The last 4 days immersed us in the experience of Kyoto both modern and ancient. Kyoto was chosen originally for its Feng Shui because it is surrounded by mountains on the north east and west with a river running north to south. Interestingly, this is exactly the same as our beautiful Alpental Valley.
When we left the healing sanctuary in Toba for the train ride to Kyoto the snow began to fall. The train ride was easy. The Kyoto train station is enormous, with many levels and entrances but the grandeur and epic scale of the modern North entrance made it our favorite, especially the view of the adjacent Kyoto Tower (Kyoto’s Space Needle). In fact last night after a full day of touring we headed back to experience the hussle and bustle of the area at night. The station combines transportation, food, shopping, museums & hotels into an engaging and delightful cacophony.
This of course is in complete contrast to the peaceful history of the monasteries and zen gardens throughout the city. We are staying at the Hyatt in the SE part of town situated between 2 major tourist destinations. After checking in and dropping off our bags and bundling up we walked to the Golden Temple next door. The Sanjusangen-do Temple contains over 100o gold plated, life size statues of Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) in lines surrounding a much larger central Buddha, all contained in the longest wooden structure in the world.
The building was created using an ingenious foundation of alternating layers of sand and clay, allowing it to survive the area’s periodic earthquakes for almost 1,000 years.
Our second day in Kyoto we met our guide Kenzo for a tea ceremony with a tea master grower before an exploration of the Daitoku-ji Bhuddist Temple complex and Zen monastery. Interestingly, this is where our good friend Erica trained for 3 years.
We got to meet the Abbot who immediately, with a smile, corrected our posture. Our posture was exceptionally stooped due to the cold. But he was right, as soon as we straitened up and re-engaged our cores, we warmed up. The snow falling all around us added a special, enchanting energy to the morning.
Kenzo took us to the monastery restaurant for a chance to warm up with a yummy vegetarian lunch and warm sake before we strolled through narrow streets to a gold leaf artist, Hakuya Noguchi. His family has been doing gold leaf work since 1877.
This is picture of the gold leaf background design sliced (his great great grandfather did the same thing but used a hatchet) so that it can be used in the weaving of Kimono sashes. He showed us the technique, and gave us a lesson in the history and the different tools his father and great grandfather used. We enjoyed tea and conversation with Hakuya and his wife before purchasing a very small piece.
Our day ended with a visit to a covered outdoor shopping area where we successfully searched for an inexpensive used Japanese Kimono-style robe before saying goodbye to Kenzo. For dinner we choose Indian food and then collapsed in bed.
As I said earlier, The Hyatt is located in the SE part of town. It’s a quiet area and our room was on the eastern, garden side so we slept with our window open and were awakened by the monastery bells next door. The quiet at night suits us just fine. After a long day of exploring we love the peace and quiet.
Yesterday was a day in Nara , about 30 minutes south of Kyoto by local train. Nara is a park-like setting, with deer everywhere, a cute little town, with many museums and shrines including the big Buddah shrine at Todai-ji Temple. And the big Buddah doesn’t disappoint.
The Todai-ji Buddah is 53 feet tall. It is the largest bronze Buddah statue in the world and is housed in the largest wood structure in the world. Pictures do not do it justice. The shrine and surrounding park are lovely. English guides are available to give you an introduction before entering the shrine.
After a lot of walking Jim decided to hire one of the rickshaws. I was uncomfortable from the start for so many reasons. Let’s just say we were surprised when our young, strong, delightful driver, took us on the main road, with buses passing us in the opposite lane, to get to our destination, the Kokufu-ji Temple, with its five-story pagoda. As we picked up speed down the hill, even Jim was questioning his choice. But we survived and got a lovely tour. On the way to our destination we passed the Nara Hotel where apparently both Albert Einstein and John Lennon have stayed.
After more shrine and museum visits it was time to head back to the train station where we grabbed a yummy meal in a local little restaurant for a late lunch. That night, we were able to get a dinner reservation at Mishima-tei, a famous old “shabu-shabu” restaurant in Kyoto, where the food is cooked at your table by a young woman.
Yesterday was one of our favorite excursions, this time to the 11 acre Katsura Villa and gardens, followed by Arashiyama, with more gardens and a lovely area near Kyoto’s river and the Saiho-Ji (Moss) Temple.
Katsura Villa is the former residence of the Emperor, and now a tourist destination that is available by advance reservation only. And once again our agent, Esprit Travel, took care of that for us. The Japanese Gardens there are exquisite and thoroughly enchanted us.
It’s given me lots of ideas for improving our mountain house and a much greater appreciation for the beautiful rockeries and garden areas that Glen created for us at our old home on Mercer Island. They truly are works of art in nature.
Arashiyama is another rock garden experience next to a glorious bamboo forest which is near a larger park along the river. We could have spent more time in this little place in the NW part of Kyoto.
But, we were on a vey tight schedule so we grabbed a very quick lunch at a lovely little restaurant with a nice view of the river. Then we hailed a taxi to take is to the Saiho-ji (Moss) Temple. It’s hard to explain how tranquil and amazing this place is. Again it’s reservation only and the experience begins with Buddhist monks chanting and praying in the temple. Afterwards we strolled through the grounds of moss covered gardens, rocks, and trees, all dappled in sunlight. These gardens were designed 1,300 years ago and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I tried to capture the glowing greens in the photos but they are elusive. I love moss and have been trying to grow patches in the mountains (sometimes successfully). This truly is a Zen activity. The moss must be gently and continually swept of debris to survive and thrive. As much as we would have like to linger longer, we were getting cold. On our way out we found a little tea shop with a private rock garden where we were fed and warmed.
To end our day, and for something completely different, we took a taxi back to the Kyoto Tower (next to the Kyoto Train Station).
Jim and I always like to explore any Space-Needle-like towers when we travel to get better perspective of the surrounding area. We grabbed a drink at the bar while waiting for a gentle sunset and the lights of the city. From the tower we saw some really cool large lit steps on a open floor above the bustling train station.
Our nex mission was to walk to those steps. After some wrong turns and escalator choices, and with the helpful guidance of a smiling lady at the tourism office in the station, we arrived only to be mesmerized by the ever-changing light display. It turns out the lights begin on the 4th floor outside of the department store, and go all the way up to the 10th floor (the top of the Kyoto train station).
After playing on the stairs we once again found a small local shop for some spicy soup and later ended our evening with ice cream.
Today is our final full day in Kyoto and it began with early morning (6:30 AM) Bhuddist chanting at Chishaku-in, only a five minute walk from our hotel.
We missed the correct entrance in the dark, surprising a young monk. We were about to give up when we found the correct location. The spiritual chants and ceremony were well worth the early start. As part of the ceremony we got the opportunity to burn incense to “honor a recently departed ancestor” (Jim’s Dad).
Today is a housekeeping day.
Time for laundry and packing before we transition tomorrow. The local laundromat had great machines that both wash & dry, and automatically add both detergent and softener. While waiting for the laundry I had time to write this blog. We have to pack our larger bag to ship tomorrow to Matsomoto where we will meet up with it after first exploring the Benesse Art Island and Museum on the little Island of Naoshima.
But, while in Nara we learned that tonight they are having their annual hill-burning and fireworks ceremony. Yes the Buddha and Shinto sects cooperate to burn the hill to “honor our ancestors and call world peace.” We feel it was well worth another excursion to Nara. It sounds like quite the local spectacle involving fire, trumpets, fireworks and food. We will report back in our next blog.