Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Night Time = Time To Put The Feet Up and Sleep!

24th October, 2006 - Somehow we managed to have enough energy to head out that evening... though not far... just around the corner to Kyōto Station, now much quieter that the business day had come to an end (in fact it was almost other-worldly in the lack of people). There's a lot of decent restaurants in Kyōto Station (check out here for maps), so if you're located around this area you'll find yourself well looked after... and it's very convenient.

I never got sick of seeing Kyōto Tower. Not because it's such an architectural marvel, or a beacon to good taste - far from it - just because it's just so "loud and proud". There's no mistaking it for, say a temple. No siree... at 131 metres in height, it's about as bold a mark on the Kyōto skyline as you could ask for. Still haven't been up there though... I guess, every tourist has their limits, and going up Kyōto Tower was mine. There's also a very nice izakaya here... or there was.

Back at our apartment - weekly mansion thankyou - T-chan had retired early, foot-sore and uncomfortable.... but like the great trooper she is, she was still scouting out good places to eat using the Hot Pepper magazine that she'd picked up earlier that evening. Hot Pepper is a bit of a staple for value-hungry people... it's a free "coupon" magazine full of adds... and coupons of course. I think you can still get them...

 Thanks to a 100 yen shop pedometer, we had been keeping track of our steps... over the last four days we'd been averaging between 10 and 20,000 steps per day. Ok - I'm not sure how much I'd trust a pedometer from a 100 yen shop, but my feet were telling me that we'd been walking enough. We most probably averaged very close to the 20,000 steps per day mark over the two weeks we were in Kansai. We often put our sons high energy levels down soley to this trip.

I got to know this balcony quite well. Whilst my wife had gone cold turkey from the moment that she'd found out she was pregnant... (and I'm always impressed at how strong she was). I on the other hand had come to the idea of quitting much more slowly. It's not that I didn't want to. I did. But as most people know who have smoked (and I was a pack-a-day smoker), it's a very hard thing to give up. And Japan is (or at least was) a very, very bad place to give up smoking. So I often found myself out on the balcony, trying not to be inconspicuous for T-chan's benefit. I'm not sure how successful my consideration was however....

O'yasumi T-chan... Hope your feet get some rest. Compared to today, the next day was going to be a BIG day. Nara.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ninna-ji... The Temple with Two Faces

24th October, 2006 - A brisk walk down the road from Ryōan-ji is Ninna-ji. We had come here with few expectations - and were pleasantly surprised. That and we were well past our lunch time and looking for some nosh.

I've actually shuffled these photos just a little... from Ryōan-ji you're unlikely to come through the big San-mon gate (below), but a rather more unimpressive side-gate right next to the restaurants. The food, whilst ok - was a little too "temple" like for my own taste-buds. Still beggars can't be choosers.

The main entrances is one of the three great gates of Kyōto; and was built around the 1630's.

Standing guard at the gate are the ferocious Niō (sometimes known as Kongōrikishi). The two are the two warriors of the Buddhism tradition; Misshaku Kongō (on the left) has his mouth closed, and Naraen Kongō (on the right). In the same way as we often talk about the alpha and the omega (the beginning and the end); in Buddhism the equivalent is the "a" and the "ūn". Naraen is making the sound ("a") - representing the sound of babies at the beginning of life; Misshaku is making the sound of "ūn", representing the sound of those approaching the end of their life.

I like to think of them as the Sam and Dean Winchester of the Buddhist world.... (for all those Supernatural fans out there...).

Ninna-ji stands on the foothills, so there's a nice walk up to the main shrine, through the vermillion gates of the Chu-mon.

The path to the main shrine must look fantastic just a few weeks later when the leaves have turned completely.

To the right you'll come across the very modest five story pagoda. Every yard should have one.

To the far left down the path lies this dramatic building; which is actually temple belfry... the bells, o the bells!

The famous Buddhist book of reflections by Yoshida KenkoEssays in Idleness, was written in the early 1330's across from the temple complex, and was in part concerned with the goings on there. In a stream of consciousness style, he recorded as in a diary, the moments of despair and delight he experienced as a then retired monk.

The temple had been constructed initially as a palace (known as the Omura Palace) with work starting in 886 by Emperor Koko. In a strange twist on the usual scope-creep phenomenon, his son Emperor Uda had a change of mind and instead building a palace, completed the work as a temple. He retired here at the age of 33, both as the superior of the complex, but also to unofficially reign as a cloistered emperor whilst his sickly son Emperor Daigo held the office. 

From the death of Uda, in 931, until the Meiji revolution – either the first or second son of the reigning emperor would become the superior of the Ninna-ji temple. In fact Uda was the first emperor to abdicate to become monk (and started somewhat of a fashion to do so)... and to this day you can find him behind Ryōan-ji... thankfully still dead.

The temple was destroyed in 1467 during the Onin war, and was not restored for over a century until the intervention of Emperor Go-Mizuno-o and the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1634. Fire once again destroyed much of the temple in 1887. Nowadays the temple belongs to the esoteric form of Shingon Buddhism, the same as in Tō- ji. In this sect, it is very much the form and pattern that conveys meaning - hence the structure of things are able to reflect the entirety in which it exists (such as in the case with mandalas).... ah... this is getting too deep for me...

I mentioned that Ninna-ji had two faces... as mentioned at the beginning it had started it's life as a palace, and indeed you can see the recontruction of that first Heian palace inside Ninna-ji (yes - that's another entry fee).

Almost the entire palace was destroyed in the fire of 1887, and this was reconstructed in 1915 using the Heian style, but using the much more modern layout. 

The gate below is the Imperial Messenger's Gate. I wonder where the tradespersons gate is?

The Omura Palace is a small world within a world. It is a series of small buildings all inter-connected by covered walkways. Each looking out to a little vista of beauty. 

In the mountains above there can be found a scaled down version of the 88 temple pilgrimage path that is famous in Shikoku. It takes 2 hours to do - that's 2 hours we don't have unfortunately.

Yes, the garden is a little extravagant, but beautifully so. There's a story that  Emperor Uda once had a bit of a pining for some snow one hot summer's day, so he ordered a nearby mountainside to be draped with whitest silk cloth to look like the soft blanket of snow. Now that is extravagance at a whole new level!

The renowned author Kamo-no-Chomei wrote a seminal book entitled Hojoki, or Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut. Not the most riveting of titles, but it was written in a period of huge turmoil within Kyōto. In 1177 there had been a huge fire that engulfed much of the city. More disaster befell with a giant whirlwind that forced the capital to temporarily relocate to Settsu in 1180. This was followed by a famine that lasted for two years; and finally the city was rocked by a huge earthquake in 1185. Now that's what you call a run of bad luck... but a good time to be a builder.

Chomei wrote about these events as he sat, in that self-same 10 foot square hut, just above Ninna-ji. It's hard to imagine such a peaceful place being beset by so much calamity. It's also hard to equate this small but beautiful (and opulent) palace with such privation.

Perhaps there is indeed something inspirational about this temple that two such famous Japanese books should be written under it's shadow... like the verandah on the palace buildings itself, some things in the world provide the protection and peace that is necessary for us to sit back, and just take the world in.

T-chan also takes a moment to reflect - perhaps she's wondering what it would be like to be a mother. She's known she's been pregnant now for a little over a month. Or maybe she's just wondering when the day will be over and she can put her feet up.

Bye Bye Ninna-ji!
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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ryoan-ji - The Mystery of the Stones Lies Within

24th October, 2006 - If you're going to Kinkaku-ji then it's best to make it a triple-treat by stringing together Kinkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and finally Ninna-ji. Whilst these can be walked, you can also catch the bus between Kinkaku-ji and Ryōan-ji (might save you a little time - just follow the crowd).

It's about 3 km between the three of them... so it's a deceptively long walk if you do it on foot.

The temple of the peaceful dragon, Ryōan-ji was first developed by the Fujiwara family in the Heian period, and saw several reincarnations before finally being left to the Rinzai Zen sect in 1473. It was however burnt several years later during the Onin war, then again in 1490, and 1790. The truth of Kyōto is that it's mostly re-constructions of reconstructions.

The garden was created at the end of the 15th century, though the creator is not known for sure. The garden is 50 by 102 feet in dimension.

This is one of the classical "zen gardens" of Japan, possibly the world. Now - if you're not into dry garden then you might be thinking - "It's just a couple of rocks... what the...!". However - bear with me. In this style of garden, the elements have been reduced to the most fundamentals. Form is everything. A common interpretation of the garden is that the rocks represent "islands of consciousness in a sea of emptiness". There are as many interpretations as there are viewers - and hence the garden takes on the perspective of those watching. Very zen.

Interestingly, the popularity of the dry garden only grew from the 1930’s onwards. One aspect of the garden is that of the 15 stones that make up the sculpture, only 14 can be seen at any single position in the garden. The surrounding wall was only a later addition, prior to which it was intended as a part of the vista of the lake beyond. The walls show an unusual pattern. The walls were made by boiling the clay in the oil – and the stains derive from the oil seeping from the clay over the years.

Whilst the temple is most famous for the dry landscape garden, the majority of the temple grounds feature lush moss gardens and a large mirror-shaped pond (known as Kyoyo-chi). Within the garden is a wash basin, made of stone and cut into the shape of a coin. On the basin is inscribed the words, “I learn only to be contented” – a poignant Zen belief in the garden known as much for it’s mystery as it’s beauty.

Kyoyo-chi dominates the garden, and makes for a beautiful stroll - so make sure you take the time to go all the way around.

Little known is that Ryōan-ji is also the last resting place of a number of Japanese emperors, from Emperor Uda  onwards (he was buried here in 931 AD). Within the lake are two small islands, one known as Benten-jima is the home of Benten, the Shinto goddess of good luck -  or at least one of her several homes.

This can be accessed via a small stone bridge. Hi T-chan, how's it going over there?

I had not known much about Ryōan-ji apart from the famous dry garden - so the garden and lake was a big (and very pleasant) surprise. I love it when you find things you weren't expecting.

Now off to Ninna-ji... about which I knew very, very little.

Post Script - Blogspot Note: I finally found out how to include large photos without them blurring. The trick is to remove the height and width HTML code altogether. Even if they're the correct dimensions, Blogspot appears to mess displaying them up. Hurray... now comes the big job of going back and fixing about a million photos over the 100+ posts.
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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kinkaku-ji...Not All That Glitters Is Gold - But Sometimes It Is!

24th October, 2006 - Heading out early in the morning by bus, we arrived at Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavilion. Actually - it's official name is "Rokuon-ji". The first thing that you realise when you arrive is that it's going to be busy... there are any number of tour buses lined up at the front gate, and the people are milling everywhere...

Possibly the most famous of sights in Kyōto today, the Golden Pavillion Temple (Kinkaku-ji) started out very differently - it was originally a villa built in the 11th century. And no - there was no gold then. The villa slowly fell into ruin, and was then taken over by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358 – 1408 AD).  Actually the Temple's official name comes from Yoshimitsu's posthumous Buddhist name Rokuon-in.

As with the cloistered emperors before, he retired to his new home and ruled from behind the scenes, whilst nominally giving power over to his nine year old son (Ashikaga Yoshimochi). Yoshimitsu was a devotee of Zen Buddhism, going on to establish the Shōkoku-ji temple, which we posted about previously. After he died, the villa was converted into a temple, with the famous Musô Sôseki (1275-1351) as its first Abbot.

The temple (like many in Kyōto) has definitely had it's hard times. It was almost (but not) destroyed in the Onin Wars. After 1868, the temple lost it's official sponsorship, and indeed with the Meiji Restoration there was a concerted effort to degrade the role of Buddhism all over Japan. Below is an actual photograph from 1886... Not exactly the same picture post-card scene that we're familiar from today. 
(care of Wiki-commons)

The Golden Pavilion itself is generally viewed from across the large Kyôkochi Pond, beautifully fenced by a boundary of green  - and the living barrier of 100's if not 1000's of camera-wielding tourists (thankfully not in shot).

The pavilion and pond were meant to inspire imagery of the Buddhist paintings known as the Seven Treasure Pond. The golden pavilion itself is quite small, measuring only 33 feet by 40 feet by 42 feet high. The golden building is actually not a temple as such, but rather the relics hall (Shariden) of the larger Rinzai Zen temple that sits on-site.

The pavilion itself is designed to reflect three very different architectural styles; each floor calling harking back to a previous era. The ground floor is the Heian-era shinden-zukuri style (similar to the palace buildings of that period), replete with a boat landing platform. It is known as Hôsuiin ("Temple of Dharma Water"). The second floor recalls the bukezukuri style favoured in the Kamakura period, and was reserved for private meetings with the ex-shogun. It is known as Chôondô ("Grotto of Wave Sounds"). The third floor, in the Chinese influenced Zen temple style, was where Yoshimitsu would escape for private tea-ceremonies. It is known as Kukkyôchô ("Superb Apex"). 

On top of the pavilion is mounted a metre high gold covered bronze phoenix statue.

Whilst you can't normally enter the Shariden, you can get a pretty good look all around...

Almost all of the original buildings have since been lost to time and decay. The Gold Pavilion had withstood the many wars and fires that beset Kyōto, however, in 1950 an obsessed monk burnt the building entirely to the ground. This tale is told well in Mishima's book, The Temple of The Golden Pavilion. The resulting building is an exact replica. Today the temple, as with it's twin Ginkaku-ji, is still controlled by the Shōkoku-ji Rinzai Zen school.

The back looks quite a bit different... but still recognizable.

Around the grounds of the Kinkakuji lie lush green gardens, in which one can find little treasures and moments of tranquility.

Tranquility Pond (Anmintaku) is a small pond that is reputed to never dry up, regardless of drought. It is therefore also known as a place at which people pray for rain. Across the pond sits the stupa known as the White Snake Mound (Hakuja no Tsuka) - which may indeed date back to the family estate prior to the acquisition by the Ashikaga.

The Dragon Gate Falls is definitely underwhelming as far as "waterfalls" goes... the  name comes from the legend that should carp manage to swim up the waterfall, they would transform into a dragon. The large rock is meant to represent this transformation of the carp into a dragon as it ascends towards the heavens.

You follow a set path around the gardens - yet thankfully the crowds thin out dramatically. It appears many people just come to take a photo of the "Golden Pavilion" and then jump back on the bus. A shame for them, but great for those who are able to spend time to wander around.

And if you've got time, it's definitely worth strolling around the gardens. Very pleasant. Whilst some of the trees were starting to turn when we were there, it was still too early in Autumn to see much colour. Then again... it also gets busier exponentially with the more colour on the trees.

Atop the hill lies the Sekkatei Teahouse (or Favourable Sunset Teahouse)... the result of one of the influential Abbots of the Edo-period, Hôrin Jôshô. It is positioned to allow the occupants to gaze down at the reflections of the setting sun across the pond.

And speaking of tea - you can purchase some Matcha.... this is a very thick powdered Japanese tea used for the tea ceremony (by the way Uji Matcha is considered the best).

It's normally served with a small sweet (o'chauke).... Kawaii!... that's cute. This particular type is called Rakugan.

And of course, it wouldn't be a temple without some place for worship. This is the Fudô Hall - dedicated to Fudô Myôô, who is also known as Acala. The destroyer of delusion and protector of Buddhism. Hmmm - delusion huh?... just don't tell me that was the Fool's Gold Pavilion!

After a great walk around the Golden Pavilion grounds, it's time to move on. O'Mighty Phoenix... point the way to our next destination. Ryoan-ji. Arigatou!

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