Kyoto Temple Crawl
I lived in Kyoto once for eight months, and yet there is still so much I haven’t seen. Recently I’ve worked to remedy some of that.
On the northern edge of the city, up against the mountains, is an area of great national and historical significance. Despite its fame, it is still a rather quiet neighborhood with limited train access, which might explain why my younger self never got to it. I got up early on a day off, though, took the bus up, and there I was for a good old Buddhist temple crawl.
I began with Kinkakuji, a temple built at the turn of the 15th century by great shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu as his retirement villa. In an earlier post, I explored Ginkakuji, built by his grandson in similar fashion. This one, though, is far more famous for being covered in gold. Real gold! On an ordinary day, this area is so packed with tourists it’s impossible to move freely through the site.
Good thing my day off of work is Wednesday, so I could see the temple in peace, and take pictures that make it look like nobody’s there.
I didn’t think I’d be impressed, but I could honestly not believe that building was real. The 15th-century original might have survived, but it was burned down in 1950 by one of the monks who lived there. Why he did it is a great mystery he took to the grave, but standing there perhaps I could see why. It was too much for this earth.
I sat down at a temple teahouse for some maccha, and hit the road east to Ryoanji, a temple from the late 15th century. Ryoanji is famous, especially in Japanese art history studies, not for its architecture, but for possessing the archetypal Zen garden. I, though, had no clue what to expect.
I find that even if something gets lost in a photograph, I can usually capture something of what I saw when I was in a particular place. Sometimes the picture even looks better than the moment itself.
As soon as I took these pictures, I was shocked to realize they conveyed nothing of what I could see. It was almost literally not the same garden. Either the breadth and suggestive power of peripheral vision, or the depth of stereoscopic vision, or the rapid glance of an eye’s movement, was missing. These pictures may look interesting now, but had you been there they would have seemed pathetic. Ryoanji was designed so that only living human eyes could look upon it.
Humbled, I left for Ninnaji.
The other two temples I had seen were young compared to Ninnaji, founded in the 9th century, the early days of Kyoto. The temple was destroyed by the Onin War in the 1460s, and finally rebuilt in the 17th century after the lands had been unified. Ninnaji formerly served as the interim imperial palace, so the site is divided into two sections, the palace and temple.
Now the temples were closing, and my legs were tired. I know but enough, as they say at Ryoanji. I headed back south for some hot food.