It was Temples,Temples all the way…Kitano, Ninnaji, Kinkaku-Ji

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Kyoto, Japan

Hit by Migraine:
I most certainly spoke too soon when I said that jetlag hasn’t been too problematic. Well, tine zone change plus our sumptuous banquet plus the plum cocktails I consumed last night hit hard and I ended up waking at 3.00 am with what appeared to be the distinct signs of an oncoming migraine attack–which I am increasingly beginning to expect every time I cross time zones and take on a punishing sightseeing schedule. Well, despite the pill that I hastened to take, my condition grew worse–so that I spent the next three hours hopelessly nauseous. There was nothing to bring up but the biliousness was killing, my head throbbed, hot and cold flushes assailed my body simultaneously and I yawned non-stop: tell-tale signs that assure me I will be in agony for the next couple of hours.

Breakfast and Resuming Lectures:
Not surprisingly, Llew chose to awake solo at 6.30 am to get himself ready for breakfast and the walking tour that Prof. Michael Pye was going to lead our group on before we began workshop sessions at Otani University. Naturally, I bowed out of the excursion as I badly needed to catch up on my lost sleep and for the next couple of hours, I slept with the fervent hope that my attack would pass. By 8. 30 am, when I was awoken by Fay, one of our organizers, to find out how I was doing, I was indeed better. I resolved not to miss breakfast as I was starving, By 9.00 am,  Llew had returned from the walking tour and joined me in the dining hall as I inhaled three small croissants with marmalade and butter and downed a soothing corn soup, salad and fresh grapefruit. Feeling quite shored up by this point, I bid Llew goodbye and took the subway alone to Otani University where my colleagues had a head start on the day. I walked into the lecture room about a half hour after Prof. Pye had begun his talk on Japanese Religions but I managed to jump right into it.   

A short break later, we had a second lecture by Prof. Patricia Fister on a fascinating subject that was completely new to me: the role of Buddhist nuns in the creation of Buddhist Art in the Pre-Modern Period. Using slides, she walked us through the creative endeavors of female members of the imperial family during the Heian and into the Edo periods. I came away from the lecture completely enthralled by the contribution of an unknown segment of Japanese female society and their contribution to religious art.

Bento Box Lunch at Otani University:
We are becoming accustomed to this most Japanese of meals: the bento box with its neat compartments offering tantalizing little morsels that are arranged adroitly in the neatest, most appealing fashion. A combination of rice, fish (today it was fried salmon), steamed and pickled vegetables, a bit of steamed tofu and there you have it–a very healthy lunch that keeps us going for hours.

Off to Discover Kyoto’s Temples:
There wasn’t a lot of time to lose, so we wolfed down our meal as we sat at our desks and chatted with our colleagues and then grouped together under the guidance of Prof. Monica Berthe who is an authority, I suspect, on ALL things Japanese. We took the bus from right across the street to start our exploration at the Kitano Temple where Prof. Michael Pye was our guide.

Exploring Kitano Temple:
On the 25th day of each month, Kitano Temple comes into its own with special devotions offered to the deities to whom it is dedicated. As today is the 25th, our workshop organizers thought it would make sense to include it on our itinerary of Temple Touring–and so we joined the throngs as they passed by endless rows of vendors to the entrance of the temple which, like all Buddhist houses of worship, is divided into several smaller temple structures. We had a chance to watch the faithful at prayer, ring bells to drive away evil spirits, clap their hands twice, bow their heads, walk in Figure 8 circles through adorned hoops, purchase lucky numbers and the accompanying charms that go with them. Indeed a brisk business was being done in the temple courtyard and we watched fascinated as the devotees went through the rituals of their faith.

Then, we were making our way down the long lane lined on both sides with vendors’ make-shift stalls that formed a compelling flea market. We did not purchase anything but it was interesting to watch them sell everything from used kimonos, pottery vases and dining utensils, glass, china, porcelain, wall hangings in silk, paper fans with bamboo frames and a number of delicious eats: dried fruit, varieties of nori (seaweed), fresh fruit. But enticing as the wares were, it was a horribly hot afternoon and as the sun beat down on us in over-90 degree heat, we felt exhausted and dehydrated and I was afraid my migraine headache would return with a vengeance.       

Little wonder that we stopped for a bowl of lemon-flavored shaved ice and ice-cream at a wayside stall as we simply had no energy to proceed. Others had cold Cokes or ice-cream and then, slowly, needing to be fairly rustled up like straggling cattle, we entered yet another bus for a ride to the next temple.

The Charms of Ninnaji Temple:
The next temple on our agenda was Ninnaji and boy, what a delight it was! Ninnaji is everything you think of when you utter the word ‘Japan’. A temple that dates from Heian times (meaning that it is about a thousand years old), it also served as the temple for the Japanese royal family. This meant that no pains or expenses were spared to bring the grandeur of everyday life into the sacred precincts of a temple.

We left our shoes at the entrance and in our stocking-ed feet walked across the tatami mats on long wooden covered corridors that connected small rooms to one other. Although ornamental, there was a basic minimalism about the aesthetic of these buildings–in dark wood, they are covered in tatami mats. Occasionally, the corridors which often ended in the private quarters of the women of the imperial household, overlooked gardens of which there are two distinct kinds: Dry Gardens are composed entirely of sand that is raked periodically in decorative ways, often by Buddhist nuns, as to produce uniform designs that lead the eye towards spaces beyond or enable the eye to focus on the object immediately in front of it; the second kind is Wet Gardens, i.e. ones that include a pond and are constructed around the flowing water created by gentle cascades.

Everywhere Japanese cypress trees gave the landscape the distinctive look of a Japanese garden. My London-based followers will remember how much I love the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park–well, these were similar…only much larger and lacking the proud peacocks that strut around there.Stone lanterns set into the ground provide light after dark. Rocks and stones are used to incredible advantage to trace out stone paths, walls or create spatial partitions. As we entered the most royal of the apartments (spaces in which the women were allotted private quarters and permitted to interact with one another without coming in contact with the outside world)–something like a Moghul zenana or a Turkish harem–we saw beautiful paintings in the classical style on the walls, mother-of-pearl adornment on the low slung seating and shoji screen doors that opened out into charming vistas that provided views of pagodas, tea rooms and the gentle descent of waterfalls. I could just imagine Lady Murasaki seated at her epic Tale of Genji in just such a situation–no wonder her creative juices flowed so abundantly! Needless to say, to my architectural eye, this combination of structure and garden was so delightful that I took an endless number of pictures as I tried to capture the curve of a particular roof line or the romance of a concealing screen or the shadows cast on the water by a stone island.

With difficulty, we pulled ourselves away from this sensual treat and made out way back to the entrance. We had the choice of visiting the Ryonaji Temple whose Zen rock garden is one of Kyoto’s most famous–but we did know that with just one more hour to spare before the temples closed for the day (most shut their doors at 5 pm), we had time for just one more–and I wanted to make it our piece de resistance. So, in the blazing sunshine that was hugely uncomfortable, we waited for the next bus to take us to Kinkaju-ji  Temple that most people would agree is Kyoto’s most stunning single sight.        

The Glory of Kinkaju-ji Temple:
Kinkaju-Ji Temple is referred to often as the Golden Pavilion and for all the right reasons. It is composed of a single double-storeyed pagoda that is completely covered in gilt and topped with a golden phoenix. It sits on its own little island surrounded by a reflecting pool that is, in turn, surrounded by Japanese cypress and cherry trees–so that no matter what the season Kinkaku-ji Temple is a stunner. It provides the perfect backdrop for pictures and I joked that it would be the perfect setting for our next Christmas picture–and so we promptly got one of our new friends to click a picture of the two of us, Llew and myself, with the golden pagoda behind us!

Apart from exclaiming at the sheer beauty of this monument, there is not much to do at this spot–we encircled the temple, climbed up a few steps that led to a hill, the highest point in the complex. And then, feeling quite wiped out by the heat, we sought the bus stop to return to the city as Kinkaku-Ji is in the northern reaches of Kyoto.

However, since Llew and I had the Day Pass for unlimited rides on the local transport services, we separated ourselves from the group and took a bus back to Kyoto Train Station as I was keen to do some window shopping.

Window Shopping and Food Sampling to our Heart’s Content:
The good thing about traveling at this stage in our lives is that we no longer feel the urge to buy anything as we keep wondering where we will accommodate it in our home! So, we are more than content to window shop and, believe me, Japan offers the most amazing opportunity to do just that. When we arrived at the Main train station, we crossed the street to enter the building that immediately offered retail therapy in the form of department stores like The Cube and Isetan. I was keen to see the Food Halls as I was aware that the Japanese have a unique way of displaying and offering eats for sale. And there they were: no two boxes were the same, no two shelves were adorned in the exact manner. Everywhere we looked we saw eats that were so unfamiliar that we had absolutely no idea what they were–and yet they were enticing and attractive because the packaging is so exquisite.

In the Food Halls on the lower floor, we were offered all manner of samplers from pickled vegetables to rice crackers. There were jellied delights that the Japanese seem to adore–some studded with real flecks of gold leaf–in mouthwatering colors and we got to sample them too. They tasted of peanuts and had the consistency of jelly–so very different from anything we have ever eaten!

A Disastrous Dinner:
But after an hour of this pastime, we decided to call it a day and entering a subway train, we returned to Shoji-Dori where our hotel is located. We still had to find a place to dine and deciding to keep it simple, we settled for Nishiki, a place that was recommended by the receptionist at our hotel. Sadly, it turned out to be the worst choice for a number of reasons: firstly, we were placed in the open courtyard at the back on a really warm and humid evening when air conditioning would have been most welcome; secondly, a noisy group of eight teenagers occupied the table right besides us and were as rowdy and raucous as you can imagine. When I inquired if we could be moved, I was informed that all other tables were reserved. When the wait staff appeared, their English was so bad and our Japanese being worse, we could only point to dishes on the menu to indicate what we wanted: Pork Ribs in Sweet Sour Sauce (turned out to be tasty but so thick with fat and crackling as to be inedible to the two of us who like our meats lean) and a bowl of what I thought would be chicken broth with buckwheat noodles but turned out to be a glutinous mess of boiled chicken chunks, eggplant and mushrooms that was so insipid and flavorless as to be equally inedible. It was not a meal to write home about and I think I should stop right here.

So that was our day: scorchingly hot but aesthetically pleasing. Ending with a terrible meal but offering all the local color of a flea market on a day when the faithful came out in droves to offer prayer and thanksgiving. A day that started with me feeling awfully under the weather but ended with me giving thanks that I had managed to find the stamina to keep going without missing a beat. If ever there was a day of unexpected contrasts, it was this one.

As we leave Kyoto tomorrow to discover Nara, we are looking forward to a day of greater fascination–here’s wishing it will be a bit cooler.

Until then…Sayonara!