2019 BLOG V: More Kyoto


A friend, D, who with his wife, has been to Japan many times, has corrected me on the meaning of the doll like stones with their red bibs and hats. First, they are called Jizo-samas, which means potential Buddha. Second, they represent the spirits of children who have died at birth, been still born or aborted, or any such fatality. Because they are too young to have souls, they are thought to be stranded on the banks of the river that separates life and death.  That’s the short version.  For the full version go to https://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/25/world/in-japan-a-ritual-of-mourning-for-abortions.html

Feeling that I had been gulping temples—it’s a bit like swallowing matzo balls whole–I took a day off, worked on my journal and blog, wrote postcards. I went to my restaurant for lunch and had a fine meal of little things in doll dishes, as well as recognizable things like sashimi. It was the best sashimi, and I have been eating sashimi since I was in my late twenties, I have ever eaten. Because of the little doll dishes, you think you haven’t eaten that much and then suddenly you are very full indeed. I refused the vanilla ice cream and instead was given matcha, which is bitter and refreshing in the mouth. A woman in a fawn colored kimono and obi, in some way connected to the daughter, taught me the technique for making matcha. It requires a lot of fast wrist action to make it foam.

The next day I went to Kyoto station to familiarize myself with it, but also to find out when the trains to Nara run.  The station is super modern and interesting. I didn’t need a ticket because there are no reserved seats. All I had to do was show up.

In a strong wind I walked to Higashi Hongan-ji that is almost across the street from the station. It is enormous, dark and for me, tries too hard to impress. The downward surfaces of supports are painted white which has a striking effect against the very dark wood. Everything is dark wood, gold and white. The main hall is huge. There was recorded chanting, the smell of incense and a young monk with a broom. There’s a sort of St. Patrick’s cathedral effect. Wind hurled itself against the door that people closed carefully after them. On an outside corridor there is a glass case holding a large coil of dark rope that was used to hoist the beams of the temple into place. It was made from the hair of women who supported the reconstruction of the temple in the nineteenth century.

I then started to walk to another temple that is close by, but the wind was too much for me. I went back to Higashi Hongan-ji and tried several buses but none were going straight up the street. I hailed a cab and found that for the first time I had a woman cab driver. I was looking for a merchant’s house a block away from Nijo Castle.  She found it with only a little difficulty. It had a charming tiled, arched front gate but once through that I found that all doors were locked tight and peering in the windows it looked as though it was being used as a storehouse. What a pity that it is no longer a museum.

I walked, not far, with the wind pushing and pulling at me, to Nijo Castle, my heart caving a bit as I realized how large it was. I was feeling tired and needed water, food would have been good. The food available in the fast food restaurant within the walls didn’t look appealing. I settled for water; it helped a lot. I walked through part of the gardens watching, with others, a heron with a brilliant eye, fishing. It began to rain. I gave up on the garden and went inside.

This was the Shoguns’ residence and was intended to impress. The walls of the rooms are painted with pine tree branches, eagles perched on them, but tigers also stroll along the panels. However there were no tigers in Japan; none of the painters had seen one. They copied from a Chinese drawing they had, using their imagination. The tigers are oddly boneless.

The castle has “nightingale” floors that chirp as you walk across them. It meant you knew if you were being followed.

Coming out back into the wind, I found another taxi to a shop L had suggested for lacquer ware, Zohiko. It was far better than any place I had been to. It is charmingly laid out, sensibly arranged and beautifully lit. I told the nicer than nice young women clerking in the store that I needed a bathroom and lunch before I could buy anything. They kindly let me use their bathroom, pointing me down the street to a soba restaurant in the rain. The soba was excellent with good soup. When I went back to buy, they made me inspect my purchase for flaws. They were a delight.  One confessed, when I told her I was alone, that she wanted to go to Thailand. Of course, I encouraged her.

I walked home, doing a total of 11 km, but got directionally muddled. I asked some people in a flower shop for the river, hoping that would be understandable. Wrong. Then I popped into a kilim store asking, “Do you speak English?” The snappy reply was, “Yes, but more Kurdish.” They got me on the right route and I found my way home.

The next day I had an incredibly long bus ride, that began with the wrong bus. Buses are good for people watching.

Young girls compose themselves with definite ideas about what they are trying to achieve. The other day I saw a young woman, late teens, early twenties with her girl friend, they seem always to be in pairs, with long lavender grey hair, quite a lovely color, in a flouncy knee length skirt and fitted top printed with storybook characters.  Her buddy was in a shorter black skirt with a one-strap top but over a white top, black lace stockings and modest height ankle strap heels. There are no displays of belly or shoulder, not much arm exposure. The effect is cute and girlish. I suspect, since this is also true in Thailand, that being cute is, as in the US being blond and dumb, nonthreatening.

There are women in rented and owned kimonos, many tasteless and garish but some breathtakingly lovely. The relationship between kimono and obi is subtle in its attention to color and design.

The only male style I have noticed is the looped, heavy watch chain, sometime in the back other times in the front.

My first stop was Kukakur-ji—ji means temple—where there were thousands of tourists it seemed milling about.  The top two floors of the little square temple are gilded.  Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikag (1358-1409) built it as a retirement home. As he had wished, it was converted into a temple on his death. It is a cube with a phoenix on top. The architecture, which is not particularly interesting, is the same as the Ginkaku-ji across town that was supposed to be silvered. The gold reflects nicely in the pond, enhanced by vivid purple iris along the shore. But that’s about it and finally not that interesting. The not-silver is perhaps more interesting in its dark wood. The current temple is a reconstruction after a monk set fire to the original. One can guess at his thought process but Mishima made it into a novel. I want to read it.

On the path here I found a dark stone threaded with orange lines like circuits of copper wire. The gardens are pleasant but there were too many people.

Back on the bus to Ryoan-ji, again lots of people but nice gardens with a pond, bridges both arched and flat, a tree on an island picturesquely propped up by a sort of wide-legged ladder. While gazing at the pond I heard Spanish and broke into the conversation. They were three Madrileños. They were interested that I lived in Barcelona but, when I told them how much I liked it, the woman turned away and didn’t want to talk any more.  We keep our prejudices in our pockets when we travel.

Ryoan-ji is famous for its sand, gravel garden with fifteen stones. It is a coup in the meditative garden field. It would be wonderful but again it is full of people, most talking. Once you walk away from the stone garden, things quiet down and the walks are green and peaceful. I found a little pagoda memorial to men who died in Burma in World War II.

I had lunch near the gate at the sort of place that would be deadly in the US. My only company was an English couple and their guide. I had soba noodles, tempura, pickles, something unknown but sweetish and matcha. I asked their guide what to do with various dishes of ingredients. I can’t tell a soup from a sauce.

A confusing but successful series of buses to Myoshin-ji where there was no one. There are many buildings before you get to the main temple.  I wandered into someone’s home.  She gently said, “No sightseeing,” so I knew I was not the first, and then she asked “Where you from?”  We had a little conversation.

There is a sub-temple, Shunko-in, where you can stay but not enter to see a bell from Portugal that was once in Kyoto’s first Christian church.

You can see several of the halls including the main Hatto hall with, on the ceiling, a superb dragon by Tan’yo (1602-1674). I saw him by going on the twenty minute Japanese tour that includes a cracked bell and the kitchens where a half dozen beautifully carved rabbits are displayed. Their creator knew and loved rabbits enough to have entered into the essence of rabbitness. On the peak of the gable of the kitchen there was a fierce mask. I now know he may have been Mahakala, in Japan the protector of kitchens. In Tibet he has other duties.

But the dragon was the main attraction. Eastern and Western dragons are different.  Western dragons, think of Fafnir, are evil, dangerous and cunning. Consumed by greed they curl their cold coils over their hoard of equally cold treasure of gold and gems. You must never tell a dragon your name for he will use it to destroy you. But Eastern dragons, though powerful are the symbols of success. When young, before they get their horns, their favorite playthings are pearls. They are joyous and gay.

When I was preparing to come here, and worried about traveling alone, friends offered friends.  I had an email conversation with one friend of a friend in the US who lives near Kyoto, but she was too far away for me to go to her or her to come to me.  A friend in New Zealand contacted her Japanese friends who cultivate chocolate on Fiji. Their chocolate is superb. Their young daughter is in Japan outside of Tokyo, as I remember. We corresponded for several weeks by email, which was fun. My Thai dressmaker, Moon, and her sister put me in touch with their spiritual advisor—I don’t know any way else to put it—who used to live in Japan but now lives in Sri Lanka. He has various friends in Japan. I contacted them resulting in a continuous flow of emails with one gentleman and, I hope, on my last day, a meeting with a woman just returning from Europe.  The connections are amazing.

3 thoughts on “2019 BLOG V: More Kyoto

  1. I wonder if the Yukio Mishima novel you refer to is “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”? I taught it once ages ago & really liked it (don’t know that my students did–mostly sophomore non-majors). After a decade or so of teaching the 2-semester Lit of Western Civ classes, I began to sneak in African & Asian writers, also Latin American–usualy as the last 2 in the 112 (later 268) class. Your reference to Japanese soldiers in Burma made me think of the wonderful short novel (novella) “The Harp of Burma.” I’m pretty confident it went over well. I like novellas. Do you know Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar in a Sieve”? Take care–but do continue to enjoy yourself (as you seem to do so well). BTW, we just visited Dungeness Spit–promised to send copies of Wagoner’s “Guide to Dungeness Spit” to some folks there who (I think) “need” to read it!


  2. You may be alone, but the wind is guiding your spirit through a plethora of temples, culinary adventures and sublime people watching. A friend of mine has doll size prosceniums using various sundry nationalities, characters and put-ons. I never thought of taking a meal with them though. You get pure pleasure without the guilt of overindulging. Of course one could do an 11 km promenade afterwards using Zen like mindfulness to reset. And then the wind carries you away to the next installment of wanderlust.


  3. I am catching up on your blogs as I wait at Gatwick for my delayed flight home to Barcelona. Another good read, Karen. I will never tell a Western dragon my name!
    What a wonderful spiritual and culinary adventure you describe.


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