Sunday, June 29, 2014

Strolling Along The Philosopher's Walk

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Philosopher’s Walk

Buddhist Temple Service at the Crack of Dawn:
Given our unusual sleeping arrangements (on the floor), we slept surprisingly well although I did awake a couple of time during the night, only to fall swiftly back into slumber. But having set our alarms for 5. 30 am, we washed quickly and hurried downstairs for the daily prayer service. As it was a Sunday, Llew and I felt as if we were attending Sunday Mass.

The Main Temple Hall of the Daein-In Monastery is ornate—filled with two dozen lamps that lend it a golden glow. The Main Altar is an elaborate blend of image, flower and fruit offerings, hundreds of sutras concealed in decorative cases. The fragrance of incense wafted all over us. Sharply at 6. 00 am with devotees scattered on their haunches on the floor (there were also chairs at which most of us were seated at the back), the chief priest or monk arrived and the chanting began. I am not sure which sutra was being chanted but it was rather musical in its own way and fairly rhythmical. This continued for an hour in a kind of litany that was akin to the recitation of the Catholic rosary. The faithful were invited at one stage to make their way to the altar as individuals (which most of them did although we remained seated as observers). The hour-long prayer service ended with a fifteen minute sermon by the monk who had welcomed us into the monastery and exactly at 7. 15, it was all over. We were then invited to file around the main temple to take in its many visual aspects from close quarters—which we did—before we left the temple.

Breakfast Time in the Monastery:
While we were at service, the little elves (novice monks again) had been hard at work. They shuffled their way around the premises (I never ever saw them walk normally) and had laid out our breakfast in the Dining Hall—once again in two neat rows facing each other low stools had been arranged with the multiplicity of little china bowls and plates. Once again, Llew had to content himself with kneeling through most of the meal as he simply did not know how to tuck his knees around his feet in a dainty or comfortable fashion.

We ate a small quantity of steamed white rice washed down with miso soup in which floated some strips of nori and bowl of unsweetened green tea. Tofu featured as whole sweetened beans (slightly larger than broad beans or Lima beans) and a small set round cake that floated in a sweet syrup. It was a most unusual breakfast and while I cannot say that it was delicious, I guess you could say I found it edible. However, I have reached the conclusion that this sort of authentic monastic fare is not really my cup of tea. In general, I am finding Japanese cuisine much too insipid and lacking the complex combination of flavors that one finds, for instance, in Thai food with its sweet, sour, hot contrasts. But for the sashimi (raw fish) which is wonderfully delicious, I haven’t really taken to any aspects of Japanese cuisine.

Return to Kyoto:
As the return journey to Kyoto would take us no less than four hours, right after breakfast Llew and I bid goodbye to our colleagues who had decided to stay on, and made our way downhill with two other friends, Vandana and Maggie in tow. The journey was an exact reverse repeat of the previous day—bus, ‘cable car’, long train journey down the mountains to Hashimoto, change of train and ride to Shin-Imamiya, then train to Osaka and train to Kyoto. Because our leader Maggie wished to make a Noh Theatrical performance back in Kyoto at noon, she managed to find us train connections that actually got us into Kyoto at 11. 30 am (about a half hour ahead of schedule).

While the cable car had been interesting and the ride through the mountains was picturesque, the rest of the journey was boring and I should say that there is absolutely nothing about the passing scenery in a Japanese train that is even remotely interesting or pleasing. For most of the time, we passed through suburban sprawl that reminded me very much of the ugliness of Indian suburbs such as Bombay’s with their modern apartment buildings lacking even the slightest element of aesthetics. Even in the rural areas, the cottages and houses are such an ugly cluster of dwellings—had they been in Austria or Switzerland, for instance, the backdrop of the mountains would have only emphasized the cuteness of the dwellings with their pretty colors, chimneys and gardens. I have come to the sad conclusion that except for their formal gardens that are spectacular, the Japanese do not, as a rule, bring aesthetics into their lives. That said, everywhere you go it is spotlessly clean and yet there are few litter bins to be seen. The Japanese, I was told, carry a small plastic bag on their persons—they place their litter in it throughout the day and then take the bag home and get rid of it there! My mind simply cannot grasp such discipline.

Off to Sanjusangendo Temple:
Once we arrived at Kyoto Main Station at 11. 30 am, we were transported straight into the bustle of the city and there were crowds hurrying about everywhere—even worse than New York which at least has a slow start on a Sunday. We used restrooms at the station, then because we were only carrying a few things for our overnight monastic stay, we decided to take the bus to see Sanjusangendo Temple which we had skipped the previous day. It was only a ten minute bus ride from the station and since our hotel would not permit us to check in so early, that was precisely what we did.

Equipped with day passes for the bus network (a steal at 500 yen and easily made up with just two bus journeys), we hopped into a bus. About ten minutes later, we followed the well- marked signs to the entrance to the temple (as a rule, Japanese signage is poor: small, almost always only in Japanese and unobstrusive—so unobstrusive that most times we miss them completely). Very little English is in evidence anywhere. Street signage is only in Japanese, almost no one can speak or understand English—not even the youngest folk we see who supposedly learn it in school—with the result that traveling alone (as we will do for the week ahead) will, no doubt, be much of a challenge despite the fact that we are seasoned solo travelers. We shall see….

At any rate, Sanjusangendo is famed for the multiplicity of its gilded Buddhist deity images called Kannon that stretch out ahead as far as the eye can see. We paid 600 yen each to enter (the most we have paid for entering a temple, so far) and joined a trail of visitors to view the statues. They are truly visually arresting simply because of their number. There are a thousand of them, about 125 made in the 11th century, the rest in the 12th—so they are almost a thousand years old and still in almost perfect condition. In front of them are a series of 28 guardians cast in bronze with glass inserts for eyes that give them a realistic appearance. These are Hindu deities that act as guardians of Buddhist temples. Yes, it was worth seeing this sight although I am not sure the steep cost was justified.

Having said this, I must also add that photography is strictly prohibited and never in my life have I seen as many signs reminding visitors of this as I saw here. Not merely reminders were evident but actual warnings—cameras, they said, would be checked at the end of the trail and, I suppose, would be confiscated if there were any images of the Kannon on them! It is this sort of occurrence that makes me feel very uncomfortable about Buddhism’s commercialism here in Japan. All is geared towards getting visitors to purchase something at every stage—nothing is offered for free. I am not sure exactly how to react to such blatant materialism in a religion whose leader renounced all his worldly possessions to find the way to Enlightenment.

Return to our Hotel:
We took the bus back to our hotel and were caught in the most awful traffic along Kawaramachi and Karasuma which are Kyoto’s main shopping areas with stores ranging from the upscale Takashimaya to the Mom and Pop operations of the Nishiki Food Market. All of Kyoto seemed out doing their buying and the bus simply crawled along on a day that was extraordinarily hot and frightfully humid—not the most comfortable experience in the world. In a bus that only offered standing room, we had an excruciating journey back to our hotel where we placed our bags in the storage area, checked our email (lack of wifi over two days at the monastery found us quickly catching up with the digital world) and then we went out in need of sustenance.

I have to admit, at this stage, that I did something I have never done in any country on any of my travels--I actually sought out a McDonalds because after a week of bland Japanese food, I was ready to sink my teeth into a good burger and ice-cream sundaes. And that was what we had for lunch: chicken burgers and hamburgers and chocolate ice-cream. And for the first time I realized why so many of the participants I had led on tours around the world have ducked into a McDonald’s after a week to gorge themselves on familiar food. Same with Starbucks—perhaps that is why the chain enjoys so much success globally. Miso soup in the morning simply doesn’t cut it when what you want is the steam and fragrance of richly roasted coffee beans and a brew that tastes like nectar of the gods, first thing in the morning!

Back on the Bus to Ginkakuji Temple:
It was time to return on the bus (a journey I was beginning to dread) to explore yet another Must-See Sight—the Silver Pavilion or Ginkakuji Temple which I expected to be a replica of the Golden Pavilion but in Silver. Well, it took us about 45 minutes to get there on the far north eastern side of town practically at the foot of the hills that surround Kyoto. Once again, we lost our way as the announcements on a crowded bus were not conducive to the solo traveler and we overshot our stop. A good fifteen minutes later, I realized we were getting nowhere and on consulting the driver, hopped off to retrace our steps in the opposite direction.

Having lost a good half hour that way, we raced towards the temple which involved another gentle climb up a hill lined with shops lining a narrow lane to enter the complex. There, to my surprise, we spied a two-storied wooden pagoda. It turns out that it was meant to be finished in silver (as a counterpart of the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji) but this goal was never accomplished.

Be that as it may, the chief attraction for me, at this venue, were the glorious gardens that were spread out for acres around the Pavilion—both dry (sand) and wet (pond) gardens, they were punctuated with the most incredible moss gardens I have ever seen—they ground resembled green velvet as we walked on superbly landscaped stairs made of large and small stones that went uphill and downhill to present lovely views of the city of Kyoto that sits in the valley. Just for the gardens, it is worth going to see Ginkakuji. I could only image how stunning it must look in the spring when the sakura (cherry trees that the Japanese adore) are in bloom or in the fall when the low slung Japanese maple trees turn red, yellow and orange.

Strolling on the Famous Philosopher’s Walk:
It was time for us to begin one of Kyoto’s most famous walks—from Ginkakuji Temple to Nanzen-Ji Temple. So-called because it follows the daily route of a famed Japanese philosopher, the Philosopher’s Walk follows a very narrow canal that is lined with wild hydrangea bushes in bloom in varied colors and a path set with twin stone trails. It is shaded completely with low cherry trees and must be gorgeous in the spring when they are in blossom. The path is very pretty and is lined with shops and little tea rooms, eateries, bakeries and souvenir stores (but being Sunday, most of them were closed). Still, this forced us to focus on the natural beauty of the trees and their foliage. Occasionally, we passed by smaller temples (a couple of which are reputed to be worth a visit) but since we were hoping to reach Nanzen-Ji before it closed at 5.00 pm, we hurried along at a very fast clip and did indeed meet our goal.

Exploring Nanzen-Ji Temple and Gardens:
Yes, the Philosopher’s Walk is all it is famed to be—pretty and contemplative. But it was an awfully humid day and not at all the kind made for walking. After a mile and half of this sort of pleasure, we were grateful to arrive at the gates of Nanzen-Ji Temple with just fifteen minutes to spare before closing time. Known to be one of the most picturesque Zen temples and surrounded by glorious Zen gardens, Nanzen-Ji is also famed for a particular screen painting on a panel wall: the Tiger Drinking Water. As we did not have the time for it, we contented ourselves with inspecting the gardens that led under a most interesting pink brick aqueduct to a gushing waterfall. The aqueduct, installed in the late 19th century to bring water to the people of the area, funnily enough, is the big attraction for the Japanese who are tickled to see so Western a structure in the midst of a 12th century Asian temple.

As for the temple itself, the two-storied SanMon or Temple Gate is really striking as are the Zen dry sand gardens that surround it. But I have to admit that, by this stage, we were well and truly temple-d out and a little after 5.00 pm, we made our way out of the calming temple precincts to the main road to find a bus stop—surprisingly and to our enormous delight, we found a Japanese man who spoke almost perfect English and did not tell us to tell us to turn "lefto" and "righto" as so many people had done! And so we found the bus stop near the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art and rode all the way back to our hotel for a little R&R—another awful journey in a bus packed tighter than a sardine can through horrible halting, stop and go traffic.

Needless to say, we were ready to stretch out on a bed so we gratefully checked into our room and after taking possession of our room key treated ourselves to a badly needed coffee and a granola bar (that I had carried for added sustenance on our trip).

Off for Dinner to Gion:
After I showered and found renewed strength, we hopped into a bus again to ride to Gion in search of Issen Yoshuyu in search of Okinomiyaki (the stuffed Japanese pancake) that we had so enjoyed. It was indeed one of the most delicious things we have eaten in Japan and having proclaimed its virtues to our friends, we were not surprised to find that so many of them had found their way to the same eatery. They left soon enough and we were(but being Sunday, most of them were closed) alone—we enjoyed our dinner and then hopped into the bus going in the opposite direction to return to our hotel.

Our evening ended with one last excursion—a hike a few blocks away to the Kyoto Court Hotel where our new friends Pamela and Albert would be spending the next few days (since it was a cheaper hotel). Pamela had a camera cable (which I had stupidly forgotten to include in my baggage) and had offered to download the pictures in my camera whose memory stick had reached capacity. This little errand was quite easily accomplished and, greatly relieved, we returned to our hotel where an exhausted Llew crawled immediately into bed leaving me to blog until almost midnight.

It had been a full and very tiring day and we were ready to call it a night.

Until tomorrow, Sayonara.







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