Kyoto & Nara, Imperial Japan (2013)

Kyoto & Nara, Imperial Japan (2013)

The room is achingly bare, except for the tatami mat on the floor. A large tatega window with frosted glass panes covers an entire wall accentuating the starkness. The window looks out onto an even starker courtyard where the only ornamentation is the  gravel on the ground neatly raked into concentric ovals. A discreetly hidden cupboard reveals a mattress and a pillow to be spread on the floor only at bed times.

Even as I am drinking in the absolute and primeval silence that fills the room, my cellphone beeps to life, announcing the presence of wifi connectivity. My spiritual challenge has already begun even before I immerse myself in the monastic surroundings of Shunkoin where I shall be spending the next three days. Perhaps I am being tested on my will power to see if I can ignore the fulsome presence of wifi and focus on the nothingness of my surroundings.

Raked gravel garden in Ryoanji Temple Complex

Shunkoin Temple

Hidden away deep in a labyrinth of temples and shrines in the Myoshinji Complex,  Shunkoin defies easy access. Earlier in the afternoon, I had taken the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. The view out of my train window had mostly been flatlands of rice paddies and factories that produce electronic goods whose brand names have become household names around the world. But the tedium was relieved by a spectacular sight that lingered outside my train window for at least an hour – the iconic Mt.Fuji, his snowy eminence bathed in the golden rays of  the setting sun.

It was already dark when I reached Kyoto station and boarded the suburban train to Hanazono. The Myoshinji temple complex is just across the road from the Hanazono station, so I hadn’t anticipated any problem reaching my destination. As I confidently sauntered across and entered the imposing gates of the Myoshinji complex, I had had little inkling of the daunting task ahead of me – of locating Shunkoin temple in the maze of winding alleys and cobbled stone pathways leading to temples, which in this shadowy hour, looked identical to and indistinguishable from each other. There were absolutely no directions, no sign boards except one in Japanese and nary a human being anywhere to ask.  The shadows began to elongate and take on an eerie look as I went round and round with my backpack, looking for someone to guide me on my way.

I spied a lone window with a dim light, the only one in an otherwise dark complex blanketed in the silence of the night. I had plucked up my courage and rung the bell. There was no response for a while and eventually, a lady came and opened the door. She had heard me out in silence, gestured for me to wait and had disappeared into the dark entrails of her home. As I stood there uncertainly, she had reemerged a few minutes later with her car keys. It was then that I sighted her car hidden away behind a bush in full bloom. She had kindly driven me around the cobbled winding lanes and deposited me at the gates of the monastery, about a kilometer away. I could never have found it even if I had searched for the next few hours.  She had waved away my expressions of gratitude and had vanished into the mysterious darkness. It was as though a fairy had been sent only to guide me to my destination.

Reverend Takafumi, the young abbot of Shunkoin is all warmth and welcome as he escorted me to my room. The guest rooms have been built just a month ago and I am one of the early residents in this property. I had been asked to take off my footwear and tuck it just so, at the designated place at the entrance before entering my room. My Zen meditation classes would begin the next morning at 9 am. There is not a soul other than myself in the entire guest house whose windows abut the monastery graveyard.

Myoshinji Complex

Myoshinji (Temple of the Wondrous Mind) is a sprawling complex of 47 Zen Buddhist shrines of exquisite grace and beauty strewn across a 13.5 hectare ground in northern Kyoto. If Kyoto is the stuff of Basho’s poems, Myoshinji is its very essence. Hanazono, the locality in which it is situated is named after an emperor of the same name who lived in his palace on these very grounds in the early thirteenth century and subsequently converted his residence into a Zen temple complex. But most of the temples in the complex were built between the 16th and 18th centuries and retain their appealing elegance. Myoshinji belongs to the Rinzai Zen tradition and has over 3000 affiliated temples and 19 monasteries all over the world. Myoshinji also runs the Honazono University in Kyoto, first established in 1872.


Myosinhji Temple Complex in Kyoto

The next day, I rise early and do a round of the temple complex before the meditation session begins. My footsteps on the well-worn cobbles ring out ominously in the deafening silence. The only other sign of life in the entire complex is an occasional monk hurrying past holding a resplendent umbrella to shield himself from the mild drizzle. Wherever you turn, there are temples – all grey tile and wooden structures ageing gracefully. I can recognize the Sanmon, the Mountain Gate from the pictures in my guidebook. The complex seems to eb guarded by hundreds of protector deities perched on the ewes and rooftops. Stately black pines that look almost as ancient as the temples tower over the complex like silent sentinels. There is unmistakable feeling of having stepped back into a distant and tranquil past.

Zen Meditation

The meditation session led by the Abbot lasts an hour. There are two Australians and an American besides myself, participating in the session. Reverend Takafumi, educated in the United States, speaks fluent English and gently guides us through the session, after which, he leads us around his own temple complex with its brilliant screen paintings and a becalming gravel courtyard, one that I had seen from my room window. We meet his American wife and baby daughter. The Reverend tells us that raking the gravel is an integral part of his daily worship, one that reminds him of the impermanence of life. While it may take hours to rake the gravel to perfection – the concentric oval it represents – just a gust of wind could blow it away in minutes. Some days, it may stay raked throughout the day, but many times, the order lasts no more than a few minutes and will have to be redone painstakingly.



The day is spent wandering around the temple complex which seems to be bereft of human habitation. There are however a few monastic residences whose occupants remained unseen and unheard throughout the three days of my stay. I stray through the precincts admiring the subtle differences in architecture and the signature Japanese gardens. One temple greets you with a hat stand where a few conical hats, presumably worn by the monks, hang on the wall. Another has a colourful dragon painted on the ceiling. The eyes of the dragon follow you around rather unnervingly as you walk through its precincts. For the Japanese, the Dragon is the life force of nature; although he breathes fire, being a water animal, he is protection against the same fire. The 1400 year-old temple bell, cracked and fallen silent for centuries now, is a national treasure just as all the structures in the complex are. Each temple has its own characteristic Japanese garden, some around a pond, some in stamp-sized courtyards greened with moss, all of them serene and harmonious. In fact, the entire complex exudes a certain harmony and tranquility so conducive to spiritual pursuits.


The following day, after my meditation class, I venture out of the complex and stroll through a warren of winding lanes of the town to find other landmarks of southern Kyoto. Kinkakuji of the Golden Pavilion, the better-known face of Kyoto, is about a couple of kilometers away.  I walk through neatly arranged tiny homes and even tinier gardens. The garden, in fact, seems to occupy such centrality in Japanese lives that even the tiniest of houses is overflowing with flowering pots and creepers.

A Temple in Nara

Kinkakuji is an isolated temple located in a pine forest. Originally dating back to 1397, the present structure, however, is of recent origin, having been rebuilt after a devastating fire started accidentally by a novice monk in 1950. The three storeyed gold, silver and wooden shrine represents shinden, samurai and zen respectively and is said to host the relics of the Buddha. Its top storey and roof clad in resplendent gold, Kinkakuji sits loftily against a verdant slope. It is perhaps the most-visited shrine in Kyoto.

Ryoanji temple,  a further couple of kilometers away, also belongs to Rinzai Buddhism. The way to the temple leads me through charming Japanese villages. Ryoanji attracts visitors from all over the world as much for its message as for its unique medium – of gravel and rocks known in Japanese as the kare sansui style.  Like Kinkakuji, Ryoanji is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Built by the Fujiwara family, this temple dates back to the 11th century  although it underwent several subsequent acquisitions and alterations. This complex also houses the tombs of seven Hosokawa emperors of Japan.  The rock garden is approximately 25 meters long and 10 meters wide. There is a vantage viewpoint from which the message of the garden is best accessed, namely, the Abbot’s verandah. Placed on beautifully raked white gravel are fifteen stones arranged in five stone clusters. The absence of any vegetation on the gravel accentuates the starkness of the stones. It is believed that the implicit structure of the garden is designed to appeal to the viewer’s visual sensitivity to axial symmetry. There are many interpretations of the message conveyed by the stone garden, but there is no denying that its effect is a sense of tranquility that composes the mind.

My last day in Myoshinji is spent, after the meditation session of course, on a day-trip to adjacent Nara, another ancient capital of Japan about 35 kilometers away from Kyoto. My suburban train chugs into a very wet and cold Nara station where Saiko, a cheerful university student doubling as a guide is waiting to take me around. Both of us saunter through rain-soaked avenues dodging hundreds of deer that roam the roads as free as cows back home on Delhi’s traffic-ridden streets.

Dear Deer

According to Pico Iyer who lived in Nara, Japan became Japan in this town when an empire arrived in the eighth century and decided to stay on; where animism of Japanese Shintoism mingled with Buddhism streaming in from China. The reason why deer are considered sacred in this town dates back to a vision on the hills when a deity is rumoured to have ridden on a white deer.  Perhaps the deer know they are sacred; they are insistent you feed them as they block your way, sniffing your handbag or snatching away small objects from kids. Cars and local buses stop for them to cross the road, pedestrians oblige them with them scraps of food and shopkeepers indulge them.

Nara certainly looks more provincial and more serene than Kyoto. The black pine forest spills over into the town and its stately temple complexes. An eminently walkable city, with its broad tree-lined streets, Nara makes quiet Kyoto seem frenetic.  There are numerous roadside shrines just as we have back home in India and I spot locals coming to light an incense stick or two.

Saiko is an excellent companion to have, chatty and informative and mature beyond her years. She helps me make the most of my short visit to Nara, picking the best sights for me to visit, First we go to the exquisite Nara museum where the reception counter has an umbrella stand with locks. The museum houses Japanese Buddha and Samurai sculptures in stone and wood.

Afterwards, over a bowl of soupy noodles in an adjacent cafeteria, Saiko shares a few facets of her life with me. She is reading English literature at Nara university and hopes to become a teacher one day.  Doubling as a guide for visitors helps her hone her English speaking skills. She has a boyfriend in Tokyo, but her parents don’t know about it yet.  She is waiting for an opportune moment to break the news to them. She is anxious that they should approve of her choice. I gather that it is not unusual for young boys and girls to defer to parental sensitivities while choosing their life partners.

We stroll towards Todaiji temple, said to be the oldest wooden structure in the world. It hosts a 250 tonne bronze Buddha and is naturally an obligatory tourist sight.  The Buddha statue is colossal and the surrounding gardens are serene and lovely. Two fierce Dwarapalaka equivalent in Buddhist mythology guard the imposing gates of the temple. Completed in 751 AD, this temple of the Kegon sect of Buddhism almost bankrupted Nara’s treasury and conscripted almost the entire male workforce at that time to complete the construction. The present structure of course, is of recent origin, the temple having been rebuilt several times since then, after earthquakes and fires. In the ninth century, during its heyday, the temple became so powerful that the imperial capital had to be moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 874 AD just to reduce the influence of the temple on the crown.

Kasuga-Taishu is a Shinto shrine on top of a small hillock against the backdrop of a primeval forest. The winding path to the top is lined with thousands of stone lanterns draped in moss. The red wooden shrine is tastefully decorated and embellished with even more lanterns, brass this time. Saiko tells me that these are lit twice a year during the lantern festival – in February and August – and that it is a sight to behold. I walk through the precincts admiring the abiding sense of aesthetics that defines structures everywhere in this town.

Coming of Age with Bean Cakes

We saunter through the high street of Nara, savouring its signature bean cake. I am pleasantly surprised to find many young girls clad in resplendent Kimonos and rushing clumsily through the streets in their high-heeled wooden sandals. Having trudged in vain through the Gion district in Kyoto to catch a glimpse of the famous Geisha in her traditional kimono, this sight of kimono-clad girls on the streets of Nara comes as a huge surprise to me.

Saiko tells me today is the Coming of Age day in Japan when all twenty year old girls dress up in their traditional attire and visit friends and relatives and to celebrate. While the Kimono today is associated only with the Geisha, on special days like this, every girl aspires to wear and flaunt a kimono. Families that do not possess a kimono hire them to oblige their young girls. Coming of Age day  is also a national holiday when municipal governments host special coming of age ceremonies to welcome the young adults who now enjoy certain privileges, including the right to vote, but also have commensurate responsibilities as full-fledged members of Japanese society.

I thank Saiko and head back to the train station to catch the train back to Kyoto.

(Published in Frontline dated Sep 20, 2013)

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