stepping stones of truth

A journey along the path of life - the stones can be rough, smooth or even wobbly!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Kyoto Diary : postscript

One of the lovely coincidences on this visit, was that the hotel room I was staying in, had exactly the same painting on the wall that gave rise to the name of this blog. (Same hotel, different room) I tell the story in the very first post Its rough golden higlights still gleamed gently out over the room at night, like a gilded icon in a dark cathedral.

I felt that the trip had the atmosphere of a retreat. I feel that I managed to look quietly and deeply at the gardens and temples, and didnt hang on to the past impressions when it was a previously enjoyed place or event. And tried not to be attached to all the lovely new experiences either!

It was with gentle sadness that I learnt, on my return, that one of the members of our meditation group had died while I was away. A lovely young person, she was a shining example of how to live with joy while dying of cancer. I wonder if she died while I was watching this leaf dancing.

From "Peace is every step" by Thich Nhat Hanh
"One autumn day, I was was in a park, absorbed in the contemplation of a very small, beautiful leaf, shaped like a heart. Its color was almost red, and it was barely hanging on the branch, nearly ready to fall down. I spent a long time with it, and I asked the leaf a number of questions....
...... I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me "No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree. So I dont worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her "I will see you again very soon"

That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from that leaf."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Kyoto Diary : Nine

This is the most English of Japanese gardens, Murin-an. It still has all the defining components of a traditional garden eg shakkei or borrowed landscape (the bringing of the distant hillside as if it were a part of the garden itself), rounded clumps of planting, and the stream cascading through the garden. But it has grass, nay verily, a lawn! Its a twentieth century design, and was the garden of a famous artist. Very accessible for western minds.

The fence creates a stunning pattern in the sun and leaf shade. It was in this garden on a visit before, upon seeing the shadows of bamboo leaves against a plain cream wall, that I remembered my Dad offering to put new wallpaper of my choice in my bedroom. I was about eleven. I chose a stylised design of bamboo leaves on a pale cream background. Hmmmm.

Tenju-an is centuries older, and is my number one ichiban favourite of all time. Although I have seen it in autumn before, I must have always seen it in the afternoon. The light was totally different. I could have been visiting a new garden - well, no, not really. But then, yes, its changed. Thus " a change IN thing, is a change OF thing" as my old teacher used to say!

Anyway it is still a delight to my eyes and my heart. How could you not step through the doorway, and walk along those stepping stones? I entered and walked along the stepping stones - enjoying every step, every moment. Going along the path just for the sake of walking, not for the purpose of going somewhere. "I have arrived. I am home. In the here, and in the now." Thich Nhat Hanh

Such unity and harmony. All those separate entities - stones, maples, plants - together make a harmonious whole that is totally satisfying for me. Perfect.

And just when things cant get any better, another small gateway reveals a large pond with a stroll path around it. And the sunlight, shining through the tall bamboos behind, takes your breath away.

Even the smallest stone basin holds the whole world within it. Aaaaaaaahh.

The next day was a free day, and my last whole day in Kyoto. I decided that I would not go to any more gardens, but would ascend Mt Hei or Heizan which guards the north west of Kyoto (one of the feng shui reasons for founding the city here all those years ago).

I decided to go by bus all the way, rather than fathom out the train, mountain railway and cable car version. It was a day of missed buses. Fine usually, but these buses were one every hour. However, "nowhere to go, nothing to do, I'm not in a hurry" another Thich Naht Hanh style song.

The road up is so high, that I saw an airship out of the window, at about our height. I expected everyone in the bus to be amazed like me, but they took no notice and were more intent on looking out for maple autumn colour! Maybe it often comes there?

The hill is full of temples among the trees. And this is a new, small World Peace Bell the sign said.

But this bell was absolutely huge. When the log was swung at it, the sound reverberated around and appeared to die away. But if you listened, the sound came back again, it hummed deeply. And after that it faded into silence,then it happened again. Three times before it became silent finally. Totally amazing. But then I am transfixed by bells.

Enryaku-ji is a temple that once spread right out across the mountain. I know it is still spread out, because instead of the bus down, I caught the shuttle bus by accident. And spent a happy (and free) half hour on the bus, going along tiny roads next to huge drops, between pines and maples, from distant temple site to distant temple site. Which is how I nearly missed nearly the last bus down the mountain. And with no signs in English at all, it was a bit unsettling. Especially as the temples were closing, and the fleets of Japanese tourist coaches departing. And it was freezing up there. It snowed that night on the mountains just north of here. Brrrrrrr.

But earlier in the afternoon, I got off the shuttle bus at the top of the mountain and found not a Japanese garden, but a French one. It tried to interpret famous French Impressionist paintings. And so, bizarrely, I visited a representation of Monet's garden in France, that was inspired by gardens in Japan!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kyoto Diary : Eight

The weather gods have been kind to us, and we have had only one shower of rain during our whole stay. But we have been promised that the temperatures will plummet a frightening amount shortly, but on this day it wasnt too cold yet, even up in Ohara - a small village, and our destination for a day out in the hills to the north west of Kyoto.

We went most of the way by train, as the buses get very busy during maple viewing time momiji. Once off the bus that wound its way up the lovely narrow vally, hugging the small rushing river at the valley bottom, we ended up at the bottom of a small lane that followed an even smaller stream up the mountain. Thats Robert, with the back pack and a head taller than most Japanese.

On one side they are shops and kiosks selling pickles (a favourite souvenir) and all types of alluring Japanese touristy things. I could spend a lot of money there, beautiful jackets and bags, and things - lovely things. I dont think we saw one Western tourist all day - a very local affair. But crowded!

Every bit of flat space is used, this is a tiny terraced plot where the path flattens out for just a few yards.

There are just a few temples up there, where the crowds thicken to admire the autumn colour and burn incense at the shrines. We had taken lunch with us and this was the view from our picnic bench, a few yards up a trail into the hills. It is a gate, now unused, into Sanzen-in, a lovely temple with the best incense for sale in Kyoto. One of my favourite places if it wasnt for the people!

We went for a short hike up the trail which more or less ended here. Apparently the sign tells that it is one of the stops on the circuit that the austere monks from a local temple still take. I seem to remember that they do it every day for a year, but I will check up on that. I know very few complete the training! They run in the traditional clothes (rope-soled straw sandals and straw hats) around a stiff and arduous mountain trail, with stops for prayers - often under waterfalls! This waterfall didnt look very full this time of year - more a dribble, said Robert.

But as you can see, as he and a couple of party cross a bridge, it has the potential to carry a lot more water down the hill side.

Water of a safer nature, but water nonetheless. This stone basin in Sanzen-in seemed to have grown its own mountainside vegetation.

The view from a smaller temple, a stone's throw from the busy lane.

The doors slide back to give lovely views of a small but harmonious garden. There is a small pond right outside, and it is a lovely tranquil spot to take green tea and just admire the view. Aaaaaaah,

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Kyoto Diary : Seven

The most famous of all Japanese gardens - Ryoan-ji, created in 1499. And you have to get there within the first hour of opening if you want to be able to sit and contemplate its mystery in relative peace - before the coach parties arrive!

It really does have star quality - I was sitting quietly, just enjoying the sun and watching the way the light changed the whole garden and one stone in particular - and I went off into one of those moments that I had with the stone Buddha in the Miho Museum. The focus deepened and I swear the stone moved! It was most enjoyable anyway.
But this next garden up the road was in a temple that had been the retirement place for a female member of the Royal family. It felt much softer than Ryoan-ji, more gentle.

The attention to detail is amazing, and this did have Imperial connections, so it was beautiful. This is just the corner of a wooden railing, looking down onto the stone floor below on the edge of the garden.

Very satisfying, this combination of tiled wall, gravel and shrubs. So harmonious to my eyes.

This was a path in a less visited temple with several ponds and bright maples. These path borders are made from bamboo that is heated and bent to shape. So useful, bamboo.

This is our group carrying out the regular duty of taking off the shoes when entering a temple. Always good to have mules or velcro and very clean socks! Daiho-in is a sub temple of the large Myoshin-ji temple complex - almost as big as a small town! This was a new one for me - hurrah.

The entry fee included green tea, taken overlooking the garden - very pleasant. A Japanese group followed us in and some ladies were amazed to see me sitting properly on my knees (they didnt realise that I was being very careful!)

I took a photo of this water basin with its little maple leaf. On the way out, I saw Keiko - the group's lovely Japanese "person on the ground" and invaluable friend and helper - picking up a maple leaf. "Did you see the lovely leaf on the water basin?" She had put it there! A one woman mission to place them for our delight! So now, whenever we see one enhancing an object, we say that Keiko has been here before us!

This really is a country that you cant get to grips with. Who else, outside a lifestyle shop selling classy kitchen ware, china and glass would you get wellies with " side strap" next to pottery plaques with a quotation from the gnostic gospel of Thomas "Raise the stone and thou shalt fnd me, cleave the wood and there am I" (click to enlarge). Thats the last thing I expected to see! Very Zen though....

Monday, November 17, 2008

Kyoto Diary : Six

Technically a Free Day, but the offer of a trip on the local bus into the hills near Lake Biwa cant be turned down. Especially to the world famous Miho Museum. (the website is worth a look.)

Designed by the architect I.M. Pei (of Louvre glass pyramid fame) every detail of the place is stylish and stunning. The entrance is up a gentle slope through natural woodland, and then this space age curving tunnel which - only at the end - reveals the bridge over a gorge to the museum.

Everything has been thought of, even free umbrellas to use, exactly the colour of autumn leaves.

The clouds were rolling mysteriously along the hills like smoke, outling the ridges and the hollows. What a view from a museum, deliberately framed by pine trees. Aaaah.

An alcove which always contains an exquisite seasonal arrangement. Currently its persimmons.

In order to get planning permission, they had to take the top off the mountain, build the museum and put the mountain back. So the grass and trees above the windows are all replacements, as the galleries go back into the hillside.

This is called hot coffee and Bavarian style green tea cake. There is a long history of good organic food here (some they grow themselves) unusual in Japan. The cake was heavenly. I sighed a lot!

This huge and alien space was a cavern solely for the purpose of allowing the electric shuttle bus to deliver disabled people right to the door, with no steps to negotiate. Those upright walls must have been nine foot. It had an almost religious feel, and had the sound quality of a cathedral.

A visit would not be complete without a visit to one of the most stylish loos I have seen. Not only does it have top notch all singing all dancing Japanese toilets but the woodwork and craftsmanship is beyond belief.

The museum was built to house an exceptional collection of antiquities from all over the world which are superbly lit and displayed thoughtfully.

I always head for the room containing half a dozen Gandhara pieces. This time I found I had been completely absorbed contemplating this Buddha from Taxila (an ancient site 6th BC, near Peshawar in Pakistan which I visited in the 70s). I realised that I had been standing there for over half and hour, totally happy and content in looking deeply. At one point I am sure that the statue was breathing in time with me. Although its made of stone, it wasnt static and seemed to shift subltely. I eventually moved and thinking restarted, yet the spell wasnt broken. I came out of there a different person. Well they say you can never step in the same river twice.....

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Kyoto Diary : Five

These group of places are in the hills to the west of Kyoto. Its located in a bowl of mountains, with the south being open to the valley where the rivers join and head down into the Kansai plain. From nearly everywhere in the city, you can look and see the forested hills.

This is Tenryu-ji, and old and famous temple garden. Can you see the way the trees carefully copy the outline of the mountains behind? Thats no accident. Its carefully planned, and this garden (like many of them) has been the same for hundreds of years. Imagine planning a garden knowing it will cared for and maintained the way you see it now?

We had fun watching a group of schoolboys (and their teacher on the left) reaching out, trying to gently toss coins to see if they would stay on the back off the stone frog. Apparently success means that your money will always come back to you. Many Japanese keep a tiny pottery frog in their purses to ensure that happens. (like keeping the toilet lid down - but thats feng shui) So we all went and bought some in the next temple shop!

This lovely building isnt a temple. Its a house built by a famous Japanese black and white movie star. It has spacious grounds to stroll around that ramble all over the side of the hills. Absolutely gorgeous. I am so glad it is open to the public now.

The views are just lovely, and at the maples are in splendid colour right now. There are several viewing places, and I could imagine living there quite easily!

Probably my most favourite of all Japanese tea garden paths (and Ive trod few) Its carefully created to ensure that you pay attention to your feet as you walk, very subtle and clever these paths. This is the view from the tea house, looking back along the path. Absolutely Divine.

The price of admission includes green tea and the traditional cake eaten with green tea. (you can only just see the frothy green tea at the bottom of the bowl. You only get a tiny amount, its for savouring not gulping like English style .tea!

Then we left the busy tourist area of Arashiyma and headed south a bit for an important appointment. Robert, our guide, had organised entry to my most all time favourite garden - Saiho-ji or Kokodera (the Moss Temple). You have to turn up at an appointed time with other groups (only twice a day this happens) and everyone goes to the main temple hall first, and listens to sutra chanting and has to copy out Japanese Buddhist scriptures (actually trace over them) with proper ink from an ink stone and a brush. All while kneeling on the floor. English tourists dont have to finish all the calligraphy of the section of the Heart Sutra - but we always do! I have been before and its always a privilege and a spiritual high spot.

After that you can spend an hour wandering around the huge garden. It is famous for its moss which grew up over years of neglect actually. It has deep atmosphere that everyone can feel. Even the bounciest of Japanese tourists (and they are mostly Japanese) become hushed and in awe of the place, and even the young ones stop giggling and scampering.

It could be called gloomy - but the Japanese have a term sabi-wabi, that explains it I think. Very evocative.

A small building in the corner of the area, but always so exquisitely placed - look at the leaf colour!
Nothing happens in a Japanese garden that isnt carefully planned for effect - this boat, aaaaaahh.

If I had to choose one thing to personify my the total Kyoto garden experience, it is this gate into this garden (not used now - you enter just to the left). I have photographed it on each visit to Saiho-ji and have it on my computers and phone as a reminder .... of what, it would take to long to explain and words would not begin to convey it.