Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, November 10, 2005

2005 School Trip, Day 3

Open Tour Day in Kyoto has finally arrived!!!!

The funniest thing about it is that I have more experience with this than any other member of the Seishin faculty, a fringe benefit of being assigned to the same grade almost every year instead of being rotated. I’m at the point now where I’ve been to pretty much all the really famous (i.e. really crowded) places already, so I do my best to avoid them. Instead, I concentrate on finding the less well known treasures. There are certainly a lot of them in this fabled city.

I still have no idea what I'm going to do today...but there is always serendipity. That has always tended to work better for me, anyway. As it turns out, a Seishin graduate who is attending college in Kyoto is planning on playing tour guide for the newly-promoted vice principal, Mr. I, and the grade chief, Mr. A. I have a look at the tour itinerary prepared by the alum, and it looks interesting…definitely something planned by someone “in the know”. At the very least it looks more promising than anything I could come up with on the spur of the moment. When I'm invited to join them, I jump at the chance.

The first thing we do is hop on a crowded bus (which soon becomes an insanely crowded bus) that takes us up into the mountains ringing the city. It's amazing just how quickly the city disappears. One minute there are houses and convenience stores all around us, and the next it's spectacular scenery. Soon we are in landscape that reminds me a lot of the Oregon Coast mountain range except that the trees are Japanese cedars with occasional elms and maples scattered among them. Wherever those trees can be found, there are splashes of color, sometimes very brilliant.

We get off the bus at the end of its run and then walk up the path that will take us to Sanzenin Temple. As usual, the path is enclosed by shops, but at least they sell unusual and/or handcrafted items. Moreover, they've all gone to a lot of trouble to blend in well with the scenery, and I’m grateful for it.

There sure seems to be an awful lot of cats, though.

We arrive at the temple entrance, pay the admission fee, and head to the first building, where we are immediately assailed by a couple of shaven-headed, young priests that are selling all manner of Buddhist trinkets, from incense to place on the altar to expensive good luck charms and worship books. Things like that always irritate me, but I forget all about it when I get inside the main garden complex. It is both peaceful and almost unearthly beautiful.

We make our way to the famous inner worship hall, actually a national treasure, and listen to an interpretive lecture by a priest who probably should have been a tour conductor if not a stand-up comic! The man is a blast to listen to, and he points out some strange things about the hall. Not only are there unusual little clumps of flowers painted among the rafters: black ones from the Heian Era (9th to 11th centuries), white ones from the Edo Era (17th to 19th centuries), and a little clump of red ones whose origin is a total mystery. Even more baffling about that hall is the fact that sounds are often heard from inside it and large objects (such as the main statues, which weigh close to a ton) found to have been moved when it is completely sealed shut during off times.

Considering the eeriness of the gardens that surround the place, why am I not surprised?

To make things even more interesting, I experience a mystery of my own. Visitors to the hall are required to remove their shoes, which is usually the case inside any Buddhist facility. Afterward, when I put my shoes back on, I feel something inside one of them, like a rock or something. I take the shoe off and upend it, but nothing comes out. As we circle around through the garden and make our way out again, the feeling gets worse, so I take my shoe off again and give it a good shake. Out drops a 100 yen coin (worth a little less than a dollar). I don't have the faintest idea how in the bloody world that coin could have gotten into my shoe! Is someone trying to tell me something?

After enjoying the extraordinary beauty for a while, we circle back down for a bite of lunch. We wind up taking more time than our twenty-something guide hoped, but what do you expect with all these graying veterans? The itinerary winds up getting cut a bit short, so we skip ahead and visit Shisendo, a strange-looking villa (La Villa Strangiato?) with an even stranger story behind it.

A warlord by the name of Ishikawa, who was a retainer of the great shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi, went into hiding when the latter was defeated and overthrown by Ieyasu Tokugawa (thus starting the Edo Era, 17th to 19th centuries). Ishikawa had the villa built as his hideout. Indeed, it stands in a very well-concealed location that nevertheless offers a grand view of Kyoto, particularly from the bizarre, little watchtower on the roof! Apparently he intended to spy on Tokugawa’s forces in Kyoto in order to aid the resistance, but apparently he either gave up or just became too occupied with other things. For one thing, Ishikawa was big on both poetry and lavish parties, so he had a beautiful garden built around his villa strangiato (MONSTERS!) and frequently invited the local beatnik scene to hang out at his place. He even had a miniature Zen stone garden similar to the famous one at Ryoanji Temple installed right behind his back door so he and his lyrical buddies could sit around, drink sake, contemplate the mysteries of the omniverse, and compose verses.

I guess the writing brush really is mightier than the ken.

Now the villa is a small temple (dedicated to…wait for it…learning and poetry) still surrounded by that very lovely garden. It is famous for its autumn leaves, but they've only just barely started to turn. Nevertheless, it is truly both lovely and contemplative; I know I could happily spend long days there letting my thoughts wander. I have to wonder what kinds of creations I would come up with in such a setting! Perhaps it would be worth imagining?

Once again, we cut the itinerary short. We pop into a traditional teahouse for some maccha (extra-strong, powdered green tea) and old-style snacks. In Kyoto after strolling around in meditative gardens, nothing else would do (except perhaps sake).

Back at the hotel, dinner is "shabu-shabu nabe" (do-it-yourself-as-you-go stew), but here in Kyoto even that is different from in other parts of the country! My group gives up and peters out with half a plate of beef left, which makes me feel sorry for the cow and work hard to polish it off so it didn't die in vain. And of course, that means balancing my intake with plenty of vegetables, and mushrooms, and fish, and tofu, and...

Oh, how stuffed poor Moody is! He needs a walk! Fortunately, the kids are being released for an hour of running around the gigantic strip mall just down the street. I get to be a safety patrolman, which means lots of walking. Hey, there's an HMV here! I guess there's time for a little shopping. I don't buy the Boogie Dual-Recto amp & cabinet, though (since I don't have 600,000 yen in my pocket...).

The teachers' meetings every night have been annoyingly straight through the whole trip. It's probably for the better, but it's getting annoying! Ah, but it looks like there's going to be a "second meeting" tonight! Things are looking up!
Still, considering the constant, simmering feud between Mr. O and the other members of the grade staff (especially Mr. Sakuma), I just hope he doesn't make a case out of it after we get back.

Speaking of which, it's time to go! Hopefully I won't be too hung over tomorrow...


  • Wow. Fascinating places you got to visit. The colors in the gardens look awesome. We were in Kyoto in March of last year and left just as the cherry trees were starting to bloom. I would like to revisit in the Fall and see those tints. Now I am really envying your trip.

    So many places, so little train fare. Sigh.

    fqxqowz - a Kurdish pudding made with semolina

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:35 PM  

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