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.