Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kyoto - Eikan-do and Nanzen-ji Temples

Near the southern end of the Philosopher's Walk, on the eastern edge of Kyoto, lay the two sprawling temples of Eikan-do and Nanzen-ji. We visited each temple at the end of a different day - an unplanned bit of serendipity, as the light was perfect in the late afternoon.

Eikan-do, the more northerly of the two, came first. The temple has three claims to fame: an iconic hillside pagoda, some spectacular gardens, and a statue of a backwards-looking Amida Buddha. (A bit less of a draw these days.)

As with many of the temples we visited on this trip, Nana and I spent a lot of time just wandering - these big temples have a lot of pretty little nooks and crannies to explore. I think our favorite spot was an enclosed courtyard in the old abbot's house, filled with a swampy little koi pond and some brilliant red and yellow trees.

We sat down here to wait out a brief rain shower, but ended up staying quite a while, as the considerable crowds drifted quietly by. A whole ten minutes, at least, were spent marvelling at a strange little freshwater crab that seemed to be common in those parts.

But that little courtyard wasn't the only place we stopped and sat around a bit: this Zen garden was also a good spot for a little quiet contemplation.
After a time, we started up the hill to the pagoda, where we'd been told to expect a nice view of the eastern part of the city.

Alas, I couldn't seem to find a good angle on the pagoda itself, one of the classic Kyoto sights.

In addition to all this, Eikan-do is also known for its diverse architecture. The aforementioned pagoda, accented in red, blends Chinese and Japanese elements. Other parts of the temple are classically Japanese, all dark wood and white walls with occasional touches of gold.
While still other parts of the temple look almost Korean, exploding with vibrant colors.


We wrapped up the following day at nearby Nanzen-ji, the head temple of the Rinzai Zen branch of the same name. While Eikan-do feels very much like a temple, Nanzen-ji feels more like a park, with buildings and sub-temples dotting its wooded expanse.

At the front of the temple is a huge ceremonial gate half-hidden by trees. For a small fee, you can climb to the second-floor balcony, which is a rare treat - most of the time, you're stuck staring up at these things from below.

 The balcony provides a great 360-degree view of the temple and its surroundings.

Nana thought that tree looked suspicious.
At the back of the temple is the abbot's house and its famous Leaping Tiger Garden.

Strangest-looking HoJo's I've ever seen.

Not pictured: leaping tigers.

You'll notice the plastic bag Nana's carrying. It's not discount luggage - it's actually her shoes. Guests at most temples in Kyoto have to tour the buildings in their socks. This is partly a nod to the Japanese custom of changing shoes when entering a house, but it's more importantly a preservation measure, as socks are a whole lot gentler on old wooden floors.

It does mean your feet get pretty chilly by the end of the day.

After exploring the abbot's house, Nana and I headed uphill, so a noted sub-temple and its little garden on the southern edge of the complex.

On the way, an eerie sight: a 19th-century aqueduct, casting a gloomy shadow over the trees.

I can't tell you if it's still in use, but the water is still running. There are even some fish in there, and at least one patient heron perched on the ledge.

The sub-temple garden itself was a fine spot to rest our legs for a bit at the end of the day.

Nana in quiet, totally un-ironic contemplation.
As we were leaving Nanzen-ji, the setting sun gave us one last glimmer on the roof of the main hall.

EDIT: I've just noticed that I described Nanzen-ji out of order - we went up the hill first, then to the abbot's house. But I'm much too lazy, and photos in Blogger are much too unwieldy, so please forgive me for leaving the post as it is.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Blogging Busted

You may have noticed that I've been doing most of the blogging lately. While I'd like to take full credit for this burst of creativity, the truth is I'm not much good for anything else.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we had a little FIS Turkey Bowl down on the beach. By the end of the contest, I was on the DL with a couple cracked ribs. This means Nana has had to take on most of the housework, now that I've rendered myself even less useful than usual.

A shame, as Nana has some cool stuff to say about her brief stint as a geisha. But that will have to wait until we're home for Christmas! For now, you're stuck with my pedantry, and Nana's stuck with the chores.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kyoto - Ginkaku-ji, Zen, and the Philosopher's Walk

It's not a stretch to say that Kyoto is the heart of Zen. Or at least, it's been the heart of Zen as we know it since the Higashiyama Period, the 15th-century golden age of Japanese Zen culture. The period is named after the mountains on the eastern flank of Kyoto, which is not coincidentally Kyoto's busiest tourist district.

Zen infused everything in old Higashiyama, from gardening and architecture to arranging flowers and drinking tea. And the epicenter of this Zen renaissance was Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, then a mountainside villa for a retired shogun, now a ten-minute walk from the little B&B where we stayed.

The pavilion itself looks out on the classic Zen garden - a great place for quiet contemplation.

And for getting photo-bombed by nattily-dressed Japanese men.
The front part of the temple garden is in what I very unprofessionally think of as the "severe Zen" style: precisely manicured rock gardens with painstakingly sculpted sand.

This is actually a video. He's just being really Zen.
Further back, though, the rock gardensgive way to a labyrinth of dim, wooded walks.

The momiji (Japanese maple) were in full flame.

I always find yakusugi (Japanese cedar) delightfully spooky.

As you can see, the Japanese have an eye for seamless blends of artifice and nature: a mossy forest floor picked completely clean of fallen leaves, a glassy koi pond with islands and inlets and coves, a sturdy whitewashed temple framed with timbers worn nearly black with age.

At times, it's like the aesthetic spilled out of the temples and into Higashiyama itself. Take, for example, these glimpses of the famous Philosopher's Walk, a meandering hillside walk that connects northern Higashiyama's most important sites.

This is what philosophy looks like.

The Philosopher's Walk is crowded with beautiful little temples that would get top billing anywhere else. Seeing them all would take at least a day and cost a small fortune (those little entrance and upkeep fees really start to add up).

One, for instance, had an ancient-looking traditional gate.

Inside were more meticulous sand sculptures.

And a Fachwerkhaus . . . ?

Plus the obligatory bridge over the obligatory pond.
Seriously, every little turn seemed to bring some breathtaking little thing.

Through the course of our travels, I took literally hundreds of these snapshots, trying to capture some tiny fraction of all the pretty things.
Somehow I ended up in a few of them.

For those of you keeping score at home, that's three temples down, of at least a solid half-dozen where we really spent some time. Stay tuned for Eikan-do and Nanzen-ji, the two heavy hitters at the southern end of the Philosopher's Walk.