03 August 2009

Kyoto Day 2 ,The Philosopher's Walk

A shinto shrine within a Buddhist temple at Nanzen-ji complex
Aprons on stone statues are offerings

The entrance to the reception area at Nanzen-in temple complex

On our second full day in Kyoto we rose early to explore the Philosopher's Walk, a route that parallels a narrow canal on the eastern edge of the city. The route is about a mile long, although the distance is deceptive, as there are many sites and potential detours along the way. The walk is named for a philosophy professor, Nishida Kitaro, who strolled it frequently, and is described in the Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Guide to Japan and in more detail in the Walking Tours section of the Lonely Planet's Kyoto City Guide; for some reason, the walking tours are not indexed.

We began our walk at the Keage subway station, and, after a false start, did eventually find the correct exit and the pedestrian tunnel beneath a very busy ring road. Route indicators from the station to the beginning of the Philosopher's Walk present an excellent opportunity for Kyoto to add a bit of Western-language signage. Once on the path, though, it's fairly easy to follow.

Our first stop was the Nanzen-in temple complex, and we were early enough (before 9 am) to meet a few worshipers but no crowds. We were too early to access the interior of the massive Sanmon gate. For a photo of the gate, consider this link: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/images/kyoto/nanzenji/sanmon-cc-dhchen.jpg. As it's a free standing structure, it's not really a gate in the Western sense of controlling physical access; but symbolically demarcates entry into a holy precinct.

Nanzen-in is a huge and illustrious Zen temple complex, with many maple trees, which must be spectacular in autumn, shading an under-carpet of greener-than-green moss thriving in the Kyoto humidity.

Enlarge to see image of famous painting, tiger drinking water, by Kano Tanyu

We made our way to the reception area, paid a small admission fee, received our tickets and a very welcome brief guide in English. After removing our shoes, we toted them in plastic bags and toured the Hojo, or abbot's residence. (I know, Americans of a certain age will have a frisson of nostalgia for Howard Johnson's, that orange-roofed temple to roadside food.)

A typical Japanese squat toilet
Immaculately clean

A word here about matters profane, and then back to the sacred. I've included a photo of a typical Japanese toilet, in the facilities at Nanzen-in, although this one is something of a luxury feature - it has toilet paper. Our our first day in Kyoto, I was confronted with one of these in the Kyoto train station. Toilet paper could be purchased from a vending machine for 100 yen, but as we had just arrived, we had no yen coins at all. Fortunately, habits developed during the care of young children are slow to fade, and I carry pocket packs of tissue with me. There is also no soap or towels in many bathrooms, even in the most modern facilities. Apparently Japanese women travel with their own small towel or tissues and hand sanitizer.

At this temple, however, mercifully there were both Western and Japanese style toilet cubicles and I began a practice of using the Western style facility whenever I found one. Whether using either style, the visitor changes into the special plastic bathroom slippers left at the entrance to the restroom. Adult and children's sizes provided.

Small garden at the Hojo
Looks natural; every bit is groomed and manicured

One wonderful feature of the Abbot's house, in addition to the aforementioned bathroom, is the "nightingale floor." The wide, irregular-width floorboards, smooth under stockings and socks, have been laid so that they squeak gently underfoot. This feature can also be found in Nijo Castle in Kyoto; we never made it to that attraction, but experienced the floor feature here. Evidently the squeaking floor is an alarm for intruders; understandable in a castle, but a bit mystifying in a holy place. Perhaps it's related to the fact that the Hojo was originally a part of an emperor's retirement villa.

We circumnavigated the outside of the rooms, on a covered but unenclosed veranda, looking to our left at the individual gardens, and to our right into dimly-lit rooms with painted screen walls, including the Tiger room, featuring wonderful painting of tigers and leopards, glowing on a gold-leaf ground. The 17th century artists, who had probably never seen either animal, followed the Chinese convention that leopards were female tigers. Biological classification aside, the paintings capture feline grace and suppleness beautifully. Photography of the interiors is not allowed, and I followed the rules. For more on Kano Tanyu, the court painter of the tiger drinking water screen, consider this link http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fa20021120a1.html.

Bounding tiger garden - the low rocks look like young tigers leaping through water

The cat theme is continued in the most famous viewing garden at the Hojo, the Toranoko-watashi, or "young tigers crossing the water", attributed to designer Kobori Enshu circa 1600. This is a great exemplar of this type of garden, with water represented by carefully raked gravel, rocks symbolizing animal life, shrubs and trees forming a miniature mountain landscape, and the borrowed scenery of the actual mountains surrounding the temple giving it all a backdrop and visual depth. It's all so refined it's almost enervating. A good book on Kyoto gardens is A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto by Marc Teri and Ron Herman.

Zen rock garden - easy to lose any sense of scale during meditation

Of course, back in the 17th century, before central heating, there would have been little thermal difference when occupying the interior rooms or the covered veranda, although certainly the roof would keep occupants dry while rain fell on the garden. This traditional architecture clearly influenced the Kyoto train station (see previous blog post), which is roofed but otherwise vulnerable to the weather. Two building typologies, centuries apart, but with a similar response to climate and nature.

After touring the Hojo we followed the advice in the Lonely Planet guide and walked past the rather incongruous Meiji era aqueduct to a small temple, and on to a hobbit-sized gate in the outer wall. My husband conked his head on the door header, but he has a thick skull, fortunately. A footpath led up to a hillside shrine, Nanzen-ji Oku-no, with a charming rivulet of water, rather grandly called a waterfall by the guidebook.

DH next to hillside shrine and waterfall.

A well-tended shrine where natural rock and carved rock have a dialog

Looking back, and down, at our route up from the temple precinct to the hillside shrine

Still, it was refreshing to be in an area that was not raked, pruned and clipped into submission but still more or less natural and even overgrown, next to the inclined and somewhat slippery path. This little shrine was clearly an active place of worship, with the remains of incense and candles recently burnt.

Mindful that we still had a lot of ground to cover, we didn't explore Nanzen-in further. However , if I was here again at lunch time, I would ask at the reception booth for directions to one of the tofu-based Buddhist restaurants in the area, which are supposed to be among the best vegetarian options in Kyoto.

A window, with plastic food, on our route.

The Philosopher's Walk skirts the edge between a residential district and the parks and temples nestled into the foothills surrounding Kyoto, but there are occasional restaurants and shops along the way too.

DH walking along the canal, with maple trees

Entrance gate at Honen-in with mossy thatch

Our next stop was a small but delightful temple, Honen-in. While the Sanmon gate at Nanzen-in is massively impressive, the appeal of this smaller temple is irresistible, and not just because of its free admission.

Sand mounds, with raked designs on upper surface

The thatch-roofed entrance gate leads to two asymmetrical mounds of shaped sand. Evidently the priests change the surface designs every now and then; I would imagine after a torrential Kyoto rainstorm the sculptures - for that's what the mounds are, really - must be redone. I'd love to know more of the origin of this garden feature - why mounds of sand?

Another view of the entrance gate

Caretakers maintaining the grounds

Another feature at the temple, with DH going behind it to investigate...

...this interesting item - no idea what it is - melons? basketballs?

One last look

Back to our path to our final big stop, Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion. The first thing to note is that it's not silver; the building was supposed to be covered in silver leaf, as a tribute to the Golden Pavilion, but the economic upheaval caused by the civil conflicts of the late 15th and early 16th centuries undermined that plan.

Famous hedge at entrance to Ginkaku-ji

Gardening with sand
The Pavilion is currently under reconstruction, so we mainly had a view of a lot of scaffolding, but the gardens were still fascinating, and we had the opportunity to see gardener-artisans recreating the Silver Sea, a representation of water in sand. Uniformed men and women worked with traditional rakes, wooden trowels, and straw brooms, and I suspect these tools look much as they did in previous centuries; the addition of garden plumbing must have been welcome.

The white sand reflects the moonlight, making the gardens special for viewing at night.

Artisans sculpting the sand

Edges are tamped and smooth

High contrast between smooth and rough

The Ginkaku-ji pavilion, under construction, with water garden
Gardeners are up the ladders, pruning the pines

Display of roof construction assembly - layers, and more layers, of wood roof shingles

The hedge as we exit

Well, we'll have to come back and see Ginkaku-ji when it's restored. After our approximately 4-hour walk, DH and I took a taxi back to the hotel - fare =1,350 yen or about $14 - and then on to our afternoon activities.