12 August Kyoto Nightingale floors, a golden building, an empty garden, a fall from grace, a Buddhist meal, a high rise view and a request for an England shirt.
We walked down to Kyoto station and breakfasted in the Café du Monde, high up above the concourse. The station, built in 1997, is a stunning architectural masterpiece. Heres a photo of reflections in one of its façades. The public space is immensely high, served by three long escalators. From our vantage point in the café (just in front of the bank of television screens showing a noisy pop music programme) we could see down to the main concourse. There were colourfully-clad cleaning teams working enthusiastically to keep the station spotless. They even wash the handrail on the escalators. We could also see, outside, the taxis lining up to collect their passengers. It was almost balletic in that one row of cars would drive forward to the pick-up point, followed by another and another, while the emptied ranks filled with taxis returning to the station.
We took a taxi from the pick-up point and drove to Nijo. This was (and maybe is, for all I know) the second royal palace of Japan. [Japanese lesson: Ni = Two, and Jo = Castle.] It dates from 1603 and was built by Ieyasu Tokugawa, the great shogun. Apparently he hated the place, and only visited by imperial command. The castle is quite impressive, and the rooms, although gloomy rather than shaded, appear relatively cool. There is a great deal of obviously fine painting on walls and shutters, of unmistakably Japanese nature. Entering the castle, you (need I say?) take off your shoes to walk round.
The floors of the castle are cleverly constructed. As you walk, the floorboards make a squeaking sound. These Nightingale Floors (uguisu-bari) were designed to thwart the ninja - assassins, trained to sneak up and commit their dastardly deeds completely silently. However light you are on your feet, the floors squeak. A Japanese family exploring the castle had an infant who had only just learned to walk with them, and even she made the floors squeak. Amazing workmanship, that keeps the floors squeaking after 400 years. Mind you, the floor in my bathroom creaks, and I cant get rid of the wretched noise. Perhaps the joiner was a 400 year old Japanese craftsman. Or not.
One of the rooms had a number of mannikins dressed in formal court robes, depicting daimyo (Barons) and court officials kneeling before Ieyasu himself. This represented the scene when Tokugawa Keiki returned power to the Imperial line. In an anteroom there were mannequins depicting some court ladies, courtesans etc., in formal court regalia, make-up and wigs. They really did look over-dressed for the climate. I was dripping with sweat despite my tee-shirt, shorts and bare feet. How they survived three or four layers of heavy cloth I do not know.
Leaving the castle, we walked through the gardens
and admired the moat and the massive walls that support the castle complex. We hailed a taxi at the castle entrance. It may not sound impressive, but this taxi was the identical one we had used from the station a couple of hours previously. The driver assured us he had driven many fares since dropping us off. Well, we thought it was a striking small-world incident, considering the huge number of taxis in this large city.
Our driver dropped us at Kinkakuji, joking that hed be waiting for us when we needed him. Kinkakuji is the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It was originally built in the late 1300s by a Shogun, as a retirement home. He retired aged 38, so I guess he liked the place. The design accords with descriptions of the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha and is said to be representative of the harmony between heaven and earth. It was in fact a subtle assertion of the heavenly mandate to rule granted to the Ashikaga shogunate. It was burnt down by a lunatic monkish arsonist in 1950 (at least this time they know who caused the fire) and rebuilt in 1955. Only the upper floor is covered in gold leaf, but it is a strikingly handsome building, especially viewed from across the lake that fronts it. There is a striking pinnacle on the top.
This being a Sunday, there were hundreds of Japanese visitors who had also come out to admire its golden charms. We walked through the gardens, onwards to Ryoanji.
Ryoanji (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) is a Zen Buddhist temple. Zen is the minimalist form of Buddhism, whose goal seems to be to empty the mind and the spirit of everything. What it is replaced with is anyones guess. Anyway, Zen is anti-intellectual, stressing the is-ness of is, removing the need for analysis and logic. And here at Ryoanji someone (possibly a monk called Soami, but no one knows for sure) created the ultimate Zen garden, designed as an aid to meditation. The garden is a rectangle of raked whitish gravel, 38 by 10 metres. Three sides are closed off, one by the wall of an adjoining building, the other two by a wall made of clay and boiled oil (isnt that the recipe for putty?). In the garden are fifteen rocks of varying size. They are placed in such a way that from the viewing veranda, you can see no more than fourteen rocks at a time. Very clever. The rocks are seen by some as mountains soaring above clouds, by others as islands in a white sea. I spent about half an hour (well, I didnt have half a lifetime at my disposal!) looking and trying to empty my mind, seeking a revelation of the essence of meaning contained within the garden. And my conclusion was that these are rocks in a bed of gravel.
Lest you think I am dismissive of Ryoanji, I do say that this is a must-see on any trip to Kyoto. There is something atmospheric and tranquil in its ambience. It is one of the images of my trip to Japan that when oft upon my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood comes readily to mind.
Leaving the environs of Ryoanji, we walked along a forest path and came across a Japanese Yodofu-ya restaurant. As it was mid-afternoon by now, and all we had had since leaving the station was about two dozen cold fizzy drinks, we entered.
Ducking beneath the half-curtain that heralds all genuine Japanese restaurants, there was a short series of stone steps that a gardener had recently hosed down. I was wearing a pair of Clarks Dunerunner sandals. These may be all right for, well, running up and down dunes, but I can tell you that they have very poor roadholding on wet granite. I slipped over, bruising my person almost as much as my dignity. I was indeed shaken by the fall.
However, we entered the restaurant and were ushered to a low table on the tatami floor (having of course removed our shoes or in my case, my Dunerunners) overlooking a water garden. The proprietress bustled in and brought us Green Tea, which restored my spirits somewhat. We ordered a set menu which was eventually brought to the table. It, being Buddhist cuisine, was 100% vegetarian. The only tricky item on the menu was the boiled tofu that lurks in the soup or on a plate. It has the consistency of loose egg custard and is not designed to be picked up easily with chopsticks, at least by gaijin. Once again, I enjoyed the pickles, which included some unidentifiable but tasty dark brown material, possibly fungi. I particularly liked tofu-goma, a combination of tofu and sesame paste. It had at least a bit of texture and a nutty flavour. Served with ice-cold beer, the meal was a gourmet experience and a restful break from the heat of the afternoon.
Departing the restaurant (and carefully navigating the treacherous steps) we resumed our walk through the woods and eventually found a taxi rank. Disappointingly, our taxi driver wasnt present, but we took a long ride via (at our request) some interesting sights. To be honest, I nodded off during the ride (must have been the shock of my tumble), so I have no recollection of what we saw. We eventually disembarked at the Kyoto Tower, which we ascended. We had an excellent view over the whole of Kyoto, and took childish pleasure in saying, Been there. Seen that. Didnt buy the T-shirt.
Leaving the tower, we headed for a restaurant, whose name I have forgotten, but it is in the hotel more or less opposite the station. Having finished eating, we took yet another taxi to a bar in the Gion quarter. It was (like all Japanese bars, it seems) small and dark. We ordered drinks, and the barman tried to bribe Stephen to let him have the new England football shirt he was wearing. I think he had offered half shares in the bar before realising that Stephen was not going to part with this priceless item.
So ended yet another fascinating day.
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