My first impressions of Japan were: incomprehensible (Tokyo); and green and serene (Kyoto). I was about 14 years old at the time, and I was travelling with my family on a roundabout route to visit my dad’s family in New Zealand. I also remember not caring much for the food. So much has changed since then!
During my recent visit to Japan, I was curious whether my initial “green and serene” impression of Kyoto would match my perception as an adult, more than 40 years later. We arrived in Kyoto a couple of days after our visit with the monkeys in the snowy mountains and it was definitely a lot greener and warmer. Kyoto is quite different than Tokyo – it is more spacious, more relaxed, and there is a height restriction on buildings so the sky is much more open as well. It feels like a garden city. So green, yes.
And I found serene as well. We visited a couple of temple areas early in the morning and the calm was everywhere.
First we headed to the Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama, which borders on the grounds of the Tenryu-ji Temple. We arrived in time to see the tall bamboo trees lit by the warm rays of the rising sun as we walked the winding pathway. Even though other tourists had arrived by the time we were leaving, the bamboo forest felt lovely and quiet, and people spoke quietly as if they were in a cathedral.
Here is a gallery of images from Arashiyama:
Next, after taking a train and taxis, we arrived at the Ryoan-ji Temple just after it opened for visitors. We were early enough to see groundskeepers at work, clearing debris from the gravel paths and weeding the garden.
I walked slowly along the paths, drinking in the beauty of the pond and green spaces, and I even found a few flowers blooming! Then I walked up the wide steps to one of the temple buildings, removed my shoes (plastic clogs were provided) and found the courtyard which framed a different kind of garden.
The dry or empty landscape garden (karesansui) is a traditional formal style developed in the buddhist temples. Dry landscape gardens lack one elements that ties together all other styles of Japanese garden: water. Water is replaced by gravel, which represents an ocean or river, the stone groups are islands and also represent the deity. The space between the stone groups is called yohaku no bi – the beauty of empty space.
I remember being fascinated by these zen gardens when I was young, and I am still drawn to them. I sat in the courtyard for a long while, my eyes following the pattern of the raked stones, and let the calm wash over me. It was such a beautiful morning!
Here is a gallery of images from the Ryoan-ji Temple:
I will wrap up my “Japan journal” in one more post later this week as I try to sum up my experience. Here is a list of my posts to date: