Mountains and valleys, Days 4 and 5

Day 4, 3rd November, Nara

Off to Nara today by coach. Drove through forests of bamboo, and in every hamlet persimmon (kaki) trees – leaves bare but with the large orange fruit still festooning the branches. There’s a Japanese saying about the patience needed to wait for persimmons to ripen. Higher up are the forests of hinoki trees – Japanese cypress – which have massive straight trunks, much used for supporting pillars in temples, torii and the like. We stopped at Todaiji temple first, in grounds populated by hundreds of tame smelly sika deer (smaller than our red deer), who beg for ‘deer crackers’ – biscuits specially made for them. The temple is a truly massive building, containing a giant bronze statue of Buddha Vairocana – the Rushana Daibutsu, a National Treasure. I stand in front of it and bow, feeling less self-conscious than I did in Tokyo. Beside it is a smaller but very beautiful gilded wooden statue of the Kokuzo Bosatsu – a boddhisatva.

leafless kaki trees
each hung with little sunsets
waiting for sweetness


Rushana Daibutsu

Hinoki trunks turned
to roof pillars, high
but still it’s dark inside.
The huge bronze Buddha sits,
hand to Heaven,
middle finger blessing,
eyes closed, centre of the Lotus World,
cosmic, all-connected Vairocana.

A word or two about Buddhism: Sue may be a member of the Pure Land sect, as she keeps talking about Buddha ‘taking people to the Paradise’ after death. This isn’t really what Buddhism is about for me – if that were all, it would be a belief system similar to Judaeo-Christianity, but it’s very different in the Zen Buddhism I try to follow. The Buddha has attained a state of enlightenment, which we’re all capable of reaching, and in the highest state we are released from the wheel of samsara, the endless cycle of rebirths and suffering which is the lot of all living things. He wants us all to follow him, and to reach this ‘highest perfect enlightenment’ by following the Eightfold Path. In Zen you aim for this state by meditation (zazen), and in some sects by contemplating a series of mental paradoxes which are unsolvable by logic (the koan). The Amida sect, however (and it’s a major one in Japan) believes that after enlightenment we all go to the Pure Land – the ‘Western Paradise’ – after death. Anyway, a boddhisatva is one who postpones his own enlightenment until he has helped others to attain it.

Namu Amida Butsu

As we left Todaiji it started to rain, and by the time we reached the bus park at the Kasuga Grand Shrine it was pretty steady. Walking up the hill, the track lined with 3000 stone lanterns, we became soaking wet, but didn’t care. At the secondary shrine near the top of the hill we observed at close hand a Shinto service, and we found it very moving if somewhat incomprehensible. Five priests sat under a pagoda roof, rain dripping off the eaves, chanting, bowing, and clapping hands. Two walked up the steps to the sanctuary, taking off their lacquered clogs, and did whatever they do there, then all five walked back into the main room, across from where we were sitting spellbound. Music began, and a girl (the maiko) came out to dance a slow, solemn dance – we were told later that she was the voice of the god speaking to us at this point. It was extremely moving. The Grand Shrine itself was a bit of an anti-climax after that. Then back down the lantern-lined staircase, for a lunch stop in the Nara mall – noodle soup, rice, minced raw salmon, pickles – very tasty. Just before we got back on the bus Jane went to the rest room in a very posh craft shop, and I managed to buy my bamboo ladle. I wish we’d found the place earlier – they had some wonderful things there.

Kasuga Great Shrine

Rain drips from the roof,
chanting voices drone in unison,
hands clap twice, heads bow.
Bamboo parasols shelter the priests
for the short walk
to the hall of worship
where a girl dances to
the rain god’s choreography.

Back in Kyoto we were dropped off at the Handicraft Centre, where we bought presents, souvenirs, a yukata robe for Jane, and a lovely tea bowl. I also buy the tabi socks with separate big toe space. Yukatas are cotton dressing gowns, and in each hotel room they are provided for the use of the guests. They are dead comfy, great for slobbing around in. In the evening we went out to a kaiten-zushi bar, where the individual plates of sushi move past you on a conveyor belt. The food was excellent – tuna, sea-bream, tiny squid, salmon roe, mackerel and lots of other fish, with rice, green tea, and clam miso soup.


Day 5, 4th November.

A leisurely start to a free day in Kyoto. We left the hotel at 10 for a public bus ride to the top of the Philosopher’s Walk. Beautiful weather – sunny and warm. The walk goes along the side of an aqueduct – more like a channelled stream than a canal. The water was clear and contained lots of fish – carp and little ones. We stopped at several temples along the way – each being a different style or having different features. First was the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Temple). There’s a beautiful garden on a steep hillside, a combination of Zen garden and the naturalised landscape garden. This was a place that really took my breath away. The path wound artfully round feature after feature, steadily rising up the hill. Here is the Kogetsudai – the Moon-Viewing Height. Next stop on the walk was Honen-in, a Jodo Zen temple with raked sand gardens – a little gem of a place. The garden was divided into blocks of different plots of sand – some raked to form sinuous patters like waves, some crescentic, like barchan dunes, and some linear. In a stone trough used for washing hands two flowers floated – someone had placed them there deliberately, for their simplicity and exquisite beauty.

Ginkaku-ji garden


Earth mound made pillow
by green starry moss;
the maple leaves
are swept off daily,
only the latest litter layer
is seen – gold, russet, red –
an origami of autumn.


Gravely raked gravel
mimics lunate dunes, a conic section;
severe lines map the contours
of a moonlit ocean’s waves
where rock continents float.


Wide and narrow, thick and thin,
immaculate grey lanes, untrodden,
overhung by an obedient pine,
trained arms stretching out needle fingers.


A trickle bounds downhill,
splashes on a stone,
bubbles a coin-bottomed pool
beside a red-bibbed shrine
where I fold my hands.

We stopped next at the Nyakuoji-jinya shrine for a delicious bento lunch in beautiful surroundings. This is a Shinto shrine, and all the time we were sitting there people would come into the courtyard, ring the big gong, bow, clap hands twice and bow again. Next was the Eikan-do temple complex, which was hosting an art exhibition when we visited – wonderful paintings and ceramics. The route took us (barefoot of course) from one beautiful building to the next. The (Amida) Buddha here is a curiously ambiguous one – he stands (or it could be she stands) , with his/her head turned to one side. The garden here is stunning, and has great views of Kyoto. There is also a large Buddhist cemetery, with hundreds of small stone shrines where the ashes of the departed are buried. We stopped briefly in the huge free-standing gate of Nanzen-ji temple, but we didn’t have time to go in.

We’d been misdirected by the travel rep, who had assumed that the big art complex building – the Miyako Messe – was actually the sister hotel to ours. After some confusion inside the building we discovered her mistake, and we then had to jump on a city bus back to the hotel, but it wasn’t difficult, just very crammed.

Miyako Messe

The art gallery was hosting
a wedding demonstration
of high and temporary fashion.
Bridal gowns swept by, paired
with dark-suited consorts,
glimpsed through an open door
by five unsuited, unsuitable tourists,
gate-crashing the party
in search of transport.

In the evening we met up for a Night Tour of Kyoto. We started with a tempura-style vegetarian meal in a Zen ryokan (a traditional inn). We both thought the food was delicious, but I don’t think many of the others in our group enjoyed it. Pieces of vegetable (lotus root, sweet potato, shiso (a kind of aromatic leaf), and two kinds of tofu) coated in a thin batter were served with miso soup, pickles and rice. In the same inn we had a tea ceremony, which stuck pretty closely to the authentic format, but was speeded up to cope with the needs of tourists. Within the building itself there were courtyards open to the sky, with little gardens. Then we walked through the narrow streets of the Gion district, where the geishas work, but we didn’t meet any. We did see a night heron, however. At the Gion Corner theatre we had a demonstration of chanoyu or sado (tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arrangement), gagaku (an incomprehensible court dance), kyogen (a comedy theatre production), kyomai (geisha dance – elegant and attractive), and bunraku (puppet theatre, an acquired taste). Then back to the hotel to pack for the next jaunt.

night heron’s grey kimono
has white and black highlights
in the yellow glow of Gion



About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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