Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kubota Museum

Last month I traveled to the Lake Kawaguchiko area close to the base of Mt. Fuji, a two and a half/three hour trip from my house. The purpose of this trip was to visit the Itchiku Kubota Museum. I had seen some blog posts of this special museum and a couple of the people on our Thailand trip had traveled there and said with my interest in Indigo/Shibori/Art that this was a must-see for me. They weren’t kidding.

Once a month I travel to Fujisawa to have an English conversation class, about a 45 minute trip from my house. These ladies have been getting together for over 20 years and I am just one of a long line of American women who have become their teacher. Their English is excellent, they are all talented with varying interests and I have been so fortunate to have them as my students (and I use that word loosely, since there are times I wonder who's learning more). They had asked months ago if there was someplace that I would be interested in visiting and I mentioned the Kubota Museum – but I didn't realize at the time that it was such a hike to get to. Being ever so gracious they didn't bat an eye and started to plan how we would get there. Kimiko, Hiroko, Kato-san and Kazuko met me on the train, very early (I had to catch the 6:17 a.m. train from Yokosuka) headed for Yokohama where we were to catch a bus to Lake Kawaguchiko where the museum is located. It was rainy season and we headed out in pouring down rain but that did not dampen our spirits. In addition to the Kubota Museum there was also a doll museum and a Lavender garden in full bloom on our itinerary. I settled in on the bus ride, read the article I had printed out from the Smithsonian Magazine (in 1995 Kubota's work was exhibited at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the first living artist to have his/her work exhibited), enjoyed the scenery through the rain soaked bus window, and tried to envision Kubota's work – kimono’s that are considered works of art, take more than a year to make and the artist who had the vision to create these masterpieces was a National Living Treasure up until his death in 2003.

At the age of 14, Kubota left school to apprentice under a Kimono artist that specialized in yuzen (a rice-paste resist dye technique). At the age of 20 he discovered a tsujigahana fragment, a textile and decorative technique from the Muromachi period (1338-1573) at the Tokyo National Museum. With the technique lost over time, Kubota decided to devote his studies to recreating this technique. He also studied Japanese sumi-e and landscape portraiture that would later evolve into his “Symphony of Light” series that represents the four seasons and the universe. His vision was to create a series of 80 kimonos where the landscape design flows from one kimono to the next, creating a panorama of the seasons and views of Mt. Fuji. WWII erupted and Kubota’s self-study of the tsujigahana technique was interrupted. At the end of the war he was stationed in Korea where he was captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia where he was held for several years. During this period of imprisonment he witnessed intense sunsets – among so much despair he found beauty and vowed that once he returned to Japan he would create a Kimono to emulate his vision.

Impressions and Inspiration
The museum does not allow photos of the kimonos, but you can go to the links below and to see some photos of his work in articles that have been written about Kubota. I do love museums and this one will go down as life transforming for me … I know, my husband would probably laugh at this (nuke/doc vs. artist) – but the beauty of Kubota’s work is breathtakingly beautiful. As Kubota was speechless and moved by his discovery of the 17 century tsujigahana textile remanant, so too was I moved by Kubota’s work. It is like nothing I have ever seen – the colors on the kimono’s are intense when they need to be, subtle when called for. The detail work it equisite, embroidery used to emphasize the work is perfection with the silk embroidery threads hand dyed to match the background. The sumi-e painted details are delicate and highlight Kubota’s artistic eye. I could have spent hours there, I wish I had a seat in front of each of these works to just sit and absorb – the texture of each of the works is rich and it took great discipline to not reach out and touch the kimonos. The kimonos are displayed in a large hall that was created with Kubota’s vision. There are large, massive ancient beams that form a pyramid shape towards a pinnacle skylight in the ceiling. The museum does have a small room off of the gallery where you can view an English video of Kubota at work and see the many layers and processes it takes to complete one kimono. I was also in luck that day, with my 4 Japanese friends I was able to ask questions about techniques that perhaps if I had been there alone I would not have … however, I suspect that the docent in the gallery at the time had an excellent command of the English language since she was able to respond to most of my questions without translation.

There is a lovely tearoom off of the main gallery area where we had some green tea and sweet beans – American taste buds may wrinkle their noses at the sound of that but it’s quite nice, the slightly bitter macha green tea complemented by the sweet beans was delicious. The scenery, looking out towards the back of the garden area was lush and green with vegetation and quite relaxing with the sound of the steady rain coming down.

With much reluctance I left the gallery space, with the hope that I will be able to come back here at least once more before my time is up here in Japan. The kimonos rotate and apparently the ones on display had only recently come out to be viewed – so next time I may have the opportunity to see some different masterpieces. The garden area is supposed to be lovely with trails up and behind the museum but it was still raining when we left and I will have to save that for another time.

For more information on Kubota go to:

Lavender Garden
Heading back around the lake to the Lavender garden on the tour loop Retro Bus, just as we were coming around Lake Kawaguchiko the clouds broke and Mt. Fuji appeared! What a treat to see this natural beauty. We reached the park to discover we were in luck, there was a lavender festival going on and I made some purchases … lavender linen water (YES!!), lavender sachets, lavender perfume. Did I mention that I love lavender? Every house we’ve every lived in I’ve planted it … except here. It’s so darn expensive – I did see some plants that were for sale and were a whole lot more reasonable than what I could buy locally and as Kimiko stood patiently while I weighed the pros and cons of lugging a plant by bus and then by train, and then walking it to my car common sense prevailed and I left it behind for someone else to enjoy. We ate some lunch from a vendor, grabbed an excellent locally brewed beer and then headed to the Yuki Atae Doll Museum.

The Yuki Atae Doll Museum
This is a lovely little museum that features a changing display of the dolls by Yuki Atae. These figurative sculptures are meticulously created by Atae, some taking more than a month to create. He takes his inspiration from a more simple time, scenes of children from the early twentieth century – playing games like tug of war, caring for a younger sibling, a group of young boys having a battle. The scenes are charming, most of the dolls are dressed in traditional Japanese clothing – it can take him months to find the correct old kimono cloth to use – and gave this westerner a window into a time gone by. There is a video in the museum, it is in Japanese, but still worth sitting down and watching the process, particularly how he captures the facial expressions of the children. If you have the time to spare, this museum is well worth a detour. Atae’s work has been shown at the Louvre, the Baccarat Museum in Paris and a gallery in Soho, NY.
For more information on Yuki Atae and his work go to:

After the museum we caught the local retro bus back to the Kawaguchiko Station where we caught the bus back to Shinagawa Station and made our way home from there. It was a long day but one of my best days in Japan. I feel so very lucky to have connected with my Fujisawa ladies and am thankful they are willing to take time out of their busy lives to share a part of Japan with me that I might have otherwise missed. Till next time, sayonara.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Day three and day five of our trip we spent in Hiroshima. We arrived in the afternoon on the bullet train, stored our gear in lockers and headed out to the Peace Park. It was a perfect time to hit the park, all of the school groups had departed by the time we arrived, it was a beautiful day, clear skies, unseasonably cool weather – perfect for walking around the area.

It’s hard to describe my emotions as we made our way through the park. The skeletal remains of the A-dome are haunting. There was a movement at one point to tear the structure down, the thought from the citizens that they needed to move on, live in the present. I am so glad those that favored that idea did not win out – the remains of the building is a very graphic reminder of the power and destruction of war. It was incredibly moving to stand there and realize that more than 60 years ago our country and Japan were at war and our country wreaked havoc on this land. Now, here I am living in this beautiful, friendly country, our countries are allies and I’m thankful the human spirit can overcome the hatred of war.

Monument to the Mobilized Students
We moved on and only a few steps away there was a Monument to the Mobilized Students. During the war students age 13 to 15 were mobilized to demolish wooden houses for fire prevention – on August 6, 1945 6097 of these young people were killed by the atomic bombing while they were working. There are doves scattered throughout its five tiers and at the base is a beautiful Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) statue, with peace cranes surrounding her. While we were standing there, speechless and moved by the beauty of the monument, a single yellow crane falls from one of the 1000 cranes behind the Kannon – Wrenn stoops down and picks it up and gently places it in the Kannons hands … and me in my mommy moment have to bite my lip to keep the tears from flowing. At 12, she gets it …

Let all the souls here rest in peace: for we shall not repeat the evil.
This is the prayer that is inscribed at the Memorial Centograph. The Centograph is a tribute to all those that lost their lives on the day of the bombing and to those who died from its effects in the aftermath. The memorial is arch-shaped like that of an ancient Japanese home, symbolizing a shelter for the victims souls. Underneath the arch is a chest which contains the names of nearly a quarter of a million people who died.

Children’s Peace Monument
This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace on Earth.
This is a touching monument with the 1000 cranes in display cases and the memorial statue with the child holding up a peace crane. If you are not familiar with the story of Sadako, she was a young school girl who was exposed to the radiation from the bomb and developed cancer from the exposure. Her story is about courage and hope … she heard the Japanese story if you make a 1000 paper cranes good fortune will find you. In the hope that she would survive her battle with cancer she made 1000 paper cranes. Sadly, at age 12 she died from what her mom called the “A-bomb disease” but her legacy of peace and hope lives on with peace cranes sent to this site from all over the world.

Peace Memorial Museum
We probably arrived too late in the day to really give this museum our full attention – I’d say it needs a good 2 hours to visit and we had just over an hour. It is quite an extensive exhibit and I quickly reached information overload. The first half of the exhibit is pretty much void of the human element and is technical with the background and build up to the bombing on the 6th of August, 1945. Not realizing that there is a second half, the chime sounded indicating the museum would be closing in a 1/2 hour and I picked up my pace to discover the second half of the museum is where I should have spent 95% of my time – this side is a newer exhibit and touches on the impact of the bombing on the citizens of Hiroshima. Having been spoiled with visits to countless museums – most notably the Holocaust Museum in DC which deals with sensitive subject matter, working on some NPS museum projects and having lived in the DC area for 7+ years I was disappointed with the Peace Memorial Museum. It’s A LOT to take in and the flow of the overall exhibit seemed very disjointed to me … not that they’ll care what little ol’ me thinks but for those of you reading this and planning to visit, you might appreciate a heads up.

Peace Bell
Bell of Peace
We dedicate this bell
As a symbol of Hiroshima Aspiration:
Let all nuclear arms and war be gone,
and the nations live in true peace!
May it ring to all corners of the earth
to meet the ear of every man.
for in it throb and palpitate
the hearts of its peace-loving donors.
So may you too, friends,
step forward, and toll this bell for peace!

We returned on the morning of day 5 of our Kyoto/Hiroshima adventure. The school groups were out in full force and we decided to hit a few of the spots in the memorial that we had missed on our visit Monday afternoon. We crossed over the Aioi-bahsi renraku-kyo Bridge that the Enola Gay used as the landmark for releasing the bomb and we made our way to the Peace Bell. On Wednesday as we walked through the Peace Park I could hear almost at a steady rhythm a deep resonant tolling of a bell. I thought it was some sort of mechanical tolling of a bell, but no it is created by the human touch – we arrived and waited our turn as each one of us stepped up and took our turn at ringing the bell of peace. The sound is deep and the vibrations, when you place your hand on the bell run through you to your soul. It was deeply moving.

On our way back to catch the streetcar, I was standing by the A-dome area waiting for the rest of the family to catch up with me when a Japanese lady armed with a notebook approached me and offered to guide us through the park. She is a Hiroshima city volunteer and I was so disappointed that we hadn’t run into her when we first arrived, it would have been great to have her as our guide. She does this for free in order to practice her English. We told her we were sorry but we were headed to the train station to catch our train but we spared 5 minutes so she could tell us a little about what happened in Hiroshima during/after the bomb. One interesting fact we learned was that in September, just 5 weeks after the bombing, Hiroshima was hit by Makurazaki Typhoon which led to 3000 more deaths and further destruction, but the silver lining in this natural disaster is that it washed away at least some of the radioactivity. Scientists had thought that no trees would grow, no plants would reemerge for decades – instead within a year they started to see re-growth, as we saw with the Phoenix Trees in the Peace Park. The other interesting story was about the sole survivor of the area. Prior to WWII the area where the Peace Park stands was a thriving community full of shops and homes. A worker was in the basement of his shop when the bomb exploded which destroyed the area, he survived the impact because he just happened to go to the basement at the right moment. How does someone recover from that? It’s hard to wrap your head around something like that – how does someone emerge from utter destruction and then move on? But clearly, the people of Hiroshima have moved on, the city is quite nice and what struck me most is the space. Unlike the other cities I’ve been to here in Japan this one has breathing space. The streets are wide, there are lots and lots of trees, with a number of rivers running through the city there are many bridges adding to the scenery.

So that’s it … 5 days jampacked with history, world heritage sites and beautiful scenery. It was a great trip, our kids were at a perfect age to absorb it all – hard to believe it’s been a month and a half since we toured Kyoto, Mija Jima and Hiroshima. Hardly a day passes without someone talking about our experiences. It was a great trip and I hope we can find our way back down to that part of Japan before our time here ends. Especially in Kyoto, where I feel we only scratched the surface – there’s so much more waiting for us to explore. Till next time, sayonara.


Miya Jima – Itsuku-shima (Shrine Island),
We stayed at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima which was nice since the ferry to Miya Jima Island left from the hotel. It was another beautiful day and we enjoyed the short ferry ride between the outlying islands. As we approached the island we caught a glimpse of the Vermilion Torii Gate – the entire island of Miya Jima is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the torii gate which seems to float on the water at high tide, is ranked as one of the three best views of Japan. The present gate was built in 1874, but for more than seven centuries a gate has been has stood before Miyajima Island.

Miya Jima island has been a sacred spot for over 1500 years and is considered one of Japan’s holiest sites. No births or deaths have been allowed on the island and in centuries past commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island and had to pass through the floating Itsukushima-jinga (shrine gate) by boat in order to reach the shrine. These American commoners landed by ferry, hit the information booth in the terminal area, got a map and some helpful hints from the attendant and set off.

After passing through the shopping district area in the little town, past the souvenir shops and small restaurants we headed up through Momijidani Park to the ropeway station. The 1-mile long ropeway will take you to the top of Mt. Misen where you can hike up to the summit and then back down the mountain which is a nice 2 hour hike. The views from the top of Mt. Misen are beautiful and while we had a hazy day, it was still a lovely view of the inland sea and the surrounding islands. The hike down was fairly easy, although by the time we arrived at the bottom we all took a break and shed our shoes and socks and soaked our feet in the icy waters by the Daishoin Temple. This had to have been my favorite part of the day … laying back on the rocks with your feet dangling in the rushing water, getting a natural foot massage, while listening to the temple bell gong and the smell of incense wafting through the air – it was a Zen moment and a lovely way to end our visit to Miyajima.

We headed back to Hiroshima via the JR ferry and train for dinner where with the help of a local we found a great Italian restaurant that was decorated in Cape Cod nautical decor, had an English menu and the food was excellent – an awesome way to end a great day. Till next time, sayonara.

Kyoto Finale

On our last morning in Kyoto we got up early, hit Starbucks which was just down from our hotel, I made my purchase of a Kyoto Starbucks mug (so much for all the shopping tips I’d copied over …), and we headed off to the Kyoto station to stash our luggage before catching the train to Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine.

Fushimi Inari
We arrived around 8:30 and the shrine area was deserted – we’d had excellent advice that in order to enjoy this famous shrine you needed to get there early. For those of you who may have seen the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” Fushimi Inari was the background for the scene where Sayuri was running through the red torii gates. If you take the path all the way to the top of Mt. Inari you will pass through more than 10,000 red torii gates that have been donated by devotees. Inari is the fox deity who mediates between the human and the spirit world. The fox statues flank either side of the torii gates as you begin the journey through the 10,000 gates – they come in pairs, representing a male and female and they hold a symbolic item in their mouths or beneath their front paw, often a jewel or a scroll. Some of the foxes along the way were adorned with a red votive bib (yokarekake) that were placed on the foxes by worshippers out of respect. We had another lovely day, it was early and the light streaming through and hitting the vermilion gates was beautiful. The walk up the 2 mile path was an easy one, birds calling, incense wafting through the air … we should have called it a morning and left our last visit in Kyoto on a high note but instead we decided to cram in one more temple …

Kiyomizu Temple
The Kiyomizu Temple was built in 798 and this is one of Kyoto’s most famous temples. Its name, which means “Temple of Pure Water” comes from the fact that there is a spring on the grounds. Passing through the throngs of school groups, after hiking up the road that leads to the temple, we finally arrive at the main hall which was built in 1633 – without the use of a single nail. The main hall clings to the side of the hill, with large balcony’s hanging out over the tree tops. It was a Monday morning and maybe that accounted for the masses – and I suppose we were very lucky to have not encountered such large groups at the other temples – but it was hard to enjoy the splendor of the place with so many people. It felt much more like a carnival atmosphere than a temple.

Otowa-no-Taki (Otowa Falls)
Since ancient times it has been thought that the water flowing over this small waterfall in the temple grounds possess divine powers – there was quite a line for the priviledge of filling your cup with water but Jeff and Wrenn decided to wait it out. The water has alleged powers for good health, wealth, or studies – I'm guessing Wrenn is hoping for help with her studies and well Jeff ... I know which one he should be picking but am thinking he went for the other option.

Lover’s Stone
Behind the main hall and up some stone steps are two stones where it is said that if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, your wish for love will come true. Many, many school kids were doing this and after skeptically observing for a while the Cleary kids decided to give it a whirl … I think more for the challenge of being able to walk from one stone to the other without any help from the siblings than for love. All three were successful and the parental units managed to bite their tongues and not inquire about possible love interests … (I am so not ready to go there). Maybe the best time to visit this temple is in the Fall or Winter when there is no haze and you can enjoy the view or perhaps very early or very late in the day when the crowds have dissipated. The architectural achievement of the main building was amazing, there’s no getting around that, but the crowds put a damper on our last temple. Of course all the other temples we had visited centered around gardens … so that could have been some of our disappointment, or maybe we had finally hit what is called “temple fatigue.”

So that was the end of our Kyoto tour … we walked back down the hill, hopped on a city bus which took us over to the main Kyoto station where we grabbed our luggage, some lunch and headed for the next leg of our trip to Hiroshima. Kyoto was wonderful, we had such fabulous weather it made the long days easier to take. We had a glimpse of a Maiko in the Gion district our second night but overhearing some other’s talking on the street we were not really sure she was the real thing – she had a camera crew following her and there was mention that they were filming an ad. Either way, she was beautiful and unfortunately with the early evening light my photo turned out a big blur. The city itself is easy to get around using public transportation, a tour may have been nice but I think we managed just fine on our own. I hope we can go back, there’s still so much I’d like to see – more temple gardens, and of course shopping. Check out the next two entries … Miya Jima Island and Hiroshima that conclude our 5 day whirlwind trip in southern Honshu. Till next time, sayonara.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kyoto-5 Temples/8 hours

Ginkakuji – Silver Pavilion
Sunday was set to be a marathon day of hitting the high points in Kyoto. We started off our day in the Higashiyama area with the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple) as our first stop. By the time we arrived there, shortly after nine, the temple was already packed with school groups. The numerous students did not deter us from enjoying this unique Japanese garden, which juxtaposes dry type (karesansui) and strolling garden (kayushiki) elements – an unusual combination in traditional Japanese gardens. The pathway leading to the garden is flanked by bamboo framework that supports a well-manicured hedge on either side of the approach to the temple – the hedge guides us and marks our progression from the hustle and bustle of the outside world to the tranquility of the garden. Entering the garden area we spot a worker carefully creating a pattern in the sand – Jeff and I take pictures hoping we can remember the details when we return to the U.S. for our ultimate goal of creating a Japanese garden.

Moving on to the main garden area we are stunned into silence as we view the two large sculpted mounds of sand. The form of the truncated cone, Kogetsudai – The Moon Viewing Height – references Mt. Fuji or the central mountain of Buddhism. The lower horizontal mound, Ginshadan – The Sea of Silver Sand – is named for its appearance by moonlight.

The garden is known for its wealth of stones, both in groupings and in bridges. The walks are paved with fine stones or slabs set in the simple “cleansing” patterns associated with the tea ceremony. I took many pictures of the stone pathways hoping one day to be able to use these as inspiration in our own garden.

Leaving the Silver Pavilion we made our way along the Philosopher’s Path towards Honen-in, which has a small but beautiful garden. The approach to the garden has a long stone walkway that gradually narrows leading to the thatched gate of Honen-in. Stepping up and over the gate entrance, the sand mounds lay below you. A lay monk is assigned to rework the sand mounds and the pattern on top every few weeks. The pattern is different every time, sometimes reflecting the season. Symmetry is typically avoided in Japanese gardens, architecture, flower arrangements (Ikebana) – even though the sand mounds are situated symmetrically they are of different sizes and heights. Further back, passing by the sand mounds and crossing over a small stone bridge and a carp filled pond is a lovely moss garden. The light was coming down through the trees overhead and I was able to capture one of my favorite shots from that day – the moss looked so lush you just wanted to reach out and run your hands over it. Realizing we still had a lot of ground to cover we headed out of the temple grounds towards the nearest bus stop to make our way to the other side of town where three UNESCO World Heritage sites are located within easy walking distance of each other – Ninnaji, Ryonji and Kinkakuji.

This is a huge temple complex, founded in 886 and was originally built as a summer home for the Emperor. Passing through the temple gate with the Nio (Benevolent Kings) looking down on us, we headed towards the courtyard area. Just inside the eastern gate is a horizontally trained pine tree – that is quite impressive. The Ninna-ji garden is a transition garden from the kaiyu (stroll garden) to the kansho (admiration) style garden. There is a waterfall that creates a nice splashing sound and with the pond area tucked into the side of the hill there are many different ways to view the garden combining the balanced composition of sand, water and vegetation. As you’ll notice in the photos, I was certainly impressed by the garden, in particular the mammoth sized pine tree at the entrance that has been manipulated over the years to create these huge outstretched limbs but mostly I was taken with the architectural details. I kept thinking how my grandfather who was a construction supervisor, a master wood worker and a bit of perfectionist (understatement) would have spent hours and hours looking at the details and the superior craftsmanship of the verandas and buildings. From the details of covering the joints with a decorative plate, to the construction of the covered walkways – the craftsmanship that went into these buildings was impressive. After touring only a small portion of this huge complex and viewing the 5-story pagoda we headed out for our next destination – Ryoan-ji, the ultimate Zen garden attraction in Kyoto.

The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, Ryoan-ji, is probably the most famous Japanese dry landscape garden. We knew there would be crowds but that did not deter us from putting this high on our list. I had read about Ryoan-ji, even had a picture of it as my screen saver when we lived in the states before I ever knew we’d be coming to Japan. The kids all knew this was a classic example of a kare-sansui (dry-landscape) Zen meditation garden and that from no one spot could you simultaneously see all 15 of its carefully placed rocks. The gardens are meant to be viewed, not entered and were created by Zen masters to nudge the mind away from the mundane and to allow it to enter a higher level of consciousness. This unique style of garden uses white sand and rocks to create abstract representations of nature. We all took off our shoes and waited our turn to sit at the edge of the Abbott’s veranda and “just be.” There was no doubt that Jeff enjoyed this garden the most … I had to gently remind him that we still had one more stop to make, the Golden Pavilion, before we could call it a day. We left the kare-sansui area and rounded the corner of the building to find a lush moss garden – designing dry-rock and green gardens in pairs is popular in Japanese garden design. We found the famous tsukubai (crouch basin) on the grounds which reads “I learn only to be contented” – the Zen philosophy of he who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who only looks for material wealth is spiritually poor. From there we looped around Kyoyochi, the pond garden, taking in the water lilies, turtles and islands before heading out to Kinkaku-ji our final stop on this whirlwind day of Kyoto temples.

Kinkaku-ji – Golden Pavilion
The guide books I read had heartily recommended viewing the Golden Pavilion in the late afternoon with the sunlight hitting the pavilion – the advice was dead on – the late afternoon sunshine on the Golden Pavilion was beautiful and with the school groups gone we had the added benefit of walking the grounds relatively free of the hoards of tourists. To the right of the pavilion is a remarkably shaped pine tree with its extended branches pruned and supported to resemble a boat. When the original pavilion was built in 1394 several different architectural styles were combined in its construction, considered very avant-garde at the time.
“The first floor of the pavilion, known as the Hôsuiin (“Temple of Dharma Water”), is built in the shinden style (shinden zukuri) associated with 11th-century Heian nobility. The second story, called the Chôondô (alternatively translated “Grotto of Wave Sounds” or “Tower of Sound Waves”), is built in the buke style (buke zukuri) of samurai houses. It houses a statue of Kannon. The third floor of Kinkakuji is built in the style of a Buddha Hall in a Zen temple and is known as the Kukkyôchô (“Superb Apex”). It has round-headed windows and is more richly ornamented than the other floors. Inside, it shelters an Amida triad and 25 Bodhisattvas. The roof is topped with a golden Chinese phoenix.”*
There is a pathway leads up and behind the temple to a famous tea house, unfortunately since we arrived so late the tea house was already closed for the day. But the views from up on the ridge looking down on the pavilion were lovely and it was nice way to end our marathon day of touring 5 temples (4 of which are World Heritage sites). We headed back out to wind our way through public transportation to the Gion area, hoping that this would be the night where we would be able to spot the elusive Maiko.

It was a crazy day – I would not recommend touring Kyoto this way, but it worked for us, the 5 teensntweens were troopers, of course it probably helped that both families are partial to time spent outside and in gardens, the U.S. cousins I think also realized that this was it – a once in a lifetime chance to see the temples of Kyoto.

If you’d like to know more about the temple history I have listed some of the websites I used in my research below, in particular the Bowdoin website is fabulous with an interactive map of the gardens. Till next time, sayonara.

Ginkaku-ji – Silver Pavilion


* source -

Monday, July 19, 2010

Kyoto in 48 hours

48 hours that’s all the time we had to cover what should take at minimum 4 days. Our destination was Kyoto and we’d done our research. We had the target temples and shrines grouped according to area and we were prepared to step off the bullet train ready to hit the ground running. This is not how I would recommend traveling to this beautiful city but we were making a big loop hitting Miya Jima Island and Hiroshima after Kyoto and we only had so many days we could take the kids out of school. We were also traveling with Jeff’s brother and his family – a party of nine in all – and had to coordinate two work schedules. It was a miracle we were getting together at all but it came together and ended up being our favorite trip here in Japan so far.

We were taking the Shin as it’s called here (a.k.a. the Shinkansen or the Bullet train) and arriving in Kyoto around noon on a Saturday. But first we had to get on the darn train. I have learned since moving here to always, always, always allow extra time when traveling – get places early because you never know what’s going to happen. Thank goodness we followed our own guidelines that day because as we got off the train at Yokohama to transfer to the Shinkansen, which we couldn’t find and there would be a darn good reason for that. I quickly popped into the Information booth and the helpful Japanese clerk informed us that well … “you’re at the wrong train station.” I thought I would loose it right there but with the extra time allocated we managed to get ourselves to the correct station – that would be Shin-Yokohama. Ahhh.

Standing on the platform watching the bullet trains pull in and out with Japanese efficiency is like watching a well choreographed dance. I cannot possibly imagine what a Japanese National thinks if they visit our country and plan to take the train. I loved riding Amtrak to NYC or down to Richmond to see my grandparents … but efficient? Amtrak efficiency is an oxymoron. We were warned by our travel agent – she had highlighted this information – that we would have less than 3 minutes to get on and off the train. They would not wait for Americans struggling to get their gear on board. This led to us shipping off our luggage ahead of us by Black Cat.

Black Cat
If you ride on the trains or fly within Japan you rarely see Japanese with luggage. I’ve seen foreigners trying to lug their suitcases onto a crowded train during rush hour but never have I seen a Japanese do this. There’s a good reason – they ship their luggage ahead. All over Japan you see signs with a black cat on them. I guess a very loose equivalent would be Mail Boxes Etc or something similar – only here they arrive at your door and pick up your luggage and ship it to your hotel within 24 hours. Seriously. So for roughly $80 we had our luggage sent ahead of us (which was already placed inside our hotel room when we arrived in Kyoto) and I am in love with this service! All suitcases were packed and gone the day before, aside from the last minute screw up with the train stations that had to have been one of the easiest ways to leave for a trip. No one running around the night before scrambling to find things (I won’t name names), no throwing in one more load of laundry late the night before because “I have to have this on the trip.” It was awesome – I’m a Black Cat convert and thank goodness, because we breezed onto the train, found our seats, shortly a hostess came down the aisle and offered us beverages. Jeff decides he doesn’t care it’s 10 in the morning he’s on vacation (it's 5 o'clock somewhere) and he’ll have a beer and I think that sounds like a brilliant idea and join him. One beer and I’m out (my UGA Dawg Days are looooonnng gone) – I wake up just as the train is pulling into Kyoto.

The Kyoto train station is HUGE. Probably somewhere around the size of Grand Central Station in NYC. There are multiple train lines that come into the station, stores restaurants, and people everywhere. The thing we were probably struck by the most were all the school groups, hundreds of them, all in their school uniforms. And they’re so organized – not like a group of U.S. high schooler’s milling around – these kids are lined up in rows waiting for the signal to move out. My Japanese students had warned me that this was school group season and they weren’t kidding. The closest I could equate this to is being in D.C. during Spring Break on steroids.

Trying to connect with Jeff’s brother and family in Kyoto station sounded like a good plan but was a bit more challenging to execute but we finally were all together, reunited – it had been a year since the kids and I have seen family – and we were off to see Kyoto.

I took over 500 photos and ran out of room on my memory card, with so much to see it was hard not to take photos. It has taken me weeks to edit the photos down to a reasonable size and try to gather my thoughts about our trip. I will break my entries down by day and try not to bore you to death – I should have 5 entries (Kyoto, Kyoto, Kyoto, Miya Jima and Hiroshima) – this one is the first.

We began our Kyoto adventure in the Aryishama area with the Togetsu Bridge which crosses the Katsura River. The name translates as “Moon-Crossing Bridge,” and has been celebrated in poetry, song and woodblock prints (one week later Jeff and I saw an antique woodblock print at one of the bazaars here on base – tempting, but I chose a lovely print with an Ikebana scene instead). We enjoyed watching the numerous blue row boats on the river, most of which ended up being swept to the edge of a small damn – one after another being pulled away by a motorboat.

Tenryu-ji (Temple of the Heavenly Dragon) is known for it’s beautiful pond circling garden and uses the principle of ‘borrowed landscape’ (shakkei) to draw upon the wider landscape. It is one of the oldest gardens in Kyoto that uses the borrowed landscape design. There is a significant Chinese-inspired rock arrangement featuring a grouping of seven rocks positioned near the shore at the rear of the pond. The vertical placement of the rocks are arranged in such a way as to be beautifully composed from any point in the garden. This group of stones consists of a cluster of rocks suggesting a mountainous island, a three-slab stone bridge established along the shore line, a succession of peninsulas (dejima) carries the eye toward the tree-planted island at the eastern end.

I have my maps, my notes, my guidebooks in hand (relying heavily on A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto). I’m reading out loud trying to get my family to appreciate why we are hear but no one seems to care … my voice trails off into silence. I stand there and try to take it all in, making mental notes, hoping one day I can bring part of Japan to my country and enjoy the beauty of shakkei with the Shenandoah Mountains as the backdrop.

From the temple we walked through the Sagano Bamboo Grove which was a nice contrast to the temple garden. The bamboo soaring overhead, bamboo leaves rustling in the wind as we walked through, it was quite peaceful and lovely. We were making our way towards the small Nison-in Temple, along the way there were rice paddies, little shops, tree-lined fields … it was all very picturesque. As I was waiting for members of our group who had ducked into a little shop, I kept hearing a clonking sound at a regular beat. I tried to get near the source but the sound was coming from a traditional Japanese home tucked back from the road and while I couldn’t see it I recognized the distinctive “tonk” of a Shishi-odoshi or “animal-scarer.” A bamboo pipe fills with water and then swings down to release the water, when it returns to its original position the bamboo strikes a stone, making the “tonk” sound and begins to fill with water again. This is a common element in a classical Japanese garden because of the serene sound it makes and as I grabbed my family to wait patiently for the sound we all decided that this would have to be included in our garden when we return to the U.S..

Further down the road we came to Koto-en, a shigaraki ware ceramic shop that has a hundred or so ceramic tanuki lining its courtyard. The wily tanuki are able to transform themselves from beautiful maidens into ugly old hags … these magical creatures are not to be trusted. With a special place in my heart (or wallet) for Japanese pottery I stepped inside the shop. It looked as though they were preparing for guests, a traditional Japanese table was laid out for tea and the smell of green tea wafted through the air. Since I had to lug my purchase through Kyoto, I was looking for something rather small and found a charming bud vase with maple leaves on it, it nestled into my camera bag perfectly and we were off and running again to our next stop. Unfortunately the Nison-in temple closes early and the gentleman at the entrance was nice enough to point out we would have little time to enjoy the grounds, so I will have to return to Kyoto on another trip to see this small temple.

We made a very circuitous way back to the train station and headed toward Gion in the hopes of spotting a Maiko or Geisha but with nine hungry members we decided to try our luck at dropping into a local restaurant first … down a side street. The key selling point? “We have English menus.” Sold! It was quite delicious, our bellies full of soba or udon noodles (patrons choice) and sake (adults only of course) we walked the streets of Gion but on this evening we had no luck spotting the beautiful Geishas. We made our way to our hotel (Hotel Monterey which was lovely) and called it a night … the next day was going to be a long one with two different areas of Kyoto to see and five different temples. Till next time, sayonara.

For more information on Tenryu-ji go to: or

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