One comes to Kyoto to see the Shinto shrines and the Buddhist temples. The two religions are intertwined in Japanese culture, and have existed together here since the year 538. And some of the temples are nearly that old.
Our first stop was Rokuon-Ji, the Golden Pavilion, which IS, in fact, covered with gold leaf and topped by a golden phoenix. It’s actually one of the newer sites that we visited, dating from the 1220’s. It’s impressive: you approach it from across a still reflecting pond, and the gold shimmers and reflects in both the water and in the LED screen of every single camera and cell phone from the hundreds of other tourists surrounding you.
Our next stop was Ryoanji Temple. Shoes are removed before entering, and the polished wooden floors are smooth under our socks. There is a “dry” Zen garden within the walls: it is utterly simple, consisting only of a smooth “lake” of white pebbles and 15 rocks arranged in a peaceful pattern. The garden is a rectangle 10 meters by 25 meters. The brochure states, “The longer you gaze at it, the more varied your imagination becomes.” As we gazed, we decided it was very close to being 1/4 of a dressage arena, or a miniature of a beautiful Zen stadium jumping course.
Kyomizu was our third stop. It’s at the top of a hill, and we reached it by trekking upward through a market street selling everything from soft ice cream (white vanilla and green pistachio swirled together) to fans, to good luck charms. We arrive at the massive shrine at the top, toss a coin, ring a gong, offer a prayer. Stare up at the three story pagoda, brilliantly painted in orange and green and topped by the traditional nine-ring spire. Step out onto the dizzying deck with the panoramic view of Kyoto, which was created as a stage for Noh theatre. When we descend again we look up and see that the deck, which rises perhaps 20 stories from the ravine below it, is built using only tongue-and-groove wooden pillars: not a single nail. This is typical construction in these massive temples, and it is why they have survived the many earthquakes that shake Japan: this style allows for flexion in the building during a temblor. Amazing, considering that it’s only in the past century that California building codes have caught up. Fires are another story, though: we visited many temples which had been rebuilt multiple times because of lightning strikes.
Late that afternoon, we were treated to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This was not the stuff of tourist stops: our host was the president of the Chado (The Way of Tea) society. It took place at the Urasenke tea house, in a quiet old Kyoto neighborhood. The tea ceremony is a spiritual ritual designed to still the mind and purify the heart in both the server and the recipient. It focuses on the appreciation of the beauty that may be found in humble objects, such as a tea pot, or the wisk that stirs the tea. Each movement is precisely made. Practitioners study the ceremony for many years in order to attain levels of proficiency. Midori, who has studied this herself, likened it to the ongoing study of dressage. The ceremony is revelatory in it simplicity. It is a meditation. We kneel on cushions; I try not to focus on my airplane-and-touristing stiffened joints. I finally become one with the tatami mat. I am honored by the gift of stillness and privacy that has been bestowed upon us.