrines to pray for future health and happiness.

The main attraction, though, is the garden that surrounds the sacred precincts. This divides into several areas of distinctively different character, although the most pleasant was the large lake, which has an enclosed bridge where you can sit to enjoy the scenery. This is another place that I think the garden-loving members of the family will have to visit when we go to Kyoto.

I sat in the bridge for quite a while, because I think I had walked about twenty miles by that point. (Exaggeration. It only felt like twenty miles. It was probably nearer ten.) After that, I headed back to the ryokan to pick up my baggage, and then met Keiko for a drink before getting the Shinkansen back to Okazaki. The trip was very good, particularly thanks to Keiko's friend, but I have decided that I'm not going to go anywhere major for the rest of this calendar year, as I need the time both for work and for resting.

Number One Weird Experience

This week I had the weirdest experience I have had in Japan, by quite a large margin. I was eating lunch in Yamanaka, as usual, with the usual bunch of Yamasa students. While I was eating, this old Japanese guy, whom I had never seen before, came up next to me and said, loudly and to everyone at the table "Handsome boy! Handsome boy! Girlfriend ga ippai ne!" ("I bet he has lots of girlfriends." The rest means what you think it does.) He then, fortunately, went away.

Definitely the weirdest experience I've had so far.