10 August.  Kyoto  Temples and shrines, philosophy and origami, wildlife and helping with Japanese research.


Ablutions concluded, we left the hotel and walked all of ten metres to a little restaurant for breakfast.  We ordered the “breakfast set” and took a table at the back of the room.  The wall was in fact a window overlooking a pool.  This was obviously a converted garage, in which a family saloon might have been parked were it not for the excavated pond.  In the pond were some enormous Koi, of variegated colouring, swimming up and down the tank.  They provided a diversion as we ate our traditional breakfast (toast, hard-boiled egg, potato salad, pickles and coffee).  It shows you can get used to anything, as we were later to prove that day.


Our first visit of the day was a bus trip to Kyomizudera, the Clear Water Temple.  This is a spectacular Buddhist temple complex, nestling against the slopes of Higashiyama (“Eastern Mountains”.)  The present buildings are a 17th Century reconstruction of the original 8th Century buildings, lost (as most of Japan’s ancient buildings seem to be) in a series of fires and other calamities.


By the entrance of the main hall is an underground walk.  Taking your shoes off, you pay 100 Yen to the cheerful robed man on the door (possibly a monk, but we didn’t like to ask) and descend into an underground passage.  There is a rope handrail to guide you through.  Within a couple of paces from the bottom of the steps, you are in absolute darkness.  You find you whisper to your companion.  You even think in whispers.  It is also refreshingly cool.  The underground path runs in a circle.  At one point, there is an orange glow, and you eventually realise that there is a polished mushroom-shaped stone illuminated by a tiny opening in the ceiling that admits amber light.  The path continues, and eventually your circuit is completed and you emerge once again into the real world.  Apparently, this underground circuit is “around the Buddha”, the statue of whom is on the ground floor.  You are supposed to be one stage nearer enlightenment, but in all honesty, I don’t think this worked for Val or me.  It was an interesting experience, though, and I recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity.

 Its most spectacular feature is the hondo, or main hall.  It has a veranda supported on a huge number of vast interlocking wooden beams.  There is a view from the veranda to a terrace used for dance and music performances (at least in ancient days).  There is a drop of perhaps 30 or 40 metres to the ground, and one of the guide leaflets refers to a Japanese saying translated as “to jump from Kyomizu’s butai”, meaning to do something extraordinarily daring.


Apparently, there is an annual ceremony where the priests swing burners on the ends of ropes, and the flames spray out onto the crowd beneath.  However, fortunately, we saw none of that.  It was hot enough already.


Near the hondo is a waterfall Otowa-no-taki (“the sound of feathers”) whose water is said to be a universal remedy.  The temple authorities have for hundreds of years kindly provide long-handled cups so that pilgrims can drink of these healing waters.  The cups are taken from an ultra-violet sterilising unit, which displays a lack of faith in the universality of the remedy.  However, we drank – awkwardly (the handles on the cups are a metre long!) - from the cool waters, which was at least refreshing, if not demonstrably restorative.


We walked along the road and entered Nanzenji.  This is a former palace that has been given over to a number of affiliated temples and monasteries.  There is a very impressive gatehouse, the Sanmon, which we ascended, having removed our shoes and paid our fee.  There is a spectacular view over the grounds and towards the hillside from about 30 metres up.

  The gatehouse was the setting for a gruesome event in 1632.  Goemon Ishikawa, a robber with a Robin Hood-like reputation, was sentenced to be boiled alive for his crimes, along with his only son.  He lifted his son above the boiling water in the giant cauldron, saving the boy’s life, while losing his own.  Old-fashioned Japanese iron bathtubs are called goemon-furo in tribute.


There is a beautiful Zen garden here. Some say it is just builders' rubble, others the answer to life, the universe and everything.

The gate is said to be the entrance to one of the three paths of Buddhism, and our ascent apparently set us on that path.  What with our earlier underground enlightenment, we should by now have been deeply into the fundamental tenets of Buddhist philosophy.  So it was no coincidence that we next set off along tetsugaku no michi, or the Philosopher’s Path.  As we walked along the pleasant, tree-lined side of a stream, we mused.  What is the meaning of life?  What is the meaning of meaning?  What is the life of meaning?  Is there a life in meaning?  Is life meaningful?  Is meaning lively?  What is the sound of one hand clapping?  Why is yesterday?  Or was it?  Is this a question?  Or is that a question?  What is why?  Why is?  You what?


After a quarter of an hour of this, we were glad to arrive at a small tea-room, where we took refreshment.  We were thrilled to find inside a genuine, no-mistake Buddhist monk in black and white robes, taking tea and smoking a fag.


Some of these Buddhist monks survive on almsgiving. We gave alms on more than one occasion.

We ordered cold drinks and ices and gladly rested our weary bones.  As we were leaving, (gratifyingly using the toire, one by one, before departure) we noticed some origami tessellated polyhedra on a shelf.  There was a range of them, from about 15cm diameter down to less than 1 cm.  I showed them to Val on her return and she was duly impressed.  Remember that this was a woman who had herself impressed the Japanese at Hiroshima with her facility at folding origami cranes.  The owner of the tea-room saw us looking at them and entered into a conversation with Val about the finer points of origami via our trusty interpreter, Stephen.  The upshot of it was that the lady gave Val one of the most intricate items as we departed, and would have furnished her with a pile of the special origami paper if we had let her.


Almost every Japanese person we met was kind, friendly and warm to us, which frankly I had not expected, knowing how formal many Japanese social relationships are reputed to be.  Our experience was that the Japanese people are, on the whole, more generous, kindly and, indeed, trusting than the British.  On a number of occasions, Japanese people approached us in the street to ask if we needed help or directions when we were puzzling over a map.  Volunteered help like this is a rare commodity in England (although I have met similar warm-heartedness in Dublin, but that is another story).


As we walked along the Philosopher’s path (having run out of deep questions, we were now reduced to “Are England going to qualify for the World Cup in 2002?”*, “Are restaurant meals cheaper, more expensive, or the same in Japan and England?”, and “Which is better, English Bitter or Japanese lager?”), our ramblings were punctuated by an extraordinarily loud buzzing.  This was the product of the semi or cicada.  These are bulky flying insects that sit around on trees buzzing.  How such a relatively small animal can produce such a relatively loud sound is a mystery.  “How the heck does it do that?” we mused.  We came across a mother with two small children out cicada hunting.  This is apparently a common pastime among the Japanese, especially Japanese children, who even have purpose-made cicada boxes to put their captives in, when released from the net used for catching them.  The boy proudly took a captured cicada out of his box to show us.  It dutifully buzzed loudly and we proceeded on our way, bowing and thanking him for sharing his conquest with us.


Along the way, we also saw this beautiful dragonfly.


A little further on we saw a Japanese Killer Bee.  This is a seriously huge stripy beast, in memory about a metre and a half long, but in reality only 2% of that.  It is still B-I-G.  Having spotted the creature, we stood stock still, in the hope that it would ignore us.  I do not think we would have been happy to have had the monster land on one of us.  According to Stephen, the ordinary, gentle, honey-bees are victims of predatory raids by these giants, but have developed a singular defence.  (He got this off a television programme, so it must be true.)  They allow the mugger to enter the hive, and then pounce on it en masse.  About a dozen bees sit on it and pinion its wings, while others sting it to slow it down.  The big ‘un is not easily affected by the tiddlers’ venom, so many bees have to sting, and die, in the process.  The upshot is that the interloper’s cooling system cannot work and the bee overheats.  It suffers a fate akin to Goemon Ishikawa, and dies from heat exhaustion.  That is the end of today’s nature study lesson, children.


At the far end of the path, we came to Ginkakuji.  This is the “Silver Pavilion” built by the shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga in the 15th Century.  For unexplained reasons, the building never received its coating of silver leaf, so its name is rather misleading.  Nevertheless, it is an attractive building in attractive gardens.  There is a Zen garden including a raked area of white gravel containing a flat-topped conical mound made of the same stone.  Some say that this is a representation of the great mountain of Fuji, but a less romantic account says that it is in fact a pile of builder’s rubble left over after the temple was constructed.  One way or the other, it seems pristine and serene, set among the green and leafy trees and shrubs at the foot of a hillside.


Ginkakuji was built by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa for his retirement.  He actually lived from 1453 to 1490, so was only 37 when he died.  His last five years were spent as a Zen Buddhist monk, so he was rather younger than 32 when he retired.  Yoshimasa spent his pre-monastic retirement, according to one guidebook, devoting his time “to the appreciation of women, the tea ceremony, moon-gazing, incense-sniffing and other refinements”.  Just like the lads from “Last of the Summer Wine”, then.


Leaving Ginkakuji, we took a taxi over to the Heian Shrine, the Shrine of Peace and Tranquillity.  There is a stunningly huge concrete, vermilion torii spanning the main road.  The Shrine complex is very large and the orange-red paintwork quite startlingly vivid.  After a 20-minute walk round the main buildings, it started to spit with rain, so we took refuge in a cafeteria over the road.  Refreshed, we took another taxi back to the ryokan, where we made use of the washing machine.


Showered and freshly attired, we took another taxi over to the Gion quarter.  Stephen found us a traditional restaurant on the banks of the Pontocho.  There were low tables and we sat on tatami mats in the open air.  The restaurant was very busy and I was glad that I had a wooden fence to lean against.  I am not used to sitting cross-legged for any length of time, and tend to fall over if unsupported.  This is nothing to do with the excellent Japanese beers available.


The menu was in Japanese script, so we put ourselves in Stephen’s hands and allowed him to order for us.  A variety of grilled dishes arrived, together with bowls of miso.  There was also some sashimi with accompanying sauces.  Stephen had arranged for two specialities to be brought.  The first was Ba-sashi, apparently a local delicacy.  It looked like 2cm squares of thin corned beef.  Eaten just like sashimi – dipped in shoyu and wasabi – it was very tasty.  Val found hers a bit chewy, but mine was very tender.  Maybe my teeth are tougher.  This turned out to be raw horsemeat.  Stephen, connoisseur of such things, said he thought it a little disappointing, having “obviously” been defrosted.  “You really need it fresh”, he pronounced.  The second speciality – Kujira - was some thin white squares with red edges (presumably the result of some kind of marinade).  This looked like, and had something of the texture of, sliced coconut.  Dipped in the ubiquitous shoyu, it had a rather oily but quite pleasant, rather fishy flavour.  As you may have guessed, this was raw whale.  We contributed by this to the Japanese Whale Research effort.


Would I eat these two specialities again?  Well, the horse was better than “OK”.  I might eat it again if offered.  As to the whale .... I suffer from the indoctrination of my children who were encouraged by their primary school teachers to “Save the Whale”, so I have a troubled, or rather, muddled, conscience in the matter.  Mind you, one of those children is Stephen, and it was he who procured it for us!  And I remember my parents talking about whale meat being eaten in Britain during the 2nd world war.  And it was in fact rather tasty.  So .... yes, in all probability I would eat it again.


We walked off and went into a small coffee shop / bar for a nightcap.  Back to our hotel by taxi, and a good night’s sleep, dreaming atavistic dreams of primeval whale hunts and horses killed by spear.


* Yes.

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