Thursday, 20 May 2010

Pondering Ryoanji

Looking back to my trip to Kyoto, one place stands out more than any other- Ryoanji Temple. It isn't the biggest, nor the smallest, so I wondered- what is it about that place that appeals to me so much? 

Ryoanji is most of all known for it's rock garden. Yet there is much more to it than that. A rich and vivid garden, along with a broad temple pond adorn the grounds. Seeing this, we can understand the rock garden in context, disabusing us of misconcieved stereotypes of Zen Buddhism. Just as the Buddha found aeseticism to be merely a way to clear the mind temporarily and not something to take to extremes, so did the Buddhist monks that followed him. 

The rock garden provides a gorgeous opportunity to encounter the concept of negative space. I rank it very highly as being one of the very few examples of minimalism that have captured the public imagination. The joy in simplicity is known as 'wabi-sabi'. In modern times, though, a search for harmony amidst an increasingly busy world has lead to such aesthetics becoming the very embodiment of what modernity stands for, or should I say, seeks for. From crystal-like green-glass skyscrapers to devices like the iPod, 'negative space' is all the rage. Yet for all this, it is worth exploring just why we find it so attractive- why living in such relative opulence to what we had before, would we seek to see less?

One reason, to me is the evolution of mind. We gravitate towards simplicity as we learn more about satisfying, final results. The fact that these Buddhist monks reached so far shows the value of their monastic community, one that emphasised self-knowledge as much as faith. Another is by way of contrast with the relative complexity of daily life. Just as finer foods have become commonplace, even expected, so have better standards of living. Many people are starting to realise that a foundation of serenity helps you to enjoy the otherwise overwhelming stream of impressions that daily life throws our way. By being in harmony, we can find order and meaning in what would otherwise appear as a cacophony of sensation. We yearn for the negative space we need to balance the profusion of impressions around us. Busier than ever, we need more rest.

Yet the negative space itself is best appreciated by beings like ourselves alongside such positive impressions. Hence the gardens or Ryoanji, that have some of the nicest and certainly the most carefully cultivated flowering plants throughout Japan, especially the collection of cherry trees. I was amazed at their colour and perfection, something I've only seen elsewhere at Shinjuku-Gyoen park in Tokyo. I'd never really realised how nice the gardens are, seeing only the minimalist rocks. Yet now I understand that one balances the other, each being a message of the Zen view of life as both simple and vibrant, quiet and relevant, embodying 'Ying' and 'Yang'- though in true Zen style, these are to be experienced rather than merely categorised. Where better to experience them than in a pure land-like garden?


Often known as the 'Kyoto of the East' (well it should be, anyway), this ancient city preserves an incredible amount of temples and shrines from the 'Kamakura Period' when this was the nation's capital.

My favourite place to start here is from the further station, Kita Kamakura. Here you can find more of the sites I. Their original, undisturbed woodland settings, whereas Kamakura itself is more of a modern town, wih both all the conveniences and all the distractions this provides.

I like to take a leisurely stroll through the gardens of Zen Temples. For me such a stroll, with a camera to record whatever I find, is a meditation in itself. The atmosphere of such places draws me to them time and time again (they also make for a great place to go with visiting friends, not just for the scerery, but also it's peaceful affect on conversation).

Often my favourite findings are the local cats, who tend to live in the temples and often have a personality all of their own!

This is just a note for now... more later!

Travel Lessons Learnt During My Kyoto Trip

Lessons learnt during the Kyoto Trip-

1) Open your heart to those around you, to help or be helped as the case may be. We are ultimately all Pilgrims on this planet, whether or not we are in our 'home countries'

2) Make a plan, perhaps with a backup in some cases, but a plan to be followed fairly religiously. This avoids confusion and it should be clear that the main plan always takes precedence. The travel is more enjoyable when you can be in the moment rather than thinking all the time of what comes next.

3) Travel light (wherever possible). For cameras, one Dslr and a backup are best, or perhaps two with lightish lenses. The same goes for bags; bring what youy need, but travel light.

4) Make a longer trip in the beginning of the day and do things closer to home in the evening. The distance needs to be measured partly in travel time, but also in the amount of things to be done there. That is, a single event with a longer travel time may well be shorter than a short journey with many things to do.

5) In connection with this, places where the main attraction is early-closing temples or museums need to be done first- not just early in a way that might need rushing, but first. Things involving evening walks or at least no closing times can be last.

6) Work plans within the confines of local transportation and the need for regular breaks- at least one main meal is needed, be it lunch or dinner. Too hard a schedual is to be avoided, as if isn't enjoyable and won't produce the memories or pictures desired. It can also make you irritable and closed to others- whilst part of the very purpose of the trip is to meet others and share the fun.

7) Breaks are as important as the action. They are a chance to gather thoughts, plan, meet others, meditate on the meaning of events and also of course their most obvious function, looking after the needs of the body itself.

8) Events and visits need build up, to create the anticipation they deserve. Rushing to places isn't as good as approaching them in a sensitive manner, cognisant of the meaning-values that they supply. One way to dp this is to use especially-themed buses of trains to get there. Sure, they're touristy, but they get you in the mood and avoid your great enemy- a complacent addiction to mundane, everyday reality, with it's obsession with convenience and predictable, mediocre results.

9) You see the whole idea is to stay aware that you are on a trip, bringing your fantasies aof the place or time into your reality. Whatever will dilute this or even obscure it with unneccessary confusion is to be avoided at all costs. This is real travelling- and with it's openess to the people around you and respect for the surroundings, it is as good for others as for you. Smooth yet inspiring- let these be your watchwords for your time in Japan.

10) A trip may be short, even tiring, at times difficult- yet the benefits offered are immence. It doesn't end with the duration of the journey- a trip leaves a residual inner impression and imbues you with the essence of the place. It is a great chance to acquire experience, knowledge, even grow in wisdom or faith as you see more of how life works, beyond the usual goldfish bowl-like limitations of waking life.

Side Notes-

1) Don't have to see everything in a place, just what interests you the most. Likewise, with temples, sone of them have expansive grounds that may not always be all that interesting. You can always leave after seeing the main attractions- which isn't to say you shouldn't wonder around the other parts if you like it there. Just don't feel you have to be a completest about it. After all, no-one else will really care what you chose to do, but they'll be interested in your stories about it.

2) If there is a pass, especially for buses of trains, it is generally worth getting. This not only for the financial benefits (which may be small or nob-existant). More, for the ease of use, so you aren't fiddling for change.

3) Likewise, before you set out, make sure you have everything you need. Keys, money, charged camera batteries, tissues, coupons if needed. Nothing is worse than the frustrationof finding out too late that you forgot something. That isn't to say you shoud bring too much, either! Bring what you needs d maybe a little bit extra, just in case. But travel a bit light and feel free from pressure to use things just because you brought them along. With modern, wheeling luggage you can bring a lot overall- but what you bring when you set out the door should be a lot less.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Mysterious Rocks of Ryoan-ji

From Kinkakuji, I made my meandering to the equally famous, but much more indecipherable Ryoanji. If you know next to nothing about Japan or Zen, it may still appear evocative to you of everything they stand for. Like Hokusai's famous 'Great Wave' (actually titled, Under a Wave off Kanagawa'), it has come to be seen as athe very symbol of Zen teachings and perhaps their most successful depiction- a depiction of something indescribable, though perhaps hinted at through riddle-like koans that open the mind up to greater mysteries. In fact the rock garden that is the certerpiece here embodies it's own impossibilities and puzzles. A garden of 15 rocks, carefully designed so that only 14 can ever be seen at once. If all 15 offer a depiction of the universe as a whiole, we as presumably unenlightened beings can never yet see the picture as an uninterupted whole.

The sheer power of this garden is it's simplicity. Even now, thousands from around the world visit every day- not for obvious reasons like the golden splendours of Kinkakuji- but to sit and look at a bunch of rocks! People sit for quite a while, even taking to their friends or loved ones about them, happy to be there. Very old rocks, that have stood in their carefully raked garden of pebbles for centuries- yet rocks all the same. It's popularity alone is testament to it's achivement of the paradoxical. Of course, in the world of religion such things are not at all uncommon. Sacred rocks are known of all over the world, whether they be walls, tombs, fallen meteors or symbolic embodiments of gods. Yet these rocks aren't even seen to be sacred and their visitors are often people looking for something beyond such beliefs.

So here they stand, their meaning a message in their arrangement. For sure, they are evocatively beautiful, elegantly arranged. Like any great work of art, it is what it says to you that matters, not to me or anyone else. Whatever their power, they draw me to them time and time again, sitting, looking, pondering,attempting to go beyond my usual thought to be at one with their message. They are simply enjoyable to look at and that is a pleasure in itself.Who knows, perhaps the whole thing is one big Zen joke and there really is no meaning! If any literal one is intended, it is surely lost in the mists of time; yet the impression, as with so much from the culture of Zen, is unmistakably refreshing and immediate.

Around the rock garden are expansive, green and beautiful park-like gardens. Some of the most incredible cherry blossoms in Japan have been planted here over the years and it shows- the colours were magnificent, especially in the close-to setting sun that slowly sank behind them.

Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji; when it comes to Japanese temples, you can't find much more striking designs than these two masterpieces, located, along with Shokoku-ji, on the northern outskirts of the city. Kinkakuji, located by Kinkaku-ji Cho, Kita-Ku, is for many the default image of Kyoto, it's golden form dwelling serenely amongst the surrounding gardens. Although the real name of the temple is Rukuon-ji ('Temple of the Deer Park), it is the popular name, 'Temple of the Golden Pavilion' which has stuck. The Phoenix sitting atop it (as over it's 'sister temple', Ginkakuji) is really the icing on a very attractive cake and a hint at one of the most enchanting features of the gardens- wild birds make their appearance, enhancing the sense of stillness with their graceful behaviour and cries. Seeing this heron land on a small island was like a scene from a Chinese plate come to life- perfect, timeless, yet so very real, as if I was seeing nature as it should be seen.

Asking people for their recommendations in Kyoto made me find that there seems to be a bit of a fashion for people to say that this isn't their favourite- after all, Kinkakuji gets all the attention and who wants to appear uncouth in adding to it? Yet even a casual visitor will see why it gets so much praise. In short, this is a masterpiece of marrying artistic, man-made designs with nature and one which the many centuries of civilisation that have come and gone since it's inception has come no-where near matching. As in so many locations in Kyoto, you may well be seeing something made in the past, but you have a deep sense that it will last far further into the future than most of the buildings existing around us every day.

The shiny, delicate gold structure stands before a large pond. On a clear day, reflections make it into the waters, stretching out like golden sunlight and into the ripples. Around it are various Japanese trees, some of them bearing blossoms, others hanging their branches over the waters, catching the passing reflections. To truly appreciate the garden, you need to remember that it is a form of living art, animated by nature, showing appreciation for her delicate beauty. As the seasons change, so do the colours and moods, something no painter or graphic designer has yet managed since (though perhaps the seasonally-changing colours on my Playstation 3's home screen is a nod to such possibilities in the digital realm). A garden like Kinkauji is a dream come to life, a taste of pure and heavenly lands here on the Earth; a search for perfection that has managed to find some taste of it. This, of course was the whole idea, it representing a 'pure land', in which the path to enlightenment might be so much easier to find. What more could you ask for, more gardens, perhaps? Well, they are there to be seen!

As you follow the regular route around you can see why this Disneyland of spirituality has survived and stayed popular so long. Another, larger pond awaits you, the Kyokoji pond, with it's still waters reflecting various buildings and unusual rock formations. There is also both the ritual teahouse, the Sekkatei, or 'favourable sunset teahouse', as it apparently gives a wonderful view of the setting sun reflected off the golden centerpiece (which unfortunately, due to early closing times, we can perhaps never be around for) and one for visitors, which as per usual I was too late to go to, for a nice cup of matcha; frothy, creamy, whipped green tea, as different from that found in vending-machine bottles here as real ale is from a can of lager.

Kyoto and Nara- The Plan

Here was my basic plan for the three-odd days that I was there, updated a bit to show what I actually did. The last day was the hardest to plan for me, as I  certainly wanted to make the most of it and there is so much to do and see. Specifically, I wanted to see more of Arashiyama, which I have always enjoyed so much and also see the Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku No Michi, where a famous Japanese philosopher liked to stroll), which is lined by beautiful cherry trees. All of this was to be done alongside my 'main' plan for the day, a trip to Ohara, which I knew would be great as it is a quiet and inspiring site. In the end, I thought a decent trip to Arashiyama would be too much alongside Ohara, especially since I had to be back in time for my train (well, I could have gotten a slightly later one, but then I'd lose my seat reservation and have to walk all the way to the non-reserved cars, which itself can take a while).

In the end, The Path of Philosophy won, as I hadn't been there on the trip and also have great memories of it, especially with the trees in blossom. I wasn't even going to go there until I met a young Japanese couple who had walked along it and had such a great time; not top mention the fact that I had already been to Arashiyama on the first day (see below!) and going twice on the same trip seemed too much; logically at least. If I could decide again, maybe I'd do Arashiyama- not because I didn't have a great experience on the Path; I did, but because it was what I really wanted to do for some reason, partly to see the temple gardens around there, which seemed to me to have a very Zen feeling about them. So, to make up for this, I'll be seeing more of both there on my next journey up there, whenever that is, and really get to know it well.

As far as weather goes, I was very fortunate (though, this being a photography trip in part, I made sure to check first). Each day was sunny, with a little cloud cover that at times, especially in the early part of the day, made it a bit overcast. I don't mind that much for photos, as it results in rich colours, but as a traveller, I just seem to have more energy and enthusiasm on a sunny day. Cloudiness and rain make me go more into myself- fine when you are seeing museums and the like, not so good for activity. So with the general sunniness, I'd say the weather looked after me well.

Kyoto Trip Plan

Day 1- Northern Kyoto

Get in
Drop off large bag at the hotel
Take a bus to North Kyoto
Go to Kinkakuji
Go to Ryoanji
Take a local train to Arashiyama for the evening.

Day Two- Nara and Kyomizu-dera

Get up really early

Go to Nara
See Todaiji temple, the shrine, Yoshikien garden and Kofukuji temple
See the deer park, relax there, take photos of the deer
Afterwards go back and then go to Kiyomizu-dera for the evening light up (6:30-9:30)
If time, also see something of Gion (there wasn't time, but the shops outside Kiyomizu were great).

Day 3-  Ohara and Ginkakuji

Get up early
Go to wait at breakfast room by about 6:50
(the day before I'd got there at 7, the starting time, but found myself on a line for the wonderful 'Kyoto breakfast' I had tickets for).

Take bus number 17 bound for Ohara (1 hr), nap on the bus
See Sanzen-in
See Jacko-in (didn't make it there, spent so long in Sanzen-in)
Have lunch
Head back to Kyoto
Go to see the Path of Philosophy and Ginkakuji 
(the replacement plan to Arashiyama, in the end I made it to Ginkakuji just before last entry)

Head back to the hotel around 18:00
Pick up my bag and get the Shinkansen back

Kyoto- Japan's City of Heritage

I just returned yesterday from one of my most incredible trips yet- to Kyoto and Nara in the height of the cherry blossoms. Whilst in a sense I shun the whole idea of touristy places, it needs to be said that people really do go to the best spots in droves and so long as they have the right approach- as 'cultural tourists' generally do, as opposed to holidaymakers looking for a quick thrill- they can add to a place as much as they distract from it. The cherry blossom or autumn leave season is a time to see Kyoto at it's best- and vivid, beautiful colours complimented the ancient structures to be found there.

Kyoto is a city with an incredible amount of very beautiful heritage sites- I'd go so far as to say that it easily eclipses anywhere else I've been in Japan both for the quantity and quality of such offerings. Not only that, but the types of buildings and Zen-gardens to be found there are altogether to my taste. They possess the supra-modern, almost futuristic simplicity that originally attracted me to Japan like no-where else. Being here, the warmth and friendliness of many of the people, the rich variety of food (not just Japanese, hence all the Michelin stars!) and the general zaniness to be found contrasting the general copncervatism is all great to find. Yet the sheer aesthetic pleasure of a zen garden is what really does it for me- it's almost something sensual, as despite knowing next to nothing about how it cam about, I am carried away by them. If nothing else, they encourage a meditative mind like nothing else I know of.

So yes, Kyoto has a wonderful collection of places- but forget about the usual efficiency of travel in seeing them. Not only are some of the greatest ones spread so far apart that it makes no sense to even think about seeing them all in one day, but they are clustered in groups, along with pathways and interesting shopping to build up to them. Whilst in this modern age we are spared the trials of a full-on pilgrimage by foot or, if we had been lucky way back then, horseback, Kyoto tends to make up for this with both these pleasant strolls to between locations and a horrendous public transport network that makes the whole place creed along like a developing country back in the '80s.

Consider this- Japan's most important tourist spot doesn't even have a direct bus to the relevant sites, let alone between them. Yes, to get to places like Ginkaku-ji, the 'Silver Pavilion', you have to wade through traffic throughout the whole city, even during the mopst touristed times. Why the town planners don't fix this, or even develop the subway to cover the whole city, I can't fathom; but I expect some kind of laziness, corruption or more likely a severe under-appreciation of the value of the sites is responsible (apparently the hordes of taxi-drivers love the situation, which may be part of the answer, but as a single traveller they weren't an attractive option). Other places, like Kamakura, Mt Fuji, even Hakone have worked it out, so why can't Kyoto, of all places? The upside is that it means you are more likely to make the most of the areas you go to, seeing more they have to offer and also the anticipation builds as you approach. In short, it all adds up to something more like a pilgrimage than the 'tourism' you may be used to in more efficient places.

The best way to see the place is to give yourself a few days, preferably 3-5 (I only had three, which I kind of regretted, but it was hard to get anywhere more affordable to stay and of course, living here, I can return again). Think of the trip as something to divide into whole-day or half-day plans. People have their own favourite places, which to an extent reflects their taste, but a few I would say are unmissable;
Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Kyomizu-dera and, especially in spring-time, a pleasant place like the Path of Philosophy or Arashiyama. The nearby town of Nara (an earlier capital) is also a wonderful place, which with it's massive deer-park and greenery is often preferred over the relative bustle of Kyoto. To my mind, it's cultural treasures arte impressive, but not nearly as inspiring as those in Kyoto, partly because they come from an early age, which seems to me to have had cruder values; there's just not the same delicacy that you see in Kyoto's works. Yet, nothing can beat a stroll with the deer, (who you can feed, if you don't mind risking your bag getting nibbled as well), past forests of trees and soothing ponds. For that alone, the place is unmissable and you can probably see everything you want there in half a day.

Many of these places are on the outskirts of Kyoto, yet if you are willing to go a little further afield, you can make it to some more rural attractions; Sanzen-in in Ohara, or the onsen town of Kurama. Sanzen-in is one of the nicest temple gardens I've ever been to and you walk up a winding road of small shops, alongside a trickling stream to get there. They are both great experiences in their own right, which is why if you can spare the time, it's better to have some for journeys like these as well.

Next, up, I'll tell you about my trip, place by place, along with photos.