Thursday, December 04, 2008

Day 11: Tuesday, December 2

(Written Tuesday, posted Thursday)

Our day began with a 35-minute meditation, led by a Zen Buddhist monk who lives here at the Shunko-in temple; he’s the vice-abbott. He speaks English--he actually studied in Arizona and did an internship for John McCain (“He could not have been president,” he said)--and leads meditation sessions for foreigners interested in learning more about Zen practices. The time went quickly, though it wasn’t easy for Andrew to stay in a half-lotus position for even five minutes; I could hear him shifting around next to me. The monk suggested afterwards that practice would help him get accustomed to the position, but I don’t think Andrew’s legs will bend that way if he practiced for the rest of his life.

After the meditation, the monk gave us a tour of some of the temple’s inner chambers, which were not only freezing cold but also featured beautiful painted panels that were over two hundred years old. The colors and gold leaf looked almost brand-new save for a few cracks here and there--due in part to the temperature. The tour ended with a cup of green tea and some sweet rice cookies.

We gave our feet a rest today by making use of the temple’s bicycles, which overnight guests are free to use as they wish. I haven’t ridden a bike in years, save the exercise bike at the gym, and it took me a while to get my bike-legs; but it was wonderful to swish off down the temple’s stone pathways, then join the many other bike-riding Kyoto citizens as we set off for a whirlwind tour of three temples. I was nervous about riding without a helmet--two people close to our family have had hideous bike accidents--but no one wears them here save a few toddlers, so we just rode slowly and very carefully.

We never could have gotten to all the temples we wanted to see without the bikes, but with them we managed to see some amazing things. First we saw Ninnaji, where I collected a few fallen gingko leaves to add to my growing leaf collection; Ninnaji is the jumping-off point for an eighty-eight temple pilgrimage, which we did not manage to do this time around. Next we biked to the world’s most famous Zen rock garden, within the Ryoanji temple; it consists only of fifteen rocks arranged in groups, surrounded by a sea of raked pebbles. No one knows what the garden represents, though it is said that the garden “has nothing but has everything.” After some contemplation, we strolled around the beautiful gardens, blazing with maples.

After a quick lunch of ramen, we biked on to the Golden Pavilion, one of Kyoto’s most touristy sights, and were nearly smothered by stampedes of uniformed schoolchildren. The pavilion is almost entirely gold-plated, and open to visitors only twice a year; we admired it from the outside. The pathways around it were lined with souvenir and food shops. One shop was offering samples of delicious sticky rice balls--a man gave me two and, pointing to my button, told me one was for Obama. We were interviewed by more English-learning schoolchildren, who, when we shook their hands at the end, combined the handshake with a few bows.

I added three more stamps for our temple book in the course of our temple-hopping. I also learned the name for the stamps--goshuin. The temple book is a goshuin-cho. The calligraphy surrounding the stamps indicates the name of the temple and the date of the visit, as well as other notes; one I got today (translated by a helpful sign) was “pray respectfully.”

We got lost as we tried to bike back to Shunko-in, but eventually found our way. Reluctantly, we dropped off our bikes and caught a bus for downtown Kyoto, where we took a stroll through the Imperial Gardens then wandered in and out of a few shops before walking down Pontocho, a narrow pedestrian street lined with golden-lit, secret-looking restaurants accessible to the lucky few who part the curtains and scurry down narrow cobbled pathways. These places are, to me, extremely intimidating, but we found one with reasonable prices and an English menu (not one with an entry pathway; one a little less exclusive-seeming) and went inside. We were “greeted” by a server who doubtfully asked if we spoke Japanese, suggested that there wasn’t much English help available, and asked sceptically if we liked leeks, that being the restaurant’s specialty. He really did everything possible to get us to turn around and leave. Fortunately, I’m married to someone just a little braver and less susceptible to intimidation than I am, so we stood our ground and took our seats.

It was a delicious meal--first came small bowls of a pureed bean curd and a box of thinly sliced leeks to mix in the food that would follow. Next we had a beef, potato, and leek stew; then leek and vegetable tempura; and then two leek and shrimp dumplings. We were sitting at a counter looking out at the cooks, who washed leek after leek, washing and slicing them and then grilling or frying or boiling them. We paid the scowling waiter and left, our feathers ruffled a bit since we really don’t think we’re terrible tourists. We do our best and our sins, I think, are usually minor.

Sadly, this was our last dinner in Kyoto. Tomorrow we leave early on a train for Nara, where we’ll spend one night. We’ve only scratched the surface of Kyoto--it’s a place to come back to someday. For now it’s onward, with more to see…

Some pictures from today:

Apple juice cans in a vending machine (cute!!!)

The entrance to Myoshin-ji temple complex, where Shunko-in is located

At the Golden Pavilion