Sunday, October 21, 2012

Travel Tales: Kyoto's Daitoku-ji

When I travel, I am usually looking for history and traditional culture. Ten years ago I was in Kyoto, Japan, and staying in a traditional home next door to Daitoku-ji, the home of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. I visited many temples and gardens during the six months I lived in Japan, but Daitoku-ji was different from the rest because I could wander the main roads at any time of the day or night. I could almost feel as if I were living there.

Note: The six months that I spent in Japan was by far the best trip I have ever taken - true "slow travel." I haven't written much about it because the 400+ photos that I took were pre-digital-camera. I know that I can have the photos scanned and then put them into my computer, but with Kodak going out of business, I don't have many options in the small Mexican town where I live. I've discovered that I can take digital photos of my regular photos, so that is what you are seeing here, reflections and all. It is better than nothing!

Daitoku-ji is a large temple complex located in the north of Kyoto. For some reason, there is a wedge of private property that juts into the temple grounds; on a map it looks like a piece of pie has been taken out of the south side. I don't know, but I imagine that this area housed the people who helped to take care of the temple and its monks at one time.

Tani House, the guest house that was my home for about four weeks, is located in this wedge. I wanted to stay in a traditional ryokan guest house, but the prices are far too steep for my budget, so I was very happy to find Tani House. It is very traditional, with tatami mats covering the floors, fusama sliding doors dividing the interior rooms, and sliding shoji screens to keep the mosquitos out. Mrs. Tani has a few private rooms but most people slept on futons spread on the tatami mats at night in 'dorm' rooms.

Tani House is very much like a hostel but at half the price of the official Japanese hostels. This is the kind of place I love to stay in. Most of the people staying there were traveling alone and were happy to get together at meal times to share their stories with the other travelers. I love the opportunity to talk to people from around the world, and in Tani House I met people from Australia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, the US and, of course, Japan.

The original temple at Daitoku-ji was built in the early 1300s. It later became the home of Sen No Rikyu and the center for the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Emperors and Shoguns are buried on its grounds.

Much of the temple grounds are surrounded by huge thick walls built at a time when the political climate required protection. Within those walls is a complex of over twenty sub-temples, each with its own buildings and gardens. Many of these sub-temples are very well known.

Ryogen-in is one of the  most famous of the sub-temples. Exchanging my shoes for the slippers supplied at the entrance to the building, I stepped onto the wooden platform overlooking Ryogen-in's well-known garden.

The best thing about arriving early was that no one else was there; I never saw another person while I was in this temple. I was able to sit at the edge of the platform silently meditating, just like people have done for hundreds of years. The low overcast skies lent an almost eerie feeling, like I had somehow gone back in time.

The raked gravel symbolizes the universe, while the rocks on the moss island in the center represent a crane and a turtle, symbols for health and longevity. But, honestly, I don't think I knew that at the time. I just marvelled at the tranquility, interrupted only by the sounds of nature, in the midst of a city of 1.5 million people.

Inside Ryogen-in, I found the painted fusama (sliding doors) which are another of this temple's claims to fame. I've seen this painting of a dragon reproduced in many places but I don't think the t-shirts really do it justice.

I kept wondering how these important Zen Buddhist artifacts could be left unguarded. How could they trust that nothing would be stolen? Why does no one walk in the raked gravel or carve their name in the wooden platform? Most important, why can't we transport the respect that seems to protect them here to the special places all over the world?

My other favorite sub-temple inside of the Daitoku-ji complex is Koto-in. This temple is famous for the maple trees planted throughout its gardens. This photo was taken in mid-September, but when I returned in mid-November, this path passed through a tunnel of red leaves.

The path had been swept, but they carefully left behind small pieces of the leaves in the spaces between the paving stones. It was almost as if everything green in this photo had been magically transformed into red.

Often, when there weren't too many other people around and I could get off by myself, the Zen gardens did have an almost mystical atmosphere. I thought about how peaceful it would be to dedicate my days to simply caring for a garden like this. Well, maybe just a small corner of it; some of these gardens are huge.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to reproduce the ambiance of a Zen garden wherever I've lived. My biggest success was my garden in Boise, Idaho, which I worked on for ten years. I'm so happy that the man who bought that house has maintained the garden; I love going back every few years and peaking over the fence to see how it has matured.

What appeals to me the most are the narrow paths that control your path through a Zen garden; you never know what will be around the next corner.

Kyoto has always been considered a holy city, home to the emperor, who was thought to be descended from gods, for much of its history. Many of the most famous people from Japanese history are buried somewhere in Kyoto, on the grounds of one of its 1600 Buddhist temples. I was sad to learn that people can't be buried in Kyoto any more, even if they have lived there all their lives. I guess the cemeteries are full. Kyoto is a place where I wouldn't mind spending eternity.

Thank you, once again, for taking the time to read my blog.


  1. Great stuff, Kathy. Kyoto is now on my bucket list!

  2. この写真はなかなかすてきですね。