Friday, August 27, 2010

from Kyoto and Ohara: looking in

I am at the Sanjo subway station. Somewhere nearby there should be a busstop with a bus for Ohara. But where? There are so many bus stops! I walk to each. Nothing looks right. I approach a random bus that pulls up. Maybe the driver will know. Ohara?  Two guys are getting off – one is a young American. Hippie-ish.

This is a side of Kyoto that others might recognize: it’s a favorite destination for young types, passing through life, in search of all that is Zen and introspective and exotic. This young man is actually quite helpful. He speaks some Japanese and he is bold. (He crosses streets on red lights and shouts out -- run me down! He may well be on drugs -- I can't tell.)

He finds the correct stop for me and I am on my way. But it sets me thinking: how many Kyotos are there anyway? Ones that I rarely see? They say that Kyoto is one of the more conservative cities in Japan. I see that in the neighborhood where I live and on the subway that I take to work. But I also see the student communities around campus. How many more layers are there to this town?

This afternoon my students take me out to lunch (an delectable assortment of raw fish, miso soup and tea).


The students are a wonderful and hard working group and I love their generous impulse toward me and toward each other. I ask about things that I’ve been mulling over about their city. They hesitate. You know more of Kyoto than we do – one tells me. She means, I think, that I have seen shrines and museums that they haven’t gone to. Yes, but you know the essence!

When I tell Ed that I have been visiting temples and gardens that he would have loved for their utter tranquility, he responds – ok, but we got a good sample of many things. You can improve on a garden or a temple, but what matters is that you see the range of things. We saw a good range.

True, we saw at least a range.

I can only be a visitor in any place that I pass through in my travels. And of course, you learn so much more as a visitor than if you stay home. Even as you never really master the essence.

I am on the bus, heading out into the hills. Ohara (which is on the road to Obama) is a small village northeast of Kyoto, but it’s quite popular with visitors as it has a major temple – Sanzen-in. (Actually it has several, but Sanzen-in draws the crowds.) But my late afternoon visits, necessarily tagged onto the late hours of the day because of work, have really opened up a fantastic opportunity to view temples and gardens when nearly all visitors have long departed.

Sanzen-in, too, is empty now.


A commenter asked why temples close (usually at 5, sometimes 4:30). In these last minutes of their opening, I can almost discern the palpable feeling of relief among the monks who use at least some of the temples for meditation. But I think the answer is more complicated. Some temples are now nothing more than family businesses. Some are tied to important schools of Buddhism (Sanzen-in is actually not Zen but Tendai). Nearly all have entrance fees and nearly all go back to their state of serenity only after the last tourist leaves.

Sanzen-in is a sprawly place, with areas for meditation that again look out onto the carefully designed green spaces.


The Japanese garden is such a place of simple magnificence to me, but I know that it has developed in the way that it has because Japan offers such a hospitable climate to the green shrubs and trees that grow there.

The end of August is typically a rough moment for most gardens of Europe or North America. Here, too, the primary blooming season ended months ago. But even the irises, and in Sanzen-in, the abundant early summer hydrangeas occasionally throw out a recurring flower, to remind you of how it once was and will be again, very soon.


Though it hardly matters. Flowers aren't at the center of a garden here. Moss, trees, stones -- all have an important role and they're magnificent even at the tail end of a very warm summer.


The stroll through the forest feels exactly right for today. I like the slow progression of images. 



In fact, when I am finally finished with the visit to Sanzen-in, I decide to prolong the walk a little. Nothing is open now, but I can still see , for example, the thatch covered Shorin-in temple from the entrance gates.


Oh, wait... Something is open in the village. The ice cream stand, selling the delicious perilla ice cream.


After, I stroll from one village edge to another. It is a pastoral, hilly landscape and the colors are as good as ever on this end of summer evening.


A few farmers are in the fields, a woman waters her vegetables. Evening chores against a backdrop of the Kitayama Mountains.




I push the clock, almost missing my return bus. Another image, and another. It's a heady stroll alright. Dizzying in its loveliness.


A few clouds roll in just as I catch the bus back to Kyoto. I noticed that on my way up to Ohara, the bus followed a route quite close to the neighborhood where I live. I get off the bus now at a stop I think surely must be within a short walk of my home. And it is. The mountain is there, with a cloud hovering, occasionally throwing out a sprinkle.  I think back to the mountain just at the southern edge of Ohara. Is it my mountain from the flip side? I don't know...


I go to the grocery store and buy some Very Expensive Peaches for the week-end. And dinner? Will nuts do? No? Okay, how about nuts and a custard?