Since we used the bus and train for our pilgrimage, we had unanticipated extra time at the end of our trip. Ann was interested in visiting Kyoto, and I am always up for a trip to my old hometown of Kobe. I also was interested in going to Mt. Koya, the traditional place to begin and end one’s Shikoku Pilgrimage.
We took the bus from Takamatsu to Kyoto, arriving on a weekend at the very dizzying height of cherry blossom season. The city was packed with tourists. I felt like the country bumpkins, agape, coming to the big city. We had just spent the last five weeks or so wandering around the hinterlands of Shikoku, a place where the city of Matsuyama (population of half a million) is a lot of people. Now, we were in the Kansai megalopolis, population of more like 23 million people, in arguably the tourist epicenter of Japan. There were so many people. There were so many gaijin. It was overwhelming.
My goals in Kyoto were to see two tourist attractions that I missed the last time – the Golden Pavilion, and Ryoanji. Did we see these? Yes. Did ten trillion other people seemingly go there? Yes.
We also did the Philosophers’ Walk. Doing this famous stroll at Hanami, cherry blossom viewing season, on a Saturday was a bit nuts. Think of the density of sunny Bumbershoot, and you’ll get the sense of this. We visited the Silver Pavilion along the way.
We dodged off the path for lunch, and went to a little hole-in-the-wall nigiri (rice ball) establishment. I chatted with the nigiri maker – he was impressed that we had completed the 88 Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage. When he asked why we did it, and I translated what Ann said, “to be closer to God”, and I told him, to gain divine guidance, I think he got nervous that we were a couple of religious nuts. Heh. I think it’s much more acceptable in Japan to do the pilgrimage in honor and memory of a dead relative than to do it for any true spiritual purpose.
After this, we walked to see the Heian Shrine, and then went to the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts. This museum not only had displays of the many traditional handicrafts, they also had galleries of contemporary artisans working in these crafts. I bought my brother a birthday present here.
The next day, I took off by myself to go to the headquarters of Rinzai Zen, the denomination that I studied under when I lived in Japan in my salad days. I had completely forgotten that this set of temples contained my most favorite garden in all of Japan, and it was beyond my dreams to stumble on it again.
I love this garden because of how it takes the hardscape and rectilinear lines of the building, and carries them into the plantings, and slowly eases the squares until they fade into the softscape of the shrubs and trees. I believe that this garden is set up to be a three dimensional representation of the meditative process – to go from ordinary consciousness, with its rules and limitations, and unnatural straight lines – to meditative consciousness, soft, lush, green, and natural.
It’s clearly set up as an autumnal garden – there’s not a single cherry tree – but lots of beautiful maples, and it would be stunning in the fall.
I could sit on the veranda and look out at this garden forever.
I didn’t though – I called Ann, and we rendezvoused over at a shrine at the north end of town, that was going to do a cherry blossom festival. They carried out portable shrines out on to the street with drums and dancing.
First came the children, with a shrine that was on wheels, and could be dragged. They had some adults helping them.
Then the women came out, carrying their shrine.
Then the men came, carrying the largest and heaviest shrine. They worked in shifts, because of the difficulty of carrying the load and doing the dance step at the same time.
After we saw their parade, Ann and I went to eat some Italian-ish food nearby.
After lunch, we split up again, and I went to see some Zen gardens that were only open for a week or two during this time of the year, because of the great crush of people who come at cherry blossom season, while Ann saw some more generally splendid and famous World Heritage Site temples. While these were interesting to view, and I appreciated the rare opportunity to walk through them, none touched me as much as the Rinzai garden that I saw that morning.