Wow, if I thought my time as a TRIAD in Japan was busy it was nothing compared to my experience in the United States. I’ve not had time to write a single blog about my 4 months at Longwood so I have a lot of retrospective blogging to do now that I’ve returned to the UK. Before I tell you about the third and final leg of my TRIAD adventure though, I have a few final blogs to post about my last couple of weeks in Japan as I’d like to share with you the beautiful gardens I visited during this time.
When last I posted on this blog I was in the midst of a weekend in Kyoto enjoying visits to some of the most beautiful gardens Japan has to offer.
The Arashiyama area has been popular since the Heian era (794-1185) when nobles would visit to take in the splendid natural scenery, especially in spring for sakura and in autumn for fall colour. It’s certainly one of the prettiest areas of Kyoto and I enjoyed my walk from the Sagano train station to the famous bamboo grove.
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE
One of the world’s most beautiful forests and perhaps the most iconic photograph of Kyoto, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove runs from the north gate of Tenryū-ji to just below Ōkōchi-Sanso Villa. Its proximity to Tenryū-ji is no coincidence by the way: bamboo groves are traditionally used as a means of warding off evil in Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples.
Phil and I caught our first glimpse of the famed bamboo grove back in January during our first cold, damp and drizzly visit to Tenryū-ji.
Not quite as impressive as it is on a sunny day like today! You have to get there pretty early in the morning to get that peopleless photo and to be properly immersed in the ethereal atmosphere of the grove (indeed the forest is included in the Ministry of Environment’s’100 Soundscapes of Japan’).
As one CNN journalist put it:-
“The sun filters through the densely packed grove, projecting thin slashes of light onto the dozens of camera-clutching tourists shuffling down the wide trail that cuts through the middle of the forest as they awkwardly angle their shots, attempting to crop human forms out of their frames.”
Thankfully I’m an early bird and the early bird catches the worm…
ŌKŌCHI SANSO VILLA
As I exited the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove at the far end I more or less stumbled into the garden I had intended to seek out next. Ōkōchi-Sanso is the private villa of the silent film actor, Ōkōchi Denjirō (1898-1962), famous in particular for his roles in Samurai films. Ōkōchi saved up much of the money he made as an actor, using it to construct his dream garden in Kyoto’s Arashiyama mountains – a unique garden villa on the south side of Mount Ogura, which took 30 years from start to finish. The garden is beautifully designed with pine trees, cherries and acers providing seasonal colour. Perhaps the garden’s best feature is the use of Shakkra, or ‘borrowed views’ – the garden blends seamlessly into the mountains beyond and provides a great vantage point over the Katsura-gawa River and Kyoto City centre.
Kameyama Koēn is a pretty little park which I wandered through on my way down to the Sagano River. As well as being a pleasant spot for a stroll it’s a popular place for locals to enjoy Haname during sakura season (i.e. now) and provides spectacular views out over Katsura-gawa and the Arashiyama mountains.
KATSURAGAWA AND THE TOGETSUKYO BRIDGE
The Togetsukyo Bridge is another Kyoto’s most iconic photos. Meaning literally ‘moon crossing bridge’ it was built during the Heian era (794-1185) but was restored in the 1930s. Interestingly the river actually changes in name as it passes under the bridge: the water to the west is the Hozu River while that to the east is the Katsura River.
After a quick detour to the shopping district around Tenryū-ji to buy a beautiful and rather expensive traditional Japanese fan…
…I journeyed east to the Higashiyama district to take in a couple more temples.
Chion-in is headquarters of Japan’s most popular Buddhist sect, the Jōdo school, and is often described as ‘the Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism’. The main hall, Miei-dō, is one of the largest temple structures in Japan, while the 70-ton temple bell and the two-storey San-mon gate at the entrance are both the largest in the country. Today there is still a hub of religious activity at Chion-in, so I took the advice of my Lonely Planet Guide, kicked off my shoes (well I say kicked…), donned the three sizes too small Japanese slippers and sat myself down on a cushion inside one of the temple buildings for an enthralling session of Buddhist chanting and incense.
Once I’d awoken from my trance-like state I headed on to nearby Heian Jingū, the huge torii of which are another of Kyoto’s most famous sights.
Heian-Jingū is a relatively modern introduction to the city, built as it was in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. The bright vermillion shrine buildings are replicas of the Imperial Court Palace of the Heian period, constructed at two-thirds of the original size.
The vast strolling garden behind the shrine buildings is pretty special too, particular during the spectacular sakura season that had now befallen upon us. Designed by Ogawa Jihei (1860-1933) the garden’s most famous feature is the central pond (seiho-ike) which is traversed by the Bridge of Peace (taihei-kaku) and surrounded by beautiful weeping cherries and wisteria.
A WEEK IN KYOTO WITH PHIL AND MORI-SAN
That Sunday night Phil and Mori-san joined me in Kyoto for a week of further garden visits and a spot of work experience too. The hotel where Phil, Mori and I stayed that week in Kyoto was interesting to say the least. I had thought that, as in the UK, all public places in Japan would be entirely non-smoking; the Japanese are a very clean and health-conscious people after all. Surprisingly many restaurants and cafés here still permit diners to smoke; so do many hotels, including ours. Our tobacco-infused rooms were just the start of it though. Our rooms were replete with not a kettle but a thermos flask of hot water, and it was the job of the sole member of staff to traipse from room to room every morning to fill each thermos with hot water from a small urn-type device upstairs. Perhaps no one had told him about kettles.
And that’s not all. A sign at reception warned guests that a 10pm curfew would be strictly enforced. Another – most amusing to Phil and I – gave guests the following warning about use of the two communal showers:
‘You cannot take a shower in the morning. Only at night.’
And before 11pm at that.
When we asked Mori-san about the strange set up he told us that we must understand that this is ‘not a normal place’ (we could have told him that). Apparently in the past various small hotels were set up around Kyoto, each accommodating worshippers of a specific temple, shrine or castle in the city. Our hotel originally accommodated worshippers of Nijō-jō Castle and had only very recently opened its doors to tourism. At a very reasonable price I might add, so really I shouldn’t complain. The hotel was also only a stone’s throw from Kyoto Station so very convenient for exploring the city.
The member of staff was very friendly and I even began to enjoy the little morning routine we got into where I tried to explain in a mix of Japanese and English that I was just popping out to get a take-out coffee from Lawson’s (the water in my thermos had grown cold by now) whilst he rattled out a stream of Japanese and tried to take my keys off me for the day. He won of course. So each morning I would then return to the hotel with my hotto kōhī to find the man at the front desk gone and would then have to wander the corridors in search of him to retrieve my room keys. By the time I had done this and regained entry into my room my hotto kōhī was lukewarm at best, so I may as well have just used the water from the thermos. Oh well, we can but try…
Enough about the hotel, it’s time to introduce you to some of Kyoto’s finest gardens.
On Monday morning we visited Tofukū-ji Temple, HQ of the Rinzan sect of Zen Buddhism. Built in the Kamakura era (1185–1333), Tofuku-ji is one of five ‘Kyoto Gozan temples and thus one of Kyoto’s 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites. Interestingly the name is derived from the two main temples in nearby Nara: Todai-ji and Kofukū-ji.
The temple complex is breathtakingly beautiful at this time of year with its covered corridors over a forest of spring green Acers. Even the rain couldn’t spoil the ambience.
Like most large temples in Japan, the Tofukū-ji temple complex also contains many subtemples, and several of these are famed for their beautiful gardens. The first that we visited today was Hojo.
The gardens surrounding Hojo (the Abbot’s Hall) are by Japanese standards very modern, designed as they were by the landscape sculptor Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975). Comprised of 4 separate but interconnected gardens ,‘The Hasso Garden’ represents the eight aspects of the Buddha’s life. In the South Garden four large rocks symbolise the Elysian Islands, while in the West Garden small, square-trimmed azaleas intersperse with same-size squares of white gravel. In the East Garden stone and gravel are used to represent the Great Bear constellation, while the famous North Garden is a striking chequerboard of moss and stone.
The next subtemple we visited was Kaisan-do. Just as lovely but with a very different feel, it is almost impossible to find any detailed information about the garden here, so I’ll let the photos do the talking…
As if the morning’s visit to Tofukū-ji wasn’t enough that afternoon we had a real treat in store – a visit to Shugakuin Rikyū (Shugakuin Imperial Villa). A visit to the gardens which Emperor Gomizuno constructed in the 17th century and which are now managed by the Imperial Household is something of a privilege , and Mori-san had to reserve our tickets some months in advance. The highlight of the trip for me was the stunning view out over the pond and surrounding paddy fields – a view which is all the more appreciated due to the pine-flanked paths which cleverly conceal the view until one reaches the ultimate vantage point at the top of the gardens.
On Tuesday our first port of call was Saiho-in, otherwise known as Koke-dera or, translated into English ‘the moss temple’. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Saiho-ji is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist which, as you might guess from its title, is famous for the fabulous moss garden which encircles it. Interestingly, while the temple was built during the Nara period the moss garden was not part of the original design. The original gardens were bedecked in white sand but eventually the moss took over as the temple struggled with the upkeep of the gardens.
With over 120 different varieties of moss to preserve visits to Saiho-ji are by appointment only (thank you Mori-san!) and begin with Buddhist chanting and a calligraphy exercise to help clear the mind…
…before entering the temple proper and enjoying the enchanting evergreen gardens.
Next stop was to Shoren-in, one of Kyoto’s five Monzeki temples of the Tendai sect – a strain of temple whose head priests were traditionally members of the imperial family. Whilst the inside of the temple was pretty spectacular…
…it was really the glorious gardens we’d come to admire. Good views out over the gardens can be enjoyed from the temple buildings themselves, but the winding paths around the pond, over a small hill, through a bamboo grove and to the large moss garden are a beautiful experience too.