Kyoto, Friday 12 April 2013

I started the day (late-ish) at Taizo-in - or at least I thought it was Taizo-in, that story will unfold as I tell the tale. It's a huge compound with many subtemples. One I found more or less accidentally and almost immediately was Shunkoin, where (as mentioned and recommended in LP) they offer meditation classes in English. The next class was twenty minutes after I arrived, so I walked around a bit and came back to take the class.

There were seven of us in the class, and the monk who led us was a very good instructor - very down to earth. In talking about meditation he covered MRIs, cortisol, psychology, and the evolution of tradition. He also said that one of the important parts of Zen Buddhism is to question tradition: if the religion stops changing, it's essentially dead. I can summarize the class: "This isn't mysticism. It's not even religion. It's mind training." And "Don't worry about tradition - sit however you want to and be comfortable." After two separate 15 minute meditation sessions, he served us Matcha tea and a sweet (very common in the tea houses at the temples and gardens).

I really need to resume my meditation practice.

Just south of Shunkoin is Taizo-in, another really lovely garden with running water and a pond ... and a live crane, not something I'd seen at any other garden. Not that Shunkoin was likely to be able to claim to have that every day of the week ...

photo: Taizo-in

perfectly groomed garden with a pond and a crane in the foreground

I walked around the complex for a while trying to find Myoshin-ji, the big temple in the area. I came across a largeish subtemple which I passed on in my quest - only to realize later that that was almost certainly Myoshin-ji and I'd been misreading the map. Oops. It's not the first time I've done that.

I walked north and west in the direction of Ryoan-ji, another temple/garden complex I wanted to check out. On a whim I headed up a random path into the hills, and hiked in solitude for 15 or 20 minutes before I decided that I needed to get back to "the plan." So I started following downward paths rather than upward ones - but found myself in an area where people were trimming trees. Soon enough I stepped out into the perfectly manicured garden of Ryoan-ji without ever having passed through the entrance gate. I walked around there for a while, went out, got a ticket, and stopped in one of the shops to have sesame soft ice cream. It's kind of a nasty medium gray colour, with a mild but rather nice taste - I would definitely have it again. Then back into Ryoan-ji to see its most famous feature, the rock garden. This consists of a smaller walled garden inside the temple itself, containing 17 rocks (I could count only 13), a little moss around each, and a large expanse of carefully raked white gravel. Our meditation instructor had covered rock gardens: meditating on the garden per se isn't likely to bring you much closer to enlightenment, but those that rake the garden learn a lot about impermanence as their work of yesterday must be redone today.

I made it to Nishiki market - the city's best known food market - about 20 minutes before closing (1700). Like a large number of streets downtown, it's an arcaded pedestrianised shopping street. Quite a narrow street, and with stores selling a large variety of food stuffs both mundane and exotic. One of the stranger ones was very small (and orange-red) octopuses with a quail's egg stuffed in the head. At ¥200, you know I had to try it - and it was quite good.

Dinner was again Musashi Sushi. I chomped my way through ten plates (each of which contained two pieces of sushi), fully half of which were my new favourite, "grilled" (lightly scorched one side but essentially raw) fatty salmon. SO GOOD.

I took a tour of some more of the arcaded shopping streets. They feel odd to a Canadian because you think you're in a shopping mall until you come to one of the cross streets and you have to stop for the cars. Or when someone whizzes by you on a bicycle (despite numerous signs telling them not to). For the most part it's great. I stopped in an incense store where I bought another of my minor purchases (there have been several), a huge box of "Hinoki" (Cypress) incense. I bought some of this in the U.S. years ago (same brand) and dearly loved it. I'm not even sure I can find it in Canada, and now I have pretty much a lifetime supply for only ¥1570 (~$16).

As has been the case almost every evening, I ended up back at Kyoto station - mostly for the internet cafe (just outside the station). Kyoto Station is one of the most bizarre architectural spaces I've ever been in in my life. This is good because it's interesting, bad because it's hard to navigate, good because there's always something to discover, and bad because it's damn hard to navigate. There's a lot of signage, but it's not terribly effective. Imagine a stadium with a set of eight train tracks as the playing field (and a couple stacked two and possibly three deep). Not an entirely accurate analogy, as almost all of the structural weight is on one side. Keep in mind that those tracks are run by at least three different businesses, with different entry gates for each - and JR has separate gates for the Shinkansen and the local lines. There's a large bus terminal out one side, and a big taxi queue on the other. There are only two passages from one side of the tracks to the other, and one involves going through the subway station. There's a "skyway" that runs most of the length of the building up around the 11th floor. There's a wedge-shaped JR Isetan department store that goes through 10 or 11 floors. And you can step out from Isetan's 6th floor (and several others) onto the stadium-like stairs that swoop down through about eight floors - outside. There are at least three different spaces for restaurants, encompassing literally about 100 businesses. All of which is why signage is ineffective: there's just too much to point to, and if they're not pointing to what you want, you're lost. Just a strange, strange space.