Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Autumn in Kyoto

Visiting Kyoto in the autumn when the days are crisp, the skies are blue and the leaves are aflame is a special kind of treat. The temples in the hills surrounding the city become destinations of modern day pilgrimage for thousands and again thousands of visitors who come to revel in the rarefied atmosphere. The Japanese are known to appreciate nature and the changing of seasons is of particular importance to the culture. Still in this postmodern society cuisines change with the seasons reflecting what foodstuffs are available at a particular time of the year. One of the fundamentals of the Japanese aesthetic is the ephemeral nature of beauty. The lush green forests turn to bright red and yellow before the leaves fade into shades of brown prior to dying and falling.

Since I arrived just over a month ago, I have spent much of my free time visiting the temples and the shrines. Luckily for me, I am staying in Sakyo ward in the northeast of the city, just next to the Kyoto University main campus, which gives me ready access to many of the most revered temples in the Higashiyama—East Mountain—area.

On my second Sunday in town, my old friend Taka picked me up from my apartment and we spent a long day walking around the temples in this area. We started with Kurodani, with the Konkai-Komyoji temple founded in 1175, one of the eight main temples of the Jodo sect of Buddhism. I can actually see this handsome structure perched on the side of Higashiyama from my apartment building. Like many temples in Kyoto, Kurodani was destroyed and rebuilt several times after it was recovering from unrest or other mishaps. In 1934 it was destroyed by a fire but again reconstructed in its old image in 1942. In the Japanese tradition, this does not in any way reduce the value of the historic building. After all, these are wooden structures and therefore vulnerable to fire. In the appreciation through all five senses, the smell of new wood as the temple is being rebuilt adds to its charm.

Just north of Kurodani is Shinnyo-do, a temple of the Tendai sect, with a lovely garden. As we visited, the Japanese momiji maples were at their best autumn colours almost obscuring the tall pagoda. For some unfathomable reason, Shinnyo-do has remained in relative obscurity, although it is a very old—established in 984—and beautiful place. Consequently, even now the temple gardens were relatively less crowded (with emphasis on the word relatively).

Crossing the Shirakawa river valley, we continued to Honen-in, a small temple established relatively late in 1680. It received its name from the priest Honen (1133-1212), founder of the Jodo-shu sect. Honen-in was originally built as a training hall for Buddhist chant, Shishigatani, closely associated with Honen. There is nothing spectacular about Honen-in, but to me it is one of the loveliest of all the temples. Its garden is a true haven of tranquility.

Our next destination was further up, one of the most famous temples of all, Ginkakuji. A Zen temple, Ginkakuji was established in 1482 during the Muromachi Shogunate. Its formal name was Higashiyama Jishōji but it is commonly known as Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion. Ginkakuji was originally built by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a restful place of retirement for himself, that would afterwards be designated as temple. At its heart is a two-storied pagoda, Kannon-den, between a rock garden and beautiful pond. The temple area is quite large and extends up on a steep hillside from where the view over the Kannon-den and its garden down onto the city is magnificent.

Having already walked for hours in the fresh air, we headed towards the oldest ramen shop in the city, Ramen Masutani. Still in mid-afternoon there was a brief wait outside before we could enter. The place has served its limited choice of ramen-noodles here for some 60 years. With the exception of a bowl of rice, there is nothing else on the menu. The drink choices are water or tea. The pork ramen that I had was one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed – and not only because of hunger.

Thus fortified, we were ready to continue walking and headed down the famed Tetsugaku-no-michi or the Philosophers’ Path. The autumn sun was already starting its descent and the late afternoon was golden. We followed the path alongside many people on their afternoon stroll or on their way to one of the many cafés or restaurants, the Japanese always well-dressed and stylish. One segment of the path is famous for having a large cat population. They appear to be semi-domesticated and many people stop to pet or feed them.

We still had the strength to visit one more temple, the Eikando Zenrin-ji. The sun was already fading behind the mountains and dusk had settled on the valley. The Zenrin-ji temple was established on this site in the Heian period around 853. Some two centuries later, Eikan (1033-1111) became the head priest of the temple. He was known as a devoted soul, intoning the Nembutsu chant as many as 60,000 times every day, and never sparing his efforts to help poor people. He thus earned everyone’s respect and at some point of time people started calling the Zenrin-ji simply Eikando. It is one of the temples with the most beautiful autumn leaves or kouyou. There is a small rock garden in front of the main temple and through the gates I could see four young ladies wearing beautiful kimonos resting on the wooden steps admiring the garden. Such a lovely sight, and one that could have been the same hundreds of years ago.

We circled the temple and climbed up behind it. The lights were already coming on inside and in the garden lanterns. Suddenly we ran into the four women in kimonos and start chatting with them. They were friendly and gorgeous in their exquisite dress, so I could not help but ask for their permission to take their photograph.

On the following weekend I was alone and decided to walk across the city from east to west. Kyoto is a fabulous walking city. The traffic is well organized, although especially around the universities one has to be careful of the bicycles, and there is always something nice to observe. At some 1.4 million inhabitants, it is not a huge megalopolis either. Having said that, the distances may be longer than they appear on the map—on this Saturday I estimated having walked around 12 kilometres, crossing the Kamogawa river and heading towards the mountains on the opposite side of town.

My first stop was the Kitano-Tenmangu shrine, one of the very important shrines in the country. Unlike the temples, this was a Shinto shrine. One of the most delightful aspects of Japan’s spiritual life is its flexibility. It is said that 80 percent of the Japanese are Buddhist, and 90 percent are Shintoist. There is no contradiction here and celebrations and rituals are conducted in one or the other largely depending on their appeal. Shinto, as an original Japanese nature-based religion—or philosophy—is quite attractive, although it did get slightly tainted in connection with the militarism of the first part of the 20th century. Kitano-Tenmangu is dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, a scholar and politician who was wrongfully accused and exiled to the southwestern island of Kyushu where he died in 903. After his death there were severe earthquakes and storms that caused considerable damage, which were widely thought to be caused by his wrath. Consequently, the Imperial Court posthumously granted him the title of Karai TenJin (God of Fire and Thunder). As I visited Kitano-Tenmangu it was peaceful with many women and little girls wearing beautiful kimonos.

My main target that day was the Kinkakuji, one of the most famous temples in the city and the country, indeed the world. Unlike Ginkakuji, which does not have any actual silver, Kinkakuji is covered with gold foil on lacquer. Located in the foothills in the northwest of the city, there was a bit of a hike to reach the place. When I did, I realized that I certainly was not the only one with the same idea. There must have been thousands of people: Japanese, Chinese, other Asians, Westerners. According to Taka, the fastest growing group of tourists in Japan are Thai, as their economy grows and the exchange rate of Yen to Baht has gone down.

The temples of Kyoto are generally wealthy. They usually charge a reasonable entrance fee but with the hundreds of thousands of visitors every year this translates into considerable sums. The temples’ income is also tax free. This has resulted in the fact that this common patrimony of humankind is very well preserved and maintained. There is also money left over, as can be often seen from the monks’ residences and the luxury cars that are parked in front of them. In Japan, the image of penniless Buddhist monks leading an ascetic life is not entirely accurate.

Kinkakuji in all its glory is unique in the world. It is breath-taking as it stands in front of the immaculate pond that reflects its image on the calm surface. Behind and around it, the dark hills were speckled with stunning colours. The Golden Pavilion is a shariden or a Buddhist hall actually containing some relics of Buddha. It is said to represent Muromachi era Imperial aristocratic style and combines elements of Chinese architecture. The pavilion itself is part of a Zen temple called Rokuon-ji. The Muromatsu era Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (the grandfather of the builder of the Ginkakuji) acquired the area in 1397 and built his villa Kitayama-den (North Mountain villa) there.

Heading back east to my own den, I passed by Daitoku-ji, another Zen temple of the Rinzai school, established in 1315. In later centuries it became an important cultural centre and was associated with, i.a., the legendary military leader and politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) and tea ceremony master Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591). As I entered the area, I noticed that one of the sub-temples was exceptionally open to visitors. Oubai-in’s history is closely related to the famous lord Oda Nobunaga who commissioned the building of a hermitage to the memory of his father, which afterwards was named Oubai-in. Lord Oda Nobunaga appointed Toyotomi Hideyoshi as the military governor of Kyoto. When Oda Nobunaga was murdered in 1582, Toyotomi Hideyoshi built a mausoleum to him at Oubai-in. The relatively small temple derives its name from a place in China with deep Buddhist roots. The main building and its Chinese style gate were renovated in 1586. The gardens of Oubai-in are exquisite and peace reigns inside. There is the Hatou-Tei rock garden, and Jikichu-Tei, a Chisen style garden created by Sen-no-Rikyu. I felt very lucky to be able to visit this delicate and serene place.

The glow of the autumn leaves is indeed ephemeral (although, as Taka pointed out, at least it lasts for some weeks, unlike the three-day peak of the sakura or cherry blossoms in the spring time). The other day we walked back to Shinnyo-do on our way to an amazing lunch at a small restaurant called Nashimote that grills fish and meat on charcoals (but that’s another story). Just in the intervening weeks the temple garden had lost half of the leaves and the greens and yellows were now distinctly blood red and rust brown. This was another kind of beauty, no longer as exuberant as before, but more subdued and sensitive.

Now that it’s already almost mid-December (oh, how time flies!), the kouyou season is almost over. The days are still sunny and comfortable, but the nights are getting cold. The persimmon fruit—kaki—hang orange from bare branches. The nearby Okazaki shrine, dedicated to fertility and safe birth as symbolized by the rabbit, appears deserted, although from somewhere deep inside I can hear a group practicing ancient gagaku music.

Tonight I took my washtub, towel and soap and wandered into the neighbourhood public bath, sento, to soak in a hot tub with other men from the area. (One thing that Japan has in common with my native Finland is the healthy natural relationship with nudity and total strangers never hesitate to lounge together naked.) It is clear that winter is coming and the autumn leaves on the ground will soon be covered with snow.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Icelandic Rain

Bad weather is not entirely unexpected in Iceland, but I still think I had bad luck during my brief stopover there. My first morning in Reykjavik was grey and chilly. It was as if the sun didn’t rise at all. At this latitude in the middle of the North Atlantic, 1st of September spells autumn. I was up quite early and ventured outside right after breakfast. It was Sunday and the streets in the city centre were deserted. No wonder, as the parties had gone on until early morning. Although I hadn’t partaken in any party the night before, I had had my share of noise from the merrymakers. Every Saturday night in Reykjavik is like a carnival, I had heard and last night’s experience seemed to confirm this. The room in my hotel where I just had had breakfast, doubles as a microbrewery bar (one would think that in Iceland every brewery is a microbrewery and that distinction be somewhat redundant) from afternoon until the wee hours. I was impressed that they had managed to clean it up perfectly for the morning meal in the couple of hours in between.

Reykjavik is a rather small town but still it and its suburbs are home to two-thirds of the entire population of 305,000 in the country.  The centre of the city is compact and very friendly for walking. I headed down the pedestrian street past many shops and restaurants that all were closed at this hour. I observed the opera house—albeit small, Iceland has all aspects of social and cultural life covered—and headed further to the port. I only saw one person, a woman walking with an umbrella against the wind and slowly intensifying rain. They ocean was steel grey. A long row of leisure yachts bobbed in the waves against the backdrop of mist covered mountains. It was gloomy and I loved it.

As I only had this one day to explore, I had done what I normally would not consider: booked myself on a day trip with a bunch of other tourists. I and a few others were picked up by a minibus from the centre and delivered to a bus station a bit further out where we switched to a full-sized bus. This was the reverse procedure from yesterday when the airport bus left me at the same bus station to catch a minibus. The city centre streets are too narrow to accommodate big buses. There was a guide, a 51-year old man called Leidur, who would keep us entertained during the bus ride. The bus was almost full. It turned out, when Leidur took stock of his charges at the beginning of the trip, that more than half of the passengers were from Norway. This meant that Leidur’s running commentary would be delivered bilingually in English and Norwegian, both in the same angular Icelandic accent. It turned out that Leidur was not only knowledgeable, but also quite funny and refreshingly politically incorrect (or perhaps he’s just average in Iceland). As we were driving through the edge of the city he pointed out a modern building with four interconnected vertical towers each of different height. Leidur said that there had been much opposition to its building and the opponents called it the “world’s largest fuck-you sign.” I wasn’t sure what he had just said through the PA system, but could ascertain it when he repeated it in Norwegian.

The good road led eastward out of the town. At this point, the rain was getting heavier whipping against the windshield. Cars driving towards us emerged from the semidarkness with headlights blurred by the rain. The scenery was sparse and powerful. Volcanic rocks and old lava flows marked the landscape. As I had expected, there were grazing sheep, but I was surprised to see more horses. There are 80,000 horses in Iceland. Some are exported to Japan and Russia. Their meat is also widely eaten in Iceland. As the horses have evolved in isolation on this island, they are of a very distinct race. I am not sure how that translates into their taste.

There were few trees on the windswept plains. Only 5 percent of Iceland is under forest cover. This had not always been so. As described by Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA who has studied society-environment relationships worldwide in a historical perspective, Iceland went through a very rough patch. The country’s first colonists came from Norway who apparently didn’t realize how fragile the ecology of the island actually was. They ended up destroying the topsoil and most of the forests. Although the forest cover still is very low, the Icelanders eventually adapted through adopting elaborate environmental protection measures to maintain agriculture under tough conditions. In his book Collapse, Diamond highlights Iceland as a success story from this point of view.

Leidur briefed us on older and relatively new history. During the heady days of financial speculation just two decades ago, Reykjavik was thriving and the city centre was flush with strip joints. Then that party ended and the strong feminist movement in Iceland saw an opportunity to ban the strip clubs. There is a long feminist tradition in the country—in fact, Iceland was amongst the first countries to give women the full voting rights in 1915—as well as a Christian heritage. The irony is that today 80% of Icelanders belong to the Lutheran religion, but 70% are descendants of the last Catholic bishop and his 11 children.

Our first stop was Geysir, a place where overheated water bubbles to the surface from the volcanic rock. At this juncture, I had to accept that I would be wet. I had on a windbreaker that would keep me relatively shielded, but the rain was heavy by now and the wind blew it sideways. My jeans were soaked in no time. But I had no choice. Having come this far, I wouldn’t let a bit of a North Atlantic storm to keep me inside. Furthermore, this whole geothermal business is so important for the country that it was necessary to see the source of it with my own eyes. Some 90 percent of houses in Iceland—and every house in Reykjavik—are heated with geothermal energy. Piped water comes straight from the clean waters underground and therefore hot water has a light but distinct odour of sulphur.

So I set out to walk towards Strokkur, the most active of the geysers, which spouts a formidable burst of scalding water some 30 metres up into the air every 10-12 minutes releasing the pressure that builds up with water vapour underground. Both sides of the walking path were pitted with holes filled with hot water (it would only take minutes to cook a tourist, Leidur had warned us). The soil and rocks were coloured red and yellow by the iron, sulphur and other minerals oozing from the earth. The landscape had an exquisite melancholy beauty, which I felt the rain accentuated. Fog in the hills mingled with the steam arising from the hot springs. Geysir (which has given English language the word geyser) is a hot spring area that has been active for some 10,000 years, but its activity levels have varied greatly.

After the walk, I relented and headed to the visitor centre, which luckily hosted two bars. I ordered a beer and Icelandic schnapps, which is known as brennivin. As Leidur had said earlier, Iceland has an alcohol policy, which is “extra Norwegian” in its severity, another expression of the Lutheran legacy. Today it really doesn’t limit the availability or consumption of booze, but translates into high prices. Until recently, however, beer was not allowed to be sold in the country on the perverse assumption that it would be so easy to drink that people would be drunk all the time. I remember in the late-1980s when I was a research fellow at the Nordic Africa Institute in Sweden, we would get visiting researchers from Iceland and the first thing they’d do was to rush to the closest bar for a beer. The law was only changed in1989. It was seen to be futile, as bars in Reykjavik had taken to selling alcohol-free beer with brennivin dropped in.
Back on the bus, Leidur told us a story about a country priest who had found a dead pig on the road. Not knowing what to do with it, he called the police from the first automated phone in the country. The officer at the other end quipped: “you’re the priest; aren’t you supposed to bury the dead?” “Certainly, but I always inform the next of kin first,” replied the priest. This was in the mid-1970s. There had been a lot of public opposition to the introduction of automated phones, as that prevented neighbours from listening into telephone conversations.

The following stop was at Gullfoss, a fabulous waterfall, the highest in Iceland. The rain was still coming down in torrential bursts. I was wet and cold, but decided again to take the walk to the waterfall, which definitely was worth it. Gullfoss has two waterfalls with a combined height of 31 metres. The gorge in which it is located is 2.5 km long. The waterfall and the deep gorge below were formed at the end of the last Ice Age when great glacial floods cut through cracks in the volcanic basalt lava layers on top of softer sedimentary rock. Today the average water flow through the cascade is 109 cubic metres per second, but at times it can go up to 2,000 cubic metres per second. I am sure that on this stormy day the flow was well above average.

Luckily there was time for another beer and brennivin combo before with again gathered in the bus. The bext and final stop on our round trip would be Thingvellir, designated a UNESCO world heritage site due to its geologic, historic and cultural significance. This is where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge forms a rift valley that is constantly spreading. The formation is quite remarkable. The view from the top of the crest to the surrounding area is gorgeous. Historically, Thingvellir became the site of the first parliament founded in the year 930. It remained the location of the parliament until 1798. The area also became a central cultural place where people from all over Iceland would gather in the historical times. There would be traders and craftsmen and, natural, it would become fairgrounds where drinks were served and games held.

By the time we returned to Reykjavik in early evening I was feeling quite fine. It was warm in the bus and the brennivin was adding to my mellow mood. Back at the hotel, a hot shower with the sulphur-infused water and change into a fresh set of dry cloths got me ready to roll again. By this time the rain had stopped and the temperature was a comfortable 10 degrees Celsius above freezing. I took a stroll around the centre of the city—still quiet but not a ghost town as in the morning—and picked at random a pleasant looking casual restaurant from amongst the many tempting places. A genuinely friendly and attractive young waitress led me to a window table with a view over the rapidly darkening square where a few people were crossing once in a while. I ordered lox as my starter and lamb with herbs for the main course, pairing them with nice white and red wines respectively. It was rather heavenly to sit in the warm and welcoming place, enjoying a superb meal after a wet but interesting day in the stunningly beautiful country. I rounded off the evening with a nightcap in a pub with a live band. Finally, I also found Icelanders who had crept out of their Sunday slumber and wandered out to quench the thirst caused by the previous night’s partying.

In the morning, I slept like a baby in the silent darkness when it was time to get up. I had to catch the 5 am bus to the airport. The driver, a blond young woman, quickly headed out of town onto the straight highway leading west to Keflavik. I relaxed to the monotonous roar of the bus and reflected on my short but pleasant stay in this unique country. I am from the north, so I’m used to darkness and rain. In fact, I find certain solace in them. A few years back, Eric Weiner in his his quest for the happiest places on earth that he describes in the book The Geography of Bliss visited Iceland. At the end of his day, he observed that melancholia and happiness are not mutually exclusive or opposites in any way. I have always known this.

Finally, the lights of Keflavik came into view like a bright twinkling string floating above the still dark horizon. What a lovely sight.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

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