Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dropping by Kyōto Gosho, the imperial palace in Kyoto

A small part of the high walls around the Kyoto Imperial Palace situated within the large palace enclosure. This venerable, 300-year old tree is known as the 'Muku of the Shimizudani residence' after the house of a court noble who lived nearby in the ancient times. Alive and well, it still needs some help from sturdy wooden poles - so typical for Japanese gardens.
Here's another unscripted visit... one of our mornings in Kyoto with no fixed plans for the day, I noticed that Kyōto Gosho, the Imperial Palace of Kyoto, would be opening for its annual five spring days, so we decided to take a stroll there from our hotel close by to see if the crowds would be reasonable enough to allow for a visit. Of course, the two lines were long well before the opening time, but we stayed, curious about the contents within the high walls.
Sharply at 9 am, the palace gates were opened and the (mostly Japanese) crowds welled into the grounds, well-behaved as always - no pushing or skipping queues here. Also, the crowds were remarkably silent, whispering to each other only in gentle voices, which I took as a sign of their reverence to the emperor. Of course, I'm not sure if I read this correctly, or if it just was just another sign of the constant politeness of the Japanese (rather pleasantly, they don't even speak to their mobile phones when using public transport - can you imagine that in any other country?).
The palace and gardens are surrounded by high walls with four large gates, and to reach them you have to walk through the old palace enclosure within its easily recognizable, beautiful stone walls. Earlier, several residences of high court nobles were situated within this area, but were demolished and replaced with a park when the court moved to Tokyo; Shu Sui Tei teahouse, that I wrote for about a week ago is one of the few remains of the luxurious residences within the enclosure.
The Imperial Palace in Kyoto was the seat of the Emperor from the Heian period (794-1185) until the end of the Edo period (1603-1868). In 1869, the Emperor moved with his court to the Old Edo, which became the official capital of Japan and changed its name to Tokyo, which means 'Capital of the East'. Despite this, Kyōto-gosho has still had an important role as a ceremonial site, and both Taisho and Showa emperors had their coronation ceremonies here.
Despite the palace grounds and buildings being handsomely impressive and the gardens extremely well-tended - as could be expected - I wouldn't necessarily recommend someone to make an extra effort to see them. The palace and even the gardens do feel a bit too official and a bit 'dead', which is understandable as they today only serve for ceremonial purposes. With most of us having a limited amount of time in Kyoto, there are so many more interesting, beautiful and/or charming places to see and experience. For us, the charm was mostly in the unexpected, and we left contented, enjoying afterwards a green tea with some bean paste cakes in the outer gardens where tents had been set up to serve the crowds with traditional Japanese spring time delicacies.   

The whole palace enclosure was carefully prepared for its five day spring opening - the crowds didn't disappoint and turned up in the thousands... One of the large, wooden gates leading to the palace and gardens inside the high walls.

More gates within the gates... the inner, vermilion painted Jomeimon gates lead to the large,
ceremonial inner courtyard in front of the Shishin-den main hall; the coronation ceremonies take place here.

The Jomeimon gate from inside; the white gravel of the large inner courtyard has been meticulously raked...

The hipped gables of the Shishin-den main hall. Sacred trees stand on each side of its main stairway, a Sakonno sakura (cherry) on the eastern, and above, a Ukonno tachibana (a wild native citrus tree) on the western side.

The Oikeniwa garden outside the ceremonial halls has a large pond, with several stone bridges arching over the water.
Seiryō-den, where the Emperors would be conducting their personal affairs... I wonder what that could have been, in their highly ceremonial and official lives? A rare bamboo towers in front of the building, caged in a wooden crate.

Large paintings with scenes from the imperial lives fill the walls inside the imperial palace.

The thatched gables of the Otsunegoten imperial villa on the palace grounds. 
Wooden bridge in the inner, Gonaitei garden, strictly reserved for the Emperor's private use.

One of the many stone paths in the Gonaitei-garden.

Another small bridge, and mossy stones from the Gonaitei-garden...

A pebbled water stream, and a pine tree with a tutu - Japanese structures for supporting trees and plants are just the most beautiful in the world!
Extremely unnatural nature - all plants were carefully pruned into the ideally suited form for the garden - very Japanese and very beautiful (and I know that some of you completely disagree with the practice...).

The Kyoto Imperial Palace is open for public 5 days each spring and autumn; otherwise, visits are available only by booking a tour through the Imperial Household Agency (at 10am and 2pm daily).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hama-Rikyu gardens - a breathing space in central Tokyo

The huge flower field of Hama-rikyu provides a shimmering escape from the busy city life, with rape flowers in full bloom in spring and cosmos in late summer. Shiodome's skyscrapers loom in the background, reminding of the reality...
In Tokyo, an early morning visit to the Tsukiji fish market - world's largest such - is kind of a must, especially if you love seafood (so much that tourists are seen as pests by the fishmongers...). The bustle and commerce can be a bit overwhelming, but the variety of the edible harvest from the seas is truly amazing to view; from huge tunas to meat-filled seashells and leathery seaweed varieties to tiniest little fish, you will guaranteed see things you never thought were edible (or even existed). Eating the freshest possible sushi in one of the little restaurants in the market area crowns the morning - it will be the measuring stick to all the sushi you will eat afterwards. Unless you really are hard core about fish, there's no need to be there for the 5 AM tuna auction; plenty remains to see even at 7 or 8 am. After 9, the activity cools significantly down, and buyers start to transport their catch to the restaurants all over Tokyo and Japan.
Huge stone walls surround the garden; it was built on land reclaimed from the sea, and features a huge tidal pond inside the walls.

Cherries in full bloom, and one of the arched bridges leading over the many ponds. If you look closely, you can detect a team of gardeners in work, cloud pruning the old pines.

View from Fujimi hill, the highest point in the gardens, towards Nakajima-no-ochaya, the floating tea room in the middle of one of the ponds.
After all the business of Tsukiji, the Hama-Rikyu gardens just a short stroll away is a great place to restore your senses. This large, open garden from mid 17th century was originally the duck-hunting grounds and summer residence of the Tokugawa shogunate, that is, the Tokugawa clan of military leaders called the shoguns, who run Japan from 1660 until the Meiji restoration reinstalled the Emperor to his throne in 1868. After this, the imperial family used the gardens as their beach residence.
 Another view of the huge flower field...
 O-tsutai-bashi, a 118 meter long bridge leading to the floating tearoom.
Nakajima-no-ochaya tea room, a popular spot for older Japanese to enjoy their tea...

Probably not what the Shoguns would have appreciated, but a well-needed break for my girls from the busy city...
Much of the gardens were built on reclaimed land, and they feature typical Japanese high stone walls and a large tidal water pond, which is regulated by several floodgates. The buildings on the site were badly damaged in the Great Kanto earth quake in 1923, and later again in the Second World War. The gardens and a couple of tea houses were restored after the war, and the park was donated to the city of Tokyo by the imperial family. There is really not much to see from the botanical point of view, but the Hama-Rikyu is worth visiting as a great example of a typical daimyo - which means a Japanese feudal lord, as the Tokugawas were - garden from the Edo period. And as a breathing space between all business of Tokyo, it is just priceless.

This is me, in 30+ years time... An old Japanese lady, who photographed what looked like every single cherry tree on in the large gardens. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sakura ice cream by the Philosopher's Path

Philosopher's Path does sound poetically ancient, don't you think? In reality, it is one of the newer attractions of northeastern Kyoto, built as recently as during the Meiji era (everything is relative, of course, as even this is now way over 100 years back). And instead of some venerable Zen philosopher, it is named after Professor Nishido Kitaro, an influential 20th century philosopher, who used to do his daily meditation by walking this charming stone-paved stretch that follows a narrow water canal and is lined by hundreds of cherry trees.

Philosopher's Path gets very busy during the hanami season, with thousands tourists - most of them Japanese - wandering through the three kilometer walk. All of them admire the sakura blossoms, searching for the most handsome blooms to catch on their cameras and the best places for the mandatory poses for their family albums. Small cafés cater for the crowds, offering drinks from green tea to sake and Asahi beer, and anything in between. The walk passes several temples and shrines like the Ginkaku-ji, Honen-in, Otoyo Shrine and Eikan-do Zenrin-ji, making it a perfect destination for a whole day of discoveries.

In our case, despite the amazing blooms, adding even one small temple would have been stretching my girl's limits on that hot and sunny afternoon, so we just settled for an aptly-flavored pink sakura ice cream, sitting the shade of the cherries and watching the crowds go past. Our own perfect little hanami-party, we thought.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Contemplating the void at a quiet Ryoan-ji

The karesansui at Ryoan-ji originates from the 15th century, and forms a small part of the gardens surrounding the Zen Buddhist Temple. There are many theories of who built it, with highly respected Zen monk Tokuho Zenketsu most often mentioned as the original creator. The fifteen stones are placed in small groups, and when looking from any given angle, only fourteen of them are visible at one time; it is said that the fifteenth can only be seen by those who have attained enlightenment. A pink weeping cherry outside the wall completes the composition.
I admit that I had to drag my 10 and 12 year old daughters to this garden, telling them that they would regret forever if they'd been in Kyoto and not seen the karesansui of Ryoan-ji, one of the most famous, abstract masterpieces of Japanese garden design. Not entirely convinced about the value of some well-placed stones set in a carefully raked sea of gravel , they nevertheless agreed to follow for a morning visit.
Luckily, not many tourists had found their way to the garden when we visited. Sitting on the on the viewing veranda called the hōjō, we had long discussions about the possible interpretations of the enigmatic garden. Both girls found the high walls fascinating, built as they are of clay boiled in oil that now has seeped through forming cloud-like patterns on the surface. And probably not as elegant and Zen as the garden, our interpretations of its possible meanings were quite poetic - my girls' favorite being 'tiger cubs crossing water with their mother', followed by 'little islands floating in a misty sea'. We talked also about the gravel as the important void in the composition; working like a pause in a piece of music or like empty space in an ink painting, it could be inspired by the concept of emptiness, a central idea in Zen Buddhism.
What surprises me (and makes me amazingly happy) is that Ryoan-ji proved to be one of the absolute favorites of my girls of all places we visited while in Japan. Instead of visiting 'just another garden' (I might have dragged them to one too many by now...), we felt that we really connected, both with each other, and with the place. Which might prove that less is more even when it comes to garden design - it just has to be the right kind of 'less'.
A stone path under an arbor of weeping cherries leads to Kuri, the main building of the monastery. the bamboo frames protect plants from deer. At right, a gardener in work in her huge bonnet.
More impressive stonework - here well-assembled steps leading to Kuri, the main building, which also works as the residence of the abbot of the monastery adjoining the temple.
In a hallway and in front of a beautiful courtyard, a small stone model has an explanation of the rock garden before you enter the actual viewing platform.
Here they are, my family sitting on the viewing veranda called the hōjō, discussing the possible meanings of the stones and the composition...
Beautiful, delicate ink paintings fill the walls at the Kuri. The viewing veranda is to the left from these rooms.
Behind the clay wall, on the way to the surrounding large garden... the wall is just as beautiful from behind. And note the large support for the old tree - so typical for Japanese gardening, showing respect for all things (and beings) old.
A 'behind the scenes' photo of the cherry so important for the composition (see the first picture)... here you can see all the many supports keeping it from loosing its limbs.
The Kyoyochi Pond was made already in the 12th century, well before the rock garden came into being. Until recently, flocks of mandarin ducks were seen on the pond, and Ryoan-ji was known as Oshidoridera, the temple of mandarin ducks. Unfortunately, the ducks have disappeared. And again, a sturdy pole construction supports the old conifer...
And a final picture of cherries in full bloom by the pond - they form such festive contrast to the ascetic rock garden nearby.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Earth-bound clouds in Tokyo

Yoyogi Park in Tokyo - several groups were reserving their hanami picnic spots in the park early in the morning, despite the cold. The blossoms of Prunus x yedoensis appear before the leaves and so are regarded as "earth-bound clouds" by the Japanese.
The Japanese imperial throne might have the Chrysanthemum as its symbol, but there is nothing more essentially Japanese than sakura, the cherry blossom. As Matthew Wilson recently wrote in his excellent article in Financial Times, admiring sakura is very deeply rooted in the Japanese soul, associated as they are with the cultural tradition of mono no aware, the awareness of the impermanence and transience of things, and consequent restrained sadness for their passing. What a beautiful concept in our world all too much fixated on permanent youth - and related quick 'remedies'.
From early March in the south to late May in the furthest parts of the country in the north, the sakura zensen, or the cherry blossom front, rides like a frothy wave through the country, with daily weather reports carefully keeping track on the best dates for viewing. Hanami picnics are planned accordingly, and the best parks get very busy, people sitting on their tarps from early mornings to reserve place for the rest of the party to arrive. While in Tokyo, several groups were already spreading their waterproof sheets on the ground in Yoyogi park early in the morning, even if the weather was freezing cold. Patience is a characteristic to be connected with Japanese arts, but it comes handy in other aspects of life there as well.
The Japan Weather Association publishes a special forecast for the sakura bloom in the whole country from south to north, you can find it here. Sakura are celebrated in parks and temples all over the country, making the ritual of 'hanami' the floral event with most participants on the whole planet.

You are never too young to have your first sakura portrait taken... from Hama-rikyu park in Tokyo.

 Everywhere, people ask passers-by to take pictures of them in front of especially beautiful cherry specimens. We found this one at the Arisugawanomiya Memorial Park in Hiro-o (and took some family photos in front of it, too).
 Another beautiful cherry tree in the same park...

 ... and a whole family sitting down for a picnic under it, in the middle of the working week. People tend to take time off during the sakura peak season to celebrate hanami with their family and friends.

In Japan, one glorious blooming season is enough to captivate a whole nation... While so many other plants are bred for repeat flowering these days, I'm sure that even the most profit-hungry nurserymen understand how unnatural this would be in the case of cherries (and lilacs, and so many other harbingers of spring) that would loose their special magic if they would bloom repeatedly the warm season through...mono no aware, again.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

A pause at the Shu Sui Tei tea ceremony room

Shu Sui Tei was built about 200 years ago as a tea ceremony room for the aristocratic Kujo family. The large residence building that originally accompanied this little house was pulled down during the Meiji era, only this and the garden with its pond were left intact, and are still part of the Kyoto Goen imperial park. The wisteria trellis over the pond was full of buds, and must look spectacular when in bloom - I would love to sit in a little rowing boat under it with a glass of wine in hand!

As I wrote earlier, some of the most wonderful experiences in Japan are often the unplanned ones. Of course planning one's trip is essential, but it is good to keep an open mind and not to push things too tight so that there's no time for random adventures...

And old stone basin with a bamboo dipper for washing hands.
Shu Sui Tei was one of those unexpected lovelies during our trip to Kyoto. We had just come out from the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which opens for the public five days during spring and autumn (more of it in a later post). Strolling through Kyoto Goen, the large park outside, we got a glimpse of this wonderful little tea ceremony house by a small pond in the southwestern corner of the park, and of course, ventured in to see more.
After the crowds at the handsome Palace, the small house was a respite of calm. There were almost no other visitors, only an old Japanese couple sitting and contemplating the view in silence. We washed our hands from the old stone basin and did the same, and stayed for a long while.

 View from the second floor towards the pond and the park; a stone bridge leads cross the pond.

 Even the wooden smell of the old little house was pleasing; I wonder what kind of timber they used to build it? And I love the way in Japan you can just put a gentle and discreet bamboo marker in front of the door, and people understand not to go past it. No large and ugly plastic signs needed...

Irregular stone slabs lead to the entrance, and out again, after a refreshing pause at the Shu Sei Tei.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Revisiting Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera on the blooming hills of Kyoto - if you look closely, you can see the incense floating up from the burners on the huge wooden platform in front of the temple.
I had this clear memory from a previous visit to Kyoto in 1998: huge wooden poles holding up a platform, soft veils of incense from brass burners curling up to the crisp spring air, a sound of rippling water echoing from the hills covered with Japanese maples just opening their leaf buds.
Somehow, this memory has no crowds in it, just crisp, clean air, a bit of incense, and the sound of water. And still, the crowds must have been there. Kiyomizu-dera, the place of my memory fragment, has been visited by pilgrims and tourists for centuries, founded as it was in year 798 as a major Buddhist temple. I'm not sure... do I imagine it, or is it really so much busier now than just 15 years ago?
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, Kiyomizu-dera is impressing, but the crowds attracted by the nomination take its toll on the experience. Guilty as I am after several recent visits to these cultural "superstar sites", I've silently started to think that one should never nominate anything one loves - the inescapable troops arriving afterwards will almost certainly kill much of the original atmosphere. Of course, I enjoyed seeing this majestic (I know I overuse the word...) temple again. But for a still and quiet atmosphere, it is better to visit one of the many nameless (only for us tourists) small temples found midst almost all ordinary neighborhoods. Clap your hands twice, bow twice, clap you hands twice again. And listen.
View towards the three-storied Koyasu Pagoda - visiting it is said to bring about an easy and safe childbirth. But look at the cherries!

One of the 13 meter high wooden pillars holding up the platform in front of the main temple. All of this was built without any nails, just by joining the timber together... The present buildings are from 1633, and still holding strong.
 Cherries and magnolias mingling on the hills by the temple.

I hope I get this right... but these little stone sculptures are called Jizō, and they are little Buddhist deities supposed to alleviate the suffering of the living and the dead. They are worshipped and decked with clothing, toys and other objects in hope for divine intervention in the lives of those who still are here on earth, or those who have already entered the feared halls of hell.
It is lovely to see how Japanese women and men wear their traditional clothing when visiting the temples. The week we visited was the busiest sakura-gazing week in Japan, and thousands had travelled to Kyoto to see them blossoming. We had just as much fun admiring their beautiful garments as the cherry blossoms.
Travelers at the Otowa waterfall at the base of the main temple - Kiyomizu-dera means literally "pure water temple", and the waters are believed to have strong powers. Here, the waters divide into three separate streams, and visitors use cups on long poles to drink from them. Each stream is said to have a different benefit: the first causes longevity, the second gives success at school, and the third gives fortunate love life. No mixed drinks here, though - drinking from all three is considered very greedy.