28/06/2013 - 04/07/2013
I think when people visit a new place, they set out with an idea in their heads of how they expect it to look. I include myself in this. You see photos, read books, watch films, and piece together a perfect vision of beauty that unfortunately very rarely materialises in real life. But in Kyoto I found everything that I had ever imagined when I thought of Japan; quaint narrow streets, wooden teahouses, magnificent temples, even a few flawlessly painted geishas.
When we arrived in Kyoto we were exhausted from our sleepless overnight bus trip, and decided to have a quiet day exploring the beautiful old district around our hostel. However we got so absorbed in our wanderings that we eventually found ourselves at Kiyomizudera Temple, one of the most popular temples in Kyoto. It was impressive, but we were soon driven back into the streets by the hoards of over-enthusiastic tourists. The next day we visited the famous Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple, and left with a similar case of tourist fatigue. Visitors are forced to stick to a marked path, and it is easy to feel like a herd of cattle in the enclosed space. However the gold leaf-covered Pavilion is beautiful, particularly as it casts perfect reflections onto the still waters of the lake beside it.
The following day we made the 30-minute trip to the district of Arashiyama on the western edge of Kyoto. This small calm town feels like a world of its own, and it is difficult to believe that it lies so close to the city. The Togetsukyo Bridge has become a symbol of Arashiyama, but the main attraction is the beautiful bamboo forest, where pathways have been made to allow people to wander through the endless rows of bamboo. It's a perfect way to while away an afternoon; shafts of light shine through the forest, the stalks sway in the breeze, and you feel absolutely at peace.
My imagination became reality on our last day in Kyoto at Fushimi-Inari Shrine, which embodied all my expectations of what Japan would be like. We had intended to go to Nara on this day, and changed our plans last minute on the word of a fellow traveller, and now the idea that we almost missed this place fills me with disbelief. The shrine itself, while attractive, is not the centre of attention; it fades in comparison to the thousands of Torii gates that frame the paths leading up Mount Inari behind the shrine. This, for me, was picture-perfect Japan.
We spent the day wandering among the endless rows of gates, our amazement increasing with every step. The paths are set amongst shady forest, and every so often a break in the gates would reveal a gathering of tiny shrines where locals come to worship. Eventually we emerged from the forest halfway up the mountain to discover a lovely view over the city below, before we plunged back into the winding trails leading back to the main shrine.
The story now turns to one of the more interesting experiences of our trip - two nights living with monks in a small Buddhist temple near Kameoka, about an hour away from Kyoto. The temple is in a tiny village surrounded by rice fields, with a mountain looming in the background. I can understand how people find peace there; there is hardly a sound to be heard except for frogs, birds and the occasional car.
We arrived at 2pm during free time, and were welcomed by the two monks who live there permanently and the one other visitor. We were given time to unpack and settle into our new rooms - mine in the temple and John's in the nearby guesthouse - and then we entered straight into the monks' strict daily routine. First was the evening service, when the monks kneel in front of the shrine and chant their prayers in time. John and I were given prayer books and invited to join in, but the chanting is fast and rhythmic and we found it hard to keep up! The service was followed by dinner, a solemn affair that is undertaken in complete silence and in a specific fashion. Large wooden bowls were passed down the table containing rice, soup and a cold vegetable, and once everyone had filled their small bowls we ate, and then took a second portion if desired. It turns out monks eat very fast, and our first dinner culminated in an awkward couple of minutes where John was the only one eating, to the sound of complete silence. We then had to wash our bowl by filling it with warm water and scrubbing the food remnants off with a slice of radish. Don't ask me to explain it, I can't. I don't think even the monks could.
After a little free time, we had our first 'zazen' (meditation). We all took a seat on some cushions in the lotus position (half-lotus for the less flexible), and in the growing darkness we sat, completely still. I had thought that zazen required you to completely empty your mind, but one of the monks had told us that it is acceptable for thoughts to enter your head, as long as you don't hold onto them, and instead allow them to float through your mind like clouds. I found zazen to be a very relaxing experience, and when a bell rang to signal the end of the first half hour I found it hard to rouse myself. We then untangled our numb legs, massaged the feeling back into them, stood, and walked a few times around the room before settling down for a second half-hour session. Our day ended with a chat over a cup of cold tea, and we were in bed at 9pm in preparation for our 5am start the following day. My bed was just a futon on the floor, but zazen had tired my body so I fell asleep all the same.
A bell woke me at 4.50, and I groggily crawled out of bed and shuffled to the shrine room for the morning service - another vain attempt to follow the hypnotic chanting. We then had another hour of zazen before being put to our morning cleaning duties; John and I scrubbed the wooden decking that ran around the outside of the temple. Just as we finished a gong called us to breakfast, and we hurried to the table with rumbling stomachs. As the night before it was hardly a satisfying meal; rice mixed with hot water to create a thin porridge and a bowl of sliced cucumber. We followed the monks' example and ate fast, me feeling eternally grateful that I had mastered chopsticks in Thailand. After washing our bowls with the infamous radish, we did another hour of zazen then had some free time, during which the other visitor showed us around the village.
Our short, silent lunch of rice and vegetables was followed by a break from our routine; we had expected to return to the shrine room for mditation, but instead one of the monks took us to a neighbouring temple a short walk away, where the 'roshi' lived, the master of the temple. He was a tiny old man who looked a little like Yoda, but it turned out he's quite famous and has been invited all over the world to lead Buddhist services. After being shown around the temple we sat down to a tea ceremony with him, and over tea and Japanese cakes he showed us several photo albums depicting his adventures across Europe. We had our afternoon zazen session with him, and then returned to our own temple with a bag of vegetables. The monk thanked the roshi for the gift, but on the way home quietly admitted disappointment that it wasn't cake.
The evening followed the same pattern as the night before; we had our evening service, dinner of rice, soup and vegetables, and then sat down to our zazen. The repeated sessions were beginning to take their toll on our limbs, and our thoughts now tended to fixate on how much our knees and ankles were aching. As we sat drinking our evening tea and massaging our tingling feet, we asked the monks how long it took to get used to the constant sitting. The younger monk told us he no longer felt pain, but it had taken him three months to get to that point.
The next day we did our morning service, zazen and work, then after breakfast we packed up our things and said goodbye to the monks. It had been an amazing experience, but we'd be lying if we said we weren't somewhat relieved to return to real life, a life of lie-ins, meat and painless bones. One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that 'life means suffering'. It definitely is the way they do it.