A rainy day in Kyoto

This is going to be a miscellaneous collection of thoughts and pictures; a portfolio blog post if you like. That’s what today has been like.

It was a “free” day, when we managed our own activities. Daphne and I decided that we would start by visiting the temple at Fushimi-Inari. We caught the first subway train and arrived at the station where we changed to another line. All well so far. We found the right part of the station for the next change, and, after careful study of the subway map we boarded a train. It wasn’t very full, and we wondered where everybody was. Then we realised that they were all on the adjacent platform piling into a train that was going in the right direction.

We leaped up, sprinted across the platform (insofar as two elderly ladies can sprint!) and just caught the train. The doors closed and we departed. It went straight through the first station – we hardly noticed – and stopped at the second, where we realised what had happened. “I hope it stops at our station,” said Daphne, as the doors closed. I suppose it didn’t actually take us that long to retrace our journey by four stations…

When we finally reached the right place it was raining. Never mind. The temple is renowned for its many torii gates, and they were spectacular, brilliant orange, which in some lights shone golden. They became closer and closer, until it felt like walking inside a great cathedral.

Kyoto torii bright 170408

Above the torii gates, on Mount Inari, we walked through a forest, a mixture of bamboo and cedar. It was wonderfully tranquil. The trees were reddish-purple and green.

Kyoto cedar and bamboo 170408

One final thought on the temple. It seemed to be much more of a working temple. There was worship and meditation taking place.

Kyoto pilgrim 170408

When we returned to the station, we needed the loo. Most stations have European style toilets. Fushimi-Inari station does not. It has Asian squat toilets. I squatted, and then it was time to stand again. My knees and quads told me in no uncertain terms what they thought of that manoeuvre – in fact, I reckon I was lucky to make it without falling over!

We went to the Philosophers’ Walk next, which is a path by a canal whose banks are planted with cherry blossom. It was raining heavily by now, and there were crowds of people being slightly less courteous than they would have been in the sunshine. Still, at least we saw the place, and it is indeed beautiful.

Now we must pack. We’re off to Hiroshima in the morning, to see the Peace Park. That’s a serious business, and I shall blog about it tomorrow.

Haiku, faith and symbolism

For a few short days

Cherry blossom blooms then falls,

But the tree still lives.

We have seen many temples and shrines on this holiday. They are colourful and crowded. Many have been destroyed at some time and then rebuilt. They are often of great beauty. They celebrate important aspects of the natural world; for example, the temple that we visited today is called Kiyomizudera, which translates as “Pure water temple”. This particular temple has stood for 1200 years. It’s massive, it’s constructed of wood, and it is built entirely without using nails. The grounds were absolutely thronging with people.

Kyoto water temple 170407

This is the waterfall that gives the temple its name.

I have increasingly wondered during this visit about the extent to which Japanese people believe the teachings of these temples, and, so far as I can make out the answer is “A lot” and, simultaneously, “Not much at all”. In fact, I think it’s probably a meaningless question.

Kyoto throng 170407

The throng of visitors close to the temple.

There is, apparently, a Japanese joke that says that each Japanese is born Shinto, and dies Buddhist, which seems to mean that when you are young you are seeking to influence the world around you, and when you are old you are more concerned with a tranquil acceptance of death.

Many significant life events are recognised in a religious sense, to a much greater extent than in the UK. For example, graduation, or the start of your first job might well be celebrated with some form of blessing. People go on pilgrimage and collect stamps from the holy sites that they visit – there are thirty-three such sites in western Japan, I’m told.

Kyoto just married 170407

What comes across strongly is the extent to which symbolism is important. Children who have died young, or been stillborn, or been miscarried, are publicly remembered in wayside shrines. Houses often have symbols for protection or prosperity outside the front door.

And, of course, there is cherry blossom. Life is beautiful if brief – but there is continuity through our family. I have tried to capture a little of this with a haiku at the top of this blog post.

Kyoto cherry blossom 170407

 

Cherry blossom, temples and a castle

I’m tired. We’ve walked miles, stood on tube trains, sat in taxis, stood and sat in buses, walked in warm sunshine and cool rain, sat on rudimentary benches, balanced on one leg while removing shoes to go into a temple. It’s all been well worth it, just exhausting, and I don’t have the energy to write anything intelligent.

Kyoto cherry blossom single 001 179496

Why did we visit at this time of year? To see cherry blossom. Did we see cherry blossom today? Yes, we did; lots of it. Single trees with exquisite blooms, groves of trees in drifts of pink, cherry trees on mountains, cherry trees beside lakes, cherry trees on islands. And, in addition, the Zen garden of Ryoanji, the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji, Nijo Castle, and the bamboo forest. Oh, we saw two herons as a bonus.

Kyoto cherry blossom cloud 001 170406

Kyoto cherry blossom island 170406

Incidentally, what you see in the picture below is real gold. That Pavilion is covered in gold leaf, a total of 20 kilograms!

Kyoto Golden Pavilion 170406

Theatre – Miyako Odori

I fear that you, my gentle readers, are going to feel that I cannot write without the use of superlatives. But it’s that sort of trip; the experiences that we’re having can only be appropriately described by superlatives.

Today we travelled by shinkansen, the bullet train, to Kyoto. It’s a train. It’s very fast. It’s very smooth. No, it no longer deserves superlatives, even though it travels at well over 150 mph, and we haven’t built anything that fast yet in the UK.

The countryside through which we travelled is interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. Think of the foreground being Holland and the background being Switzerland and you’ve about got it.

We ate a really pleasant okonomiyaki this evening, washed down with beer. Superlatives unnecessary.

But this afternoon. This afternoon we went to the Miyako Odori. This is a traditional theatrical art form performed by geisha. It has elements of straight theatre, opera, and ballet; and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Kyoto Miyako Odori 170405

I expected to see beauty. I expected to see grace. I expected to be moved emotionally. What I didn’t expect was drama of such intensity that the tears were running down my cheeks. It was a simple story of loss set in the context of the continuity of human life, and performed with a hypnotic focus and skill that was shattering.

Kyoto Miyako Odori 002 170405

It’s invidious to pick out individuals because it was the effect of every contribution together that made the performance so memorable – but I’m going to do it anyway!

The principal singer was superb. An astonishing voice, and such amazing projection of emotion. The flute soloist accomplished remarkable effects and her intonation was wonderfully precise even when using microtones. The little details were perfect, like the snowflakes in the winter grieving scene, which were small paper discs. When illuminated by warm light in the finale, they were revealed as pink cherry blossom underfoot.

So I have yet another memory that I shall cherish until the end of my life. And if I have time on my deathbed to think of this, I shall remember the cherry blossom and die with a tranquil spirit.

Mount Fuji – a Japanese icon

The coach zigzagged its way up the hill, around a seemingly endless sequence of horseshoe bends. The scenery was pleasant but not startling, mountain scenery that you can enjoy in many places, steep slopes, evergreen trees and a few inches depth of unmelted snow, the last remaining from the winter. We were focussed on the next stage of our trip, which was a ride by cable-car down to a lake.

And then, abruptly, there it was. We gave a collective gasp. It was miles distant, and yet it loomed over us, the perfect volcano, an icon of Japan, Mount Fuji. The upper slopes were thickly snow-covered, gleaming in the sun, dazzling under the almost cloudless cerulean sky. I couldn’t help but feel the power of the symbol.

Hakone Mount Fuji 001 170404

My photographs cannot begin to do justice to the sight; indeed, I hesitate to offer them at all as they fall so far short. My words are no better.

Hakone Mount Fuji 002 170404

The Japanese feel a great sense of pride in the beauty and majesty of Mount Fuji, and that is as it should be. However, national symbols come with dangers. Think of the American flag, the singing of Jerusalem at the Last Night of the Proms. Because they cause men to come together with a sense of national pride, they can be used by unscrupulous politicians to set us against each other.

Today I sat in a coach with Japanese people, and shared their awe and delight in the might of Mount Fuji. As a human being, I am one with them, they are my brothers and sisters, just as Americans are, or Australian aboriginals, or continental Europeans. I must not, I will not, allow myself ever to be distracted or led away from that profound truth.

The Hakone Open-Air Museum

Combine the Japanese flair for gardens with a mountain setting and the absolute pinnacle of twentieth century sculpture, and what do you have? The Hakone Open-Air Museum.

It’s a great display, and well worth a visit. We were there two and a half hours, and we could have spent twice as long.

Unfortunately (from the pov of writing a blog) we’re staying in a ryo-kan, and I’m typing this with the laptop on a relatively low table and me standing. Uncomfortable? Very.

So all you’re getting is pictures! I hope you enjoy them. I can assure you that the real thing is much better!

Hakone landscape with sculpture 170403

 The sculpture below is “La Pleureuse”. It’s awesome!

Hakone La Pleureuse 170403

The next sculpture is “Symphonic sculpture”.

Hakone Symphonic sculpture 170403

And finally, a piece on a more human scale – “Alba”

Hakone Alba 170403

Senso-ji Temple – and a quaint alley

The longer I live and the more I travel, the more I realize the extent to which all religions are syncretic. For example, today we visited Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. The temple is, apparently, dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. I may be wrong, but I had thought that Buddhism was established on the basis of the four Noble Truths, and the eight-fold way, none of which relies on a deity at all. Of all the ancient religions, Buddhism seems the closest to modern humanism, and yet here in this temple many people are wafting holy smoke over themselves for healing, and using divination to foretell their future.

 Tokyo Senso-ji smoke 170402

The temple was founded in 645 AD. It was destroyed by Allied bombing in WW2 but has been rebuilt. In the courtyard is a tree that was hit by a bomb, but has regrown in the husk of the old tree. I’m encouraged by that symbol of hope. The firebombing of Tokyo was an appalling act – I won’t enter the debate as to whether it was essential to end the war and limit Allied casualties – I shall just mention that 100,000 people died by fire and very many more were injured and made homeless. Justified or not, it showed the depths to which human beings can fall.

 Tokyo Senso-ji buddha 170402

Here, I shall declare an interest. I am a Christian, and I try to write from a Christian perspective. However, I do not see Christianity as exclusive. There is fine moral and ethical teaching in many religions, including humanism, and those who follow them sincerely are likely to be more humane as a result. So I am gladdened by the fact that 30 million people every year visit the Senso-ji. Many of them come with sincere hearts and I feel sure they are spiritually uplifted by the experience.

Tokyo Senso ji entrance 170402 

After visiting the temple, we took to the Sumida River, and cruised down to the Hama-rikyu landscape gardens. Like the other gardens we saw on previous days, these were wonderfully laid out and cultivated.

Tokyo Hara-kyu Gardens 170402 

Then, this evening, we went from the sublime to the ridiculous – a walk down “Piss Street”, or “Nostalgia Alley”. This narrow passage is lined with tiny food outlets, with and without seating. A quaint and picturesque finale!

Tokyo Piss Alley 170402

 

A picnic in the rain

The weather forecast today for Tokyo was for rain and a maximum temperature of 6°C. It helpfully added that 6°C would feel like 1°C. So where was I at 12:30? In the Imperial Palace Outer Garden, eating a picnic in the rain, on a plastic sheet, with no shoes on. Yes, you read that correctly; I had no shoes on. To be fair, the food was both tasty and filling.

Tokyo cherry blossom picnic 170401

And we were, too, under a magnificent cherry tree in almost full bloom. I am sure this will bring me enormous good fortune over the next twelve months, just as soon as I’ve recovered from the pneumonia. We sang a song about the blossom

“Sakura, sakura, yayoi no sarawa miwatasu kagiri

Kasumika kumokanioi zo izuru, izaya izaya mini yukan.”

In the morning we had visited the Tsukiji fish market. This is made up of an outer market, which has unrestricted public access. It’s a maze of literally hundreds of small retail outlets, which are not food stalls exactly, but I struggle to call them shops, as they are completely open to the street at the front. They sell fish, fish derivatives (like flaked bonito tuna), fruit and veg, processed fruit and veg, and general small items. And there are lots and lots of micro-eateries mostly with disproportionately long queues. It’s crowded.

Tokyo fish market outer 170401

The inner market is where the serious business takes place, with £15m of fish being traded every day, and a where a large tuna can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public access is restricted to a period after 10:00, when the busiest time is past. Again, it’s crowded. It’s also hazardous, with motorised trolleys whizzing unexpectedly round corners. They have de facto right of way; pedestrians must dodge! The visit was very worthwhile, because it gave us a view of some of the things that happen behind the scenes to enable visitors like me, and of course the residents of the city, to enjoy our daily life. Here are people working in cold, wet, crowded, hazardous conditions, for not very much money. For them, life is hard, and we could see that it was.

After our picnic, we strolled in the Imperial Palace Eastern Garden.

Tokyo cherry blossom 170401

There are castle ruins, a pond with koi, and a small museum with woodblock prints. And some of them are beautiful, indeed, one of them is amongst the most beautiful objects I’ve ever seen in my life and I shall never forget it. It depicted rain at dawn on a shrine. The light from the rising sun was wonderfully captured, and the shrine glowed translucent. Utter perfection!