DAYS 5-7 KYOTO


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A journey to Japan cannot be made it seems without including Kyoto on the itinerary. At least for the first time visitor and absolutely for someone interested in gardens. Historically speaking it sits astride Nara, the old Japanese capital and geographically between the two major cities of Japan, Tokyo and Osaka.

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The wealth of history means that accordingly there are a wealth of historical monuments and buildings. Trying to see all the rivers in the Amazon will wear you out and so will trying to see all the temples in Kyoto! Not quite verbatim but something similar…:

“Wow, what an amazing building” I would have said the first one I saw.

“That is a beautiful example of Japanese temples” the second.

“Imagine the work required in that detail” the third.

“What incredibly complicated eave design it has” (by now running out of superlatives) the fourth.

“Feel like a beer?” the fifth.

“Feel like a whiskey?” each thereafter and that is not just because the local Japanese single malt is a quality drop.

Luckily the gardens that go with the temples are what I have been looking forward to seeing for sometime now, but even a break from those was called for at times.

Shinkakuji Islands

Of main interest this time around in Kyoto were the temple gardens of Kinkakuji Temple and Daitokuji Temple. Shinkakuji is dominated by the it's eponymous temple, splendidly gilt in gold and very well preserved having been re-built after an arson fire burnt it to the ground in 1950. It was a shame that it is also one of the best known shrines and gardens in Kyoto and smack bang in the middle of Golden Week meant the crowds gave me a feeling I was part of a large, though friendly, herd of cattle being moved through the complex. As one of the main ideas behind the design of a stroll garden is for quiet contemplation of nature, my contemplating throwing a hundred or so people in the lake was far from the desired result, though it was a natural feeling! Crowds aside though we could certainly appreciate the thought and skill behind the layout of the garden and in the design of the temple. It really was beautiful and there were a lot of design ideas to be garnered mooing my way around.

To be honest, and this is more a commentary on the crowds than the temple, the strongest sense of silent contemplation I had at Kinkakujin was probably eating a delicious black sesame icecream on the way out.

 

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Not so for the next temple however...

Ryogen-in1

Japanese attention to detail, from food to tidiness to garden design. Borders on pedanticism but far too endearing for that. Their retention of respect within the societal framework when all around them people are forgetting it’s meaning. Humility, directly in opposition to ego but essential for peace both internally and externally. Politeness, be it friend or stranger this etiquette seems to play the leading hand.  I am no expert on Japanese culture, in fact, I am somewhat of a novice, however my observations so far in life are thus.

Throughout the world cultural traits as often defined by the history of the country or region are reflected in the design world around them, including architecture and landscape architecture. So it was I found myself wandering around the numerous enclosed gardens of Daitokuji Temple complex feeling some reprieve in my understanding of Japanese culture and it’s unique personality. Given I am unfortunately unable to interact via language, it is essential then to objectively view the people themselves and their environment to try and understand them better and the world they live in. Without going into a religious sermon one only needs to look at the principles of their two main faiths, Shintoism and Buddhism (so embraced by the Japanese since finding its way here in the 7th century), to understand the principle character of the people.

In contract to the larger strolling gardens of some of the other temples, those within Daitokuji are small and therefore designed for the space. The concepts of ‘borrowing scenery’ are replaced by more abstract symbolism. Rocks and boulders can represent anything from ships to islands to continents. Raked gravel becomes the artists brush strokes to give these objects further meaning. Clipped shrubs and trees provide the landscape with balance and can represent great forests. Often the objectification of the landscape is irrelevant, rather the gardens are symbolic of higher meaning. Rocks as Buddha and disciples, gravel as the universe eternal.

With the combination of Shintoism and Buddhism and the unique environment that it both physically existed in and spiritually grew in arose the abstract concept of Zen, and subsequently from it the valuable tea ceremonies and the people's perception of nature that define so much of Japanese garden design.

My experiences in some of those gardens therefore seems a little irrelevant as the design of them is in reverence to the natural and spiritual world that serves best not to be objectified, but rather act as illuminating our relationship with those worlds. To lighten it a little, that makes it damn hard to write a blog about the gardens I’ve seen so with respect given I will objectify much of what I see.

The best way to do that is through a bunch of photos….

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Ryogen-in

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In short Daitokuji was a fantastic experience for someone so keen to get a stronger grip on Japanese garden design. It was quiet, cool, had very few people and allowed one to get closer to the private residences of those that created the gardens and so a little closer again to what they were thinking (or not thinking if truly present....:))

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