Friday, June 27, 2014
Hard to believe that a whole week has passed since we arrived in Kyoto to start attending lectures and discussions on Medieval and Pre-Modern Japan. This morning, when we sat down to breakfast with our colleagues, it felt as if we had known each other forever. Academic conferences have a tendency to that do!
At any rate, after consuming the typical Japanese breakfast of rice cakes flavored with nori (which I have been avoiding at breakfast as it is inevitably offered at lunch), assorted bread rolls with marmalade and butter, salad, fresh fruit and soup (yes, I have developed quite a liking for soup in the morning!), most of us were ready to leave the hotel, hop on to the subway and ride to Otani University when our lectures are held.
Listening to Prof. Michael Watson:
Our featured speaker today was Prof. Michael Watson, an Oxbridge-educated British scholar who teaches at a university in Yokohama and has been living in Japan for the past 34 years. Apart from his appearance, he appeared to me to be more Japanese than Emperor Akihito himself! Needless to say, he speaks fluent Japanese and is an authority on Tale of the Heike which is his specialty (among a string of other interests) and it was upon this topic that he spoke this morning. Somehow, in the space of a little over two hours, he managed to present a summary of the entire epic work comprising 12 books and an Epilogue which he brought alive with slides depicting the most marvelous pictorial representations of the story, snippets of music (he even occasionally burst into song himself!) and, often, as most of us professors do, spoke to himself! He was just a delightful presence in the classroom and I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. Clearly, his knowledge of all aspects of Japanese medieval life is formidable and he was able to convey his love for this material with such passion as to inspire profound interest in his audience as well. I am determined now to attempt to read the work myself (as paucity of time did not make it possible for me to read it before I arrived in Japan).
Bento Box Lunch at Otani University:
The now familiar Bento Box lunch arrived as did Llew—he had spent the morning exploring the Imperial Palace and taking the hour-long guided tour that began there at 10.00 am. He conveyed to me the opinion that the tour was well-guided and certainly well worth taking and as I had requested him to procure a permission pass for me to take the same tour on Monday, I was quite pleased indeed when he produced a pass for me.
We ate our lunches together—fried chicken, rice cakes, picked vegetables, sweet cakes made with azuki (red bean) paste which are delicious and have a very interesting glutinous consistency as well. Discussion involving a round-up of all we had studied continued during the lunch-time breakout session, but then it was time for us to move on to the last section of our program: the afternoon excursion. Various choices were offered to the participants including a hike all the way to the north of the city to a very rural area called Ohara, an examination of the ateliers and studios of textile craftsmen in the city, a tour of three famed Buddhist temples in the east of the city and finally, an opportunity to explore Kyoto alone. Llew and I chose to join Fay who was leading the tour of the three Buddhist temples and before too long, off we went.
Getting Separated from our Group:
We rode the subway together from the Otani University subway stop at Kitoaji Street to the Main Kyoto Rail Station at which point we became separated from our group when Llew went out to purchase a Day Pass for the bus as we had run out of most of the money on our Pay As You Go subway cards. But it wasn’t much of a problem as we were easily able to figure out our route ourselves, Furthermore, we realized that most of the temples close by 4. 30 or 5.00 pm, which would probably not leave us enough time to see three of them.
Off to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto’s Buddhist Highlight:
Llew and I, therefore, hopped on to a bus that took us directly to the second temple: Kiyomizu-dera (instead of getting us to Sanjusangendo Temple). Kiyomizu-dera is not just a famed Buddhist temple and, therefore, a great religious and tourist site but is also a fine lookout point in that it offers stunning views of the city of Kyoto. Visitors throng around its verandah which juts out on towering stilts high on a hill underneath which a waterfall cascades down to the bottom. This waterfall is believed to flow with miraculous waters and the faithful can be seen drinking copiously of them at the base of the mountain.
To get to Kiyomizu-dera, we had to hop off a bus and walk (nay, climb) for about twenty minutes. At times, the mountain got steep and we got breathless; but the trudge was made interesting by the vast number of stalls and shops that have mushroomed along the pilgrim path offering every manner of enticement from snacks and sweets to souvenirs. While ascending the mountain, we noticed loads of young and very beautiful Japanese girls fully clad in kimonos and we gathered that they were in the vicinity for a reason. Our guide book soon informed us that there is a shrine at the temple which carries the legend that anyone who passes through two tightly positioned stones with their eyes closed are likely to have success in romance and marriage. This might explain the vast numbers of young giggling girls that we saw participating in the rituals. Apart from this, we noticed a brisk business being carried in the sale of charms—indeed I have to say that I am stunned by the commercial aspects of Buddhism in Japan. Astonishingly, a religion that was founded with the intention of being spread by mendicant monks has become a full-fledged business activity that raises millions. Money changed hands openly around the many temples we have visited in the past few days but at this site, it somehow seemed more pronounced.
This temple was founded in 798 during the Heian Period, but this particular building was constructed in the mid-1600s. Of course, it has been shored up periodically, but it still proclaims its age in an awed manner. We posed for the mandatory pictures on the verandah with the city in the background, then walked along the narrow wooden corridors that cling to the sides of the mountain. In the main hall of the temple, we admired the huge statue of the Buddha and then because we were keen to go on to the Chion-In Temple, we picked our way down the mountain past the never-diminishing crowds to get there. Making inquiries of passers-by, we soon realized that the best way to reach it was on foot.
Exploring Maruyama Park and Choin-In Temple:
Although we had no choice but to hurry forward, the walk between the two temples was perhaps one of the nicest we have taken in Kyoto so far. It took us downhill on broad stone steps past smaller temples with interesting pagoda architecture, wayside statues of the Buddha, neat little Zen gardens and small traditional Japanese ryokans (homes) until we arrived at the entrance to Maruyama Park where a very prettily landscaped Zen garden leads the visitor to an idyllic zone. And then just a few feet ahead, we were at the next Must-Do Site, the Chion-In Temple.
Entrance to Chion-In’s Temple is free of charge but if you wish to visit its extensive and reputedly beautiful gardens, you pay an entry fee of 500 yen. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to linger too long, and so we skipped the garden. But we did want the see the extraordinary temple bell that is the largest in the Buddhist world weighing 74 tonnes. So off we went, past the stunning SanMon, which is the main entrance to the temple and which has particularly interesting architecture—it appears to be almost checkered in a black and off-white pattern and has interesting pagoda-like curled rooflines.
Here too a climb was involved and as we panted up the mountain, we reached the many structures that make up the temple complex which form the headquarters of the Jodo-shu (Pure Land) sect founded by Honen who made this area his base. As time was short, we were able to simply glimpse the huge statue of the Amida Buddha to whom this temple is dedicated but wondered exactly where we would find the great bell that we had come to see.
It was at this point that we found a group of young monks working hard to polish a wooden corridor in the Ninnaji Temple style. When we inquired of them, in hesitating English, where we might find the bell, one young monk stepped forward with the most angelic of smiles—he could not have been older than eighteen—and personally led us up yet another mountain to the tallest point on the property, in order to show it to us. We were hugely amused and deeply touched by his gesture of spontaneous kindness and generosity and were even more moved when he offered, through actions and gestures, to take our picture posing by the bell. Needless to say, it was an offer we could not refuse. And so there we were, posed by the colossal bell that is the focus of an annual ritual in which thousands of monks come to this site on pilgrimage and ring the huge gong-like clapper that causes the mountain to resound 74 times at the new year. It was truly a sight to behold and once the sweet monk took his leave of us, we walked all around the great wooden hut that holds it in order to behold it from every angle. Indeed as we hurried down the mountain, we felt privileged to have just made it on time as all of the doors of the various shrines were being shut, one after the other. Chion-In is certainly a temple I would advise any visitor to Kyoto to see.
On the Bus to Takashimaya for Retail Therapy:
We used our map to find our way out of Maruyama Park to the Yasaka Shrine in Gion (which we had had visited a few days ago) and so quite easily found the bus stop that would allow us to board a bus that would take us down Higashiyama all the way to Kawaramachi Shijo (station) where we alighted on a whim.
Spying Takashimaya, Japan’s answer to the USA’s Macy’s or the UK’s Selfridges, I decided to go inside and explore…and how delighted I was to find a sale that urged me to pick up a couple of Japanese silk scarves in the softest of spring colors to give away as gifts. Being light, superbly priced and very classy, I was sure they would make a grand gift. So out I walked with my precious finds.
Exploring Nishiki Food Market:
And then we were walking in the crowded main shopping area to get to Nishiki Food Market which Lonely Planet recommends that every visitor should see. It was with some difficulty that we found it but when we did, we were struck by the long alley lined on both sides with food shops selling a variety of strange items most of which were unrecognizable to us. Although we were not tempted to buy anything, it was a great dash of local color added to our rambling and we enjoyed it immensely.
By this time, our temple exploration, the heights we had climbed on foot and the awful humidity of the day had taken their toll on us and we turned to McDonald’s to pick up chocolate ice-cream sundaes to cool off before we found our way to our hotel. There, a long chat with my brother Roger who happened to be in the US through Viber and a short nap followed by a hot shower revitalized us and we were ready for the next item on our agenda.
Partaking of Keiseki--Japan’s Banquet Experience:
Part of the joy of dining in Japan is partaking of a long and elaborate meal called Keiseki and this evening, our organizers, the Japan Studies Association, led us to San-Suzi, a tiny eatery on a side street very close to our hotel.
As soon as we trooped inside, we were instructed to take off our shoes: ah, I thought, this is going to be one of those traditional Japanese restaurants where you sit on the floor (a not too exciting thought considering that it has been a while since we have assumed any yogic asanas!). As it turned out, the restaurant had those sunken tables that allow you to sit low down with feet dangling into a pit—about ten of us sat at each table, our party occupying three tables in a private room. Now Americans are known to be loud talkers—so you can imagine how the volume in that room rose to such deafening decibels as to be quite unpleasant indeed.
Still, we stopped focusing on the sound and turned towards smell and taste as soon as we beheld the feast spread out before us. For appetizers were already placed at each setting: a variety of sushi (vinagered fish with rice) and sashimi (raw fish) greeted us and as we tucked in, we realized how fresh and delicious it was. This was only the start of a string of dishes that were served to each of us in individual servings (as opposed to the family style meal we had consumed a few days ago in Living Bar). And so we went through noodle soup with fresh fish in a clear broth, a whole roasted sardine served with green tea flavored vinegar, roasted eggplant with roast Kobe beef topping it (melt in the mouth tender), a plate of tempura featuring fresh vegetables and a whole tiger prawn, a bowl of brown rice, a container of miso soup and finally a plate of fresh melon and a red bean paste cake—everything was uniformly good but the fish was the star of the show. Needless to say, we savored every morsel.
During dinner, thank-you speeches were made and gifts were exchanged and all housekeeping matters were settled—it was time to say how sad we were to bid goodbye to the nice professors we had met during the week. They had shared their knowledge and their passion for their scholarly endeavors so generously with us that we felt sorry to bid them goodbye.
But as all good things must come to an end, our workshop on Medieval and pre-Modern Japan has ended—at least the formal lectures and discussions are over. We now await the crowning experience: a visit to the Buddhist monastery of Mount Koya-San which we will undertake tomorrow…but I shall let you know all about that then.
Meanwhile, sayonara from Kyoto.