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 -

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