2019 BLOG IV: Kyoto, Japan

I started my touring on Higashioji-dori, which turned into an education in used kimonos and quasi antiques. I was headed to Kiyomizu-dera Temple but I dawdled among the shops. At an antique shop the man motioned that he could not talk. He had a pair of masks in a box but I have no room in my suitcase. One mask had half its whiskers gone.

Finally, I turned onto Kiyomizuzaka and started up hill through more shops.  There are interesting but very expensive ceramics.

Parts of Kiyomizu-dera are painted an outrageous shade of orange—the main gate, the pagoda on the hill. The main temple is a sort of cliffhanger, having a terrace that extends out beyond the cliff edge. It is supported by open cubes of timber. The inside contains a couple of staffs supposedly owned by the warrior, Benkei. They are heavy and men try to lift them with one hand or two and then let go. The ensuing thuds form a melody that follows you through the temple. The Kannon image is not very visible in the darkness.  People, after they pray, strike a big bowl like vessel that gives off a deep resonating tone.

There are spouts over a pool. You catch the descending water in long handled silver cups and drink. Walking beyond the main temple there are other shrines, one with small statues lines up like grey dolls wearing red caps and bibs. These represent, I am told, unborn children women come to care for to insure the health of the child they are carrying.

I walked up to a view across Kyoto; then down to the orange pagoda of the Seikanji Temple, which has another view. Except for the path up hill the temple was incredibly crowded with Japanese and other tourists. This made the walk particularly nice. Coming down was even more crowded and hot. I splurged taking a taxi to the Sanjusangen-do Temple. A friend had recommended it.

There is a 400-foot hall containing 1,001 golden Kannon figures. (Kannon is the Chinese Guan Yin or in Tibet Avalokiteshvara, the god or goddess of mercy with a thousand arms who helps humanity.) They are all lined up in rows. I have no idea whether these are bronzes, in which case the casting process was extraordinary, or carvings.  They are intricate pieces, not at all plain. The large Kannon, the main figure, really does have 1,000 arms and delightful golden garlands ending in bells descend before and around her.

There are as well amazing muscular sculptures in wood of gods and demons. My two favorites are the Thunder God, a halo of drums around him and hair that would make any seriously Punk teenager envious it stands so vigorously on end. The Wind God has a bag across his shoulders with two mouths. His face is only a little human with an upper liplike a curved shelf.  Their eyes gleam because they have crystal eyeballs. Some of the other gods have been translated from Hindu origins and there is a visitor from Persia, the demon Azar, the old god Ahura Mazda. In the midst of this battalion of male gods and demons is a Mother Demon.  I would like to know more about her but she looked suitably baleful.

I went back to the restaurant I ate at yesterday. They were delighted to see me. The sister is the waitress, the brother the chef and today their mother was there helping out. I had a bowl of edamame, and a pork cutlet over rice. They formally introduced me to their mother—a grey-haired dumpling of a woman with a big smile. She was amazed that I knew the word “edamame”, amazed that I used chopsticks, although I suspect she considered my technique a bit crude. I had no way to tell her that I was taught to use chopsticks by waiters in a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan called the Miyako up a flight of stairs on, I think, 56th St. between 5th and 6th Avenues during World War II. When I left they all, daughter, son and mother came out with me and we all shook hands.

I walked 13 km today. But I started by catching the 5 bus. It was so packed that two middle aged Europeans were behind railings where normally no one would stand. It was as though they were in cage so I asked the man, “ Since you are in a cage, shouldn’t you roar?”

He laughed and the three of us began talking. They were with a group that returns home tomorrow to Toulouse. He is French, she German.  We had a lovely day together.

People kept ramming in at the back door.  When they got off they walked all the way to the front, cutting through the standing crowd like fish through a seaweed forest to pay.

We walked up to Ginkaku-ji Temple on a street with, as usual, shops on either side stopping at one with lacquer ware. I found, to my delight that P and B were easily distracted, a characteristic I love. Ginkaku is known for a building, a neat little dark square with cypress shingles on its roof topped off by what looked like a rooster but is, apparently, a phoenix, that was supposed to be covered with silver but by the time Yoshimasa Ashikaga finished it wars had consumed all the money.

We saw men kneeling on the ground tending moss, pruning it, urging it in particular directions. It struck me that it might be a wonderful life to be a curator of moss. Men on ladders arranged branches. The Japanese earnestly manage nature so that the profoundly artificial looks, at least a first glance, natural. This brings up what it seems to me may be the essence of Japanese life, control of self, nature, life. Suicide is, I suppose, the ultimate declaration of control.

It rained off and on but always gently, a Barcelona rain. There seemed fewer rented kimonos. We walked up hill amongst the managed trees and rocks. Some trees having been encouraged to grow laterally, far beyond what they can support are provided with wooden crutches to hold them up.  All is beautiful, every view. It is a small place, more garden perhaps than temple.

B, P and I started down the Philosophers Path to Honen-in Temple, which has a rural feeling. There are groups of crystal rocks or rocks that are part crystal, just the top few inches. Two sand mounds, one with a leaf sketched on it, symbolize the changing seasons. It is a Jodo sect temple. The woods were all about, the feeling peaceful. One building held an art exhibit but the work was poor. I managed to leave my purse behind in the toilet but luckily someone came after me.  Otherwise I would have gone on blithely without it.

Back on the path, walking beside a stream we saw gigantic, mud-colored carp facing up stream treading water. There were little restaurants and shops all along the path in small houses with upturned eaves, flowers lined up in pots before them or hanging from their walls.

The Anrakuji nunnery, a tiny place, was closed. We stopped at an antique/second hand kimono shop with nice things. P tried on a handsome blue and white, long, cotton kimono and then a short one of fine raw silk, but he didn’t buy. B bought a pebbly, textured as though it had goose bumps, short, purple kimono, a good color on her.

Below us on the non-stream side was a fine, new house proclaiming its expensiveness with its contoured garden, the sandy areas raked and molded.

We came to Eikando Zenrin-ji, headquarters of the Jodo sect. It is totally different from the other two temples. The chief priest’s quarters are large with a little pond on one side with a frog gurking soulfully among the reeds. There are murals on gold leaf inside of tigers, rather odd tigers (I learned why later at the Nijo Castle), whirl pools in the sea, fire covering Mt. Fuji, people sitting in gardens. Upstairs is a fountain. You collect water in a ladle and pour it over bamboo poles to make a little music.

Further along the sinuous, wooden corridor is the Amida-do containing a famous statue. The monk Eikan hesitated in his prayers.  Buddha turned to look back at him, encouraging him. This seems to have become a philosophy about looking back to help those who are not doing as well as you are. The statue is a beautiful, small Buddha with his head turned. It is set up so that you can see it from the side where the head is turned and look into the Buddha’s eyes. I was moved by the tenderness in the glance of the statue as well as by the idea behind both glance and tenderness.

I was now ravenous. There was another temple on the path but I decided to give it a miss. All along we had seen restaurants but now, at the end of the path, we could find nothing or if we found a place, they were closed. It was almost 4 pm. We did find a coffee shop. B was worried it was a rip off.  All that was available were egg, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, unappealing but we were desperate. The sandwich turned out to be delectable with fresh, crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes and the egg an omelet. With coffee it was 15US. B acknowledged it was no rip-off.

We agreed one of the delightful oddities of Japan is how little dishonesty there is. I, who distrust taxi drivers from BKK to Shanghai, have grown to love and trust taxi drivers here.

We parted company shortly thereafter. I went to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, three floors. It is all right but I think one does better in the small shops. I arrived home tired but happy after a thirteen-kilometer day.

I had sent out pictures of various temples to which a friend responded saying I was showing only “pretty” Japan. Ugly is certainly visible here. It seemed fair criticism, so I sent some pictures of street-ugly modern Kyoto. Another friend, who had lived here as a student, commented that this critique was not fair.  While noting that, “Japan is the greatest urban planning disaster in the OECD barring Houston,” he added that, “Seismic activity means all kinds of electric and utility wires can not be buried so they blot the land scape.” He comments, “There is no zoning,” and points out that according to Japanologists, “the Japanese know what is beautiful but they do not know what is ugly. in their aesthetic of wabi-sabi, beauty is transient and to be found in imperfections. Thus in Zen era tea ceremony, the beautiful tea bowl with a crack in it is more pleasing than a ‘perfect one’…The challenge of Japan for gaijin or Japanese is to find these treasure boxes of outstanding beauty amidst the concrete and neon.”

Chinese potters, if they felt a bowl was perfect, would mar it on the bottom.

3 thoughts on “2019 BLOG IV: Kyoto, Japan

  1. Loved this post. I have read about, and seen photos of many of the Kyoto temples so it was great to hear your first hand impressions. Please include me when you send out photos. Looking forward to the next post,


  2. Great blog Karen. Good to find interesting temporary travelling companions that share the same passions.Your descriptions are a delight to read.


  3. Lovely overview of Kyoto. Beauty at every turn. I see many paradoxes: bending nature to meet the aesthetic edging of perfection and then making a crack on the surface. We can not be prefect. The Buddha himself was only human. As you mentioned, he looked back to assist others on the road to enlightenment. But do we actually reach the pinnacle only to come down again?


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